by Bryce Marley-Jarrett
On our most recent journey around Japan, we took a new approach and used airbnb.com for our accommodation where possible. Today we have a great review, giving you all the pros and cons in using this service while travelling around Japan.
In the past, when travelling overseas (especially to countries that don’t natively speak English), travellers have preferred to stay at hotels and hostels due to their ease in booking accommodations for your trip. The internet opened up options beyond just hotel chains, and travel agent options to find a host of hotels that were once never available because of things like size or language issues. The internet has opened the pool of what's available to us once again with the birth of the (now mega) site that allows anyone around the world to rent out their spare room, apartment or whole house for travellers looking for an alternative option.
Airbnb, which began in 2008, is a marketplace for lodging around the world. It’s free to sign up as a host or guest, and requires you to supply certain information, such as email address, phone number and as of 2013 a scan of a government issued ID.
Without getting into the nitty gritty on how Airbnb works for both the host and guest, they have been incredibly successful since its inception, with now over 1 million listings in over 190 countries and over 34,000 cities. It has flipped the accommodation game on it’s head with the more traditional players scrambling to compete with this new market player, as well as cities trying to legislate it to get their cut too.
In Japan, a system like Airbnb is technically illegal in some prefectures, as there are complex and outdated laws and regulations on sub-letting your space for less than a certain amount of time. However it’s considered by many as such a minor issue that news of arrests or fines for owners utilising their vacant properties for Airbnb short-term stays are virtually non-existent. You will find that most hosts will have a house rule that you don’t speak to anyone in the apartment complex, and if anyone asks - you're a friend of the owner.
Japan has been one of the slower countries to embrace the Airbnb revolution, however Airbnb have been actively researching the country to find out what the hesitation is, and also how they can adapt to local traditions and views when it comes to such things.
Having said this, we will say upfront that we had zero issues using Airbnb in Japan.
Airbnb in Japan
Airbnb works on a global scale and doesn’t have a specialised service for each region. Similar to using sites like Expedia or a global hotel chain, you just enter where you are looking for accommodation, the dates you wish to check in and check out, and amount of occupants on the booking. Once the results come through, you can further filter the results; for example, if you only want to show whole houses/apartments, or are happy with just a private room. Typically, the pricing changes based on these options, although the price is set by the host directly, so often other factors may impact pricing in a greater fashion.
When performing a search, you are presented with a list of the rentals on a map, and you can pan and zoom around to look within an area as narrow or as broad as you’d prefer. Most listings had ample pictures of all aspects of the rental, descriptions by the host are often very detailed, and you can browse reviews of the listing, where previous renters provide public feedback about their stay.
When booking with Airbnb you can have two options, depending on the host's request: Either there will be a “request to book” button, which will be sent to the host to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with a booking, or you will find some marked as an ‘Instant Book’ (you can search for these as a filter option), which secure the booking and take payment immediately.
Here are a few Japlanning tips when looking at an Airbnb in Japan
When looking at a potential bookings, scan through the description and especially the reviews. Look for passable English in the description, and also some English reviews. Finding a host with just enough English to give you the access information and be able to help you if there are any problems with the accommodations will help a long way.
When looking at the area, make sure you are able to walk to a train station with relative ease. You will be thankful at the end of a long day.
If you find a booking you like, and it has an ‘Instant Book’, take it over a ‘Request to Book’, especially if you are booking with a short window. ‘Request to Books’ can be time consuming and end in a rejection and waste a day or two of your time. When in that time the ‘Instant Book’ could be snapped up.
Photos can be deceiving. When looking at photos of a place, keep in mind the actual dimensions it says.
Keep an eye on bed sizes: The Japanese are generally smaller than many western nations’ citizens, and residential bedding often reflects this. Keep an eye out for beds noted as ‘semi-doubles’; these do not fit the average couple, or if they do, you will have a cramped stay. So if a place says it sleeps 10 people keep in mind the host may have 10 smaller sized people in mind. (We would suggest deducting by at least 2 to keep it comfy.)
In many listings, particularly those with higher occupancy numbers, the host will include lounges/couches as a “bed”. Double beds will often count as a “2 people” space as well, so try and marry up any images to make sure your group fits in with the bedding facilities.
Traditional Japanese apartment bathrooms are different to hotel western bathrooms, and may offer only bare showering facilities and toilet, i.e. missing a basin or private area to dry down/change clothing. Pay attention to photos, especially when travelling with a group where you may not be comfortable getting ready or changing in front of.
If you’re not sure on something, and the answer could make it a deal-breaker, contact the host before booking! Better to find out before booking, rather than get to your place and have to swap out to a last-minute hotel (Note: make sure you check the refund policy on your booking as well for incidents like this).
Japlanning’s Verdict on Airbnb in Japan
We ended up using Airbnb for three of our staying in Japan this trip.
5 Nights - Tokyo Studio Apartment for 3 people
6 Nights - Osaka Penthouse for 10 people
9 Nights - Tokyo 2 Bedroom Apartment for 9 people
First Stay - Tokyo, 5 nights / 3 people
Our first stay was a bargain, especially as it was the start of the school holidays in Japan, so hotels were asking for extreme prices, even for the most basic 2-star place. We found this studio apartment, with basic amenities, 2 queen beds, shower, toilet, kitchenette, and laundry facilities right next to Tokyo Tower for about $100USD per night; a bargain when split amongst three people. The apartment was exactly what was advertised, and where we learnt our first Japan Airbnb trait, that would follow the rest of the trip. We did not meet the host once, or speak with them in anyway except via the Airbnb app.
We were sent a access and house rules guide via email prior to arriving which explained the system of a combination on the letterbox to get the key from, and also the few but strict rules of the place (shoes off, as is common in any house in Japan, leave the key in the mailbox when leaving, and keep the noise down after 9pm). The place was clean and tidy, but bare. The bathroom was minimal, which was awkward for our party, and we did have to supply our own towels (although this was the only one like this, and the host did let us know well ahead of time). It was exactly what we booked, and worked a charm, especially for the budget traveller.
Second Stay - Osaka, 6 nights / 10 people
This was where we came a large group, and finding a place for 10 people+ can be quite the challenge in an already space-challenged place like Japan. Well, Airbnb certainly helps in finding something affordable for large groups who are happy to live under the one roof. We found this spectacular penthouse in Osaka for our Kansai region stay. With space and bedding for sleeping up to 21 people, it was the entire top floor of a office building, so you didn’t have to worry about noise or others. Also another stay where we never met the host, as site, keypad entry, and access information sent a few days prior.
The penthouse had three sleeping areas: a traditional tatami room that can sleep up to four people, 1 room with a double bed, and two more spaces with 2 double beds each. It also had a large living area that could accommodate an additional 4-6 futons which the host could set up if needed (no need for us). As well as a full kitchen, bathroom with 12 seater spa and 2 showers, this place was perfect for a large group. We never felt like we were standing on top of one another, and this place was a bargain at $230 a night.
The only downfall was that all three train stations were at minimum a 15-minute walk away, which we were aware of at time of booking, however at the end of a day you are wishing for closer.
Another great host too, who went above and beyond in helping us with any questions or issues we had (including talking to the local police when a member of our group lost their Rail Pass).
So far we are 2 for 2 with Airbnb experiences in Japan!
Third Stay - Tokyo, 9 nights / 9 people
This was our final stay at an Airbnb in Japan, and the final accommodation for most of our 9 person group. Located in a spectacular location, only 10 minutes from Shibuya station, with everything right at your fingertips.
We arrived and followed the access information sent by our lovely host (again, no meeting). We had a brief issue understanding the host’s instructions to get the key from the lockbox, but luckily the cleaner was just leaving as we arrived, and she was able to help us.
This one was a bit more of a shock, and where a few of our tips came from above: This place was advertised to be able to sleep up to 12 people, so with only 9 we should be okay, right? Wrong. With 4 semi-double beds, and a semi-double futon in the living area, this apartment could not hold us 9 westerners comfortably. After looking around, with a small living area, which everyone would need to go through for bathroom or kitchen access, we realised we wouldn’t be able to have 2 of us (Sam and myself) sleep on the futon in the living room. The other 7 (all family, 2 couples and three singles) would manage with the bedrooms.
We opted to find a hotel nearby to guarantee we would be able to sleep comfortably, as well as make the apartment more comfortable for the remaining 7. This did solve all our problems, although we definitely learnt the hard way, to very carefully scrutinise the suitability of our party for the places we were looking at staying in, despite what the host may have said about capacity. This place was also our most expensive Airbnb, costing around USD$300 a night.
The host was lovely and helpful with anything we had questions about, as well as had great tourist information at the apartment for us to use.
Pro’s and Con’s of Airbnb in Japan
So in the end, we found Airbnb a great alternative to the expensive hotels, and an absolute bargain when the nightly cost is split amongst a large group to cover costs. We learnt a few things to keep in mind for any future bookings, and would definitely encourage anyone to use Airbnb when looking at cutting costs on their holiday in Japan, or looking for something different to a hotel. All were clean, safe and had great hospitality, even without ever meeting our hosts at any (which for us we loved, as it meant not having to waste any time waiting for them for key exchanges or departing). So why not give Airbnb a try on your next trip to Japan?
Have you ever used Airbnb when travelling in Japan? Do you have any tips?
Tell us in the comments below!