Arriving in Kyoto by train, you are greeted with a futuristic structure that is nothing short of spectacular. A glass facade dominates the expansive train station and it is only upon exit that you experience the building’s true enormity. All around, urban structures head to the W heavens and global brands reside next to local brands offering you the same exchange you could have in any city – shopping! My initial thoughts are to turn around and head back to Tokyo, as the former capital of Japan seems to have lost the charm I imagined so vividly. But whilst I am in Kyoto hoping to experience the city’s various historical charms, I am here also to fulfil one of my long-held travel desires – to experience one night in the famed 9H Capsule Hotel designed by the legendary Fumie Shibata of Design Studio S.
Catching a taxi to my destination, I soon realise Kyoto is where you will find the Japan of your imagination. As we make our way out of the city centre and through the back streets, Kyoto’s unique charm begins to work her magic. Raked pebble gardens, poets’ huts hidden amid bamboo groves, arcades of vermilion shrine gates, geisha disappearing into the doorways of traditional restaurants, and antique shops lining the cobblestone alleyways. As the taxi slows, I find myself observing a maiko (a young woman training to be a geisha) clattering down the street in her high wooden shoes. She is dressed in a brilliant red kimono patterned in plum blossoms, her face chalky white, and her hair adorned with hairpins and ornaments. I also find myself absorbed by the taxi driver’s appearance. He is dressed immaculately. It’s as if he was off to pick up the Queen or some important dignitary. A pressed suit, lapel badges, white gloves and a policeman-like hat bring a dignity, and respect to his occupation that gets me wondering. I imagine how incredible it would be if Australian taxi drivers could dress like this. Then I do a double take and realise – who I am to talk? The taxi driver has inspired me to rethink my sartorial approach.
As the taxi slows down in a narrow, dark alleyway, I notice a white halo-like light emanating from the darkness. In my limited understanding of Japanese, I call out ‘Yamete kudasai’ and promptly ask the driver to stop. We both gaze at my destination for a second. The 9h Capsule Hotel’s foyer beckons me like a moth to a flame. Pure white rays of light burst through the glass doors and into the darkness lighting up the surrounding cobblestones. I pay the taxi driver and thank him. Once inside the hotel’s doors, sophisticated and elegant graphics designed by Hiromura Masaaki, author of the 2002 book Space Graphysm, communicate necessary information leaving the need for the spoken word almost to silence. As graphically instructed, I place my shoes in one of the cubes that line the wall, slide on a pair of designer slippers, and make my way to the hotel’s front desk. Once the paperwork is completed, I am given a capsule number and a locker key and make my way to the changing rooms. The 9h Capsule Hotel has been created around the premise that a traveller needs seven hours sleep, plus one hour’s rest, and an hour-long shower. Men and women are separated by floor. Men are on floors six to eight with showers on the ninth floor, and women are on floors two to four with showers on the fifth. I pity the poor guy who just informed me that he is on the first night of his honeymoon! One night’s stay includes fashionable navy sleepwear, a bottle of 9h water, a transparent toothbrush and paste, and a selection of toiletries that would rival Aesop.
The change rooms have been designed to stimulate your senses. A scent of sandalwood and the relaxing fusion of jazz and world beats drifts through the air, offering an oasis of comfort and complete tranquillity. Rich, velvety white cotton towels are stacked high against the walls and more of Hiromura Masaaki‘s elegant modern graphics adorn the walls and floors, answering all your questions should they arise. Perfectly designed shower cubicles lead onto a Japanese onsen, perfect for soaking a tired weary body. I decide to skip the onsen this time, shower and change into the supplied sleepwear. Standing at the basin brushing my teeth, I chat to the guys next to me. We laugh at the fact that we are all wearing the same pyjamas and feel like we are on the film set of Ewan McGregor’s futuristic film The Island.
Entering into the sleeping space, I am met with a row of capsules that disappear some 30-metres into pitch darkness. Each capsule emits an orange glow that offers a beautiful sense of calm. The experience is wonderfully new and surreal. The capsules are stacked two-high and for those in the top capsules, they must navigate a set of small ladder-like stairs – not good for drunks. As I climb into my top-row capsule, nodding goodnight to the person in the capsule below, I am surprised by the comfort of the bed and the feeling of spaciousness. Only a thin opaque pull-down blind separates me from the other guests. With enough room to sit upright, I lean against the wall and stretch out and explore the white chamber. A black Panasonic mood-lighting system and alarm clock sits at one end. I place my weary head on the kidney shaped pillow that cradles my head snugly. By this stage I am convinced I am going to the moon and I am ready for blast off! I press the sleep button and the lights begin to gradually dim within 10 minutes I am in complete darkness. The unexpected intimacyof the occasional creaking noise and snoring makes me think I am in for a long night but it isn’t long before I am soon asleep.
In the morning I awaken peacefully to the mood lighting emulating the rising sun and soon the room is alive with the sounds of waking travellers. Kyoto’s cobblestone streets and my need for an espresso are calling me. Whilst it’s 6:30 am, I decide to check out and search for the closest coffee house. My one night of encapsulated luxury has cost me AUD$54, but the wealth of ideas and design inspiration I have gained from this experience will last a lifetime.