Photographer: Conor Bodily
By John Sorenson
Making travel plans in a foreign country can be downright terrifying. You never know what you’re getting yourself into without having experience yourself. It can be difficult to get a straight answer to the most basic questions, such as “What is the best airport to fly into?” “How do I get to my connecting train?” and “Will anybody be able to speak English?” In order to alleviate some of the stress concerning one of the basic questions that just about everyone has when traveling, I’m going to address all of the ins and outs of lodging in Japan.
From April to August last summer, I returned to work in Japan. My goal was to travel every single weekend I had available and take the last three weeks to explore all the places that I couldn’t manage to travel to on weekend trips. Having lived and worked in Japan for a few years prior to starting college, I came back having a solid knowledge about the Japanese language, the Japanese culture, and the day-to-day intricacies of living in Japan. Yet, with all my experience in country, I had only really traveled a handful of times, always staying with friends or work acquaintances. I never really had experience finding safe and inexpensive lodging. As I began to explore my options, I realized that I had no clue how a ‘capsule hotel’ worked, what the hell a ryokan was, and what to expect in Japanese hotels in comparison to American hotels. Well, it was time to get educated. Over the next five months I travelled across Japan, staying in just about every type of lodging available – from $20 capsule hotels to five-star ryokans. From the rural countryside to the endless city streets that make up the vast Tokyo cityscape, I’ve experienced it all. And here is what I learned.
How to begin selecting your lodging:
Before you can decide between a capsule hotel, a ryokan, a Japanese hotel, an American-esc hotel, or even an Airbnb, there are a few important points to consider. It’s very important to consider things such as proximity to trains and events, as well as safety precautions and the ability of staff to speak English. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to start by basing your lodging off of these first few points and consider how they will play into the rest of your travel plans. Often, you can narrow down much of your search by eliminating options that don’t fit within these parameters.
-Proximity to a local train or subway station:
Train stations are the epicenters of life and excitement in most parts of Japan. In just about every small and large city, train stations are located at the heart of population traffic and commerce. A lot of the time, you’ll find the most restaurants, stores, and events surrounding the train station, so it’s just a good place to be. Many cities have more than one train station, so as long as you are close to one train or subway station, you basically have access to the rest of the city. It’s much easier to jump on a train or subway to cut across the city than walking or riding buses, and much cheaper than the fare for a bus or cab. On top of that, if your travel plans involve traveling to more than one city, you’ll have to lug your luggage however far it is from your lodging to the train station. I’ve made the mistake of choosing lodging miles away from the station and quickly regretted it as I trudged through the summer heat while carrying all of my belongings on my back. Even if you are willing to take cabs everywhere, being close to the train or subway station is usually just a great place to be.
-Proximity to events you plan on attending:
Another option is to choose a hotel closer to any events you plan on attending during your stay. If you plan on staying in only one city and most of your plans involve one particular location, it would probably be smart to stay in a hotel close to that event. This can save so much time and hassle if the event you want to attend is expected to have high attendance. Firework shows, festivals, and holidays such as golden week can be madhouses when the event ends. While you might think that an hour walk or a long wait for a train isn’t a problem, there are many factors that aren’t always considered such as standing body to body against an entire massive body of humans attempting to work their way onto a train at eleven o’clock at night. Not to mention that the weather is often unpredictable; I’ve had to walk five miles through a small typhoon, completely drenched, after a firework festival in Hiroshima last summer – definitely not the most enjoyable experience.
We’ll address safety concerns in Japan in a future article and include the link here when it’s available. But for the time being, I’ll just briefly mention that for the most part Japan is a very safe place. You’ll want to follow the standard precautions that apply to traveling internationally, but as long as you’re doing that, Japan is very safe. However, just to air on the side of caution, it’s always smart to choose lodging that is on well-lit roads in the more populated parts of town, even more so if you’re drinking late at night. Again, just be aware and follow normal safety precautions.
Alright, I’ll be honest, I haven’t ever stayed at a place that didn’t see me, a 6’3” blue-eyed white dude, and didn’t first try to communicate with me in some level of broken English. After staying in a number of places, it’s easy to tell how well prepared the reception employees are to speak English by seeing how frantic they get when they see me walking in through the door and their obvious relief once I begin speaking Japanese. That being said, as frantic as some reception workers may seem, and as broken as their English may seem, almost every form of lodging has someone on staff who can communicate… more or less. So, if you don’t speak Japanese, you can get by without problem in most cases. However, it never hurts to double check online before making a reservation.
Different Forms of Lodging
-Capsule Hotels: Photographer: John Sorenson
It’s probably safe to assume that you’ve at least heard of the capsule hotels in Japan. When I talk to people about staying in a capsule hotel, they expect some kind of uncomfortable tube of some sort, or a two-foot wide five-foot long box that fits into a giant dresser where humans take the place of tube-socks. I mean, they aren’t entirely wrong, but it’s not as bad as one would expect. Plus, there is a wide range of capsule hotels to choose from with varying levels of comfort.
I’ve stayed in capsule hotels maybe seven or eight times last summer. They’re a great option if you’re traveling on a budget. A lot of places can get down to around $25 a night. And if you don’t plan on spending much time in your lodging and just need a place to crash for the night, this might honestly be your first choice. The price can range – I’ve stayed at the cheapest places that were around $25 and also some of the nicer $65 capsule hotels that are more along the lines of small individual rooms.
Photographer: John Sorenson
Here’s what you need to know before staying in capsule hotels:
- Almost all capsule hotels are individual rooms that are segregated by gender; often males and females will be located on completely different sides of the building and aren’t allowed into the other’s quarters. So, if you’re traveling with friends, family, or intend to bring someone back to your room for the night, you might be better off staying in a regular hotel room.
- The cheaper capsules are about four-feet high, three to four feet wide, and about six and a half feet long. If you are very tall, very large, or claustrophobic, capsule hotels aren’t for you. I managed to enjoy my capsules even being 6’3”, and they do offer a space to sit up and read or chill. These capsules are stacked two capsules high on either side of the hallway which runs down ten to fifteen rows. So, you’ll either need to bend down and crawl into the lower one or use the steps they provide to hop into the capsule above.
- Capsule hotels always have shared bathrooms and showers. Typically, the hotel will have enough space allocated so that it doesn’t get too crowded, and they are often be quite clean. I’ve also seen quite a few with nice public baths. But if you don’t want to share facilities with a group of people, you may want to avoid capsule hotels.
- They’ll have an outlet or two where you can use a phone charger, but don’t plan on charging your laptop, tablet, and phone all at once.
- Most are equipped with complimentary Wi-Fi.
- You’ll need to keep luggage with the front desk, where they’ll keep it safe. So, you won’t have super easy access to your things unless you keep them in a small bag. I always kept my backpack with me, which had all of my clothes and necessary items, but that’s just me.
- The cheaper capsule hotels won’t have air conditioning in the capsule itself, so it can get a bit warm if you stay during the summer and close the entrance completely.
- The nicer capsule hotels, like the one I stayed at for $65, had a bed and a small living space including a table and more outlets. They also have really high-quality facilities.
Main points to consider:
– Probably the cheapest option. – Small but comfortable individual spaces.
-Communal facilities. -Great for travelers who only want to sleep, wash up, and leave.
-Won’t have quick access to luggage. -People taller than 6’5” should avoid.
-Not ideal for large individuals. -Light sleepers may be disturbed by neighbors.
At first, I was a bit hesitant to stay at ryokans. When I asked Japanese friends what ryokans were, they described them as old-fashioned Japanese-style hotels. They mentioned that they may or may not have Wi-Fi and may or may not have air conditioning. Because of the way they portrayed ryokans, I got the impression that they weren’t well equipped and weren’t aimed at serving the modern traveler. However, once I stayed at my first ryokan, I realized that this was completely incorrect. After doing a little more research and experiencing ryokans in a few different areas, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are just as well equipped as the majority of hotels in Japan and have just about everything a modern traveler needs – including air conditioning and Wi-Fi. And the best part about staying in a ryokan is the Japanese-style experience. If I could recommend any type of hotel to a friend, I’d say that ryokans are my number-one pick.
I’ve stayed at maybe five or six ryokans last summer. A few of them around the $35-$45 price range, and a few that were over $200 a night. The $35-$45 ryokans provided a small room (by American standards) that were equipped with a futon, small table with cushions to sit on, a small TV (only Japanese channels), and a personal sink. The bathroom was shared by three or four guests and had a male and female individual shared bath (used one at a time, but shared by a few rooms), which were basically personal onsens that were large and beautiful. In my experience, the best bathing experiences in any type of hotel have always been in ryokans – grade A top notch. The futons were always super plush and extremely comfortable in my experience.
The times I stayed in a $200 per night ryokan have stuck out as a highlight of the trip by itself. It was one of the most remarkable parts of visiting a few of the areas. Nothing I’ve experienced in hotels so far has equaled these. So, what’s the big deal? While the rooms are quite a bit bigger, much of the room remains the same; similar futons, small table with cushions to sit on, same small TV. But just about everything else was unparalleled in quality. They provided complimentary nine-course dinners that featured fruits and vegetables that were locally grown and prepared in artistic styling, a wide assortment of fresh sushi, and an overwhelming amount of washoku, or Japanese style dishes. This was all served in a personal dining room that occupied only friends or family and the staff members that brought in the courses. The staff of the ryokan were extremely professional and provided excellent service. Each of the three ryokans of this price range had onsen both indoor and outdoor, hidden by surrounding trees, bushes, and beautiful rock features. Two of the ryokans had peaceful gardens that visitors could walk through. One of the ryokans had a personal bath located on the balcony of the room that overlooked a small river and a grove of trees. Simply a dream.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in ryokans:
- Best choice for those wanting a very Japanese experience.
- Futons are to be expected. They are very comfortable, but if you have a hard time sleeping on the floor or need extremely cushiony bedding, you may want to avoid ryokans.
- You’ll need to familiarize yourself with basic Japanese manners and indoor conduct, so you don’t offend anyone and won’t cause a disturbance to the other guests. It’s not that difficult, but don’t stay at the ryokan if you don’t intend to be conscientious of your conduct toward your hosts and other guests.
- Some have public baths without privacy, so if you can’t handle being naked with members of your same sex, you might want to make sure to see what kind of bathing facilities are offered.
- Never wear shoes on the tatami mats inside your room.
- Complimentary Wi-Fi in most cases.
- Air Conditioning and heating units are standard in each room in my experience.
Main points to consider:
-Best choice for the full Japanese experience. – Expect to sleep on futons.
-Wide price range for most any budget. – Classic style for modern traveler.
-Learn Japanese manners and indoor customs. -TV is small and in Japanese.
I spent the majority of my travels in Japanese hotels. I consider Japanese hotels to be American-style hotels that are run by Japanese companies. This basically means that guests are offered a bed (not a futon), a large TV with some channels in English, and personal bathrooms that include a toilet, sink, shower, and tub. These Japanese hotels are often a bit smaller than American hotels, but very comfortable for those expecting an experience similar to Western standards. Price range generally starts at $35 for a basic individual room to $300 for the more expensive hotels. I’ve never stayed at a hotel for over $100 a night and usually stayed around the $35-$50 range. Really great quality all around.
There isn’t much to say that’s unique about Japanese hotels. I’ve never had a bad experience in even the cheapest ones.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in Japanese Hotels:
- Expect a smaller version of American/Western hotels.
- All the standard amenities.
- Personal bathroom including a toilet, sink, bath, and shower.
Main points to consider:
– Great options for those who just want a standard hotel room.
-Many rooms are very inexpensive. -Very private compared to other options.
American Hotels in Japan:
Alright, so in the locations with a high number of tourists there are usually a few American brand-name hotels such as Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and Hilton. I’ve stayed at two of these because the people traveling with me were new to Japan and were worried about Japanese hotels. They offer large rooms, large beds, large bathrooms, and everything you would expect from an expensive American hotel. In my opinion, they are super overpriced and price gouge you at every available opportunity. They don’t even offer complimentary Wi-Fi after you spent hundreds of dollars to stay there. Cheap bastards. The only real reason to stay here is if you really don’t want to get out of your comfort zone and are willing to pay out the ass for it. Great quality, very comfortable, but just not worth it. I mean, you’re staying in Japan – so stay in Japan!
Here’s what you need to know before staying in American hotels in Japan:
- Lots of TV channels in English.
- Why tho?
Main points to consider:
-I can’t find any super valid reason to stay in these, but that’s just me.
At the latter end of my travels in Japan, I stayed in a handful of Airbnb. If you’re not familiar with Airbnb, the idea is that you rent out an apartment or house that is owned and operated by locals rather than businesses. I’ve found that Airbnb in Japan is fantastic in larger cities where tourists are expected to visit… with the exception of Tokyo. Small cities and rural areas, not so much. The advantages in Airbnb are usually found in the decent price range and the amount of space provided. Cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima offer great prices for 2+ visitors – I paid an average of $35 a night per person for my friend and I to stay in two large apartments and a home. The locations were excellent and were furnished with large TVs, couches, a kitchen area, bathroom, and whatever else is usually expected at an Airbnb. All three of our hosts spoke English (or could at least type in English) and were very courteous. All three experiences were excellent.
I wouldn’t recommend staying in an Airbnb in Tokyo. The options available in Tokyo are more expensive than cheap hotel rooms and are often shared with other people (the owners) with a lot less space. Many of the reasons why someone would want to use Airbnb are inapplicable in Tokyo. Rural areas and small cities/towns have similar issues; it’s harder to find places that offer an entire apartment for a reasonable price range. But for the usual tourist locations and larger cities, I would highly recommend staying in an Airbnb.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in Airbnb Japan:
- Typically inexpensive.
- Hosts generally speak English.
- Typically have great amenities.
- Best for tourist areas and medium/large cities.
- Tokyo and rural areas or small cities don’t offer many of the advantages of Airbnb travel (listed above).
- More responsibility – make sure to clean up after yourself.
Main points to consider:
-If space is a consideration, this is a great option. -Hosts often speak English.
-Great for experiencing Japanese housing. – Typically inexpensive.
This is primarily based on personal experience, so your experience may vary. Hope this helps and happy travels!