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Nights in the Land of the Rising Sun:

Some Alternative Sleeping Arrangements when Staying in Japan

By Leah Eades

January 19, 2011


Picture yourself in Japan and you’re probably doing one of several things. Perhaps you’re conversing with a beautifully- dressed geisha beneath the falling cherry blossom. Or perhaps you’re watching sumo. Maybe you’re amidst the electric labyrinth of lights in downtown Tokyo a la Lost in Translation, or maybe you’re alone in a secluded temple. Wherever you are, however, I can bet you there’s one thing in common with all of these hypothetical imaginings: I bet that you’re awake.

Yes, the tendency is to focus on our waking hours when envisioning our foreign travels. After all, that’s the bit we’re conscious for. But is this entirely fair? After all, we spend a third of our holiday time in oblivion beneath our bed sheets. Even when we plan our accommodation, the place to rest our weary heads, we’re thinking not of the sleep itself, but of what we’ll do there awake: enjoy the spar, or the bar, or even the cute barman if it so takes our fancy. But no! I say, no more! It is time we give sleep, precious, replenishing sleep, its proper place, and some well- deserved consideration.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Japan offers up such a weird and wonderful choice when it comes to inventive ways to get some shut-eye. This is the country that brought us children’s animations in which small, furry animals are forced to live inside small, transportable balls from which they are only unleashed in order to fight each other until one or both creatures is rendered unconscious, slaves to their owners’ slightest whim- I’m talking, of course, about the bizarre concept of Pokémon. This is the country in which the morbidly obese can be revered sportsmen and objects of lust! Anyone who has ever been to Harujuku can confirm that the Japanese can do things... well, a bit inventively. Why would sleeping be any different? Of course, when most people actually turn their heads to thoughts of sleep in Japan, the first image that jumps to mind (like a Pokémon desperately trying to escape its captivity) is that of the ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn that originates from the seventeenth century. They generally feature tatami-matted rooms in which a guest sleeps on a futon, sliding doors, communal baths or onsen, and the guests’ wearing of the yukata, or robe. Meals are generally eaten kneeling on low tables on the bedroom floor.

All very fetching. But, for those of us on a small budget, or just unwilling to pay through the nose for the privilege of spending a night pretending to be back in time (Oh, like every single traveller enjoying the “culture” of a stay in a ryokan isn’t really just pretending that they’re a samurai or ninja returning from their latest assassination assignment to the arms of their geisha beloved...) there are other ways of experiencing a traditional Japanese night time in a slightly more relaxed way. One option is the minshuku, a sort of budget ryokan. But the truth is that the essentials- the tatami floor and futon mattress-   can be experienced in budget hotels across the land. At Hotel Taiyo in Osaka, for instance, from the astronomically cheap price of 1,500 Yen per night (approx. £12), each guest is given their own little rectangular room complete with tatami walls and floor, futon, and even a little electronic heater- all very comfortable, and an idea way to sleep cheaply in Japan whilst exploring nearby towns like Hiroshima, Nara and Himeji, which are just a short train ride away. And if they have run out of double rooms and you must sleep in a single, don’t worry, if you request a room next to your friend’s or partner’s you can simply chat away at your normal level of conversation and the extremely thin wall will not impede you in any way (but a word of warning: if you want to engage in slightly more risqué chat with your partner, don’t. Everyone’s walls are that thin, not just yours).  The tatami floor and futon can be found across Japan, not just in hotels but in everyday apartments and homes, and even the sea- if you’re a woman travelling by overnight ferry with the Shangai Ferry Company, second class, your sleeping arrangements consist of 16 females in a women-only “Japanese style” dorm, which is in effect one tatami- floored cabin neatly lined with futons (curiously, men paying for the same service have a “Western style” cabin). It feels a lot like a slumber party, and makes for a surprisingly jovial, friendly atmosphere. That is, until the sea sickness hits in almost universally on the second day of your voyage, at which point it has more of the slumber party post- midnight feast slump feel to it.

Of course, in true Japanese form, from traditional we can jump to the other end of the spectrum: ultramodern. And nothing epitomises Japanese ultramodern efficiency like the unique capsule hotels it has spawn. In most countries, if someone had just missed the last bullet train home and angrily exclaimed “Damn it, I don’t fancy a hotel- if only there was some sort of box-like structure into which I could enclose myself safely for the remaining hours of darkness!”... yeah, in most countries we probably wouldn’t jump for the whole “sleeping in a box” idea. Not so in Japan. Undoubtedly the same efficient logic that puts Pokémon into Pokéballs ... Capsule hotels really are the reserve of business men, and generally disallow female patrons, presumably lest they cause too much chaos with their womanly wiles amongst the capsules. However, if a woman, or man with a slight claustrophobic streak, wants to try a less –intense capsule experience, they can always try the Ace Inn Shinjuku hostel in Tokyo, in which dormitories sleeping 28 consist of walls and walls of double-decker stacked wooden boxes, with curtains veiling the front opening through which one climbs into the undeniably coffin-like structure. It’s actually surprisingly comfortable (that is, unless your “slight claustrophobic streak” wasn’t as slight as previously thought) and comes complete with a little reading light and shelf. One could spend days holed up in this den. The disadvantage (unless you’re up to no good and/or a sociophobe, in which case this is probably the least of your problems) is that this it makes for a very antisocial sleeping arrangement. I was chatting to two other travellers in a nearby bar for well over an hour before we realised that we were not only in the same hostel, and no, not only in the same dormitory, but were in fact next-door-neighbours in our little coffins, and had been sleeping next to each other night after night, in total ignorance, separated only by a thin wooden panel. It was slightly creepy to be truthful, and an increasingly unnerving conversation: “Oh my god, I’m in that hostel! In a dorm? Same! What floor? The Second? Same! What bed? 32? Oh my god, I’m 33! We’re neighbours!”...

Aside from the capsule hotels, there are a number of other options for getting a night’s sleep in Japan without shelling out for a hotel. One option is to do what we did, when my friend and I found ourselves arriving at the closing Tokyo Train Station at half past eleven in the evening, with our next train north leaving at seven the next morning. Pay for a taxi and a hostel and a subsequent taxi back for the sake of a few hours? Nay! The most obvious solution was a 24 hour internet cafe, easy enough to find in Tokyo, which not only let you kip in the booth for phenomenally cheap rates, paying by the hour, but often provide you with a small foldaway bed as well, and even coffee. Sadly, as we soon discovered, there is no such internet cafe within the immediate area of this particular train station, so that was out. Another great solution would have been a Love Hotel, a phenomenon we’d already come across in Osaka. These hotels cater to the surprisingly prominent market of clandestine lovers, who pay by the hour for rooms in varying states of kitsch and kinkiness, and are the kind of place where you’ll find a condom rather than a mint on your pillow. In Japan they are big business: approximately 2% of the Japanese population are visiting a love hotel on any given day, and the industry makes twice as much annually as the anime market. They are recognisable as they usually have large flashing neon hearts outside, are often shaped like a Disneyland theme ride (“I’m in the mood- let’s go have sex in that neon UFO over there!”) and advertise room rates for “resting” by the hour, hence making overnight stays at such places significantly reduced in price. They come in varying degrees of privacy; in some the guests have no face-to-face contact at all with the proprietors, sending payment via pneumatic tubes or communicating by phone alone. This was probably the type of place we needed, as I’m not sure what they might have made of us- two females together, and gaijin as well- but as it transpired this was never even an issue, as again, in this particular area of Tokyo, no such Love Hotels were immediately visible. In Osaka we couldn’t get away from them, having accidentally planted ourselves (in the aforementioned ludicrously cheap hostel- you see, here is the catch) in the heart of Osaka’s seediest district. This was obvious only because of the sheer volume of 100 Yen shops and homeless people, who, we were informed by locals at a club when we told them where we were staying, were selling drugs for the Yakuza. Of course, this being Japan, the area was still incredibly safe for two young girls to wonder amidst love hotels and maid cafes at all hours of the night.

In fact, had we been in Osaka, the perfect place to rest our weary, budgeting heads at that time would in fact have been- surprisingly- Spa World. Let me explain. During busy Japanese holiday seasons entry to this luxurious spa is drastically reduced, and a full day’s entry is cut to half price, only setting you back the equivalent of about £7. The Spa itself consists of two floors, one “Asian onsen”- think Turkish hammams, Bali resorts and Japanese outdoor baths- and another “European onsen” which features Greek and Roman baths, a Finnish sauna, and bizarrely an Atlantis (?) themed grotto.  Of course, this being an onsen, you gotta get naked. Thankfully the floors are segregated by gender, and the two sexes can switch floors monthly. The whole experience is oddly liberating, and although an additional 1000 Yen is levied onto the charge when entering the spa after midnight, this is still an incredibly luxurious way to pass a few hours and still cheaper than many hostels.

Sadly, however, we were not in Osaka, but Tokyo as night closed in around us, and so naked Jacuzzi naps were not a feasible option. This left the final refuge of the seasoned traveller: homelessness. The subways and train stations are warmer than being outside, and so to the station we returned glumly to shelter. Normally this is the point where I’d advise you on how best to curl around your possessions and position yourself safely etc etc, but that is not how our night happened. Instead of resigning yourself to your sad fate, do as we did: find another stranded English speaker who possesses not only a laptop in need of a wifi connection but also conversational Japanese skills. Escort him to the posh hotel you passed on your fruitless search for shelter on the understanding that he will negotiate all of your entrance into the hotel lounge where he can use his laptop. Sleep on those sofas. At approximately 3am, be woken up when the hotel staff realize that you are not actually guests of their hotel and (very politely) ask you to leave. Find an all-night diner and eat pancakes until the sun has risen and your train is imminent. Sleep on your train: you think that the sheer speed of the shinkansen puts Japan years ahead of us, but that’s not true- their legroom and comfort levels far exceed that of our own rail service.

And so there you have it. When planning a visit to Japan, allow for the unusual. Try a Love Hotel. Sleep in a capsule or a coffin. Get naked in an outdoor pool, or kip with the techies. Curl up on a futon. And in doing so, you can tell yourself that you’re not wasting valuable sightseeing time by having that extra lie-in; you’re having a very unique and very cultural experience. So there!

Hotel Taiyo,
1-2-23, Taishi, Osaka
1500 yen per night per person for a double room
1800 yen per night for a single room
Can be booked through hostelworld.com

Shanghai Ferry Co., Ltd
Osaka- Shanghai route
20,000Yen one way
30,000Yen return
Discounts available for children, students and the disabled. See website for details.

Ace Inn Shinjuku
5-2 Katamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Prices begin from 3,150 yen

Spa World
Address: 3-4-24 Ebisu-higashi Naniwa-ku, Osaka-shi, ZIP code556-0002
Information (Tel): 06-6631-0001
Open 24 hours.
Adult price from 2,400Yen for 3 hours, or 2,700 yen for all day use.
Children from 1,300 yen.
See pricing guide on website for variations.

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