Accommodations available in Japan range from Japanese-style inns to large Western-style hotels, in all price categories. Although you can travel throughout Japan without making reservations beforehand, it's essential to book in advance if you're traveling during peak travel seasons and is recommended at other times. If you arrive in a town without reservations, most local tourist offices -- generally located in or near the main train station -- will find accommodations for you at no extra charge. Note that in popular resort areas, most accommodations raise their rates during peak times. Some also charge more on weekends.
A note on reservations: When making reservations at Japanese-style accommodations and small business hotels, it's usually best if the call is conducted in Japanese or by fax or e-mail if available, as written English is always easier for most Japanese to understand. First-class hotels, however, always have English-speaking staff, as do many of the Japanese inns recommended in this guide.
A note about taxes and service charges: A 5% consumption tax is included in all hotel rates, including those given in this book. Furthermore, upper-end hotels and some moderately priced hotels also add a 10% to 15% service charge to their published rates, while expensive ryokan will add a 10% to 20% service charge. No service charge is levied at business hotels, pensions, and minshuku (accommodations in a private home) for the simple reason that no services are provided. In resort areas with hot-spring spas, an onsen (spa) tax of ¥150 is added per night. Tokyo levies its own local hotel tax (¥100-¥200 per person per night). Unless otherwise stated, the prices given in this guide include all consumption taxes and service charge, but not onsen or local hotel tax.
Tips for Saving on Your Hotel Room
Although Japanese hotels traditionally remained pretty loyal to their published rack rates, which are always available at the front desk, the recession has opened possibilities for bargains.
- Always ask politely whether there's a room less expensive than the first one offered. Because there are usually many categories, ask what the difference is, say, between a standard twin and a superior twin. If there are two of you, ask whether a double or a twin room is cheaper. Find out the hotel's policy on children -- do children stay free in the room or is there a special rate?
- Contact the hotel directly. In addition to calling a hotel's toll-free number, call the hotel directly to see where you can get the best deal.
- Check the Internet. Check to see whether discounts or special promotions are offered; some hotels offer discounts exclusively through the Internet.
- Ask about promotions and special plans. Hotels frequently offer special "plans," including "Spring Plans," "Ladies' Plans," and even "Shopping Plans" that provide cheaper rates and services.
- Remember the law of supply and demand. Resort hotels are more crowded and therefore more expensive on weekends and during peak travel periods such as Golden Week. Discounts, therefore, are often available for midweek and off-season stays. Business hotels, on the other hand, are sometimes cheaper on weekends.
- Ask about hotel membership plans. Some chain business hotels offer hotel memberships with discounts on meals and free stays after a certain number of nights. Others, such as the New Otani, Okura, and the Imperial in Tokyo, allow free use of the hotel swimming pool simply if you become a member at no extra charge. Ask the concierge or front desk.
Finding a Hotel or Inn
If all my recommendations for a certain city are fully booked, or if you're traveling to destinations not covered in this guide, there are several ways to find alternative accommodations.
Surfing for Hotels -- In addition to well-known booking sites like Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, and Hotels.com, you should also check Asia-specific sites like Asiatravel.com, Asia-hotels.com, and agoda.com. Of course, you'll also want to check all the websites mentioned earlier, such as www.j-hotel.or.jp for members of the Japan Hotel Association.
For budget accommodations, go to hostelworld.com, as well Rakuten Travel (tel. 050/2017-8977; www.travel.rakuten.co.jp/en), Japan's largest reservations company for budget and moderately priced accommodations. At the top of my list for budget accommodations are also members of Welcome Inns (www.itcj.jp), operated in cooperation with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) and International Tourism Center of Japan (ITCJ). Some 700 modestly priced accommodations, including business hotels and Japanese-style inns, are members of Welcome Inn, with rates no more than ¥8,000 for a single and ¥13,000 for a double. There's no fee for the service, but you must sign up for membership and guarantee your reservation with a credit card. Applications should be made about 2 weeks before desired check-in dates.
In any case, it's always a good idea to get a confirmation number and make a printout of any online booking transaction.
Finding a Room When You're in Japan -- In addition to booking Welcome Inns via the Internet, you can also book a room by visiting one of the three Tourist Information Centers in Japan -- at Narita Airport (in the arrivals lobbies of terminals 1 and 2); near Yurakucho Station in the heart of Tokyo; and at Osaka's Kansai International Airport, as well as Kyoto Tourist Information in Kyoto Station. Reservations are accepted at the Narita TIC daily from 8am to 7:30pm; at the Tokyo TIC daily from 9 to 11:30am and 1 to 4:30pm; in Kyoto daily from 10am to 12:30pm and 2 to 5:30pm (closed the 2nd and 4th Tues of every month); and at the Kansai TIC daily 8:30am to 8pm April to October and 9am to 8:30pm November to March.
High-end hotels and ryokan can be booked through travel agencies in Japan, including the ubiquitous Japan Travel Bureau.
Finally, if you arrive at your destination without accommodations, most major train stations contain a tourist information office or a hotel and ryokan reservation counter where you can book a room. Although policies may differ from office to office, you generally don't have to pay a fee for their services, but you usually do have to pay a percentage of your overnight charge as a deposit. The disadvantage is that you don't see the locale beforehand, and if there's space left at a ryokan even in peak tourist season, there may be a reason for it. Although these offices can be a real lifesaver in a pinch and in most cases may be able to recommend quite reasonable and pleasant places in which to stay, it pays to plan in advance.