My first night in Japan was everything I expected and more, but not without its fair share of difficulty. I arrived at Narita International Airport around 8:15 PM to a frighteningly long line at immigration. Normally I wouldn’t fret, but I was on a mission with a deadline — to redeem my Japan Rail Pass at the Narita Airport Train Station by 9:45 when the desk closed. Somehow, I was able to make it through immigration, retrieve my bag, pass through customs without my luggage ticket which I had forgotten on the plane, and make it to the station on time. That is, with enough time to get my Japan Rail Pass and catch the last train to Tokyo.
The last train to Tokyo, as it turns out, arrived at central Tokyo station at nearly 11:30 in the PM, from where I had to negotiate a huge rail network with little English signage. Thankfully, a kindly Australian couple living in Hong Kong and vacationing in Tokyo were able to guide me to the right train. A train which took me to the notorious Shinjuku district, replete with skycrapers alit with a taudry glow. Stepping out into the cold, rainy gloom at midnight, it was my mission to find a capsule hotel for my first night in Tokyo.
Seeing as I would be taking a train to Kyoto the next morning, I figured that a single night’s stopover in Tokyo would provide the perfect opportunity to experience accomodations uniquely Japanese. For those new to the term, capsule hotels are one night lodgings consisting of lockers for clothes, baths and saunas for cleanliness and compartments for sleep. Oftentimes such hotels can be found near entertainment districts and offer emergency lodging for businessmen too drunk to make their way home to hearth and family. Hence, many capsule hotels cater only to men and, I was to learn, nearly exclusively to Japanese men.
By the time I had tracked down the Green Plaza Shinjuku Hotel, it was 1:00 AM and I was wet, cold and tired of lugging my dampening gear around a maze of neon. Relieved to be near refuge, the challenges only began anew once I stepped onto the 6th floor and into the lobby of the hotel. Signs and words in a language unintelligible to me, along with a set of customs totally foreign in every sense of the word gave me pause. Were it not so late and I not so wet and chilled, I may have turned around and taken a room in one of the more expensive “normal” hotels I had passed in my search for this strange institution. However, summoning up my love for the unknown, I set down my bag, removed my shoes and stepped into the queue.
Standing in line, wearing what felt like alien garb — a baseball cap and rain gear, hiking boots in hand — I was keenly aware that all eyes were upon me. Being the only westerner in the hotel, I must have been quite a sight. The Japanese are quite a polite bunch, however, so rarely did I catch a stare and I heard not one whispered word behind my back. Nonetheless, if my appearance weren’t enough of a clue that I was well out of place, the boots in my hand were. When I made it to the check-in desk, I was instructed to place my boots in one of the shoe lockers near the door and bring back a key. This key was then placed in a slot bearing my number and another key for both my locker and capsule. Then came the question “Do you have tattoos?”, to which I prompted lied in reply, “No!”, for fear of being summarily rejected. Apparently, many establishments reject tattoos because of their association with Japan’s own Mafioso, the Yakuza, dreaded “Iron Fist” of the pacific rim (name that quote for some fugu!).
And so I jumped past the final hurdles. What remained was simply finding my locker, changing into a pair of night clothes provided by the establishment, locking up my gear, and retiring to my cubicle. A rinse in the public bath or a soak in the sauna were both out of the question due to my tattoo concerns, and taking in some televised sumo in the lounge with other guests required far too much interaction. Instead, I sought out my capsule and climbed up the steps and into a 4’x4’x6′ enclosure with utter amazement. To my surprise, the “capsule” actually was quite roomy. Being taller than the average Japanese male, the length of the unit was on the small side for my 6′ frame, but the width and height made up for it. The television embedded in molded fiberglass paneling and its concomitant control panel, complete with radio and digital alarm, all made me feel, for the first time, at home in my own space pod. I knew then and there that, no matter what else lie ahead in the next two weeks, a lifelong dream had been fulfilled and my trip to Japan was a success. For I had realized, to perhaps the furtherest extent possible, what life must be like upon a space ship, even it were only Spaceship Earth.