Budget travelers usually run in the other direction when the word Japan is uttered. But we've unearthed some accommodation secrets that will have you yelling "Bonsai!" How about a room with a view in Hiroshima for $15, with buffet breakfasts for $3.50? Or a sumptuous hot-springs inn on the northern island of Hokkaido for $52, including two delicious meals? Even repeat visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun miss the little-known government-sponsored lodges in gorgeous settings -- as little as $60 per night, including two large meals. With the sharp decline of the Japanese currency to a rate of 120-125 yen to one U.S. dollar (compared with 90 yen to the dollar seven years ago), Japan is again reasonably priced for Americans of average means. It's even more accessible at the unexpected lodgings-hostels for anyone, hot-springs inns, and public resorts -- which we'll now describe. Note: When calling these numbers from the U.S., dial 011-81 and then drop the initial zero.
HOSTELS FOR ALL AGES
Although Japan's hostels have varying rules, these do not require membership (with the exception of the first one listed), and -- like all hostels in Japan -- welcome guests of all ages.
Hiroshima Youth Hostel 1-13-6 Ushitashinmachi, Higashi-ku, Hiroshima city, Hiroshima-ken, island of Honshu, 082-221-5343, fax 082-221-5377. 104 beds. $15 per night (slightly cheaper in fall and spring when A/C or heating are not needed). Without a valid Hostelling International membership card, add about $6 per night. Reception: 3-10 p.m. (Doors close for the night at 10 p.m.) Bus stop: Ushitashinmachi 1 chome. Situated amid lush vegetation atop a hill in a quiet neighborhood of Hiroshima (a ten-minute walk from the bus stop), this hostel offers friendly reception and a calm atmosphere. Bunk-bed rooms sleep two, six, or ten people. Guests can use the kitchen facilities (free, except using the gas stove, about 80¢), but the hostel also serves a Japanese dinner ($6) and American- style breakfast ($3.50). In the summer there's a pool (40¢ for guests under 18, 80¢ for adults). The English-speaking staff can help you map out your visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park or other sights.
Toji-an Guest House (Kyoto) 8-Jyo Omiya, Nishi Iru, Kujyo cho 6-2-1, Minami- ku, Kyoto city, island of Honshu, 075-691-7017, fax 075-691-0304, linkclub.or.jp/~bangkok/touji.htm. 30 units, about 65 beds. $16 per person in dorm rooms, $19 per person in private rooms (up to six guests), monthly rates also available. 24-hour reception, no curfew. With no shortage of temples and old-fashioned wooden houses, Kyoto is a must. Located within easy walking distance of Kyoto Station, this brown two-story building features A/C rooms, free laundry and kitchen facilities, and proximity to a Japanese public bath (80¢). Although no meals are offered, the hostel is surrounded by stores and restaurants and offers bicycle rentals ($4 per day) for those who wish to venture farther. This hostel offers coffee, tea, chocolates, and "Kimono Service" -- during which the staff will help you experience traditional Japanese life by dressing you in a kimono and taking your photo-free of charge. Energetic staff members (who speak English) take a keen interest in their many international visitors.
Tokyo Kokusai (International) Youth Hostel Central Plaza, 18th Floor, 1-1 Kagurakashi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, island of Honshu, 03-3235-1107, fax 03-3267-4000, homepage2.nifty.com/tokyo-yh. 158 beds. $28 per night, three-night limit. Reservations not required, but strongly recommended during peak travel periods. Reception: 3-9 p.m. (doors close for the night at 10 p.m. and during the day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Subway and Japan Rail Stop: Iidabashi. This modern hostel is in the heart of Tokyo, accessible to public transportation and within walking distance of many restaurants, a large public park, and a Shinto shrine. Its greatest asset is a gorgeous view -- on a clear day, Mt. Fuji is visible on the horizon. There are rooms with four, eight, and ten beds (bunk-style) that are single gender, unless the entire room is reserved by the same group or family. Sheets are free; each bed comes with a personal locker (a key is provided) and a curtain for privacy. The laundry can be used for free. Personal showers and the usual Japanese-style public bath are also free. Although dinner ($6.50) changes daily, it typically consists of traditional Japanese cuisine. Breakfast is $3.25. The staff speaks English.
Be prepared to pay an extra 10-15 percent for weekends and national holidays and perhaps more for New Year's, Golden Week (the first week of May), and mid-July to mid-August. Peak-season surcharges are standard in Japan -- the entire country often has the same days off, so it's important to plan ahead if traveling during these times.
Aoni Onsen Taki no ue 1-7, Okiura Aonisawa, Kuroishi city, Aomori-ken, island of Honshu, 0172-54-8588, fax 0172-54-2655. Non-Japanese speakers should make reservations in English by fax. 33 units. One night with two meals, $68-$81 per person (up to four people per room). Add $12 from December to March to cover heating charges. Aoni Onsen is one of Japan's greatest secret treasures. A scenic 40-minute car ride from the nearest town (the staff makes trips to the Kuroishi train station daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), this secluded inn is lit entirely by oil lamps; there's no electricity. The intimate cluster of traditional wooden buildings includes four hot-springs baths-two are mixed gender and two are segregated. To get from the main lodge to the springs, guests -- lantern in hand -- cross a narrow wooden footbridge spanning the Aoni River. Breakfast and dinner are Japanese-style and highlight fresh fish from the river and wild vegetables from the nearby forests. The inn is open year-round and is beautiful in any season.
Yunni No Yu Fushimi 122 Fushimi, Yunicho, Yubari-gun, island of Hokkaido, 01238-3-3800, fax 01238-3-3811. 19 units. Japanese-style rooms with private outdoor hot springs, Western rooms, and combined Japanese/Western-style suites. One night with two meals from $52 per person for three or $60 per person for two in a Western-style room, $80 per person for two in a combined Japanese/Western room, and $112 per person for two in a room with hot springs. Children stay for $32 a night in any room with kids' meals. Western-style rooms have beds, whereas Japanese-style rooms have woven tatami mat floors and futon bedding. People from the small farming town of Yuni refurbished and added new buildings to this luxury spa and inn about four years ago. Yuni's main attraction is its coffee-colored hot springs, which locals claim calm nerves and relieve aches and pains. Even if you don't have any maladies, the water is relaxing and will leave your skin soft as a baby's. Although the main baths are shared with day visitors, during late nights and mornings they are reserved for overnight guests. The chefs specialize in Japanese, Chinese, and Western cuisine, and breakfast is all-you-can-eat. The inn is about five minutes by taxi from the Yuni rail station.
Not typically noted in English-language guides, this reasonably priced lodging category is a valuable budget resource. If there's a drawback, it's that it caters to Japanese visitors, so there are few English-speaking staff members. If you don't speak Japanese, write well in advance for reservations via fax or e- mail; most lodges find simple written English easiest to understand. Once at the lodge, Pictionary skills and simple phrases should suffice for any traveler.
Kyukamura Shikotsuko Shikotsuko-Onsen, Chitose city, island of Hokkaido, 0123-25-2201, fax 0123-25-2202, email@example.com. 39 units. One night with two meals, $60 per person. Built about three years ago, this attractive lodge has a beautiful view of Lake Shikotsu, the largest lake in Hokkaido. The lake is ringed by volcanoes and was itself the caldera of an ancient volcano, which lends it not only mountainous scenery but also naturally occurring hot springs. Unlike most other developed hot-springs towns in Hokkaido, Lake Shikotsu lacks high-rises; it has a more natural energy. This lodge is the cheapest and newest in the area and features spa-style facilities (free to overnight guests). Its Western-style rooms are designed for two to three guests and have private showers, while Japanese-style rooms accommodate two to five guests; both styles have TVs and A/C or heating, depending on the season. The $60 price is per person, regardless of how many occupy the room. Dinner is a scrumptious seafood menu and breakfast is all-you-can-eat with both Western and Japanese cuisine. Although surrounded by nature, the lodge is accessible to public transportation-buses leave from New Chitose Airport, Chitose Rail Station, and Sapporo, and the hotel will fetch guests from the stop if arranged in advance (otherwise it's a ten-minute walk from the main Shikotsu-ko stop). Although staff members are not as accustomed to foreign guests as those at the youth hostels, they can communicate in English if you use easy words and enunciate. Extras include a karaoke room.
Kokumin Shukusha Unomisaki 640 Oaza-Ishi, Jyuo-cho, Taga-gun, Ibaraki-ken, island of Honshu, 0293-32-2202, fax 0293-32-2204. 58 units. One night with two meals from $67 per person (price varies by number of guests and the style of the room). Rated the top lodge in Japan by the national association of Kokumin Shukusha (for government- sponsored lodges), Unomisaki is near the ocean, amidst a fragrant pine forest. All rooms in this new eight-story brick building are equipped with refrigerators and have a sea view (partially obscured by pine trees in some rooms). The lodge has Japanese rooms, some with private baths, for up to six, Western rooms with private baths for up to three, and wheelchair-accessible rooms for up to four; the price for two is $80-$85. Guests may use the hot-springs spa for free. Dinner is Japanese cuisine and breakfast consists of both Japanese and Western foods. Additional perks include walking trails though the woods, a tennis court, and transportation from the Jobansen Kawajiri train station (if prearranged). Karaoke and coin laundry facilities are available, but cost extra.