Lodging & food in Japan
Almost everywhere is clean and of really good quality, even hole in the wall food stalls and cheap hostel lodging. So don’t feel like you need to spend a lot. I think the most authentic experiences won’t even be the luxurious & expensive ones.
My favourite places are simple B&Bs with tatami mats, futons, lovely breakfasts, and great baths: in many places, hot springs. Somewhere where you can chat engagingly with the proprietors, who will really want to help you out with recommendations and guidance.
Ask for an eastern style room, so long as you know how to set up and fold away the futon properly.
Minshukus are Japanese bed and breakfasts — fun and cheap. A family or property owner living in a largeish house will rent 1–2 bedroom to travelers and will sometimes serve in-house meals. It’s a good way to experience life in a Japanese house. Definitely stay in a ryokan, but if your budget is tight then these are a good way to go.
- Eat a good breakfast wherever you’re staying. :D
- Cheap hotels really aren’t bad quality. They will be basic, but clean and totally sufficient. I booked multiple last-minute inexpensive hotels off booking.com etc, and they were totally comfortable, functional, predictable… accommodating.
- Stay at a ryokan over a hotel if you can.
- AirBnBs are on the rise in Japan, as many places. Listings in English are a good indication your hosts are expecting, and able to deal with, foreigners, of course. Some abodes can be pretty impersonal and utilitarian. But still clean! Some are simple like staying at the house of a friend who didn’t do too much to prep for you (UK home stay style).
If you’re traveling in an area full of temples, you can also stay in them. They’re cheap and provide delicious vegetarian meals but they also require you to attend a morning service. An interesting option!
Alternately, for adults, you can do a night, or hour, at a quirky themed “love hotel” of your choice, for fun. Privacy assured. An array of choices. I haven’t really kept up with their economy but presume they are still around.
Hostel and ryokan strategy?
From limited experience (I almost always stay with family and friends) a good “hostel” in Japan can actually be more like a ryokan than like what you expect from hostels elsewhere. Also, in a traditional ryokan, there are many rules and you could easily offend without knowing what you’re doing. If it’s problematic enough an offence, mortifyingly, a staffer might have to tell you. But mostly you will remain obliviously offensive.
It could be nice (and affordable) to stay somewhere first that really welcomes and helps foreigners adapt, so then when you go to the traditional ryokan you know what you’re doing and can be appropriately polite and conscientious.
Rules, e.g. in hot springs
Generally, check on all the rules. For example, with hot springs, nakedness, the art of washing up properly before entering, what to do with long hair, connotation of having tattoos, possible variations on gender mix rules and related signage, entering with and using a small wash towel strategically if male… especially if caucasian and/or tall or otherwise weird, like prone to turning bright red in hot water. You will just have a much nicer time if you know the basic protocol, and it won’t be intimidating to go, you will get stared at less, and everyone will be more comfortable.
- A general rule: Pick a place that specialises in one particular food, like a soba noodle shop, shabu shabu, teppanyaki, tofu, or a (well recommended) tempura restaurant. Because they will be really good at that one thing.
- The most delicious restaurants can be tiny ramen or curry shops on cramped streets, where you squeeze in, yell out your order to the guy behind the kitchen counter, and slurp it down happily. Or five-seat corner sushi bars where you select from the day’s menu and the chef prepares and serves each piece to you.
- If you’re a seafood person… pre-dawn Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is a must. See the huge trade. Then you eat at places around the market. Now it’s a brand new market, though… which I don’t know personally.
- One Japanese cuisine chain that has always been consistently quite tasty (to me) is Ootoya, at most train stations in Tokyo. Fast casual and fresh. Very reliable. Tasty but healthy. Look for the sign; it’s often on an upper floor. Obey the protocol for ordering. (New Yorker even wrote it up.)
- If you meet a longtime-Tokyoite foreigner who can take you to his country’s spot, go. Tokyo has excellent Italian, Indian, Chinese (all sorts), Thai, Nepalese, Malaysian, etc. There’s even a legit Mexican spot in a hidden location down a flight of stairs in Harajuku, sometimes with a proper imported mariachi band.
- Avoid foreign cuisine restaurants that are obviously geared towards Japanese people if you actually like that authentic cuisine. Especially in smaller markets where they really need to cater to local preferences, it might barely resemble the original cuisine.
- Izakayas are great places for drinking and eating. They offer small plates of food (like a tapas bar), so you can experience a wide variety of dishes. You see a lot of office workers de-stressing there after work. The chains are not that bad. Good for a quick bite. Avoid if you hate smoking!
- We also like to go to standing-only salaryman bars for a nama biru (draft beer) and kushi mono (food on sticks — meat, quail eggs, veggies, etc.). [This input is primarily from a friend. If you’re strict vegetarian, though, like no veggie skewers on a meat grill, you will not be eating at these places.]
- Unless you want that specific experience — like super popular crazy cheap conveyer belt sushi places — skip ubiquitous Japanese chains, especially with English names, or else you’ll find yourself eating at the equivalent of a Denny’s, sometimes while dropping a surprising amount of cash on an extremely mediocre pizza.
- In fact, generally try to avoid anywhere that seems too accessible to foreigners, e.g. English listed first on signs or menus. It’s easy for places to get away with not being so authentic or good when their clientele is foreign and passing through. Then again, it’s good to make sure the menu or someone speaks English, because pointing blindly at a menu hardly ever turns out well.
The specialty food of the town
To get the dish of local pride, check out a popular local spot. Every region has overarching regional foods (e.g. type of noodle), and every single town has its specialty food, and some of them are amazing. Also, the region’s specialty foods are available for takeaway, such as at your local shinkansen train station. Always very well wrapped. Generally meant for gifts.
For example, my town: soba noodles locally, and for a snack (or gift box) goma suri dango! Pulverised sesame seed filled sticky rice-flour balls.
Japanese foods never translate appealingly into English, but don’t let that stop you. Goma suri dango are really delicious. Kind of like the original legit black sesame mochi ice cream ball. Of course, all those “specialties” are all also variations on a small number of themes: rice, dango, noodles, broths, various ways to prepare a soybean.
Other local specialties in my area, food and otherwise: soba noodle eating contests, mountain vegetables added into soba (sansai), curative properties of the local hot springs, extra seeds/grains to add to rice, a mysterious road where you put the car in neutral and feel like you’re going up hill, paper-making (washi), cast-iron teapots and bells, special round crackers made of wheat (not rice!) with things like peanuts and sesame seeds, the skilled local matchmaker, the baby-crying sumo competition… you get the idea. Every town tries to stand out.