In addition to the usual youth hostels and business hotels, there are various types of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from noble ryokan inns to strictly functional capsule hotels and completely over-the-top love hotels.
When booking Japanese accommodation, bear in mind that many smaller establishments are reluctant to accept foreigners for fear of language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is institutionalized to some extent: large travel agency databases note the few hotels willing to handle foreigners, and they can tell you that all accommodation is booked when only they are full. Instead of calling in English, it may be better to ask a Japanese acquaintance or the local tourist office to make the booking for you. Alternatively, for cheap internet prices, Rakuten’s English-language search function is a valuable tool. Note that prices are almost always quoted per person, not per room. Otherwise, you could be in for an unpleasant shock when your group of five wants to check out.
When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is required by law to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are traveling in groups, to show the clerk a photocopy of your passport to speed up check-in. Apart from that, keep in mind that cash is mostly the only currency accepted in Japan and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller accommodation, especially in small business hotels. Bring enough cash to pay in advance.
One thing to note in winter: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means they are freezing cold inside in winter. Pack plenty of clothes and take advantage of the bathing facilities to keep warm. Fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and a good night’s sleep is rarely a problem.
Although accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than in other countries. The shared bathrooms will usually be spotless, and theft is very uncommon in Japan. Just don’t expect to be able to sleep in for long: Check-out time is always at 10:00 and any extra time must be paid for.
It can be difficult to find rooms during the busiest holiday periods, such as the “Golden Week” in early May. However, many Japanese hotels and third-party booking sites do not accept online bookings more than 3 to 6 months in advance. So if nothing is available more than 3 months before your trip, either contact the hotel directly or try again later.
Hotels in Japan
While Western-branded hotels can be found all over Japan, it is Japanese brands that set the tone. Some of the Japanese hotel chains are:
- ANA IHG Hotels – a joint venture between All-Nippon Airlines (Japan’s second-largest airline and Star Alliance member) and the Intercontinental Hotel Group, which operates a number of Intercontinentals, Crowne Plazas and Holiday Inns throughout Japan. Some hotels, branded simply as “ANA Hotels”, can be booked through IHG’s reservation system. This is the only Western-branded hotel chain widely available in Japan.
- Okura Hotels & Resorts is a brand of upscale and luxury hotels, with properties in Japan and abroad. They also own the mid-range Hotel Nikko and JAL Hotels chains, which are operated as a joint venture with Japan Airlines, Japan’s flag carrier, and a member of oneworld.
- Rihga Royal
Five-star, full-service hotels can turn pampering into an art form, but tend to look rather bland and generic, despite steep prices starting at ¥20,000 per person (not per room). On the other hand, three- and four-star business hotels (see below) are relatively inexpensive compared to prices in major European or North American cities, and even two-star hotels offer impeccable cleanliness and facilities rarely found in the West at this price.
However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far less expensive hotels:
Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-saving sleeping: for a small fee (usually between ¥3000 and ¥4000), guests rent a capsule, about 2 x 1 x 1m, stacked in two rows in a hall containing dozens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are segregated by gender, and only a few offer accommodation to women.
When entering a capsule hotel, take off your shoes, put them in a locker, and put on a pair of slippers. You often have to hand in your locker key when you check in to make sure you don’t leave without paying! When you check-in, you will be given a second locker to put your belongings in, as there is no room for them in the capsule and security is poor as most capsules only have a curtain and no door. However, be careful if there is a curtain as groping hands can enter it.
Many, if not most, capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying luxury and/or legitimacy, often such that entry to the spa may cost ¥2000, but the capsule only costs an additional ¥1000. In the cheapest capsule hotels, you even have to insert ¥100 coins to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines dispensing toothpaste, underwear, and other things.
Once you retire to your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel to control the lights, alarm clock, and the inevitable built-in TV. If you oversleep, you may be asked to pay for another day.
In Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts, capsule hotels cost at least ¥3500 but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines and coffee in the morning. Despite all this, remember that your capsule “door” is just a curtain to keep the light out. You will probably hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a light snore.
Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in these areas. Many of them are often located near motorway interchanges or main railway stations leading out of the city and into the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separate from the entrance (to avoid running into anyone you might know). Basically, you rent a room for the night (listed on the price list as “Stay” or 宿泊 shukuhaku, usually ¥6000-10,000), for a few hours (“Rest” or 休憩 kyūkei, about ¥3000) or out of hours (“No Time Service”), which are usually weekday afternoons. Watch out for service charges, peak-time surcharges and taxes, which can drive up your bill by 25%. Some accept single guests, but most do not allow same-sex couples or obviously underaged guests.
They are usually clean, safe and very private. Some have exotic themes: Water sports, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a typical customer, you can’t (usually) check in, drop off your luggage and go exploring. Once you leave, that’s it, so they’re not as convenient as real hotels. “Stay” rates also tend not to start until after 10pm, and there can be hefty additional “rest” charges if you overstay. Many rooms have basic food and drink in a fridge, and often the charges are a little high. Before entering a love hotel, it would be advisable to take some food and drinks with you. Rooms often have amenities such as hot tubs, wild themed decorations, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy machines and in some cases video games. Usually all toiletries (including condoms) are included. Sometimes there is a book in the rooms that serves as a logbook where guests record their stories and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels can be completely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Think of the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still living at home, do you really want to bring your partner back to your parents’ house? If you are a married couple living in a 40m² flat with two primary school children, do you really want to start dating at home? So there is the love hotel. They can be shabby, but mainly they are just practical and fulfil a social need.
A word of caution: There is an increase in hidden cameras being placed in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally by the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu (hidden camera) are popular in erotic video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.
They usually cost around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location (often near major train stations) as their main selling point, but the rooms are usually incredibly cramped. In return, you get a (tiny) private bathroom and often free internet. Large chains of cheap business hotels include Tokyu Inn, known for its spacious rooms, Sunroute Hotelsand Toyoko Inn. The latter offer a club card that can pay ¥1500 on a single Sunday night.
Local business hotels further from the major stations can be much cheaper (doubles from ¥5000/night) and can be found in the phone book (which also gives prices), but you need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help you, or better still, pre-book online. For two or more people, the price can often rival youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected at check-in, and check-out times are early (usually 10am) and non-negotiable unless you’re willing to pay extra. At the lowest end of the scale are filthy hotels in the working-class areas of major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that is literally just space to sleep. The walls and futons can also be thin.
Inns in Japan
Ryokan (旅館) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small, traditional-style ones with wooden buildings, long verandas and gardens, and the more modern high-rise ones that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.
As some knowledge of Japanese customs and etiquette is required to visit a ryokan, many are reluctant to take non-Japanese guests (especially those who don’t speak Japanese), but some are specifically geared towards this group; websites such as Japanese Guest Houses list such ryokan and help you book. A night in a ryokan for one person with two meals starts at around ¥8000 and goes into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 per night per person is not uncommon for some of the fancier ones, like the famous Kagaya Wakura Onsen near Kanazawa.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you are expected to arrive by 5pm. When you enter, take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear in the house. After checking in, you will be shown to your room, which is simply but elegantly furnished and covered with tatami mats. Make sure you take off your slippers before entering the tatami. At this point, the staff will ask you about your preferences for when you would like to have dinner and breakfast, as well as your choice of food (e.g. a choice between a Japanese or Western breakfast) and drinks.
Before dinner, you will be asked to take a bath. You will probably want to put on your Yukata bathrobe before the bath. It’s a very simple garment: just put the left lapel over the right when you close it. (The other way, right-over-left, is a faux pas as yukata are only closed this way for burial!) If the yukata provided are not big enough, just ask the maid or reception for tokudai (特大 “oversize”). Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata according to gender: pink shades for women and blue for men, for example.
After you have bathed, dinner is served, either in your own room or in a dining room. Ryokan typically serve kaiseki cuisine, traditional multi-course meals that can consist of 9 to 18 small dishes. Kaiseki is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully selected seasonal ingredients. There is usually one boiled dish and one grilled dish that you prepare separately, as well as obscure dishes that are unfamiliar to most Westerners; be sure to ask if you are not sure how to eat a particular dish. Local ingredients and dishes are also showcased, sometimes replacing the kaiseki experience with oddities like basashi (horse meat) or a meal cooked in an irori oven. Dining in a good ryokan is an essential part of the experience (and the bill) and is an excellent way to sample high-class Japanese cuisine.
After you are done, you are free to go into town. In cities with hot springs, it is perfectly normal to go out dressed only in yukata and geta shoes, although as a foreigner this may attract even more attention than usual. (Tip: wear underwear underneath.) Geta are typically available near the entrances, or on request at reception. These wooden shoes have two supports to lift them off the ground (a necessity in ancient Japan with muddy streets), giving them a distinctive clattering sound. It takes a minute to get used to walking in them, but they are not very different from western flip-flops. Many ryokan have curfew hours, so make sure you’re back on time.
When you return, you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami (a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under that name in the West). Although it is slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very comfortable. The pillows can be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.
Morning breakfast tends to be served communally in a dining room at a set time, although in the more upmarket accommodation it is served back in the room after the maid has put the bedding away. Although a few ryokan offer a choice of Western breakfast, a Japanese breakfast is usually the norm, i.e. rice, miso soup and cold fish. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the popular tamago kake gohan (卵かけご飯 “egg on rice”, a raw egg and spices that you stir into a bowl of hot rice) or the unpopular – even by some Japanese – nattō (納豆 fermented soybeans that you stir vigorously with chopsticks for a minute or two until they become extremely fibrous and sticky, then eat over rice).
High-end ryokan are one of the few places in Japan that accept tips, but the kokorozuke system is the opposite of the usual: about ¥3000 is put in an envelope and given to the maid who takes you to your room at the very beginning of your stay, not at the end. The money is never expected (you get great service anyway), but it serves both as a token of appreciation and as a kind of apology for difficulties caused by special requests (e.g. food allergies) or your inability to speak Japanese.
A final word of warning: some accommodation with the word “ryokan” in the name is not the luxury version at all, but only a minshuku in disguise (see below). The price will tell you what kind of accommodation it is.
Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is similar, but the food is simpler, dining is communal, bathrooms are shared and guests are expected to lay out their own futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently, minshuku prices are lower, at around ¥5000 with two meals (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Even cheaper is a stay without meals (素泊まり sudomari), which can go as low as ¥3000.
Minshuku are more common in the countryside, where virtually every hamlet or island, no matter how small or insignificant, will have one. The hardest part is often finding them, as they rarely advertise or show up in online booking engines, so asking the local tourist office is often the best way to go.
Kokuminshukusha (国民宿舎), a swear word that literally means “lodges of the people”, are government-run guesthouses. They primarily offer subsidised holidays for government employees in scenically remote areas, but are usually happy to accept paying guests. Both facilities and prices are usually more comparable to ryokan than minshuku standards; however, they are almost invariably large and can be quite impersonal. Popular accommodation needs to be booked well in advance for the high season: sometimes almost a year in advance for New Year and the like.
Shukubō (宿坊) are accommodations for pilgrims, usually (but not always) inside a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food is vegetarian and you may have the opportunity to participate in temple activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation classes and lessons. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where this won’t be a problem is the large Mt Koya Buddhist centre near Osaka.
Hostels and camping in Japan
Youth hostels (ユースホステル yūsu hosuteru, often simply called yūsu or abbreviated as “YH”) are another cheap option in Japan. Hostels are found all over the country, so they are popular with budget travellers, especially students. Hostels typically range in price from ¥2,000 to ¥4,000, and can be more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not a member of Hostelling International (HI). In this case, the price for a single night can be over ¥5000. For HI members, a single stay can cost as little as ¥1500, depending on the location and season. As elsewhere, some accommodation is concrete cells run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic areas. There are even a number of temples that run hostels on the side. Do your research before choosing a hostel, the Japan YouthHostel site is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dormitories and some are gender segregated.
Cabs (ライダーハウス raidā hausu) are super-budget dormitories primarily for bikers, both motorised and pedal-powered. Although everyone is welcome, they are usually located deep in the countryside and are difficult or impossible to reach by public transport. Usually run as a hobby, cabs are very cheap (¥300/night is typical, free is not uncommon) but facilities are minimal; you are expected to bring your own sleeping bag and there may not even be a kitchen or bathroom. Long stays are also discouraged and some prohibit stays of more than one night. These are particularly common in Hokkaido, but can be found here and there throughout the country. The authoritative directory is Hatinosu(Japanese only).
Camping is (after Nojuku, see below) the cheapest way to stay in Japan. There is an extensive network of campsites throughout the country; most are, of course, away from the big cities. Transport to them can also be problematic, as few buses go there. Prices vary from small fees (¥500) to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms (¥13,000 or more).
Wild camping is illegal in most parts of Japan, although you can always try to ask permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. In fact, in many larger city parks, there may be a large number of blue plastic sheet “tents” where homeless people live.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo (キャンプ場), while places designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter are usually much more expensive than the former (¥5,000 or so) and should be avoided by hikers unless they also have cheaper accommodation available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.
The National Camping Association of Japan helps maintain Campjo.com, an all-Japanese database of almost all campsites in Japan. The JNTO website has a fairly extensive list (in PDF format) of campsites in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.
For the real budget traveler who wants to get by cheaply in Japan, there is the option of nojuku (野宿). This is Japanese for “sleeping outside“, and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, many young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to the low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a really viable option if you’re traveling in a group or feel safe doing it alone. Common nojuku places are train stations, michi no eki (roadside rest stops) or basically any place that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.
Those worried about shower options will be pleased to learn that Japan is blessed with inexpensive public facilities pretty much everywhere: especially onsen or hot springs. Even if you can’t find an onsen, a sento (public bath) or sauna is an option.
Bear in mind that nojuku is only really feasible in the summer months, although on the northern island of Hokkaido the temperature can drop at night even in summer. On the other hand, there are many more opportunities for nojuku on Okinawa (although there is a lack of public facilities on the smaller islands).
Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travelers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to immerse yourself in the “onsen” culture, meet other Nojuku travelers and, most importantly, travel very cheaply if you combine it with hitchhiking.
Long-term staying in Japan
If you are staying for an extended period, say a month or more, you may be able to drastically reduce your cost of living by staying in a “gaijin house”. These establishments cater specifically to foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared flats at reasonable prices and without the hefty deposits and commissions of flats (often up to 8 months’ rent) that have to be paid before moving in. It’s certainly cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time, they’re also great for socializing and meeting some locals. The downside is that the facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are mostly in Tokyo, but there are a few in every other major city. They can be anything from ugly, cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week to nice family-run private homes, so try to have a look before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest rental agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House and Oak House, while Gaijin House Japan has listings and classifieds for the whole country.
Traditionally, renting a flat in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process that requires you to get a Japanese resident to act as a guarantor (literally – if you trash the place and run away, they’re stuck with the bill) and pay the rent for half a year or more in advance. So it’s basically impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and wants to live and work there for at least a few years.
In recent years, however, weekly villas (short-term flats) have become popular for residents (typically business people on long-term assignments or young singles) and are also open to visitors. Most are 1- or 2-person rooms, although larger ones for 3 or 4 people are sometimes available. The cost of a flat is around ¥5000 for a single room, about ¥6000-7000 for a two-person room per day. Most of these flat rental agencies all offer flats with shower, toilet, and bathroom. They usually have air conditioning, microwave, and cooking facilities. Reservations can be made through an English language website and they have various special offers on their website. WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama, as well as in Osaka. A deposit is required for some of the flats. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any problems. The flats are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the youth hostel range.
Last resorts in Japan
Even in Tokyo, the trains stop running at 01:00. So if you are traveling after that time and don’t want to pay for a taxi or even a capsule hotel, there are a few ways to bridge the hours until the first-morning train. If you need to find one of these quickly, station staff can usually point you in the right direction. Conveniently, many of these establishments are located near train stations and are used to accommodating people who missed the last train home.
Internet and Manga Cafés
In larger cities, especially around the major train stations, you will find internet or manga cafés. Membership costs about ¥300 once. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drinks bar. Prices vary but are usually around ¥400/hour. There is often a special night fare (from about midnight to 05:00 for ¥1,500) for the time when there are no trains. Customers usually have a choice of a cabin equipped with a computer or TV, while others offer amenities such as a massage chair, a mat to sleep on, or even a shower.
It’s not a particularly comfortable option, but it’s perfect for checking the next day’s train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home, and getting some rest. You will often be surrounded by snoring locals who missed the last train home.
This is only an emergency option if you can’t find anything else and are freezing outside. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 05:00 (“free time”) for ¥1,500-2,500. Only works with at least 3 people.
Some onsen or sentos stay open all night. These are usually known as “super” sentos. Usually, there is a “relaxation area” with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc.. Occasionally, however, they are also multi-story bathing and playhouses. For a reasonable fee (in addition to the bathing fee), you are often allowed to spend the night on the tatamis or in a room with large deck chairs.
In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on the side of the road in front of major stations are a common sight. Many of them have just missed the last trains and would rather spend three or four hours waiting for the first train on the tarmac than spend three or four thousand yen on a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath.
While this is definitely the most uncomfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with students (who have no money) and absolutely tolerated by the police and station staff; even drunks sleeping next to their own vomit are not disturbed in their alcohol-induced sleep.
Similarly, you don’t need to sweat when you fall asleep on a local train after a long night of partying. Compared to sleeping outside, train sleeping is more of a gaijin thing. There are no time limits on how long you can stay on a train as long as you have a ticket; many long-term residents have had the pleasure of traveling back and forth on the same train for two or three cycles before waking up and getting off at their original destination with the ticket they bought three hours ago. If the train is not crowded, you can even stretch out on the bench: Remember to take off your shoes, though.
Of course, you have to obey the instructions of the train staff, who tend to gently wake people up at the terminus, especially if the train is not returning. Sometimes it turns out that this station is two hours away from the city.