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Where to Stay in Japan - Types of Accommodation
Hotels in Japan are every bit as good as their Western counterparts and are definitely your best bet for English speaking staff and extensive facilities. You will be able to find them in all but the most out of the way areas. They are everything that you would expect from hotels in the US or Europe or more. Some offer a range of extras but it's worth remembering that the massages and swimming pools are rarely included in the price of your room. Watch out also for the service charges that are often added to the bill. If the final amount per person is under 5,000 3% will be added, if over 5,000 then its 6%.
A typical Japanese business hotel
Reasonably priced but not always inspiring. Designed for the traveling salaryman, these hotels are very much a workmanlike affair. As they are often geared towards the lower-ranking business traveller, the rooms are generally small singles with attached unit bathroom. Doubles are sometimes available but again, the emphasis is very much on the compact. Don't expect a restaurant or even a cafeteria, nor any services beyond vending machines and proximity to the railway station. But no services means no service charges and a business hotel can often be your cheapest option in an urban area.
Prepare to return to the womb for a night. Capsule hotels are the epitome of Japanese space management. Usually situated near railway stations, capsule hotels cost around 4,000 yen a night and check out is early, usually between 9.00 or 10.00am. Some are massive operations - Shinjuku's Green Plaza in Tokyo has 660 capsules. You'll have enough room to lie down and perhaps sit up but certainly not enough to do much more than watch the built-in TV, read a book and sleep in your fibre-glass interior. Washing facilities are provided and some have quite luxurious baths and even massage parlours. But most are simple affairs catering for a very particular market - the salaryman out drinking late who has missed the last train home. Often, they are cheaper than a cab ride back to an angry wife. And because this kind of behaviour is usually the domain of men, capsule hotels that admit women are few and far between.
Limited space and thin walls can make Japanese homes unsuitable for that private rendezvous and "love hotels" are the answer. Very much geared up towards nocturnal activities, you certainly can't miss their gaudy exteriors though that will be nothing compared to what you will find inside.
Facilities might include a karaoke machine, a bathtub for two, a vending machine stocked with sex toys and videos to satisfy the most eclectic tastes. They charge "rest" rates until around 10pm when they start to take staying guests. You may well find them the best value (heart-shaped) double bed you'll find for the night. Longer-term stays are out of the question. Mostly, they're not as seedy as you might expect and they will certainly be the height of cleanliness though perhaps not taste. Standards have to be maintained of course when it's just as likely that mum and dad come here to escape the kids as the other way round.
A typical tatami-mat floored room in a Japanese ryokan
What they lack in modern facilities, ryokan make up for in enchanting locations and traditional Japanese hospitality. Often you will be the guest of a family that have run their ryokan for hundreds of years. At these establishments, you'll feel the years of tradition as soon as you pass through the old wooden threshold. Inside, your room will be floored with tatami, the woven reed mats for bare feet and socks only, and paper screens will open out onto a manicured garden.
You may be respectfully instructed to bathe and don a traditional yukata robe and geta clogs, all this before sitting down to a kaiseki meal. Ryokan are the height of Japanese elegance and luxury though it should be noted that this might not live up to some Western standards. Sitting on the floor for instance is not easy for everyone and rice, raw egg and fish may not be your idea of breakfast. Older and quainter ryokan may even lack modern heating.
What are inconveniences for one will just add to the
charm for another. Larger, more modern ryokan are appearing and though they
lack a little of the intimacy and atmosphere, they offer modern facilities
and come at a slightly cheaper price. Prices in general are per person,
though the more people you have sharing a room, the lower that price becomes.
You might find the rates a little hard to stomach but remember you will
be getting two ample meals thrown in, which makes them competitive with
most good hotels.
Minshuku are similar but more modest affairs, usually lower in price and without the attentive service. The distinction, however, between a high-class minshuku and a cheaper ryokan is a blurred one. You might find that you're left to your own devices in a ryokan but doted on at a more attentive minshuku. Generally though, you will have to put out your own bedding and tidy it away in the morning. Because some minshuku are no more than a family home run as a guesthouse on the side, you should expect to respect relatively early curfews and make certain common-sense allowances. But in return you will be rewarded with the personal kindness of your hosts.
Sometimes referred to as "people's lodges," these are a kind of publicly run hotel, established to boost tourism in less visited areas. With that kind of government clout behind them they get the pick of the scenic locations in rural Japan, often commanding wonderful views on hilltops in national parks. But this can be a drawback too as often the only way to get to where they are is by car. Backpackers beware. Rooms and facilities will be in the Japanese style as it's mainly domestic tourists that they aiming to attract. Two meals are usually included in the price and families and large groups are well catered for. As a consequence, they are a popular choice and advance reservations are recommended.
Generally confined to the countryside, a pension is like a Westernised version of a minshuku or alternatively, the Japanese version of the French lodgings from which they get their name. That means a small number of rooms each with a bed (a real one), a communal dining room downstairs and showers rather than Japanese baths. It also means you get a Western-style breakfast and sometimes dinner is also included. Comfortable and homely bases from which to explore the surrounding area.
They may not be as abundant as in other countries but you should be able to find youth hostels in big cities and at scenic spots, sometimes even at Buddhist temples. Having an IYHF or JYHA card can save you money and prices are comparable to youth hostels in Western countries. Expect shared dormitories, basic facilities and strictly enforced curfews. If meals are included you might have to help tidy up afterwards. Like youth hostels everywhere, they are the best way to meet fellow travellers and certainly the cheapest accommodation around. If you're planning to explore the area on foot or on bikes, you will find your hostel's "parents" a goldmine of local information. It's always well worth getting a tip and picking up any of the leaflets and maps they provide.
If the peace and tranquility of simple living are what you are searching for in Japan, then perhaps shukubo are your best bet. The tradition of temples opening their doors to lodgers began when worshippers who had made a pilgrimage were allowed to stay on site. Now, many still have their doors open and everybody is welcome - Buddhist or not. You don't need to be a believer to appreciate the unique setting or to enjoy the shojin ryori (literally, "devotional food") of local vegetables and tofu, cooked by monks who put their souls into their work. In some cases you will be given a simple room and left to your own devices. But often participation is an essential part of the experience. If you can adjust to the monks' definition of "morning" and get yourself up for the 6am services, you can join in with meditation and have monks on hand to help you achieve your peace.
Called kyampu-jo in Japan, most campsites are very basic affairs where hot water is a matter of boiling your own from the river. But these campsites are often in the most rewarding of locations, such as those in Japan's many national parks. It's worth noting that it can be hard to get to more remote spots without motor transport. Renting a car or touring by motorcycle may be your best bet for a camping holiday. A number however take the "rough" out of roughing it and have very good facilities. In areas where camping is popular such as Hokkaido, coin laundries, kitchens and space to park the RV are common and sometimes there are even sports facilities and hot springs. But where the camping is popular, early reservations are advisable, especially in the summer months when schools are on holiday.