Time and again visitors to Japan are lured into booking their hotel through familiar sources, whether those be the website of a Western hotel with branches in Japan, or through online travel sites which do the searching for you (and whose search results are frequently Western hotels with branches in Japan).
Let’s not deny it: you can find some good deals this way. But there are other ways, too. Why would you want to do this? Well, for a start, Western hotels often charge through the nose for wifi, but Japanese hotels include wifi access for free. And you want to know what all the fuss is about when it comes to awesome Japanese toilets, right?
So let’s look at some options.
That sounds dreary, doesn’t it? But so-called Business Hotels are excellent value for money if all you intend to use your room for is a base from which to head out and explore. Space is limited, especially in Tokyo, and rooms will be fairly small. That said, they’re really no smaller than rooms in many hotels of the same price bracket in London or New York.
These hotels are smart, clean, functional, with en-suite bathrooms and free toiletries. If you use them for your entire stay you will not need to pack shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, razors, shaving foam, Q-tips, combs, or cotton wool pads. Most have these items in-room, and those which don’t will provide you with them on check in.
They have a television, desk, bed, and space to stow a medium sized suitcase. Those which count as a “double” room sleep myself and Mr. Troo quite comfortably, and we’re both six feet tall or over. Wifi is free in all rooms.
The Business Hotel is usually situated a short, convenient distance from a train or metro station, away from fashionable and tourist areas. They are not necessarily ideal if you are looking for a vibrant nightlife, as these areas tend to be business-focused, so while there are restaurants aplenty, nightclubs and other entertainment is further afield. Vending machines in the lobby or on your room’s floor offer drinks, snacks, and sometimes even self-heating meals.
Needless to say, Business Hotels are not really suitable for those travelling with children.
You’ve heard of them, everyone has. But are you brave enough to try one? Well, I’m certainly not, not even in the name of blogging. You see, I’m somewhat claustrophobic. But these are viable for putting your head down for a few hours, although ladies will need to search a little harder to find one which will accommodate them; most are designed for men who are working in the city and saving themselves a late night drunken commute to the suburbs or rural outskirts after heading to an Izakaya with colleagues.
They aren’t suitable for families. I would go so far as to suggest that they aren’t suitable for sleeping in, but if you fancy a night in a coffin just about big enough for your crazy foreign body, you go right ahead.
In all seriousness, some of these capsules are seriously well equipped, with a television, radio, wifi, and individual heating controls. There are blinds to keep the light out, lockable storage for your luggage, and shared bathrooms for the morning after. As befits their size, they extremely affordable, but not intended for long-term stay.
There are two main options here: Ryokan and Minshuku. Ryokan are highly traditional inns with tatami flooring, paper screens, and a shared bath. They often only have a handful of rooms, and many rooms now have en suite lavatories and perhaps even a shower. You sleep on a futon which, contrary to IKEA’s idea of a “futon”, is a slim mattress rolled out onto the floor. I find this tremendously comfortable, but you might not.
Minshuku are very similar, but smaller, usually only one or two rooms in a Japanese family home, much more akin to the idea of a bed and breakfast than a hotel.
Let’s not beat about the bush. Ryokan are expensive. Are they a must-have experience? I can’t really tell you that they are, in spite of everyone else telling you that you have to stay at a Ryokan. My stay in one was blighted by the emergency exit light at floor level shining through two paper doors and directly into my room, and I can’t sleep terribly well if it isn’t dark. Conversely the food was amazingly good. And that’s in comparison with Japanese food, which is already phenomenal.
It’s certainly an experience, but I’ll leave the cost/benefit analysis to you.
Western Style Hotels
These come in two flavours too: The Western-owned hotels, and the Japanese-owned hotels built in the style of a Western hotel. The majority are Three-star and up.
I’ve tried both, and I have to say that the Japanese version of a Western hotel is far better. Again, free wifi, but that’s not all there is to it. You tend to get fewer ill-behaved people staggering drunkenly through the halls at 3AM with the Japanese version, and the Western-owned hotels have fewer facilities for travellers who smoke.
Nothing can really hold a candle to the profusion of Japanese hotels which overlook railway stations, though, especially those with a birds-eye view of the Shinkansen platforms.
What? Come on, you know I’m a train nerd already!
Okay, so how do I book any of these?!
All right! You already know how to use sites like Expedia and Hotels.com, so let’s focus on taking the difficulty out of booking a Japanese hotel.
Option 1: JAPANiCAN: http://www.japanican.com
JAPANiCAN is a service offered by the JTB Corporation, who are a business whose shareholders include Japan Rail, a handful of Japanese banks, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and the Japan Hotel Association. This is how they can afford to do what they do, and what they do is excellent: they take your English-language hotel, ryokan or minshuku booking and deal with the Japanese-speaking staff at your chosen destination to place and confirm your booking on your behalf, free of charge.
You pay nothing when you book. Instead you turn up with your confirmation email printed out, and pay at the front desk when you check in. The rates are no higher than if you could speak Japanese and call the hotel yourself. I’ve used this service and had no problem whatsoever with it.
They also offer tour deals, and occasionally have top dollar hotels on great offers.
Option 2: Toyoko Inn: http://www.toyoko-inn.com/eng/index.html
Toyoko Inn are a chain of business hotels across the country who have an English-language section on their website. It’s not the most intuitive of interfaces, but once you get to grips with it it’s fine.
I love Toyoko Inn. Seriously. The rooms are consistently clean, breakfast is included, and they’re always accessible. Each branch has both Japanese and English versions of the map so that you can print them off and use one yourself, but the other if you need to ask for directions. They offer a membership card which gives you discounts and free stays, especially if you are a single traveller. They have the hotel name in neon blue letters at the top of the building so that you can pick it out and work your way toward it. And they’re affordable.
I like affordable. It means I have more money for shopping.
Option 3: Rakuten: http://travel.rakuten.com/
Rakuten is a Japanese company which is fairly ubiquitous within Japan, offering everything from online auction sites to – as you can see – hotel booking. Rates are often excellent, and if you can’t book a room directly with a hotel itself, don’t despair – often Rakuten has block-bookings which mean that they have availability where the hotel itself has already run out. This is especially useful during high tourism seasons like spring cherry-blossom season, Golden Week, or autumn colour season. Like JAPANiCAN, bookings are done in English, confirmation is instant, and there is no charge to you for the service.
Option 4: Hostelworld: http://www.hostelworld.com/
There isn’t a great deal I can say about this, as I’ve never used it, but it is listed on the Japanese National Tourism Organization website. Hostelworld provide English-language booking for hostels, guest houses, and other budget accommodations across multiple countries including Japan.
That’s all there is to it, so save yourself the expense of doing it the usual way, and put all that saved cash toward something lovely. A JR Pass, maybe, or some shabu shabu.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not being paid to write this post, and even if I were, I would be nothing but honest. Troo Adventure isn’t subsidised by anyone but me, out of my own pocket.