It’s wise to reserve at least your first few nights’ accommodation before arrival, especially at the cheaper hostels and minshuku (family-run B&B-style inns) in Tokyo and Kyoto, where budget places are scarce. If you do arrive without a reservation, make use of the free accommodation booking services in Narita and Kansai International airports.
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Once in Japan, book one or two days ahead to ensure you can stay where you like. Outside the peak season, however, you’ll rarely be stuck for accommodation. Around major train stations there’s usually a clutch of business hotels and a tourist information desk – most will make a booking for you.
Most large- and medium-sized hotels in big cities have English-speaking receptionists who’ll take a booking over the phone. The cheaper and more rural the place, however, the more likely you are to have to speak in Japanese, or a mix of Japanese and English. Don’t be put off: armed with the right phrases, and speaking slowly and clearly, you should be able to make yourself understood – many of the terms you’ll need are actually English words pronounced in a Japanese way. If you’re having difficulty, the staff at your current accommodation may be able to help. Booking online is an option, with the advantage that you’ll often get a slightly lower room rate; major chains and those places that receive a lot of foreign guests generally have an English-language page.
Almost without exception, security is not a problem, though it’s never sensible to leave valuables lying around in your room. In hostels it’s advisable to use lockers, if provided, or leave important items at the reception desk. Standards of service and cleanliness vary according to the type of establishment, but are usually more than adequate. Check-in is generally between 4pm and 7pm, and check-out by 10am.
While credit cards are becoming more widely accepted, in many cases payment is still expected in cash. In hostels and many cheaper business hotels you’ll be expected to pay when you check in. While all hotel rates must include five percent consumption tax, there are a couple of other taxes to look out for. Most top-end hotels add a service charge of ten to fifteen percent, while in Tokyo the Metropolitan Government levies a tax of ¥100 per person per night in rooms that cost over ¥10,000 per person per night (or ¥200 if the room costs over ¥15,000); check to make sure if these are included in the published room rate. In hot-spring resorts, there’s a small onsen tax (usually ¥150), though again this may already be included in the rates. And it’s always worth asking when booking if there are any deals, usually referred to as “plans”, such as special weekend rates at business hotels. Tipping is not necessary, nor expected, in Japan. The only exception is at high-class Japanese ryokan, where it’s good form to leave ¥2000 for the room attendant – put the money in an envelope and hand it over discreetly at the end of your stay.
Most Western-style hotel rooms have en-suite bathrooms, TV, phone, high-speed internet access and air conditioning as standard. Don’t expect a lot of character, however, especially among the older and cheaper business hotels, although things are slowly beginning to improve and even relatively inexpensive chains are now smartening up their act. Rates for a double or twin room range from an average of ¥30,000 at a top-flight hotel, to ¥15,000–20,000 for a smartish establishment, which will usually have a restaurant and room service. At the lowest level, a room in a basic hotel with minimal amenities will cost ¥5000–10,000. Charges are almost always on a per-room basis and usually exclude meals, though breakfast may occasionally be included. Single room rates usually range from just over half to three-quarters the price of a double. Most hotels offer non-smoking rooms and some have “ladies’ floors”.
Modest business hotels constitute the bulk of the middle and lower price brackets. Primarily designed for those travelling on business and usually clustered around train stations, they are perfect if all you want is a place to crash out, though at the cheapest places you may find just a box with tiny beds, a desk and a chair crammed into the smallest possible space. While the majority of rooms are single, most places have a few twins, doubles or “semi-doubles” – a large single bed which takes two at a squeeze. Squeeze is also the operative word for the aptly named “unit baths”, which business hotels specialize in; these moulded plastic units contain a shower, bathtub, toilet and washbasin but leave little room for manoeuvre. That said, some business hotels are relatively smart and there are a number of reliable chains including Tōyoko Inn, which has scores of hotels across the country, offering a simple breakfast and free internet connections in their room rates. More upmarket are Washington Hotels and the Solare group, which encompasses Chisun business hotels and the smarter Loisir and Solare Collection chains.
Catering mainly for commuters – often in various states of inebriation – who have missed their last train home are capsule hotels; you’ll find them mostly near major stations. Inside are rows of coffin-like tubes, roughly 2m by 1m, containing a mattress, bedding, phone, alarm and TV built into the plastic surrounds. The “door” consists of a flimsy curtain, which won’t keep out the loudest snores, and they are definitely not designed for claustrophobics. However, they’re relatively cheap (averaging around ¥4000 per night) and fun to try at least once, though the majority are for men only. You can’t stay in the hotel during the day – not that you’d want to – but you can leave luggage in their lockers. Check-in usually starts around 4pm and often involves buying a ticket from a vending machine in the lobby. Rates generally include a yukata (cotton dressing gown), towel and toothbrush set. Kyoto and Ōsaka offer a couple of stylish modern takes on the capsule hotel that are worth trying.
Love hotels – where you can rent rooms by the hour – are another quintessential Japanese experience. Generally located in entertainment districts, they are immediately recognizable from the sign outside quoting prices for “rest” or “stay”, and many sport ornate exteriors. Some can be quite sophisticated: the main market is young people or married couples taking a break from crowded apartments. All kinds of tastes can be indulged at love hotels, with rotating beds in mirror-lined rooms now decidedly passé in comparison with some of the fantasy creations on offer. Some rooms even come equipped with video cameras so you can take home a souvenir DVD of your stay. You usually choose your room from a back-lit display indicating those still available, and then negotiate with a cashier lurking behind a tiny window (eye-to-eye contact is avoided to preserve privacy). Though “rest” rates are high (from about ¥5000 for 2hr), the price of an overnight stay can cost the same as a business hotel (roughly ¥8000–10,000), although you usually can’t check in until around 10pm.
A night in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is one of the highlights of a visit to Japan. The best charge five-star hotel rates, but there are plenty where you can enjoy the full experience at affordable prices. Cheaper are minshuku, family-run guesthouses, and the larger government-owned kokuminshukusha (people’s lodges) located in national parks and resort areas. In addition, some temples and shrines offer simple accommodation, or you can arrange to stay with a Japanese family through the homestay programme.
It’s advisable to reserve at least a day ahead and essential if you want to eat in. Though a few don’t take foreigners, mainly through fear of language problems and cultural faux pas, you’ll find plenty that do listed in the guide chapters. JNTO also publishes useful lists of ryokan and distributes brochures of the Welcome Inn Group and Japanese Inn Group both of which specialize in inexpensive, foreigner-friendly accommodation.
Staying in Japanese-style accommodation
Whenever you’re staying in Japanese-style accommodation, you’ll be expected to check in early – between 3pm and 6pm – and to follow local custom from the moment you arrive.
Just inside the front door, there’s usually a row of slippers for you to change into, but remember to slip them off when walking on the tatami. The bedding is stored behind sliding doors in your room during the day and only laid out in the evening. In top-class ryokan this is done for you, but elsewhere be prepared to tackle your own. There’ll be a mattress (which goes straight on the tatami) with a sheet to put over it, a soft quilt to sleep under and a pillow stuffed with rice husks.
Most places provide a yukata, a loose cotton robe tied with a belt, and a short jacket (tanzen) in cold weather. The yukata can be worn in bed, during meals, when going to the bathroom and even outside – in resort areas many Japanese holidaymakers take an evening stroll in their yukata and wooden sandals (geta; also supplied by the ryokan). Wrap the left side of the yukata over the right; the opposite is used to dress the dead.
The traditional Japanese bath (furo) has its own set of rules (see Arts and crafts). It’s customary to bathe in the evenings. In ryokan there are usually separate bathrooms for men (男) and women (女), but elsewhere there will either be designated times for males and females, or you’ll simply have to wait until it’s vacant – it’s perfectly acceptable for couples and families to bathe together, though there’s not usually a lot of space.
Evening meals tend to be early, at 6pm or 7pm. Smarter ryokan generally serve meals in your room, while communal dining is the norm in cheaper places. At night the doors are locked pretty early, so check before going out – they may let you have a key.
Rooms in a typical ryokan are generally furnished with just a low table and floor cushions sitting on pale green rice-straw matting (tatami) and a hanging scroll – nowadays alongside a TV and phone – decorating the alcove (tokonoma) on one wall. Though you’ll increasingly find a toilet and washbasin in the room, baths are generally communal. The rules of ryokan etiquette may seem daunting, but overall these are great places to stay.
Room rates vary according to the season, the grade of room, the quality of meal you opt for and the number of people in a room; prices almost always include breakfast and an evening meal. Rates are usually quoted per person and calculated on the basis of two people sharing. One person staying in a room will pay slightly more than the advertised per-person price; three people sharing a room, slightly less. On average, a night in a basic ryokan will cost between ¥8000 and ¥10,000 per head, while a more classy establishment, perhaps with meals served in the room, will cost up to ¥20,000. Top-rank ryokan with exquisite meals and the most attentive service imaginable can cost upwards of ¥50,000 per person.
At cheaper ryokan it’s possible to ask for a room without meals, though this is frowned on at the more traditional places and, anyway, the delicious multicourse meals are often very good value. If you find miso soup, cold fish and rice a bit hard to tackle in the morning, you might want to opt for a Western breakfast, if available.
Minshuku and kokuminshukusha
There’s a fine line between the cheapest ryokan and a minshuku. In general, minshuku are smaller and less formal than ryokan: more like staying in a private home, with varying degrees of comfort and cleanliness. All rooms will be Japanese-style, with communal bathrooms and dining areas. A night in a minshuku will cost from around ¥4500 per person excluding meals, or from ¥6000 with two meals; rates are calculated in the same way as for ryokan.
In country areas and popular resorts, you’ll also find homely guesthouses called pensions – a word borrowed from the French. Though the accommodation and meals are Western-style, these are really minshuku in disguise. They’re family-run – generally by young couples escaping city life – and specialize in hearty home cooking. Rates average around ¥8000 per head, including dinner and breakfast.
In the national parks, onsen resorts and other popular tourist spots, minshuku and pensions are supplemented by large, government-run kokuminshukusha, which cater to family groups and tour parties. They’re often quite isolated and difficult to get to without your own transport. The average cost of a night’s accommodation is around ¥8000 per person, including two meals.
Temples and shrines
A few Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines take in regular guests for a small fee, and some belong to the Japanese Inn Group or the Japan Youth Hostels association. By far the best places to experience temple life are at the Buddhist retreat of Kōya-san and in Kyoto’s temple lodges.
Though the accommodation is inevitably basic, the food can be superb, especially in temple lodgings (shukubō), where the monks serve up delicious vegetarian cuisine (shōjin ryōri). In many temples you’ll also be welcome to attend the early-morning prayer ceremonies. Prices vary between ¥4000 and ¥10,000 per person, with no meals or perhaps just breakfast at lower rates.
Japan has over three hundred youth hostels spread throughout the country, offering cheap accommodation. Once you’ve included meals, however, a night at a hostel may work out only slightly less expensive than staying at a minshuku, or a night at a business hotel such at Tōyoko Inn. The majority of hostels are well run, clean and welcoming. The best are housed in wonderful old farmhouses or temples, often in great locations; you’ll also find hostels in most big cities. In general, you can stay up to six nights in any one hostel, though longer stays are possible if they’re not booked up. The main drawbacks are an evening curfew and, at some hostels, a raft of regulations.
The average price of hostel accommodation ranges from around ¥3000 per person for a dorm bed up to ¥5500 for a private room, with optional meals costing around ¥600 for breakfast and ¥1000 for dinner. Rates at some hostels increase during peak holiday periods, while most charge an additional ¥600 per night to non-members (see below).
Youth hostels are either run by the government or by Japan Youth Hostels, which is affiliated to Hostelling International (HI), or they may be privately owned. Membership cards are not required at government hostels, but all JYH and many private hostels ask for a current Youth Hostel card. Non-members have to buy a “welcome stamp” (¥600) each time they stay at a JYH or private hostel; six stamps within a twelve-month period entitles you to the Hostelling International card. JNTO offices abroad and around Japan stock a free map that gives contact details of all JYH hostels.
It’s essential to make reservations well in advance for the big-city hostels and during school vacations: namely, New Year, March, around Golden Week (late April to mid-May), and in July and August. At other times, it’s a good idea to book ahead, since hostels in prime tourist spots are always busy, and some close for a day or two off-season (others for the whole winter). If you want an evening meal, you also need to let them know a day in advance. Hostel accommodation normally consists of either dormitory bunks or shared Japanese-style tatami rooms, with communal bathrooms and dining areas. An increasing number also have private or family rooms, but these tend to fill up quickly. Bedding is provided. The majority of hostels have laundry facilities and a few offer internet access, for which there is usually a small charge.
Though hostel meals vary in quality, they are often pretty good value. Dinner will generally be Japanese-style, while breakfast frequently includes bread, jam and coffee, sometimes as part of a buffet. Some hostels have a basic kitchen. Note that one or two hostels don’t provide evening meals and there may not be any restaurants close by, so ask when you book.
Check-in is generally between 3pm and 8pm (by 6.30pm if you’re having the evening meal), and you have to vacate the building during the day (usually by 10am). In the evening, most hostels lock up around 11pm – while in many loudspeakers announce when it’s time to bath, eat, turn the lights out and get up; there’s even an approved way to fold hostel blankets. Some people find this boarding-school atmosphere totally off-putting, but you’ll come across plenty of hostels with a more laidback attitude. You won’t be expected to do any chores, beyond clearing the table after meals and taking your sheets down to reception when you leave.
Camping and mountain huts
There are thousands of campsites (kyampu-jō) scattered throughout Japan, with prices ranging from nothing up to ¥5000 or more to pitch a tent. In some places you’ll also pay an entry fee of a few hundred yen per person, plus charges for water and cooking gas. In general, facilities are pretty basic compared with American or European sites; many have no hot water, for example, and the camp shop may stock nothing but pot-noodles. Most sites only open during the summer months, when they’re packed out with students and school parties.
JNTO publishes lists of selected campsites, or ask at local tourist offices. If you haven’t got your own tent, you can often hire everything on-site or rent simple cabins from around ¥2500 – check before you get there. The best sites are in national parks and can be both time-consuming and costly to get to unless you have your own transport. Sleeping rough in national parks is banned, but elsewhere in the countryside camping wild is tolerated. However, it’s advisable to choose an inconspicuous spot – don’t put your tent up till dusk, and leave early in the morning.
In the main hiking areas, you’ll find a good network of mountain huts (yama-goya). These range from basic shelters to much fancier places with wardens and meals. Huts get pretty crowded in summer and during student holidays; count on at least ¥5000 per head, including two meals. Many places will also provide a picnic lunch. You can get information about mountain huts from local tourist offices.
There’s plenty of long-term rental accommodation available in Japan, making it a relatively easy and affordable country in which to set up home.
Newcomers who arrive without a job, or are not on some sort of expat package that includes accommodation, usually start off in what’s known as a gaijin house (foreigner house). Located in Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities with large foreign populations, these are shared apartments with a communal kitchen and bathroom, ranging from total fleapits to the almost luxurious. They’re usually rented by the month, though if there’s space, weekly or even nightly rates may be available. You’ll find gaijin houses advertised in the English-language press, or simply ask around. Monthly rates for a shared apartment in Tokyo start at ¥30,000–40,000 per person if you share a room and ¥50,000–60,000 for your own room. A deposit may also be required.
The alternative is a private apartment. These are usually rented out by real estate companies, though you’ll also find places advertised in the media. Unfortunately, some prejudiced landlords may simply refuse to rent to non-Japanese. Some rental agencies specialize in dealing with foreigners, or you could ask a Japanese friend or colleague to act as an intermediary. When you’ve found a place, be prepared to pay a deposit of one to two months’ rent in addition to the first month’s rent, key money (usually one or two months’ non-refundable rent when you move in) and a month’s rent in commission to the agent. You may also be asked to provide information about your financial situation and find someone – generally a Japanese national – to act as a guarantor. The basic monthly rental in Tokyo starts at ¥50,000–60,000 per month for a one-room box, and upwards of ¥100,000 for somewhere more comfortable with a separate kitchen and bathroom.
Homestay programmes & WWOOF
Homestay programmes are a wonderful way of getting to know Japan – contact any of the local tourism associations and international exchange foundations listed in this book to see if any programmes are operating in the area you plan to visit.
It’s also possible to arrange to stay at one of nearly 400 so organic farms and other rural properties around Japan through WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). Bed and board is provided for free in return for work on the farm; see Living in Japan, for more details. This is a great way to really experience how country folk live away from the big cities and the beaten tourist path. To get a list of host farms you have to take out an annual membership, though a few examples are posted on the Japanese site.