FEATURE: Capsule hotels provide a pleasant night’s sleep

OSAKA, Japan (The Japan News/ANN) - The slogan “a business hotel of 2100” when the first capsule hotel opened has now proven that it wasn’t just talk.

The first capsule hotel, which provided ultra-small guest rooms about the size of a single bed, started in Osaka 40 years ago. Functionally compact and economical capsules have now developed to become more stylish and comfortable, so more women and the young are opting to stay in them. Foreigners also like the uniqueness of capsule hotels, and the number of hotels is on the increase overseas.

Born in a bygone boom

“It’s a great experience;” “I recommend this place 100 per cent” — these are comments posted on a travel site by foreigners, not about Japanese inns or luxury hotels, but about a capsule hotel in Kyoto.

The history of the hotels may be one reason for their popularity.

In a busy quarter of Kita Ward, Osaka, New Japan Co. opened Capsule Inn Osaka in 1979 at a building that housed a 24-hour sauna facility.

At that time, Osaka was prospering and the rest area of the sauna was always packed with workers who had been drinking, so the company decided to provide accommodation and open a hotel in the building. “We wanted to provide them with a pleasant night’s sleep,” a New Japan spokesman said.

The office of architect Kisho Kurokawa (1934-2007) designed the hotel. About 400 capsules — each measuring 90 centimetres in width and height and 1.9 meters long — lined both sides of dimly lit corridors in a two-story arrangement. The futuristic capsule design drew a lot of attention, and the hotel was always crowded with people, including those who had missed their last train home.

Before long, other companies opened capsule hotels, mainly in the urban centres of Tokyo and Osaka. It was attractive for companies to open capsule hotels because the legal requirements were less strict than those for ordinary hotels, and they didn’t need a large amount of space. This meant it was easy to open them quickly on small sites or in existing buildings.

So-called corporate warriors who work late or take clients out to dinner late into the night were attracted by reasonable prices.

But the bubble economy’s burst in the early 1990s changed the situation. In order to reduce costs, companies cut overtime and entertaining clients. Internet cafes and manga-library coffee shops, which both allow people to sleep at more reasonable prices, lured customers away from capsule hotels.

But women’s increased participation in the workforce marked a turning point — the revised Labor Standards Law and revised Equal Employment Opportunity Law that went into force in 1999 increased female users. Stylish capsule hotels for women opened one after another, and the reputation of capsule hotels as being just a place for middle-aged men changed.

Nine Hours, operated by a hotel chain, is popular among women, with its first capsule hotel opening in Kyoto in 2009. It is separated by gender and has earned a reputation as being clean and neat. People can also use its showers without having to stay the night.

Meanwhile, First Cabin Inc. started a service reminiscent of an aircraft’s first class seats, opening its first hotel in Osaka’s busy Nanba district in 2009. It now runs more than 20 hotels. 

Foreigners seeking ‘Japanese culture’

An increasing number of foreign tourists are also opting to stay at capsule hotels. “Capsule hotels are unique to Japan, so foreigners experience Japanese culture by staying there,” said Kunihiro Shimomukai, 50, a chief consultant of Urban Research Institute Corp.

Recently, capsule hotels have started to open in foreign countries, mainly in Asia — at Incheon Airport in South Korea, a capsule hotel opened in 2017 for passengers of midnight flights. A foreign research company estimates that the world market size would be about ¥25 billion by the end of 2022. 

The pioneering Capsule Inn Osaka is still open, serving more than over 70,000 guests a year. “We have earned customer trust through affordable prices, being a safe and secure place and providing a pleasant night’s sleep,” said Shinichi Honda, 51, the head of the spa section of New Japan. 

■ Access

Capsule Inn Osaka is located on the Hankyu Higashi-dori Shotengai shopping street in Osaka. The hotel is about a 10-minute walk to the east from JR Osaka Station. It is only for men. In fiscal 2014, the Osaka municipal government chose it for the “Living Architecture Museum Festival Osaka.”