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Capsule Hotel

There is nothing vicarious about this entry. I did not sleep in my apartment last night. There is nothing explicit about this entry. I slept in someone else’s bed. Nothing inappropriate.

Rather, I simply got the chance to check off-completed something else I promised myself I would do while in Japan. A few hours’ bicycle ride from home, I walked through a sliding door, handed over 4,000 yen ($34 USD) and rented my very first capsule hotel room.

Its name may be enough for you to know what I mean. For others, you still may be waiting for me to clue you into what a capsule hotel is. You’ll have to wait. Follow the chronology.

I was walking the streets of Shinbashi in eastern Tokyo. It was another portion of the city to find and get lost within. I left after school and simply biked until I didn’t want to bike anymore. Hibya dori dropped me off her back in Shinbashi, so I knocked on the door and pushed my way into another crowded Tokyo entertainment district. It was seven or eight on a Friday night, yet, my blue jeans and ragged green shirt appeared to leave me underdressed for the occasion.

I am often too underdressed to walk the streets of Tokyo on weeknights. You see, here is another way this Asian place is a little different than my understanding of its American counterparts. It has been said, and not incorrectly so, that while Americans are an independent people, the Japanese are pressured to maintain group allegiances. So, after a long day at work, Japanese businessmen have little choice but to go out with their fellow employees and employer. It is natural.

So, I ride my bicycle or ride my worn, brown shoes and am surrounded by suited Japanese men and women in business dress. You do not go home to see your family or friends. Your family and friends are with whom you work, and it is with this group that you will wander the streets of Tokyo at night, making me feel underdressed.

So, I was walking underdressed, again, but this time in Shinbashi, and stopped for something to eat. I found the smallest, oldest, most crowded little restaurant I could and called for a seat. I plopped down at the bar and was met with a glass of water, a small tray of ginger and something that tasted like scallions, and the smiling faces of a beautiful waitress and a laughing chef.

It was he, the chef, who had really lured me into his business. In the tiny front window, streetwalkers could watch as he laid out dough and quickly yet with great precision divided the dough into 80 or more strands of udon, a long, wheat-based noodle.

They were staring at me, I found, because they didn’t know what to do with me, who, they assumed, couldn’t speak, nor read Japanese. This is what Japanese people will do. They will assume you do not speak or read. They will be right. The smiling faces of the beautiful waitress and the laughing chef were right. I could not speak nor read Japanese. What they didn’t know was that it was just that reason that brought me here.

He handed me a menu anyway, hoping to prompt a flurry of the flowing foreign language from my favorable face. It did not. But, I leaned over, looked at the winter hat-ed young man sitting on the stool next to me, watched him sluuuuuuurp his udon, and decided it was his udon soup that I wanted. I looked at the chef, pointed to the man, and stretched a smile on my face. I asked, “wakarimasu ka?”

He said, “hai, hai,” as he bellowed his laugh and wiped his hands on a little white towel that disappeared back into the flour-white of his apron when he was done. He spouted something in Japanese and the crowded corner of the restaurant’s kitchen, which held no division from patrons and provisions, answered his words with smiles and laughs. I took to finishing the water in my glass which prompted the beautiful waitress to fill my glass again.

My udon came and my blind pointing was right on. The big bowl was warming and welcoming. I excavated the china with chopsticks and a soup spoon. The udon noodles presented a slimy, dough taste that ran the length of my tickled throat, as I lubricated its path with wheat broth and the soup’s cluttered debris. I dropped my head, arched my shoulders, planted my elbows and did my best impersonation of the restaurant eaters around me who appeared to be measuring a dive into the bowl as they showed no reserve in their task of soup completion.

I finished myself, with a bit of my own slurping, not wanting to be outdone. The tickled-floor screech as I pushed out my chair and stood to my feet was answered with a chorus of “dozo arigato gozaimasu,” with the final syllable held in a cartoon snake-like slither that ran its course down to the very floor I was leaving.

I paid the beautiful waitress and handed her a compliment written in English on the back of a convenience store receipt I had in my pocket. She looked confused, I smiled my best you’ll-understand-later-smile and walked outside into the cool last-day-of-September night.

It was after nine now, and I had little interest in trekking back the nearly three-hours home on my bicycle. I decided I would not be sleeping in my bed that night.

I trickled down the Shinbashi streets, the very streets I had wandered enough earlier to be familiar with them now, and found the Shimbashi train station. The trains would run until after midnight, but I bought a bicycle to avoid intra-Tokyo transportation costs, so that wasn’t my destination. I found what I sought just 100 yards from the train station, a capsule hotel. These hotels are like bugs under train station rocks. You walk past them without needing to know, but you know they’re there anyway. As if train stations have capsule hotels as children; they are never far apart.

I was, quite literally, on the wrong side of the train tracks. Adult shops hid in little corners and a clean-shaven, hair-gelled man tried to touch my arm and guide me into his own store which had an identity and origin mostly unknown to me, as I couldn’t even begin to understand what its sign read. I knocked his arm and gave him a look of American distaste that, if done appropriately, will so often get a non-American to retrocede his transgression. The thirtyish man left me alone, but I was chased down the road by his laugh that had years of filth riding its wings, poking my back and entering me as I breathed my shuddered breaths.

I kept my pace and turned. I walked to a glass door covered with signs with rates and pictures of pillows. I pushed the Kanji-adorned button that held onto the glass, sliding door and it opened, immediately confronting me with a bothered and bored young man about my age.

I filled out a form, which included my passport number, and handed him some money. He gave me a key and pointed me in the direction of a locker room. I took off my shoes and walked to locker 216. I opened the two foot tall by one foot wide by two foot deep metal locker. In it, I found hangers to put on my jacket and shirt, a shelf to store my bags, a towel, disposable toothbrush, one-time-use toothpaste roll, and too-small, tan-colored slippers. I stripped to my underwear, took the towel and the blue yukata, a very simple kimono often used after bathing, in my arms, along with a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a classic that an old college friend bought me, and took the elevator to the second of eight floors.

The elevator door opened, and I thought I had come to the laundry room by mistake. I was faced by a wall of clothes dryers. Or rather, I was faced with what is a capsule hotel. Stacked two high and ten long were the capsules, nothing but fiberglass boxes, barely six and a half feet long, three feet wide and three feet tall.

I walked to capsule 216, and opened the magnetized curtain to find a small bed, with a pillow and blanket. I climbed up the little ladder, unencumbered my arms and dove in, ready for a tour. There was a little television hanging from the ceiling, small alarm and even an AM/FM radio. And I didn’t even splurge for the VIP room.

I jumped down from my second floor apartment to explore the very narrow building’s second floor. To my right was the kitchen – two vending machines – and to my left was a shower and bathroom. I walked to the bathroom, stepped out of my slippers and into the bathroom slippers and washed up a bit. Then, I grabbed my towel, and, seeing as capsule hotels almost never allow women, I took off my underwear, put on my yukata and walked to the shower. Showered up and having explored pretty much all there is to explore in a typical capsule hotel, I dried off, flicked on my capsule light and read for a while.

I fell asleep and woke a few hours later needing to go to the bathroom. I dropped down in my underwear, put on my slippers and staggered still half asleep to the bathroom. I was startled to see a maid emptying the garbage cans, but she went on with her business, so I figured all was right. I finished and went back towards my capsule wondering if I should have apologized to the maid. Just as I turned to do just that, another capsule patron came out of the shower, wearing his yukata as open as a robe can be. She continued on. So did he. I thought my underwear was cover enough.

I climbed back up and thought for a while about what lonely places capsule hotels are. The first capsule hotel opened in the late 1970s in Osaka, Japan, and they haven’t found popularity anywhere else in the world. They are known for being affordable choices for some and as the only choice for businessmen who, after drinking too late and having missed the final train, will crash for the night. I heard a train chug to the station and some snoring from a capsule or two over.

Clearly, they are a unique Japanese experience. One of the truly Japanese-specific things to be done, actually. I stretched my arms to the ceiling and walls and touched my head and toes to either end of the capsule just to remind myself one last time about the coffin-like dimensions in which I was sleeping. I set my alarm, turned off the light and closed my eyes. A night of good decisions having been made.

Jaa mata,

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