Soak in a Hot Bath at a Traditional Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, dating back to the 8th century. It's often associated with local hot springs, known as onsen, which are abundant throughout the island chain. Guests are treated to an ambiance of old-world Japan, with minimalist wood interiors, sliding paper doors, and simple tatami mats. Although they can be hundreds of years old, these inns don't typically skimp on comfort. Expect your futon rolled out for you every evening, and a traditional linen yukata robe for you to lounge in post-bath. Apart from shared thermal bathing facilities, the private bathrooms are usually appealingly high-tech, complete with toilet control panels, sound effects, and warm-water bidets.
You don't need to splurge to experience the simple pleasures of a ryokan, but even budget-minded travelers should consider opting for a partial board, which includes one meal a day. Multi-course ryokan meals feature small, beautifully-plated dishes that showcase local seasonal ingredients. It's a great way to indulge in traditional Japanese gastronomy in a time-honored setting.
Stay with a Local Family in a Minshuku Guesthouse
Like ryokan inns, these family-run guesthouses are often located near natural hot springs, or else in scenic settings like ski resorts, coastlines, or farms. Rooms have tatami mats and traditional Japanese decor. Minshuku B&Bs offer more basic accommodations. You'll likely have to roll your own futon, and visitors will definitely have to bring their own robes—worth it, given that guests here can interact with Japanese family members and get more of an authentic homestay experience.
Meals are served communally and overnights usually include breakfast and dinner, so you can chat up your hosts and mingle with other travelers while you dine together on hearty, home-cooked food. Bathrooms also tend to be shared, but fewer perks mean that these simple guesthouses make for more economical options. There are about 20,000 of them spread throughout the country, so you'll have your pick of where to stay.
Check out this 5-day trek on the Nakasendo trail, which features minshuku and ryokan overnights along the way.
Customize your trip with help from a local travel specialist.
Spend the Night in a Capsule Hotel—a Japanese Invention
Capsule Hotels were first designed in the late 1970s in Osaka. After an evening of boss-mandated boozing, Japan's legions of office workers—known as "salarymen"—needed somewhere to freshen up and catch a few hours of sleep. And so these space-age sleeping pods were born. You can usually find them located near train stations, for those bleary-eyed businessmen who have missed their last train home. A private capsule will get you an enclosed bunk with lights, power outlets, and luggage storage—plus, you'll often have a small TV. There's obviously no room for an en-suite: toilets and Japanese baths are shared between guests. Floors are separated by gender, but women-only bunks are a lot harder to come by.
Thrifty and utilitarian, these iconic hotels are the embodiment of Japanese pragmatism, and they're definitely worth trying—although claustrophobes might want to think twice. Newer, more luxurious sleeping pods boast enough space to sit up or even stand, but if you're looking for the real deal, then opt for a night in one of the original models.
Chant Morning Prayers in a Buddhist Temple
Another uniquely Japanese accommodation is a room at a Buddhist temple, known as shukubō. Traditionally, Japanese temples sheltered pilgrims arriving at pilgrimage destinations by foot, like the UNESCO-listed temple retreat of Mount Koya. Now, they're also open to tourists. You'll get a unique immersion into the surviving monastic traditions of Japan, with the opportunity to participate in morning prayers and sample tasty vegetarian temple cuisine. Rooms are decorated in an old-world style, similar to ryokan inns: you'll have tatami floors, heated tables in winter, and rolled futon bedding. Facilities are usually shared, and the ambiance tends to be a bit more austere, although splashier temples cater more to mid-range guests.
Shukubō lodgings are accustomed to hosting foreign visitors, and you might even find on-site activities like full-day meditation workshops. Temples are usually located in popular pilgrimage regions—book ahead since rooms fill up in advance.
Experience the Old World Decor of an Edo-Era Machiya
For another atmospheric overnight stay, try booking a room in a traditional, Edo-era wooden townhouse, known as machiya. You'll find them all over Japan, but they're most commonly associated with Kyoto, the country's fabled cultural capital, where they remain well-preserved. (Travelers interested in Kyoto should consider this culinary-minded itinerary.)
These narrow, traditional homes are built around outdoor gardens and courtyards, and used to be inhabited by merchants and craftspeople. Today, many of them have been converted into vacation rentals. They feature updated amenities, like modern bathrooms and renovated kitchens, while still retaining their original woodwork and ceiling beams. Rooms have tatami floors and sliding shoji doors, although some now advertise Western-style beds instead of futons. Travelers can book all or part of a townhouse for their stay. You won't get any communal meals, so this is a better option for guests who prefer to self-cater or eat out.