Double-decker

The Capsule Hotel Fontaine Akasaka in the western part of Tokyo. (Beverly Beyette / LAT)

I woke with a start about 5 a.m., my elbow knocking against a plastic wall as I turned over. Why, I wondered, was I sleeping in an MRI machine?

I wasn't. I was in Capsule 2052, a lower, at Capsule Hotel Fontaine Akasaka in the western part of Tokyo. I had checked in the night before, eager — or at least determined — to have this uniquely Japanese experience.

I was sweltering. My capsule had TV (Japanese only) and radio but no fan. Sitting up, careful not to bump my head, I scrunched down to the foot, raised the little blind and peered down a long row of double-decker capsules. I had to smile.

The night before, I'd been swathed in luxury — Egyptian cotton sheets, king-size bed with feather duvet — at the impeccable Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel in the tony West Shinjuku district. There, staff had greeted me with bows and smiles, just as they had an equally jet-lagged Bill Murray in last year's hit film "Lost in Translation." That luxury had a price: about $400 a night.

The capsule hotel? About $42. It wasn't great, but it was clean — from the raspberry-sherbet-colored carpet in the tiny lobby to the sheets on my thin, hard mattress. No pampering — just instructions to leave my shoes in a lobby locker and buy a ticket from a machine for "one overnighting." I sport no tattoos, so the sign banning them was not a concern.

What a difference 24 hours makes. But the incongruity was an apt metaphor for Tokyo itself, a city whose contradictions fascinated and amazed me on this, my first visit, in early September.

Consider that:

•  Shopping is the national pastime, yet many of the 12 million residents of Tokyo live in tiny spaces.

•  It's considered bad manners to eat on a public street, yet no one blinked as a young woman on a subway train struggled to apply false eyelashes as we hurtled along.

•  A Shinto shrine called Yasukuni — "peaceful country" — sits beside a museum exhibiting World War II Zero fighter planes and extolling Japanese kamikaze pilots as "incomparable in their tragic bravery."

The 2.5 million who have died in Japan's wars and are honored at the shrine include Hideki Tojo, the World War II prime minister who was hanged in 1948 as a war criminal.

I arrived at Narita airport in late afternoon after a 10 1/2 flight. Knowing that cabs into the city can cost $150 or more, I took the advice of a Japanese friend and chose the airport limousine (a bus), which serves major hotels, picks up at the arrival terminal and costs $27. Unlike the train, there's no hauling of baggage up and down flights of stairs.

It was nearly 90 degrees and humid, partly attributable to a typhoon in the south of Japan. We rolled along — on the left side of the street, as in England — until hitting a standstill in rush-hour traffic on a bridge over the Sumida River, which bisects Tokyo. It was an introduction to the city's daunting density.



Luxury on the 48th floor

Two hours after leaving the airport, we reached the Park Hyatt Tokyo, which occupies the top 14 floors of the sleek glass and granite Shinjuku Park Tower.

A smiling young woman about half my size hoisted my bags onto a cart and led me to an elevator that whisked us to the 41st-floor reception lobby, where a clerk bowed, greeted me by name and led me to a chair at one of four little tables, each with a vase containing two white lilies. There, the business of business was done quietly.

When I opened the automatic blind in my 48th-floor room, all of Tokyo lay at my feet, a nighttime canvas of glittering neon with blazing brushstrokes defining headlights on roads and highways. I was mesmerized.

Exploring my spacious room, I found coffee and tea, coffeemaker and teapot and a carafe of hot water. Books on the shelf included a Japanese-English dictionary. The marble bath was sumptuous, with a TV and heated toilet seat.

I sank into an easy chair and scanned the spa menu for the 45th-floor Club on the Park. Although the anti-aging facial and jet-lag renewal treatment sounded divine, I knew that at 59,000 yen, or $545, it wouldn't fly on my expense account. It was late, and I settled on a drink in the Peak Bar, where a full moon floated outside walls of glass, and then a hamburger in the hotel's Girandole brasserie. It was a $17 burger, but it did come with a finger bowl.