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Back to the future of a ‘hotel for 2001′

by Mark Schreiber

The year was 1979. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Hirohito was in the 54th year of his reign. Japan’s prime minister was Masayoshi Ohira. In 1979, people still paid for goods with ¥500 bills. There was no consumption tax or Internet, there were no cell phones and no Japanese were playing in the U.S. major leagues. The Japanese translation of Ezra Vogel’s “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America” sold 435,000 copies. In July, Sony launched its TPS-L2, better known as the Walkman. The playback-only cassette player and lightweight stereo headphones sold for ¥33,000.

The year will also be remembered as the one in which the late architect Kisho Kurokawa proposed “a hotel for the year 2001.” There would be no rooms, only crawl spaces (but clean crawl spaces with amenities, of course).

Fascination with this futuristic concept aside, the “capsule hotel” represented a sensible alternative to taking a taxi home after the last train stopped running. In 1979, the starting fare for taxis in major cities was boosted by ¥50 to ¥380. Wage-earners living in the distant suburbs faced ruinous outlays if they missed the evening’s final train departure.

For ¥1,900 per night, a stay in the Capsule Inn was a sensible and thrifty alternative — though in those days it was a men-only option.

On an assignment to Kansai in November 1980, I spent a sleepless night in Capsule Inn Osaka, located in the Kita-Shinchi drinking area near Umeda Station. Two days later, at the keyboard of a Brother ZORONGO 203 electric typewriter — my first PC was still about three years away — I typed the immortal lines, “I’d give this Pillbox Hilton four stars for cleanliness, three stars for efficiency and one meteorite for comfort.”

My German traveling companion who occupied the capsule above mine in Osaka, described it a bit more succinctly: “I’m chust vun meter eighty six und I could not all der vay my leks stretch out.”

My account of this claustrophobic overnight experience appeared in the then-weekly Tokyo Weekender journal of Jan. 16, 1981 — 30 years ago to the day — and your humble correspondent was subsequently credited with a world scoop, my story being excerpted by the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

So what’s been happening since then? I posed this question to Kotobuki Seating Co., Ltd., the capsules’ original manufacturer.

“It took us six months to come up with the design for the first capsule hotel,” said Shigeharu Araki, general sales manager, Capsule Division, showing me a sheet of paper with about a half-dozen drawings of prototypes. It was from these, I was told, that “Model 75″ was selected to become the original design (the others were never utilized).

As a tribute to their durability, Araki told me the original capsules are still in use. But the current models are bigger (“deeper by about 10 cm”) and have various new refinements.

Currently, Araki estimates Japan has some 300 capsule hotels, and efforts have been made to provide more deluxe facilities while still beating conventional hotels on price.

The First Cabin Midosuji Namba in Osaka, for example, offers a choice of “First Class” and “Business Class” capsules (¥4,500 to ¥5,500 per night).

Kotobuki tied up with a Roppongi, Tokyo-based design firm named CUBIC to develop a new type of capsule, given the name “sleeping pod.” Those wishing to take a look-see will have to book a space at “nine hours,” which opened last year in Kyoto’s Teramachi district.

There, they will find the openings are gracefully rounded, and inside there’s a system of “biorhythm” interior lighting that dims or brightens at different times of the night and morning. Also, the upper and lower rows of pods are offset to give a roomier sensation.

To help me catch up on the latest in overnight encapsulation, Kotobuki referred me to Rex Inn Kawasaki which, I was pleased to learn, is part of the same group that operates the fashionable La Citadella entertainment and shopping complex close by JR Kawasaki Station.

Rex Inn maintains the system first put into operation by Osaka’s original Capsule Inn. Upon arrival, guests’ shoes are stored in lockers by the entrance. Then the key to one’s shoe box is exchanged for a key to the locker where one deposits one’s street clothes. (Cotton pajamas and a set of towels are supplied inside the lockers.) Hence anyone determined to run out without paying their bill will have to do so in their stocking feet.

“What part of Japan do most of your customers come from?” I asked.

“We get people from all over the country,” Rex Inn’s manager, Naoyuki Katayama, replied. “But most are from right here in Kanagawa Prefecture. It’s a big prefecture you know, and some parts are a long way from Kawasaki.”

There you have it: Instead of running up horrendous taxi fares for just a few hours’ sleep before it’s time to go back to work, it makes perfect sense to crawl into a cozy capsule. With use of the bathing facilities and sauna on the eighth floor, guests can be back to work first thing the next morning as fresh as a daisy.

In addition to its 176 standard capsules, Rex Inn also boasts 18 cabin-type capsules, a newer upscale version developed for those who find the smaller type too confining. These go for an additional ¥1,000 to ¥1,200 (totaling ¥4,500 to ¥4,700 a night). Each “cabin” has a small writing table and LAN cable connections for Internet hookup. The hotel also offers daytime rates (up to 6 p.m.) of as little as ¥2,300 for an upper capsule. If you’re planning a longer stay in town, you can purchase a block of six tickets, valid for up to three months, and receive a 10 percent discount.

Well, I asked myself after crawling headfirst into capsule No. 4176, what’s changed from three decades ago? The first thing I noticed is that the numbers identifying each capsule are now illuminated, making one’s cubbyhole easier to locate in the dim corridor. In addition to an alarm clock and radio, each capsule now comes with a 12-inch color TV. Among the other amenities are Washlets (bidet-type commodes) down the hall in the shared loo — a product that was just a gleam in its designer’s eye in 1979.

And of primary importance to yours truly, the capsule was larger. Not immensely so, but enough for me to stretch out to my full 189-cm length and easily turn over in my sleep — though the mattress was a bit harder than I’m accustomed to.

One thing I confirmed is that after 30 years of existence, capsule accommodations are certainly nothing new to foreigners, be they visitors or residents alike. The Capsule Inn Shimbashi in Tokyo’s Minato Ward even provides a three-page set of instructions in English to explain the system. I also took an impromptu survey at a party on Dec. 15, and found that most of the younger journalists I asked said they had experienced a night in a capsule.

Just as this story was going to press, capsules were once again in the news — this time in China, where a 32-year-old businessman named Ta Zan (no relation to Johnny Weismuller) has just opened the country’s first capsule hotel, adjacent to Shanghai’s main railway station. Ta was reportedly inspired to start his own business after working at one while he was here as a graduate student.

Nonetheless, although capsules are exported in small quantities, the hotels have yet to catch on in a big way outside Japan. Here as well, the novelty wore off long ago, and they are perceived mostly as practical, low-cost accommodations. Still, for those who venture into one for the first time, vicarious thrills await. Imagine, for less than ¥4,000, you can play at being a submariner aboard the Nautilus, or an astronaut aboard the Starship Enterprise. “Warp speed ahead, Mr. Spock!”