On my last trip to Japan, I stayed in a capsule hotel. These are small hotels that have 50 or so private sleeping bubbles typically lined up along a darkened hallway. Each pod is akin to an enclosed bunk bed. You can’t stand up inside the pod, but there’s enough room for the tallest of travelers to stretch. The facilities usually include showers and often large, communal hot tubs as well.
The history of capsule hotels
A Japanese concept, capsule hotels were first developed in 1979 by Kurokawa Kishō, the famed Japanese architect who designed the National Art Center in Tokyo. Kishō began with an avant-garde apartment complex of capsule apartments with few accoutrements, called the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which was built in 30 days. He followed that up with the now-ubiquitous capsule hotel concept, based on minimalist principles focused on a living a life with a small footprint. The first was the Capsule Inn Osaka. Now, there are dozens and in every major Japanese city.
“The perception in Japan is that the kapuseru hoteru are for businesspeople who are in the process of working themselves into the grave or drunk guys who miss the last train home,” said language professor Ted Sarich. He has lived in Hamamatsu, a city of 800,000 outside of Tokyo, for 25 years. Sarich has stayed at his fair share of capsule hotels—begrudgingly. “The air is stale and dank and the beds are hard,” he said.
“I always make a lot of friends when I stay there,” Sarich said sarcastically.
What it’s like to stay in a capsule hotel in Japan
My experience in Japan a few years ago was much better. My return flight from Tokyo to New York departed early in the morning, so staying close to Narita Airport was ideal.
Enter 9Hours, a chain of Japanese capsule hotels with a dozen locations in Japan. The 9Hours facility is adjacent to Narita Airport, above a parking garage. The lobby walls are stark white with instructions for foreigners helpfully drawn with icons. On check-in, you’re presented with a locker key, bathrobe, sandals, shower amenities, and a toothbrush. Men and women have separate sleeping areas that are not connected—and couples can’t choose to stay together. In my case, I said goodnight to my wife, who gamely joined me in my first capsule hotel adventure. (Spoiler alert: It was also her last.) Perhaps the best part of the stay was the value. Most capsule hotels cost around $25—a steal for a comfortable night’s sleep, plus the one-of-a-kind experience.
The showers were private and as clean as can be. The bathroom stall next to the shower had the prerequisite Japanese-style bidets and heated seats that North America still hasn’t embraced.
Nary a drunk was in sight. In the morning, it was a touch more communal, with the sinks for brushing your teeth and other grooming feeling more like an upscale gym bathroom.
Beware the noises
The first thing I noticed when I entered the room with the pods was the white noise—or at least so I thought. I quickly realized it was the sounds of other guests in capsules, deep breathing or snoring.
The pod itself was about seven feet long and four feet in diameter, made from fiberglass, with a plastic half-door and a separate screen that you pull down for privacy. For safety reasons (such as fire hazards), the pods are not locked. Nevertheless, I felt like I had some privacy. There was a reading light and that was about it. Some have TVs.
Once you get to your pod, you leave your sandals at the foot of the opening and climb in. I didn’t find the capsule to be claustrophobic, but Sarich said that he felt that most are like trying to sleep in an MRI machine. The bed was comfortable. I had a pleasant sleep, more or less undisturbed.
Others, not so much. In the middle of the night someone had a nightmare and was screaming in Japanese. It was a momentary disturbance, like a siren going off in New York. No big deal.
Sleepbox has entered the U.S. market
Recently, a new company has entered the micro-sleep scene. Boston-based Sleepbox was founded in 2016 by three entrepreneurs from MIT. The company recently opened a capsule-like experience at Washington’s Dulles Airport at Concourse A. With a spirit of adventure, I flew from New York and stayed overnight.
The Sleepbox bears scant resemblance to a Japanese capsule hotel. My home for the night was a modern, small room more akin to a minimalist suite on an Airbus A380, complete with a comfortable twin-sized bed, LED lighting with a multitude of color options, a high-speed internet connection courtesy of the airport, and peace and quiet.
Around five feet wide and eight feet long, there’s plenty of room to stand up and stretch. You can control the lock (these rooms have a door that locks), lighting, temperature, and en-suite music with the Sleepbox app. The experience comes with an eye mask, bottle of water, and plenty of plugs for devices. (A minor annoyance: You can hear the TSA announcement to not leave your luggage unattended approximately every 30 minutes.) It helped to have white noise (I used my phone to play some).
One downside is that there are no shower or bathroom facilities in the micro-hotel, so you have to use the airport facilities (the only showers at Washington Dulles are in the Air France-KLM lounge, for which you can purchase a lounge pass upon entry or access with a lounge membership program). Nevertheless, I had a pleasant, comfortable sleep in this very modern and clean mini-room.
A steady stream of gawkers and passersby asked the front desk agent for a peek inside the capsules; the agent obliged, showing dozens of people per day the new space. “Does anyone use these?” I heard someone ask.
“This is very interesting,” an older gentleman exclaimed on his tour of the space, while his wife patiently waited, disinterested.
If I had a layover at Dulles with a few hours to kill, Sleepbox would be my go-to. There are discounts for customers with Priority Pass—the lounge access program now owned by American Express—who get their first hour free. But even without a discount, my overnight stay worked out to around $14 per hour—far less than area hotels. The best part? I waltzed over to my gate about 10 minutes prior to boarding, without having to pass through security because I never left the air side of the airport. Not bad at all.
Pod hotels around the world
Others around the world have tried to mimic the Japanese experience or provide a hybrid between a capsule hotel and a micro-hotel, similar to Sleepbox. Most of them aren’t near airports, either, but in the heart of tourist destinations.
For example, Pangea in Whistler, British Columbia, which opened in 2018, was the first pod hotel in Canada. It offers a micro-hotel concept with mixed gender and female-only options, each at around $50 per night. As in Japan, Pangea offers first-time guests a helpful infographic posted in each pod to explain the amenities. A spokesperson said that Pangea deliberately avoided the space-age feel of the Japanese capsule hotel.
Similarly, the Bo Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden, has four capsules for around $70 per night, with breakfast included. In St. Petersburg, Russia, the Inbox offers a version of the capsule hotel with three different sleeping categories for around $12 per night. The Pod Times Square—part of the Pod chain of hotels—is as close to a capsule hotel as you get in New York, but it barely qualifies as a micro-hotel; it’s more like an overpriced, tiny hotel room at around $225 per night. I’ll pass.
The capsule concept remains firmly a Japanese one; any world traveler should experience it at least once. And if you travel through Dulles, seek out the Sleepbox if only for a peek inside. Bring earplugs and you’ll sleep like a baby.