As someone who likes to save her hard-earned cash for eating great food and buying tickets to see great stuff, I like to spend as little as is comfortably possible on the place where I spend most of my time unconscious. But keep in mind that you’ll probably be doing a lot more walking than usual, so if you’re the kind of traveler who needs a place to rest up and relax between excursions, you might want to spring for something a little more luxurious. First of all:
Here are the things you should pay attention to when choosing a place to stay in Tokyo:
1: How long is the walk to the nearest train station? They should tell you in minutes; the further away it is, the cheaper the price should be. If something seems too good to be true, this is usually why. If you’re coming and going, or have small children, a twelve minute walk gets old, fast.
2: Which train line(s) are nearby? You can be anywhere in the vast area of Tokyo within half an hour if you’re near a decent train line. Anywhere near the Yamanote Line is especially excellent, and hubs like Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Otemachi and Ueno give you several options. (Shibuya is also a major hub, but the station has been under construction for years and I’d avoid it like the plague until after 2020.)
3: Do they charge by the room or by the person? Traditional inns in Japan charge by the person, even if you’re sharing a room. Make sure what the published price includes before you book.
4: Are any meals included? Traditional inns (ryōkan and onsen hot spring inns) are quite expensive and charge by the person, because two fabulous gourmet meals are included with the room. But regular hotels often include a breakfast buffet, with both Japanese and Western options. In Japan, this is my absolute favorite thing about staying at a regular hotel, because you can have miso soup AND an omelet (although it never fails to amuse me that Japanese hotels are all quite convinced that foreigners eat green salad for breakfast, go figure.)
Here are the different kinds of places to stay in Tokyo:
Premium Hotels • $$$
The most obvious choice is a nice hotel, and it’s the easiest to read reviews on and book.
Pros: Premium hotels have great locations, in popular neighborhoods, near convenient train stations. In addition to the usual comforts of staying at a hotel, an especially useful feature for travelers who don’t speak Japanese is that they have concierge services, with native speakers who can book restaurant reservations, tours, and arrange for tickets to museums and events. And there will certainly be a more-than-decent restaurant on the premises, with international options if you’re too tired to go out or can’t face eating Japanese food at every meal.
Cons: They are expensive, especially for the size of room you get.
Business Hotels • $$
Hotels like the Villa Fontaine chain are called “business hotels” because they tend to cluster in skyscraper neighborhoods near busy train stations, and are geared to service businessmen rather than vacationing couples or families.
Pros: They’re about half the cost of a premium hotel, and are often located near useful train stations. If you just want a place to crash at night, they’ll serve you well.
Cons: The rooms and bathrooms are really small. Like, hardly any room between the bed and the wall, and nowhere to sit and relax (See above.) You should also check how many minutes it takes to walk to the nearest train station, because they’re often quite a bit farther than the premium hotels. And if you don’t smoke, you should be very careful to book a non-smoking room. The smoking rooms have absorbed smoke from about a million trillion cigarettes, and you can catch a nicotine buzz just by walking through the door.
AirBnB • $-$$$
AirBnB used to be a fabulous way to stay in Tokyo…until about a year ago, when they legislated the hell out of it and threw up the usual bureaucratic hurdles to keep ordinary people from competing with the hotel industry. That said, some intrepid homeowners and a lot of small hotels and inns have managed to get approval, and there are about about 50,000 listings nationwide as of 2019. See what’s available, keeping the above guidelines in mind.
Serviced Apartments • $
“Serviced apartments” are an interesting option in Tokyo – these are furnished apartments which rent by the day, week, or month, with price breaks for longer stays. They usually provide room cleaning and bed changing once a week, fresh towels twice a week, and a small kitchenette with refrigerator, a gas burner, a microwave, and enough dishes/kitchen utensils for the room’s usual occupancy (2-4 people, depending on the size).
• These are good if you don’t want to eat at a restaurant for every meal. You can easily make your own breakfast, for example, or buy delicious eats at a department store food hall to heat up at your apartment.
• They are better than multiple detached hotel rooms if you have children who need a home base.
• They are cheaper than hotel rooms, but bigger, so they’re good for families staying together. They come in the usual apartment sizes: studio, one bedroom, two bedroom and (rarely) three bedroom, with at least one private bathroom. (Note: the size of the rooms may come as a shock – everything in Japan is MUCH smaller than elsewhere in the world, but this is true of fancy hotels as well.)
• They usually have a laundry center, with coin washers and dryers.
• They are not luxurious. The one I stay at is clean, staffed by nice people, in a decent location, but the flaking paint and dripping faucets would shock anyone who hadn’t experienced how ordinary people live in Japan. Of course, mileage varies, and there are newer, nicer, more expensive ones than the place where I stay.
• They don’t have the usual hotel amenities: no concierge service, no gym, and you have to bring/buy your own soap and shampoo.
If you google “serviced apartments Tokyo,” you’ll see what your options are. Important note: “Serviced apartments” are different from “guest houses” – guest houses are ultra-cheap, single-family dwellings cut up into rooms that rent to to students and contract workers, with shared bathrooms and kitchens. You do NOT want to stay in one, however tempting the price. Trust me on this.
The Homeikan – a super-affordable traditional inn • $
The Homeikan is sort of the Holiday Inn of Japanese inns – it’s not as fancy as the expensive ones, but all the rooms are traditional Japanese style, with tatami floors, and sliding screen doors. You’ll drink tea at a low table surrounded by cushions and sleep on the floor in a traditional futon. There is a nice public bath (shared with other guests, like at all traditional inns), and a beautiful garden in the courtyard.
No meals are included (unlike most traditional inns), although you can pay for breakfast to be delivered to your room for an extra fee. Towels are free, but if you want to use a hair dryer or a washing machine, you’ll have to pay for it. This place is super, incredibly reasonable, though – on par with staying at a serviced apartment, and less than half what you’d pay at any hotel. This link will take you to one of their booking agents
Hostels • $
There are actually quite a few hostels popping up in Tokyo, and although I’ve never stayed at one, I hear that some of them are pretty nice, and some are in great neighborhoods. Hostelworld has a pretty good selection, for you to check out. (Of course, like hostels worldwide, you trade privacy for low rates, with shared sleeping spaces, bathrooms, & such).
Which neighborhood is the best?
All of them. No, seriously. All of them. Everywhere in Tokyo is safe (I’ve never felt threatened in any way, anywhere, at any time, even walking alone), so you should choose a home base that’s surrounded by stuff that’s interesting to you, for those times between excursions when you just want to meander around.
If you’re into millennial energy and everything New Japan I’d suggest: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku/Jingumae, Daikanyama, Koenji, Kichijoji, Shimo-kitazawa
If you prefer Old Tokyo shitamachi, traditional restaurants, shops that have been in business for generations, I might steer you toward: Yanaka (Nezu/Sendagi/Nishi-nippori), Asakusa, Iidabashi.
I hope this expands your options a bit, and you find a great place to stay!
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist