No matter what your budget is, Japan has an accommodation for you.
Japan has so many options for accommodations: hotels, hostels, capsule hotels and ryokans. With so many options, deciding where to stay can get a bit overwhelming. In this article I'm going to discuss my personal experience with each type of accommodation and give the pros and cons of each along with advice to help you decide which type is best for which situation.
In my travels around Japan, I've stayed in almost every type of accommodation: from a $20/night, sex-divided capsule hotel to a $600/night onsen hotel and everything in-between. Here are my experiences and thoughts on each, I hope it helps!
A Japanese ryokan is a traditional inn-style hotel that features rooms with tatami mats and futon beds. Most of the time, a ryokan will include a public bath in lieu of a private bathroom and has a very communal feel.
If you are looking for a traditional Japanese experience, a ryokan is the way to go. They are often family-owned and if the owner can speak your language, he/she will probably have advice on the best local restaurants or attractions to visit. Some ryokans even provide a traditional, home-cooked breakfast/dinner.
In my experience, ryokans have been quite affordable and provide a unique and special experience. I would recommend staying in a ryokan at least once during your trip so you can experience the more traditional side of Japan.
There are a few things to consider if you do decide to go the ryokan route. As I mentioned before, ryokans often have a public bath instead of private bathrooms. For many foreigners, bathing with a group of strangers can be quite intimidating. On top of that, many public baths won't allow individuals with tattoos to enter them (although this is slowly starting to change).
Another possible drawback is that ryokans have you sleep on futons on a tatami mat floor and do not have mattresses. Personally, I love futons and I find them to be very comfortable. However, for some people sleeping on a futon on the floor can be an uncomfortable experience and result in a lack of sleep; it's all about personal preference.
The third possible drawback (or possible draw) to staying in a ryokan is that traditional Japanese meals can be intimidating for foreigners. Don't expect a ryokan to serve a Western breakfast; the meals often consist of soup, fish, onigiri (rice balls with a variety of fillings), natto (fermented soy beans) and a variation of vegetables. A Japanese breakfast is what most Westerners would consider to be dinner or lunch foods. Don't get me wrong here though, I'm not saying a Japanese breakfast is a drawback. In fact, Japanese cuisine is an art-form and if you get a chance to try a traditional meal, you'll be thankful you did! But for those who are picky eaters, it is something to consider.
Hostels are the most cost-effective place to stay when you travel to Japan. Some hostels I've stayed in have been as cheap as $20 USD per night and have been well-worth the money.
In Japan, pretty much every hostel I've stayed in has consisted of capsule-style beds like the ones shown here. There are often options to stay in sex-divided or co-ed rooms which are really good options if you're a solo traveler. As a woman traveling alone, having the choice to stay in an all-female dorm gives you peace of mind and security. However, if you're traveling with a friend or significant other of the opposite sex, then you can choose to stay in a co-ed dorm and be together.
Despite how they look, capsule-style beds are often extremely spacious and include a light, lock box, and sometimes even a place to hang your clothes in the capsule. In addition to a lock box, there are also lockers where you can store your luggage.
The bathrooms are shared when you stay in a Japanese hostel but I found that 9 times out of 10 they are sparkly clean and the showers are more like small, private rooms than the public gym showers you may be imagining.
There is one big thing to consider and that's the noise level. As to be expected when sleeping in a shared space, it can sometimes be difficult to sleep when you have people coming and going into the room at all hours of the night and turning lights on and off. For somebody who's a deep sleeper, it may not be a big deal but for a light sleeper, this could mean being woken up all throughout the night. I do advise bringing a set of earplugs or headphones and a blackout eye mask just in case.
If you're somebody who struggles with sleep, then I don't recommend staying in a hostel. If you're curious about what it's like, maybe stay in only one during your stay. However, lack of sleep can dramatically affect your experience so it might be better to see if the hostel offers private rooms (some do) for a higher price, or stay in a regular hotel.
Of course, it's always better if you can look at photos and reviews of the hostel before you stay there because quality can vary (I've had one very bad hostel experience). But so far, most of my Japanese hostel experiences have been wonderful and have saved me a lot of money!
Japanese capsule hotels have been in media a lot recently because of their futuristic look. But are they all they're cracked up to be?
To be honest, capsule hotels in Japan are pretty similar to the capsule-style hostels that I explained above. Each guest gets a locker to store their luggage, there is a shared bathroom, and you get your own pod to sleep in that's often pretty spacious.
The only real difference between the two types of accommodations is the type of people who stay there. Often, capsule hotels are used by business people in Japan when they have a business trip or as a cheap place to crash if they stayed out late the night before. For this reason, capsule hotels have a more business-like feel to them rather than the communal feel that capsule-style hostels have. If it's on your bucket list to stay in a capsule hotel in Japan then go for it! Try staying in one for a night to experience it. But if you're looking for a more fun, communal place to stay that also features capsules, find a hostel or guesthouse instead.
Hotels in Japan are like hotels in any other country: you can pay less for a mediocre hotel or you can pay more for a nice one (obviously). Many of the hotels are Western style so if you're looking to sleep on a traditional mattress and maybe even have a Western-inspired breakfast, a standard hotel is the way to go for you.
There are some hotels that do offer the choice of a tatami room with futons or a Western-style room, so if you'd like to have a hybrid experience, try opting for a tatami room.
If you can find a hotel that offers a tatami room and a private onsen, that's a great option as well! Especially for people who have tattoos and have limited onsen options, finding a room with a private onsen is the perfect alternative! It's true that a room like that will cost more money, but if you're looking to splurge for a night or two, it's definitely worth it!
So what's my final verdict on where you should stay in Japan? I suggest you try staying in a variety of places! In a single trip I've stayed in $20 USD/ night hostels, a ryokan, cheap hotels, and a fancy hotel. This variety allows you to experience all that Japan has to offer and your accommodations become part of the experience rather than just a bed to sleep in at night.
Personally, I do all my trip booking through Bookings.com (NOT sponsored, I've just been using them for years). I always read customer reviews, check the type of room and bed, check how far it is from the train station, etc.
I also recommend booking your accommodations as far in advance as possible. I know many of you backpackers like to be spontaneous and hop in any hostel you see, but I don't recommend that in Japan. For example, I'm going to Japan again soon and wanted to stay in a cheap hostel again that I liked last time. It's not a famous or popular one and wasn't even in a prime location. I tried to book it 4 months in advance and it was already completely full... This is especially true of the nicer hotels; rooms go fast so don't wait to book!
No matter what your budget is, Japan has an accommodation for you. So don't let your wallet dictate your location. Yes...plane and train tickets can get pricey, but accommodations don't have to be! So what are you waiting for? Start planning that trip!
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See you soon!