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Japan is famous for putting odd things together. No one here bats an eye at shops advertising “Coffee & Curry” and pineapple is considered a perfectly reasonable pizza topping. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone decided to combine the two quintessentially Japanese forms of accommodation: the traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, and the capsule hotel. The result is Capsule Ryokan Kyoto, Japan’s first and only capsule ryokan, which opened this March in Kyoto.

"I wanted to create a new Japanese original," explains Keiji Shimizu, the owner of Capsule Ryokan Kyoto. Shimizu backpacked around the world in the late 1980s, then did a stint as an insurance executive in order to realise his dream of opening reasonably-priced, foreigner-friendly accommodations in Kyoto. Shimizu started with the Budget Inn and Tour Club, two wildly popular backpacker guesthouses in Kyoto.

Talking with his guests, Shimizu realized they were desperate for an authentic Japanese experience, but Kyoto's traditional ryokan were often beyond their budget. Shimizu wondered if he might combine the best points of a capsule hotel - price and convenience - with the gentle touches of a traditional ryokan.

With Capsule Ryokan Kyoto he has succeeded admirably. While your typical capsule hotel is a pretty squalid affair - a smoky refuge for drunken salarymen who have missed the last train home -  Capsule Hotel Kyoto is a bright spotless place with comfortable common areas where travellers gather each morning and evening to swap tips and stories.

The eponymous capsules look like the sleeping berths on a particularly traditional Japanese spaceship. Crawl inside and you will find a futon spread over a tatami-mat floor, with a small television and reading lamp mounted on the wall. Privacy is afforded by reed curtains that you can pull down to create a cozy little womb-like space for sleeping. While some may find them cramped, it is worth pointing out that legions of foreign English-teachers (and aspiring travel writers) have spent years living in spaces not much larger than these.

If you are concerned that you will have to share these relatively cramped quarters with your luggage, never fear: each capsule comes with a large locker big enough for most backpacks and suitcases. And the bathing facilities are clean, although some travellers make the pilgrimage to the local sento (Japanese public bath) for a soak.

Capsule Ryokan Kyoto has attracted travellers from all over the globe, including Nathalie Garino, a French traveller who recently spent four days there. "I found the Capsule Ryokan Kyoto to be innovative and convivial in comparison to other hotels which provide good service though have a more corporate feel. Capsule Ryokan Kyoto makes you feel you are coming home!" she said.

Of course, not everyone is willing to spend their nights in a space not much larger than the average pup tent. For those who demand a bit more elbow room, there are four floors of private twins/doubles with en suite bathrooms and showers. These rooms are like the space-efficient rooms of a standard Japanese business hotel, but, once again, with distinctive ryokan touches. Indeed, since the private rooms outnumber the capsules, one wonders if Shimizu considered calling the place "Business Ryokan Kyoto."

Stuart Mawler, an American traveller who recently stayed in a twin room said, "This is a super-modern, super-clean hotel with internet access in the room, wi-fi in the lobby, laundry facilities, international power plug adapters in every room, amenities you can borrow from the lobby, like alarm clocks, LAN cables, clothes hangers and irons. There's even communal kitchenette space. They really thought of everything."

Since the Capsule Ryokan Kyoto is such a hit, one can only wonder what Shimizu's next project will be. Perhaps we will be seeing Kyoto's first automated kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant in the near future. Kaiseki train anyone?

How to:
Capsule Ryokan Kyoto is located a short walk from Kyoto Station, near the southeast corner of the Horikawa-Shichijo intersection. Capsules cost Y3,500 per night (and, yes, they only sleep one person). Twin/double rooms with en suite bathroom/shower cost Y7,980 per room/per night.

 

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Capsule Ryokan Kyoto, where modern meets traditional’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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