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Letters From Tokyo

Matt Eshleman, Green Plaza Shinjuku Capsule Hotel, May 2014.

Three Feet by Six Feet by Three Feet

A visit to the granddaddy of Japan’s capsule hotels—with cot-sized individual spaces and shared amenities—and a lesson in different methods of getting along.

What sounded like a scream jolted me awake at 5:54 a.m. Less than two feet away, the man in the neighboring capsule had awakened from a nightmare, but the way he followed it with three quick sneezes made me wonder if his cry was actually the first in a series of predawn sneezes. There in my narrow capsule, at the top of two stacked rows of sleepers in a warren of hallways, I rolled on my side, my knees pressed against the tan plastic wall, and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t fall back asleep.

Every sound was magnified in the polite, labored silence of the capsule hotel: a humming fan; a rattling curtain; a strange mechanical whoosh, whoosh. As time passed and the Tokyo sky lightened outside, the sound of rousing sleepers filled the hall. Men cleared their throats. One crinkled a plastic bag. Others coughed and sniffled. When a guest lowered a piece of luggage from his capsule, it hit the carpeted floor with a reverberating thud. This hotel contained 630 capsules spread throughout its many floors in what entomologists might describe as a human hive. In the neighboring cell, a man’s ring tapped the wall, rattling my ears with a clank. Seconds passed. Then some other part of his body bumped as he turned over in bed, his skin making the familiar rubbing sound as it pulled against the stiff cotton sheets. I wore earplugs, but earplugs could only filter so much.

The Green Plaza Capsule Hotel in Kabukichō, central Tokyo’s red light district, occupies a nondescript white tower on a narrow side street north of bustling Yasukuni-dori. Train tracks run beside it, diverting cross-town traffic to opposite blocks and creating a secluded section of this otherwise sleepless neighborhood of bars, love hotels, and barely concealed prostitution. What the capsule hotel calls a “room” costs 4,300 yen a night, or $36, and runs six feet long by three feet wide and three feet high. Those dimensions feel like a doghouse. Pickup trucks have bigger beds. Despite the red light location, the hotel is a respectable operation. It houses businessmen mostly, often drunk, and it segregates the sexes. Women and men stay on different floors; each group has its own traditional onsen bath and dining areas on other floors. On an upper level, men can pay half the price of a capsule to sleep side-by-side in a shared, open “napping” room, separated by dividers. A capsule is challenging; shared group space would be hell.

When I told my friends in Oregon that I’d be sleeping inside a fiberglass pod, they thought I was nuts, but my logic was simple: Small lodging meant a small bill, and in Tokyo, where budget hotels charge between $55 and $130 per night, capsules meant I could stretch my limited budget enough to stay in Japan for three weeks. If you booked in advance online, you could stay at a capsule hotel for $353.79 for 13 days. I considered it. Capsule-style hotels are coming to the US, and they’re cheap. My girlfriend swore she wouldn’t last a night. “Our closet is bigger than that,” she pointed out; we lived in a studio and stored clothes under our bed. But the time to reconsider had passed. “Thank you for booking with Expedia!” the confirmation email said.

In a capsule nearby, a man hacked, and, as I turned onto my stomach, I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping anymore that day.

 

I only knew the basics about capsule hotels from what I’d read. The world’s first opened in Osaka, Japan in 1979. Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa designed it so Japanese businessmen could have a simple, inexpensive place to sleep when they missed their late-night train home, or had too much to drink while entertaining clients. Salarymen are notorious for working long hours and getting sloppy drunk. Kurokawa’s idea started with the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which he built in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1972. The Tower, now in disrepair, contains 140 tiny, self-contained apartments for salarymen. Each concrete pod has a large domed window on one end, and includes a kitchen, a wall of appliances, a tape deck and TV, and a corner bathroom that, at the time, garnered comparisons to an airplane lavatory. Nakagin Capsule Tower embodied a whole new world, what, in 2000, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called “the crystallization of a far-reaching cultural ideal.” Ouroussoff continued, “Its existence also stands as a powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.” Scaling this modular design for short-stays seemed a natural progression.

A few years after the Tower, at the Capsule Inn Osaka, Kurokawa equipped each pod with a small TV, a lamp, and a wall-mounted console with an alarm and radio. Baths were communal. Towels were provided. The format stuck. These days, most large Japanese cities have at least one capsule hotel. There are around 300 total in Japan, and increasing numbers of Western travelers use them.

What the capsule hotel calls a “room” costs 4,300 yen a night, or $36, and runs six feet long by three feet wide and three feet high.

But the capsule hotel as a concept has largely stayed in Asia and Europe. The closest analog in the US is the pod hotel. In 2002, impressed by the capsule hotels he encountered while traveling through Japan, YO! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe co-founded Yotel, a pod hotel chain that combines the capsule concept with the design of first-class airline cabins. At an average of 170 square feet, Yotel rooms, or “cabins,” are large enough to accommodate a standard bed and a small corner bathroom. Like their antecedents, they’re tiny, self-contained units designed to provide inexpensive, elemental accommodations for short stays.

Yotel opened locations in London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports in 2007, in Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol in 2009, and in New York’s Times Square in 2011. Other operators have opened capsule hotels in Moscow, Russia and Kuala Lumpur. In 2017, Yotel will open its first San Francisco pod hotel in the historic Grant Building in the city’s Mid-Market district. Yotel has plans to build others in Boston, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago.

The world, it seems, is shrinking. Micro-apartments, Daimler SmartCars, narrow lot houses, the Tiny House Movement, Apartment Therapy’s “Small Spaces” column – ours is the era of tiny. Japan’s capsule hotels can be viewed as one influential force in this trend, a brilliant, efficient use of limited urban space and expensive real estate. Micro-apartment residents are a type of pioneer, trying out a new form that’s still evolving, and in turn testing the amount of space humans can occupy. No matter how small micro-apartments are, capsules will always be smaller, laid side-by-side, horizontally, as if to test popular progressive abstractions like “think small” and “efficiency,” to challenge our assumptions about comfort and contentment, materiality and necessity, and forever asking visitors: What are your limits?

 

During my 38 years, I’d traveled all over North America, from Baja to Alabama to the Yukon Territory, yet this was my first trip overseas.

My plane landed at Narita Airport one winter evening. The train from Narita into Tokyo took me past dormant brown rice fields, across wide bridges spanning saltwater inlets, and through an accumulating urbanity where low, dense buildings grew into skyscrapers that dammed thick streams of rush-hour traffic.

Back home, people often told me that Tokyo seemed too big, too busy. With 13 million people living within its 698 square miles, the noise and crowds would drive them insane. But after a few days, it wasn’t Tokyo’s commuter trains or car traffic that affected me most: it was the perpetual chorus of “arigatou gozaimasu,” sung between clerks and cooks and customers. That’s what I heard in the middle of the night. Arigatou gozaimasu: the sound of people thanking, thank you, thank you, playing on a loop in my mind as I slept, thanking me and everyone more than I was used to hearing, to the point that I questioned the depth of my own gratitude.

Maybe Tokyo’s scale fosters a sense of cooperative unity. Maybe Japan’s Buddhist roots and relative ethnic consistency are also responsible. But, for whatever reason, the Japanese are an especially generous and courteous people. As a tourist who only spoke a handful of canned phrases, I often got lost, and in urban Japan, it was strangers who helped me get where I needed to go. Strangers pointed me in the right direction. Strangers studied and decoded my upside-down map, and it was a stranger who walked me for five minutes in the opposite direction he was traveling, walking for blocks and blocks just to orient me safely at a certain intersection, and all I could do before he disappeared into the crowd was write him a note that I hoped someone would translate, a note that said, “You are a very generous person. Thank you so much, Sincerely, Aaron.” I often think of that young man. Maybe I hadn’t traveled widely enough to have a sense of perspective, but kindness registers so intensely when you’re at the mercy of others. The gracious, compassionate side of humanity changes you once you experience it. It makes you want to act more gently, more considerately, more patiently to everyone you meet. At least it did me.

Ours is the era of tiny. Japan’s capsule hotels can be viewed as one influential force in this trend, a brilliant, efficient use of limited urban space and expensive real estate.

Before I arrived at Green Plaza, I wondered if that contagious courtesy would extend to capsule hotels. I didn’t understand how this kind of cramped, communal system could be conducive to sleep. It wouldn’t work in America. People would get drunk. They’d watch TV at high volume, bang stuff around, and fight back if you politely asked them to quiet down. Even in the relative autonomy of a mid-tier motel, the sounds of people partying in the next room frequently penetrate the walls. People stand outside your window after midnight, talking and smoking, and there is always someone wheeling their bags past your room way too loudly for 6 a.m. Separate rooms don’t guarantee serenity. Americans have a sense of immutable independence, the cocky notion that we are the rulers our own kingdoms and can do whatever we want. We don’t see our fates as intertwined. We are here, and you are there, and if you don’t like what we’re doing, too bad. These were the things I worried about when I booked my capsule. I hoped communal living in Japan would be civil.

Guests’ experiences vary, especially among Western reviewers. “The instant we walked in, my friend got yelled at in a viscous [sic] and severe tone by the man behind the counter for having his shoes on,” said one Irishman about the Green Plaza. “We were not allowed to speak, only to whisper.”

“The check-in process was a little convoluted,” said a man from Miami, “a bit clinical.”

One guy from Boston called the Green Plaza “the closest I’ve ever been to being institutionalized, or possibly in a morgue.” Another man said, “It all has a very ‘rank and file’ feel to it.” Travel elicits extreme reactions, but I say why visit a foreign country if you don’t want to experience life in a completely different way?

When traveling, I sleep in rental cars and on couches. I’ve spent the night on airport floors, in poolside chaise lounges, and in a hammock in Mt. Rainer National Park. I assumed I could handle a capsule.

Kabukichō, where Green Plaza is located, is the largest red-light district in Asia. Set inside central Tokyo’s neon intestines, bright vertical signs climb the sides of buildings and pedestrians fill the streets. Women in sequined dresses click by on high heels, long slits showing their calves, even in winter. Although prostitution isn’t legal in Japan, the law’s language makes non-coital acts permissible, so the sex trade thrives.

People come to Kabukichō to drink, to fuck, to throw up on their shoes. When they’re done, they spend the night in a capsule for the price of a fancy dinner and sweat out their hangovers in a bath the next day before catching a train home. I spent the night among them.

 

When the elevator door opened on the fourth floor, I was in a windowless reception area. Two clerks staffed the Green Plaza’s cash registers. A confusion of signs, drawers, and clocks, few of which I could read, covered the wall behind them. A bunch of men stood in line, many reeking of smoke and alcohol. Others sat on the floor by the elevator, unlacing their shoes beside piles of shopping bags and winter coats. Reviewers were right: The system was messy. And it was only 10 p.m.

Japanese custom dictates that guests remove their shoes in many residences. After I stored mine in a locker by the door, the clerk checked me in, moved my luggage to a secure back room and equipped me with a room key attached to a rubber wristband. The wristband helps drunks keep track of their keys. The rubber let guests carry them into the bath. To buy food from vending machines or use the spa services upstairs, you just had to wave the bracelet’s barcode across a scanner and it credited your account. I thanked the clerk with a practiced “Arigatou gozaimasu,” and went behind the desk to a second locker area. There, I stripped to my boxers, put on a pink robe called a yukata, and wedged my clothes in the locker.

It wouldn’t work in America. People would get drunk. They’d watch TV at high volume, bang stuff around, and fight back if you politely asked them to quiet down.

As I walked through the lobby, a dark-skinned young man of Indian descent approached the front desk. He shouldered a large backcountry pack and said something to the clerk in a heavy Australian accent. The clerk nodded and directed the man to the line. He was the only other gaijin I’d seen here so far. The line was 12 people deep. Everyone else was Japanese.

A woman in pink silky clothes stood on the landing in the stairwell, greeting customers and offering directions. She held a stack of leaflets with information about massage services, though she didn’t offer me one. What a job—no windows, acting friendly to drunks, all day on your feet. At least the stairs were carpeted. Besides her and a single female cashier, the only other women I saw during my stay were upstairs staffing the restaurant or rubbing men’s feet at the spa.

On the next floor, I passed a room where 11 men in robes sat smoking on couches. The room had no door, but a hidden fan kept the smoke from spilling into the hall. Couches clustered in the center. Beer cans and ashtrays covered the tables. The men ranged from young to middle age. Some rested their bare feet on the tables; others crossed their legs daintily as if they were in a meeting. All but one was looking at his smart phone instead of the TVs.

A gray haze hung in the air and blurred everything’s edges. I walked in to scan the four vending machines that lined the wall and immediately regretted it. I darted out, carrying so much stink on my clothes and skin that I smelled like an ashtray for the rest of the night.

I padded down the hall. The sleeping area is a designated quiet zone. Cellphones and conversation are prohibited. If you watch TV, you must use headphones.

A commenter on YouTube claimed to have stayed here for five nights. He enjoyed the spa. He liked the facility and the experience. But, he said, late on the second night, he heard a drunk throw up in the neighboring capsule. “[C]ould imagine him splattering all the plastic cell in one shot,” he said.

I gripped the metal railing and pulled myself into my capsule. It wasn’t so bad. The plastic walls and white bedding were free of stains. The white sheets didn’t smell of bleach the way American hotel linens did. The faint scent of fried panko and curry drifted in from upstairs, but the capsule was fresh and clean.

At Green Plaza, the capsules are stacked two units high in rows that extend five or more capsules long. The lower levels sit less than a foot off the ground; the upper levels are chest-high. You enter your capsule from a single portal in the front, on the end near where your feet rest when you’re sleeping. Mattresses are comfortable but thin, and fill the entire capsule, and lights are embedded in the ceiling. The TV is small and hangs overhead. A rectangular console mounted on the wall features the radio, an alarm clock, and an outlet for headphones. Some capsules have tiny shelves. Others do not. You place your bag and any small items along the side of the capsule, in the narrow space between your body and the wall, or set them by your head or feet. Plastic covers everything. Only the bedding and the blinds over the portal are made of fabric.

I pulled back the sheets and pushed aside the pillow. It reminded me of the opening line from Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Maybe a claustrophobic would find the capsule smothering. People accustomed to what Americans call “elbow room” might find the dimensions limiting, but a few minutes inside proved that elbow room is an unnecessary luxury for a short stay. You can sit upright without bumping your head. You can stretch out, lean against the back wall to read or watch TV, do anything you normally would to pass time in bed in a traditional hotel room. You just can’t walk around.

You can’t lock your capsule, either. For safety reasons, Japanese regulations forbid it. Instead of a door, a fabric curtain or wooden slats cover the portal. When you need privacy or are ready to sleep, you simply lower the blind and latch it in place. The worn brown fabric blocks most light. You can only see flashes of movement through small gaps in the weave, but no one can see in. If men masturbated in here to the porn that played on the TVs, no one would see. You would hear, though. In the sleeping area, every little sound carries.

Occasionally, someone coughed. A ring clinked against the railing. The man below me sniffled a lot. He kept hacking and clearing his nose. He sounded sick. Eventually he stopped. Besides the deep hum of air vents somewhere overhead, people respected the rules governing the quiet zone. I was impressed. Not a peep from a single TV.

After half an hour of reading, I put in my earplugs, turned off the dome light, and lowered myself into bed. The capsule was hot and muggy, probably because of all the baths in the building. To keep cool, I peeled off my shirt and pushed the thin cotton sheet aside. I lay on my stomach, stripped to my boxers the way I do when summer camping, and fell asleep to the soothing white noise of a humming vent.

 

At 6:59 the next morning, the first of multiple alarm clocks went off. Rather than rattling you like many American alarms, this one produced a tiny chirp that beeped you awake. But, faint or not, you could hear it from a distance.

After the guy silenced the chirping, more coughs filled the room. One was the deep, phlegmy hack that comes from illness or smoking. People come here for the low price and location. They also come to soak in baths for their health. Lying in a row of capsules surrounded by coughers, I felt like I’d checked into an infirmary. Cough, cough, cough. The smoker coughed and coughed. Suddenly, the sound became muffled, as if he’d pressed his face into a shirt or pillow out of respect. Still, it worried me: would I get sick staying here?

People started shuffling past my capsule, maybe to smoke the day’s first cigarette, maybe to pee. Nearby, the fan hummed, and something resembling a belt buckle clinked, even though guests only wore robes.

At 7:15, the hall went silent. No coughing, no feet dragging across the carpet. I tried to eat, but a capsule isn’t the kind of place to crunch on a carrot. This was unfortunate, since I had the largest, oddest-looking carrot I’d ever seen, and I desperately wanted to taste it. I had bought it for forty-six cents in the Odakyu Department Store’s grocery section, not far from a $150 musk melon and a $15 apple. I didn’t want to irritate people with the crinkling cellophane and hard veggie crunch, and I didn’t want to people to think I was rude, so I buried my hands under the thick blanket to muffle the sound of me re-wrapping the carrot, and I slid it in my bag. When I slammed the back of my head against the TV monitor, the thud negated all my efforts. I still didn’t eat the carrot.

An alarm sounded at 7:21, another at 7:25, 7:29, and 7:31. The alarm at 7:29 rang for over a minute. Beep, beep, beep, chirping down the hall. Was that person passed out drunk? Was he in the bath? The alarm rang and rang, growing increasingly angry as its frequency sped up through its cycle, as if trying harder and harder to wake the person who set it. He wasn’t there. The alarm finally shut itself off. By then, other people had roused, each sniffling and coughing and shifting in their loud sheets. The tranquil morning had ended.

Unlike Americans’ individualistic mentality, the Japanese operate according to a communal sensibility. Everyone has duties to their groups, including to the small community of guests at a hotel.

Foot traffic increased, and decorum wavered with each violently cleared throat. Still, people respected the rules. Only one person spoke. I couldn’t see the culprit through the fabric screen, but he sounded close. After the talking stopped, I quietly raised the blind and peered out. No one was there.

Without a shirt, the humid air felt damp on my chest. Down the row, men were climbing out of their capsules: bare feet emerged first, followed by hands, legs, a groggy face. Residents looked pained when exiting. Faced with the hallway light, they squinted and sighed. They sighed when setting foot on the carpet. When the alarm in unit #3815 sounded, the guy sighed when he turned it off, then sighed again when he stepped out and set his glasses on his face. People were probably hungover, but I clearly wasn’t the only person who had had trouble sleeping.

One by one, men carried bags of toiletries toward the showers. Yellow towels draped around their necks, white legs showing from their baggy robes, their thick dark hair often splayed atop their heads, pressed down on one side from sleep. In these oversized clothes, we all looked like children, bedraggled and forced out of bed.

I lay down then peered back out when I heard the voice again—the lone talker. Below me, two capsules to the right, a man in his early 30s crouched in front of a ground-floor capsule, with his mouth pressed to the screen. He whispered something through the fabric and laughed. The screen raised, and a short man got out, his hair sticking up on one side. When he stretched in the hall, his friend’s face lit up. The second guy muttered something and pressed the palm of his hand to his head, groaning as if pained from whatever they’d done last night.

Both men held blue packs of cigarettes in their hands and draped towels around their necks. As they shuffled off to smoke, they stood close together and wobbled unsteadily, and the first guy rubbed his hand on the other man’s back. I nodded hello as they passed, and the tall guy nodded in return, his hand still making circles on his friend’s back. It was a tender gesture. As they walked, their affection was obvious.

The shorter man wobbled comically, a mix of fatigue and exhaustion, and he shook his head as if to say, “I am awake and in a capsule hotel. How did I get here?” Who knows why anyone was here. Without speaking Japanese, I could only guess.

 

What is it about Japanese society that makes the capsule system work? Japan is a complex, ancient culture. Many Westerners think they understand it. Few of them do. I certainly don’t. Three weeks in two cities hardly gives me more than the most surface level insight. But guessing from what I’ve read, the success of the capsule hotel stems from a combination of factors.

The Japanese people consider themselves part of numerous social circles: their company, their school, their neighborhood, and city—concentric rings of communities radiating out from the family at the center. With each community come certain responsibilities. If there’s an “I” at the center of these circles, the “we” largely supersedes it.

Unlike Americans’ individualistic mentality, the Japanese operate according to a communal sensibility. Everyone has duties to their groups, including to the small community of guests at a hotel. One of those duties is to help maintain social harmony, or wa, so the group can function smoothly enough to achieve its goals. At a capsule hotel, the goal is to sleep.

In his book Confucius Lives Next Door, the Washington Post’s previous Tokyo bureau chief T.R. Reid describes wa as “the mellow feeling that comes when people are getting along. It is working together in a state of mutual understanding. It is the absence of confrontation.” Wa is represented by the Chinese character for peace, but the Japanese usually refer to it as chowa, meaning a “peaceful arrangement.” Reid worked in Japan for five years, and he learned a lot about wa from his elderly neighbor Matsuda-san. “When the affairs of a family, or a neighborhood tea-ceremony society, or a classroom,” Reid says, “are neatly arranged so that all the members are getting along smoothly, that is a state of chowa.” To disregard the welfare of the group, and to disrupt the chowa, is itself a shameful act, or meiwaku, and part of following the rules is assuring that others will view you as a respectable person. People would rather be personally inconvenienced or physically uncomfortable than look bad by upsetting the social order.

On the subway to Shibuya days earlier, a man’s phone rang. He sat under a sign that was simple and clear even to me: a drawing of a phone above a single word: “Off.” He lowered his head when he spoke. “Hai. Hai.” His eyes darted around. He kept his voice low and words to a minimum. The woman beside him was reading, and her eyes shifted his way in disapproval. Other commuters looked. He whispered, “Domo, domo,” flipped the leather cover back over the phone and slid it inside his peacoat. The woman resumed reading. This is how things work in public in Japan.           

In his book, T.R. Reid quotes Ogura Kazuo, a senior diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service: “The Asian spirit involves discipline, loyalty, hard work …concern for the collective harmony of the group, and control over one’s desires.” “The wa,” as Reid puts it, “tends to win out over other interests.”

Space seems like another reason capsule hotels work. According to UCLA Asian languages and culture professor William Bodiford: “[Tokyo] natives get used to negotiating tighter spaces. They’re raised to be very aware of one another, notice their surroundings.” People in large Japanese cities queue in lines nicely. They step aside in hallways if they want to check their phones. When buying tickets at machines, they do so quickly and move aside. Rarely does anyone stand in the center of a sidewalk in central Tokyo to text or read a map; maybe they do in small cities, but not in central Tokyo or Kyoto. More often than not, people are aware of other people, and they behave as if others’ needs are as important as their own—their need to pass, their need to purchase, their need to use the restroom, board a train, get off an elevator, and sleep.

Another reason for Japan’s civility is the fact that it’s an island nation. When you’re stuck on an island, you’re stuck with each other. It creates the sense of, “We’re all in this together. Don’t rock the boat.” In this way, capsule hotels, as well as the narrow tachinomiya standing bars and crowded rush-hour subways, function as microcosms of Japanese life, in which fates are stacked in rows as tight as their cubicles.

Americans define themselves by personalities and possessions; our psyche has been profoundly shaped by the frontier West, by the idea of wide open spaces and the promise of big houses with big lawns. We’re driven by a sense of individuality and autonomy. We’re ethnically diverse. We practice many religions. Food, television, movies, and federal holidays are the cultural ties that bind us. There’s little in our values to bind us together in a way that would make a capsule hotel anything other than a mess of conflicting priorities, hazy boundaries, and unreasonable expectations. The Japanese are driven by certain shared values. Crowded or not, drunk or not, capsule guests are largely considerate, and the combination of cultural factors fosters harmonious interactions and what visually, from the rows of capsules, resembles a polite type of madness.

The hotel’s morning noises aren’t a failure of Japanese society or the work of rude, rogue guests. Intrusions are a limitation of the capsule system. The walls are plastic. The units are numerous. That design can only soften limited decibels. To make it quieter, the walls could be soundproof; the blinds could be thicker, the hallway lights dimmed. To help improve the formula, the First Cabin capsule hotel in Kyoto reduces noise by using used a silent alarm that rouses you with flashing lights. But Japanese guests are rarely the problem. Even respectful people sneeze.

Only a culture that favors the whole over the individual could make this work. Kisho Kurokawa invented this, but it’s the guests who make it hospitable.

 

By 8:02, every unit on my side of the hall was empty. Screens were raised and small green lights were lit to show the rented unit had no one inside. On the opposite row, the bottoms of someone’s feet were sticking out. Was he in there reading? Sleeping? It was too hot to read with the screen down. It was getting too hot to do anything. I put on my robe and carried my towel up the stairwell.

Upstairs in the dining room, men in robes sat alone at two-seater tables, drinking huge mugs of beer while reading the paper. Beer before 9 a.m.—I couldn’t believe it. Back home we called that alcoholic behavior. It seemed perfectly normal here. Women in uniform shirts prepared food behind the counter, and the smell of curry and eggs filled the air.

Downstairs in the smoking room, robed men occupied every inch of the four sofas. They filled every chair, as well as the four laptop recharging stations in the corner. Sipping cans of coffee and soda, they talked and laughed while Japanese news played on TV and ashtrays overflowed with butts. Here was the embodiment of James Brown’s lyric: “This is a man’s, man’s, man’s world.”

Like most hotels in Tokyo, this one included toiletries with the cost of a room. Along the counters between the bathroom sinks, bins were filled with cotton swabs, hair spray, hair dryers and combs, and two scents of aftershave, one called New Panther. Next to a basket of individually wrapped toothbrushes, a naked old man gurgled complimentary mouthwash and spat into the sink. Here, freshly bathed guests sat on stools in front of mirrors and shaved their faces, cleaned their ears, and blow-dried their hair. Some sculpted their bangs with brushes. One man shaved his back with a cheap razor, his bare doughy thigh resting on the counter as he strained to reach a patch of hair beyond his neck. I stripped naked and stored my robe and towel in a bin.

The onsen was clean and cavernous. A series of sit-down shower stations lined the walls, wrapping around a large hot mineral pool in the center. I watched the other men to glean the protocol, then sat down on a plastic stool at an empty station, pumped some soap into my hands, lathered and rinsed and eased into the bath. I was the only Westerner.

Bathers sat with their bodies aimed in the direction of a large TV. Some crouched in the middle of the pool, water up to their necks. Others sat along the pool’s edge, their arms resting on the wooden rim. I sat at the edge, slouched so the warm water covered my shoulders and worked up a sweat.

I’d read that many Japanese people call this “naked communion,” or hadaka no tsukiai. In baths, group nudity dissolves social barriers and relaxes people enough to talk and get to know each other. Few people talked in this bath or did so only in passing. Without speaking the language, I didn’t get to enjoy communion. I simply nodded hellos and uttered ohayou gozaimasu for good morning.

The Australian from last night walked in alone. When you’re a solitary gaijin, you notice others. He covered his penis with one of the tiny yellow towels—something no Japanese man had done—and sauntered awkwardly into the bathhouse, his searching eyes darting around for clues about protocol. I felt bad for him. Like me, he was clearly making his first visit to an onsen. Covering himself only drew more attention, as did the rich color of his skin. He was trying to play it cool while figuring things out. Rinse first, then bathe? Or bathe and then rinse? The only way for first-timers to tell what to do is to watch other people, and to young men like us, raised in macho Western cultures, few things felt more uncomfortable than looking at naked showering men while you yourself were naked.

The man walked toward the showers, stopped, then walked back to the bath, draped the towel on the edge and lowered himself in the water. This was a no-no, but no one said anything. He sunk to his shoulders and faced the television. Japanese news played. It wasn’t interesting. The images were a welcome distraction, and an excuse to direct your eyes away from the others.

Aside from him, the only other foreigner I’d seen at Green Plaza was a tall, blonde bearded man whose heavy backpack betrayed him as a fellow traveler, though I never found out from where. He’d stumbled past my capsule last night, pressing his robe into his eye socket as if trying to erase the image of the night ahead. I never saw him again.

The sound of spraying water filled the room. The heat relaxed me. Steam curled from my skin. I closed my eyes and minutes passed like this. When I opened them, a young Japanese man to my left was staring at me. He’d been studying my face. Only his head stuck out of the water.

I nodded an acknowledgement. His expression didn’t change. Hard to say what he saw in me, but what I saw was clear: a mutual curiosity.

To generate a good sweat, I left the bath for the sauna. It was dry and smelled of hot cedar. One man was in there. He sat on the high bench, hands resting beside his naked thighs, and stared at another TV. On it, an elderly Japanese man played Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” on a huge piano on stage. It was part of a live concert series. The camera panned across a rapt audience. The pianist hit the keys, grinning and contorting his face dramatically as his hands traveled up and down the piano. I sat nearby. Sweat spilled from my forehead and chest. Music filled the room. The man and I sat in the heat, watching in silence.

A guest from Shenzhen, China, wrote an online review of Green Plaza. “Most interesting,” he said, “is seeing the Japanese businessman at rest: rows of men in identical pajamas, all chain-smoking, all at tables for one, all pointed in the direction of a massive television screen, and all eating seemingly the same meal. This is a functional hotel, not a holiday hotel.” The spa felt like a holiday to me. The whole capsule experience was a break from my normal American way of thinking, which was partly why I’d come to Japan.

When the pianist finished, the audience applauded, and the man looked over at me and smiled.

I smiled back. “I like jazz,” I said.

He nodded, “Hai,” and watched the next video of a man playing solo acoustic folk guitar to a large audience.

 

At 9:25 a.m., an announcement rang through the building about mandatory checkout. Nearly everyone had emptied their capsules and was either drying off by the baths or getting dressed at the lockers. The rest had lined up at the front desk for checkout. By 9:55, the line snaked through the lobby and down two flights of stairs.

Staff had moved into the sleeping area to replace the linens. They did this with a complex system of folding and layering designed, it seemed, to make the bedding fit inside the narrow units. Two staff members worked opposite sides of my hall. They each sat down, positioned the clean sheets between their outstretched feet and straightened the edges, then they got on their knees and folded the sheet into a rectangle. Laying the thick blanket on top of the sheet, they folded them together to make a set. While seated, they swiveled on their butts, lifting their legs in order to reach each side of the rectangle. It was an intricate procedure, but it made sense considering the limited hall space.

I tried to get dressed in the locker room, but a salaryman was blocking my locker. Between the capsules, the narrow lockers, tiny bags, and tiny complimentary toothpaste, spatial constraints defined this place. Even the locker room was too small. The man stood in front of our lockers, carefully putting on his slacks, his tie, suit jacket, and winter scarf. While he dressed, I stood in my robe and waited. If he saw me, he didn’t hurry.

When he pulled his small duffle bag from the locker, he struggled to fit some other clothes back in it. He set it on the ground and stuffed things in. When the bag wouldn’t zip, he pressed his knee on top and wrenched it shut.

I left and came back. Finally, he was pulling on socks and straightening his tie. He stepped aside and I extracted my toiletries bag with a forceful tug, and then, presumably, he went to work, or wherever you went in a suit on a Saturday. Maybe he was having an affair. Or maybe he’d been out late last night drinking like most people here. After spending the last 12 hours in a completely closed world of baths and robes, seeing people wearing stylish suits and jeans again was disorienting. His was the face of a man who spent the night in a capsule, possibly the face of one who used Kabukichō’s sexual services, and that was the way I would view everyone’s face when I was back outside walking the streets.

Four desk clerks raced around the registers as guests returned keys and paid whatever bills they’d racked up. When guests stepped aside to get their shoes, many sat on the floor to lace them. The line took over 15 minutes.

I laced up and rolled my luggage into the elevator, through the depressing lobby, and out onto the street. Even Sleepless Town had a soft side in the morning. Traffic was light on eight-lane Yasukuni-dori. At night, people weaved their bikes between pedestrians on the sidewalk. At this hour, solitary smokers stood outside restaurants and coffee shops, staring into space. Kabukichō seemed contemplative, vulnerable even.

During the next two weeks, I slept in three other capsule hotels: one in Tokyo, and two in Kyoto. Some were more modern, others worn and traditional. The only one where I slept poorly was the one frequented by Americans. These guests talked in the quiet-zone. They coughed and texted with the phone’s volume up, and unpacked and repacked luggage at 1 a.m., mere feet below my unit. I thought of Green Plaza, Japan’s largest capsule hotel, where I never heard a single person shoosh anyone.

 

Exactly one year to the day after my first night in a capsule, our upstairs neighbor woke us at 3:30 a.m.

My girlfriend, Rebekah, and I live on the second floor of a four-story apartment building. The walls are thick, but we can hear certain activities from the units above and below. Our downstairs neighbors watch movies at high volume. They often have friends over to sing karaoke until 11 or 11:30 p.m. on weeknights. Sometimes they leave their dog alone and it barks and barks and barks until it wears itself out. I’ve talked to them about the noise. They keep quiet for a while but always start back up.

Our upstairs neighbor normally just pounds her feet across the creaky wooden ceiling at all hours of the night and morning. On this night, music blared through the ceiling. People laughed. Feet thudded back and forth, over and over across the hardwood. “It sounds like they’re in our fucking apartment,” Rebekah said. She’d spent the entire day skiing, yet the party was loud enough to penetrate her exhaustion.

Banging the tip of a broom against the ceiling didn’t get the message across. The music and feet kept thumping. Did this neighbor work at bar, we wondered? Who starts a party at 3:30 in the morning? People who don’t give a shit about other people, that’s who.

Before I could put on clothes, Rebekah went upstairs to talk to the neighbor. Rebekah came back into our apartment moments later, fuming. “I didn’t even knock,” she said. “I was afraid I’d lose it on whoever answered. It could’ve gotten ugly.” The whole hallway smelled like cigarettes, she said. Music blared, too. Even though the temperature outside was freezing, they had their window open, letting their noise spill outdoors where we and other neighbors could hear.

I offered to go up and talk to them. I promised to stay calm. Instead, Rebekah found some earplugs and slid into bed, and I detailed my plan: “I’ll knock on their door at 8 in the morning, when I’m sure to wake their asses up, and I’ll tell them, ‘Your party woke us up at 3 a.m. Please be more considerate.’”

Rebekah laughed. “That’s good,” she said.

We savored the cruelty of it. How they’d all be passed out on the bed and couch by then, barely just asleep, and I’d arrive to wake them up with a revenge message. But that was hours from now. Until then, we needed to sleep, so I banged on the ceiling with the broom again. The music blasted. The boards creaked. “It’s almost four in the fucking morning,” I said. I banged the broom once more, and after I climbed into bed, resigned, someone knocked on our door.

I answered in my boxers.

A young woman stood in the hall, wearing a green winter coat, her blonde hair in a bun. “Hi,” she said. “I’m sorry, can you hear us in my apartment?” She had her arms crossed across her chest.

“Yes,” I said, staring into her eyes. “I can hear your music. I can hear your feet and voices. Everything.”

“OK,” she said. “Well.” She shifted weight from one foot to the other. “We’ll keep it down.”

“Good,” I said. “Do. Keep it down, way down.”

She started to walk away then spun around on her heels and said, “I’m Sage, by the way.”

I didn’t thank her. I didn’t offer my name. I said, “OK, great,” and closed the door.

I lowered myself into bed beside Rebekah and adjusted the sheets. “You’re Sage? I’m Beelzebub, and sulfur from the fires of hell will rain down if you don’t shut the hell up.”

Rebekah laughed and rolled onto her side. “You didn’t think anyone could hear you? No, you hoped no one could.”

“Exactly.”

“Why come downstairs to ask that?” Rebekah said. “If your music’s too loud, just turn your music down.”

“She was probably trying to be civil and personable so we wouldn’t file a complaint to the rental company.”

“Try being civil by shutting the fuck up,” Rebekah said. We agreed to complain anyway. “You should have invited her in and said, ‘Come here. See? You can hear everything.’”

We lay there and listened. Some deep voices said something, and a group of people laughed. They were probably laughing at us.

The music eventually went silent, but the feet kept pounding until after 5 a.m., which is when I finally fell back asleep. Before then, I lay in bed thinking of all the other things I wanted to say to Sage, all the clever piercing ways to eviscerate her and make my point. My chest tightened with anger. Anger kept me awake. Instead of going on the attack, I’d decided to keep things civil. A year had passed since I’d explored Japan, and I lay in bed thinking about it, thinking about the way people in that capsule hotel had behaved, about that sense of a common fate.

Before she drifted off, I asked Rebekah about Sage’s visit. “How’d that go? Too soft? Maybe I was too soft.”

Rebekah cleared her throat. “You did great,” she said. “Not mean, but just firm enough.”

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