Although Tokyo doesn't suffer from a lack of hotel rooms during peak holidays (when most Japanese head for the hills and beaches), rooms may be in short supply because of conventions and other events. If possible, avoid coming to Tokyo in mid-February unless you book well in advance -- that's when university entrance exams bring multitudes of aspiring high-school students and their parents to the capital for a shot at entering one of the most prestigious universities in the country. In summer, when many foreign tourists are in Japan, the cheaper accommodations are often the first to fill up. It's always best, therefore, to make your hotel reservations in advance, especially if you're arriving in Tokyo after a long transoceanic flight and don't want the hassle of searching for a hotel room.
Welcome Inn Reservation Center
If you're looking for help in booking moderately priced and budget accommodations, at the top of my list is the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, operated in cooperation with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). Some 50 modestly priced accommodations in Tokyo, including business hotels and Japanese-style inns, are members of Welcome Inn, with rates of ¥8,000 for a single and ¥13,000 or less for a double. There's no fee for the service, but you are asked to guarantee your reservation with a credit card. This is a good option also if you decide to travel outside Tokyo for a night or more and wish to secure reservations beforehand.
In addition to booking rooms via the Internet at www.itcj.jp, you can book a room by appearing in person at one of the three TIC offices in Tokyo -- at Narita Airport (in the arrivals lobbies of terminals 1 and 2), or near Yurakucho Station in the heart of the city, on the 10th floor of the Kotsu Kaikan Building (2-10-1 Yurakucho; tel. 03/3201-3331). Reservations are accepted at the Narita TIC daily from 8am to 7:30pm; and at the Tokyo TIC daily from 9 to 11:30am and 1 to 4:30pm.
Surfing for Hotels
In addition to the online travel booking sites Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline, other good sites to check include Hotels.com, Asiatravel.com, and Asia-hotels.com. In any case, be sure to compare rates at several booking sites, as well as with individual hotel websites to make sure you're getting a good deal.
For Japan-specific websites, government-approved moderate and higher-priced hotels that are members of the Japan Hotel Association are listed at www.j-hotel.or.jp. Likewise, high-priced, government-registered members of the Japan Ryokan Association can be found at www.ryokan.or.jp. Budget-priced Japanese inns -- which do not offer the service or the class of high-priced inns, but do offer the experience of sleeping Japanese-style -- who are members of the Japanese Inn Group -- are listed at www.jpinn.com. Japan's largest online hotel reservations company for budget and moderately priced accommodations is Rakuten Travel, at http://travel.rakuten.co.jp/en/index.html.
In any case, it's always a good idea to get a confirmation number and make a printout of any online booking transaction.
Tips for Saving on Your Hotel Room
Although Japanese hotels have traditionally remained pretty loyal to their published rack rates, which are always available at the front desk, the recession has opened possibilities for bargains.
- Check the Internet. If the hotel has a website, check to see whether discounts or special promotions are offered. Some hotels offer discounts exclusively through the Internet. In addition, check hotel booking sites such as Expedia and Rakuten Travel.
- Always ask politely whether a room less expensive than the first one mentioned is available. 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. Ask whether there are corporate discounts. 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.
- Ask about promotions and special plans. Hotels frequently offer special "plans," including "Spring Plans," "Ladies' Plans," and even "Shopping Plans," which 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.
- 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 for a membership application.
A Double or a Twin? -- For the sake of convenience, the price for two people in a room is listed as a "double". Japanese hotels, however, differentiate between rooms with a double bed or two twin beds, usually with different prices. Most hotels charge more for a twin room, but sometimes the opposite is true; if you're looking for a bargain, therefore, be sure to inquire prices for both. Note, too, that hotels usually have more twin rooms than doubles, for the simple reason that Japanese couples, used to their own futon, traditionally prefer twin beds.