From Soaring Towers to Tatami Mats: Hotels in Japan

Slightly jet-lagged. In bed. I press a remote and the curtain reveals the vastness that is Tokyo in the classic Lost-in-Translation view. Greater Tokyo is not only the most populated city on earth — with more inhabitants than all of Australia or Canada — it covers 845 square miles, almost twice the size of New York City.

But there’s no need to pay the sky-high prices for the hotel depicted in the movie. We book-ended our Japan trip with high-rise rooms in different districts. First we stayed at the Cerulean Tower Tokyo, the tallest building in Shibuya and only a few blocks from the famous crossing where crowds surge in all directions when the pulsing light changes. Our luxurious room was about half the price of the one where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson assuaged their loneliness.

A few weeks later we delighted in the view from the 32nd floor of the ANA Intercontinental in Akasaka, a district near the ancient Senso-Ji temple. Many of the hotels in Tokyo?s tallest buildings start 10 to 30 stories up, and they also have many subterranean layers. The guest rooms are on the highest floors to take full advantage of the sweeping views, and the higher the restaurant, the pricier the tab.

The ANA Intercontinental is one of many high-rise tower hotels in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.
The ANA Intercontinental is one of many high-rise tower hotels in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

While a typhoon raged outside we explored the floors below the hotel and discovered more than 30 reasonable cafes and restaurants, plus grocery stores, bakeries and shops.

In Kyoto, still a bastion of Zen gardens, ancient temples and ritualistic teahouses, we were treated like honored guests in Shiraume, a ryokan in the Gion neighborhood, where geishas still scurry the narrow lanes to entertain at exclusive parties. These traditional inns offer an opportunity to experience authentic Japanese hospitality.

The diametric opposite of our cutting-edge Tokyo lodgings, hand-crafted Shiraume has only five rooms. Our suite included a living room that was converted to a bedroom while we had dinner in our adjoining dining room. Thankfully the bathroom had substituted the old-fashioned squat toilet for one of the electronic bidet marvels that makes travel in Japan so hygienic. We also were given access to an onsen, or soaking bath, for our private use.

Guests need to be mindful of the customs when staying at these inns. Street shoes are exchanged for slippers before entering the building. In rooms with tatami rush-covered mats, the slippers are removed. But when entering a bathroom, you change again into clogs. We were given comfy yukatas (cotton kimonos) and shown how to properly fold the left side over the right and tie the obi sash at the waist for women, a bit lower for men. They also provided tabi socks that have a split between the big toe and the others that Japanese men and women were wear with their getas —wooden flip-flops.

The futon laid out on the floor had many cushy layers and fine linens, and we slept blissfully despite some awkwardness climbing in and standing up. Because an elaborate breakfast and a seven-course kaiseki dinner (with delicacies such as sea urchin, lily root, Kobe beef, duck, quail eggs and persimmons) are served in your room and there is so much personal service, the costs are per person and definitely an indulgence. To stay within our budget, we spent two additional nights in Kyoto at the more modest Vista Premio in a commercial zone.

Japan can accommodate most pocketbooks, from hikers and students to businessmen and royalty in capsule hotels, Airbnbs, temple lodgings, family-run bed-and-breakfasts ? and, of course, a variety of typical hotels. Vistas from sky-piercing towers and perfection of service in a ryokan are among the higher-end options, but both were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.


Due to language and cultural barriers, it can be difficult to organize a self-guided tour without expertise and connections. We used (who also offer small-group tours and luxury options) as facilitators for our independent travel. They arranged hotel and restaurant reservations, train and metro tickets, guides and invaluable wisdom. Many ryokans and restaurants cannot be booked over the Internet, and their connections secured coveted reservations for us.

Tower Hotels: Cerulean Tower Tokyu (, Conrad (, Capitol (, ANA Intercontinental (, Park Hyatt ( and Andaz (

Kyoto Ryokan: Shiraume (, Heianbo (, Izuyasu (, Hiiragi-ya ( and Tazuru (

Vista Premio: