Capsule Cure: A Night in One of Japan's Kapuseru Hoteru-a Field Hospital for Trade Warriors

by Steven Wardell

THE heart of Tokyo’s business district, Shinjuku, is a congested, confusing realm where winding streets converge. One will lead to the Green Plaza Capsule Hotel, my destination for the night.

A bijinesuman and two colleagues emerge from a cramped basement bar. The leader pauses halfway up the white-tiled stairway to throw up on his shoes, and then sinks to his knees. Shaking off help, he continues his wobbly ascent. His followers succeed in reaching the top, whereupon they wipe off their ankles with delicate silk handkerchiefs. Arm in arm, the tipsy three jostle each other into a nearby office building and then into an elevator with me. One of them presses the fourth-floor button: KAPUSERU HOTERU. It is 11:30 P.M.

The doors snap open onto a bright, clean, quiet lobby, where the elevator’s beery smell quickly dissipates. Half a dozen subdued men in charcoal or blue business suits and stocking feet are lined up at the registration desk. I deposit my shoes at the shoe-check window and join them. As they wait, the men watch two television screens suspended above the registration desk. The sets display strategically blurred American pornographic videos.

I am noticed immediately. The clerk calls to the back room, and the manager emerges to open up a new check-in line, just for me. The manager wants to make sure I’m in the right place. Twice he points to his desk and says, “Kapuseru hoteru.” I nod in turn. He asks hopefully, “Kapuseru ja nai?” (“Not capsule?”) A toothy grin: You’re not, after all, interested in checking in, are you?

“Hai, kapuseru,” I correct him.

The manager sucks his teeth for a few seconds, while the clerk glances at him sideways. In desperation he tosses out a few English words. “Understand . . . hmmmmm . . . unusual hotel.”

“Hai,” I say. “I understand.”

I am here to experience the uniquely Japanese capsule hotel, totally foreign to my notion of an overnight stay. Beyond the lobby, I know, are hundreds of tiny prefabricated units, roughly three feet by three feet by six feet six inches, stacked two-high like Pullman berths. Or, as I can also picture them, like a double row of coffins, pointed feet-first toward the aisle.

I pre-pay about $40 for the night. Escorting me to the locker room, the manager straps a locker key on my wrist with a Velcro band. These babying precautions are not only for foreigners but for all guests, because they’re likely to be drunk and unconcerned about their own safety.

Over the public-address system a soft, sexy woman’s voice repeats the instructions every few minutes: change into the underpants and happi coat provided by the hotel and lock up everything else. Men change at their lockers in awkward slow motion, requiring the support of the walls and the guidance of the sweet-sounding voice as they take ten minutes, on average, to do the job. Some keep up a slow, friendly banter—not the common talk of friends but more like that of off-duty soldiers, bonded by their escape to this capsule retreat. They are here with their comrades. They are safe now, among allies.

Uninhibitedly nude, they pause for long blank stretches before putting on fresh blue boxer shorts and a skimpy white happi coat that resembles a hospital gown. (No provision is made for women guests at the Green Plaza; none are expected.) They are reassessing themselves, changing modes, transforming themselves from businessmen into recuperating capsuleers. One jovial elderly guest tries to carry his wrist bag—with his money, keys, business cards, status-brand gum, and train pass—beyond the locker room. He has not fully changed, but he has already locked his locker. An employee solicitously reminds him that he will surely lose his wrist bag. Pleased by the special attention, the old man donates his wrist bag to the startled employee, pats him on the hand, and coos words of gratitude.

The employee is far younger than the client but uses the voice of an elder brother to stop the old man and instruct him to finish changing. Alter the white-haired guest has donned his uniform, the staffer Velcroes the key back onto his wrist, wipes his nose for him, and leads him to the next stop.

The manager, who has supervised my metamorphosis, points me toward the rest of the hotel. As I enter the common room, Dallas is playing on the television. Bivouacking businessmen watch from lounge chairs, encircled by vending machines that sell sodas, pep drinks, isotonic drinks, hot drinks, dried squid, seaweed, Cheez Doodles, and chocolate bars. After I have taken a seat, one of the TV-watchers, Takeshi Matsuoka, leans over to speak to me in English. A cleancut, pleasant-looking man, he surprises me, not just because he’s speaking English but because everyone except the manager has studiously ignored the foreigner, and I have just gotten used to that.

Matsuoka is not one of the drunks. Tomorrow he will attend a seminar here in Shinjuku at 6:00 A.M. Because he lives in Chiba, a far suburb, there is, he says, no train early enough. He is not pleased about the hour set for the meeting or about having to pay for a hotel. He asks why I’m here.

I explain that I want to experience something uniquely Japanese. To me this hotel seems a symbol of modern Japan—its crowding, but also its group spirit, sacrifice, and practicality. “Don’t you have the same thing in America?” Matsuoka asks. I tell him that we probably never will, because in America staying in a capsule hotel would be an admission of failure, suggesting an inability to afford something grander, plus a drinking problem. “In Japan a capsule hotel is a sign of victory,” Matsuoka counters. “It’s a major convenience and a triumph of efficiency. Some bijinesuman stay in capsules half the week to avoid a long commute. They like watching TV instead of standing for two hours on a crowded train. Peak use is Wednesday and Thursday nights, when some workers may stay at their desks past eleven and then find themselves too tired to go home. But this is Friday, so many are here tonight because of too much drink.”

After Dallas these common-room convalescents watch two more American shows dubbed in Japanese—one about a horse farm in the Midwest, the other about a private eye in California. During a commercial break I hear the rousing music of the Regain march, advertising a pep tonic. The ad portrays a businessman sallying forth, larger than life, to conquer the world, lightning flashing from his eye, attaché case and a yellow-and-black bottle of Regain in his hands.

Matsuoka translates the first stanza and the refrain for me:

“Yellow and black is the sign of courage. Can you fight for twenty-four hours? Regain, Regain, our Regain. In the attaché case put the sign of courage. Can you fight all over the world?

“Businessman, businessman, Japanese businessman.”

BAREFOOT like everyone else, I visit the lavatory-washroom and find two flip-flop slippers outside the entrance. (In Japan a lavatory’s ceramic floors are “not clean" by convention, and require their own slippers.) The man before me must have put on two left slippers; I slip into the remaining pair of right ones. The bare, peach-tiled washroom dispenses free disposable toothbrushes. Paste has already been applied, presumably in case an unsteady guest can’t get it together.

Two floors above, a dozen men float on their backs, arms propped on the edges of three white-tiled hot pools, each a yard or so deep and a little larger than a king-size bed. Two young women in white slacks provide massages in open stalls, where men lie on gurneys, partly covered by towels. A weight machine and an exercise bicycle occupy a room to the side, along with do-it-yourself hair-care stations stocked with combs in an ultrasound sterilizer and a variety of mousses, gels, and hair tonics. The blue glow from a tanning booth chills the white walls of the room. If anyone still has work to do—and is fit to do it—the hotel is prepared. Private studies the size of a couple of phone booths are each furnished with a desk, a chair, and a banker’s lamp.

Continuing my tour of the hotel, I descend a flight to the restaurant. At 1:30 A.M. businessmen are relaxing after a light meal by taking off their happi coats and tipping back in their chairs. The restaurant is very simple, serving mostly noodles. Its decor includes a fake fireplace and small tables spread over a large carpeted area. On each table free cigarettes are stuffed into a beer glass, and there are dispensers for disposable chopsticks and toothpicks. The tables form a semicircle around a TV broadcasting a golf match from Scotland. The men laugh, josh each other, smoke, slurp noodles—enjoying themselves as if among pals. Some of the older troops play go.

I can’t read the menu, so I order ramen, a noodle dish for 550 yen (more than $5). The waiter writes my wristband number on the bill. I will pay in the morning, in exchange for my shoes. The fellow next to me falls asleep, his forehead slowly descending into his bowl. The waiter deftly cradles the head, removing it from the bowl, and rests it sidelong on the table without waking the man up. I try to start a conversation in English—my Japanese isn’t good enough—with several apparently inert men sitting near me. The third time I succeed. My question is “Why are you here tonight?” This one smiles and slowly explains in English: “To . . . not the wife.”

Glass walls separate the restaurant from a room on the same floor where fifty patrons rest on fully reclined chaises. Closely packed, the chaises resemble deck chairs around a pool. The lights are on, and noise travels through the glass from the restaurant’s television and noodle-slurpers, yet most of the patrons seem able to sleep. They are restless, though, tossing their arms and legs across their comrades. The bodies slump, twist, and contort, as if writhing from some form of shell shock— casualties, one might think, of Japan’s international trade wars.

At 3:00 A.M. the restaurant area is as full as ever. Why aren’t they asleep? Most of them could be at home in bed by now. These men are putting something off, deliberately not surrendering to sleep. They prefer to lie paralyzed in front of the TV. Most of them are still up at 3:30, when I withdraw to my capsule.

THE hotel’s stacks of beige plastic capsules are located within an angular labyrinth, eerily reminiscent of a columbarium or a morgue. To enter an upper capsule, you climb two steps on a small ladder attached at one side of the lower capsule’s square opening and then twist sideways to sit on the edge of the upper opening. Then you lean back and launch yourself in headfirst, horizontally. Presumably the less athletically inclined guests (not to mention the drunk ones) are assigned to bottom-level capsules, for reasons of triage.

The smell inside the capsule is a mixture of chlorine vapors descending from the bath area, the soaps and deodorants of the capsuleers, and the new-car smell of the fresh, shiny capsules themselves. A one-inchthick futon slightly cushions the length of the capsule. After scooting backward inside, you lean forward and pull down a translucent plastic shade to cover the opening. But the shade doesn’t shut out the presence of the bodies surrounding you. Like a high-tech pup tent, the capsule shuts out nothing except the view.

At the entrance, where the foot of the bed is located, a white bedsheet and a beige blanket lie folded together like computer paper. I am more than six feet tall, and although the capsule is barely long enough, the covers aren’t. If I pull the sheet and blanket up to cover the top of my chest, they slide off my toes, which then catch a breeze from the aisle just outside. Inside the capsule there is room for only a few activities, most of which require you to prop yourself up on one elbow. The capsule contains a television, a radio, a mirror, a shelf for toiletries, a reading light, an alarm clock, and a fire alarm (with a no-smoking sign).

The speaker for the television is positioned right next to your ear, so that the sound won’t annoy others (except that it does).

Among the offerings are the same pornographic videos being shown above the registration desk.

All around me is snoring.

The vibrations feel as though my comrade on the left were shoveling the phlegm in his nasal cavity back and forth. He almost swallows it on the intake. When he exhales, it flaps out at the edge of his nostrils before he catches it and breathes it back in. The noise is loud.

Somewhere very close, two men are snoring alternately at the same speed. One snores “ZZZZZ” in and breathes out silently, by which time the other is snoring inward. Together they generate a constant dull growl that sounds as though I were sitting near the jet engines on an airplane.

From the capsules come the sounds of:

—a cellophane wrapper being torn and wadded

—squid being chewed for a very long time by someone who doesn’t shut his mouth

—a televised sports game of some sort

—teeth being brushed (someone has returned from the washroom with the toothbrush still in his mouth)

—heavy breathing.

I feel the press of bodies: five human beings within three radial feet of me. Each has a force that extends three feet all around and presses against my force, my personal space. I feel uncomfortable. I also think I’m the only one feeling this way.

The person below me shifts violently against the side of his capsule, shaking mine. Something that can only be his face smacks the plastic wall like a slab of ham.

I feel him drag his arm along the capsule’s squeaky-clean wall. Someone struggles to close the shade at the foot of his capsule. Hooking the latch at the bottom is the only complicated operation in the whole hotel. Each attempt sends the spring-loaded shade chattering up like a machine gun. He is successful on his eighth try. “Ehche ehche ehcheche”: the sound of dry retching issues from another capsule. Someone shifts from side to side all night. A distant TV broadcasts until morning; that guy must have fallen asleep watching the palm-sized screen suspended less than two feet from his face.

IN the morning everyone leaves quickly, quietly, separately, without even a nod to last night’s comrades. Girding themselves anew in their business suits, some of the men depart to face the family for a weekend. Others will return to the front lines. They try hard to organize themselves and their clothing, clearly not quite ready for Tokyo and the renewal of their struggle. As the occupants leave, ancient, sexless obāsans (“grandmothers”) in face masks and rubber gloves whip out the washable futons and sheets and swab the insides of the capsules. These tiny ladies rouse the heaviest sleepers, including me, by twisting our feet like a steering wheel.

The late risers slip into the locker room, where the public-address system emits the bright sound of chirping birds. A woman’s voice, quivering with emotion, interjects “Ohaiyo gozoimasu” (“Good morning”) at intervals. On the way out rumpled or dirtied guests can buy new shirts at reasonable prices, and also socks and boxer shorts, or a Hanes undershirt that calls itself a “great American original.” A drycleaning service has opened out of nowhere in a corner of the registration area. You do not have to take your sweaty, vomit-encrusted clothes home or to the office. They will be ready when you next check in.

The elevator whisks my comrades from their capsule stronghold. Out of the little black handbags that they clutch to their chests come sunglasses, useful defenses against the sun’s bright attack. Some stop to buy a “wellness” drink from a vending machine on the street.

Beyond the sanitized capsule refuge the city, too, has been refreshed. This busy consumer area of Tokyo is once again litterless and sparkling. The men of Mister Donut are scrubbing their sidewalk. Japan is neat and cute again. Last night’s dank confusion has been transformed into a shopping mecca for Saturday-morning homemakers—the industrial warriors’ wives. The throbbing hum of Tokyo continues, at a different pitch.