Unique Japanese stays
With its host of unique accommodation options, there’s no need to stay in an ordinary hotel when you visit Japan.
A ryokan is a traditional and often very beautiful style of Japanese lodging. A boutique hotel that usually features an immaculate garden and a bathhouse, rooms are simple and elegant, with tatami-mat floors, paper walls, futon beds and a small table and chairs, and guests are provided with a sumptuous dinner and breakfast. This is a must-do experience for any visitor to Japan, and the city of Kyoto offers some of the best experiences.
Minshukus are Japanese-style bed and breakfasts and are usually family-run affairs where guests sleep in small, simple rooms on tatami-mat floors, and enjoy home-style, but still quite elaborate, meals in shared dining rooms. There are plenty of minshukus in Japan’s smaller towns and villages.
Tea house window at Sesshuji Temple in Kyoto.
Traditional Japanese room interior at a ryokan in Kyoto.
Though vegan meals and 5am wake-up calls for prayers may not sound like everyone’s idea of a good time, a stay at a Buddhist temple in Japan is a fascinating experience. The rooms at these working temples are usually simple and traditional, with tatami-mat floors and futon mattresses. Guests are served two vegan meals a day and are invited to join morning prayers. The town of Koya-San, near Kyoto, is a good place to try it out.
Travelling on the cheap? Have no problems with claustrophobia? Then capsule hotels could be for you. Japan is famous for this ultra-small accommodation style, where travellers sleep in tiny pods that have no more than a curtain for privacy. Vending machines sell cheap snacks and drinks, and there are shared bathing facilities. It’s a memorable experience, if nothing else.
Many resort town hotels, both Western-style and Japanese, will have their own onsen, or hot-spring bath. Entry is included in the room rate and is unlimited. Be warned: you’ll be expected to go completely naked in shared (though gender-specific) facilities, and travellers with tattoos may be banned.
Though these cafes, usually only found in large cities, are ostensibly there to sell comics and provide spaces for customers to read them, they also have private rooms, with sofas and computers, that can be rented in 24-hour blocks, providing cheap – if not exactly luxurious – lodgings for more adventurous travellers.
Need to know
While major Western-style hotels and smaller establishments in big cities will have English speakers on staff, at ryokans and minshukus you may have to fumble your way through using sign language and a translating app. When staying anywhere with tatami-mat floors, always take your shoes off at the entrance before stepping on the mats. At budget inns you’ll also be expected to set up your own futon – the mattress and bedding will be rolled up and stored in a cupboard during the day. Importantly, remember to relax – foreign visitors are expected to make mistakes, and the locals will forgive any faux pas.