Western-style lodgings range from luxurious first-class hotels to inexpensive ones catering primarily to Japanese businessmen.
When selecting and reserving your hotel room, contact the hotel directly to inquire about rates, even if a North American toll-free 800 number is provided; sometimes there are special deals, such as weekend or honeymoon packages, that central reservation desks are not aware of. Special rates are also often available only through the hotel's website. In any case, always ask what kinds of rooms are available. Almost all hotels in Japan offer a wide range of rooms at various prices, with room size the overwhelming factor in pricing. Other aspects that often have a bearing on rates include bed size, floor height (higher floors are more expensive), and in-room amenities. Rooms with views -- whether of the sea or a castle -- are also generally more expensive. In Japan, a twin room refers to a room with twin beds, and a double room refers to one with a double (or larger) bed; most hotels charge more for a twin room, but others charge more for doubles. Because Japanese couples generally prefer twin beds, doubles are often in short supply, especially in business hotels. A Hollywood twin means two twin beds pushed together side by side. Note: For the sake of convenience, the "double" rates for hotels listed in this guide refer to two people in one room and include both twin and double beds.
Some of the upper-priced hotels also offer executive floors, which are generally on the highest floors and may offer such perks as a private lounge with separate check-in, more in-room amenities, complimentary breakfast and evening cocktails, extended checkout time, and privileges that can include free use of the health club. At just a few thousand yen more than regular rates, these can be quite economical.
When making your reservation, therefore, inquire about the differences in room categories and rates and what they entail. Once you decide on the type of room you want, ask for the best in that category. For example, if you want a standard room, and deluxe rooms start on the 14th floor, ask for a standard on the 13th floor, which may give better views than standards on the 10th. In addition, be specific about the kind of room you want, whether it's a nonsmoking room, a room with a view of Mount Fuji, or a room with Internet connections for your laptop.
Be sure to give your approximate time of arrival, especially if it's after 6pm, when they might give your room away. Check-in ranges from about 1 or 2pm in first-class hotels to 3 or 4pm for business hotels. Checkout is generally about 10am for business hotels and 11am or noon for upper-range hotels. In any case, it's perfectly acceptable to leave luggage with the front desk or bell captain if you arrive early or want to sightsee after checking out.
Hotels -- Both first-class and midpriced hotels in Japan are known for excellent service and cleanliness. The first-class hotels in the larger cities can compete with the best hotels in the world and offer a wide range of services, from health clubs and aesthetic spas with massage services to business centers and top-class restaurants and shopping arcades. Unfortunately, health clubs and swimming pools usually cost extra -- anywhere from ¥1,050 to an outrageous ¥5,000 per single use. In addition, outdoor pools are generally open only in July and August. Rooms come with such standard features as a minibar, bilingual cable TV with pay movies and English-language channels like CNN or BBC, high-speed Internet or wireless connections (usually at a charge at expensive hotels but often free in less expensive ones), clock, a radio, yukata, a hot-water pot and tea (and occasionally coffee, though you usually have to pay extra for it), a hair dryer, and a private bathroom with a tub/shower combination. (Because Japanese are used to soaping down and rinsing off before bathing, it would be rare to find tubs without showers; similarly, showers without tubs are practically nonexistent in this nation of bathers.) Virtually all hotels nowadays also have "Washlet" toilets, which are combination toilets and spray bidets with a controllable range of speeds and temperatures. Because they're accustomed to foreigners, most hotels in this category employ an English-speaking staff and offer nonsmoking floors or rooms. Services provided include room service, same-day laundry and dry cleaning, and English-language newspapers such as the Japan Times delivered free to your room. Note that in medium-range hotels, same-day laundry service is not available Sundays and holidays and you must turn in your laundry by 10am to receive it by 5pm that day.
The most expensive hotels in Japan are in Tokyo and Osaka, where you'll pay at least ¥32,000 for a double or twin room in a first-class hotel and ¥16,000 to ¥32,000 for the same in a midpriced hotel. Outside the major cities, rooms for two people range from about ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 for first-class hotels and ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 for midpriced hotels.
Although some internationally known high-end chains have a presence in Japan, including Four Seasons, Hyatt, and Ritz-Carlton, Japanese chains naturally dominate, including New Otani, Okura, Nikko, and JAL Hotels (associated with Japan Airlines), Prince, and the Japan Railways Group, which provides discounts to those with a Japan Rail Pass.
In addition to the recommendations in this guide, you can also check out the 400-some members of the Japan Hotel Association listed in the brochure Hotels in Japan available from the Tourist Information Centers in Japan or online at www.j-hotel.or.jp.
Business Hotels -- Catering traditionally to traveling Japanese businessmen, a "business hotel" is a no-frills establishment with tiny, sparsely furnished rooms, most of them singles but usually with some twin and maybe double rooms also available. Primarily just places to crash for the night, these rooms usually have everything you need, but in miniature form -- minuscule bathroom, tiny bathtub/shower, small bed (or beds), empty fridge, and barely enough space to unpack your bags. If you're a large person, you may have trouble sleeping in a place like this. There are no bellhops, no room service, and sometimes not even a lobby or coffee shop, although usually there are vending machines selling beer, soda, cigarettes, and snacks. Most business hotels have nonsmoking rooms, but a few still do not. The advantages of staying in business hotels are price -- starting as low as ¥6,000 or ¥7,000 for a single -- and location -- usually near major train and subway stations. Check-in is usually not until 3 or 4pm, and checkout is usually at 10am; you can leave your bags at the front desk.
As for business-hotel chains, I'm partial to the Tokyo Inn chain, which boasts more than 160 locations around Japan and always employs female managers. They offer minuscule rooms outfitted with about everything you need, including free Internet access, and have raised the bar in business-hotel amenities by adding lobby computers with free Internet access, free domestic calls from lobby phones (but limited to 3 min.), usually free Japanese breakfast, and sometimes free nightly in-room movies (often in English). Other chains to look for are Tokyu Hotels, including its budget Tokyu Inns, all with specially designed Ladies Rooms with female-oriented toiletries and amenities, Washington Hotels, the Sunroute Hotel Chain, and newcomer Super Hotel with the lowest rates around.
Pensions -- Pensions are like minshuku, except that accommodations are Western-style with beds instead of futons, and the two meals served are usually Western. Often managed by a young couple or a young staff, they cater to young Japanese and are most often located in ski resorts and in the countryside, sometimes making access a problem. Averaging 10 guest rooms, many seem especially geared to young Japanese women and are thus done up in rather feminine-looking decor with lots of pinks and flower prints. In recent years, Wa-fu Pensions (with Japanese-style rooms) have also made an appearance. The average cost is ¥8,000 per person per night, including two meals.
Youth Hostels -- There are some 350 youth hostels in Japan, most of them privately run and operating in locations ranging from temples to concrete blocks. There's no age limit (though children 3 and younger may not be accepted), and although most of them require a youth hostel membership card, they let foreigners stay without one at no extra charge or for ¥600 extra per night (after 6 nights you automatically become a YH member). Youth hostels are reasonable, averaging about ¥3,000 per day without meals, and can be reserved in advance. However, there are usually quite a few restrictions, such as a 9 or 10pm curfew, a lights-out policy shortly thereafter, an early breakfast time, and closed times through the day, generally from about 10am to 3pm. In addition, rooms generally have many bunk beds or futons, affording little privacy. On the other hand, they're certainly the cheapest accommodations in Japan.
Because youth hostels are often inconveniently located, I have included only one, in Tokyo, but if you plan on staying almost exclusively in hostels, pick up a pamphlet called "Youth Hostel Map of Japan," available at the Tourist Information Centers in Japan, or check www.jyh.or.jp. For youth hostel membership in the U.S., contact Hostelling International USA (tel. 301/495-1240; www.hiusa.org).
Capsule Hotels -- Capsule hotels, which became popular in the early 1980s, are used primarily by Japanese businessmen who have spent an evening out drinking and missed the last train home -- costing about ¥4,000 per person, a capsule hotel is sometimes cheaper than a taxi to the suburbs. Units are small -- no larger than a coffin and consisting of a bed, a private TV, an alarm clock, and a radio -- and are usually stacked two deep in rows down a corridor; the only thing separating you from your probably inebriated neighbor is a curtain. A cotton kimono and a locker are provided, and bathrooms and toilets are communal. Most capsule hotels do not accept women, but those that do have separate facilities.
Love Hotels -- Finally, a word about Japan's so-called "love hotels." Usually found close to entertainment districts and along major highways, such hotels do not provide sexual services themselves; rather, they offer rooms for rent by the hour to couples. You'll know that you've wandered into a love-hotel district when you notice hourly rates posted near the front door, though gaudy structures shaped like ocean liners or castles are also a dead giveaway. Because many of them have reasonable overnight rates as well, I have friends who, finding themselves out too late and too far from home, have checked into love hotels, solo.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.