August 27, 2013
Coming Home Drunk To A Spaceship – The Anatomy Of Japanese Hotels
I have just been on a trip to Kyoto and to a pleasant town called Maizuru, up on the Sea of Japan coast north of Kyoto. This involved staying in two of the many different kinds of hotels Japan has.
One of those was a ‘capsule hotel’ — something which visitors to Japan (including myself) want to stay in because they are famous for being very Japanese. Compact, futuristic and just a little odd; a capsule hotel is a good way to get a cultural experience and a nights’ sleep all at the same time.
In some respects, the capsule hotel lived up to my expectations. It was indeed very futuristic, and felt like being on board a spaceship – clean lines, pure white throughout, calm stillness and the flashing lights of tiny gadgets everywhere.
A cool experience… but possibly only for a look around. Whether spaceships provide good accommodation is a question I found myself asking later, when the novelty had worn off and I just wanted to relax in my hotel. The thing about spaceships is that people don’t generally stagger home drunk to them at 1am wishing they could stick on a few tunes and force a soon to be regrettable but now amazingly inspired McDonalds into their face. Or (perhaps more civilized) have a brandy or cup of tea in a cosy lounge.
What people don’t want to do, or at least I didn’t, is come home to a silence that had evolved from calm to oppressive while I was out at the bar, and to feel as if they might dirty or break something with every step.
Some other minor downsides to the capsule hotel experience are that it feels a little like a hospital as well as a spaceship, the beds feeling like climbing into an oversized (although not that oversized) laundry machine, and, in the case of this particular hotel, the rooms didn’t seal up like some sort of stasis chamber like I thought they would — and so I was still subject to all the grunts and snores of the other people in what was in effect a novelty dorm room.
Although I still think the capsule thing is worth trying for one night just to say you’ve done it, by far a more enjoyable experience for me was the other end of the historical spectrum of hotels — the ryokan. These traditional Japanese hotels are a wonderful way to find not only comforting accommodation, but also a taste of Japan’s past. Wondering around in yukatas (similar to kimonos) barefoot on tatami floors, dipping into natural onsen (hot spring baths) and eating exquisitely presented traditional food in convivial dining rooms is a good way of putting yourself in touch with an older side of Japan. A particularly great one I stayed in was in the mountains outside of Nagano — where the dining room was medieval, with towering ceilings and huge, thick wooden beams. You helped yourself to soup from a serious looking iron pot over an open wood fire in a sandpit in the center of the room.
Some hotels, especially in Kyoto, try to combine the two distinct experiences I have talked about by calling themselves ‘capsule ryokan.’ Although I haven’t stayed at one of these places, from the research I have done it seems as if an attempt to get two experiences in one will leave you with none, and instead ‘capsule’ just means ‘small’. ‘A small room in an old hotel’ — doesn’t sound quite as romantic.
In between these two points are several options, including western style, functional hotels which are called ‘business hotels’ in Japan (that was the other kind I stayed in during my recent trip) and are indeed good for businessmen with little time. They have easy to use laundry machines and photocopiers in reception. They are convenient for travellers too.
Naturally Japan also has more than its fair share of 5 star hotels — which despite the time and money spent on making them special are, like everywhere else in the world, disappointingly uniform.
At the budget end hostels and dorms are available, but not to the extent of some other countries. Perhaps a good budget option is a manga café where for around $30 a night you can get a sofa bed with semi-private partitioning, free soft drinks, Internet and TV and all the manga you can read. And you only have to tell reception, rather than Houston, if you have a problem.