Japan offers a wide range of accommodation, from cheap guesthouses to first-class hotels, and distinctive Japanese-style ryokan (traditional inns) and minshuku (guesthouses). Advance booking is highly recommended, especially in major tourist destinations.
- Hotels Midrange and luxury, domestic and international chains, and a few boutique properties can be found in all major cities.
- Business Hotels Compact, economic rooms clustered around train stations.
- Ryokan Traditional Japanese inns, found usually in countryside and resort areas.
- Hostels & Guesthouses Affordable and plentiful in tourist destinations, often with English-speaking staff; most have dorm and double rooms.
- Capsule Hotels Sleeping berths the size of a single bed.
- Bookings can mostly be made online in English, through booking sites or directly from the lodging's homepage, except for some older, traditional inns.
- Many smaller, independent inns and hostels offer slightly better rates if you book directly (rather than through a booking site).
- For hotels of all classes, rates can vary tremendously, and discounts significantly below rack rates can be found online. Many hotels offer cheaper rates if you book two weeks or a month in advance.
- Not all tourist information centres can make bookings, but the ones in smaller towns and cities, where finding accommodation might be challenging, usually can. Note that these can close as early as 5pm in rural areas.
- Providing you speak clearly and simply, making phone reservations in English is usually possible at larger hotels and foreigner-friendly ryokan.
Feature: High Season
Peak travel periods include cherry-blossom season (late March to early April); Golden Week (late April to early May); O-Bon (mid-August); autumn-foliage season (October to early December, depending on the region); and the New Year period (late December to early January). During these times, accommodation can be hard to come by, especially in Kyoto and resort towns, and will likely be pricier (sometimes significantly so). If you plan to be in Japan then, it's wise to make reservations as far in advance as possible.
Japan has a huge number of campgrounds (キャンプ場; kyampu-jō), which are popular with students and families during the summer holidays; as such, many campgrounds are only open July through September. They're typically well maintained with showers and barbecue facilities. JNTO has a list of recommended campgrounds: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-804.pdf.
Camping is also possible year-round (when conditions permit) at campgrounds – often more basic – in the mountains or around certain mountain huts. 'Guerrilla' or unofficial camping is also possible in many parts of rural Japan, but we recommend asking a local person about acceptable areas before setting up your tent.
Japan has an extensive network of hostels. These include official Japan Youth Hostel (JYH; www.jyh.or.jp/e/index.php) properties as well as a growing number of independent, often quite stylish, hostels.
JYH lodgings are usually tightly run ships: hostellers are expected to check in between 3pm and 8pm to 9pm and there may be a curfew of 10pm or 11pm. Check-out is usually before 10am and dormitories may be closed between 10am and 3pm. Bath time is usually between 5pm and 9pm, dinner is between 6pm and 7.30pm, and breakfast is between 7am and 8am.
The price for members is usually around ¥3000 for a dorm room (around ¥3600 for nonmembers); a one-year membership costs ¥2500. Most of these hostels serve meals that are usually quite good and excellent value (about ¥1000 for dinner and ¥500 for breakfast); however, as meals are prepared in-house, kitchens are usually closed to guests. See the website for a list of properties and information on membership.
Independent hostels tend to have a more laid-back atmosphere, with more flexible check-in times and no curfew (though less quality control). Staff, often travellers themselves, usually speak good English and are good sources of local information. These hostels usually don't provide meals so will have an open kitchen. Prices are similar to those charged by official hostels, sometimes even a bit cheaper. Among the more popular are the K's House (https://kshouse.jp/index_e.html) and J-Hoppers (http://j-hoppers.com) groups.
Hostels supply bedding, which you may need to make up yourself. Most are dorm-style but some have tatami rooms with futons. There will usually be some private and family rooms, too (costing about ¥1000 extra per person). Towels can be hired for about ¥100; basic toiletries (soap and shampoo) may or may not be supplied.
You'll find a range of Western-style hotels in most Japanese cities and resort areas. Even budget hotels are generally clean and well serviced (though older ones might have smoky rooms). In the top-end bracket, you can expect to find the amenities of deluxe hotels anywhere in the world.
Boutique hotels don't have much of a presence in Japan. This is perhaps because the concept – intimate and with memorable decor – is too similar in the minds of some to that of a hotel with unsavoury repute: the love hotel.
Functional and economical, 'business hotels' (ビジネスホテル; bijinesu hoteru) are geared to the lone traveller on business, but they're great for any kind of traveller – so long as you don't need a lot of space. The compact rooms usually have semidouble beds (140cm across; roomy for one, a bit of a squeeze for two) and tiny en suite bathrooms. Business hotels are famous for being deeply unfashionable, though many chains have updated their rooms in recent years. Expect to pay from ¥8000/12,000 for single/double occupancy (more in big cities like Tokyo).
Business hotels are usually clustered around train stations. Some reliable chains with huge networks include Toyoko Inn (www.toyoko-inn.com/eng) and Dormy Inn (www.hotespa.net/dormyinn/en).
Capsule & Cabin Hotels
Capsule hotels (カプセルホテル; kapuseru hoteru) offer rooms the size of a single bed, with just enough headroom for you to sit up. Think of it like a bunk bed with more privacy (and a reading light, TV and alarm clock). Prices range from ¥3500 to ¥5000, which usually includes access to a large shared bath and sauna. Personal belongings are kept in a locker room. Most only accept cash and do not permit guests with visible tattoos.
Capsule hotels are common in major cities and often cater to workers who have partied too hard to make it home or have missed the last train. Most are men-only, though some have floors for women, too; there is also a growing number of stylish ones aimed at foreign tourists.
At these hotels for amorous encounters – known in Japanese as rabu hoteru (ラブホテル; or rabuho for short) – you can stop for a short afternoon 'rest' (from ¥3000) or an overnight 'stay' (from ¥6500); you can't stay consecutive nights, though. Some have flamboyant facades or kitschy interiors (and amenities that range from costumes to video-game consoles).
Love hotels are designed for maximum privacy: entrances and exits are kept separate; keys are provided through a small opening without contact between desk clerk and guest; and photos of the rooms are displayed to make the choice easy for the customer.
They can be found in entertainment districts in cities; if you're driving, you can also spot them off highways (these ones tend to be the most over-the-top looking). Most love hotels are comfortable with foreign guests, but travellers have reported being turned away at some places. Same-sex couples may have more trouble than heterosexual couples.
Kokumin-shukusha (people's lodges) are government-supported institutions offering affordable accommodation in scenic areas. Private Japanese-style rooms are the norm, though some places offer Western-style rooms. Prices average ¥5500 to ¥6500 per person per night, including two meals.
Mountain huts (yama-goya) are common in many of Japan's hiking and mountain-climbing areas. While you'll occasionally find free emergency shelters, most huts are privately run and charge for accommodation. These places offer bed and board (two meals) at around ¥5000 to ¥8000 per person (¥3000 to ¥5000 if you prepare your own meals); sleeping is in a common room on either bunks or the floor. On well-trafficked mountains like Mt Fuji, reservations are essential; in general it's best to call ahead, though if there's space you won't usually be turned away.
Short-term rental and apartment share sites currently operate in a grey zone in Japan. According to law, a unit may be rented for a minimum of 30 days. Tokyo's Ota-ku (where Haneda Airport is located) and Osaka (the city, not the prefecture) are exceptions; in these places the minimum stay is seven nights. This may change, as the government has been reviewing legislation pertaining to vacation rentals (called minpaku in Japanese).
Rider houses (ライダーハウス; raidā hausu) are bare-bones budget accommodation options reserved for travellers on two wheels, usually on the outskirts of town. Nicer ones are similar to youth hostels; at the most basic, you might get a spare futon in a shed. Prices vary, but ¥1500 per person per night is about average. It's a good idea to have a sleeping bag, though you can ask to rent bedding from the owner. For bathing facilities, you will often be directed to the local sentō (public bath).
Many have been running for decades and have a devoted following. They can be a little tricky to find at first, as there's little information out there in English; but stay in one and you can tap into the local network of motorcyclists and cyclists, who can help you work out where to stay next.
Rider houses are most common in Hokkaidō, but there are some all over. Though it's in Japanese, the website Hatinosu (www.hatinosu.net/house) has info and a map of rider houses around Japan.
As they're small they can fill up fast, so it's wise to call ahead during summer. Not all are open year-round, especially those in Hokkaidō.
A night (or several) in some traditional accommodation is a highly recommended experience. These include ryokan (traditional inns), minshuku (traditional guesthouses) and shukubō (temple lodgings). Sleeping is on futons and tatami mats; most provide meals (which can be spectacular) of local cuisine. Note that traditional accommodation tends to charge per person rather than per room; prices (including two meals) range from about ¥6000 for a simple minshuku to ¥12,000 or more for a night in a ryokan. Traditional accommodation does exist in cities; in many rural areas, they might be the only lodgings in town.