As soon as you insert your magnetic card in the door and the light goes on inside, capsule 16 looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The light is dazzling white, as are the walls, sheets and pillows, but you can change the color of the lighting around the mirror. I choose green. If you told me Sigourney Weaver was entering the adjacent capsule at that moment, I would not have been surprised.
I close the sliding door, lean back and take a deep breath. Across from me is a TV screen. I press it lightly with my toes. Above me, two fans are humming and in the corner, a fire extinguisher gleams. On the right-hand side there are a lot of buttons.
The overall feeling is pleasant; I’m not affected by claustrophobia. But anyone who has problems with small, closed spaces – in this case, two cubic meters (71 cubic feet) – might be a bit put off by all this.
The ceiling is about 16 inches from my nose, and I begin to think we’re heading back to the Stone Age. A cubbyhole that’s 6.5 by 5 feet in size will give anyone inside it a sensation of being in a cave. Later, I remember Wim Wenders’ 1991 sci-fi movie “Until the End of the World,” which has a long scene in a Japanese hotel capsule.
No, I’m not in Tokyo. Capsule Inn, a capsule hostel, opened two months ago in Jerusalem. The location is excellent: on Jaffa Road, near Zion Square. The entire hostel is actually one large space, divided into two levels containing 18 green, yellow and light-blue capsules made of hard plastic material. They look like big boxes or Lego pieces. There are also four bathrooms, three showers and storage bins on the premises. There is no separation between men and women. The price for one night is 96 shekels ($35) per person, 179 shekels ($66) for a couple, including bed linens and a towel.
The mission I had embarked on was simple: finding accommodations that offer privacy for less than 200 shekels a night, in one of the most expensive and touristy cities in the country: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. A quick search on Booking.com revealed dozens of options, but almost all were dormitories, with between four to 12 other people sharing a room. Prices in such dorms are around 100 shekels a night, but of course, the fewer the beds per room, the higher the price. At some of these places, breakfast is included.
But I was looking for something else: a place where I could sleep behind a closed door, without worrying whether the next guest would turn on the light or hum Finnish folk songs to himself. I like Finnish folk songs, but not after midnight.
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It appears that after years of justified complaints about horrifically inflated hotel prices in Israel, something is changing. The sky-high prices have led to some interesting, economical and creative solutions. The places I visited opened in recent weeks, offering decent and hygienic solutions, cleanliness and a pleasant atmosphere. To get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, however, I needed to take a little walk, but if one considers the value-for-money criterion, these were good deals, even excellent ones, considering the high cost of living and touring in the Promised Land.
A promising business
Jerusalem’s Capsule Inn opened in May. Chaya Indig, the proprietor and manager, explains that it is part of a family business which has other rooms on offer in the city.
“We imported these capsules from China – they were made specially for us,” Indig explains. “Each one cost $2,500. So far, it looks promising. I wish we had the space for more capsules. The problem is always the space, the real estate factor.”
So far the inn’s guests have come from around the globe and there have been very few Israelis, says Indig. Reservations are made through Booking.com, which takes a 15-percent fee; neither that site nor Hostels.com has a Hebrew version. The prices are still introductory prices, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll rise dramatically. Indig says they may rise to between 100 and 200 shekels per capsule.
Pavel and his friends – three men and a woman who work in high-tech and were on a business trip – had arrived the previous night from Gdansk, Poland. They reserved two nights at Capsule Inn since Pavel liked the photos on its website; he convinced his colleagues that it would be an adventure. Actually, the cost wasn’t the main consideration, since their company footed the bill.
During our conversation they make fun of Pavel a bit (“Look where you’ve brought us!”), but they all seem satisfied.
“It’s fun. It’s pleasant here,” says Pavel. “The only problem is the acoustics. You hear everything that goes on in adjacent capsules and in the public space, even with the door closed.”
Did you have pleasant dreams?
“I had a few brief ones, but I won’t tell you about them.”
A telling slogan
In mid-May, the Spot Hostel opened in the Tel Aviv Port area. Spot’s innovative feature is that along with dormitory accommodations, one can rent a private capsule for 164 shekels a night, including a good breakfast (Israelis pay 192 shekels, including V.A.T).
Two weeks after it opened, I reserved a capsule for one night and got room 11B. I slept quite well and even had sweet dreams (which I won’t relate here), but there are some details that bear mentioning.
The cubicles at Spot are different than those in Jerusalem. Instead of plastic walls, the units at this new hostel are enclosed in large metal containers erected in a large hall at the northern end of the port, near the Yarkon River. In a rather complicated manner, these containers were divided into small rooms, or rather, cells.
One can stand upright there, or even sit comfortably on the bed, but the width of the room is 63 inches, and it is only 87 inches long; the sleeping pallet is 27.5 inches wide. Each cubicle contains a lot of things, given its small size. This includes a flat-screen TV, a reading light, six USB ports, six electrical outlets, a yellow stool, a mirror, a tiny garbage can, a Wi-Fi connection and an air conditioner that dispensed freezing-cold air in the middle of the night. The bathroom was reached by going right, then left, then right again.
Two things disturbed my peace. Even though there are no windows, there is a small opening above the door of each unit. Since the corridor is lit up at night with an intensity that does justice to the nearby Reading power station – the cubicle was never completely dark. I like sleeping in the dark. The second problem was the acoustics. The hostel’s guests returned to their rooms at different hours. In the morning, I remembered every one of them. Every door that slammed in the hall woke me up.
Spot’s slogan is “Never go to Sleep” – which took on new meaning for me after being there. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s a great slogan for a place that offers sleeping accommodations, even if it is located in a city that never sleeps.
Spot, which has 300 beds, has designed its public spaces well. There is a large hall with comfortable armchairs, a balcony with a nice garden, and the location is great: near the beach, the port and Yarkon Park. A tourist looking for an excellent location and a nutritious breakfast, who is okay with limited space and privacy (and has earplugs) – all for less than 200 shekels – gets a good deal here.
Living in a movie
Jerusalem’s Cinema Hostel opened eight months ago in an interesting location, the former Orion movie house downtown. It has 210 beds, 160 of which are in dormitory-style rooms. The owners are currently setting up a capsule area as well. According to one of them, Adir Amsalem, the goal is to charge low prices, ranging from 20 to 100 shekels a night in a capsule for one, or 250 shekels for two people. Most guests so far, he says, have been people under 35 from overseas.
“The market is not saturated,” Amsalem says. “It still has some room, but not much, I believe. There are times when we’re not fully occupied. We assume that more hostels will open and that competition will increase. If more tourists don’t come, we’ll be less profitable.”
The cinema concept is apparent in even the smallest details here. Each room is devoted to a movie, and images of movie stars adorn the walls of the entire premises. There is an impressive, spacious public area here, too.
After visiting these three new hostels, I began to wonder whether we are witnessing a new trend. Has the high-price pendulum finally started swinging in the opposite direction? Will Jerusalem and Tel Aviv soon become cheaper destinations?
Efrat Laor, director of Israel Hostels, an association that has 37 members, expects that at least five new hostels will join the organization in the coming year – in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Kiryat Shmona and Eilat.
For her part, Laor confirms that there is indeed a trend toward cheaper tourist accommodations. This is a good time for tourism in the country, especially for independent tourists – who constitute the majority of hostel guests. There are many people that book rooms in these hostels just for the experience, she adds, and the circle of clients is expanding. They no longer include only young backpackers, but families with children, older travellers and so on.
The social atmosphere at these places attracts people, Laor says, not just the cheap prices. Guests want to experience the communal kitchen/dining room and shared public spaces where they can meet new people. Hostels provide the kind of amenities such tourists look for, more than just a place to sleep, Laor notes.
When asked about the capsule phenomenon, she mentions a hostel called Eco Akko, in Acre, which was the pioneer of this type of facility in Israel.
“Israelis were turned off by this in the past, but things are changing now, and capsules have been adapted to local needs. It’s less of a drawer that one sleeps in and more of a cubicle that provides cheap accommodation with privacy,” says Laor. “There is clearly a demand for this.”