Two things make every potential Japanese tourist curious: capsule hotels and hot springs. They’re as terrifying as they are intriguing, crossing the lines of Western taboo more the lines of safety and yet many people are too afraid to try them. Put these intriguing things together and what have you got?: Spa Safro in Sapporo.
Access: One of the reasons I picked Spa Safro was the transportation options: three blocks from the Higashi Honganjimae tram stop and six blocks from the Susukino train station, itself only two stops from Sapporo Station.
Neighborhood: Safro is in the middle of the downtown area—the red light district to be exact—so there are tons of restaurants, bars, and shopping options nearby, as well as some strip clubs and the hype men that go with them. You should be careful if you want to visit a strip club, as many in this area have yakuza connections, but if you’re not looking for trouble, you’re not going to find it. I felt just as comfortable being alone in Susukino as I do anywhere else in Japan. The one hype man that approached Shannon didn’t push after a no.
Checking in: Only those 18 and over may check in or use any of the services, and you’ll need Japanese. Although you can often get by at a Western-style hotel with nothing but English, the rules in capsule hotels take more explanation, due in no small part to the fact that they’re sex segregated. We were given maps and directions around the facilities, and directions to our respective staircases and elevators. We were also given a menu of services (since the hotel doubles as a spa) and rules for using the capsules.
Staff: Friendly and helpful, but with basically no English. The staff member I worked with in particular was very patient with my not knowing many of the words associated with spas and capsules, and took her time making sure we understood everything. Although she stopped short of getting us escorts up to the appropriate floors, I felt basically prepared by the time we got our keys and went up to our rooms. That said, the layout feels labyrinthine once you’re actually inside, and the small map I got was less helpful than I’d hoped. I wound up asking for help from other patrons, as did Jason and Shannon (who felt even less prepared, given that neither has any appreciable Japanese).
Security: Good. There’s a separate women-only entrance to protect female patrons from unwanted attention, though women can also use the main entrance if they feel comfortable. Both entrances are well-lit and staffed 24/7. No elevators connect the male and female floors; the closest you get is the elevators that go down to the main floor and fire escape staircase with keyed entrance to the various floors. Even from the elevator, you need a key to get into the sleeping and bathing floors, though not to get into the actual sleeping room. The capsules themselves don’t have any doors; instead, there’s a curtain on the side that you pull to give yourself privacy and show that your capsule is occupied. Because there’s no room in the capsule to keep your things, you’re assigned a locker with an in-door lock.
Size: It’s a capsule. It’s small… but not as small as I expected. The size was similar to a Japanese single-sized bed: 33”x77” (85 cm x 195 cm), with just enough space for me to sit up. (Full disclosure, I’m 5’6”.) I’d expected that it would be slightly claustrophobic, but instead I felt like there was plenty of space; it was a little like having a secret hiding place.
Comfort: Not bad. The bed was a bit harder than I would have liked, but the buckwheat-fill pillow provided good support and the blanket was warm. The capsule also had a radio, TV, outlets, and alarm clock. Although you’d expect there to be quite a lot of noise, there’s no talking allowed in the sleeping room, and other than a few bumps on the capsule’s fiberglass shell, I didn’t hear anything. Even a light sleeper should have an easy time as long as they bring ear plugs.
Amenities: The big amenity in Spa Safro is the spa services. There’s a huge public bathing area fed by spring water with one large hot bath, a cold immersion pool, a fully private outdoor hot bath and separate Jacuzzi tub, individual indoor Jacuzzi tubs, a wet sauna, a dry sauna, and a stone sauna. There are also reflexology services, various beauty services, and more kinds of massage than you can shake a stick at. However, Safro isn’t just a spa, and there are plenty of general relaxation services. There’s a nap room, recliners with personal TVs and free manga, and a restaurant serving both Japanese and Western fare.
Price: The price has gone up since I stayed, but it’s still extremely reasonable given all the amenities: for ladies, a capsule with all the amenities is 4350 yen Sunday through Thursday and 4850 Friday, Saturday, and holidays. Seniors get a flat rate of 2900 yen. For men, it’s 4050, 4550, and 2600.
If sleeping in a capsule isn’t your thing, you can also access the full complement of services for 2900 yen. (Note that the baths are closed for cleaning 5am-6am, and massages are charged separately in 20 minute increments.) If you’re more a night owl, you can access the amenities for 1080 yen from midnight to 5am.
TL;DR: Spa Safro was one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed, bar none, probably because I’m such a huge sucker for a good public bath. Besides sleeping in a capsule, which is a fun and unique experience in its own right, the number and quality of the amenities is staggering, especially given the price. It’s a huge shame that this hotel isn’t more accessible to non-Japanese speakers, because I can’t give it a high enough recommendation.