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Capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Otemachi Business District Helps Preserve Area’s Charms

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nine hours Otemachi in Kandanishikicho, Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, has 129 capsules called “sleeping pods.” Operations are currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The round-shaped capsule entrances stand in rows facing the atrium of a hotel. Each has a large number displayed along the aisle to make it easy for guests to find theirs.

Opened in March 2018 near the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, 9h nine hours Otemachi is one of the chain capsule hotels operated by nine hours, Inc. With its first hotel in Kyoto in 2009, nine hours hotels are operated in prefectures such as Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.

Based on the concept of providing “perches“ to those working in urban areas who need to stay overnight or take a nap, priority is given to services that allow guests to take a nice shower and have a sound sleep. While items such as mattresses, pillows and shampoos are carefully selected, the equipment installed in each capsule is limited to an electrical outlet, a USB port and a dimmer knob. No TV set is available.

Contrary to expectations, capsules “were fully booked due to the leisure demands of foreign travelers, among others,” said Keisuke Yui, 50, founder of nine hours, Inc.

His father suddenly died when he was working with an investment firm, and he took over the capsule hotel business from his father. Yui’s interest in the business was minuscule, but he said he did not want to destroy what his father had achieved.

However, as Yui sensed the potential in operating the typically Japanese capsule hotel business, he traveled around the nation while staying in various hotels. He formed a team with industrial designer Fumie Shibata and other experts to discuss at length “the concept of what functions should be provided for what kinds of people,” he said.

The first capsule hotel made its debut in 1979. Architect Kisho Kurokawa, who announced “capsule housing” at the 1970 Osaka Expo, designed the “Capsule Inn Osaka” in the city of Osaka to meet a request. Capsules made from fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) were installed, equipped with TV sets and radios. The Capsule Inn Osaka is still operating along with capsule hotels built in the Heisei era (1989-2019) and the current Reiwa era (2019-).

FRP capsules were manufactured by Kotobuki Seating Co. in Tokyo, which had produced hall and stadium seats, including those at the Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo.

Chiaki Nakamura, 63 and manager of the firm’s capsule bed sales department, said FRP capsules “were thereafter also used for taking a nap at fire stations and factories.”

After about 500 hotels operating around the nation during their peak in popularity, the number of capsule hotels has since fallen. They have recently bounced back, however, thanks to more foreign travelers wanting to use them.

Kotobuki Seating is also in charge of producing capsules for nine hours.

“Guests used to be primarily men, but capsules have come to be used by young men and women as well,” Nakamura said.

Currently, the operation of nine hours Otemachi is suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. I can only pray the day will come when more guests can visit the capsule hotel and sleep comfortably.

Jimbocho: A town of tango music and used records

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The brick-walled tango cafe Milonga Nueva in Tokyo’s Jimbocho used to be called “Rambo,” where literary figures, including novelist Taijun Takeda, frequented in the years following the end of World War II.

The Jimbocho area, which is within walking distance of nine hours Otemachi, has an alley reminiscent of a streetscape found in the postwar period. Milonga Nueva, a tango cafe, has been there since 1953. The Argentine tango, which is music rich in emotions, can heard playing in the cafe, which has a sense of tranquility to it.

“A lot of the records of late have been given to us by customers, with some of them leaving behind the records because they want to listen to them here,” said cafe manager Kayoko Asami.

After working at Milonga Nueva’s sister shop Ladrio, located diagonally across from Milonga Nueva, she was entrusted to manage Milonga Nueva in 2002. At the time, many of the customers were elderly people who used to frequent university tango clubs.

“But since around the time when smartphones began to prevail, more and more young people have been coming to the cafe after seeing photos of it online,” she said.

Milonga Nueva serves charcoal-roasted coffee, along with cakes and about 30 kinds of imported beer.

Its menu and furnishings have been changed little by little, but customers often say it remains unchanged, she said.

“The sound produced by old records and the cafe’s atmosphere likely help remind customers of the good old days,” Asami added.

Jimbocho also boasts stores that sell old books, where secondhand records and CDs can also be purchased. At Fuji Records, located on the ninth floor of Kosho Center building, the SP and LP records of yesteryear are tightly displayed in rows.

There is a section for composer Yuji Koseki, who was the model for the main character of this year’s NHK serial drama.

“One or two records [featuring Koseki] were sold, at most, per year, but this year, four to five records are being sold monthly,” said Fuji Records’ sales section chief Mitsuhiro Sato, 62. “There were also many inquiries about them.”

The Fuji Records shop displays a phonograph known for its connection with novelist Kodo Nomura, who also wrote music review essays under the pen name Araebisu.

Fuji Records’ previous president Fujiko Ito died in 2017 at the age of 93. In an article she contributed to The Yomiuri Shimbun, she wrote she was told at a department store she visited for sales promotion: “The word ‘chuko’ [used] does not give off a good impression. It should be replaced with the word ‘sekohan’ [secondhand]. However, I persistently clung to ‘chuko.’”

The word “chuko” looks to be shining in Jimbocho, most likely thanks to Jimbocho’s long history and the breadth of its culture.