Are Japanese Capsule Hotels and Ryokan Inns Too Shocking for Western Business Travelers?

Picture Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation. Murray’s character, Bob, has traveled to Tokyo on business, and he spends most of his time between gigs at the hotel bar of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Then, he takes a nighttime dip in the rooftop pool. Rinse. Repeat. Bob’s defining characteristic is that he’s bored. The people around him are different from his everyday routine back home. The language is different, but his hotel is too familiar.

Although he has flown to Tokyo—one of the most visually stimulating cities in the world—Bob’s problem is that he retained a western bubble of familiarity with his hotel choice. He is missing out on the meaningful cultural experiences commensurate with pushing his comfort zone. Rather than settling for a routine business hotel in Japan, real value lies within the less familiar, culturally adventurous hotel choices: The traditional old-world experience at Ryokan inns and the modern Japanese business experience at Capsule hotels.

Should American business travelers visiting Japan experiment with traditional Ryokan hotels and modern capsule hotels? (Photo credit @cosmopolitanexpat)

Western Business Travelers are Missing Out in Japan

Although Japan’s economy suffered through the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan, and Tokyo in particular, remains a global hub for business travel. For example, Japan Airlines (JAL) just announced that it added a second daily flight to and from London.

On your business trip to Tokyo, you could choose to stay at the Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons, or the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Your expectations will be met. Your room will be serviced exactly like you’re used to. You can speak English the whole time. You can order your favorite drink at the bar.

But what a shame it would be to plan for your business trip to Japan by researching the must-see historical sites, memorizing the essential Japanese words, learning the business etiquette and practicing your bow for weeks only to arrive in Tokyo and stay at a European-style hotel. At the hotels listed above, you really can’t tell the difference between whether you’re in Japan or Las Vegas. Yet, If you’re willing to forgo room service that brings you chicken nuggets and fries, curtains that open with the push of a button on your universal remote, and a TV in your bathroom, try a Ryokan, where it feels like you are traveling back in time to feudal Japan.

Ancient Ryokan Atmosphere

A Japanese Ryokan (inn) is a traditional-style resort facility dating back to the 7th century A.D. that includes dinner and breakfast in the price. They consist of tatami-matted rooms, sliding doors and communal baths. The walls are adorned with Japanese calligraphy scrolls and flower vases to create a zen atmosphere. You won’t find an office chair with wheels, but instead, you are expected to sit close to the ground in traditional style. Don’t go shouting at the manager when you notice that there’s no bed in your room. Traditional futons are laid out by the staff after dinner. Guests are provided with a yukata, a light cotton kimono to wear around the property.

Native Japanese stay in Ryokans as couples, families or as a personal getaway. While Japanese Ryokans are not specifically tailored to foreign visitors, it is possible to utilize their services to meet your business needs while simultaneously enjoying an invaluable cultural experience.

Ryokans Restore the Business Traveler

According to Adam Goulston, an American editor living in Fukuoka, Japan, “Ryokans provide the full-on Japanese experience with outstanding Japanese food and big, steamy shared baths.” Meals at Ryokans are a multi-course affair featuring artistically decorated seafood, meats and other Japanese delicacies.

“When I was on a trip on the Oga Peninsula in the northwest prefecture of Akita,” Goulston notes, “my group stayed at a place about 15 minutes out of town, with the Japan Sea waves crashing against the shore just a few meters away and the most extensive and impressive spread of seafood I’ve ever seen. It was about $65 for the night, including that amazing seafood spread and a hearty Japanese breakfast.” Featuring memorable meals in an exotic environment, Ryokans are surprisingly affordable.

Chris Van Patten, an entrepreneur who focuses on working with community-based businesses, recently traveled to Japan, sampling various hotel accommodations:“The Ryokan hotel I stayed at was the highlight of my trip and this was even a trip where I also stayed at Tokyo’s famous Park Hyatt.”

However, Van Patten shared with 30SecondsToFly that the Japanese onsens (spa-like communal baths) included with a Ryokan stay take some getting used to for westerners.

The onsen or hot spring baths are typically very minimalist and traditionally designed with bamboo furniture and stone tubs. Guests enter the baths fully nude and shower themselves while seated on a small stool before entering the communal tubs. Van Patten detailed his experience of culture shock upon his first onsen experience.

“There was an element of culture shock as the bathing culture in Japan (and across Asia) can be a bit shocking for westerners like myself. Ultimately, once getting over my initial apprehension and anxiety, I had a great time and it was incredibly relaxing.”

For business travelers who have just spent a full day flying and find themselves in a jetlag fog from being in the exact opposite time zone, a Ryokan will restore you to a better physical and mental state. These benefits can be paid forward to the employee in terms of better performance in meetings as well as to the company in terms of returning from the trip rejuvenated.

Ryokan Geihanro (迎帆楼) in Inuyama (犬山)
Ryokan Geihanro (迎帆楼) in Inuyama (犬山) Photo credit @romain_herbreteau

Limitations of Ryokans for Business Travelers

Ryokans do possess some limitations that could make them sub-optimal for business travelers. First, they have strict meal times. The included multi-course dinners and breakfasts are prepared promptly in your room with little flexibility. There are also often curfews and set checkout times.

Business travelers should follow the advice of Adam Goulston: “Don’t plan on checking in at midday and lounging around, or on sleeping in too late. They’ll be pounding on your door at 8am to be sure you don’t miss breakfast.” But looking at it another way, instead of relying on the customary hotel wake-up service, the Ryokan breakfast-in-bed service is great for the business traveler who needs a little push to get the day started.

Business travellers should also be aware that the facilities are not intended for work; relaxation is the priority. If you have a traditional Japanese-style room, you won’t have amenities like a dedicated workspace, or even wifi.

According to Van Patten, the Ryokan could not accommodate all of his business connectivity needs, but it did wonders for his mental health and relaxation. “The ryokan we stayed at had wifi in the lobby, although it was too slow for things like Skype calls, so I had to miss our usual team meetings during my stay. Ultimately, I think while ryokans are workable for business travel, you may want to put away the laptop and enjoy it as a unique and relaxing experience and an opportunity to decompress.”

Recommended Ryokan

Interested in trying your first Ryokan? Check out the Edo Sakura.

Although it’s located just a five minute walk from the Iriya subway station within Tokyo, you’ll feel worlds away in this Ryokan’s Japanese garden. The Edo Sakura offers traditional style accommodations with tatami mats, hot tub and futon beds. This Ryokan is known for its exceptionally friendly staff. You can choose between Japanese and western breakfast styles. Don’t miss out on the tea ceremony.

  • Price Range: $99 – $155
  • Location: 3-2-13 Shitaya, Taito 110-0004, Tokyo Prefecture

Futuristic Capsule Hotel Experience

Photo credit @rachelcanencia
Photo credit @rachelcanencia

In stark contrast to the antiquated Ryokan is the modern Japanese capsule hotel. While stepping into a Ryokan is like teleporting back in time to ancient Japan, crouching into a capsule hotel is like entering a futuristic hibernation chamber on a spaceship.

A capsule hotel room is essentially an enclosed bunk bed with a TV, radio and alarm clock embedded in it. There is enough space to sit up in, but not stand. Floors are separated by gender. Guests are provided with night clothes to sleep in. There are no windows, and a flap is used to shade the corridor lights. While capsule hotels may be lacking in personal space, you can expect them to be immaculately clean. Plus, you can find capsule hotels for as little as $20 per night.

The diminutive rooms are a functional as a place to sleep and bathe–a clean place to come back to after a day of new experiences. When you’re in Tokyo, a kaleidoscopic city with novel sites around every corner, you want to spend as little time in your hotel room as possible.

Cory Varga, a travel writer and photographer for You Could Travel, has traveled extensively through Japan, staying at both Ryokans and capsule hotels. Varga shared with 30SecondsToFly her thoughts on why Japanese Ryokans are losing popularity and are indeed being replaced with an unconventional (and much cheaper) stay in a capsule Hotel. “I believe Westerners can get used to the idea of a capsule hotel. Moreover, the idea should start becoming more luring to business travelers on a budget.”

Likewise, Karen, an American Expat and business traveler, shared with 30SecondsToFly that her business trip experience in a capsule hotel was eye-opening: “I found the Japanese capsule hotel stay truly fascinating, and I would recommend it for other Westerners as it gives a glimpse into Japanese culture. Unlike Western hotels, I appreciated that most of the guests at my capsule hotel were Japanese. I would recommend it to business travelers who do not mind sharing a public space or simply want a clean place to sleep and who don’t care much for hotel amenities.”

Business travelers from the states are likely expected to squeeze in as many meetings as possible to take advantage of the long distance travel to Japan. Additionally, business travelers might be expected to stay out late in the Japanese nightlife to network. With that in mind, booking a centrally located and affordable capsule hotel that provides a clean sleeping space to crash might be all you need. Capsule hotels are especially appealing to small business owners or others who are in charge of paying for their own travel (versus those who are reimbursed by the company).

Capsule Culture Shock

Staying in a capsule hotel requires an adventurous mindset and an immunity to claustrophobia. Chris McCarty, a travel specialist for kimkim, recommends choosing capsule hotels strategically. “A business traveler from the US is traveling all the way to Japan for business meetings and they want to be on their A game. Sleeping in a small box probably isn’t the best way to go. It may be better used as a plan B in case of a late night of karaoke while building business relationships.”

According to Goulston, “Unless you’re in it for the novelty and to say you did it, there’s no reason for a business traveler to stay at capsule hotels in Japan.” Goulston points out some serious drawbacks for the western business traveler. First, If you’re around 6-foot or above, you might have trouble sitting up in your little compartment, and you may not be able to stretch your legs out when you lie down. Second, the standard capsule doesn’t have any space for even a small suitcase, or to hang your work clothes. Therefore you have to stuff everything into a locker and take the key with you.

Third, there’s often a poor network signal inside the capsule and it’s cramped, so you’ll be sitting cross-legged or reclining if you plan on getting any work done. You’ll have to work in a public space. Fourth, even if you’re staying multiple nights, you have to check out during the day. The typical checkout time is 10 a.m. sharp, with no entry for a few hours. And fifth, other budget options exist with more space such as cheap AirBnb accommodations or a low-end business hotel room.

Recommended Capsule Hotel

For business travelers on a budget, try Capsule Value Kanda.

Located just 100m from Kanda station, and a short walk from the Akihabara electric town, this 7 floor building contains 20 capsules per floor with a traditional style Japanese communal bath in the basement. Capsules come with a small TV and radio. The staff is friendly and will store your luggage before and after checkout.

  • Price Range: $16 – $30
  • Location: 1-4-5 Kanda Kajicho, Chiyoda 101-0044, Tokyo Prefecture

Japan Ryokan Capsule Hotel List

The Safe Choice Versus the Worthwhile Choice

In preparation for your next business trip to Japan, traditional Ryokan hotels and capsule hotels should not be overlooked. Neither option is specifically geared towards international business travelers as, say, the Park Hyatt Tokyo would be; however, both Ryokans and Capsule hotels are valuable as a cultural experience. The option you choose may depend on your budget, expectations for service, and ultimately, your need for space.

If getting business done is your top priority, the safest choice is a western style hotel or AirBnB that suits your needs. However, if you value a cultural experience that makes the long flight worthwhile, consider the unforgettable experience of a Ryokan or capsule hotel.

On your next business trip to Japan, consider experimenting with a combination. Start your week off focused on work and crash at the capsule hotel, then recover and indulge at the Ryokan on your last days before flying home.

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