Where the USA and UK have motels, Japan has the Business Hotel – and they’re far nicer. In just about every city, step out of the JR train station and look around at the nearby tower-style buildings: one will have a blue neon Toyoko Inn sign, and chances are there will be several rivals nearby. If you want a cheap and cheerful bed for the night, you’re all set.
A single room in a business hotel can run you as little as £30 a night if they’re not busy (and that’s outside Tokyo, where the prices rise exponentially) to maybe £80 if you’re unlucky. This will get you a small western style room, many storeys up the tower, with a TV, a desk and a rather tiny bathroom that has, ingeniously, been moulded from a single piece of plastic.
Single rooms are plentiful, and amenities are stripped back to keep the cost down – rather than a minibar, for example, look for a vending machine in the lobby or hallway. One word of caution: smoking is still common in Japan, and most of these hotels will have many smoking rooms. If you’re particularly averse to the smell of stale tobacco, book carefully and in advance.
Some business hotels are independent – a few of those even have Japanese style rooms, but most belong to a chain. I’ve stayed in most, and here are my recommendations.
The Good Chains
Sunroute – I’ve stayed in loads of these, all over Japan. They’re always good, with prices between £45 in the sticks and £110 in Tokyo. The price is always representative of what you get: the Plaza Shinjuku, for example, is expensive but flashy, while Higashi-Shinkuki is older and less smart but cheaper, and Nara costs almost nothing but is a bit knackered. You can reserve online via the website in Japanese or English.
The B – These are very similar to the Sunroute hotels. Slightly trendy design, but otherwise just a clean, decent hotel. The Hakata one had a free coffee machine in reception and you can easily book online.
Dormy Inn – I’ve stayed in a few of these in Hokkaido. They’re a little more expensive (£70-£80) than your average Sunroute, probably twice the price of the Toyoko Inn, but occasionally you can grab a cheap room. In my experience they had decent rooms, free coffee in reception, onsen-style baths (the Dormy Inn Annex in Sapporo, in particular, was really quite nice in this respect), and free ramen if you happen to be kicking around the hotel at around 9pm. Online booking is possible via Japanican (see below).
The Average Chains
JAL City – These aren’t quite normal business hotels – you pay on checkout and there are minibars in the rooms, although in practice that just means you pay more for a beer or bottle of water. They are, however, really nice for the money – usually £50 or so if you book in advance. The website is an utter disaster that’s pretty hard to understand (a million and one options), so reserve on the phone or through a third party website.
JR Hotel – If JAL can have a hotel chain, so can the train company. I stayed in the one in Kumamoto, and it was just fine – absolutely standard business hotel service, right by the station, and cheap.
Toyoko Inn – You cannot miss the Toyoko inn in any town: it’ll be right by the JR train station, or have a giant blue light on the top, or usually both. And it’ll be cheap often: £35-40.
If all these chains fail and you can’t see a decent looking independent, try japanican.com – this agent allows English-language booking of a fairly wide range of hotels, and you can search by city.
And finally, a word about the Super Hotel chain: these are really, really cheap – I think I paid around £30. But you get what you pay for; the one I stayed at was closed up during the day, so you can’t drop off a backpack, while the room was super-smoky and small.