It’s been quite some time (I won’t say how many years) since I lived out of hostel dorm rooms, sharing a room with strangers and queuing for the shower. Only one day in and it all came flooding back to me, however my previous hostelling experiences in South and Central America, Thailand and Europe were nothing like this. Hostelling in Japan is much closer to hostelling in the USA, New York specifically, but with a very distinct “shoes off policy”.
For those looking for hostel accommodation in Japan, that is both affordable and quality, read on and learn from my experiences.
Toco guesthouse, Taito City, Tokyo
In my mind this is the BEST hostel in Japan! Admittedly, I have not tried them all but it is hard to find somewhere that could be any better than this beautiful setting, great service and tranquility that this accommodation inspires. Not to mention that it is spotlessly clean!
I cannot fault Toco. The girls who run this hostel and all incredibly helpful and cheery. They really do go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The hostel is set in a century-old traditional wooden Japanese building, with a gorgeous little traditional garden to match plus has a more modern bar in a separate building at the front. The bar is not your average backpackers bar. It is tasteful, respectful and you get one free drink every night you stay! It is a place to socialise, not to get wasted.
The entire hostel and bar are kept spotlessly clean, the kitchen is always tidy and bathrooms impeccable. The dorms are a little on the small side for Western standards, but this is Tokyo living, baby! Space is a luxury not many Japanese living in Tokyo can afford, so neither can backpackers. You do however have a lockable space allocated to each bed that is large enough to fit a backpack plus daypack into, so the rooms are not at all cluttered or hazardous for those entering in the dark!
As far as self sufficiency when it comes to travelling a food allergy, this place is tops. The kitchen is scrubbed everyday which made me feel a lot safer. There is a chef hired by the hostel who cooks a traditional Japanese breakfast for those interested (I don’t remember the price but it was very reasonable). She also cooks all the meals for the staff there so there was a lot of Japanese sauces and potions that contained shellfish being uses in the kitchen everyday. For me, that just meant being super careful with where I prepared my food and not using any of the plates or cutlery supplies by the hostel. For those not inflicted with a shellfish allergy, Toco has all the utensils you will need to cook yourself up a feast!
Toco is a short walk from Ueno’s stations and Ueno Park. Also within an easy walk are Akihabara and Asakusa. I’d you’re keen, like me, you can also walk to the Imperial Palace from here. Basically if you draw a lone down the middle of Tokyo, anything on the east is walkable from here. A dorm room will cost you ¥2,800, booking can be make only through the toco website.
Khaosan Theatre Central, Kyoto
The staff were a real highlight here. All of whom were so super friendly and helpful. I was in town duting Gion Matsuri so they were under the pump, but it never showed on their faces or in how they communicated with guests. I always felt like answering my stupid questions was their number 1 priority! The rooftop patio is also well worth checking out here.
I had booked Khaosan Theatre as my original hostel of choice, Piece Sanjo, was booked out for the weekend of Gion Matsuri. I ended up with 3 nights in each hostel which was not a bad way to book actually.
As it turned out, I enjoyed Khaosan much more than Piece Sanjo. It is smaller, more intimate, friendly and much more personable and with a great rooftop and patio to admire the views (and dry your washing).
The dorm rooms are all built for both comfort and style, with each bed having its own sliding door to block out the outside world and enough space to place luggage without everyone tripping over it. Rooms also had clothing racks and each bed had a towel rail. There was one bathroom in most of the dorm rooms and additional bathrooms on 2 levels (5 levels in total). I never had to queue to use the bathroom or shower and the place was full! The kitchen and lounge/laundry are on the fifth floor and are well spaced and set out. The lounge opens onto a small patio for relaxing and you can take the stairs up to the roof for spectacular views across Kyoto.
The staff were all really helpful and never tired of my stupid questions. There is also a bar in the basement but you don’t get any noise carrying up into the hostel, which was my main concern with this place. All round it was clean, friendly, knowledgeable and personable place to stay. I highly recommend.
Ohhhhh… Location. Location was perfect. You want to be close to the centre of the city in Kyoto not near the train station, or you will find yourself walking a long way each day. Khaosan Theatre was two block back from the main street, one block away from the food market and one block from the main shopping precinct. You can access the trainline and river within a 5 minute walk and all main sightseeing areas are walk-able from here too, including the temples of Higashiyama. You can also easily access the buses and trains from here to set off on daytrips to Nara or Arashiyama. Bookings can be made here for Khaosan Theatre Hostel, a night in a dorm room will cost you ¥3,200.
Space Hostel, Tokyo
This should really fall into a group called ‘the satisfactory but not outstanding’. It was clean, well organised and friendly. I have no complaints abut really nothing to say that was spectacular about it either. Certainly not a bad place to stay, but in my mind it is nowhere near the level of Toco (and they are only a few blocks apart, so Toco is the easy win for East Tokyo hostelling)
Space Hostel is located in Asakusa and is a new-ish hostel close to many tourist areas.The rooms are cheap at only The hostel is large, but feels roomy enough to hold everyone with it’s large lounge area and rooftop patio. The dorm rooms are large and have great ventilation (great for mixed dorms!) and the rooftop provides a space to hang out, enjoy the sun and just chill out. This is not a party hostel, but is close to a lot of small local bars so you can venture out easily and enjoy the east-Tokyo nightlife.
On the ground floor of Space Hostel is the reception, kitchen an lounge space with free computer access and a lot of local info. The staff are all extremely helpful too and the whole basement is kept spotlessly clean! Heading up in the lift you will reach the bathrooms on level 2, all the showers are here with toilets being located next to the dorms on the higher levels and the ground floor next to reception. It is a little annoying to have to head down in the lift to reach the showers but this hostel is nowhere near as big as Piece Sanjo (below in Kyoto) so you don’t have to queue for the showers here.
Level 3 and up and all rooms and then on level 8 (I think – sorry memory is a little haggard) you hit the rooftop. I managed to not take any photos of the inside of Space hostel at all – idiot – but you can view photos and book accomm at Space Hostel here. They photos they published are very accurate as it’s only a new hostel.
THE BAD / UGLY:
Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, Tokyo
I have to question whether it is worth staying in West Tokyo or not after exeriencing what is really the only hostel/ budget accommodation available in this eclectic, modern and very popular region of Tokyo. Next time I will stay longer in East Tokyo and just take the train to West Tokyo sights, such as Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Shibuya.
This maybe a hotel in name but Sakura Hotel is actually a budget accommodation Mecca in West Tokyo. Infact, it is about the only place you will find affordable dorm rooms in this part of town, besides capsule hotels which are mainly for men only. Sakura caters for long and short term guests. I stayed in an 8 bed dorm room which was very basic and a bit dirty. It lacked any character or personality so all I can say is that there was air-conditioning (yay) and that the mattresses were plastic (yikes). Outside the dorm rooms are a shared kitchen space of fair size, a couch to relax on and bathrooms/showers on each floor.
I cannot pick any huge flaws with the place, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was an enjoyable place to stay. It’s big, sterile and cheap. This is the definition of ugly hostelling It worked for me for one night. I wouldn’t plan on staying for more than that though though unless you really need to be in the area and are planning full days. Bookings for Sakura can be made here, expect to pay around ¥3,120 for a drom bed for the night.
Piece Sanjo Central Kyoto
When you forget the reason you were building a hostel in the first place and get carried away with making it look pretty. There is no hostel vibe here and everyone seems to think that the fact that are getting access to clean free towels to use every day makes them somewhat important – it doesn’t guys! It just makes you look like a wasteful wanker.
Located just around the corner from Khaosan Theatre, Piece Sanjo looks amazing on paper. It is slick and not like any hostel I have stayed in before. The lobby is dazzling and the kitchen beautiful. I was immediately wowed, but that started to fall apart quite rapidly after check-in. This place has sacrificed practicality for design elements and disappointingly the finishing details are not up to scratch.
It was irritating to have all the showers in the basement and only 12 showers for a lot of guests (my guess is the hostel holds about 200 guests). I consistently had to queue for a shower, no matter what time of the day I tried. The bunk beds are pretty but not practical. The ladder is a death trap waiting to happen and every morning myself and my room-mates tried different ways of climbing down without ending up a heap on the floor. Sometime we were successful.
The rooms and long and narrow, its no space for luggage besides in the walkway. There is no room to hang anything besides your bunk ladder, and you don’t want to make that thing and more difficult than it already is. The kitchen shows the same compromise of practicality, with the prep space being on the back of the stove tops and sinks. So you need to keep waling around the bench, past where everyone is getting into the fridge and making their tea and coffee to wash or rinse anything or to stir your pot – then back to the other side to keep chopping. There is not enough space to put anything beside the stove and the area where people are cooking is also the area set up for tea/coffee. The kitchen is huge and tea/coffee could be set up at any number of other places to avoid connection around the hot stoves and people running to ans from the sink with knives (because they can’t reach them form the prep area). The kitchen has been designed to look good, which it does! But it is not at all practical.
There are certainly nice touches, you get free towels to use and the linen is nice quality. There are three mac computers in the lobby free to use and breakfasts in included in the price. However the place is huge and due to the fancy-pants looks of the place I think that a lot of the guests forgot they were at a hostel and should act accordingly. I had more trouble with loud, drunk night-time noise here than anywhere else. Guests here also didn’t say hello to each other in the corridor, as they did in other hostels.
Overall, I would choose Khaosan Theatre over Piece Sanjo. Khaosan also have another hostel in Kyoto which looks lovely from the outside, and if it’s anything like the Theatre will be a comfortable and practical place to stay also. A night in a 10 bed dorm will cost you ¥2,900 and bookings for Sanjo can be made here. From Sanjo you can easily access the buses and train system to set off on daytrips to Nara or Arashiyama.