Trips: of Capsules and Rush Hour Crowds in Tokyo

LIGHT BITES

Travel Smart


Resting heads and moving feet

We recommend where you should rest your head (Japanese pod and capsule hotels) and how to get around everyone's favourite city (a Tokyo Subway Pass galore).

 Shinjuku: Stopping for a smoke before ducking into a jam packed train in the heart of Tokyo

Shinjuku: Stopping for a smoke before ducking into a jam packed train in the heart of Tokyo

Transport and accommodation are the essentials for any trip. Mess them up, and you’re gonna be baulking at confusing metro maps and high hotel prices especially in a city like Tokyo. Yet, Tokyo has effective solutions to these issues, from capsule hotels to a tourist-friendly subway pass.

Public transport in Tokyo has often roundly scarred weary tourists that can’t keep up with the unassuming yet complex hum of the entire system. Who could blame them? Tokyo has one of the world’s most complicated metro systems and is serving the largest urban population in the world (more people than there are in the whole of Canada). Though perhaps not as crowded as Mumbai’s super dense crush load, rush hour on the metro can get pretty hectic.

Accommodation options are similarly plentiful, with choices running the gamut from budget pickings to ultra-luxury stays. It’s not uncommon to find skyscrapers owned by international chains standing close to family-run ryokans, all jostling for premium space. 

With such a plethora of options, it can get quite confusing especially for the first time visitor to Tokyo. Read beyond the jump to find out what I ultimately chose for my year-end trip to the city. 

Accommodation

Hotels in Tokyo are generally quite expensive especially if you are partial to the more established ones. Mention names like the Okura and the Imperial to any Tokyoite and you’ll be given a full brief on the steep history of such acclaimed hotels where it is not uncommon to see rooms being priced at 3, 4 or 500 dollars per night. Thankfully, cheaper options are just as popular and widely available. 

Enter the capsule hotel.

Japanese pod hotels were conceptualised in the late 1970s and have since then begun to proliferate all across Japan as a cheap option to stay the night with usually nothing else provided other than a single bed and a hot shower. Anecdotally, they have also served as places for drunk Japanese businessmen to spend the night having become unable for them to make it home safely/with their pride intact. 

Most capsule hotels in Japan, however, by virtue of their low prices and significant age, have an underground nuclear shelter vibe to them - something usually only budget travellers would tolerate (unless you’re really really into it). Side note: there are actual hotels in Albania made out of the nuclear bunkers built by the then dictator of the country, Enver Hoxha. 

However, there is one chain that has mastered the basics of a capsule hotel and has even managed to do so without retaining the grimy reputation of its competitors. Despite its name (9h/nine hours), the chain allows guests to stay however long they wish so long as they vacate their beds (daily) for cleaning purposes. In the mean time, the hotel’s common working space is an excellent place to hang out.

 9h Shinjuku-North's common area, a nice place to chill at 

9h Shinjuku-North's common area, a nice place to chill at 

Futurism dominates the aesthetic here and the hotel is organised on the principles of strict minimalism. In comparison to just how loud Tokyo can get (Akihabara am I right?), nothing here is too flashy or in your face. In fact, the entire premises is modelled on a Scandanavian-esque approach to living; white walls, clean fonts and distinct iconography in all its glory. 

What’s there to do? Sleep in hotel provided sleepwear and use hotel provided towels and toothbrushes. Other than the aforementioned workspace, there are no others amenities like a gym or pool. As I’ve said, the hotel does the basics extremely well, but the basics are the only things it wants to do. 

What about your bed? Yeah its in a pod. 

The sleeping quarters (I sound so sci-fi here) is essentially a row of pods embedded in a wall with design elements that takes cues from what I’d imagine to be our future design approaches as a spacefaring civilisation. Each capsule is equipped with a pillow, blanket, ventilator and features an internal capsule-specific lighting system. 

Do also be aware that both sleeping quarters and bathrooms are segmented by gender and are found on different floors. If you were expecting (for better or for worse) mixed accommodation, look elsewhere. (Babies in the future are going to be made through IVF anyway, so maybe its time to get used to it.)

9h also has other branches in Kyoto (its first one) and also at Narita Airport (bonus minimalism points if you get the chance to explore the airport’s domestic terminal) so there’s lots of opportunities to try their innovative product. One downside however, to staying at the capsule hotel is that there is no space for you to sprawl out your belongings and pack your luggage while in the locker space; or at least you'd be earning to ire of the other pod crawlers if you do so. 

 Narita's new domestic terminal is a masterpiece in minimalist (and budget) design

Narita's new domestic terminal is a masterpiece in minimalist (and budget) design

Stripping away ancillary costs like having to maintain a gym and pool in space scarce Tokyo allows 9h to offer its guests a refined stay at an affordable price point. One night (after taxes) only ended up costing $30. Now you too can avoid years of your life from radiation poisoning by not staying at the other dilapidated capsule hotels. 

Getting Around

Tokyo is a city that is heavily reliant on its metro system so much so that its implementation become an indisputable leader in reliability and scale. Both metro operators report fantastic on-time performance figures and the system’s lines stretch out far into the suburbs like a web of tentacles, allowing for seamless commuting into and out of the city.

Setting aside my 3-day excursion to Karuizawa, most of my transportation needs were served by the Welcome! Tokyo Subway Ticket which covered the airport <-> city round trip on the Keiykyu Line and also included a 3-day unlimited travel pass on all Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro lines. All in all, it is a fantastic subway pass even though you don't get access to the JR Lines in Tokyo.

But wait…. Alex, why didn’t you get the JR Rail Pass? How could you go against the advice of all the aunties/Chinatown travel agents/travel ‘influencers’  that advocate it?

Okay, first of all, listening to the advice of others without checking whether it does help you is a generally bad practice to follow. Secondly, while I do think that the JR Rail Pass does offer great value, this value only surfaces if you maximise your use of it. In most scenarios, this will entail the use of the country’s pricey but efficient Shinkansen services.  

For exclusively intra-Tokyo travel, the JR Rail pass simply does not make financial sense, especially once you find out that its use is limited to the city’s two airport links (Narita and Haneda) and the JR Yamanote Line. While the JR Yamanote Line is excellent for touring the city’s main attractions and can thus form the backbone of any Tokyo itinerary, it is insufficient for sights that are further out from downtown Tokyo. Also, single-trip tickets are pretty cheap anyway.

The cheapest variant of the full JR Rail Pass will cost a cool while the limited JR East option starts from 19,000 Yen. The total cost of my Welcome! Tokyo Subway Ticket Just about 2,200 yen for 3 day's worth of rides (unlimited) and that also includes a return ticket to Haneda Airport.

As mentioned, Tokyo is a city ruled by its fast and convenient rail system and therefore, taxis in the city are priced at a luxury despite the entrance of Uber and other private hire services. For illustration, a one-way ride from my hotel in Shinjuku to Tsujiki Market is estimated to cost $40. If you think I’m joking about how expensive these trips can be, let it be known that a one-way trip (with no traffic) from Narita Airport to Shibuya can run you close to $273. Tokyo takes the concept of black car travel to a whole other level. 

 And with such prices, there's little reason to not have a polished gleam on all of your taxis

And with such prices, there's little reason to not have a polished gleam on all of your taxis

I'm so ready for this

As much as I would have loved to spend the night at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo (or even some of Tokyo's great boutique hotels) or zip around town at the back of the city’s legendary black taxis, I would probably have to subsist on cheap supermarket bentos for the whole trip. Obviously, there are way better dining options to be had. 

Visiting Tokyo is generally an easy affair but before you head to Omotesando or Akibahara, make sure you get your basics right. Forget your Jubilee, Victoria and District and start getting comfortable with Yamanote, Hibiya and Marunouchi. 

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