Although it can be very expensive, spending the night in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) is worth the splurge at least once during your trip. Unfortunately, you won't find many first-class ryokan in Tokyo itself. Unable to compete with the more profitable high-rise hotels, most closed long ago, so you'll need to travel to a resort or hot-spring spa, such as Hakone, for the true experience. If you don't have time for a side trip from Tokyo, however, you can still find some decent ryokan in the city, though they won't provide the full experience. Alternatively, most of Tokyo's upper-class hotels offer some Japanese-style rooms.
The full ryokan experience is unforgettable. Nothing conveys the simplicity and beauty -- indeed, the very atmosphere -- of old Japan like these inns, with their gleaming polished wood, tatami floors, rice-paper sliding doors, and meticulously pruned gardens. Exquisitely prepared kaiseki meals and personalized service by kimono-clad hostesses are the trademarks of such inns, and staying in one is like taking a trip back in time.
Traditionally, ryokan are small -- only one or two stories high and containing about 10 to 30 rooms -- and are made of wood with a tile roof. Most guests arrive at their ryokan around 3 or 4pm. The entrance is often through a gate and small garden, where you're met by a bowing woman in a kimono. Remove your shoes, slide on the proffered plastic slippers, and follow the hostess down long wooden corridors until you reach the sliding door of your room. After taking off the slippers, step into your tatami room, almost void of furniture except for a low table in the middle of the room, floor cushions, an antique scroll hanging in an alcove, and a simple flower arrangement. Best of all is the view past rice-paper sliding screens of a Japanese landscaped garden with bonsai, stone lanterns, and a meandering pond filled with carp. Notice that the room has no bed.
Almost immediately, your hostess welcomes you with hot tea and a sweet, served at your low table so that you can sit there for a while and appreciate the view, the peace, and the solitude. Next comes a hot bath, either in your own room (if it has one), or in the communal bath. After bathing and soaking away travel fatigue, aches, and pains, change into your yukata, a cotton kimono provided by the ryokan.
When you return to your room, you'll find the maid ready to serve your kaiseki dinner, an elaborate spread that is the highlight of a ryokan stay. It generally consists of locally grown vegetables, sashimi (raw fish), grilled or baked fish or another meat dish, and various regional specialties, served on many tiny plates; the menu is determined by the chef. Admire how each dish is in itself a delicate piece of artwork; it all looks too wonderful to eat, but finally hunger takes over. If you want, you can order sake or beer to accompany your meal (you'll pay extra for drinks).
After you've finished eating, the maid returns to clear away the dishes and to lay out your bed. The bed is really a futon, a kind of mattress with quilts, and is laid out on the tatami floor. The next morning the maid will wake you, put away the futon, and serve a breakfast of fish, pickled vegetables, soup, and other dishes. Feeling rested, well fed, and pampered, you're then ready to pack your bags and pay your bill. Your hostess sees you to the front gate, smiling and bowing as you set off for the rest of your travels.
Such is life at a good ryokan. Sadly, however, the number of upper-class ryokan diminishes each year. And, although ideally a ryokan is an old wooden structure that once served traveling feudal lords or was perhaps the home of a wealthy merchant, today most are actually modern concrete affairs with as many as 100 or more rooms, with meals served in dining rooms. What they lack in intimacy and personal service, however, they make up for with slightly cheaper prices and such amenities as modern bathing facilities and perhaps a bar and outdoor recreational facilities. Most guest rooms are fitted with a TV, telephone, safe for locking up valuables, and yukata, as well as amenities such as soap, shampoo, razor, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Rates in a ryokan are always based on a per-person charge rather than a straight room charge and include breakfast, dinner, and often service and tax. Thus, while ryokan rates may seem high, they're actually competitive compared to what you'd pay for a hotel room and comparable meals in a restaurant. Although rates can vary from ¥9,000 to an astonishing ¥150,000 per person, the average cost is generally ¥12,000 to ¥20,000. Even within a single ryokan the rates can vary greatly, depending on the room you choose, the dinner courses you select, and the number of people in your room. If you're paying the highest rate, you can be certain you're getting the best room, the best view of the garden, or perhaps your own private garden, as well as a much more elaborate meal than that given to lower-paying guests. All the rates for ryokan given are based on double occupancy; if there are more than two of you in one room, you can generally count on a slightly lower per-person rate.
Although I heartily recommend spending at least 1 night in a ryokan, there are a number of disadvantages to these accommodations. The most obvious is that you may find it uncomfortable sitting on the floor. And because the futon is put away during the day, there's no place to lie down for an afternoon nap or rest, except on the hard, tatami-covered floor. In addition, some of the older ryokan, though quaint, can be bitterly cold in the winter and may have only Japanese-style toilets. As for breakfast, you might find it difficult to swallow fish, rice, and seaweed in the morning (I've even been served grilled grasshopper -- quite crunchy). Sometimes you can get a Western-style breakfast if you order it the night before, but more often than not the fried or scrambled eggs arrive cold, leading you to suspect that they were cooked right after you ordered them.
A ryokan is also quite rigid in its schedule. You're expected to arrive sometime between 3 and 5pm, take your bath, and then eat at around 6 or 7pm. Breakfast is served early, usually by 8am, and checkout is by 10am. That means you can't sleep in, and because the maid is continually coming in and out, you have a lot less privacy than you would in a hotel.
You should always make a reservation if you want to stay in a first-class or medium-priced ryokan, since the chef has to shop for and prepare your meals. You can make reservations through any travel agency in Japan or by contacting a ryokan directly. You may be required to pay a deposit. Another good source is the Japan Ryokan Association (tel. 03/3231-5310; www.ryokan.or.jp), which lists some 1,400 ryokan as members.
Japanese Inn Group
If you want the experience of staying in a Japanese-style room but cannot afford the extravagance of a ryokan, consider staying in one of the participating members of the Japanese Inn Group -- a special organization of more than 80 Japanese-style inns and hotels throughout Japan offering inexpensive lodging and catering largely to foreigners. Although you may balk at the idea of staying at a place filled mainly with foreigners, keep in mind that some inexpensive Japanese-style inns are not accustomed to guests from abroad and may be quite reluctant to take you in if you don't speak Japanese. I have covered several Japanese Inn Group members over the years and have found the owners, for the most part, to be an exceptional group of friendly people eager to offer foreigners the chance to experience life on tatami and futons. In many cases, these are good places in which to exchange information with other world travelers, and they are popular with young people and families alike.
Although many of the group members call themselves ryokan, they are not ryokan in the true sense of the word, because they do not offer the trademark personalized service or the beautiful setting common to ryokan. However, they do offer simple tatami rooms that generally come with TVs and air-conditioners; most have towels and cotton yukata. Some offer Western-style rooms as well, and/or rooms with private bathrooms. Facilities generally include a coin-operated washer and dryer and a public bath. The average cost of a 1-night stay is about ¥5,000 to ¥6,000 per person, without meals. Breakfast is usually available if you pay extra; dinner is also sometimes available.
You can view member inns at www.jpinn.com. Or, upon your arrival in Tokyo, head to the Tourist Information Center for the free pamphlet called Japanese Inn Group. Make reservations directly with the inn (most have home pages and e-mail). In some cases, you'll be asked to pay a deposit (most accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa).
Technically, a minshuku is inexpensive Japanese-style lodging in a private home -- the Japanese version of a bed-and-breakfast -- usually located in resort areas or smaller towns. Because minshuku are family-run affairs, there's no personal service, which means that you're expected to lay out your own futon at night, stow it away in the morning, and tidy up your room. Most also do not supply towels or yukata, nor do they have units with private bathrooms. Meals are served in a communal dining room.
Officially, what differentiates a ryokan from a minshuku is that the ryokan is more expensive and provides more services, but the difference is sometimes very slight. I've stayed in cheap ryokan providing almost no service and in minshuku too large and modern to be considered private homes. The average per-person cost for a night in a minshuku is ¥7,000 to ¥9,000, including two meals.
In addition to Japanese-style inns, Japan has another unique form of accommodations -- so-called love hotels. Usually found close to entertainment districts, such as Shinjuku and Shibuya, such hotels do not, as their name might suggest, provide sexual services; rather, they offer rooms for rent by the hour to lovers. Even married couples use love hotels, particularly if they share small quarters with in-laws.
There are an estimated 35,000 such love hotels in Japan, often gaudy affairs shaped like ocean liners or castles and offering such extras as rotating beds, mirrored walls, video cameras, and fantasy-provoking decor. Love hotels are usually clustered together. You'll know you've wandered into a love-hotel district when you notice discreet entryways and -- a dead giveaway -- hourly rates posted near the front door. Many 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.
There's another inexpensive lodging option in Tokyo, but it's not for the claustrophobic. So-called capsule hotels, which became popular in the early 1980s, are used primarily by Japanese businessmen who have spent an evening out drinking with fellow workers and missed the last train -- a capsule hotel can be cheaper than a taxi ride home. They're located mostly near nightlife districts or major train stations. Sleeping units are small (no larger than a coffin) yet contain a bed and often a private TV, alarm clock, and radio; the units are usually stacked two deep in rows down a corridor, and the only thing separating you from your probably inebriated neighbor is a curtain. A cotton kimono and locker are provided, and facilities usually include public baths, sauna, and vending machines selling everything from beer to instant noodles to toothbrushes.
Most capsule hotels do not accept women. Two that do, with separate facilities for the sexes, are Hotel Asakusa & Capsule, 4-14-9 Kotobuki, Taito-ku (tel. 03/3847-4477, but no English is spoken and no reservations are accepted; station: Tawaramachi, 3 min.), which is located about a 6-minute walk south of Asakusa's Sensoji Temple; and Ace Inn, 5-2 Katamachi, Shinjuku-ku (tel. 03/3350-6655; www.ace-inn.jp; station: Akebonobashi, 1 min.), which caters mostly to backpacking foreigners with bare-bone capsules (no TV or radio here), plus a commons room, free Wi-Fi on most floors, a computer you can use for free for 30 minutes, and coin-operated showers and laundry facilities; note that the front doors are locked from 2 to 4:30am. Hotel Asakusa & Capsule starts at ¥2,400, while Ace Inn starts at ¥3,150. Otherwise, prices for most capsule inns average about ¥4,000 per night; credit cards are usually not accepted. Check-in is generally 4 or 5pm, and check-out is about 9:30 or 10am. Because everyone has to pack up and vacate cubicles during the day (coin lockers are generally available but may not be large enough for a big suitcase), curious foreigners may wish to experience a capsule hotel only as a 1-night stand. An even cheaper alternative if you're suddenly in need of a place to spend the night: springing for a night package on a private cubicle in an Internet/manga cafe.