Annex Katsutaro Ryokan in Tokyo was better than expected. It isn't really a ryokan in the sense you usually hear the term, but you do sleep and bathe Japanese style. We had a room on the top floor that had a relatively large bathroom. It was certainly a much larger bathroom than any I had in the four apartments when I lived in Japan. Everything is very clean and very new. The laundry was cheap (100 yen) and they had two free internet stations. Printouts were also free. The same guy was working every day we were there--all day and night apparently. I didn't witness him speaking English, and I conversed only in Japanese with him. All of the other customers seemed to be from Europe. We stayed here for four nights. I could easily spend months at this place. They had daily maid service included in the price too.
We didn't take breakfast at the ryokan as you could walk down the street to a bakery and get the same thing (or something even better of your own choosing) for less than half as much. The location in Yanaka is amazing. Yanaka is a great part of Tokyo to stay. There are loads of good restaurants and shops nearby. This is "Old Tokyo" for the most part and much of it is older than the rest of Tokyo which has been built in the post-war era. The Chiyoda subway line is only 2 minutes away and both the Keisei and Yamanote lines which will get you to the airport or anywhere in Tokyo, respectively, are only 7 minutes away. The walk to Nippori station takes you through a very fun part of town (Yanaka Ginza). Get lost and find the huge Yanaka Cemetery and Tennoji Temple with giant Buddha near the station on the way to the hotel. You'll be glad you did.
Ueno Park and the museums are also within walking distance of this place. The price was under $175 a night for the four of us. A nice map of the area was provided at check in. If you stay here be sure to try the shabu shabu / sukiyaki place called Onyasai on the map (less than a 10 minute walk) and the tempura place on the map called Asano on the same street (exiting left--about a two minute walk). We enjoyed great service and food at both places. Prices were also reasonable at less than US$50 for the four of us for dinner with drinks.
Next, we went to Hakone for two nights. In Hakone we stayed at Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu. This place was amazing. The room was huge--even by American standards. We were on the top floor with views and had a very high ceiling. I doubt the other floors also had the high ceiling. This was the only place that we had western beds. Everyone, but us, was Japanese who were staying there. This was the only place we stayed that had any Japanese guests and they were all Japanese. I guess it's all Japanese or all foreigners in terms of who stays where in Japan.
Email / reservations were all done in perfect English via an American living in Tokyo it turns out. If you don't speak Japanese, don't count on an American concierge when you get there though. All of the staff were Japanese and everything was in Japanese. I don't know if they could speak English in a pinch or not as they didn't offer, and I spoke only Japanese to them.
The toilet was a very nice Japanese-bidet toilet (washlet) which is an improvement on both American and European toilets. There are more features on this type of toilet than you can imagine in the west. Some cars don't have this many options and features. The in-room bathroom was beautiful with a big marble tub and views, but we never used it. Why? Because this place has fabulous public baths. There are seven total on the premises filled with natural spring water. You have access to three or four of them at a time with the opposite sex having access to the others. Some are cold; some are warm; and some are hot! These combination baths (different temperatures and settings) are so fun and relaxing. In addition there are two scorching saunas. Some of the baths are outside in a Japanese garden setting with rock bottoms. The photos on the internet do not do them justice. I have never had a better bath. In less than the 48 hours we were there I indulged five times. If you are staying here and the weather is not good, I recommend skipping the Hakone Loop and just bathing all day.
The food is the only problem at Shogetsu. Not that the food is bad, but it is very expensive if you are traveling on the cheap. We passed on dinner at $50 per person since we were eating out elsewhere for dinner at under $10 a person. Plus, my kids can be picky eaters. We decided to "splurge" on a breakfast in the hotel and were overcharged (about $72 for the four of us instead of the $51 advertised on the website). I contacted Jon Nacht, the American that does their English reservations, after we returned and he kindly got us a refund of the overcharged amount. Still, $51 for breakfast is steep when you consider that we never spent more than $15 for breakfast for all four of us on any of our other 10 mornings in Japan.
Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu was more expensive than our Tokyo location by about $50 per night. The baths made it worth it though. Places in Hakone tend to be a bit more expensive, anyway, and it is difficult to find one that can put four people in one room. For some R&R between your other stops in Japan, I recommend this hotel.
Finally, we went to Kyoto for five nights. After pampering ourselves in Hakone, once we arrived in Kyoto we stayed at The Budget Inn. As mentioned on another page, we chose this place because of our guide book's strong recommendation. The price was half of that we spent in Hakone, and it felt like it.
After a bad experience in Rome a couple of years ago we swore never to sacrifice quality for price so we only went with the Budget Inn on Frommer's glowing recommendation. This wasn't as bad as our Rome experience, but it wasn't great either.
The room and bath were very small. I could barely sit on the toilet and close the bathroom door at the same time. The bath (furo) was tiny--especially compared to those in our other locations. The room and bath needed a serious deep cleaning. The beds were mattresses on the tatami floor rather than true futons.
There was an odor in the room (which was again on the top floor) that we covered up after the first unpleasant night with incense and by opening the door to the outside all day long. The odor wasn't because of someone smoking in the room. It just smelled like it hadn't been cleaned well in forever and maybe the pipes in the bathroom were partially clogged.
Unlike the other places in Tokyo and Hakone there were no yukata, daily maid service, free towels, etc. The laundry was three times as expensive as Tokyo. Internet usage cost 100 yen every 15 minutes. Towels cost money too. Basically, we were nickeled and dimed to the point were it wasn't that much cheaper than our lodgings in Tokyo.
The front desk person changed every day. Some were nicer than others. All spoke some English. This is the only place were I spoke something other than Japanese to the employees. The customers were from everywhere but Japan. Some were from China, Europe, and the U.S. Of the three places where we stayed this is the only place, even with the lower price, that I would not stay again. It wasn't extremely horrible, but unless you are in a real financial pinch I imagine you can find something much better for not too much more.
Exchanging US dollars into yen before or during your trip to Japan
Pictures from Japan
Books to read before going to Japan
Professional Japanese Baseball