They are as Japanese as sushi and kimonos; a cramped but ingenious solution to the problem of finding affordable accommodation in one of the world’s most expensive countries.
Capsule hotels in Ginza, Tokyo’s most exclusive shopping district, are, however, under threat from residents and business owners who complain that they are lowering the tone of the country’s poshest neighbourhood.
They fear an influx of noisy and vulgar tourists, most of them foreigners, for the 2020 Olympics, placing the area’s reputation for refinement and good manners under threat.
The All Ginza Association says the fact that capsule hotels do not have lobbies or restaurants encourages their patrons to loiter inelegantly on the street, blocking pavements and creating noise.
Their objections are part of a broader struggle for the soul of Japan’s traditional neighbourhoods, in the face of surging numbers of foreign tourists. “Ginza should be where people go shopping for something special and eat out on special occasions — these are the things we want to emphasise,” Eriko Takezawa, a spokesman for the association, said. “Ginza used to be like that, and we want it to be again.”
The first capsule hotel opened in the city of Osaka in 1979 and they quickly spread. At their most basic they are little more than rental coffins, providing a mattress inside a plastic box just large enough in which to lie down. They immediately proved popular with shift workers, late-night revellers and travellers on a budget.
More luxurious variations followed, and Tokyo Ginza Bay Hotel is at the grander end of the spectrum. “When people think of a capsule hotel, they might think of a place where drunks stay after missing the last train, but our hotel is different,” Kentaro Maki, a spokesman, said. “Our goal is to provide more sophisticated accommodation.”
At ¥4,500 a night — about £32 — it is less than half the price of the cheapest conventional hotel in the area.
The government’s drive to attract 40 million tourists a year in time for the Tokyo Olympics is bringing lucrative new business to Ginza, with its old-fashioned shops, expensive department stores and exclusive restaurants. However, the influx threatens the refinement its patrons treasure.
The All Ginza Association puts out pamphlets advising on etiquette to be observed, such as dressing neatly and avoiding eating fast food while walking. Much of this is aimed at tourists from China who are accused of bad manners, noisiness and, worst of all, poor toilet etiquette. Hundreds of thousands of lavatory guides have been distributed after reports of Japan’s famously pristine conveniences being soiled.