Practical Accommodation in Japan

By JREF · Oct 9, 2013 ·
  1. JREF
    Aside from the run-of-the-mill pensions, hotels and youth hostels catering to international and domestic travellers, accommodation in Japan can be a unique experience, ranging from exclusive ryokan inns to functional capsule hotels and extravagant love hotels.

    When reserving any Japanese accommodation, travellers should bear in mind that many smaller operations, especially those off the beaten tracks, may hesitate to accept foreigners, fearing language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is to some extent institutionalised: large travel agency databases note which (few) hotels are prepared to handle foreigners, and they may declare all lodgings booked if only these are full. Instead of calling up in English, foreign tourists may find it better to get a Japanese acquaintance or local tourist office (who sometimes can communicate in English) to make the booking. Business hotels and other chains also offer online booking in Japanese and English.

    A word of caution to tourists planning to stay in a ryokan in wintertime: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means that they are cold inside in winter. Warm clothing and proper use of the bathing facilities help to stay warm; fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and getting a good night’s sleep is rarely a problem.

    Ryokan

    Ryokan (旅館) are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. Since some knowledge of Japanese customs and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests, in particular ones who do not speak Japanese, but some cater specially to this group. A night at a ryokan for one with two meals starts at about 8,000 JPY and has no boundaries from there.

    Ryokan usually operates on a fairly strict schedule, and you will be expected to arrive by 17:00. On entry, guests are supposed to take off their shoes and put on the slippers to wear inside the house. After checking in, they will be led to their room, which is invariably merely but elegantly decorated and covered in tatami matting. Slippers need to be taken off before stepping on the tatami.

    Before dinner guests will be encouraged to take a bath, changing into their yukata bathrobe before bathing. Once bathed dinner will be served in the room. In most ryokan dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; guests should not hesitate to ask if are not sure how to eat a given item.

    After dinner guests are free to head out into town; in hot spring towns, it is perfectly normal to head out dressed only in yukata and geta clogs, although doing so as a foreigner may attract even more attention than usual. (Hint: it’s recommended to wear underwear underneath). Many ryokan have curfews, so guests should make sure they end up locked outside.

    Upon returning to the room, guests will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for them on the tatami. While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. A real Japanese futon is just a mattress, and not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West.

    Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time.

    Some establishments with the word “ryokan” in their name are not the luxurious variety at all, but just minshuku (see below) in disguise. The price usually gives away which type of lodging it is.

    Read our guide on Japanese manners and etiquette to know how to behave at the table and in a Japanese bath.

    Minshuku

    Minshuku (民宿) are the budget version of ryokan, a Japanese version of a bed and breakfast: the overall experience is much the same, but the food is simpler, dining is communal at dinner, bathrooms are shared, and guests are expected to lay out their futon (although an exception is often made for foreigners). Consequently, minshuku are also cheaper and rates hover around 5,000 JPY with two meals (一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku). Even cheaper yet is a stay with no meals (素泊まり sudomari), which can go as low as 3,000 JPY. Minshuku are more often found in the countryside than in cities.

    Capsule hotels

    Capsule hotels (カプセルホテル kapuseru hoteru) are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a nominal fee (often under 2,000 JPY), the guest rents himself a capsule-sized about 2x1x1 meters and stacked in two rows inside a hall containing tens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are invariably segregated by sex and only a few cater to women.

    On entry to a capsule hotel, guests take off their shoes, place them in a locker and put on a pair of slippers. Often, the locker key will have to be surrendered at check-in to ensure that guests do not “forget” to pay before leaving. On checking in, they will be given a second locker for placing their belongings, as there is no space for them in the capsule and little security as most capsules have simply a curtain, not a door.

    Many if not most capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying degrees of luxury, often so that entry to the spa costs 2,000 JPY, but the capsule is only an additional 1,000 JPY. Other, cheaper capsule hotels will require feeding in 100-yen coins even to get the shower to work. There are always vending machines on hand to dispense toothpaste, underwear and other sundries.

    Once guests retire into their capsule, they will usually find a simple control panel for operating the lights, the alarm clock and the inevitable built-in TV.

    In Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts, the capsule hotels run at least 3,500 JPY but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines, and coffee in the morning. Despite all that, guests should keep in mind that the capsule “door” is just a curtain that keeps light out. More often than not, there will be a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules before falling into a mild snore.

    Business hotels

    Ranging from 5,000 JPY for a single room and from 7,000 JPY for a twin or double room per night and usually conveniently located (often near major train stations), their rooms are usually quite cramped and facilities sufficient, but minimal. Local, “unadvertised” business hotels, further from major stations, can be significantly cheaper (from 6,000 JPY/double room/night) and can be found in the phone book (which also tells prices), but guests will need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help or book online in advance. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if travellers share a twin or double room.

    Some of the more common business hotel chains in Japan are Toyoko-Inn, Sunroute Hotels, Washington Hotels, APA Hotels, Super Hotels, and Dormy Inn.

    Hotels

    Standard hotels of any kind (not business or love hotels) are uniformly expensive. Luxury hotels, on the other hand, turn to pamper into an art, but room charges tend to start at 20,000 JPY.

    Youth hostels

    Youth hostels (ユースホステル yūsu hosteru, often just called yūsu or abbreviated “YH”) can be comparatively expensive in Japan, especially if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not a Hostelling International (HI) member, in which case the price for a single night may be over 5,000 JPY. As elsewhere, some are concrete cell blocks run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic spots. There are even some temples that run hostels as a sideline. Many have curfews. Do some research before choosing where to go; the Japan Youth Hostel page is a good place to start.

    Other free or cheap options

    Kokuminshukusha

    Kokumin-shukusha (国民宿舎), literally “Citizens’ Lodges”, are government-run guest houses. They primarily provide subsidised holidays for government employees in remote scenic spots 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 rather impersonal.

    Shukubō

    Shukubō (宿坊) are lodgings for pilgrims, usually (but not always) located within a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. The experience is more or less similar to a ryokan, but the food will be vegetarian, and you may be offered a chance to participate in the temple’s activities. Shukubō can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but in popular and major places such as the Buddhist centre of Mt. Koya near Osaka, this will not pose a problem.

    Love hotels

    Love hotel (ラブホテル rabu hoteru) is a bit of a euphemism; the more accurate term would be “sex hotel”. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in those areas. Many of them are often clustered around highway interchanges or main train stations out of the city back to the suburbs, and even in the sticks. You can rent a room by night (listed as “Stay” or 宿泊 shukuhaku on the rate card), a couple of hours (“Rest” or 休憩 kyūkei), or off hours (“No Time Service”) which are usually weekday afternoons.

    They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have fantastic themes like castles, Disney, sports, history, etc. Usually, as a traveler, not a tryster, guests cannot check in, drop their bags, and go out exploring. Once they leave, the service is over. “Stay” rates also tend to start only after 22:00, and overstaying may incur hefty additional “Rest” charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have higher charges. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.

    Why are love hotels ubiquitous in Japan? While sometimes a tad seedy, they are practical and fulfil a social need; for years, post-war Japan was plagued by a housing shortage. While people, in general, do no longer live in extended families, many of the unmarried still reside at home with their parents. Married couples, on the other hand, living in a 40 square metre apartment with two-grade school children have an occasional need for privacy and togetherness. The answer: the love hotel.

    Homestay

    The most authentic way to learn more about Japanese everyday life (and to improve your Japanese language skills while saving money at the same time) is to live with a Japanese family. Most host families have many years of experience in accommodating foreign travellers and are not only located in “touristy places”, but also off the trodden paths. It should be mentioned that homestay is not restricted to students or young travellers. More information on HomestayWeb Japan, Homestay in Japan, and Homestay Booking Japan.

    Camping

    Camping is the cheapest way to get a night’s sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country, although naturally, most are away from the big cities and information in English is scarce. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Most charge only nominal fees (200-500 JPY). Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try to ask for permission. Or pitch your tent late and leave early. Many larger city parks may in fact have large numbers of blue tarp tents with homeless in them.

    Nojuku

    For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku (野宿). This is Japanese for “sleeping outside”, and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, a lot of young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to a low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a genuinely viable option if you are travelling in a group or feel confident doing it on your own. Common nojuku places include train stations, michi no eki (road service stations), or anywhere that has some shelter and public toilets nearby.

    Those worrying about shower facilities will be delighted to know that Japan is blessed with cheap public facilities pretty much everywhere – notably onsen (hot springs). Even if you cannot find an onsen, sentō ((銭湯, public baths), or sauna are also an option.

    Tourists should bear in mind that nojuku is only viable in the summer months, although in the northern island of Hokkaido even in summer the temperature may dip during the night. On the other hand, there is much more scope for nojuku on Okinawa (although public facilities on the smaller islands are lacking).

    Nojuku is not recommended for first-time travellers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to get into the ‘onsen’ culture, meet other fellow nojuku travellers, and most of all travel very cheaply when coupled with hitchhiking.

    Gaijin houses

    For travellers staying for a more extended period opting for a “gaijin house” may drastically reduce living costs. These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments (often up to six to eight months rent worth) paid before moving in. Nearly all are only in the Tokyo area, however. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month. Gaijin houses can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in.

    Read more on guest houses in Japan.

    Apartments

    Although many apartment rental places will either require you to have a guarantor in Japan or require you to speak Japanese or have a work permit, there are rental agencies like Weekly Mansion Tokyo (WMT) that will let you rent an apartment for a week or more. People with a Japan Railpass may find having a home base to return to that is also affordable, preferable to trying to find a ryokan or hotel along the way. Weekly mansions usually offer apartments for 1 to 4 people. Occasionally, there are larger rooms, but mostly, one and two person rooms are the only available types. Apartments fees are around 5,000 JPY for a single, around 6,000-7,000 JPY for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air-conditioning, microwave and cooking amenities.

    Internet cafés and manga cafés

    In bigger cities around the major stations, you can find internet cafés and manga cafés (漫画喫茶, マンガ喫茶 manga kissaten. Here you not only can access the internet but watch TV, play video games, read the manga and enjoy the free drink bar. Prices vary but are usually around 400 JPY/hour. They often have a special night fare for the period when no trains are running (from 23:00 to 5:00 for 1,500 JPY). Sometimes they have a massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower. It is not a comfortable option, but perfect for checking the next day’s train schedule, downloading pictures from the digital camera, writing home and resting a bit.

    While they are mainly shared with “salarymen” and other stranded souls who have missed their last train, internet cafés have also turned into habitats of “net café refugees” (ネットカフェ難民 netto kafe nanmin), or “cyber-homeless” (サイバーホームレス saibā hōmuresu), people without a permanent residence looking to spend the night cheaply.

    Karaoke bars

    This is only an emergency option in case travellers cannot find anything else on a cold night. Karaoke bars offer entertainment rooms until 5:00 (“free time”) for 1,500-2,500 JPY.



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