Even in Tokyo, the trains completely stop running around 1AM, so if you are out after then and want to avoid paying for a cab or even a capsule hotel, there are a few options for killing the hours until the first morning train. If you need to find one of these options fast, station attendants will typically be able to point you in the right direction. Conveniently, many of these facilities are usually clustered around train stations, and they are used to accepting people who have missed the last train home.
In bigger cities, especially around the major stations you can find Internet or Manga cafés. Membership costs around ¥300 one time. Here you can also watch TV, play video games, read comics and enjoy the free drink bar. Price varies but usually around ¥400/hour. They often have a special night fare for the period when no trains are running from around 00:10-05:00 for ¥1500. Customers are typically given the choice between a computer-equipped or TV-equipped cubicle, while others offer amenities such as a massage chair, a mat to sleep on or even a shower.
It is not an especially comfortable option, but it is perfect for checking the next day's train schedule, downloading pictures from your digital camera, writing home, and resting a bit. Often, you may be surrounded by snoring locals who have missed the last train home.
Some onsen or sento stay open all night. These are usually known as "super" sentos. Usually there is a 'relaxing area' with tatami mats, TV, vending machines, etc. Though occasionally they are multi story bath and play houses. Often, for a reasonable fee on top of the bathing cost, you will be allowed to crash the night on the tatami or in a room with large reclining chairs.
In the warmer months, people sleeping or napping on streetsides outside the bigger train stations is a common sight. Many of them just missed their last trains and prefer spending three or four hours waiting for the first train on the asphalt rather than three or four thousand yen for a short-term stay in a hotel or public bath.
While this is definitely the least comfortable way to sleep through the night, it is especially popular with college students who have no money, and absolutely tolerated by police and station staff; even drunkards sleeping close to their own vomitus will not be disturbed in their booze-induced sleep.
Similarly, no need to sweat if you fall asleep on a local train after a long party night. Compared to sleeping outside, the train sleep is more of a gaijin thing. There are no time limits on how long you can stay on a train as long as you have a ticket; many long-term residents have had the pleasure of going back and forth on the same train for two or three cycles before waking up and getting off at the initial destination with the ticket bought three hours ago. If the train is not likely to get crowded, you may even consider stretching out on the bench: remember to take off your shoes though.
Of course, you have to obey the orders of the train staff, who tend to gently wake up people at the terminus, especially if the train is not going back. Sometimes, that station turns out to be two hours away from the city.
If you're staying for a longer period, say a month and longer, you might be able to drastically reduce your living costs by staying in a "gaijin house". These establishments cater specifically towards foreigners and offer at least minimally furnished and usually shared apartments at reasonable prices, and without the hefty deposits and commissions of apartments often up to 8 months rent paid before moving in. It will almost certainly be cheaper than staying in a hotel for a month, and for those coming to Japan for the first time they are also great for networking and getting to know a few locals. The downside is that facilities are often shared and the transient population can mean poor maintenance and dodgy neighbors.
Gaijin houses are concentrated in Tokyo, but any other big city will have a few. They can be anything from ugly cramped apartment complexes with new tenants every week, to nice family run businesses in private houses, so try to get a look at the place before you decide to move in. Two of the biggest letting agencies for gaijin houses in Tokyo are Sakura House (http://www.sakura-house.com) and Oak House (http://www.oakhouse.jp/eng/), while Gaijin House Japan (http://gaijinhousejapan.com) has listings and classified ads covering the entire country.
Traditionally, renting an apartment in Japan is a ridiculously complex and expensive process, involving getting a Japanese resident to act as your guarantor literally--trash up the place and run away, and they will get stuck with the bill and paying half a year's rent or more in advance. This is thus essentially impossible for anyone who is not both familiar with the culture and there to live and work for a few years at least.
In recent years, though, weekly mansions short-term apartments have become popular for residents typically businessmen on long-term assignment or young singles and are accessible even to visitors. Most are 1 or 2 person rooms, though larger ones for 3 or 4 are sometimes available. Apartments fees are around ¥5000 for a single, around ¥6000-7000 for a two person room per day. Most of these apartment rental agencies will offer all apartments with shower, toilet and bath. They usually have air conditioning, microwave and cooking amenities. Reservations can be made on English website, and they have various promotional offers on their website.
WMT has more than 50 apartment buildings in Tokyo and Yokohama,and Osaka. Sometimes a deposit is required for some of the apartments. This deposit can usually be waived if you have stayed with them a few times without any trouble. The apartments are always kept clean and often have much more space and flexibility than a hotel and are priced in the Youth hostel range.
Hostels and camping
Youth hostels ユースホステル yūsu hosuteru, often just called yūsu or abbreviated "YH" are another cheap option in Japan. Hostels can be found throughout the country, so they are popular among budget travellers, especially students. Hostels typically range in price from ¥2000 to ¥4000. It can become more expensive if you opt for dinner and breakfast and are not an HI member, in which case the price for a single night may be over ¥5000. For HI members, a simple stay can cost as little as ¥1500 depending on location and season. As elsewhere, some are concrete cellblocks run like reform schools, while others are wonderful cottages in scenic spots. There are even a number of temples that run hostels as a sideline. Do some groundwork before choosing where to go, the Japan Youth Hostel (http://www.jyh.or.jp/english/) page is a good place to start. Many have curfews and dorms and some are sex-segregated.
Camping is after nojuku, see below the cheapest way to get a night's sleep in Japan. There is an extensive network of camping grounds throughout the country; naturally, most are away from the big cities. Transportation to them can also be problematic, as few buses may go there. Prices may vary from nominal fees ¥500 to large bungalows that cost more than many hotel rooms ¥13000 or more.
Camping wild is illegal in most of Japan, although you can always try asking for permission, or simply pitch your tent late and leave early. Many larger city parks may in fact have large numbers of blue tarp tents with homeless in them.
Campsites in Japan are known as kyanpu-jo キャンプ場, while sites designed for cars are known as ōto-kyanpu-jo. The latter tend to be far more expensive than the former ¥5000 or so and should be avoided by those setting out on foot unless they also have lower-key accommodations available. Campsites are often located near onsen, which can be quite convenient.
The National Camping Association of Japan (http://www.camping.or.jp/) helps maintain Campjo.com (http://www.campjo.com/Cam...), a Japanese-only database of nearly all campsites in Japan. The JNTO (http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng...) website has a fairly extensive list in PDF format of campgrounds in English, and local tourist offices are often well informed.
For the real budget traveller wanting to get by on the cheap in Japan is the option of nojuku 野宿. This is Japanese for "sleeping outside", and although it may seem quite strange to Westerners, a lot of young Japanese do this when they travel. Thanks to a low crime rate and relatively stable climate, nojuku is a genuinely viable option if you're travelling in a group or feel confident doing it on your own. Common nojuku places include train stations, michi no eki road service stations, or basically anywhere that has some kind of shelter and public toilets nearby.
Those worrying about shower facilities will be delighted to know that Japan is blessed with cheap public facilities pretty much everywhere: notably onsen or hot springs. Even if you cannot find an onsen, sento public bath, or sauna is also an option.
Bear in mind that nojuku is really viable only in the summer months, although in the northern island of Hokkaido, even in summer the temperature may dip during the night. On the other hand, there's much more scope for nojuku on Okinawa although public facilities on the smaller islands are lacking.
Nojuku is not really recommended for first-time travellers to Japan, but for those with some experience, it can be a great way to get into the 'onsen' culture, meet other fellow nojuku travellers, and most of all travel very cheaply when coupled with hitchhiking.
Western-branded hotels are rare outside Tokyo and Osaka; elsewhere, it's Japanese brands like JAL/Nikko (http://www.jalhotels.com), Rihga Royal (http://www.rihga.com/) and Prince (http://www.princehotels.com) that rule the roost. Full-service five-star hotels can turn pampering into an artform, but tend to be rather bland and generic in appearance, despite steep prices starting from ¥20,000 per person not per room. However, there are several types of uniquely Japanese and far more affordable hotels:
Capsule hotels are the ultimate in space-efficient sleeping: for a small fee normally between ¥3,000 and ¥4,000, the guest rents himself a capsule, sized about 2x1x1 meters and stacked in two rows inside a hall containing tens if not hundreds of capsules. Capsule hotels are segregated by sex, and only a few cater to women.
On entry to a capsule hotel, take off your shoes, place them in a locker and put on a pair of slippers. You will often have to surrender your locker key at check-in to insure that you do not slip out without paying! On checking in you will be given a second locker for placing your belongings, as there is no space for them in the capsule and little security as most capsules have simply a curtain, not a door. Beware though if there is a curtain, since probing hands may enter it.
Many if not most capsule hotels are attached to a spa of varying degrees of luxury and/or dubiosity, often so that entry to the spa costs say ¥2,000 but the capsule is only an additional ¥1,000. Other, cheaper capsule hotels will require feeding in ¥100 coins even to get the shower to work. This being Japan, there are always vending machines on hand to dispense toothpaste, underwear and such sundries.
Once you retire into your capsule, you will usually find a simple control panel for operating the lights, the alarm clock and the inevitable built-in TV. If you oversleep, you may be hit with another day's charge.
In Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya districts the capsule hotels run at least ¥3,500, but have excellent free massage chairs, saunas, public baths, disposable razors and shampoo, magazines, and coffee in the morning. Despite all that, keep in mind that your capsule "door" is just a curtain that keeps light out. You will likely hear a steady stream of drunk and sleepy business men crawling into their capsules above and across from you before falling into a mild snore.
Love hotel is a bit of a euphemism; a more accurate term would be sex hotel. They can be found in and near red light districts, but most are not in those areas. Many of them are often clustered around highway interchanges or main train stations out of the city and back to the suburbs. The entrance is usually quite discreet, and the exit is separated from the entrance to avoid running into someone one might know. Basically, you rent a room by the night listed as "Stay" or 宿泊 shukuhaku on the rate card, usually ¥6000-10000, a couple of hours "Rest" or 休憩 kyūkei, around ¥3000, or off hours "No Time Service", which are usually weekday afternoons. Beware of service charges, peak hour surcharges and taxes, which can push your bill up by 25%. Some will accept single guests, but most will not allow same-sex couples or obviously underaged guests.
They are generally clean, safe, and very private. Some have exotic themes: aquatics, sports, or Hello Kitty. As a traveller, rather than a typical client, you usually cannot check in, drop your bags, and go out exploring. Once you leave, that is it, so they are not as convenient as proper hotels. "Stay" rates also tend to start only after 10 PM, and overstaying may incur hefty additional "Rest" charges. Many rooms have simple food and drinks in a refrigerator, and often have somewhat high charges. Before entering a love hotel, it would be wise to take some food and drinks with you. The rooms often feature amenities such as jacuzzis, wild theme decoration, costumes, karaoke machines, vibrating beds, sex toy vending machines, and in some cases, video games. Most often, all toiletries including condoms are included. Sometimes the rooms have a book that acts as a log, where people record their tales and adventures for posterity. Popular love hotels may be entirely booked up in the cities on weekends.
Why are they everywhere? Consider the housing shortage that plagued post-war Japan for years, and the way people still live in extended families. If you are 28 years old and still live at home, do you really want to bring your mate back to your folks' house? If you are a married couple in a 40m² 400 sq ft apartment with two grade school children, do you really want to get down to it at home? Thus, there is the love hotel. They can be seedy, but mainly they are just practical and fulfill a social need.
One word of caution: there has been an increase in hidden cameras being planted in public and private spaces, including love hotels, either by other guests or even occasionally the hotel management. Videos of these supposed tousatsu hidden camera are popular in adult video stores, although many such videos are actually staged.
They are usually around ¥10,000 per night and have a convenient location often near major train stations as their major selling point, but rooms are usually unbelievably cramped. On the upside, you'll get a tiny ensuite bathroom and, quite often, free Internet. Some major chains of cheaper business hotels include Tokyu Inn (http://www.tokyuhotels.co...), known for its generously sized rooms, and Toyoko Inn (http://www.toyoko-inn.com/eng/). The latter have a club card,which at ¥1500,can pay for itself on a single Sunday night.
Local, "unadvertised" business hotels, farther from major stations, can be significantly cheaper from ¥5000/double room/night and can be found in the phone book which also tells prices, but you will need a Japanese-speaking assistant to help, or better yet, pre-book online. For two or more, the price can often compete with youth hostels if you share a twin or double room. Note that full payment is often expected on check-in, and check-out times are early usually 10 AM and non-negotiable unless you are willing to pay extra. At the very bottom end are dirt-cheap hotels in the labourers' districts of the major cities, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, or Senju in Tokyo, where prices start from as little as ¥1500 for a tiny three-mat room that literally has only enough room to sleep. Walls and futons can be thin as well.
In addition to the usual youth hostels and business hotels, you can find several kinds of uniquely Japanese accommodation, ranging from rarefied ryokan inns to strictly functional capsule hotels and utterly over-the-top love hotels.
When reserving any Japanese accommodations, bear in mind that many smaller operations may hesitate to accept foreigners, fearing language difficulties or other cultural misunderstandings. This is to some extent institutionalized: large travel agency databases note the few hotels are prepared to handle foreigners, and they may tell you that all lodgings are booked if only these are full.Instead of calling up in English, you may find it better to get a Japanese acquaintance or local tourist office to make the booking for you. Note that prices are almost always given per person not per room. Otherwise, you may have a rather unpleasant shock when your party of five tries to check out..
When checking in to any type of accommodation, the hotel is, by law, required to make a copy of your passport unless you are a resident of Japan. It is a good idea, especially if you are travelling in groups, to present the clerk a photo copy of your passport to speed up check-in. Aside from this, remember that Japan is mostly a cash only country, and credit cards are usually not accepted in smaller forms of accommodation, including, but not limited to, small business hotels. Bring enough cash to be able to pay in advance.
One thing to beware in wintertime: traditional Japanese houses are designed to be cool in summer, which all too often means that they are freezing cold inside in winter. Bulk up on clothing and make good use of the bathing facilities to stay warm; fortunately, futon bedding is usually quite warm and getting a good night's sleep is rarely a problem.
While accommodation in Japan is expensive, you may find that you can comfortably use a lower standard of hotel than you would in other countries. Shared baths will usually be spotless, and theft is very unusual in Japan. Just don't expect to sleep in late: check-out time is invariably 10 AM, and any extensions to this will have to be paid for.
You may have difficulty finding rooms at the busiest holiday times, such as "Golden Week" at the beginning of May; and prices are commonly higher on Saturday nights.
Ryokan 旅館 are traditional Japanese inns, and a visit to one is the highlight of many a trip to Japan. There are two types: the small traditional-style one with wooden buildings, long verandahs, and gardens, and the more modern high-rise sort that are like luxury hotels with fancy public baths.
Since some knowledge of Japanese mores and etiquette is required to visit one, many will hesitate to take non-Japanese guests especially those who do not speak Japanese, but some cater specially to this group. A night at a ryokan for one with two meals starts at about ¥8000 and goes up into the stratosphere. ¥50,000 a night per person is not uncommon for some of the posher ones, such as the famous Kagaya Wakura Onsen near Kanazawa.
Ryokan usually operate on a fairly strict schedule and you will be expected to arrive by 5PM. On entry, take off your shoes and put on the slippers you will wear inside the house. After checking in you will be led to your room, simply but elegantly decorated and covered in tatami matting. Be sure to take off your slippers before stepping on tatami.
Before dinner you will be encouraged to take a bath — see Bathe for the full scoop. You will probably wish to change into your yukata bathrobe before bathing and it's a simple enough garment: just place the left lapel atop the right when closing it. The other way, right-over-left, is a faux pas, as yukata are closed that way only for burial! If the yukata provided are not big enough, simply ask the maid or the reception for 'tokudai' 特大, outsize. Many ryokan also have colour-coded yukata depending on sex: pinkish tones for women and blue for men, for example.
Once you have bathed, dinner will be served in your room. In most ryokan dinner is very elaborately prepared and presented from carefully chosen seasonal ingredients; by all means ask if you are not sure how to eat a given item. The food in a good ryokan is a substantial part of the experience and the bill, and is an excellent way to try some high-class Japanese cuisine.
After you have finished you are free to head out into town; in hot spring towns it is perfectly normal to head out dressed only in yukata and geta clogs, although doing so as a foreigner may attract even more attention than usual. Hint: wear underwear underneath. Many ryokan have curfews, so make sure that you get back on time.
When you return you will find that futon bedding has been rolled out for you on the tatami a real Japanese futon is simply a mattress, not the low, flat bed often sold under the name in the West. While slightly harder than a Western bed, most people find sleeping on a futon very pleasant. Pillows may be remarkably hard, filled with buckwheat chaff.
Breakfast in the morning is usually served communally in a dining hall at a fixed time, though the high-class places will again serve it in your room after the maid tidies away the bedding. It's invariably Japanese style, meaning rice, miso soup and cold fish, although staff may agree to cook your raw egg on request.
High-end ryokan are one of the few places in Japan that accept tips, but the kokorozuke system is the reverse of the usual: around ¥3000 is placed in an envelope and handed to the maid bringing you to your room at the very beginning of your stay, not the end. While never expected you'll get great service anyway, the money serves both as a token of appreciation and an apology of sorts for any difficulty caused by special requests eg. food allergies or your inability to speak Japanese.
A last word of warning: some establishments with the word "ryokan" in their name are not the luxurious variety at all but just minshuku see below in disguise. The price will tell you the type of lodging it is.
Minshuku 民宿 are the budget version of ryokan: the overall experience is much the same but the food is simpler, dining is communal, bathrooms are shared, and guests are expected to lay out their own futon although an exception is often made for foreigners. Consequently minshuku rates are lower, hovering around ¥5000 with two meals 一泊二食 ippaku-nishoku. Cheaper yet is a stay with no meals 素泊まり sudomari, which can go as low as ¥3000.
Minshuku are more often found in the countryside, where virtually every hamlet or island, no matter how small or obscure, will have one. The hardest part is often finding them, as they rarely advertise or show up in online booking engines, so asking the local tourist office is often the best way.
Kokuminshukusha 国民宿舎, a mouthful that translates quite literally into "people's lodges", are government-run guest houses. They primarily provide subsidized holidays for government employees in remote scenic spots, but they are usually happy to accept paying guests. Both facilities and prices are usually more comparable to ryokan than minshuku standards; however, they are almost invariably large in size and can be rather impersonal. Popular ones need to be booked well in advance for peak seasons: sometimes almost a year in advance for New Year's and the like.
Shukubō 宿坊 are lodgings for pilgrims, usually but not always located within a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Again, the experience is broadly similar to a ryokan, but the food will be vegetarian and you may be offered a chance to participate in the temple's activities. Some Zen temples offer meditation lessons and courses. Shukubo can be reluctant to accept foreign guests, but one place where that will not be a problem is the major Buddhist center of Mt. Koya near Osaka.