The History of Capsule Hotels from Japan

If you are curious about capsule hotels also referred to as ‘cabins’, ”sleep pods’, ‘sleep box’, or ‘mini-suites hotels’, then you’re in the right place. Our guide on capsule hotels history and evolution dives deep into the history of capsule hotels from its 1979 origin in Japan, why they were created and how they became popular.

What is a Capsule Hotel?

A capsule hotel offers an innovative accommodation solution, featuring small, individualized sleeping spaces known as capsules. Originating in Japan in the late 1970s, these hotels were initially designed to provide affordable and convenient lodging options for businessmen near transportation hubs like train stations and airports. Over time, the capsule hotel concept has evolved and expanded globally, appealing to budget travelers, backpackers, and tourists seeking unique and cost-efficient lodging alternatives. Capsules in these hotels offer a minimalist stay, ideal for those looking for a simple place to rest without the expense or amenities of traditional hotels.

Kisho Kurokawa: The Architect Who Designed the First Capsule Hotel

The concept of capsule hotels can be traced back to Kisho Kurokawa, a visionary Japanese architect who introduced this unique accommodation model. Kurokawa’s design philosophy was rooted in the Metabolist movement, which emphasized adaptable and modular architecture to meet the needs of rapidly growing urban populations. He envisioned compact, efficient living spaces that could provide essential amenities while optimizing space usage.

Referred to as “Kapuseru Hoteru” back when Kisho Kurokawa designed the first of these capsule hotels in 1979, the initial sleep pod designs were 7 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall. As described in “In Praise of Coffins: Sociality in Japanese Capsule Hotels,” the coffin-like boxes were stacked against each other and required individuals to crawl in to sleep. There wasn’t much in the initial capsule hotel designs other than space for someone to sleep, perhaps with a few additional basic amenities such as an electronic alarm clock and a small built-in TV.

History of capsule hotels

The original capsule hotel, called “Capsule Inn Osaka”, was opened in 1979 by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. It featured a unique design that resembled stacked blocks, with each block containing individual capsules or rooms. The idea behind this design was to maximize the use of limited space in densely populated areas.

The concept of capsule hotels gained popularity in Japan during the 1980s, as they provided a convenient and affordable option for businessmen who needed a place to sleep near transportation hubs. The trend spread quickly throughout major cities in Japan, with different variations and designs emerging.

Metabolist Movement

Kisho Kurokawa, a prominent architect and a member of the Metabolist Movement, invented the first capsule hotel. The Metabolist Movement, which emerged in Japan in the 1960s, embraced concepts of organic growth in architecture, emphasizing adaptability, change, and transient design. Kurokawa’s innovative approach to modular, compact living was first showcased at the 1979 Osaka Expo. This marked a significant shift in architectural design, reflecting the movement’s principles by integrating the idea of temporary and efficient use of space. The capsule hotel concept not only changed the future of architectural design but also left a lasting impact on the philosophy of the Metabolist Movement, drawing inspiration from futurism.

Role of Metabolism Architecture in Inspiring Capsule Hotel Designs

Metabolism, an architectural movement from Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was not just about buildings but a visionary approach to societal development. Led by architects Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa, Fumihiko Maki, and critic Noboru Kawazoe, and inspired by their mentor Kenzo Tange, Metabolism envisioned architecture as dynamic and evolving.

This forward-thinking group saw buildings and urban environments as adaptable entities, capable of growth and transformation to meet societal needs. The movement’s emphasis on adaptability and growth continues to influence modern architecture, aiming for flexible and sustainable spaces.

Airports, with their limited expansion space, can significantly benefit from Metabolist principles. By adopting this philosophy, airports can be designed as adaptable, flexible entities that evolve with increasing passenger numbers and technological advancements. Modular design elements, inspired by Kurokawa’s capsule hotels, could allow terminals and facilities to expand or contract as needed. For example, temporary gate extensions or adaptable lounges could be used during peak travel seasons and then retracted or repurposed during quieter times. This approach addresses spatial constraints and promotes sustainability through efficient resource use.

By viewing airports as living, breathing organisms, architects can incorporate green spaces and renewable energy sources, enhancing passenger experience and reducing environmental impact. Integrating Metabolism architecture principles allows airports to overcome limited expansion challenges while fostering innovation and sustainable development.

The first capsule hotel in Japan

The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, conceptualized by Kisho Kurokawa and launched in 1979, embodies the Metabolist movement through its innovative use of over 100 prefabricated capsules, each functioning as an individual living space, fastened to a central concrete tower. This modular approach, reminiscent of units stacked akin to front-loading washing machines, showcases a flexible, scalable design that airports could emulate to address the dynamic nature of air travel demands. By adopting this modular system, airports could create expandable and contractible spaces—such as additional seating areas, retail units, or even temporary accommodation pods for passengers in transit— that can be efficiently attached or removed from a central structure based on seasonal traffic and capacity requirements.

Similarly, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67, presented at the Montreal Expo ’67, offers another exemplar of Metabolism through its interlocking three-dimensional prefabricated units, creating a harmonious and functional community space. Airports could take inspiration from Habitat ’67’s modular and interlocking design to develop versatile and multi-purpose spaces. This could translate into areas within the airport being reconfigured to serve various functions, from passenger lounges and dining areas to exhibition spaces, thereby enhancing the use of available space and improving the overall airport experience. This approach not only provides a solution to the spatial constraints faced by airports but also encourages a sustainable and adaptable infrastructure capable of evolving in tandem with technological advancements and fluctuating passenger numbers. Through the lens of Metabolist architecture, airports can thus transform into more resilient, flexible, and passenger-focused environments.

Nakagin Capsule Tower Apartments - an Example of Japanese Metabolism.jpg

Read more about metabolism architecture here.

Tokyo and Major Cities: Expansion of Capsule Hotels Throughout Major Japanese Cities

Following the success of Capsule Inn Osaka, the capsule hotel concept quickly spread to other major cities in Japan, including Tokyo. These hotels became synonymous with urban efficiency, catering to the needs of salarymen and travelers who required a convenient place to sleep without the frills of traditional hotels.

Technological and Design Innovations

Early Designs: Features of the Original Capsule Hotels

The original capsule hotels, such as Capsule Inn Osaka, were characterized by their minimalistic and utilitarian designs. Each pod measured approximately 2 meters in length, 1 meter in width, and 1.25 meters in height, providing just enough space for a single occupant to sleep comfortably. These enclosed pods were arranged in double-stacked rows to maximize space efficiency. Inside each pod, guests found a simple yet functional setup that included a bed, a small television mounted at the foot of the bed, and a reading light. Communal facilities such as bathrooms, showers, and lounges were shared among all guests, underscoring the emphasis on basic, no-frills accommodation.

Modern Enhancements: Integration of Advanced Technologies, Private Pods, and Enhanced Amenities

In recent years, capsule hotels have undergone significant transformations, embracing advanced technologies and enhanced amenities to meet the evolving needs of travelers. Modern capsule hotels, like those offered by the 9 Hours chain, feature sleek, minimalist designs with a futuristic aesthetic. Each pod is equipped with secure keycard access, high-speed internet, and personalized climate control systems, allowing guests to adjust the temperature to their preference. The dimensions of these pods have also been optimized, with some models, like those in First Cabin, offering larger, more spacious interiors that measure up to 2.5 meters in length and 1.5 meters in width.

Technological advancements have also led to the introduction of smart features within the pods. For instance, some pods now come with integrated touch-screen panels that allow guests to control lighting, ventilation, and entertainment options. Additionally, modern capsule hotels often include private bathrooms, lounge areas, and dedicated workspaces to cater to business travelers. Brands like Yotel and CitizenM have set new standards in the industry by incorporating these advanced features, offering a blend of comfort, convenience, and cutting-edge technology that appeals to a broad range of travelers.

How Metabolist Concept Could Transform Airport Sleep:

The Metabolist architecture movement offers unique, adaptive strategies that can be used to develop innovative sleep spaces in airports. Here are 11 ways Metabolist concepts could transform airport design to accommodate layover sleep options:

  1. Modular Sleeping Pods: Implementing prefabricated, replaceable sleeping capsules inspired by Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. These capsules could be attached to a central structure within the airport, offering temporary rest spaces for travelers that can be updated or replaced as needed.
  2. Flexible Sleeping Areas: Designating flexible sleeping areas that can expand or contract based on the airport’s daily needs. This could be achieved through retractable structures or temporary installations that adapt to the space available, reflecting Metabolism’s focus on organic growth and adaptability.
  3. Sustainable Sleep Hubs: Creating self-sustaining sleep hubs that function like biological systems, using renewable energy sources to power amenities like lighting, heating, and electronic device charging. This would align with Metabolism’s emphasis on symbiotic relationships between architecture and its environment.
  4. Elevated Sleep Platforms: Utilizing the concept of megastructures to develop elevated platforms that host sleeping units. These platforms would not interfere with the airport’s main operations below, optimizing the use of vertical space.
  5. Seasonal Sleep Units: Inspired by the idea of impermanence in Metabolism, these units could be installed during high-travel seasons and removed during slower periods. They would provide flexibility in managing the capacity of sleep spaces according to demand.
  6. Integrated Nature Zones: Incorporating elements of nature directly into sleep areas to enhance relaxation and rejuvenation for travelers, reflecting Metabolism’s integration of natural cycles into architectural design. This could include indoor gardens or water features that also improve air quality and ambiance.
  7. Dynamic Configurations: Developing sleeping areas that can change configuration based on real-time data such as flight delays, peak travel times, and individual sleep preferences. This could involve movable walls or furniture that adapt to create more personalized spaces.
  8. Transformative Sleep Areas: Building on the Metabolist notion of structures that evolve over time, airports could implement sleep spaces that physically transform throughout the day or in response to different environmental stimuli. For instance, sleep pods could self regulate to create ambient sleep environment for sleep by responding to factors such as internal temperature, airport noise levels, or the amount of light.
  9. Stackable Sleep Capsules: Drawing inspiration from the organic stacking seen in natural structures, airports could feature stackable sleep capsules that maximize space efficiency. These could be structured in a honeycomb pattern, which not only saves space but also provides sound insulation and privacy.
  10. Interactive Smart Sleep Systems: Utilizing advanced technology to create sleep systems that interact with the user, adjusting settings such as firmness, temperature, and even the wake-up lighting based on the sleeper’s preferences and sleep patterns, reflecting the Metabolist vision of a responsive, user-oriented architecture.
  11. Reconfigurable Sleep Zones: Implementing large, reconfigurable areas that adapt their layout and function based on current demand and conditions, using movable partitions and modular furniture. This approach would allow the airport to maintain a minimal number of sleep units during off-peak hours while expanding capacity during busier times.

Technological Integration: Future Advancements in Technology, Such as AI and IoT, to Enhance the Guest Experience

The future of capsule hotels is poised to embrace a deeper integration of advanced technologies, with a strong focus on AI and IoT to elevate the guest experience. AI-driven concierge services will provide personalized recommendations and assistance, tailored to individual preferences and behaviors. For instance, the innovative use of AI by brands like Yotel enables automated check-ins and check-outs, reducing wait times and enhancing operational efficiency.

IoT-enabled smart room controls will allow guests to seamlessly adjust various in-room settings, such as lighting, temperature, and entertainment, through intuitive interfaces or even voice commands. Sleep pods like those from GoSleep are already incorporating IoT for features like automated wake-up alarms and adjustable reclining beds, enhancing comfort and convenience. Additionally, pods from companies like Sleepbox are equipped with noise-canceling technology, ambient lighting systems, and integrated charging ports, further demonstrating the potential of technological advancements to improve the capsule hotel experience.

Sustainability: Efforts to Make Capsule Hotels More Eco-Friendly

Sustainability is becoming a critical focus in the hospitality industry, and capsule hotels are no exception. Future trends will prioritize eco-friendly practices to minimize environmental impact and appeal to eco-conscious travelers. This includes the implementation of energy-efficient LED lighting systems and the use of sustainable, recyclable materials in the construction of sleep pods.

For example, Sleepbox and YotelAir are exploring the use of eco-friendly materials such as bamboo and recycled plastics for their pod interiors. Moreover, smart energy management systems will optimize energy consumption by automatically adjusting lighting and climate control based on occupancy. Waste reduction initiatives, such as digital check-ins and paperless transactions, will further contribute to sustainability goals. By integrating these practices, capsule hotels can significantly reduce their carbon footprint while maintaining a high standard of guest comfort and convenience.

Image of Nathan Kip Rotich

Nathan helps travelers find the most comfortable sleep setups during layovers, from cozy airport hotels to futuristic sleep pods. His insights aim to transform layovers into rejuvenating sleepcations, offering travelers an alternative to costly hotels and uncomfortable benches.