For small or chain hotels there is always Booking.com. For example APA hotels are well known throughout Japan and situated in almost every city and these are easily booked by the online booking sites.
The biggest advice I can give after the whole trip, is to be careful of the square meters of the room, especially if you are not traveling alone and are a tall person like Erhan 🙂 We never checked it in Europe, but in Japan some rooms are so tiny, it was really hard to move around. We faced this fact in our first hotel in Tokyo and started to be careful about it.
Erhan’s note: We spent hours arguing if the bed advertised would be big or tall enough for the both of us, or if we could fit in the room given we were traveling with enough luggage to support our entire excursion. It turns out some beds in Japan are only barely enough for two relatively slender people.
Japanese hotel rooms are full of equipment, even the tiny ones, everything you need is either in the room or in the lobby of the hotel (where you can pick your needs yourself and go to your room). In most of the hotels, you can choose your pillow type (In Europe this service is only in the expensive hotels but not in Japan!)
Erhan’s notes: It was also a different experience to pick which pillow to sleep with. It turns out some pillows had plastic beads in them to provide better support and some had soba (buckwheat) husks. Regardless they all helped me stop snoring (which is also beneficial for the hotel I suppose)
For hostels, Booking.com (or similar ones) is again the site you should go for. For capsule hotels, again same thing.
There is another concept in Japan called “Ryokan”. A Ryokan (旅館) is a type of traditional Japanese inn that has traditionally furnished and arranged rooms often with tatami mats, 99% communal baths, and other public areas like onsens, gardens etc. There are some ryokans in Booking.com but not all of them are there. For more rural areas, we used the site https://www.ryokan.or.jp/english/ . We emailed many of them with our dates and book through this site. Beware that ryokans have limited rooms so these are mostly booked very early (especially during the Japanese vacations like Golden week etc.) Ryokans were really expensive in our experience so we had to hand-pick them and stayed there only where we should. Another property of the Ryokans were that a fixed dinner and breakfast are served to your room, or you need to leave your room so your bed/table can be set up, so you had to abide more or less by the rules of the ryokan. For us in all cases it meant that you slept on the floor. (I’ll give more details in the future posts about this)
The onsen towns and onsen hotels
The onsens are very important in Japan ( for more information, Japan guide). Mostly, there is an onsen or hot bath in every hotel. To be considered an onsen it should comply with some rules, therefore some of them are called hot baths instead of onsen.
Erhan’s note: Some hot baths were artificially minerally enriched.
Some towns were based on hot springs entirely with several ryokans or hotels in an area with their own onsens as well as more public onsens that are accessible and equally enjoyable.
Erhan’s note: We spent a good deal of time deciding which specific onsens to visit. A major hurdle was the rule of “being naked” in the onsen. I knew we could overcome that when the time came, but initially the idea made us relatively uncomfortable to the point where we looked for onsens where people can bathe with swimming suits or trunks. There were some, but we opted for the more “authentic” experience.
Airbnb and rental homes
In June 2018, Japan introduced new home-sharing regulations that affected Airbnb listings in all the country. So we have been affected by this change because there weren’t many listings and it wasn’t easy to understand what it is ok legally and what’s not. We had 2 airbnb experiences: one in Kyoto, one in Osaka, both very different from each other. Nowadays, I learned that Airbnb removed non-compliant listings, so I think that if a property in Japan has a listing on Airbnb, it’s legit. But again check yourself with the owner, and see if they have a license to rent.
Erhan’s note : How to stay in cities was a major point of our planning. Since it was planned to be a long trip staying in a hotel for 2 months would be expensive. The status of Airbnb was shaky at best in Japan. What about expat long stay options? Should we rent a house as a base of operations and make excursions from there? Provided how inexperienced we were and how alien Japan was with respect to what we were used to deal with, we ended up meticulously planning a string of continuous hotel stays, ryokan reservations and a few Airbnb locations. What bothered me was that I thought the plan was doomed to fail provided the length of the trip, and we ended up researching alternative locations in case a hotel or Airbnb failed us.
Spoiler: our plan stayed true almost to the end with only a few revisits thanks to Japanese having mastered local travel, hospitality, and cargo services. We had some trouble with Airbnb that cost us considerable time and money but we kind of saw that coming. It is entirely understandable why Japanese officials are not very keen on Airbnb given how many people are taking advantage of the online service and providing a false sense of cheap accommodation while it drives down the quality of the visit as well as the neighborhood which is often not very touristic with an influx of foreign tourists. (not all tourists are equal, regardless most end up being noisier than the average Japanese resident.