Sleep with less, sleeping at the best. An introduction to the Japanese way of staying

Dedicated to Hiromi

Japan is often considered the birthplace of minimalism. In fact the idea of “less is better” comes from the wabi sabi culture developed during the Middle age and influenced by Zen buddhism. An aesthetics in which the object is reduced to its proper function without any excessive adornment. So throughout the centuries Japanese people seem to have preferred practicality and essentiality to luxury and semblance. Think to the most important meal, boiled rice, referred as gohan where go stand as an honorific word. Without this simple, white and plain dish traditional Japanese food could not be imagined even today. In the naturally conveyed  minimalism offered by a cup of warm rice put on a table we can perceive the deep connection that simplicity have with the Japanese idea of beauty. Beautiful is what is essential. So goes for the wooden Shinto shrines and the Buddhist rock gardens. But also clothings and house interiors. Japanese call these three fundamental elements ishokuju or dressing, eating and sleeping. In fact after meal another necessity for every human being is sleep. In Japan traditionally people tend to sleep on a mattress called futon put directly over the tatami, or the rice straw mat that paved every house in old Japan. The bed, more large and heavy, was traditionally avoided and reached the arcipelago only 150 years ago. On the other hand, the futon is something useful just when needed and then simple to be pulled back. And as well as white rice it survived until nowadays. For this reason today Japan offers a wide range of ways to sleep that stands unique in the world for its peculiar practicality and, of course, essentiality.

Chapter 1. Capsule hotel

Being too tired after an hard day of work far from home, too young to find a both cheap and good place to stay or simply too curious to try something new are three conditions I found myself at least one time during my 10 years in Japan before finding a stable lifestyle. However in every ot these situations the solution was ever the same: capsule hotel. A unique form of stay born and developed in Japan. Sleeping in a capsule could seem odd to a foreigner since in this kind of hotel the guest rest inside boxes instead of proper rooms. This special room is a  modular plastic or fiberglass block roughly 2 by 1 by 1.25 m. Every hotel has generally 50 capsules and the entrance is usually reserved to men only. The reason dates back in the 80es during Japan economy burst when office worker stayed awake until late often ending the day inside a thin izakaya, or traditional pub. Many of this salarymen, too drunk to catch the last train or too ashamed to face their wifes in those conditions, started to spend the nights in practical facility far from home but close to their workplace. In order to be ready to start the new day from the same place they ended the night before. Capsule hotels standed, like pachinko halls, as the ultime refuge for many workers too tired and asleep. As Japanese economy developed these structures were built along the railways and streets of the major cities. The price for one night was around 3000 yen (25€、30£) including pajamas and amenities. After the Japanese bubble economy burned down in the 90es many of the hard workers found themselves unemployed or underemployed and once again the capsule hotels were home for many of them. Someone arrived to rent capsules monthly. With the recovery of last decade however many people decided to spend  more time with family than with colleagues and most of the cities witnessed different cases of urban gentrification especially in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games that will be held in Tokyo. How then capsule hotels could survive? The answer this time came from outside Japan and was given by turism. The number of foreigners visiting Japan is increasing year by year. Safe, cosy and convenient, Japan represents one of the favourite destinations for many travellers, especially young, both alone or in couple. In this last case capsule hotel stands as a good compromise for spend few nights in a metropolis like Tokyo without using the whole travel budget and having the opportunity to feel a real Japan experience. As a consequence nowadays these facilities changed their aspect in more interesting feature as the Nine Hours in Tokyo designed in a so futuristic way to look more than as a spaceship than as a place to rest from the crowd and lights of the streets around it. In addition in many of them also female guests are welcome. Capsule provides not only a box where to sleep but also a yukata to be used as a pajama, slippers, towel and a sort of “magical” toothbrush with toothpaste inside its bristles. In addition free shower or bath are also provided. The common bath is, especially in summer, a good place to rest before entering in the capsule for sleeping. However if not yet asleep a TV is often put inside the box as well as an alarm and a light. Staying at capsule, firstly designed in 1979 by world famous designer Kisho Kurokawa and located in Osaka, represents more than sleeping in a box. It demonstrates how sometimes a minimal way can be the best to be chosen. Also because it could lead you to the space directly from Tokyo.

Chapter 2. Ryokan

A truly Japanese experience could be resting in box with futuristic features but also lying over a warm futon just put on a soft and scented tatami. The idea of sleeping over the floor doesn’t apply to this case because tatami is more than a simple surface. It is a mat made of rice straw often very soft and comfortable. It was common in old Japan and was used to pave the rooms. However, we have to  remember how the idea of room was very different from the West. In fact, Japanese houses had usually few rooms but each of them had different purposes through the day. Over a tatami could be put a little table for meals and writings, but also pillows to seat and of course futon to rest. Today the best place in which you can see this multiple use of the same tatami room are the ryokan, or traditional hotels. Ryokan are diffused all over Japan and usually offer the best solution for a leisure stay. In fact, many of them are built over natural hot springs and convey both comfort and healthiness. During my years in Japan I initially avoided these hotels because too much attracted by the never sleeping life of the cities but now, together with the finally found personal peace of mind, I have became fond of them. This time I have no intention to suggest a ryokan rather than an other since everyone has its own fascination given by its features. But also because many of them were discovered after years of life in Japan and I don’t want to be responsible to make them too famous and consequently less attractive. One of the characteristics of this traditional hotels is the quiet atmosphere inside and, many times, outside them. Another is the deep connection with health since many of them are intended to give relief both mental and physical. And finally ryokan offer give the opportunity to stay in a tatami room in which rest, eat and, after an hot bath, sleep. The idea of essentiality and practicability is still fundamental even if we are no more in a capsule in the heart of downtown Tokyo but in the best kind of staying Japan can offer. Ryokan are often build outside cities. The structures are often build in the traditional style and the staff always wears kimonos. So simply getting through the front door means suspending the time to enter in a different dimension. Rooms, then, provides   often a tatami and at the center they always feature a table with short legs and pillows in order to seat around it. Over it is always available a cup of tea with same sweets. Everything is little, delicate, intimate. The guests, then, change their clothes into traditional yukata robes. Another concrete step to enter in a different dimension separated from everyday life, commitments and worries. Many rooms features also a large windows over the landscape around it. Nature is another essential feature of the ryokan. Just close to the balcony there are often two armchair and a table in order to read a book, smoke a cigarette or simply contemplate around while enjoying seating. But at the moment of dinner the real magic of ryokan starts. With a delicate knock on the entrance door the waiters enter in the room and with simply but precise movements arrange the meals in front of the guest now seated around the short table over the tatami. Many facilities however have a dinner room but the way of serving and present food remains the same. Meals in ryokan are always traditional as kaiseki or shojin ryori. Food is served almost all together in different size and colour dishes. Appearance is important as well as taste. In the case of kaiseki, then, the ingredients are more sophisticated while for the shojin are more plain and simple. This because the first was at the beginning intended for nobility while the second for monks. Finished the meal the guest often takes a hot bath if they have eat in the room or go back to their rooms if they have eaten outside. In this moment everything inside the room changes as happened to the guest that weared yukata instead of everyday clothes. The table inside the room is moved away and, instead of it, futon are put over the tatami to offer the best rest to the guest. So finally the room has changed into a place to sleep. Even if considered excellent places to relax above all what characterizes the most a ryokan are still the hot baths. One of the leisures most loved by Japanese people since centuries. And still beloved almost by everyone today in spite of a transformation of the everydays habits among the most rapid and radical of the world. Going to ryokan means exploring both the tradition of old Japan and enjoying the best leisure one can find in the contemporary one. Ryokan popularity has no decreased and famous locations remained the same for centuries. Many of them are close to famous hot springs and still today the number of visitors, also foreigners, seems to not decrease. Recently many ryokan became part of chain company as happened for Hoshino Hotels that are build all over Japan. A company born in 1904 in Nagano prefecture famous for its alpine landscapes and developed until today with different hotels around Japan and one in Bali too. The success of this ryokan chain operator was given by the idea of developing the traditional idea of Japanese inns through a modern perspective. Keeping the environment and spirit of old ryokan but diffusing them all around Japan as happened with famous resort chains. But above all changing internal policies during the beginning of 90es in order to reduce the family members on the company board and consequently giving the opportunity to young outsiders to bring new ideas. A revolutionary effort that first developed by CEO Yoshiharu Hoshino resulted successful until being awarded with Eco-Tourism Grand Prize by the Ministry of Environment in 2005. A prize that witness how looking tradition can be the right key to achieve success even in contemporary Japan. Without forgetting however a bit of risky but unique entrepreneurial spirit.

Chapter 3. Business hotels

Japan is one of the few asian countries that has not witnessed colonization of its islands. After the first diplomatic relationship with Portugal and Spain in late 16th century the military ruler of the country, the shogun Tokugawa, decided to close its harbours to every western trader with the exception of the Dutch that however were allowed to stay and work only in Nagasaki. This decision could have been extremely bad but, because of the not strategic position of the archipelago, was not invaded by anyone for 300 years. During this era, known for the internal stability and peace of the country, trades developed among the island of Japan. One of the most beaten path was the Tokaido, a route that connected Edo, nowadays Tokyo, to Kyoto, the ancient capital. Along its way a lot of cities developed shops, taverns but above all inns. The idea of staying to just rest one night and depart soon the morning after is the same that characterizes modern business hotels around Japan. Cheap, functional and often close to major stations this kind of accomodations offers more privacy than a capsule but still less comfort than a traditional hotel or ryokan. As the name suggest these structures are intended to offer a rest to people travelling for business. Many of them provides only essential amenities, such as towels, pajamas and soap, but still stand as a modern version of old inns were merchants stopped along the way.

After years of life in Japan I have realized how stepping inside an hotel in Japan can be a unique experience for a foreign visitor especially when it comes to practicality and comfort. However both in a capsule, over a tatami or in a simple room the idea remains the same. Sleeping with the less means always sleeping at the best.
Writer: Pier Giorgio Girasole


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