There is a wide range of accommodation options in Japan, some of them familiar such as hotels and hostels, and some of them less familiar, such as temple stays and capsule hotels. Let’s take a look at some of the options.
While Japanese hotel rooms have a reputation for being small, at the higher end of the market rooms are more spacious in both Japanese and western-owned hotel chains. These are sometimes called city hotels and generally have a restaurant and bar. They are also more likely to offer some family rooms.
There is a category of hotel in Japan called a business hotel, where you will find compact rooms; single, double or twin with an ensuite bathroom. Many business hotels include breakfast, although they do not have a restaurant as such. Business hotels usually have a guest laundry and vending machines for drinks.
The capsule hotel was invented as a place to sleep for Japanese salarymen who missed the last train. They are literally capsules containing a bed, side by side and stacked on top of each other. They can be noisy if people are snoring. Bathrooms are shared and luggage is stored in lockers. While capsule hotels have a certain novelty, a hostel or cheap business hotel is often better value.
As well as the usual dormitories with bunk beds, many hostels have rooms, including family rooms. They generally have cooking facilities too, which makes them useful for people wanting to self-cater.
These are traditional Japanese inns, usually with futon beds and tatami floors in the rooms. The room rate often includes breakfast and dinner, which will be traditional Japanese cuisine served in your room. There are ryokans in larger cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, but this form of accommodation is more usually found in onsen towns or scenic rural areas.
Many ryokans have their own onsen (hot spring baths). While the room will have its own toilet and hand basin, some ryokan may not include ensuite bathing facilities. Guests are expected to use the communal onsen for bathing.
Also known as minshuku, these can be a good budget option particularly in small towns or rural areas. The rooms vary but futon beds are more likely than western beds. Breakfast is often included and bathroom facilities are shared. This category of accommodation includes great experiences such as staying in a traditional gassho zhukuri farmhouse at Shirakawa-go.
These have been a less common form of tourist accommodation in Japan until recently. An increasing number of apartment hotels are being opened to cater for families and groups wanting to stay together. An interesting alternative to an apartment in Kyoto is staying in a machiya, or traditional townhouse.
Many areas of Japan had fairly strict accommodation licencing requirements which excluded AirBnB and similar arrangements until recently. Despite this, a growing number of rooms and apartments were advertised on AirBnB without meeting legal requirements. A new law that came into effect on 15 June 2018 aimed to allow AirBnB and similar rentals to be licenced while ensuring certain standards. The licencing requirements vary from place to place and there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of properties advertised on AirBnB, which has removed unlicensed operators from its system.
Otherwise known as shukubo, these were originally provided for pilgrims and many now accept tourists. The most well-known and popular temple accommodation is at Mount Koya. The rooms are Japanese style and bathrooms may be shared. Vegetarian meals are usually included. Shukubo also offer the opportunity to participate in the daily life of the temple, sometimes in a small way such as attending morning prayers or something more such as participating in meditation.
There are some local booking practices that can be surprising or confusing to visitors.
If your trip is some time away, it may seem that there is very little accommodation available. This is because many hotels only open bookings three or six months in advance. If your trip is further away than that, these hotels will not accept a booking. There are some hotels that will accept bookings a year in advance, including local branches of western chains. Although this delay can worry some people, you will usually be able to book once hotels open their bookings for your dates.
There are some instances where booking what you can as far in advance as possible is a good idea, because of likely pressure on accommodation. This applies specifically to Kyoto and the surrounding area in cherry blossom season (late March-early April) and to popular tourist areas in Golden Week (late April-early May).
Japanese hotels often don’t charge at the time of booking and some don’t even ask for your credit card details. If you receive a confirmation email, booking has been successful and you have a reservation. Payment is usually made at check in and most hotels accept credit cards for this. Sometimes smaller places request payment by cash only and this will be specified at the time of booking.
You can book through booking websites or direct with the accommodation. Well-known international websites such as Booking.com or Expedia offer a range of accommodation in Japan on their websites. Japanese websites (with an English interface) offer far more options than the international websites and are reliable. These include Japanican, Rakuten and Jalan. There are also websites for specialist forms of accommodation such as guesthouses, apartments and temple stays.
There are some things to check and think about when booking accommodation, including:
- room size – this can be as little as 9 square metres for a single room. If you are really concerned about feeling cramped, look for 18 square metres or above for a single room, and 30 square metres for a double room.
- bed configuration – double, twin and single are common configurations in hotels. “Semi -double” is a term that visitors sometimes find confusing or misleading. It is the equivalent of a king single so it’s best avoided for couples. Triple and quad rooms are harder, although not impossible, to find. Some hotels offer both western-style (beds) and Japanese-style (futons) rooms.
- bathrooms – these may be shared not only in guesthouses and hostels but also in some quite nice hotels and ryokans where onsen are a feature. In the latter case, there will be toilets and washbasins provided in the room, and yukata (a traditional Japanese garment) for going to and from the onsen. If you are not comfortable with this, then choose other accommodation.
- price – this is usually per person rather than per room, with young children free where they share a bed with another family member.
- access – hotel and other accommodation websites usually provide directions on how to get there, with street maps, details of nearest stations or bus stops and sometimes even photos of the streets leading to the hotel. This is because buildings are not numbered sequentially in streets in Japan. It’s also useful to know how convenient the hotel is to public transport, so take note of the nearest station or stations.
- meals – breakfast is sometimes included in the room rate. Ryokans usually include both breakfast and dinner, providing gourmet traditional Japanese meals that are part of the experience of staying in a ryokan.
- scenic views – if you want a room with a view, these generally cost more, and the room description will indicate whether there’s a view of the sea, river, mountain, castle or other scenic spot. If you are on a budget, rooms without a scenic view can cost substantially less in places known for their natural beauty.
- reviews – these are useful, although they shouldn’t be taken as a definitive guide to quality. Sometimes people write a negative review complaining about details they could have checked beforehand, such as location, size of room, or lack of an ensuite shower.
- cancellation policy – often it’s possible to cancel or change a booking without penalty up until about a week before check in, and then with a percentage penalty until the day before, which can be useful if you want to retain some flexibility in your plans.
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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.