Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Japan - Hotels (and How to Find One)

First-time travelers to Japan may face some daunting choices in where to stay - in many ways it is a completely alien country, and I've met people who think that all the hotels there force you to sleep either on the floor or in tiny capsules. This is obviously not the case, and in fact choosing a decent hotel is not that difficult. But choosing one that's convenient, has all the amenities you want and has a nice view is as challenging as it is anywhere.

In most parts of Japan, and as in many other things, you have two basic choices: Japanese or western style. Japanese style inns, or ryokan, are becoming harder to find and are generally pretty expensive. The Japanese don't use these much anymore unless they're playing tourist themselves, so most hotels you'd find - especially in a modern city like Tokyo (or even Kyoto) are going to be western style. Western bed, western bathroom, all the standard conveniences.

Most westerners seem to stay in the hotels they know from America - Hilton, Hyatt and other major chains exist there too. The problem I have with these chains is that they know they've got the familiarity in their favor so they charge exorbitant rates - generally $300 a night and up.

I've been using Prince Hotels ever since my first stay in Japan - they're sort of the Hilton of Japan; upscale mid-range, popular with business travelers. They're also everywhere - there are seemingly dozens of Prince Hotels in Tokyo. The hotels themselves are western but with a Japanese interpretation - something I always find interesting. The Japanese take on western luxury includes a lot of gold, chrome and glass - it's like being transported back to the 1980's, even in their new buildings.

Prince Hotels are famous for (generally) offering great views. It may not be true of all of their hotels, but it is certainly true of the Shinagawa Prince:

The Shinagawa Prince is almost unbelievable, especially if you've never heard of this chain before. It's mind-boggingly large, and is in fact four hotels in one, plus a major mall and condominium complex. Some visitors to Japan may prefer something a little more traditional; I personally enjoy the total excess that is modern Japanese culture. You want Japan? A gigantic chrome, gold and glass quad-hotel on top of a mall, iMax theater, dual-level bowling alley and condo complex is as much Japan as any ryokan.

I love the Shinagawa Prince because of the view and because of its style. I also love that its rooms are "only" about $150 per night - relatively cheap for "downtown" Tokyo (whatever that means). You can find cheaper, though - as we did a couple trips ago - just by walking down the street. There are a lot of hotels in the larger areas of Tokyo, and all you really need to do is find a smaller one that you can bet probably doesn't deal with a lot of the major travel agencies. If it looks clean, you're probably pretty safe staying there. We found a decent hotel just a block or so from the Shinagawa Prince a few years ago that charged just 9800 yen per night - all it lacked was the view.

One caveat about the Shinagawa Prince: as it is basically four separate hotels, some are newer than others. The "main" building is actually the oldest, and seems to get rented out by class trips and other large groups that probably just want the cheapest rates. The "annex" is a bit newer and a bit more upscale, but still pretty old. It's probably the quietest building in the complex, though. The "new tower" is no longer the newest tower, but is still not old - and it's got the same views as I'm posting here. The "executive tower" is the newest of all the buildings, just a year or two old - and it probably also has the nicest of the "cheap" rooms at the hotel. That's where we stayed this time - though this tower does have some too-modern oddities, like rock-hard beds and these corridors lifted straight out of the Starship Enterprise:

It also has, of course, one amenity standard to all decent Japanese hotels: an electronically-controlled bidet in every bathroom. Another cool thing about the executive tower: you can get a 1,000 yen gift voucher good at any of the convenience stores in the hotel if you choose not to have your room made up on any given day. (You can't do this two days in a row, but you can every other day.) This basically bought us breakfast and snacks for our entire stay.

One thing you've got to consider when picking a hotel to stay at is what you plan on doing. One semi-annoying thing for us about Shinagawa is that there aren't many tourist spots, so pretty much every day started out with a trip on the Yamanote line. At least the hotel is directly across from the train station - always a plus in Japan. But you may want to look for hotels closer to where you're actually going to go - though in our case, it probably didn't much matter because we went in all different directions every day. As I mentioned in my Tokyo Tower post, Tokyo is spread out all over the place, so there's no one area where all the attractions are concentrated as in a city like New York.

So how did we find the Shinagawa Prince to begin with, not to mention the New Miyako in Kyoto? Well, having a Japanese travel agent doesn't hurt - we've used H.I.S. in the past, and this time we used JALPAK. With JALPAK, though, I actually told them which hotels I wanted - it sure doesn't hurt to check tripadvisor.com for recommendations and reviews. That's how I found the New Miyako.

I've neglected talking about Akihabara so far - one subject I know a lot of you anime and game fans out there are going to want to know about - so I'll do that next. Watch for it (hopefully) tomorrow!

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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