Traveling the Convenient Way

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2003

The "convenience-store traveler" is privy to some of Japan's best hotel deals.

by Bruce Rutledge

FAMILYMART IS MY FRIEND. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I started memorizing the locations of all the FamilyMart stores I found. I planned my day around them, making sure I would pass one of the stores with the blue and green signs in the morning or afternoon. Once I found one, I usually spent 15 or 20 minutes inside, staring at a terminal, pushing buttons on a screen, hunting for bargains.

No, I am not insane. I am just a traveler with an extremely tight budget and enough Japanese ability to navigate the e-Tower multimedia terminals in every FamilyMart I found. That combination of near poverty and linguistic ability led me to discover that staying in nice Tokyo hotels for $50 or less a night was not only possible, it was relatively easy.

FamilyMart has 5,600 e-Tower terminals in stores throughout the country; Lawson operates similar Loppi terminals in 7,600 locations; the even lesser-known Three F chain has more than 600 e-Tower terminals in place. In the last few years, these multimedia terminals have created something JTB calls "the convenience-store market," and travel agents like JTB are coming up with special packages for the very sort of people who make their travel plans at the corner konbini.

If these systems were in
English, they'd be a hit

These convenience-store travelers are both budget-minded and used to traveling on the fly. Most of the best deals in these terminals are same-day discounts; no one plans a family trip for next year at Lawson, but budget-minded businesspeople, the backpacking set and couples looking for an upscale place to "rest" may check the terminals on a whim to see what's available that day. And the discounts can be substantial -- some of the hotels offer discounts of 50 percent or more. In fact, if any of these systems were in English, they would quickly become a hit with foreign travelers. It's the kind of thing that should have been up and running for last year's World Cup.

But discounts aren't the only selling point. The terminals can be used for lovers who find love hotels a little seedy: The "Twilight Hotel Plan" gives discounts for two travelers staying in a room with one double bed. You can also buy ski-lift passes that are good anywhere in the country, discount tickets for pools and amusement parks and even tickets for outdoor adventures like skydiving and whitewater rafting. Plus, you can make train, plane and bus reservations and rent cars on the machines. It's the perfect place to plan a quick weekend trip -- especially if you're cash-strapped and can read Japanese.

At Lawson stores, you can also get travelers checks for US, Canadian and Australian dollars, English pounds, Swiss francs, euros and yen.

The in-store computers are not necessarily moneymakers for the convenience stores, however. Only Lawson, the earliest adopter of multimedia terminals (the company installed them in 1998), is said to be turning a profit on the business. Seven-Eleven, Japan's leading chain, opted to pull out its terminals last fall and replaced them with touch-tone copiers that can also place ticket reservations.

Whether the multimedia terminals last -- while Seven-Eleven, Sunkus and Circle K were all pulling the terminals out, FamilyMart, Lawson and Three F have plans to install more of them -- the convenience store is quickly becoming the nation's friendly corner travel agent. This April, JTB launched a service called JTB Benefit that allows members to browse for lodgings on their cellphones, make the booking online, then pay for everything at the nearest Lawson. The travel company plans to expand membership in the service from the current 2.5 million to 10 million in the near future.

At FamilyMart, I found that I could stay in a twin room at the Shanpia Hotel Akasaka, just behind TBS, for JPY5,900 plus tax; the list price is JPY16,400 on the hotel's Web site. Plus, the price included all the Evian mineral water I could drink. I also found a room for JPY6,000 at the Hotel Amista Asagaya outside of Shinjuku, a discount of about JPY2,000. The hotel, which seemed brand new, was a hotspot offering wireless Internet connections in every room. Finally, I stayed at the Tokyo Green Hotel Suidobashi for JPY7,600 (list price: JPY8,200) and the Tokyo Hotel Urashima, one stop from the Shiodome district, for JPY5,200 (single rooms list for JPY6,000 to JPY8,500).

Of course, you could go cheaper, but all the rooms had their own bathroom, were clean and were more like a poor man's Park Hyatt than a gaijin house. Making daily reservations on the terminals is a bit like gambling. I started looking forward to it, wondering if I could beat last night's deal. I felt as if I had won at blackjack the day I scored the Shanpia room for JPY5,900, and I felt dejected the day I checked into the Suidobashi hotel with a paltry JPY600 discount.

The terminals allow you to search for hotels anywhere in Japan. They also let you search by region and by day. In Tokyo, the neighborhoods are broken down further, so you can pinpoint your search to Shinjuku or Akasaka or Ueno, for example.

Another added benefit: The multimedia terminals break down any chance for discrimination based on the way you look. If you can navigate the Japanese-only menu (or get a friend to do it for you), you can make your reservation, pay for your room and get your ticket right there at the convenience store. But make sure you know where you're going -- the maps that come with the tickets can be deciphered only through a microscope. @
-- By Bruce Rutledge

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