An internet cafe may seem like a relic in today's world of near-universal connectivity, but they are alive and well in Japan where they have a firmly established niche and even double as some of the country's cheapest hotels. On a recent trip to Nagasaki I was only able to find a hotel room to my liking and budget for 2 of the 3 nights I would be down there, and so chose to stay in a Manga/Internet Cafe for the first night. It's certainly not for everyone, but for single travelers especially, a mangakissa (the Japanese term for these places) can be one way to stretch your yen.
Japan's 24-hour internet cafes are ubiquitous in the cities, so they're not difficult to find if you get stranded late at night after the trains stop or simply want to be near a major attraction. I've found a couple of single-location cafes, but most are part of a number of large chains such as DiCE (my personal favorite), Gran Cyber Cafe Bagus, and Manboo! Essentially, they offer hourly rates on cubicles with a computer, seating, and occasionally a TV. A library of manga and a soda fountain drink machine freely available to customers are universal features of manga cafes. Depending on the location, the cafe may offer services such as a shower room or an array of drinks, fast foods, and amenities available for an additional price.
Checking in is rather simple. If there are vacancies you'll be asked how long you'll be staying, whether you prefer the smoking or non-smoking section, and what type of cubicle you want. Although you can simply pay by the hour (a VERY rough general estimate is something in the range of 200-400 yen an hour), the more economical choice is to buy a large block of time at a discount. If you stay longer than your block of time, you'll incur additional charges at a rate of generally something in the range of 100 yen for every additional 10 minutes. Some chains such as Manboo! and Gera-Gera have you pay for your block of time and services up-front, while DiCE simply rolls all your charges into one bill payable upon checking out. You bill will also be affected by what day it is (weekend rates are usually about 10% higher), what cafe you're using (DiCE is a bit more upscale than Manboo! and charges accordingly), and where it is located ( 12 hours in relatively quiet Yokosuka, Kanagawa may cost 2400 yen, but in Shinjuku I was once set back a solid 3500 yen for the same amount of time). The one potential catch is ID requirements. These can vary by prefecture. For example, in Kanagawa Prefecture there are no requirements, you simply pay and that's that, but up in Tokyo Prefecture you'll need to show your passport before being allowed to use the computer. Down in Nagasaki I was even required to sign up for a cafe membership card, although I can't verify if that is required in the prefecture, or simply the policy of the cafe I used.
As mentioned, cubicles are usually distinguished by what kind of seating option they offer. The most common options will be chair, couch, or mat (although I've found the definition of 'couch' to be somewhat flexible from place to place). They do clean the cubicles between occupants, so you can strike that worry from your list, although there was one low-end cafe near Tsukiji Fish Market that made me wonder... In any event, a seat, small desk, and computer will be standard furnishing. Some cafes have cubicles which can be locked from the inside, but I've never found one which can be locked from the outside. So while crime rates in Japan are low and I've never had anything stolen from a cubicle of mine, you may still want to keep highly valuable items on your person or at least out of sight when you go grab a drink or use the bathroom. The size of your cubicle is unlikely to be larger than a few square meters, so if you're travelling with lots of luggage I can't really recommend mangakissa as a sleeping option.
By all accounts, the real business of manga cafes is catering to overnight visitors, and to this end you can find a variety of additional services available to you, albeit usually at an additional cost. The most widespread extra service is a shower room or rooms open to customers. Exact charges and procedures will vary by cafe. For example, DiCE lets all patrons use their fully furnished shower rooms for 15 minutes at no additional cost, with extra charges incurred if you stay longer, while Manboo! gives 30 free minutes of access, but charges for towel and toiletries if you didn't bring your own. It can pay off to wisely pick when you take your shower, as lines can build up early in the morning when many customers are getting ready to leave. Since all the cafes I've ever used allow you to bring your own food and drinks you may want to stock up on your personal favorites before checking in, but should you forget anything many cafes will sell snacks, fast food, and alcohol, in addition to the soda and water fountains that come with your cubicle rental. A handful even sell other supplies ranging from sleeping blindfolds to new underwear and dress shirts. A sleeping blindfold and ear plugs can be good investments if you intend to stay the night. Some cafes may dim the lights during late hours, but not all, and there's no guarantee you won't end up in the cubicle next to someone furiously banging away on their computer in an all-night video game marathon (although loud talking and making phone calls are prohibited, so the noise never becomes deafening either).
- There are occasional news articles about Japan's homeless and working poor sometimes using manga cafes as alternatives to hotels or temporary housing, but having patronized these cafes dozens of times I can assure you that the facilities are safe and I've never been bothered by anyone. You're more likely to encounter salarymen who missed the last train or gamers taking advantage of higher internet speeds than anyone else.
- Some cafes offer two-person cubicles, but those that do have rules against any 'funny business', as if the limited privacy wasn't deterrent enough. If you and your significant other need alone time, this isn't the place.
- If you actually came for the manga in a manga cafe, you'll need Japanese reading skills. So far I've found only one cafe that offered any English manga, and that one was not far from the major US Navy base in Yokosuka.
- You'll need to checkout and pay when you leave the cafe, I've never found any place that let's you come and go during your stay like at a hotel.
- There is no way to make reservations, so it can't hurt to have the locations of multiple cafes if your first choice is sold-out, which is somewhat rare but not unheard-of.
-Lastly, be prepared for the Japanese computer keyboard. OK, there aren't many differences, but if you accidentally hit a key that switches you from Latin letters to hiragana, katakana, or kanji, the key just above the 'ESC' key is usually the one that switches you back. (I had to learn this little fact the hard way)
[All pictures were taken at Gera-Gera Internet & Comic Cafe, in Ebina, Kanagawa]