Now that I have a pretty firm idea of where to go on my Japanese jaunt, its time to start setting things in stone. Chiefly, this means getting a bed for the 21 nights around Japan. With the exception of K's Backpack Hostel at Mt. Fuji, 2008's trip was completely open-ended with no hotels pre-booked - not even the one on the first night. Thankfully, due to some good fortune and the boundless energy the Japanese have in helping strangers, I managed to sort myself accommodation all the way round, sometimes at very short notice and with people not often put in contact with rambling, swaying foreign backpackers.
Nevertheless, even though it turned out okay in the end, I would have much preferred not to have spent the first half of every third day or so sat in the local JTB looking lost and needy and using my hands to convey most of my wishes to bemused staff and a curious and politely impatient crowd of people behind me. It is for these reasons and more that I am taking steps to get most of it out of the way before stepping off these shores.
Of course, the first thing you need is a concrete list of where you're going (to the granularity of a town/city) and which days you'll be there. Then it is a case of contacting the places you want to stay in. One way is - by trial and error - do the 'Search Nearby' option on Google Maps, which often brings up a few dozen registered places around any given city, although you are restricted to those that accept overseas bookings, and of course, speak the language. There's also the whole security issue of typing in your bank details over and over, which is obviously off-putting, especially as the other end of the wire is so far away.
A better option is to find a site that specialises in this sort of thing. Some are well-known, like hotels.com, but others you'll only find after a bit of searching. Two that I have found of particular use are hostelworld.com, which as the name suggests, specialise in hostel accommodation for places around the world (although the do have some hotels too), and the Welcome Inn Reservation Centre, which is specific to accommodation in Japan, and covers all kinds of accommodation.
With HostelWorld, you pay only an upfront deposit for the stay - often 10% - (plus a charge that goes into the site's coffers), so you still need to fork out on the day. Welcome Inn on the other hand will charge the full amount up front (although without an on-top fee), which is generally preferable because then you don't need to worry about credit card compatibility or getting hold of cash over there. What is most important, of course, is that you get your reservation in plenty of time, in the comfort of your living room rather than legging it to the travel shop at silly o'clock in the morning when you're there.
At the moment, about 50% of places are booked, and a nights stay in each place varies between about 2000 and 6000 yen (around £14 - 43). Hotels are typically the most expensive, and hostels where you share the room with a few others tend to be the cheapest. That's not to put hostels down of course, my stay at K's last time (the only hostel I stayed in) was by far the best of the bunch, because everyone there was a buzzing, interesting, exciting crowd, eager to share and listen to the stories they had been a part of on their journey.
I'm aiming to spend a good portion of the holiday in hostels, plus some of it in hotels (having your own lav is a much missed luxury after a while in the company of strangers), some Ryokan (traditional Japanese guest houses), 'pension' hotels (basically a westernised Ryokan), and the infamous 'Capsules'..
As the man says, when in Tokyo..
Update: It wouldn't be fair if I didn't also include the Rakuten Travel website on my list of places to book hotels in Japan (and various other far eastern destinations too). They have a much larger list of participating hotels than HostelWorld or even ITCJ and have the ability to do online availability checks without logging in or submitting an accommodation request (which ITCJ doesn't). The only problem with them is that you dont have an online account with them as such, so you need to type in your details for each booking, which can be either inconvenient or insecure, depending on your circumstances.