Japan: The Best Of Service, The Worst Of Service

Filed Under: Travel

I love Japanese culture, I really do. There’s not a country in the world where people take as much pride in their work as in Japan, regardless of what they’re doing. It’s so refreshing to see, and every time I interact with a Japanese service culture my faith in humanity is almost restored. I just can’t walk away from most Japanese service experiences without grinning ear to ear at how amazing the people are.

Like, where else in the world do the rampers at an airport wave as each flight departs?

I think Japanese culture was very well summed up in the video I posted a while back about a Spanish guy who is a service instructor at ANA, when he explains the pillars of Japanese service. Everything is always about the customer, in a way I haven’t found to be true anywhere else in the world.

Then there’s the other side to Japanese service…

I’d say the above warm and fuzzy feeling represents 95%+ of my service interactions in Japan. But in a few percent of instances I dislike Japanese service culture more than just about any other in the world. Why? Japanese service is precise, but it’s also extremely rigid, with people in the service industry typically unwilling to apply common sense to a situation when there are technically rules in place. “The rules are the rules,” even if they don’t make sense. At least that has been my experience.

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled “Puzzling: Airport Hotels That Don’t Sell Day Rooms.”

It was about The Royal Park Hotel Haneda Airport, which is connected to the international terminal.


They don’t sell day rooms, which I find odd, but whatever. That’s their decision. However, several readers commented to say that in practice they do offer day rooms if you just show up, and that they just don’t offer them in advance. Reader Justin commented the following, for example:

That’s not right. You can get a day room there, you just show up and work in out with them. I’ve done it many times. They just don’t book then in advanced. I actually got a day room during a 6 hour layover last week.

Reader MEOW commented the following:

I’ve had no issues working it out with this hotel on arrival at HND. I’ve done it a dozen times.

So I showed up there and figured I’d try my luck.


Here’s how that went:

Me: “Hi, I have a layover and wanted to see if I could book a day room? I would like to check in now, and could check out by 4PM.”
Agent: “Let me look.”

He types for a few minutes, and then prints me a little piece of paper which lists the price of 29,700JPY (~288USD).

Agent: “This is the price.”
Me: “Isn’t that the overnight rate? I just want to stay for a few hours to sleep.”
Agent: “This is the rate until tomorrow.”
Me: “Okay, but it’s the same rate if I check in now and check out today by 4PM?
Agent: “Yes.”

That’s outrageously expensive for a nap, but I was so tired. I needed sleep. I had collectively slept about six hours in the past 48 hours, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to function if I didn’t. So I agreed.

Agent: “Actually, if you want to check in now you have to pay extra fee, because check in time is 3PM. This would be price.”


Me: “But I will literally be gone an hour after the check-in time, and you just quoted me the above price.”
Agent: “Yes, but you are checking in early.”
Me: “So if I check out by 3PM, the check-in time, do I not pay that?”
Agent: “No, you must pay no matter what, because you are checking in early.”

The whole thing is so ironic because Japanese service culture is laser focused on making guests as happy as possible. Yet somehow that stops when it comes to applying logic to a situation.

I paid the rate because I needed the sleep, but I’d never return, on principle, if nothing else.

Still, I can’t believe how much I paid for a room like this…


Bottom line

I love Japan, and a vast majority of the time the service leaves me beyond pleased. However, some of my most frustrating customer service interactions have also been in Japan. If they wanted to charge me for the whole night even though I was only staying for a few hours during the day, that’s fine. But when they’re quoting me a price, and then change that quote because I’m checking in early when that’s the whole premise of my stay…

  1. I am more “concerned” that you have $340 USD to spare for a 6 hour nap. Is there a reason why you couldn’t nap in the lounge like the majority of your readers?

  2. A rule-based society works for some, and grates on others. I think it’s beautiful and promotes respect (I know, Japan has some systemic societal issues, too!).

    There is a saying, “In Japan, everything works and nothing can be arranged. In India nothing works, and everything can be arranged.”

  3. Should have gone to the cabin hotel in the domestic terminal 🙂 much cheaper and perfectly suitable for a nap!

  4. @ Adam — The lounge doesn’t have any sort of resting facilities. Usually would never spend that much on a day room, but in this case I was *really* tired and felt beyond exhausted, so at that point I valued my wellbeing at more than the ridiculous cost of the room.

  5. Did you go into the hotel after clearing immigration, or did you just clear transit security and go back inside?

  6. japanese culture is big on punctuality and rules. there’s no room for interpretation. if the process says a + b = c, you’d have a hard time trying to throw d into the equation. for better or worse, at least you know exactly what you’ll be getting.

  7. The way I see it, you are tring to bend the rules. You like it when it favors you, but when it doesn’t…

  8. Hey Ben I’m surprised you didn’t try to escalate to the front office manager or a supervisor. Especially since you were armed with the knowledge that some readers had successfully made it work in the past.

    Were you just too tired to make a fuss about it?

  9. This what we expats in Japan call “Japanese logic”. While rules and policies do allow for a highly structured society, they also create a society that cannot think beyond the box, reverts to the status quo, and is very insular.

  10. I am surprised that for a blogger who specializes in “travel hacking”, you did not do prior research into your options fully. The hotel lists day rooms as “refresh rooms”, and for a 6-hour stay, it’d have been 12,000 JPY. At that price, you could have booked a night in a single room for 11,000 JPY.

    It’s not that Japan/Asia is a “rules-based society”, but that many Japanese businesses incentivize people to make plans ahead of time. The rate you were quoted is the standard walk-in rate, and if you had just booked a room anyway, they could have waived the early check-in charge and might have even given you an upgrade.

  11. @lucky – Actually, you CAN access the hotel airside. You clear transit security first (or passport control). Then you would access the hotel from near the duty free collection counters.

    That would bring you to a different area of the same hotel with transit-style hotel rooms with different rates than the one you had to pay. You would have paid a more reasonable hourly rate if you didn’t clear immigration.

    Here’s a map: http://www.rph-the.co.jp/haneda/en/transit/images/img_loc_map2.gif

    It’s admittedly very confusing on their English website, which needs to be more clear.

    Here’s the Japanese site describing the rooms available exclusively to transit passengers: http://www.rph-the.co.jp/haneda/transit/

    I went into their confusing reservation site in Japanese and saw rates of ¥11,000 for 6 hours. http://imgur.com/3hSoyxr

    Not your fault at all that this was confusing — but the service you want does exist.

  12. Any idea the hotel occupancy that day? Could be if they have 10 rooms left they’ll sell a percentage at a day rate of less than the full night. But if the hotel is close to max capacity they charge the full night whether you’re there for an hour or overnight.

    If you were trying this when they only had 1 or 2 rooms left I can understand the full rate being asked.

  13. When I first visited Japan, I thought that my inability to speak the language was the reason that people were unwilling to adapt the rules. Now I speak Japanese at near-fluency and I still face the very same problems… total inflexibility when it comes to any deviation from the pre-established rules.

  14. Hi Ben, greetings from Tokyo. The hotel is decided into two sections, airside and landslide. The former one is doubled Refresh Room, which costs JPY2,000 per hour. No standard check-in/out times apply, like landslide that you stayed. Bookings can also be made in advance but only via phone. Well it may not be handy to phone but at least makes sense?

  15. @ Ben — I know you do extraordinarily well now and this is nothing to you or me, but really? At his price, this should include a happy ending…

    Seriously though, did the airport not offer massage anywhere? You could have just fallen asleep on the table.

  16. @Moodz, that reminds me of South Korea. My colleagues and I were a bit bemused by a meeting we had a few years ago with government officials where they were bragging about this government agency they had devoted to promoting creativity and innovation. There were actual economic concerns, because while young Koreans are incredibly academically focused and excel in objective subjects, they struggle with thinking outside the box and are anti-entrepreneurship. We as Americans thought it was ludicrous to need government intervention to spur creativity.

  17. @Adam: “I am more “concerned” that you have $340 USD to spare for a 6 hour nap.”

    #pumppumppump — it’s ALLLLLLLL about conversions…

  18. @Wilson, I’m actually with Lucky on this one. Ok, so you won’t bend the rules no matter what. That’s perfectly fine. Why couldn’t the front desk agent simply say “I think what you are looking for is the rooms in the transit area”. Was saying that and pointing in the right direction too much to ask or breaking the rules?

  19. I am amazed.

    Either the Japanese Duty Personnel is trying to rip you BIG TIME off sensing your desperation for rest, OR, this is the epitome of Japanese regression for the past 2 decades – extreme inflexibility and great reluctance to change for improvement.

    You spoke to a robot. Not a human. It is either a greedy robot, or inflexible robot that has no common sense. Either way, it looks real bad.

    And it is true that what you experience in inflexibility is not uncommon in Japan; charging you a full day’s rate for a stay that is just 1 hour after official check-in hours, and charging you further on top of a full day’s rate for an extremely short stay, this gentlemen has driven away transit passengers from Haneda Airport.
    (Seriously, charging an overnight’s rate is bad enough. But adding extra charges on top of it? My goodness. Wow. Just wow. )

    This is plain stupid. Absolutely brainless service. I hope Haneda Airport management reads this post and reach out to you. It is damaging Haneda’s reputation to let such a Hotel have lodgings management rights within the airport.

    It makes me want to transit at other Airports outside Japan if I need to rest between the 2 flights.

  20. Really, what good is people saying business class is about arriving refresh of that’s obviously not the case for a flyer like you.

  21. Ben, just back from a trip to Japan myself. Couldn’t agree with you more–Japan has perhaps the best service culture on the planet–but when things don’t go well, it can be PAINFUL. A lot of Japanese managers simply cannot (or will not) think ‘out of the box’. On this last trip I had very bad experience with ANA. They lost my bag and tried to suggest it ‘didn’t exist’ despite my having an ANA bag tag receipt. I explained that I had been on a cancelled SQ flight and strongly believed that my bag had never actually been offloaded. I practically begged the baggage manager and station manager at HND to call SQ to confirm. Their response to this simple (and logical) customer request: they refused to make the call. I felt like I was taking crazy pills. Although I eventually got my bag back a day later (after a dozen calls to SQ and ANA baggage), I’ll never trust ANA’s commitment to the customer again.

  22. @flyingfish –

    Really? Did you not read any of the previous posts first? Your indignation is a little extreme. It is unfortunate, though, that the clerk didn’t explain to Ben his other options that the other comments have pointed out regarding day rates.

  23. “The whole thing is so ironic because Japanese service culture is laser focused on making guests as happy as possible. Yet somehow that stops when it comes to applying logic to a situation.”

    I think your lack of logic was pretty apparent in this post.

  24. Ben I think you are confusing “customer service,” which I think Japan excels at, with adherence to some crazy rules, which Japan also excels at…. I need to fill out paperwork to get a permit to bring a cpap machine with me for a few days…. I always do, because I know if they catch me without the permit, things will go downhill fast.

  25. Interesting that you were surprised by that in Japan. How about here in the US? I’ve never seen so many people that act “by the book” like here. Some people don’t know the meaning of the word flexibility.

  26. “The whole thing is so ironic because Japanese service culture is laser focused on making guests as happy as possible.”
    No,it’s not. It’s following the rule and not making any mistakes, even if the rule makes the guest unhappy.
    If I do not follow the rules, and something goes wrong, it is the person not following the rules that will take responsibility. If I stick with the rules, it is not my responsibility for making you unhappy. It’s the rules.

  27. Yikes! That room is drab. Over at Narita, we were put up in the Hotel Nikko Narita by AA which has good TripAdvisor reviews. We showed up and the lobby and common areas are brand new but the rooms hadn’t been renovated since the 1970s. A bit of shock when we entered our room.

  28. Maybe it’s who you get at reception

    I stayed there last month, and checked in as sunset was happening over Mt Fuji
    So asked if I could have a room facing it, and was told no. But as I chatted, a supervisor turned up and suddenly I could have a room facing Mt Fuji – got some amazing pics of the sunset and as catching BA8 out the next day, lovely sunrise too
    Room wasnt booked directly with them, I wasn’t a loyal customer etc.

    Very handy hotel for international departures

  29. Why didn’t you ask for a supervisor or manager especially knowing that other readers had luck getting a day rate? This is a strange post.

  30. I’m on Lucky’s side. I have been in situations where I’m exhausted after what seems like non-stop travel, where I would gladly empty my wallet just to get a decent few hours of sleep on a bed. I think $340 is a small price to pay for having the improved mental stability and capacity that comes with a good sleep. And keep in mind on these flights, Lucky is WORKING. It’s not the relaxing jaunt that most of experience when in a nice business class cabin. The amount of work it takes to produce a quality trip report is astounding.

    Anyway, I hope the rest at the hotel was refreshing, Lucky. I’m sorry you had to deal with robotic employees in Japan, and with insufferable commenters on this blog.

  31. I paid $300 once to rent a room to use the bathroom because the public restrooms were so dirty.

    $300 to get some sleep is completely understandable; we die first from lack of sleep than water or food.

  32. Oh…. Why would you do that!! The closest Sheraton is a 20 min train ride away…. Anyways welcome to Tokyo. Wish you a good stay!

  33. It took me all of 5 minutes to go to their English website, find the transit info, click on the reservations link, and make a dummy booking for 6 hours in a guest room in the transit hotel for Y11,000. It pretty clearly states that you can only use it if you’re transiting OR departing. You have to specify your departing flight, but you can choose your own arrival time!

    I fault the agent you spoke to for not offering the transit hotel as an option, but only if you specifically said you had a departing flight (they may not have understood “layover”). Otherwise, don’t blame them (or the service culture) for being strict about the usage of their overnight rooms, since they have an alternative. It was your mistake to not research in advance.

  34. @ Ben: was your onward flight departing from the international terminal at Haneda?

    To all readers suggesting the hotel clerk should have mentioned the transit rooms: the transit part of this hotel is only accessible to passengers from the departures area of the international terminal at HND. If Ben’s onward flight was departing from the domestic terminal, or if the clerk did not know he had a departing flight from the international terminal the clerk would have had no reason to mention it.

    And really as a frequent traveler: do your research, “transit area” is one of the main heading bars on the hotel’s website. Takes less than 30 seconds to find the right page on the website. No service culture is a replacement for knowing the facts yourself.

  35. You’re spot on with this. Part of the customer service policy is making customers happy but on the other hand they have to follow the rules and are unable be flexible enough to provide customers individual service based on our needs. Try asking a coffee shop to fill your cup to the top, or ask for no mayonnaise on a sandwich and see what happens. I live in Tokyo so I have to endure this on a daily basis. By the way, great blog!

  36. Japan is certainly rigid. Just spent over two weeks there. They is a lot wrong with their culture, but their work ethic is not one of those things. It is truly amazing how hard they work everyone from the hotel staff down to the baristas at starbucks and ramp workers at the airport. I couldn’t find anyone slacking off on any job. Even the janitors when nobody was looking constantly kept themselves occupied. I tried to keep up that intensity in my job and I was exhausted after two hours. No idea how they do it. Japan is all about the rules and everywhere you go there are instructions telling you where to go, where to stand when waiting for subway, which bathroom to use in the train car from your seat, etc. It gets really annoying after awhile, but if you go against the grain and try to be unique in Japan things get way difficult. It throws a wrench into the whole system. Basically they are like the closest thing to the Borg in human society. The silver lining is if you are doing something wrong and you ask them they will tell you the proper method normally.

  37. @Adam, take the time you’re using to judge how someone else spends the money that they’ve earned, and use that to make more money to spend on what you’d like. #outrage

  38. I agree with Ben’s post 100% I would write a letter to the hotel manager, and the head office!…suggest how they could have handled it, how much the stay was worth, and politely ask for a partial refund, or credit. $340 for THAT is insane. 60-ish percent of the nightly rate is acceptable.

    I understand on these trips when you’re tired, you are tired!. Honestly, at that rate I would have rebooked my flight for the next day…gone into town and collapsed at the Andaz.

  39. … and as usual, no follow up post, edited post, or even a reply to the comments pointing out he was wrong. You stay classy, Lucky.

  40. Lucky

    I’m sure you love Japanese culture (as I do), at least partially because your bicultural US/Germany (as I am). Japanese culture is closely related to German culture as they are both, formal, hierarchical, precise and sticklers for rules.

    Here I think it was less of a lack of desire to bend the rules and more that you were totally outside the rules. What you were requesting just doesn’t exist at that hotel. You should have been at the transit hotel – run by the same management group – inside security. There was simply no way for the guy at reception to “bend the rules” as there was no process for him to do so (and the Japanese love process). He also couldn’t “simply point you” in the right direction as (I) this would have “embarrassed you” in terms of telling you that you were in the wrong place and (II) was probably well outside his rotely memorized English phrases (the Japanese actually are among the worst English speakers in Asia according to many studies). They study it in school forever, but it’s all rote memorization and it’s to a shockingly bad standard.

    One fun correction I’ll make (and trust me, the Japanese actually think this level of precision is important). You got the hotel’s name wrong. It’s not “The Royal Park Hotel Haneda Airport”‘ it’s “Royal Park Hotel The Haneda”. The THE is actually a sub brand of Royal Park Hotels (slightly more designed and upscale). As in Royal Park Hotel The Nagoya, Royal Park Hotel The Shiodome, etc. You could be standing in front of Royal Park Hotel Tokyo and ask the doorman “is this The Royal Park Hotel?” and odds are good he could say “No” because in his mind it’s not. The is a totally different brand.

    I would have totally paid it just to get a room as well (I recently paid a coupLe of hundred for a hotel room at the transit hotel in Shanghai for a shower and 3 hour nap because, well, Shanghai lounges – nuff said). I suspect if you had actually gotten a correct transit room the post would have been about the fact that they’re actually quite nice for the price and the toto wash lets would have gotten a mention.

    Don’t do a “I will never return” just because you had one bad experience based on cultural miscues. It’s actually a good hotel and Japanese service levels and standards are excellent when they play out as planned.

  41. While I agree with most that this has got to be the most expensive and ridiculously priced nap, I’m not about to go “If I were you I should’ve XXX…said XXX…done XXX…” IF you had a well-rested and clear mind, you may not have said yes. But I understand how fatigue and lack of sleep can make you succumb to these things. It sure has happened to me a few of times. It doesn’t matter whether you travelled business or first – crossing time zones and travelling more than 24 hours is still exhausting.

  42. Agree that if I was that tired, I would have paid that much money for the rest. I have been that level of dog tired before and at that point, I would have gladly paid any amount I had in my wallet for some sleep. Since I loathe folks stretched out and sleeping in lounges with little regard for other users, I would have shelled out the money (of course, I’d have to be really, really tired for what you paid for that little of time)

    However, it does sound like you were at the wrong hotel. (the non-transit hotel) Japan is pretty strict in terms of following the rules, but I think you would have had similar treatment and US hotels that do not offer day rooms. While I’ve had some interesting moments (such as coffee shop refusing to sell me Iced Green Tea even though they had Green Tea on the menu), I don’t think this was one of them.

  43. Most hotels in Japan employ housekeeping staff only from around check out time to check-in time, so no matter how short your stay, your room will not be available for next guest until the next day’s check-in time, and hence a full night’s rate. Early check-in charge is the same, to be fair to other guests obeying 3pm check-in time.
    Having said that, this hotel is also the most non-Japanese in terms of service standard, e.g. It’s the only hotel offering credit card DCC (scam IMHO) in all my Japan travel experience, and unlike other hotels in Japan you cannot keep baggage more than a day before check-in.
    Still it is a great hotel if you know the “rules” and have correct expectations so you can avoid disappointment.
    “First Cabin” at T1 is a much better choice for you situation, they have a day rate within specific time, and even if you need to pay for a whole night’s rate for after 7pm checkout, it’s still reasonable 6,000 JPY.

  44. the whole thread is a lot of fun to read. As most of you I am flying around the world. When it comes to Japan this is definitely the most amazing experience. Consistently. No matter where. So much ahead of all other countries. Not only in terms of customer experience. Yet not perfect. Yet some people better than others. These guys are humans after all 🙂 But overall the best ever experiences. I expect most of us do not speak Japanese and that certainly is not helping given that Japanese people tend not to speak English and when they do it can be somehow limited.
    Thinking out of the box? I personally travel very often to the US. In terms of flexibility and creativity, not even to speak efficiency and customer friendliness, there is quite some room for improvement. No offense. Just think TSA 😉
    Well as everywhere being well informed helps I guess. As suggested by some above.
    But the thread was definitely fun to read 🙂

  45. When some people travel, they expect the world to fit their expectations – this will always lead to problems.

    The situation here is one where poor planning lead to a confusing mess, that wasn’t the hotel’s fault. A bit of research, as pointed out by others here, would have avoided the problem. Simply going off some comments about how to get a day room, without checking out the story yourself, is taking a wing and a prayer approach.

    This post seems more about shaming the hotel than being about Japanese culture. The poor hotel clerk may certainly be lost as to what was going on, but it wasn’t because he was being nasty or rigid. Much more to do with a failure of communication.

    A little too much champagne/wine, combined with jet lag, and a lack of planning – no need to be somewhat snarky about the Japanese or the hotel.

  46. I agree with lucky. Every time I travel to Japan, I encounter the love/hate situation – customer service can simultaneously be the best and worst in the world. The most frustrating part is when they respond robotically with the same textbook message and fail to explain with logic. Takeaway is: do your research, know the rules, and follow them. That will guarantee you a fantastic time there.

  47. “The way I see it, you are tring to bend the rules. You like it when it favors you, but when it doesn’t…”

    Two words: United Airlines.

    You just summed up my major gripe about Lucky. While it’s nice to see some information about the “soft product” side of stuff- and don’t get me wrong Lucky, your reports do effect my travel decisions when I have a choice of who to fly with- there are a lot of times he comes off as kind of an entitled snotty brat. That said, I still find this blog to be one of the best out there even if I have to take things with a grain of salt and the occasional eye roll.

  48. I’m sorry about what happened. You just happened to go to the wrong side of the hotel, when what you were looking for is “Transit Area” under their website’s top page, which does indicate in their English version also:


    Here, if you scroll to the bottom it appears “online reservation”, and you could have easily made the booking for your desired day-use package. Advance booking seems to be accepted. When you checked-in, have you told the agent that you knew people who have stayed here on a day-use basis, and that you had a flight to catch up? Otherwise, the agent would have no clue.

  49. I think you confused one Japanese trait (great customer service) with another (they don’t typically haggle). It’s also extremely frustrating for visitors for many other asian countries like China who are used to haggling for everything only to find that the Japanese don’t budge. It is also unfortunate for Japanese who visit other countries where haggling is common place because they end up overpaying for everything by just accepting the first quoted price.

  50. You didn’t ask to speak to the hotel manager? I would have given it a shot. And reiterated what you said here–others have gotten day room at day room prices.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *