If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s no wonder that an archipelago dancing on the Ring of Fire evolved over millennia into a paradise for the design-inclined. Most visitors will encounter large scale traditional local architecture while visiting temples. To literally get into the basics of modular, indoor-outdoor buildings, visitors can book stays at ryokan—traditional Japanese hotels—or the hot spring inns at the onsen.
Traditional Japanese hotels take advantage of traditional paper doors to transform a singular space into a completely different room. It makes for an extraordinarily efficient, all-purpose building. Though it is tempting to contrast the traditional and the contemporary, the more “modern” capsule hotels, alleyway love hotels and Japanese hostels, all feel like different responses to the same prompt: crowded society, space is short, and for the traveler, time is of the essence.
That said, one of these hotels is not like the others. Traditional Japanese hotels and capsule hotels are places to spend the night. Though technically one can book an overnight stay there, love hotels are generally where one spends a few hours. The original central point for designing love hotels was discretion. With entrances on out-of-the-way side streets and booking processes with minimal human contact, love hotels were where the publicly monogamous could keep a lower profile while meeting lovers. Young people living with their parents can use love hotels to spend some intimate time with their sweethearts or flings. Today, entrance signs to love hotels are (literally) flashy, and the rooms delightfully kitsch. Why? Owners had to design love hotels around specific and often flimsy “themes” in order to change governmental perception of their business: when each room at the Valentine’s Inn, for example, has a rose-shaped bed and an overwhelmingly pink floral motif, officials might overlook the questionable “morality” of the establishment. Loud, thematic wall paper and carpeting might just overpower the fact that the ceiling is mirrored and the condoms complimentary.
In a Tokyo hotel or hostel, space comes at a premium. Enter: the world-famous phenomena, capsule hotels! Travellers can stay in capsule hotels in cities all over Japan, where a mix of businessmen, tourists, and others in transit all trade street clothes for yukata and slippers before sliding into stacked capsules the size of a twin bed. At first blush, capsule hotels might seem like just one more “Japanese oddity,” but in our experience, these sorts of cultural flashpoints have an interior logic. Another example might be the famous organizer Mari Kondo’s instruction to thank objects for their service in one’s life before casting them off, a practice within a world view of animism and the existence of life in every object. Interior designers often recommend utilizing wall space in small rooms. For a clientele merely looking for a place to sleep and charge their electronics, why not stack up by two? With warm lighting, a clean, shared bathroom, and occasionally even a carefully prepared breakfast, capsule hotels can be a downright cozy place to spend the night.
Japanese hostels are similar to capsults in this way. Cleanliness, tidiness, warmth, and even proximity to one’s neighbors are all fairly similar to the appearance of coldness in capsule hotels. In the case of Japanese hostels, inviting furniture, curtained bunk beds (incidentally, not so different from the private space one would have in capsule hotels, and many a snug Tokyo hotel), decor, considerate hosts, and yes—lighting—all quickly make Japanese hostels homes. As in hostels around the world, in Japanese hostels, guests generally share lounge areas where they can gather and meet other travelers. Many Japanese hostels incorporate tatami, futon, and other elements of traditional Japanese rooms. The modern-day hostel, one could argue, is just a new iteration of the original Japanese hostels: ryokan.
In most traditional Japanese architecture, rooms are thin and versatile: sliding paper doors are easily moved and stored. In minutes, private guests’ bedrooms convert into a dining hall for a large party. Occasionally, the two will combine, and as with Japanese hostels, the “privacy” in traditional Japanese hotels are essentially visual. Perhaps this is obvious, but sound travels quite well through paper. At traditional Japanese hotels, road-weary tourists may be unable to sleep because of their neighbors’ drunken merriment. When morning comes, however, traditional Japanese hotels offer excellent service: breakfasts are often included with one’s stay, and they are cooked with careful consideration for both the guests’ palate and their health as they consider their sojourn. Guests in traditional Japanese hotels sleep over tatami floors on futon about four inches thick. They are given yukata and slippers to wear throughout their stay, as tatami and shoes do not mix. Rooms in traditional Japanese hotels may even have low tables at which guests can drink tea!
While we’ve invoked the mysterious Tokyo hotel, its description remains incomplete. Perhaps this is because Tokyo is crowded, and naturally a stay in a Tokyo hotel will be pricier and, well, smaller. One could stay in these standard accommodations, or, given the information above, a budget-minded traveller might ditch the Tokyo hotel altogether and take advantage of the often lower rates to stay at love hotels, capsule hotels, and even Japanese hostels, if they are merely looking for a place to crash after a long day, the thin walls in traditional Japanese hotels might disrupt one’s itinerary, but the quiet of one’s little worlds in capsule hotels might just do the trick.