Japan Tips: Accomodations

As you may know, Japan is certainly one of the most expensive places on this planet. In fact, when it comes to long-term accommodations, two of Japan’s major cities – Tokyo and Osaka – rank as the top two most expensive cities in the world to live in. One of the reasons as of late… the value of the Japanese currency, which at present is strong in comparison to the American dollar (95 yen to the dollar as of this writing). 

Accommodations don’t necessarily have to take a huge toll on your wallet though. If you’re willing to do some careful research, and in some circumstances a few sacrifices, you can find good deals on accommodations during your trip to Japan. 

You may or may not be familiar with the classifications of Japanese lodging. I’ll try to break most of them down into the following: LOW, MEDIUM, HIGH.

The determination of Low, Medium or High is based on an average between price and available amenities. Sounds easy, right? Well unfortunately I feel that there are some accommodations that don’t fit into these categories. Anyway, let us proceed.

LOW: Falling into this category are the Hostels, which are no frills, budget-minded accommodations. You generally share a room with other travelers (or get your own room for an extra charge). All facilities are shared, including kitchen, toilet and shower. There is an excellent opportunity to socialize with other travelers, but on the other hand the amount of privacy is minimal and you have to watch your personal belongings. Sleeping could also pose a problem if one or more travelers in your room snores, makes noise, etc. Despite the fact that Japan is an expensive country, inexpensive lodging does exist in this form. How cheap are hostels in Japan? At my last check, the price for one person in a shared dorm room averaged around 3500 yen within Tokyo, and as low as 1800 yen in the Tokyo suburbs.

I am also going to list the infamous coffin hotel… er, I mean, capsule hotel, in the low category. Capsule hotels were originally designed as a quick accommodation choice for Japanese salarymen who have missed their final train home, or are too tired to go back, or are drunk from drinking after work, etc. These days, though, anyone can pretty much use them. Simply put, capsule hotels provide room to sleep… all enclosed into a space that measures about 6’6″ x 4’3″ x 5′ on average. Capsules are stacked next to and on top of each other, so to get to any upper-level capsules you will have to climb a small ladder. Again, toilets and showers are shared among all guests.

One capsule hotel that prominently advertises to foreigners is the Capsule Inn Akihabara, located in Tokyo’s famous electronics district. Their rates are 4000 yen per night, and people of both sexes can stay there, though they are kept on separate floors. Each of their rooms provides a television, radio, alarm clock and wireless internet. Of course the price at other capsule hotels may vary depending on location, amenities, etc.

MEDIUM: In this category are the Business Hotels, which are named for the reason that you’d expect… once again, tailored to businessmen who are away from home or working late. But you’re pretty much assured of your own room, and in nearly all cases, your own toilet and shower as well. Some business hotels are offering improved or renovated accommodations as of late, with flat screen televisions and plush duvets.

The big plus when it comes to business hotels is that they are conveniently located to major travel or transit areas, such as a highway interchange, rail hub or subway stop. Also, there are likely to be vending machines on the hotel premises that you can access at any time. On the downside, however, rooms and beds tend to be on the small side. The bathrooms may also be configured in interesting combinations – for example, it could be in a small pre-fabricated stall with limited room for mobility, or it could be completely out in the open with a sliding wooden door or opaque glass providing privacy from anyone else that you may be staying with. Another factor for most business hotels, which may or may not be positive, is what is known as pre-payment. In other words you must pay for your entire stay upon checking in to the hotel. Any other charges that you incur in the room will be paid for at the end of your stay… although for a business hotel it won’t be much.

I’ve stayed at a nice business hotel in the Taito district of Tokyo, near Ueno station, for about 8,000 yen per night, including free continental breakfast every morning. I would say 8,000 yen is the average price range for a business hotel within major cities. As you go away from these cities, you can expect to pay less. Also, for multiple night stays you may be required to vacate your room between the hotel’s check-out and check-in times… although this shouldn’t be a problem since you’ll be out and about exploring Japan anyway.

Something else falls into the medium category… seedier, possibly, but still an option for a man and a woman traveling together. Those would be the Love Hotels. Yes, you’re correct again… Love Hotels are for couples to get together away from public life or life in the house. The exteriors can look either plain or garish, and entrances can sometimes be hard to find – which is exactly what users tend to look for in order to be discreet. Love Hotels have two options: REST, for a “quick encounter” of about 2 hours or so, and STAY, which is for one night’s worth of accommodations. There is virtually no interaction with anyone else… as you go in, a picture wall shows you which rooms are available. Press the button, and the room is reserved. Payment is made either through an automatic payment machine, or by handing your yen over to a person that sits on the other side of a two-way glass. Some love hotels have rooms with more, ahem… ‘unique’ amenities, and therefore cost more.

HIGH: What you and I might call a “standard hotel” here in the states equates to a luxury standard when you’re in Japan. And trust me, if you have the money, the curiosity, and the urge to discover, look no further than these gems.

For starters, the price. Minimum: Around 12000 yen, if you look carefully. Maximum: The sky’s the limit.

Paying the high cost for a luxury hotel will, in nearly all cases, yield bigger rooms, good views out of your room, and more English-speaking staff to help you if you’re in a bind. There can also be a wide number of restaurants available on the premises, with cuisine offerings from the entire global spectrum.

Some of these hotels are also the easiest hotels that can be accessed – for example, through a direct connection to a train station (or a very short walk away), or through direct bus services to and from the major airports.

Of course, the downside is that you have to fork over a lot of yen, or charge your credit card up so much that you’ll get electrocuted when you get your bill at the end of the month. There are ways, however, to ease up the financial burden – if you really want to experience these types of accommodations.

Prince Hotels is one of Japan’s best-known luxury hotel brands. A service that is offered to foreign travelers is the Prince Club International program. There is no fee to apply, your membership lasts for your entire life, and the program entitles you to discounts and specials on Prince Hotel resorts throughout the country. I used the program on both of my trips to Japan, and saved a lot of money to get first-class accommodations; during my 2008 stay at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel (the largest hotel complex in Japan), the savings amounted to nearly 50 percent – oh, and a luxurious buffet breakfast was included every day!

Unfortunately there are some accommodation types that I cannot classify into Low, Medium or High because their accommodation prices vary greatly based on size, location and amenities. They are:

Ryokan: A traditional Japanese inn which allows you to experience Japanese hospitality in the truest sense of the word. Some inns are antique wooden houses cared for by family members whose ancestors before them had taken care of the very same place. Others are much larger hotels near major resorts or natural landmarks.  But the premise is the same; the room has tatami mats on which you both walk and sleep (a futon is rolled out for you at night). Meals are served either in your room or in the ryokan’s restaurant, and you’re given traditional Japanese clothes called Yukata to wear in and around the complex. These ryokans tend to be expensive, with the more traditional and more historical buildings costing the most.

There are some ryokans, however, that operate much like regular business hotels. You get to sleep on the floor with a futon, but there is no meal service, and you may have to pull out and store the futon yourself. Don’t worry, because the owners and staff provide the same hospitality, and may even go out of their way to suggest some places or restaurants that you can visit in the area. The pricing of these ryokans tend to be around the same as the business hotel prices described above. A variation of this type of ryokan, found in more rural areas, is called a minshuku.

Finally, one very interesting accommodation type that I know a few friends of mine want to try out is called shukubo, otherwise known as accommodations at a Buddhist Temple. These are usually out in the countryside or suburbs and offer you the chance to join in morning prayers at a Buddhist temple and savor in fine vegetarian cuisine. An excellent place to find shukubo is on Mount Koya, which is located south of Osaka.

A few last caveats: I highly recommend any hotel operated by Renaissance Hotel Group. They only have five hotels – three in Tokyo, one in Osaka and one in Fukuoka (in southern Japan), but if it’s anything like what I experienced at the Sutton Place Hotel Ueno in 2008, then I’m sure that they’re all good. They are a group of budget hotels that I would really classify as “upscale business”… Toyoko Inn is a very popular brand of business hotel operating throughout Japan, with over 200 convenient locations. Be sure to check out the Toyoko Hotels that have just opened; rates for new hotels will be at a discount compared to the already reasonable tariffs… Japan Rail Pass holders get discounts on business and luxury hotels operated by Japan RailwaysRakuten Travel is an excellent place to search for all types of Japanese hotels, and you can easily sort your search results by price.

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