Manga cafe, net cafe, manki, whatever you want to call them, people all over the net have been recommending Japan’s amazing internet cafes as an alternative to the country’s notoriously expensive hotels and boring ol’ capsule hotels. A quick search for cheap accommodation in Japan pops up more than a few traveller’s tips on crashing in a net cafe. But what is it really like?
What once began as simple reading rooms for manga and a place to print your email has over the years bounded wildly into new territory, and Japan’s modern internet cafes are now renowned for offering services ranging from all-you-can-drink soft drinks to karaoke rooms, tanning beds, and shower facilities. For foreign tourists they are undoubtedly an integral part of “Quirky Japan” as much as love hotels or maid cafes, and even the Japanese media has clocked on to the fact that they’ve become quite a tourist attraction despite the fact that they’re a rather banal part of the landscape for locals.
But perhaps even for the resident (or former resident) gaijin, there is something interesting about these internet cafes, which have become such a highly-developed institution that the down-and-out use them as an escape from homelessness. Both phenomenon are certainly something unique to Japan, and to experience a net cafe is to understand a little more about the function and dysfunction of the country. Right?
I lived in Japan for six solid years and never spent the night in a manga kisaten. But after reading so many travel blogs and hearing stories from salaryman friends, I thought it was an experience we just had to try.
So on our last night in Osaka, we hit up one of the many Media Cafe Popeyes in the Nanba area. As one of the biggest chains in the nation, I figured we couldn’t go wrong. And since we were flying out the next day, I also (mistakenly) figured that, even if we didn’t have the most refreshing sleep, we could just snooze on the plane to LA.
It was Saturday night, and the Popeye reception was crowded with mostly single d00ds who had presumably bunked the last train. While the open seats and reclining booths still had some space, the flat single booths were already full. Thankfully, since there was two of us, we gained access to one of the few remaining flat couples booths.
I filled out a form to get a membership card and we received two receipts with the time we entered and our booth number. We ascended to the next floor, which quiet except for the soft humming of computers and the click-clack of keyboards and mice. Our booth was at the very corner of the room, which thankfully gave us some space to squirrel away our big backpacks. It’s here where we spent the next 10 hours, sipping free houjicha lattes and trying to get some rest.
And it was a big failure. The flat mattress was endlessly uncomfortable, the lights were too bright, and people kept chatting throughout the night. It was, after all, not really a place for sleeping. After hearing our neighbour’s alarm go off three times, we groggily got up at around 8am and went to go score our free showers. Reception said there was a two hour wait, and our check-out was at 10am. Bummer.
Feeling very unrested and slightly dirty, we emerged from Popeye into a grim and drizzly Sunday morning that dragged our moods right down into the Dotonbori gutters. (Thankfully we rectified the situation with all-you-can-eat yakiniku for lunch) The night was pretty much a wash, though we later tried to reason it away:
Maybe all the hotels would have been full;
It was a cultural experience;
It’s better than sleeping on the street??!
From what I can see, there are three huge cons to staying in these much-hyped entertainment palaces, especially for two travellers:
1. They are not necessarily cheap
Prices of an eight- or ten-hour “night pack” differ depending on the day of the week and the region of the country, and can cost anywhere between ¥2000 yen on a Tuesday in Shibuya to ¥3800 on a Saturday in Shinsaibashi. And there’s no discount for couples. For a single traveller, it could possibly make sense to pay ¥3800 for 10 hours in a flat seat at an Osaka manga cafe. This is essentially the same price as a bed in a hostel dormitory or a capsule hotel, with the added bonus (I guess) of free soft drinks and entertainment. For couples the price doubles, however, and for upwards of ¥6000 or ¥8000 you can easily score a much nicer room in a budget hotel or a love hotel.
Sure, it’s a bit more expensive, but you’ll begin to think spending a little extra would have been worth it when you realise that….
2. They aren’t very comfortable
What is a flat seat at a manga cafe? It’s a large vinyl cushion, similar to the pads you may have used in your high school gym class, enclosed in a small cubicle with a flimsy door and no roof. There are pillows and blankets available, but the general feeling is that you’re snoozing in an office full of dozens of other people. The the lights are dim but on all night, and you’re privy to every cough, sniffle, and suspicious rustling sound made by your neighbours. It’s not for light sleepers.
But while the single seats are generally quiet, the couples seats are a different story. They’re often used by two coworkers or acquaintances who have paired up just to be able to have a comfortable place to spend the night. They’ve usually had a few drinks and are happy to spend their hours smoking and chit chatting about their ex boyfriend’s Oedipus complex or their favourite sandwiches at Starbucks. I guess this is fine if you bring earplugs or don’t understand Japanese, but being forced to listen to such inane conversation at 3am isn’t exactly ideal after paying so much money.
3. Almost all of the entertainment is in Japanese
Mook was excited about the prospect of being able to play online games and watch a shitton of anime. But, as one would expect at a Japanese manga cafe in Japan, all the games were available only in Japanese, as was the Windows OS on the cafe’s computer. Needless to say, there were no English subtitles for any of the plentiful on-demand anime series, and of course all the paper manga and magazines are in the local language too. It’s possible to surf the web and queue up some Hollywood movies (and there is wifi if you have your own laptop), but ultimately the big selling point of a manga cafe is lost on non-Japanese speakers.
At the end of the day (or night, rather), the reality was that we had paid nearly ¥8,000 yen for a rather sleepless night in a room full of other people, and didn’t even get a chance to shower. With a little forward planning we could have landed a normal hotel room for that price, or we could have easily gone the more “Quirky Japan” route and slept in a (mediocre but at least private) love hotel or a capsule hotel.
For solo travellers or those who actually understand Japanese, a manga cafe might make sense as a “Plan B” accommodation if everything else is full or if the trains have stopped running. But travelling couples can definitely get better deals (as well as better sleep and, arguably, better fun) at hotels, and unless they’re desperate to use the internet, solo adventurers may still get better bang for their buck elsewhere. Internet cafes may be interesting to check out for a little while, but an overnighter was definitely one Japan experience that we could have skipped.