Accommodation

Accommodation in Japan is almost always of a high standard. Japan by Rail gives details of both Japanese and Western options as well as places for all budget levels.

It’s wise, though not essential, to book your first couple of nights’ accommodation before you arrive in Japan. However, if you are planning to visit places such as Kyoto in March/April (cherry blossom time) or October/November (autumn leaves) it is worth booking well in advance. Whenever you book it’s best to do so either through the relevant hotel/ryokan website or by email, clearly stating dates and room requests. Telephoning may be complicated and anyhow hoteliers much prefer to have your requirements in writing; places that don’t have email may prefer to receive a fax. Another option is to use an online booking agency (see box p69 in Japan by Rail). Always make sure you receive written confirmation and take that with you to show at check-in.

The city guides and, where relevant, route guides feature places to stay and contact details. Alternatively, see box p70 in Japan by Rail for details of the main hotel chains in Japan.

If you do turn up without a place to stay most tourist information centres have an accommodation list and some can make same-day reservations. Staff will also be able to tell you where the closest JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) office is as they can make reservations for the whole of Japan. If you book online through an agency payment may be taken immediately through your credit card, but if you book direct you probably won’t have to pay till you check-in – or leave. In general accommodation places in Japan still prefer payment in cash, though most upmarket places accept credit cards.

Check-in usually starts from 4pm and check-out is by 11am (10am in many business hotels); most places let you leave your luggage with them for free if you arrive or leave outside those times, so you don’t always have to fork out for a locker. Most ryokan and minshuku prefer, or even insist, that you reserve ahead, especially if you want meals.

Accessible Japan has useful information on places which offer specially adapted rooms for the disabled and also on sightseeing with a disability.

 

Hostels and temple lodgings

The cheapest places, particularly if you are on your own, tend to be hostels. The majority of hostels belong to Japan Youth Hostels, which is part of Hostelling International/YHA.

Expect to pay from ¥3000 per person (pp); non-members may have to pay about ¥600 extra per night so bring your card if you are a member. A few hostels accept members only but you should be able to join (¥1500) on the spot.

Hostels are great if you want to meet other travellers as many organise a programme of events, evening sing-songs and the like. However, JYH hostels in particular get booked up with young Japanese during Golden Week and in the summer. Also, if there are two or more of you it may be as cheap to stay in a business hotel by the time you have factored in the almost inevitable cost of getting a bus to and from the hostel (most are not centrally located). Having said that, some of the hostels in rural areas are very atmospheric.

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All hostels provide dormitory accommodation; some also offer private rooms (ideal for families travelling together). Most provide breakfast (from ¥600) and an evening meal (about ¥1200); many have communal kitchen facilities. It’s wise to make a booking since managers may not appreciate it if you turn up unannounced.

There are now several backpacker hostel chains with branches in the main tourist cities – these are often more centrally located than JYH hostels. Expect to pay about ¥3500pp for a bed in a dorm, ¥5500-6500pp inc half board. Chains include: J-hoppers (j-hoppers.com) and K’s House (www.kshouse.jp). In Hokkaido it is worth checking out the Toho Network.

A few JYH hostels, such as those in Takayama and Nagano, are attached to, or in, temples. At these it may be possible (if you ask) to join early morning prayers or participate in a session of Zen meditation with resident monks. Certain temples which are not hostels also accept paying guests, offering an excellent insight into Japanese culture and a chance to eat shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine that originated in Zen temples). Koya-san (see pp156-8 in Japan by Rail) has many options, but also consider Yoshino-yama (see p156) and Dewa Sanzan (see pp350-1).

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Minshuku and pensions

Minshuku supper

Supper at a minshuku – a range of dishes is always served. (© Japan by Rail)

Minshuku are small, family-run inns where the rate usually includes half board (an evening meal and breakfast); expect to pay ¥7000-9000pp, with a reduction for children. Rates are often available for room only, or for bed & breakfast. Urban minshuku are usually fine but are often less personal and characterful than rural ones, which might be in old farmhouses so offer a great experience of being in a traditional Japanese home. Rooms are Japanese style (futons on tatami-mat flooring). There are no en suite facilities and you may not be provided with a towel, or yukata (sleeping garment), though you can probably rent one. Most have a TV in the room and many now offer internet access/wi-fi.

Meals are eaten at set times (usually 6 or 6.30pm for supper and about 7.30am for breakfast), occasionally with the family. Invariably the food is Japanese, so be prepared for (raw) egg, fish and miso soup at breakfast! However, many minshuku in touristy areas also offer a Western breakfast.

Pensions are the Western-style equivalent of minshuku and are popular with Japanese. Like minshuku, they are usually small, family-run affairs but they offer beds rather than futons. Rates also start from around ¥7000pp including (a Western) breakfast, but not an evening meal.

 

Ryokan

Futons

Futons laid out at Sumeikan, Gero-onsen (© Japan by Rail)

Ryokan offer the most traditional Japanese accommodation and you really should plan to stay at least one night in one. They are more upmarket and have better amenities than minshuku. Rooms are more spacious than those in business hotels and may include shoji (sliding paper-screen doors) and a tokonoma (alcove) or two containing a Japanese fan, vase or scroll.

In luxury ryokan particularly, where per-person (pp) rates start from around ¥20,000, every guest is a VIP. From the moment you arrive you’re waited on by your own kimono-clad maid, who will pour tea as you settle in, serve you meals (usually in your room) and lay out your futon. You may also have en suite facilities and your own Japanese-style bath. But you don’t have to stay in a luxury property to enjoy first-class service. Standard ryokan charge around ¥9500-12,500pp including half board (breakfast and an evening meal). However, note that if you are travelling on your own it may be hard to book a room, especially for a Saturday night, without paying a higher per person rate, or even the rate for two people.

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Most ryokan have a garden and some have their own onsen (hot spring), which may or may not include a rotemburo (outdoor hot-spring bath), the perfect place to unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing. Ryokan may not have wired internet access in the rooms as the idea is you are there to relax. However, increasingly wi-fi will be available though you may have to go to the reception area for this. See Hot springs for details of some ryokan with onsen that we recommend.

Meals are nearly always Japanese and the dishes are prepared so that they are as much a visual treat as a gastronomic one and often feature local produce/specialities. A typical meal might include some tempura, sashimi/sushi, grilled fish, a meat dish, vegetable dishes and pickles, and will always include miso soup and rice; dessert is likely to be slices of fresh fruit. All this can be washed down with beer or sake (for which there will be an additional charge) and/or Japanese tea. Some ryokan offer a choice of Japanese- or Western-style breakfast, the latter is now often a buffet meal.

 

Hotels

Often conveniently located near railway stations (if a hotel’s name includes ‘ekimae’ it may literally be opposite, or less than a 10-minute walk from, the station), business hotels have plenty of single rooms in addition to twins and doubles, and occasionally triples/quads. They should not be confused with Japan’s infamous capsule hotels, since you get a proper room.

Most rooms are Western style, en suite, and are clean and tidy, but, as they cater for business travellers, they rarely have much space to move about in or hang your clothes. A yukata, TV, internet access/wi-fi and coffee-/tea-making facilities are almost always provided. The (compact) toilet/bath units generally include towels, toiletries and a hairdryer; shaver sockets are less common.

Facilities in the hotel usually include vending machines (soft drinks, beer, sake, and perhaps pot noodle and ice-cream), laundry facilities and a couple of computers with internet access. Guests may also be able to use a microwave oven and trouser press. Some of the newer ones offer a no-smoking floor and a few have a ladies-only floor or rooms specifically for women. The newest even boast automatic check-in where you feed your money into a slot and receive an electronic key card in return.

Rack rates vary from ¥5000 for the most basic singles up to ¥8000 for a room with slightly more breathing space. Expect to pay ¥8000-13,000 for a twin or double room. Online rates are often less than rack rates and since many business hotels accept online bookings and have websites in English it is worth booking in advance. Most also offer rates including breakfast; in general this is a buffet-style meal, though the quality and range of options varies.

There are also both Japanese and Western chains offering upmarket accommodation. In many cases breakfast is available and it can be included in the rate, though isn’t always.

Other Japanese hotel chains include the JR Hotel group. Anyone with a Japan Rail Pass will receive a list of JR-run hotels. Pass holders get a small discount (usually around 10% off the rack rate). The hotels are all Western style and range from standard business to top-class luxury hotels. Rooms always have a good range of amenities and include wired (LAN) internet access; most hotels also have at least one restaurant. JR hotels are particularly convenient since they’re nearly always right outside the station (or in some cases, above it). See the city guides in Japan by Rail for individual hotel details or check the JR Hotel group website .

The best way to find out about independently owned hotels is through an accommodation agency (see box 69 in Japan by Rail).

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Other accommodation options

Renting an apartment/house is a brilliant way to get an idea what living in Japan would really be like. Japan Experience  has over 50 properties (in Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Fukuoka); each sleeps up to four people (¥7500-44,300 per night). All have standard Japanese cooking facilities. A major benefit is their Travel Angel service; you will be met at the property by an ‘angel’ and they will help you settle in to your accommodation and will be happy to answer queries throughout your stay. If booked in advance many can also act as a tour guide.

Airbnb has become very popular in Japan but, as in many other parts of the world, the hotel industry is unhappy about the loss of custom; also here some residents have complained as they feel their local areas are becoming overwhelmed with foreigners. This means it is possible legislation will be introduced banning stays for less than a week. Tomareru (stayjapan.com) is a Japanese equivalent to Airbnb.

If all else fails and you’re stuck for accommodation in a city, find out the location of the nearest capsule hotel (¥3000-4000pp), good for a one-off novelty but not recommended for claustrophobics and the majority are for men only. However, in places such as Kyoto and Tokyo, capsule hotels for tourists have opened, but men and women may be in separate sections.

Alternatively, consider a manga kissa (manga café) – these are meant for people who want to play computer games so aren’t necessarily the quietest place, and you will need to ‘sleep’ in a chair, but they are cheap (¥1000-2000pp) and often soft drinks and light snacks are provided for free.

A final option might be a night in a Japanese love hotel. During the day, rooms are rented by the hour, but from around 10pm they can be booked for an overnight stay (¥6000-12,000). Like capsule hotels, you’ll find love hotels in big cities and sometimes around mainline stations. They’re easy to spot because the exteriors are usually bright and garish. The over-the-top design continues inside with a variety of themed rooms, which may contain bizarre extras such as rotating beds, tropical plants and waterfalls. The service in these places, by contrast, tends to be very discreet and you are unlikely ever to see a staff member. A display board at the entrance lights up to inform guests what rooms are available. You then go to pay at a counter, after which a mysterious hand passes you the key to your room. It is not nearly as seedy as it might sound; the arrival process is designed to protect the customers’ anonymity and a night here is just as much an experience of Japan as is a stay in a traditional ryokan.