One capsule for cosmic sleep

Cheap hotel beds are plentiful in Japan - if you are willing to sleep like an astronaut, writes Rachel Alt.

WHAT Capsule Inn Namba

WHERE Osaka, Japan

WHY GO To spend a night in a self-contained capsule, like Captain Kirk or Bruce Willis in Luc Besson's 1997 film The Fifth Element, check into one of Japan's famed "coffin hotels".

Capsule Inn Namba, built in 1979, was the first in a series of hotels designed by architects exploring the most efficient use of space and recycled materials. At ¥2500 (about $40) a night, including breakfast, it's one of the cheapest beds in one of the world's least affordable countries.

On check-in guests are issued with a locker on the ground floor for storing "outside" shoes. You're expected to wear the slippers provided while in the seven-storey hotel.

Floors are divided by gender, which is lucky considering shower and bathroom facilities are shared.

With all the ambience of a submarine, each floor's corridor holds 40 capsules - 10 stacked two-deep on both sides of a three-metre hallway. The lockers are large enough to store a backpack or suitcase.

Each guest locker contains a towel and a yukata - an ankle-length kimono-style dressing gown printed in a blue and white geometric design with a wide obi (belt).

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Most guests are in their 20s and 30s. The floor I stayed on was booked out by Japanese career women and Americans on working holidays.

Those accustomed to yoga will find getting into the top row of capsules, via metal ladders fused to the walls, a cinch. If you're less flexible, request a capsule on the lower row. They're best entered using a technique similar to diving into a swimming pool.

Capsules are equipped with a television, alarm clock, temperature control and a reading light. If you're prone to panicky visions of being trapped, try not to think about fire. An emergency exit map is on the wall should you need reassurance.

There is enough room to sit upright but having a friend to stay (not condoned by the hotel) would turn the pyjama party into a game of sardines.

Bedding is a futon on the floor of the fibreglass pod. The cotton-covered pillows are filled with traditional Japanese rice husks. A bamboo curtain offers privacy but you'll need headphones or ear plugs to mute noises in the night while sleeping so close to others.

A basic breakfast is included in the room rate and served in an American-style diner wedged between the shoe-locker room and the check-in desk. You can have unlimited refills of filtered coffee but there are no second serves of the boiled eggs or toast.

Smoking indoors remains popular in Japan and the diner at Capsule Inn Namba is no exception. Guests, dressed in their yukata, don't hurry their breakfasts and all sit facing the same direction, watching the television.

The hotel is open 24 hours, making it an ideal place to stay after a flight on any of the discount airlines that sometimes arrive at odd hours. Arriving late at night and with minimal luggage, the hotel offers a cheap place to rest and a startling introduction to the culture shock of a trip to Japan. Beam me up, Scotty.

FREE STUFF The range of complimentary items - from mouthwash to sewing kits - in the bathrooms would put a five-star hotel to shame. Nightly room tariff includes the loan of yukata, slippers and towel.

BONUS Known as the kitchen of Japan, Osaka's city motto is kuidore ("eat until you're bankrupt"). But tasting local specialties need not cost a lot - try takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (Japanese vegetable pancake) with mayonnaise and bonito flakes - heavenly street food for less than $5.

The hotel is a few minutes' walk from Ebisubashi Street, a neon wonderland of restaurants and pachinko (pinball) parlours. A little further and you'll be in Shinsaibashi Street, where the retail giants Nike, Prada and Louis Vuitton have their glamorous stores. Tenjimbashi-suji, the longest covered shopping street in Japan, stretches for 2.6kilometres nearby. Look out for the 100-yen shops for bargains on everything from sushi to underwear and alarm clocks.

DETAILS Capsule Inn Namba, 1-7-16, Nambanaka, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, phone +8106 6633 2666. Book online at travel.rakuten.co.jp/en/.

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