Japanese Hotels - Why good is often better

I like great service, I'm a fan of good food, and I'm very particular about where I sleep. I expect a hotel room to be safe and secure, exceptionally clean and very private. And now that I have children, my expectations are that much higher. Which is why I'm a fan of higher-end hotels. 

This is one of the reasons I love Japan.  In general, I've found hotels in Japan to be profoundly better in many ways to their western counterparts. For example, my family and I recently stayed at The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo (links to booking.com). We've stayed at five-star hotels in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and more, but The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo blows them all away (excluding ultra-luxury hotels like The Ritz-Carlton, but I'll get to that later). The service is exceptional, the basic breakfast buffet was delicious, and the care with which the facility is maintained by the staff can be felt everywhere.  In my mind, I created a new ranking: five-star-plus (5+).

Why good is often better in Japan

When I think back over the last several hotels we've stayed at in Japan, including the Hotel Okura in Kobe, the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto, I'm consistently impressed with almost every aspect of the stay. We even routinely book the Hotel Nikko at the Kansai International Airport on every inbound flight to Japan.  It's walking distance from the airport, and a perfect place to rest upon arrival instead of trying to make that last 4 hours of travel with two extremely tired young kids in tote.

Typical Japanese service is really good

These aren't ultra-luxury hotels, like the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis. But you'll be surprised at how great the service is. I think a lot of this comes down to what we consider to be "great service" in American or other western countries. The Ritz-Carlton is fiercely proud of their 1992 and 1999 Malcolm Baldrige awards, as they very well should be.  There's a lot to the Malcolm Baldrige award, but in a nutshell it comes down to performance excellence. So it shouldn't be any surprise that, in the country that basically invented the concept and practice of kaizen, or continuous improvement, that almost every hotel provides an incredibly predictable, reliable experience.

And then there's the surprise and delight that comes from the unexpected, which is part of what makes Japan so fun and cool.  Last year I stayed at the Westin Tokyo, in the Meguro Ward, together with my brother who was visiting Japan on business. We flew in together from California, and as is usually the case, we were tired and hungry checking into the hotel. I grabbed a room service menu and saw:

  • Beer (glass) $10
  • Draft beer (glass) $14

I'm from California and we have access to a lot of really good beer, including several local beers available on draft. Then there's just silly, plain emotional decision making. "If I'm going to spend $10 on what might be boring, I may as well instead spend $14 on something that's likely to taste better," said I to myself.

Boy, was I pleased with that decision. In less than five minutes, the room bell rang.  And at the door?  The bar.  They brought the bar to our room. Well, maybe not the entire bar, but a bar on wheels with a keg built-in, and accompanied by an individual very skilled and serving draft beer.

If you're a fan of the Ritz-Carlton and other similar, ultra-luxury hotels, you'll simply be delighted in Japan.

Ultra-luxury Hotels in Japan

I'm a big fan of the Ritz-Carlton, and have stayed numerous times at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka. And recently on one outing to Osaka we stayed a night at the St. Regis Osaka as well. If you are a fan of either of these hotel brands, you be perfectly satisfied and at home in Japan.

One of the interesting things I noticed is that a big, obvious differentiator in the United States between ultra-luxury five-star and just regular five-star is a predictable customer experience. In the United States, I'm used to getting less that professional service and attention at many five-star hotels, and I notice a lot of mistakes. In fact, an unfortunate reality that a good number of US hotels actually point at their "service recovery" rate (how well and often they attend to customer complaints and fix problems). 

I think it would be a lot better to point out the absence of issues instead.  When the error rate is so low in Japan across the board, the differentiators that remain to stand out are the ones that matter: Atmosphere, cuisine (my favorite), skillful and elegant service, the Concierge's deep local knowledge and network.

If you are visiting Osaka in Kansai, I can't recommend The Ritz-Carlton Osaka highly enough.  The location is great, and the service is exceptional. You'll truly feel cared for.  The St. Regis Osaka has some impressive features - like butler doors and floor-to-ceiling glass walls letting you look out over the city from your bath - but it's not nearly as conveniently located. I also preferred the food at The Ritz-Carlton far more. Room service is always more expensive, but the food at the Ritz always over delivers. The food at the St. Regis was barely average, but came at a huge price premium.

What hotels have you stayed at in Japan that you enjoyed? What did you enjoy about the stay?  I'd love to get your feedback and recommendations.