Prioritising the efficient use of space within a densely populated urban environment, it squeezed its overnight guests into tiny capsules arranged as, and not aesthetically dissimilar to, stacked dog kennels.

Over the last few decades, these pod hotels have sprung up all over Japan – popular with late-night workers and all-night revellers looking for affordable and convenient places to crash. Practicality and functionality have been the primary guiding forces behind generic pod-hotel design, that is until Cubic Corporation’s Nine Hours Kyoto capsule hotel opened in Kyoto in 2009.

Designed by Fumie Shibata, at Tokyo’s design studio S, this re-interpretation of classic capsule lodging won Gold at the Good Design Award 2010 and was honoured among the BEST15 winners.

Arranged over nine levels and covering a total of 906 square metres, four floors of Nine Hours Kyoto are dedicated to communal spaces, such as reception lobby, lounge, personal-item lockers, toilets and showers, with the remaining five floors housing the 125 sleeping pods.

Organised in a two-tier honeycomb layout, Shibata aimed to make the pods look as though they were naturally weathered holes.

“I wanted to create an image whereby the holes emerge from the wall’s surface,” she explains. This concept extends to the inside of the pods, which are made of fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP), a material specifically chosen by Shibata to offer constraint-free yet robust moulding that helps to create an organic shape.

Certainly, the smooth, curved internal FRP walls help turn the small space into a cosy one. And at a mere 120 centimetres wide, 120 cm high and 234 cm deep, there’s no denying their micro proportions.

That being so, every effort has been made to instil a level of stylish comfort usually found in 4-star hotels. Much is due to the Sleep Ambient Control System, invented by Panasonic Electric Works Co Ltd and a feature of each individual pod. The system helps guests fall asleep and wake up comfortably by controlling lighting intensity.

“Working directly with a timer, the system illuminates with a warm red colour once in a while, helping to create a relaxing environment inside the pod,” explains Shibata.

“And as the time to wake up approaches, the lighting slowly becomes cooler and brighter to help you arise comfortably.” Although the Sleep Ambient Control System was introduced to the hotel market as early as 2008, this particular version was customised to meet the needs of Nine Hours Kyoto and utilises an LED unit that was specially and solely designed for the project.

The customised design extends to Nine Hours Kyoto’s accessories, including made-to-measure mattresses and pillows. The latter was the outcome of redesigning a product called ‘gymnast’, developed by Kitamura Japan Co Ltd.

This ergonomically designed pillow is divided internally into sections of differing heights that cradle the head and neck in a comfortable and natural position. Its unique arc shape was specifically chosen to mimic the movement of the head and neck as one turns from side to side during the sleep cycle, ensuring that a person sleeping can roll over smoothly and comfortably and sleep undisturbed.

Other amenities such as shampoo, bottled water and slippers were developed as Nine Hours Kyoto original product lines. Sharing a monochromatic palette and a minimalistic aesthetic, they were designed in a cohesive manner to help strengthen the Nine Hours Kyoto concept and brand.

Similar features are seen in the hotel’s interiors, as well as graphics and signage, designed, respectively, by Takaaki Nakamura and Masaaki Hiromura. The black floors and walls of the sleeping levels contrast dramatically with the pure-white colour scheme employed in the locker, toilet and shower rooms.

All areas are adorned with clear signs – printed directly onto floors or walls and expressed as visual symbols or numbers, making wayfinding simple, even for international visitors.

The clarity of wayfinding is fundamental to the Nine Hours Kyoto concept in that it presents the idea of a clear demarcation between the essential needs of an overnight guest: one hour for showering, seven hours for sleeping and one hour for dressing = nine hours.

The system is clearly organised from start to finish: full payment is made at check-in, where guests leave their shoes and are given a locker key with the corresponding sleeping pod number. Elevators then shuttle them up to the locker floors where they store their clothes and personal items, shower and change into the provided Nine Hours Kyoto sleepwear.

Signs then guide them to their personal sleeping pods for an ideal seven-hour rest. On rising, they return to the showers to make use of the washing amenities and re-dress in their own clothes. Finally, they return to the front desk to hand in their locker key and check out.

Ultimately, the Nine Hours Kyoto experience, from interiors to products to process, is one of imagined, futuristic sleep experience. Superb in design and highly efficient in function, it strips down the concept of hotel accommodation to its bare minimum, while simultaneously maximising comfort and style. 

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