Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Japan Series 2: Accommodation in Japan for Families and Groups

View from our balcony in Kyoto
Travelling in Japan with a family, or a group of 4 or more that wants to stay together, can be a real challenge. Family rooms in hotels (ie rooms that sleep more than 3 people) are rarer than hen's teeth, especially in premium locations, and where they do exist, they are very expensive. If you add in a need or preference to be able to cook and do laundry, accommodation gets harder again.

We travelled as a family of 5, and ended up having a great experience staying in Japan - but not through wholly conventional means!

For families and groups, some kinds of accommodation options are off the table from the start. Hostels and capsule hotels (the ones where they slide you into a bed that looks like a pod - *shudder*) are not available for children at all. You really have three kinds of options:

1. Ryokans (Traditional Japanese hotels)
2. Apartment stays (there are several sites that do this, but for Westerners, by far the easiest to use is Air BnB)
3. Western-style hotels

We used each of these options in our time in Japan, with a preponderence of our stay being in Air BnB apartments. Each have their pros and cons, as I will discuss below.
Ryokan in Yudanaka

Option 1: Ryokan (Traditional Japanese hotels)

Ryokans are, it must be said, lovely. They involve sleeping on floor mats in tatami-floored rooms, but bathrooms and toilets are usually Western-style (although it is worth checking, especially if you have physical restrictions that would make it difficult to use a squat toilet). Many ryokans also have an onsite onsen (Japanese hot bathhouse), which adds a touch of luxury to the experience; and while you are there, you will eat traditional Japanese food (dinner and breakfast are often part of the price, and we found that they are so rich and bountiful that we only needed fruit and crackers for lunch).

View from the ryokan
The ryokan experience is not a cheap one. Prices vary, of course, but for a nice ryokan, especially one in a popular area with an experience attached to it (ie we stayed at one in Yudanaka, which is the town where tourists come to see the snow monkeys), you'd be looking at about $180AUD per person per night - not something most families could afford to do for long (we had 2 nights at ours). Of course, dinner and breakfast inclusions, and access to the onsen, does help offset that cost, but it is still not something most could do for an entire trip.

If it is something you can find the budget to do though, even if for a single night, I would highly recommend it. It gives you a slower, more measured and culturally embedded experience than Western-style hotels do.

Option 2: Air BnB

Corridor of our Air BnB building in Shibuya, Tokyo
Air BnB is regulated and regularised in Japan, by Act of Parliament. The Housing Accommodation Business Act comes into full effect this July (2018), and provides for Air BnB operators to legally and openly conduct their businesses provided certain conditions are met. Air BnB is proactively moving to ensure that its hosts will be in compliance with the law, and you can book via the site with confidence that the necessary permits and licenses have been obtained.

This does provide protections for Air BnB clients (as well as hosts, and very importantly, neighbours) that are not always present in less regulated Air BnB environments. I had a degree of nervousness about using Air BnB for family travel, but it proved unwarranted, thankfully.

One-room apartment in Shibuya. Bathroom was a tiny attached cell.
Air BnB was the option we used by far the most for our Japan holiday, with 17 of our 21 nights being spent in Air BnB apartments. We used five different AirBnBs - for 5 nights in Shibuya, Tokyo; 2 nights in Nagoya; 6 nights in Kyoto; 2 nights in Osaka; and 2 nights in Hiroshima.

Overall, our Air BnB experience was top-notch. We had no problems accessing any of the five properties - the instructions provided were detailed and accurate. All properties matched their description well, and all five hosts were excellent quick communicators.

Living room in Nagoya
We stayed at five very different kinds of places. The room in Shibuya was extremely basic - just a place to crash and no cooking facilities - but was excellently located. The apartment in Nagoya was very plain but serviceable. The Kyoto apartment, where we stayed the longest, was, in my opinion, the nicest - we had three bedrooms, a dining room with a table that seated 6 people, and a fully equipped kitchen, plus it was very well positioned. The Osaka apartment was little but funky, while in Hiroshima, the 5th-floor apartment was comfortable and well-equipped and had a nice view.

Nagoya kitchen
There were minor niggles in each location - hot water dodgy in one, unuseably slow wi fi in another, neighbour noise at 4am when a bakery was getting deliveries, that sort of thing - but nothing that really impeded us in any meaningful way.

One thing that was blessedly easy in Air BnB was our non-smoking needs. Air BnB hosts in Japan are SUPER stern about not smoking in the properties - so much so that they promise to bill you a hefty extra cleaning fee if there is any evidence of smoking. Perhaps we were just lucky in this, but prior tenants appear to have kept to the rules as none of our apartments had even the faintest hint of smoke. This is not always something that can be said for hotel rooms - not too long ago I had to get a room changed at a hotel in Adelaide due to smokiness - so I was very happy and grateful that it worked out so well with Air BnB in Japan.

Kyoto kitchen and living area
On balance, I think Air BnB is the best option for travel in Japan as a family or a group. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


- Cost: Air BnB in the locations we stayed at cost around 40 - 50% what two hotel rooms (which we would need for 5 people) would have cost. This may come out closer to even though for two people travelling together who only need one room. The average cost per night we paid for our apartments was $275AUD (a little less in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo; a little more in Kyoto and Hiroshima). In each case, that was for a place that could sleep 5, had laundry facilities, and except in Tokyo, also had kitchen or kitchenette facilities.

- Ability to cook meals: For cost, kid-eating and gluten safety reasons, this was a huge plus for us. I estimate we saved at least $500AUD overall by me cooking our evening meals each night, and breakfasting at home, in Kyoto alone - and probably more than a few glutenings too.

Bedroom in Kyoto
- Feeling of being in a neighbourhood: Far more than being tucked up in a hotel, staying in houses or apartments and interacting with the neighbourhood shops, environment and transportation gives you a real sense of what a place is like. I enjoy feeling difference when I travel and finding points of commonality and discovery. I think you do this less when behind the "wall" of a hotel.

- Comfort: I don't really like hotels. I find them a bit impersonal and often noisy. I feel much more comfortable in a homier environment.

- No separation: Because we are a family of five and would have needed 2 rooms everywhere, this would have meant splitting up every night and the two parents never being able to sleep in the same room. That felt like a dreary option for 3 weeks in a row!

Apartment in Osaka

- Porting luggage: Travel to and from accommodations can be a nuisance as much as an adventure when porting heavy luggage. There are moments when a hotel's pick up service is very welcome (we embraced it at our ryokan in Yudanaka!)

- Gaps in check-in / check-out: The lack of ability (mostly) to store luggage after checkout can be annoying, although our Tokyo host was very kindly willing to let us leave our bags there after checkout while we went to Studio Ghibli. Most places are 10am checkout, 3pm check in, which can mean a gap of standing around train stations awkwardly sipping Starbucks while waiting for time to pass.

However, we also found that you can often check in a bit earlier than specified. It is all self check from a key in a coded keybox, and we have twice found the key there and the place ready a good hour before designated check in.

Bunk beds in Osaka

We had a really good experience Air BnBing in Japan. It saved us thousands of dollars and probably multiple health problems for me, and really enriched our experience by embedding us in areas where people actually live, as well as enabling us to relax together as a family in ways we just couldn't have in hotels. I would, and will, do it this way again and I would definitely recommend it as an option.

"Toilet of the future": With warmed seat, multiple buttons and functions!

Option 3: Western-style hotels

We stayed at Western-style hotels on our last two nights in Japan - one in central Tokyo, and one at Narita Airport (the night before our flight). The airport hotel was exactly like every other airport hotel I have ever stayed in - clean, adequate, not fancy, full of late-night noises of rumbling suitcases and travellers coming and going. It was reasonably priced and included the shuttle to the terminal, so I have no complaints.

The central Tokyo hotel was nice enough too. They did find us a family room, which was a bonus, but the cost for one night was more than I'd paid for the two previous nights at Air BnB in Hiroshima, and there was no laundry or kitchen facilities. 

You can sometimes get great deals on hotels via travel agents to reduce the cost of this option, but those deals rarely to never include family rooms. For a couple travelling together, a smart agent could probably get you great hotel options that cost less than Air BnB, but for families and groups, I am sceptical!


I started booking our Air BnB accommodation last September, for a trip in April. I did it slowly, with my final booking made just before Christmas. Booking that far in advance, I had a huge range of options, and was able to be really picky about getting places that ticked all my boxes. Out of curiosity, I checked Air BnB about 4 weeks before our departure, and found that options for our travel dates had narrowed massively. I would not have been able to get anything suitable in our price range in Tokyo or Kyoto by then, and would've had to look hard in the other three locations. So my advice is: book as early as you realistically can, and certainly, not less than 6 weeks before you travel, if you want good Air BnB options.

Some times of the year are much, much harder than others for booking anything (including accommodation) in Japan. We were there for sakura (cherry blossoms), which was peak season, but we avoided the busiest week of the year - Golden Week, from 24 April onwards. Accommodation (and travel, and attractions) during Golden Week is well-nigh impossible by all reports. The other peak is in Japanese autumn (October / November), which is apparently as busy as spring in terms of accommodation and attractions. Summer (July / August) is apparently easier for accommodation, but possibly even more crowded at attractions because it is Japanese, European and North American summer school holidays. 

The lowest season, and easiest for accommodation and other things, is winter (from early December to very early March). Dedicated skiers come in for winter sports, but other than that, general tourist numbers are much lower. (We are planning a winter trip as our next Japanese holiday - hopefully in three or four years' time!)


It's easy to be scared off by the intimidating pricing of Japanese hotels as family travellers, but really, Japanese travel does not have to be exorbitant if you are willing to use the full range of accommodation options available. I would encourage anyone to use Air BnB for Japan travel and to start looking as early as you have confirmed flight dates, to give yourself the best range of options.

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