We (my intrepid brother and I) have been travelling for a couple of weeks now and outside of two nights spent at a cheap hotel, we have been staying exclusively at hostels. While I confess I have yet to get around to rating or commenting on my stay at the various places, I have been reflecting on what makes a good hostel and how the various establishments stack up.
So rather than worry about making many different reviews, I am going to share them all here and now.
I confess when looking for a hostel I do consider location. I am one of those travelers who wants to find something close to the train or bus station. Why? Well, I am not looking to stay at a fancy resort, I am looking for a place to crash for the night while I explore the local (and generally popular) sites around me. Furthermore, when hefting around massive backpacks in the sweltering heat and humidity of summer you want something that requires less walking.
SPACE Riverhouse Hostel in Nikko is not conveniently located. This interesting little hostel is a solid twenty minutes by vehicle at break-neck speed from the main attractions of Nikko. While the proprietor may consider the distant location an asset, it makes getting to and from the hostel a difficulty. Sure the river setting was nice once you were there, but without a car of our own we were reliant on the shuttle service provided by the hostel. And with only one man running the show, it was … limited.
SPACE Riverhouse used to be an onsen. The evidence clearly shown in the shower area, which is right beside the now empty baths with their artificial stone surrounds. While that was an interesting feature, it certainly didn’t compensate for the few western toilets, at least one of which had a cracked seat. Sadly, this hostel, with barely a kitchen, was in a dilapidated state of disrepair. The best feature by far was the western breakfast made fresh each morning and different too!
According to the American owner SPACE Riverhouse was suffering from a lack of customers. I could certainly believe it. With some further improvements to the facilities and a few more staff, the hostel could have been a great little stop over. This was seen with Dot Hostel in Nagano which had even fewer beds than SPACE Riverhouse (16 versus 24) and still managed to support two staff along with the owner.
Dot was an old home converted into a hostel. The beds were extra wide, so you could keep some things (toiletries, electronics) around her space, and fitted with heavy curtains for privacy. The stairs leading up to the mixed dorm were dangerously steep, but that was not my concern with Dot. No, my biggest complaint was the shower, with its lightly frosted glass it lacked a feeling of privacy I usually want in a shower. Even the single toilet for a house of about 16 guests was nothing in comparison. The best features of Dot, were the location close to the main temple in Nagano and the nice kitchen that I wish I had used even more.
Outside of the location, facilities are another important feature of hostels. The key ones include: toilets (number and style); showers (number and size); kitchens; and of course beds. But facilities can also include the common rooms; laundry; front desk support; luggage storage; security and air conditioning (important summer issue). For toilets, I am looking for a western throne. Something on which I can sit. Keyaki Hostel in Sendai had only one western toilet and three Japanese squatters, a ratio I was not fond of. Sometimes you just want to sit down. And when you do sit, leg room is nice to have – mark against Akari Hostel, Nagano for nearly no knee space.
Showers with a separate space for changing are the best. These are made even better with a few small additions: a basket for your clothes or hooks on the wall. Akari Hostel in Nagasaki had my second least favourite shower as only a curtain separated the washing space from the changing space. This meant that the changing area was often damp. =(
Kitchens are important when you plan on staying multiple nights in one place. In fact it was one of the principal features that separates a hostel from any other type of accommodation. Obviously some places have better kitchens than others, but the lack of a cooktop (stove or hotplate) at the Yakushima Youth Hostel really disappointed me. We were staying there for four nights, on an island with few restaurant options, and had anticipated an actual kitchen. As such I had actually bought food for cooking before we officially checked in and discovered the partial kitchen status of the hostel. I made scrambled eggs in the microwave for the first (and hopefully last) time there. Then there are kitchens that lack some seemingly obvious equipment. Khaosan Origami in Tokyo has an adequately sized kitchen with large fridge and two stove tops. However, it lacks a spatula and can opener. The absence of a spatula as taught me that I can flip pancakes with chopsticks – my new talent!
Since the purpose of the hostel is to provide a place to stay for the night, beds are rather crucial. Some are comfortable, most are adequate and a few I will be happy to never see again. Since making and stripping your bed every night is tedious, staying in one location for several nights in a row is highly appealing. But if you are doing this, then space is an even greater concern. Most dorms have some sort of bunk system. I think my favourite has either custom made bunks or cubbies. In both cases the beds are raised higher for the person on the bottom to have enough head space to sit up on the bed. Wider bunks provide storage space for toiletries, clothes or bags. Hooks and hangers are important for hanging towels to dry and dark curtains block out light and create a sense of privacy. Rooms with only four beds can get by without the curtains, but it is nice anyway.
Common rooms are a place to meet other travellers and hang out socially in the evenings. The size and arrangement of the space varies from one establishment to another. K’s Oasis in Takayama had a beautiful common room adjoining the well equipped kitchen. It had an end with tables for eating and another end with sofas for lounging. It was a great set up, only it was little too small for the number of beds in the hostel. Too small an area, means few people are able to linger and that changes the overall atmosphere of the hostel.
Laundry is only relevant if you are travelling for an extended period of time. For my winter trip of two weeks, I didn’t bother with laundry. It is summer however, and we are travelling for longer than two weeks and sweating far more in the constant heat. Laundry is important. Price is variable as is the quality of the equipment. I have had so many problems with laundry machines not working as they should. I have spent 600 yen to complete one load of laundry, where 400 yen was required to dry the clothes in 10 min cycles. Another time, the washer didn’t spin dry properly so I was left to wring out each garment by hand before hanging it to dry. Laundry can be a challenge at times.
Having friendly, knowledgeable staff manning the front counter is obviously a draw. It also helps if they can provide quick assistance in locating food (restaurants or grocery stores), using public transport and of course a streamlined rundown on the rules of the establishment.
Finally, as a personal preference, I do like the places which have a shoe cupboard in the front entrance and a shared slipper box beside it. I am fond of walking around in socks or bare feet and that is just nice to do over floors that are not covered with grit and grime from the great outdoors.
With all these different criteria, how did my hostels stack up?
Coming out on top I would say that K’s in Kyoto is one of the best. Hana Hostel in Kyoto was also really good, except the air conditioner died in the middle of the night and the room was sweltering and too unbearable to remain in by 4am. K’s Oasis in Takayama was another excellent establishment as is Khaosan Origami in Tokyo (where I am currently) – even though the kitchen lacks a spatula and can opener.
Though to be fair, all of the places we have stayed have been fine. Just some have had more distinct negatives than others. So overall, Japan rates Good on the Hosteling experience.
Kevin’s ranking in stars (out of 5):
Smile Hotel – Utsunomiya *
SPACE Riverhouse Hostel – Nikko ***
Dot Hostel – Nagano ****
Backpackers Matsuyado Hostel- Matsumoto ***
K’s Oasis Hostel – Takayama *****
*Night Bus! (Nagoya to Sendai) 0
Keyaki Hostel – Sendai ***
K’s Hostel – Kyoto *****
Green Guest House – Kagoshima ****
Yakushima Youth Hostel – Yakushima/Miyoura ***
Akari Hostel – Nagasaki ***
Hana Hostel – Kyoto *****
Khaonsan Origami – Tokyo *****