When it comes to accommodation in Japan, there’s a lot to choose from. It can get confusing especially for those travelling there for the first time. Capsule and business hotels, traditional inns and temple lodging. Don’t know about you, but I felt very overwhelmed in the beginning. Should I go the familiar western-style route or be adventurous and try something new?
To make your life easier, here’s a general look at the accommodation options in Japan based on my personal experiences:
Capsule hotels in Japan
The original capsule
The original capsule hotels feature rows of small capsules stack on top of each other in twos (to be honest, it gives me morgue-like vibes). Each has a small opening that allows you to crawl into your bed that you can close by pulling a blind down. Inside there’s not much room but they are designed quite well and give you some sort of air conditioning, tv or radio, a power point and a clock. Most also have a small lockable shelf where you can keep your phone and a small purse or wallet. There are also all the amenities you may need like pyjamas, toothbrushes, razors and soap. The shared facilities are kept clean & well stocked. Some capsule hotels (like this one in Shinjuku) feature traditional Japanese baths.
The premium capsule
My favourite kind of capsule hotel (unbiased opinion, based on my great one-night stay at MyCUBE by MYSTAYS Asakusa Kuramae in September 2017). In place of two regular capsules, there’s just one – taller and with a big, roller-door locker underneath. The capsule entry is also on the longer side of the bed which makes it much more accessible and means that climbing up to the bed looks less clumsy. The locker was big enough to easily fit my medium size suitcase and a carry-on size backpack (there was still room for at least another backpack). Inside the capsule were a small foldable table, a mirror, hangers for clothes, flat screen tv, USB charging outlet (these should be in every hotel!), a power outlet, AC, clock, a shelf and a small locker for things like phone, wallet, documents. There were also all the basic amenities like 2-piece pyjamas, bathroom bag for towels etc, towels set, toothbrush. The bed was very clean and fresh. A nice purple throw on top made it look more like a nice hotel.
Each floor had its own shower & toilet rooms which were stocked with all the bathroom amenities one may need. There was a washing machine, vending machines, a lounge area and free high-speed WiFi. It all made for a very comfortable stay – and that’s me saying this, a 5-star-hotel-loving person.
The only downside for me (other than inconsiderate people who like to repack their bags at 2am) was the temperature. It became unbearably hot at night.
Price paid: ¥4500/AUD50 (without breakfast)
The verdict: would stay again
The first-class “capsule”
For my last night in Japan during my September 2017 visit, I decided to go to the fancy capsule hotel. The below is based on that stay at First Cabin Shinbashi Atagoyama. I have trouble calling the one I picked – Superior Capsule Room – a capsule. It resembles a small container with accordion-type doors. The bed doesn’t take all the space inside. There’s actual floor space where I was able to easily open my suitcase, a small table and a rubbish bin. Of course, there are all the things you can find in regular capsules like power points, tv and a clock. It was missing a USB outlet though. And unfortunately, a lock. It is apparently a fire safety-related thing and they cannot allow locking the rooms. There’s a lockable drawer under the bed, but it’s quite small and I couldn’t even squeeze my backpack in there.
Being able to compare with the cheaper, but still on the premium side of things, capsule hotel, this one was disappointing. For two women-only floors, there was only one bathroom – with a Japanese-style bath and a single (!) shower room. I was glad that at least each floor had its own toilets. There’s a 30-ish cm gap between the door and the room ceiling that lets all the light from the outside into the room. The bed was hard and uncomfortable and when I couldn’t fall asleep I was actually missing “my” capsule from the previous night.
Price paid: ¥6300/AUD70 (without breakfast)
The verdict: preferred the cheaper one
Need to remember:
There are hundreds of capsules in those type of hotels and not all people will be considerate enough to be quiet so it may not be the best place for light sleepers.
The facilities like bathrooms, toilets and showers are shared. If you’re not comfortable around strangers then it’s not for you. And also, the wait time for showers & toilets may be longer during peak times.
The capsules are very small. Don’t even consider this if you’re claustrophobic.
You won’t have your luggage with you in the capsule. It’s stored safely in the locker provided so you need to think ahead of time what clothes you may need the next morning and make sure you have your phone & camera chargers with you in the pod. Also, consider your separation anxiety (I’m one of those people who like to keep an eye on their belongings at all times).
Check-in usually starts from 4 or 5pm and check out is around 10 am. Most places though will keep your luggage during the day so you can still go and do the touristy stuff without having to take all your belongings with you. The downside is – no after lunch nap at the hotel.
While this is a great option for solo travellers, I wouldn’t recommend it to couples. You won’t be not only in the same capsule but also on the same floor. Price-wise you may be better off with a business hotel anyway.
Japanese Business Hotels
The most common type of hotels you can find in Japan. Stay at one and you’ve stayed at all of them. They look very much alike if not identical. Same size, same layout, same bathroom, same furniture, same semi-double beds.
No matter if in Matsumoto, Tokyo or Fukuoka it goes like this: not much room for suitcases so if you need them open you will either block the exit or have to keep them on the bed; the bathroom usually is this all-in-one type that seems to be made of one piece of plastic – the walls, the bathtub, the floor, the basin are all the same colour and material; the bedhead has a built-in control station with lights switches, radio, clock etc; the bed is semi-double no matter if you book for 1 person or for 2 it will be the same size; there’s a desk with a tv next to it and a tiny fridge underneath; on top of the desk you’ll find a kettle, mugs and tea; full-length mirror and some hanging space next to the exit.
Some of those have breakfast included in the price. Recently we stayed at the Hotel JAL City Haneda Tokyo West Wing (which wasn’t exactly this cookie-cutter type of establishment and looked much more modern) and we were positively surprised by the quality of the buffet breakfast. They also offered a free shuttle from the Haneda Airport and the staff spoke very good English.
Business hotels are our go-to option when we travel together – they’re comfy enough for a good night sleep, are usually in good locations, have private bathrooms and decent prices.
Price paid (for the JAL hotel mentioned above): ¥10800/AUD122 (with breakfast)
The verdict: good value for money & you always know what to expect
4* & 5* + famous chain hotels
Well established hotels that made the name for themselves around the world are of course available in Japan so if you’re looking for comforts of at least 4* accommodation you won’t have problems finding just that in the big cities.
I previously described our stay at one of the best rooms of Shinjuku Granbell Hotel if you’re interested to see a more detailed description. One of my favourite features of those fancier hotels, many of which are located in tall buildings, are the views – either from the room, restaurant or a club lounge.
They cost a lot and while I’m always a fan of those, I can’t really justify the price in Japan. Mostly because I don’t spend much time inside the hotels. But also because if I’m spending big $ then I prefer to stay at a ryokan.
Prices: from ~¥30000/AUD340 (without breakfast)
The verdict: nice treat but prefer to spend my money elsewhere
Ryokan – the traditional inns
Here we are, my absolute favourite type of accommodation in Japan. I would like to convince everyone to spend at least one night at a good ryokan. What I love so much about it?
Let me start with the food. Most ryokans have food (dinner and breakfast) included in the price. Both, or at least the dinner, are served in your room, are elaborate and should be considered a form of art. Local, seasonal produce shines in the menu. If you’re staying in a coastal area (for example Isaribi in the Izu Peninsula) you’ll get a lot of seafood, inland it will be more about vegetables and meat (like at Hatago Shohaku near Koriyama).
The onsen baths are also always a special treat. Some rooms have a smaller private onsen tub but you haven’t stayed at a ryokan until you’ve tried the real deal. Main onsens are heaven – they’re large, beautifully designed and often with an outdoor area. They usually can be booked late in the evening for private bathing so even if you have a problem with being naked around strangers, you have no excuse if it’s just you (or you and your partner). The onsen is not only the most relaxing thing but the water also makes your skin silky smooth.
The service, which generally in Japan is of one of the highest standards, is also outstanding. The English speaking staff may be very limited in the more remote locations but google translate exists for occasions like this.
Prices: from ~¥40000/AUD450 (with dinner and breakfast)
The verdict: a must do! try to book for at least one night during your trip
A night in a Buddhist temple – an alternative accommodation option in Japan
What would you say to a night in a Buddhist temple? Last year we spent a night in Henjoko Temple in Koyasan and for not-at-all-spiritual people, it was a memorable and special experience. The room itself looked like a traditional Japanese room, with paper-screen doors, tatami floor and bean-filled pillows. What’s different than in a regular hotel is:
- that your food (in our case dinner and breakfast) is served by monks and is vegetarian as they follow a vegetarian diet
- it’s very eerily quiet
- the bathrooms are shared – our room had a private toilet though – and the bathing hours are limited
- check-in is strictly before 5pm otherwise you won’t be served food
- you can (and I would encourage you to do so) attend the morning ceremony which starts about 6.30am
And the morning ceremony was the highlight of the stay for me. We sat quietly on the floor, observed every move, listened to the chanting of the monks and for a moment there I wasn’t really sure if I’m really awake or still dreaming. A fascinating experience that I will remember forever.
Temple lodging in Koyasan can be booked online via Shukubo website.
Prices: from ¥9720/AUD110 (with dinner and breakfast)
The verdict: fascinating experience
Airbnb in Japan
Like everywhere in the world, this option has its pros and cons. While it’s great to experience a “real” Japanese house or apartment living, the address system and rubbish sorting rules can be confusing.
So far, we used Airbnb twice in Japan. In Hiroshima, when we didn’t realise early enough that our date coincides with the 70th anniversary of the bombings and all hotels were booked out. It turned out good for us, as our host took us out for dinner and we had a chance to try some local cuisine in a restaurant we wouldn’t find ourselves. The second time was in Osaka. That one wasn’t that good. First, we waited for over an hour for our host who was supposed to take us to the apartment. Only to discover she wasn’t there and sent a friend to pick us up who was waiting in a slightly different spot. Then we didn’t get much sleep at night because of the street racers cruising on the Hanshin Expressway right next to our windows. As I said, it’s a hit and miss situation.
Prices: vary too much to give an estimate; use this link to get AUD50 off of your first Airbnb stay
The verdict: it’s a good backup option
One last tip
No matter which option you choose I highly recommend booking far in advance (especially in bigger cities like Tokyo or Osaka). If you don’t book early, someone else will.