My first night in Japan was spent at the Akihabara Capsule Inn, Tokyo. Jet-lagged and reeling from a sensorial overload induced by the sights and sounds of the city's electronic district, my vacuum-formed abode provided a peaceful haven, which was surprisingly tranquil considering its futuristic and industrial appearance. The small fibre-glass capsules--which are just big enough to accommodate most fully grown adults--provide a hermetically sealed world for guests to rest and recuperate after a long day at the office or an even longer night drinking. On arrival belongings are stowed away in a locker and coats and shoes exchanged for a yukata gown and slippers. Capsules come replete with their own TV, radio alarm-clock and in-built controls. To shut out light and the outside world, there is a wooden blind, an incongruously natural element in an otherwise man-made environment. Each individual capsule is part of a two-tier 'hive' of pods, incorporating the solitary spaces into a larger architectural network.
Although the particular capsule hotel that my girlfriend and I stayed in had both male and female capsules, the different sexes were divided by floors, creating a barracks-style segregation that initially felt uncomfortable but quickly fostered a silent camaraderie amongst guests. The shared element of the experience was further cemented by the bathing facilities, with a large public bath featuring as the focal point. Men sit side by side with strangers in a large tub of near boiling water to complete their morning ablutions and restore body and mind before attacking the day. Sitting flannel-faced surrounded by your fellow man, a fleeting moment of tranquillity once again pervades the air. The impermanence of this moment is tangible and it is clear these men are sharing a very brief moment of calm before the daily storm of the corporate world that most of them will soon be thrust into it.
As an outsider, my experience of staying at a capsule hotel was a curious and culturally enlightening experience. However for the Japanese businessmen who regularly stay in them, they arguably hold a much greater significance. They offer a monastic-like space in which those weary of the modern world and all its pressures can seek a short, sharp dose of refuge. For some it is a place to sober up after a night of care-free revelry before returning to the responsibilities of family life, whilst for others it is merely a place to recharge your batteries at the end of the day. Either way the capsules provide a womb-inspired encasement that feels protective rather than claustrophobic and simultaneously allows for privacy and connectedness.
In recent years capsule hotels have found a new group of occupants in addition to the salarymen and budget traveller; the unemployed. Since 2010 increasing numbers of unemployed or underemployed city dwellers, who have had the financial rug pulled from beneath their feet after losing their company-sponsored housing along with their jobs, have turned to the capsule hotel as an 'affordable' alternative. Although at 59,000 yen a month (around £445) for a capsule, rent isn't cheap (especially for such a Lilliputian room), with no upfront deposit or additional utility charges, it's a snip of the price of renting a Tokyo apartment. Despite the fact the official unemployment rate has dropped from 5.60 percent in July 2009 to 4.6 percent in 2012, it still remains significantly higher than the average figure of 2.60 percent that stood between 1953 and 2010. So for the time being capsule hotels remain an important safety net for those that find themselves on the brink of welfare.
During my time in Japan I stayed in various types of accommodation from Western style hostels to traditional Japanese Ryokan. Most places had something to offer either in terms of atmosphere, aesthetics or cuisine but none could match the Capsule Inn for a style of accommodation that offered such an eye-opening insight into contemporary Japanese life, epitomising a culture in which interconnectedness and individuality are constantly in close tension.
Whether thrifty backpacker, businessmen or jobseeker, Japan's capsule hotels provide an egalitarian space in which all occupants find themselves stripped back to an uncluttered existence, comprising of one outfit (the yukata), a bath-sized bedroom and only as many belongings as you can squeeze into a locker. For the duration of your stay; whether it be 6 hours or 6 months you become an equal member of the 'hive' sharing a unspoken solidarity with those that share the uniform pods that surround you, an experience which I found inexplicably comforting.
For a comprehensive list of Tokyo's capsule hotels see the Go Japan website
Josh Barron is a London based blogger and MA Social Anthropology student at SOAS. He has a particular interest in Japan and visual anthropology and has travelled across Central and Western Honshu and Hokkaido, sighting lake-side onsen dips and Harajuku shopping trips as particular highlights. He is passionate about taking anthropology outside the dusty confines of academic institutions and highlighting its relevance to all of us, motivating him to start the blog culturalmash.wordpress.com.