There are many places in Tokyo to find some peace and quiet (believe it or not) and for me, that place is decidedly Kaisu Hostel. There’s warm lighting, chill indie music, and a view of an outdoor garden filled with bamboo and Japanese maple. I’m here on the burgundy wrap-around sofa reading Kana Can Be Easy while slightly eavesdropping on the two Brazilians next to me. Sorry, but kana, one of the Japanese alphabets, is anything but easy no matter how much I try to throw myself into this book; their Portuguese is much more comforting.
I opt for a different book from the colorful collection of Time Out Tokyo magazines and Japan travel guides and I go with Tokyo on Foot – a sketchbook I immediately connect with after reading the preface:
In Tokyo, and in Japan in general, the disoriented feeling of being in a foreign land comes from the slightly silly state of awareness that makes us admire a road sign just because it’s different from the ones we’re familiar with, or a fruit label because we can’t understand what’s written on it.
Finally someone who gets it, and can articulate the feeling much better than I ever could. Everything is foreign and therefore both unsettling and exciting – what every traveler looks for in any given trip. Even here at Kaisu Hostel, it’s not “Room 1” or something like “The Sunshine Room” as in other hostels I’ve stayed at. The rooms are named Ro, Ha, Ni, and Ho – characters in the Japanese alphabets along with the corresponding kana symbol. Wait, maybe that book in the lounge did teach me something.
I feel like I’m in Japan. And it’s a Japan I’m in love with, and a Japan that sparks that provoking, curious thought that’ll last well beyond my trip:
Wait, what if I lived in Japan?
Seriously. When I used to think of what Japan was and what it represented, I would look to neutral colors, minimalism, and the right mix between old and new. In America, that place is MUJI, but here in Tokyo, that place is Kaisu.
While of course you have modern luxuries of Japan like high-speed internet and heated toilet seats (the best), you also have Japanese influences like large sliding doors, low futons, wooden floors, exposed beams, tatami mats, etc. For this building, it makes sense, as the owners are trying to maintain a sense of nostalgia for the place it was once: a fancy, low-key Japanese restaurant with performing geisha (a former ryotei). Although the two current owners are not performing geisha, they are pretty cool dudes who speak English perfectly – and that, in Japan, means a lot.
You don’t have to stay in Japan long to realize the Japanese are not as skilled in the English language as some other foreign countries are. From my experience in the local ramen shops, izakaya, and let’s be real, the Lawson Natural convenience store near the hostel, the Japanese speak English just as well as I understand kana. Reminder: I only know Ro, Ha, Ni, Ho.
But then how is it that every employee at this hostel I speak to sounds like a buddy back in America? Because the two owners used to live there. Both from Tokyo, the owners came back to their hometown after their travels, found a former ryotei, and transformed it into a new kind of space – a “ryotel,” as they call it. Oh those Tokyoites – always taking what’s good and making it better.
During my short two-day stay, I met a girl named Camille from Montréal who saw I was taking a picture of all the shoes in the Please take off your shoes area. I quickly blurted out I was writing a blog – my go-to line when doing something totally awkward for the purpose of a future blog post – and we spent the next 15 minutes sharing Tokyo tips and brushing up my French. I recommended Shimokitazawa, a hipster neighborhood; she recommended karaoke, a popular Japanese past-time.
In another instance, I overheard an Australian talking to her friend about her trip to Los Angeles, and then switching topics to Donut Time. Me, coming from Los Angeles, I totally thought she was referring to the Donut Time in Los Angeles, and so I chimed in and said,
“Sorry, but I live right there!”
“You live in Brisbane?”
“Wait, no? The one in Hollywood!”
“Really? Donut Time originated in Brisbane!”
Oh? So I totally interrupted her and I got schooled, but the point is: we shared a tiny moment, and we both learned something. We’re talking about places around the world and experiences we’ve had around the world. That is why people stay in hostels; it’s a community of like-minded people wanting to share, learn, and be with their fellow travelers.
And as for the typical hostel stuff, I can’t tell you much about my bed, but what I can tell you is that I overslept both mornings and nearly missed free breakfast – a major travel foul that would have been. The breakfast consisted of boiled eggs, toast, and coffee and served as the daily respite from my experience of being a broke vegetarian in Tokyo.
Overall, what’s important to note is that what I will remember about Kaisu is what I will remember about Japan:
While kana can’t be easy, finding peace and quiet in a city of over 13 million people can.
Just stay at Kaisu.
6-13-5 Akasaka, Minato-ku