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A worn-out hotel on a busy street in Tokyo might not sound like the ideal bones for a contemporary conversion. But in the hands of owner Keisuke Yui and president Jo Nagasaka, the old building has been given a new lease on life. Now known as °C, pronounced doh-see, Japanese for degrees, this one-time salaryman stopover has been reinvented as a stylish drop-in sauna with sleeping pods for those who wish to stay the night.
First, some backstory. Yui is an old hand when it comes to capsule hotels. A former venture capitalist, he inherited a near-bankrupt hotel business from his father some 20 years ago. Rather than cede to the banks, Yui made it his mission to repay the debts and bring the capsule format, which originated in 1979, into the 21st century. He opened his first such hotel in Kyoto in 2009—, a minimalist game changer—and now owns close to a dozen. With his emphasis on functional beauty, clean graphics, and quality amenities, Yui has helped to revolutionize the image of the capsule hotel as a last resort for city workers who’ve missed the last train out to the suburbs.
For the °C, the location is pure Tokyo: a skinny eight-story building close to Ebisu Station, an urban hub. It would be easy to walk right past the hotel if it weren’t for its discreet signage and freshly painted rust-colored staircase running all the way up the exterior. Nagasaka’s work often has an unfinished, almost industrial quality that synchronizes perfectly with the throbbing city. “I couldn’t think of anyone better to do the renovation,” Yui says.
The 8,000-square-foot building is 25 years old—positively ripe for demolition by Tokyo standards—but the two found 168 sleeping pods from a nearby hotel that were in good shape, providing a solid foundation for an overhaul on a modest budget. Nagasaka’s resulting interior is a long way from stereotypical Japan, exchanging tatami mats and shoji screens for plywood, fiber-reinforced plastic, simple light fixtures, and builder chalk marks left on the industrial concrete flooring. Yet in its own way, the °C is no less authentic a Japanese experience.
“I used cheaper materials and didn’t bother with unnecessary finishes,” Nagasaka explains. He stripped back the exterior’s entry staircase to expose its metal structure, which was then coated with the anti-corrosion paint in rust red that became the building’s signature color. The designer retained the capsules’ vintage patina and original translucent fiber-reinforced plastic. But he cleaned and repaired their steps.
Yui was looking to add an extra element to the property beyond the existing capsules, but wasn’t sure what that should be. Nagasaka, fresh from a trip to Finland, suggested a sauna. Yui wasn’t convinced—until he scheduled a trip to Helsinki himself and then quickly signed on to the idea. Utilizing space on the third level left open from the removal of the old capsules, the team added a sauna lined with abachi, a wood that doesn’t transmit heat, and fragranced with fresh mint water. It’s so good that some 50 people a day come in from surrounding office buildings just to use the sauna for an hour at 1,000 yen, about $10.
Overnight guests are supplied with a bag containing a towel, slippers, and pajamas, before they head up to their capsule in an elevator; men and women each have their own level and separate saunas. Everything is refreshingly functional: Separate from the pods, there are roomy lockers for clothes and valuables a spot for suitcases. The shower area has stalls at different temperatures, clearly marked.
The °C might be a low-budget hotel—prices for the 25-square-foot capsules shift according to day, but are no more than 5,000 yen, approximately $50 a night. Nonetheless, quality pervades. The capsules have new Japanese mattresses and crisp cotton bedding. The pajamas are cotton too, as are the pure-spun towels. Even the body wash, a natural mint to complement the sauna water, is specially produced by a soap-maker founded in 1892.
For his part, Nagasaka relished the opportunity to take on the old hotel. “There are plenty of people in the city whose lives revolve around work and for whom home is just somewhere to sleep,” he says. “A cozy night in a reasonably priced capsule hotel with a sauna can be preferable to an expensive taxi ride.” As for Yui, he envisions a time when visitors to Tokyo will be able to move between his hotels, grabbing a coffee at one and a sauna at another in the course of a day. “Visitors, even first-timers, will be able to experience Tokyo like someone who has lived here their whole lives,” he notes. Seems likely. A second °C, a renovation of another capsule hotel by Nagasaka, opens in Tokyo’s Gotanda business district this April.
Project Team: Ryosuke Yamamoto: . : Hospitality Design Consultant. : Graphics Consultant. : Capsule Consultant. : Sauna Consultant. : Furniture Supplier.: General Contractor.