For most travellers, accommodation is usually the largest expense on any vacation, even more than the plane ticket itself. Japan is no exception, with some hotels running into the thousands of dollars a night catering to the luxury traveller, but ryokans, business hotels, and AirBnBs have opened the country to travellers of all means and desires.
Although hotels still dominate the tourist accommodation market in Japan, there are many other options available to suit different price points, desires, as well as immediate needs which one may have during their vacation.
Major chain hotels such as the Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Westin, etc. will cost at least 15,000¥ a night, with many of them exceeding 25,500¥ a night and topping out around 150,000¥ a night. These hotels will be the most comfortable as they will have staff which will speak some level of English, laundry service, gyms, pools, and all the amenities most luxury travellers demand. They are also located in the central part of the cities, and their concierge services can help point you to events, landmarks, and restaurants if you are having trouble navigating the city.
A more spartan choice is the Japanese “business hotels”. These no-frills hotels were initially meant for the travelling Japanese business man, and are significantly cheaper, often in the range or ¥7000 to ¥15,000 a night. Many of these hotels now cater to tourists but do not provide the same level of tourist support as their fancier counterparts.
The staff at business hotels will likely have limited knowledge of English but will usually have written instructions in English to help with settling into the room. The rooms will be quite a bit smaller than what we’re used to in North America, and will consist only of a bed, a small ledge for a laptop and belongings, and a small multi-use private bathroom. The quality varies greatly in most of these hotels. Some of the larger business hotel chains are the APA, the Washington, and the Sunroute hotels. Many are independent and will be listed on booking on most hotel and travel sites.
The infamous Japanese capsule hotel is something I get asked about in almost every conversation about Japan travel. They may also be referred to as a “Spa hotel” a “pod hotel”. Traditionally, these capsule hotels are full of drunk old salarymen who have missed last train and need a place to stay for the night. Many of the older capsule hotels have common bath and toilet areas, and a thin locker to store luggage and belongings. They are hot, noisy, and are rarely comfortable, and many capsule hotels are for men only and will not take people with tattoos. These hotels will cost between ¥4000 to ¥7000 a night.
In the last number of years, some capsule hotels have been built to cater to foreigners. These are slightly more stylish and comfortable; I still do not recommend these other than for a night of giggles or to sleep off a hangover.
Ryokan, Onesen, and Getting Naked
Ryokans are traditional style Japanese inns and operate much like a bed and breakfast or a resort would in North America. They are more common in the country and in areas with lot of hot springs. Most of the rooms in a Ryokan are often traditional style tatami rooms with futons on the floor instead of western style beds. Higher end ryokan in resort areas and rooms may have beds, and sometimes even a private hot spring bath overlooking a view. Older style ryokan generally have shared bathrooms, but newer ones may have private bathrooms. There may also be a general use area with ping pong tables, games, TVs or other communal activities.
The main reason many people go to a ryokan is that many of them have hot springs (onsen) or at least a public bath, attached to them. Most of the onsen will require you to be completely naked, the occasional onsen will allow bathing suits, and there are the ultra rare onsen which will allow mixed sex bathing.
Etiquette at these hot springs is to remove your clothes in the change room; there will be baskets for you to keep your stuff in. If you are provided with a large towel, leave the large towel with your stuff, as it is used to dry yourself off. If you are given a small towel, you can bring that with you. If you have long hair it is a good idea to put it up into a bun or ponytail.
Head to the shower and wash yourself before you enter the onsen. Look for the row of shower heads and take a seat on one of the stools. It is rude to shower standing up as you might splash others. Soap and shampoo are usually provided. Wash your hair and body thoroughly and rinse yourself off completely. You don’t want to get any soap in the onsen. You can fill the provided bucket with water and pour it over yourself to help rinse yourself off. The small towel can be used to help wash yourself here.
Once you are clean, you can go slip into the onsen. It will be more than likely very hot, so just ease into it. Repeatedly hopping in and out of the onsen, and sitting on the edge, especially if it’s a cold day out is very relaxing. Many people spend hours just soaking as it is very relaxing, and the locals will tell you that all the minerals in the water are good for your skin. Don’t splash about a lot or submerge yourself into the water. If you have brought that small town with you, keep it out of the water. You’ll see most people wet it and then put it on their head so you can follow suit.
Breakfast at Ryokans may be included with the price of your room. These meals will be simple traditional Japanese meals of rice, pickles, fish, and soup, but some may offer western style breakfasts. Many ryokan will have some level of English proficiency as they do cater a lot to foreigners. I highly recommend that foreign visitors try stay at a ryokan outside of the city. It is a unique experience which you will only find in Japan.
AirBnB is my preferred way to stay in Japan as it provides me with a more flexible experience. I can cook if I don’t want to eat out, I can keep a stock of drink and food, I can do laundry, I have a space all to myself I can use if I can want to stay in for the day or host a small party with my friends if I want.
Since AirBnB operators usually cater to foreign tourists, most places will have beds, but a good number will still be traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements which are futons (padded mats) and bed on the floor. Larger houses will probably have both as the living room will often be converted into a sleeping area.
A good indication of the condition of the house is the bathroom. A recently renovated bathroom will indicate the house is probably modern and for western tastes. Most places will still have a Japanese style bath tub. Bath etiquette is as above for entering onsen, so you can follow the same procedure.
AirBnB has taken a bit of turn in June of 2018, as the government passed a new law limiting the amount of time a personal residence can be rented out and has created new licensing requirements on AirBnB operators. Consequentially, the number of AirBnBs available has dropped significantly and the average price has increased quite a bit.
Splitting the cost of an entire house is very practical if you’re travelling with groups of 3 or larger. I’ve often been able to rent out apartments and even houses for less than $80 a day while travelling in 3-5 person groups.
If you are staying with Japanese friends, a homestay family, or another local, it is proper protocol to bring them a gift from home as an expression of gratitude for letting you impose upon them. Try to pick something unique to the country you are from, alcohol and/or food is usually received very well.
I don’t cover hostels in this guide as I’ve always been able to find business hotels for the same or slightly more than a cost of a hostel, and thus have never stayed at one in Japan before. I do hear that some of the are quite nice, and if you’re young and travelling alone, a hostel is a great way to meet travel companions if that is one of your goals.
If you desperately need a place to stay for the night, a gaming bar, a manga kisu (manga café), or a karaoke booth are good choices to crash in for a few hours. These places usually have small cubes with benches or chairs and have basic snack and drink selections either for small fees or included with your hourly fee. It is usually about ¥800 to ¥1400 per hour and will be open 24h a day. Many people do use these places as makeshift hotels if they don’t want to or can’t go home.
The last type of hotels you may encounter are “love hotels”. These are usually hotels which cost about ¥2000 per hour, or about ¥8000 for a night stay. These hotels are made for couples to have some privacy as many still live at home, or for affairs (which are surprisingly common), couples who are out past last train, or one-night stands. Some may have private separate entrances and exits, and automated check in for maximum privacy. You can even order theme rooms, many of them with costumes, props, and decorations. If you want to get kinky with your significant other, checking out one of these places isn’t a bad way to spend a night.
If you do want to stay a night in a love hotel, please note that it may be difficult to check in if you don’t speak Japanese as they will generally not speak any English. Also note that many love hotels will not be LBGTQ friendly as Asia is still an outwardly conservative part of the world.
Selecting a Base of Operations
Location should be the second major criteria for selecting accommodation. A place as close to a major train station and/or train line, preferably within a 5-10-minute walk is the most convenient choice for travellers as it will allow for easy and speedy access to wherever you’re going. I also tend to choose a location as close to the main train or shinkansen station as I want to minimize the distance I drag my full compliment of luggage.
Choosing a hotel close to the places you will be spending a lot of your time is also critical. When I stay in Tokyo, I spend most of my time eating and drinking in the Shinjuku/Shibuya area so I pick a place one or two stations away.
I will also consider the use of the JR Rail Pass when choosing a location. I will avoid hotels only accessible by private rails lines such as the Tokyo metro, Hanshin line, and others as I want to get the most value out of the rail pass as possible.
Living out of your Room
Checking in and out of hotels are generally the same procedure as in North America. You will be provided with a form to fill out, many have English as well so you will be fine. They will also want to see and take a copy of your passport. The hotel may want to pre-authorize your credit card in case you use the bar snacks or damage the room.
Check out is usually between 10 to 11 AM on your day of departure. All you need to do is drop they keys by the front desk. They will usually complete the paperwork, charge the required amounts/fees, and provide you with the receipt.
Most hotels will be near a convenience store, so you can always venture out to get any snacks and drinks you may want. There is usually a mini fridge in the room as well to help keep your drinks and food cold. I tend to fill the fridge, so I can wake up and have some breakfast while I get cleaned up and ready for the day’s activities.
The one thing all visitors will have trouble with is the heating/cooling unit in every room or Japanese house. Unless you’re in Hokkaido, most Japanese households will not have central heating, and very few will have insulation. I’ve had more than one instance where I’ve woken up in the middle of the night during winter with the dire need to take a pee and had a serious point-by-point debate with myself on how badly I needed the pee versus how much I wanted to deal with the cold bathroom.
The heating units are usually mounted on the wall and controlled with a remote. They’re almost never annotated in English, and it is rare that there is a reference card to help you know what button to press. Luckily, in 90% of situations, it is usually enough to hit the green button once and set the temperate to 22 degrees Celsius; the machine will take care of it. Remember to turn the machine off when you’re headed out to save energy.
If you’re sensitive to dust or find yourself developing allergies when the unit it working, you can open the top of the unit to clean the dust filters. I’ve run into a few situations where they’ve forgotten to clean the dust filters and my nose tends to get a bit stuff while staying in the house/room.
As most people will be moving between cities, a mix of accommodations will help keep things in budget and provide a bit of insight on travelling like a local within Japan. No matter which option one chooses, most accommodations in Japan are clean and safe so travellers can come and go without worry.
If you have questions or things you want to know about Japan, please feel free to comment or contact me via the Contact page.