A trip to Japan can be the ultimate in culture shock. So when I was in Tokyo last month, I was thrilled to discover Tokyu Stay (www.tokyustay.co.jp), the Japanese capital's only chain of short-stay apartment hotels.
You've probably seen Tokyu Stay's formula before in the U.S., but it's new to Japan. Start with a relatively big, reasonably-priced room. Add a washer/dryer and a kitchen, so you don't have to worry about building up huge piles of dirty laundry or the exhaustion of negotiating with non-English-speaking waiters when you just want a plate of noodles. Tack on free, high-speed Internet access for getting in touch with home. Now subtract daily maid service, room service, and a hotel bar -- but stick a restaurant and convenience store right outside the hotel.
The result: maximum Tokyo, minimum culture shock, and a room you can call "home."
I found Tokyu Stay's kitchen a tremendous comfort after long days of sightseeing and struggling with the Japanese language. I could always nip 'home' for a plate of noodles grabbed from a local convenience store. Knowing I had a washing machine at my disposal, I stuffed my luggage with Japanese toys, not with extra shirts. And I found the ¥19,950 ($199.50) twin room surprisingly spacious for one of the world's most cramped cities.
Three of Tokyu Stay's branches are well-located for tourists. I stayed at the Yotsuya branch, in a busy neighborhood smack halfway between popular west Tokyo spots like Harajuku and Shibuya and east Tokyo attractions like Akihabara, Yanaka and Hibiya. Within a block, I had two convenience stores, a real grocery store, a cheap American-style restaurant and several good Japanese restaurants. A train two minutes' walk away zipped me to Shinjuku in five minutes, and to Akihabara in eight.
If you stay at Tokyo Stay Yotsuya, go for a room with a low last number; I spent some time in room 1403, which like other "03" rooms on high floors has views of Roppongi Hills and even of Mount Fuji on a clear day. And if you want a non-smoking room, make it clear -- although the front desk staff is helpful, they speak very little English and seemed confused by my request. I later found out that 30% of the hotel's rooms are reserved for non-smokers.
Tokyu Stay Shibuya Shin-Minamiguchi is in the buzzing Shibuya area of west Tokyo. A branch near Ginza, Tokyo's glossiest shopping district, is opening in 2005. Both locations are great for visitors.
One other branch deserves mention because of its extremely low prices. At Y8,295 ($82.95) for a single room with a kitchen, washer/dryer, tub and high-speed Internet, the Meguro-Yutenji branch is probably one of Tokyo's best hotel deals. The hotel is in a relatively calm neighborhood of west Tokyo, a few blocks from a train station that takes you to the Shibuya rail hub in six minutes.
There's one big down side to Tokyu Stay. Apartment hotels are great for families, but Tokyu Stay told us they won't take more than three to a room. That's a pity, but they say they're trying to keep the hotel business-friendly.
The chain has a bewildering range of rooms, each with a slightly different price. Fortunately, Tokyu Stay puts diagrams of each room type up on their Website. At Yotsuya, singles range from ¥9,345-19,950 depending on size, and double/twin rooms range from ¥17,850-23,100 depending on size. Watch out -- not all rooms have kitchens. At Yotsuya, for example, only type "C" and better rooms have kitchens.
From Your Home to Their Home in Kyoto
Having felt at home in Tokyo, I decided to see what it was like to stay in a real Japanese home. So I went to the Shimaya Inn in Kyoto (www.inn-shimaya.com), a hard-core ryokan in Japan's most traditional city.
My wife and I were the only Westerners staying at the Shimaya, run by a cheerful middle-aged couple who speak very little English. They're enthusiastic and friendly, but communication can be tough. In traditional ryokan style, the spacious, tatami-matted rooms all had breakfast tables and looked out onto tiny Japanese gardens.
The Shimaya's best feature is its traditional Japanese bath: as the hostess told us, "family bath! Together, yes?" The tub in the ryokan's single bath room is big enough for four, and the water is always scalding hot.
The location isn't bad, either: two blocks from a subway station and one of Kyoto's top shopping streets, Shijo Street, two subway stops from the main train station, and walking distance from a slew of local attractions.
But I call this ryokan "hard-core" because it cuts no corners for ryokan beginners. No, you can't cool down the bath; no, there are no English-language channels on the Japanese TV; and no, the proprietors don't speak enough English to explain that they provide a welcoming tea service in your room each evening.
The Shimaya costs ¥7,000 per person for rooms with breakfast, or ¥6,000 without breakfast. Book rooms by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or faxing +81-75-351-3097; the hotel's Website is entirely in Japanese.