The first time I traveled around Japan I came across a capsule hotel with a live video feed outside that was broadcasting the guests inside relaxing in towels in a steam room. It seemed like a weird invasion of privacy. In real time I could see the sweat puddling up in the crease between one salary-man’s breasts and gut. Other men were walking around in towels and rubbing their own shoulders seemingly oblivious to the video camera that was broadcasting their image onto the street, yet I imagined it was that very live feed that had enticed them into checking in in the first place. They knew that people outside on the street were watching them relax in the semi-nude, but they seemed too warm and clean to care.
I wanted to check in. This capsule was just $15 more than a hostel, and, besides, it was too late at night to check into a hostel anyway. I looked at a picture of a typical capsule, and it came with a TV and blankets. I said, “Capsule, please,” which I guessed was how you checked into a capsule, but the man pointed to a sign behind him which said men only. He said, “Men only.” I repeated, “Please,” and he said, “There’s only one bath and it’s a men’s bath.” I said I wouldn’t take a bath, and he pointed back to the sign of rules and said, “Sorry, it’s impossible.”
I was making my way north to visit a friend in the country, so I got back on the train because I couldn’t think of what else to do, and it was warm inside.
After a couple of hours, when the train came to the end of the line, I got off in a new, more northern metropolis. From the platform I could see the deserted downtown, and the high-rises looked black against the sky. It was now colder and even later at night, and I was in the exact same position I had been in the last city. I didn’t want to check into a full-priced business hotel, so I caught up to a girl walking away from the train on the steps outside the station, and I asked her in stiff textbook Japanese, “Do you know where the number one cheapest hotel in this area is?”
“My house,” she said, which surprised me because no one ever said that in my textbook.
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s free.”
“OK,” I said, and we got into a black cab and rode to her house.
I tried to cover the cab fare, but she paid it, so I held her little bag in a gesture of usefulness while she unlocked the place. Inside she said, “It’s a little messy,” and we both took off our shoes in the entryway and stepped up to the tatami of her studio. She turned on a space heater, and told me I could sit on the ground at the only piece of furniture in the place — a little table with an electric blanket tablecloth on top — while she unpacked some. I turned on the electric blanket, and she made us toast and cocoa and brought it to the little table. “You like toast, right?” she asked, and we ate staring across from one another, our legs stretched out under the warm blanket. She seemed interested, but not annoyingly interested, in what I was doing in Japan and at her house for the night.
She told me I could take a shower if I wanted to so I did. Then she took a shower, and when she got out and got dressed, she came back to the table to call her boyfriend and use her laptop to figure out the easiest route for me to get to my friend’s house in the country the next day. She wrote the best way down for me.
When she decided it was time to go to bed we moved the table out of the way, rolled out two futons, and went to bed. I spent some looking at her, and looking at the ceiling, and wondering if this was or was not a weird situation, but then I just fell asleep.
In the morning, I wanted to at least buy her breakfast, but there wasn’t time, so we just ended up eating more toast and cocoa before she put me on a bus back to the station, and she went to class.
I can’t remember her name, but I liked her. I like it when people do really unusual things for you without realizing how unusual they are. • 14 April 2008