Tokyo digs: It's hosteling, but not as we know it

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

A line of around 30 people queueing for snacks snakes around the inside of Izakaya Bunka, a Japanese-style pub, during its packed opening night on Dec. 14. Staffers at the Asakusa Ward spot have laid out an impressive buffet-style spread for all in attendance, set in front of a stack of nihonshu (Japanese sake) bottles that the venue’s general manager jokingly called “Mount Fuji” in a speech minutes before. Cameramen representing TV morning shows record all of this, while a woman standing at the back urges attendees to take a photo and post it to Instagram. “You’ll get one more free drink,” she says encouragingly to visitors.

The reason for this promotional revelry, however, is not the izakaya — it is for the floors of lodgings above it. Featuring around 20 bunk-like beds — each made out of plain wood and slightly bigger than a typical pod in a capsule hotel — the sight of the first floor makes one visitor exclaim that the space looks like a puzzle. Masako Ueda, working as the evening’s PR point person, uses the word “functional” frequently as she describes the layout of this new seven-story, 128-bed hostel.

“We wanted to stick to the basics,” she says. “But you have to find a way to distinguish yourselves.”

Bunka Hostel Tokyo isn’t just trying to stand out among the dozens of old-school hostels dotted around the neighborhood. It’s one of the latest of a new breed of inexpensive lodgings that have opened up this year — all aimed at reaching a market of travelers looking for unique experiences and good value. It’s certainly not going to be the last, either, as Japan experiences a tourism boom and prepares for the lead up to the 2020 Olympics.

Hostels used to conjure up images of very basic and cheap lodgings where young backpackers sleep and meet other travelers when they aren’t exploring the country they are in. The new wave of hostels — which are popping up around the whole country, but especially in Tokyo — remain inexpensive spaces designed to allow fellow globetrotters to mix in, but in this social-media age of travel, they also serve up Instagram-friendly experiences of their own.

Ueda says the concept behind Bunka is Japanese “culture,” which is what the hostel’s name translates to. “Our target audience is primarily people from Western Europe and North America,” she says.

The dormitory beds start at ¥3,000 a night, but the real draws are the simple designer-style of the sleeping areas and the ground-floor izakaya.

“We got Hiroko Takahashi (of Hirocoledge textiles and contemporary kimono) to design Bunka,” Ueda says. “It’s quite rare to have an artist do a hostel, and it allows us to have a sensibility of design few other venues can offer.”

The hostel is a project of the UDS Group, one of the first companies to take advantage of the sudden influx of a hipper kind of traveler looking for places to stay in Tokyo. The Asakusa outpost is their third hostel brand to open over the past 12 months, preceded by On The Marks in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Grids in Tokyo’s Akihabara. Each, to quote the On The Mark’s catchphrase, offer a unique “new style of ‘stay,’ ” boasting live music spaces or hip lounges alongside cheap accommodation. A second Grids opened in Nihombashi on Christmas day.

In the same neighborhood as Grids is Irori Hostel And Kitchen, a similarly cheap spot that offers a “more local, handmade trip,” while Shinjuku houses the colorful Imano Tokyo Hostel, which underlines its fancy bar space. Travelers wanting a more caffeinated experience could also go to Nishi-Azabu’s “hostel and coffee shop” Zabutton.

All this is just the beginning. As reported by the Financial Times earlier this year, many love hotels have also transformed into hostels, with their colorful decor left intact. Helping spur this lodging boom is the increasing number of vacated buildings that developers are able to buy cheap and refurbish. Grids occupies a former office space, while Bunka used to be a pachinko parlor.

Of these 2015 openings, one hostel has garnered more attention than the others. Sandwiched between a chain izakaya and Chinese restaurant in Ikebukuro, Book And Bed Tokyo has been featured on websites such as Vice, Kotaku and Mental Floss, thanks to its literary bend. The small, seventh-floor space has its beds built into a bookcase featuring 1,700 titles, ranging from the “Akira” manga to “speak dirty Japanese” collections.

“Normal hostels aren’t that interesting,” says So Rikimaru, a PR rep for R-Store, who produced Book And Bed. “This is about the experience, it is a new style of hostel.”

That experience starts immediately in the lobby, which looks more appropriate for a secret society than a hostel. After a worker pops out from behind a fake shelf and gets you checked in, you step into the main room playing boom-bap hip-hop, which features the bookcase-turned-beddormitory. Book And Bed offers other beds, too, but all attention has been paid to this line of literature.

Rikimaru says they’ve been full since the grand opening on Nov. 5, noting that just as many Japanese visitors and Tokyoites as have stayed as foreign tourists. He expects the new hostel trend to continue through the 2020 Olympics, but he is also aware of another force poised to reshape the city’s lodging industry: Airbnb.

In November, the room-sharing site’s manager told Bloomberg News that Japan is the service’s fastest growing market, despite some legal gray areas. Judging by the Tokyo listings on Airbnb, it appears that some renters are selling the same idea as the new-style hostels — there are rooms decked out in anime decorations or Super Mario toys in a bid to offer a unique “Japan” experience.

But for Book And Bed, the competition can be beaten through peer-to-peer marketing.

“We try not to do too much promotion,” says Rikimaru. “We leave it to the guests to do that themselves.”

Book And Bed, Bunka and nearly all the new hostels are perfect for Instagramming — no filter required — and most of them have set up official pages on the photo app, using hashtags to corral users photos into one place.

“We tell our customers about the hashtag, but don’t pressure them to use it or anything,” Rikimaru says.

The strategy is working. A woman checks in during our interview, and before she even puts her suitcase down, she’s snapping photos of the bookcase. She didn’t even need the incentive of an extra free drink.