Japan offers a huge variety of lodging options, from traditional inns that provide a glimpse into the country's past to luxurious skyscraper hotels with jaw-dropping views. There are historic lodges beside World Heritage Sites, family-oriented accommodations in national parks, mountaintop Buddhist temples and no-frill business hotels, all with Japan's high standards for cleanliness and hospitality and with enough choices to suit any budget or preference.
Nothing conveys Japan's rich traditions better than staying in a Japanese inn, or ryokan. They're found mostly in historic towns like Kyoto or Takayama, or in hot spring resorts that dot the country. The oldest ryokan date back centuries, when they served feudal lords, samurai retainers and merchants. Today's inns vary greatly in age, size, ambience and price.
Trademarks of a ryokan are tatami guestrooms where futons are spread out at night. Examples include the historic Hiiragiya in Kyoto, built in 1818 and now under its sixth generation of innkeepers, and the sprawling 400-room Dai-ichi Takimotokan in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, famous for its massive hot spring baths. The best inns serve elaborate kaiseki feasts that change with the seasons, while large ones catering mostly to families are more likely to offer buffet meals.
For budget travelers, there are also minshuku, Japanese-style lodging in a private home, similar to bed and breakfasts in the West. Found in tourist destinations, mostly small towns and rural areas, they can range from nondescript concrete buildings to traditional wooden homes. Most do not have private bathrooms, but there are communal toilets and bathtubs. Shirakawa-go, in the Japanese Alps, is famous for its thatched-roof minshuku farmhouses, passed down from generation to generation.
Rates for a ryokan or minshuku usually are per person and include breakfast and dinner.
High-end international properties, many with great city views, have made their debut in Tokyo over the past two decades, including the Park Hyatt, Conrad, Ritz-Carlton, Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La, with more slated to open as the capital gears up for the 2020 Olympics. Upper-end domestic chains include the Imperial, New Otani, Okura and Tokyu, all with long histories and superb service. Many luxury hotels offer a wide range of conveniences and amenities, from spas and swimming pools to shopping arcades.
Boutique hotels have been slow to enter the market, but setting the pace are standouts like the classy Claska in Tokyo and the Hotel Kanra Kyoto, which combines Japanese furnishings with modern sophistication.
Mid-range hotels make up the majority of Japan's accommodations, and because they're popular with vacationers, they're clustered in cities and tourist destinations throughout the country. Many are locally owned or part of a small regional company, but national chains include the Monterey Hotel group, popular with Japanese women for its European Old World decor, and the JR Hotel Group, whose 60-some member hotels are located next to train stations.
There are also a scattering of historic lodges in resort towns or national parks, many of them dating back to the 19th century after Japan opened its doors to foreign visitors. These include the majestic Fujiya Hotel in Hakone, the Nikko Kanaya Hotel and the Nara Hotel, the latter two next to World Heritage Sites.
Business hotels, once the domain of Japanese businessmen, are today popular also with women and overseas tourists. Services are limited (many have vending machines in place of restaurants), and no-nonsense rooms are tiny but contain everything you need, including Wi-Fi, often for free. Ubiquitous chains include Toyoko Inn, which almost always employs female managers; Tokyu Inn, all with Ladies' Rooms geared to women; Mitsui Garden; APA Hotel; Sunroute; and super-budget-priced Super Hotel.
The quality is generally quite high for all classes of hotels, though Westerners may find Japan's compact quarters, especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, enlightening. Virtually all rooms have "washlet" toilets, otherwise known as bidet toilets, which come with spray features in a range of speeds and temperatures. Many hotels also have at least a few Japanese-style rooms with futons laid out on tatami floors; some might also have so-called combination rooms, which have tatami areas plus Western-style beds.
Travelers who don't need the services of a concierge or hotel restaurant might consider renting their own machiya, a traditional wooden house typical of feudal-era Japan. Kyoto and Kanazawa both have historic centers with machiya accommodating two or more people, making them good also for families. Every house is different, but all have traditional furnishings and kitchenettes with microwaves.
A pension is similar to a minshuku in that it's lodging in a family's home, except that furnishings are Western-style with beds instead of futons, and dinner and breakfast are Western meals, usually included in the price. Pensions tend to be located in the countryside or in ski resorts and generally do not have private bathrooms but rather shared facilities. Public access can be a problem to some of the more remote properties for travelers who don't have a car.
People's Lodgings, or Kokumin Shukusha, are inexpensive public accommodations located mostly in or near national parks and vacation destinations, such as Shodo Island. There are also 36 National Park Resort Villages (nicknamed Kyukamura and sometimes Qkamura) found exclusively in national parks. Because they're reasonably priced, with breakfast and dinner in their rates, they're extremely popular with families and school groups; reservations are a must during peak season (public holidays, weekends and summer).
Rooms are basic Japanese-style, though some also offer Western-style rooms, and may or may not have private bathrooms. Because of remote locations, public transportation can be limited, but Kyukamura served by train or bus include Tohoku's hot spring resort Nyuto Onsen and Kyushu's hot spring resorts of Ibusuki and Unzen.
Kokumin-Shukusha.or.jp (Japanese only)
Buddhist temples offer simple tatami rooms, mostly with shared bathrooms and some with nice garden views. Many offer vegetarian meals and the opportunity to join early morning services that include chanting and sometimes a sacred fire ceremony. There are many temples offering accommodations (called a shukubo), including Shunko-in in Kyoto, which also offers Zen meditation classes in English and temple tours. But the most memorable place to experience temple life is on Mount Koya, a famous religious retreat with more than 100 temples.
For an unconventional and inexpensive overnight stay, nothing quite beats a capsule hotel, with individual compartments generally no larger than a bed and often stacked two deep along a corridor. Gaining popularity in the 1980s among Japanese businessmen in urban areas, they come equipped with TV and electric outlets, but shared bathrooms are down the hall.
Although most capsule hotels are for men, some have separate facilities for women. A few have even raised the bar, like First Cabin in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka, which offers more headroom than typical capsules, as well as "first-class cabins" with floor space.
Love hotels are found mostly along highways and near entertainment districts like Shibuya in Tokyo. They are not brothels but rather places where couples can rent rooms by the hour. Many have over-the-top themed rooms that can range from dungeons to ocean-liner staterooms, along with appropriate props. To protect privacy, contact with staff, who might not speak English, is limited. Although designed for short stays, rooms can usually be rented overnight after 10 p.m. at prices that are often lower than business hotels.
--written by Beth Reiber