This is What Happened To Me After 2 Weeks In Capsule Hotels

What’s the point of travel? Why did I quit my life and take the year off?

In my mind, it’s to experience new things and to see the world in a new light. But after spending two weeks in capsule hotels across Japan, the better question to ask is:

Are all experiences worth having?

My extended stay in these capsules was an unplanned accident. It was a by product of a book-as-I-go mentality and (more importantly) my cheapness. The hotels I stayed at ranged in price from $20 to $40 a night; for a large metropolitan city that’s pretty damn cheap.  

I arrived into Tokyo at the end of October. Bursts of yellow and red speckle the leaves of the city’s trees announcing the arrival of autumn. I’ve planned to spend a month in Japan with the hopes of exploring as much as I can of this fascinating country.

Tokyo has a reputation for being abhorrently expensive, and not necessarily friendly to tourists with limited budgets. After experiencing it first hand, I can say that this is not 100% correct. Tokyo CAN be abhorrently expensive, but it can also be very cheap. There’s a wide variety of options with regard to food and accommodations available to everyone.

In fact, the Japanese are pioneers in developing new forms of micro accommodations.

You’ve got business hotels, which service salary men who’ve worked late or got drunk at the bars and need a cheap place to crash for the night. I stayed at a business hotel my first two nights in Tokyo and I can tell you they are tiny. There’s barely enough room for the bed, and when I stretched out my arms I could almost touch both walls.

This is the tiny room I rented in business hotel. Barely enough room for the bed.
This is the tiny room I rented in a business hotel. It barely has enough space for the bed.

Then there’s the internet cafes, where you can rent a booth by the hour or for the night. You can sleep in the booths either on a chair or (if you splurge) on a futon.

Finally, we get to the most devious invention in micro accommodations: the capsule hotels.

It’s the culmination of years of experimentation to figure out how to squeeze the maximum number of people into a small space, while ensuring a sense of isolation is maintained. These “hotels” rent out enclosed pods. Each pod usually contains a mattress, a light and sometimes a safe and television. Yes, more than any other nation in world the Japanese have mastered the art of utilizing small space.

Arriving into Japan, I only booked my first two nights in Asakusa. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to base myself in Tokyo or how long I wanted to stay in the city. I’d just finished the European leg of my trip and my budget was ruined. I’d run into unforeseen expenses, which included damage to a rental car (I wasn’t fully insured) and some extravagant splurging with my brothers (when they joined me on my travels).  Arriving into Asia, I was in the hole money wise and I needed to drastically cut my expenses.

And so my adventures in living in capsule hotels began.

I decided to book 10 days in a pod hostel in Akihabara. I was nervous because this was my first stay at both a hostel and capsule accommodations. Arriving at the entrance of the Grids Hostel, I was pleasantly surprised.

I was pleasantly surprised with the Grids Hostel. It had a wonderful entrance and nice lounge area.
I was pleasantly surprised with “Grids Hostel”. It had a wonderful entrance and nice lounge area.

The entrance was VERY inviting.

The ground floor had a cool lounge area overlooking the street, and there was great music playing in the background. The staff at the front desk were perky and helpful. They gave me a key to my floor and an orientation to the premises. I felt my anxiety melt away, and in a strange way I found myself looking forward to staying in a capsule.

It was late, I was tired and I decided to go up to my room. Entering my floor, I took off my shoes and put on some slippers. Turning the corner, I got my first view of the pods. The capsules had nice wooden frames and didn’t look like the pictures I’d seen online for other hotels. Those pictures always reminded me of dog crates that were designed for humans.

The inside of my pod.
The inside of my pod.

I’m not gonna lie, I was excited to try this out. I never thought spending a night in a box would make me this giddy. I put away my bags and immediately got into my pod. Peaking inside my capsule, there’s a mattress with pillows and covers neatly folded on top of it.

I was on the bottom pod, so I had to get on all fours and crawled into my space.

I laid on the mattress and took it all in. The air in the closed space felt compressed. For a second, I got a little panicky and anxious, and dark thoughts started to wander in my mind.

“This is probably what it feels like to sleep in a coffin”.

Shaking my head, I dismissed those thoughts and let myself adjust. After a couple of minutes, it started to feel OK, and dare I say — normal.

I crawled out of my pod and looked around the room. Each pod had its own roller shade which people could pull down for privacy. That night everyone in the room had their shades pulled down, and it felt strange. I could hear my neighbors shuffling, turning, breathing and snoring in their pods and yet they were hidden from sight. I was in a room with almost 40 people and yet I felt alone.

Very very weird.

With all the shades pulled down, I felt like the only person in the room.

The days pass quickly while I’m at the Grids hostel. I’m thankful that I’d picked this place as my first experience with the capsule hotels. It was clean, efficient and the staff were very friendly. But by the end of the tenth day, the novelty had worn off and I started to feel the effects of living in a confined space.

Still, it was good value for money so I decided to extend my stay.

On the day of my checkout I casually went to request an extension and was shocked to find that they were fully booked. I’d assumed capsule hotels always had vacancies. I mean, who’d believe these hotels get fully booked?

Wrong assumption. Very wrong. Now I’m stuck.

Panicked at having to find last minute accommodations that’s cheap. I go online and frantically try to find anything close by. The next place I stayed at had me sleeping pods that looked like plastic crates. Suddenly, the thought of sleeping in a box didn’t seem that appetizing.

I was the only foreigner on the floor, everyone else was Japanese. More than the first location, the people here kept to themselves. Some of the cubicles I passed had personal effects, magazines, clothes, food and pictures strewn inside. It was almost like someone’s messy apartment just in a miniature space.

For some people in Japan, these boxes were their homes. I can’t imagine what that life must be like.

Thankfully, I was only there for the weekend. I forced myself through it and just like that, my two weeks in Tokyo had passed. Heading off to my next destination (Nagoya), again I’d booked 2 nights in a pod hotel. I felt like I had to stick with my budget constraints and I found a place for $20 a night.

When I arrived into Nagoya I felt weary and run down. I had a persistent feeling of being suffocated and didn’t understand why. Walking to my hotel, it dawned on me that spending more nights at capsule hotel was a mistake. This hotel was  in a back alley with two adult video stores on either side of it. I knew this wasn’t gonna be good. But I couldn’t complain. What did I expect for $20 a night?

First impression of the Nagoya capsule hotel where not good. There were adult stores on either side of it.
First impression of the Nagoya capsule hotel were not good. There were adult stores on either side of it.

Since I’d arrived early, I wasn’t able to check-in. I left my bags at the hotel and reluctantly went to explore the city.

Arriving at Nagoya Castle I could feel my energy reserves crumble. Standing in front of this incredible castle, that on any other day would have awed me, I disinterestedly gazed at it. I was hit a massive wall of exhaustion, face first.

My mind was a jumble of incoherent thoughts, nothing was making sense. I was tired of the traveling, suffering from home sickness and the cramped accommodations had completely worn me down.

All I knew was I didn’t want to stay in a pod for two more nights. The thought of crawling into another box for the night was making me sick. I was  completely unraveling.

What am I gonna do? I decided that saving money was not worth my well being. So I went to a Marriott to check if they had any rooms.

A room with space all to myself.

A room where I could stand, stretch my arms, jump or whatever the hell I wanted to do.

A room — what a beautiful word. What a beautiful thought.

Arriving at the hotel and standing at the reception desk I felt jittery. The clerk checks the system. Good news, there’s a room available for only $230 per night. My heart sank. Could I do this? Could I spend $460 for two nights, instead of $40? As I stood there, arguing with myself on what to do, the clerk stared at me with a confused concerned look that he might be dealing with a crazy person. After what was probably a VERY long pause I told him I’d think about it and walked away.

Fuck!

I must hate myself. I’d rather sleep in a crate than spend an extra $400 for my own personal sanity. I drag myself back to the hotel, with every step I felt the dread and anxiety build up inside of me. How bad could it be? I can do two more nights.

Stepping into the capsule room, there were rows of boxes made of cheap plywood. It was a very depressing sight. My pod was the very end of the room, right next to the street. After arranging my mattress and sheets I crawl into the wooden crate.

Nagoya's capsule hotel was an unpleasant and claustrophobic experience.
Nagoya’s capsule hotel was an unpleasant and claustrophobic experience.
The capsule was poor ventilated and hot. I felt like a caged animal sleeping in this space.
The capsule was poorly ventilated and hot. I felt like a caged animal sleeping in this space.

I couldn’t breathe. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. This is not normal. This is not natural. How can people live like this. How can they sustain their spirits and sanity living in such tight quarters.

This capsule had no ventilation and it was hot. I could feel my body burn up as I started to sweat profusely. The lamp inside the capsule was barely emitting any light and only illuminated a small corner of the box. I was sitting in almost complete darkness.

This box isn’t like a coffin  —  IT IS A COFFIN.

The entire night I battled with my anxiety and paranoia and got very little sleep. It was a miserable experience as I waited for the sun to rise. The next morning I rushed out of the building like it was on fire.

I needed to breath fresh air, I needed to stand and I needed to feel like I wasn’t a caged animal.  I wanted to scream. This was severely impacting my enjoyment of Japan. I decided that I’d spend one more day here and then that was it. No more capsule hotels.

So the original question I asked was:

Travel is about experience, but are all experiences worth having?

In the past I would’ve said yes, we should try everything at least once. After the capsule experience, I’m no longer sure about that.

 

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