Very few henro actually camp out while making this pilgrimage. A thousnd, or so, henro may walk the pilgrimage each year, but of those, only a handful camp out every night. The rest of the walkers stay in a minshuku, ryokan, hotel, or one of the temples each night. A minshuku is basically a Japanese Bed and Breakfast. A ryokan is the same as a minshuku, but usually a little more upscale, although there are some ryokan that are no different than a minshuku, and vice versa.
A typical room in most minshuku & ryokan will cost between ¥6,800 & ¥7,000 per night. The better ryokan at popular onsen (hot springs) cost ¥10,000 to ¥15,000 per night. The price at both a minshuku and a ryokan will include dinner on the night you arrive and breakfast the next morning. When making a reservation at a minshuku or ryokan, you can request a reservation "sudomari" — that is, with no meals included. Be sure to do this when you make the reservation so the owner doesn't prepare your food while waiting for you to arrive, which she will do if you don't say anything. This will bring the price of the room down to about ¥4,000. While you can potentially save a lot of money this way, i would argue that the breakfasts and dinners that you will be eating with that saved ¥2,800 each day will be take out food from convenience stores and grocery stores, and you won't be eating nearly as well, as much, or as nutritiously.
The price of a hotel room will depend on the type of hotel you stay in. A business hotel is usually nothing more than a very small room where a travelling businessman can spend the night. There is nothing in the room but a bed, a desk (that you can touch from the bed), a TV (on that desk), and a bathroom. A good hotel can be very expensive and will cost about the same as an upscale ryokan. On the other end of the scale, though, you can usually stay in a business hotel for about ¥5,500 per night (frequently less). The nightly rate in both a hotel and business hotel does not include the price of meals. In fact, many business hotels don't even have a restaurant.
Many of the temples also have lodging for henro. Called shukubō, the rooms will be spotless and the food delicious. The price is about ¥5,500 per night but the accomodations are no different than what you would find at a good minshuku or ryokan. And, don't be fooled. Just because the shukubō is associated with a temple, that doesn't mean you are staying in the temple. Many of the shukubō are located in the temple compound, but in separate buildings from the temple itself.
Check in time for minshuku, ryokan, and shukubō is from 4:00 pm and you are typically expected to leave immediately after eating breakfast the next morning. If the weather is bad, or it is obvious that you had a really, really bad day, most minshuku and ryokan owners will let you check in a little early (maybe around 3:00), but i doubt you'll get any favors at the shukubō (isn't that ironic). If you are going to be arriving late because you are walking a long distance that day, it is a good idea to call ahead and let the owner know. They can then plan your meal and bath accordingly.
Breakfast and dinner are always (with very rare exceptions) served family style - i.e., everyone eats together in the dinning room. Breakfast service is between 6:30 and 7:30, give or take, and dinner is usually something lik 6:00 to 8:00, again, give or take. These are great times to meet other henro and to compare stories of the henro trail. If the owner relly likes you, or is just thrilled to have a foreigner who speaks a bit of the language as a guest, she/he may make you a small obento for lunch and throw that in as settai. Believe me when i tell you, it is both impossible to refuse this gift and unwise to try. I tried on a couple of occasions to decline and after giving up the losing battle, was thrilled that i had lost because, completely unexpectedly, i never found another place to eat that day.
When you check in, they will usually show you right to your room, where you then settle in and relax. This is when i went through my notes from the day and wrote my daily journal entry. If they don't tell you when you check in what time the bath will be ready, they'll come get you when it is. This is usually between 4:30 and 6:00.
Everyone takes their bath before dinner is served, and it is common for everyone to eat dinner in their yukata. After dinner, you can sit around for a while and visit with other henro, but by nine o'clock most henro are either turning off their lights or getting very close to it. Baths are not offered in the morning. Don't wear your yukata to breakfast the next morning. You are expected to wear your regualar clothes because you are expected to check out shortly after eating.
All types of lodging except hotels (which will be just like hotels in the west) are operated in traditional Japanese fashion, which means that you eat in a common dining room, use chopsticks, eat Japanese food, use a common toilet, use a common bath (but not always at the same time as other people), and sit and sleep on the floor.
Not all, but it seems that most minshuku and ryokan will have a bath towel for you to use. But, i always go to Shikoku with a small towel of my own, just in case. Make it a small hand towel, not a full-size bath towel because of the weight.
All minshuku, minshuku, ryokan, shukubō, and hotels will, however, provide soap and shampoo. There is no reason to carry your own. Be warned, though, that the soap quite often comes in a dispenser just like the shampoo. (See the picture below, with two bottles under each mirror.) The only way to tell them apart is that the soap container will say "Body Soap" on it in hiragana and the shampoo will say "Shampoo," also in hiragana (although for some reason manufacturers do like to use the English word "Shampoo" a lot so you will see this quite a bit).
A vocabulary lesson: In Japan, the "bathroom" is where you take a bath. There is no toilet, no sink, nothing but shower heads (at floor level), a few short (10") stools that you sit on while you use the shower head, and the bathtub. The "toilet" is where you find the toilet.
This is a strict rule in Japan. Memorize this section. Never, ever wear your shoes past the entrance when you enter a minshuku or someone's home. Just inside the door will be an entry area where you take your shoes off. Unless you are specifically told it is OK, no shoes ever go past this point; this is where you change into house slippers.
Wear the house slippers everywhere inside the minshuku: from the front door to your room, to the dining room, to the laundry area, to the bathroom, to the toilet.
But, if your room has a tatami floor, which will almost always be the case, never wear your house slippers in your room. Never, ever wear slippers, or anything else, on tatami floors. Only socks or bare feet can go on tatami. Leave your slippers just outside the door of your room when you enter and put them on again when you step out into the hallway.
There are a couple of minshuku where the entrance to the dining hall is outside the main building. I think it's because the dining hall serves as a local restaurant during the afternoon lunch time. This adds another layer to the slipper rules. Never, ever wear your house slippers outside the minshuku. In the entrance area where you took off your shoes and changed into house slippers you will find outside slippers. Unlike house slippers, which are up at floor level, outside slippers will be down at ground level, where you took off your shoes. As you exit the minshuku, step out of the house slippers and into outside slippers to go anywhere outside. When you go back inside, step out of the outside slippers and back into your house slippers.
So far so good? OK, on to the next level..... House slippers never, ever go into the toilet (or the bathroom, but that's obvious). There will be special toilet slippers just inside the toilet when you open the door. Step out of your house slippers and into the toilet slippers as you enter, step out of the toilet slippers and into your house slippers as you exit. House slippers are never allowed inside and toilet slippers are never allowed outside.
So, if you notice that you are still wearing the toilet slippers when you get back to your room from the toilet, .... sneak back down the hall and put them back where they belong and retrieve your your house slippers before anyone notices. :-)
For those that have never been to Japan, taking a bath isn't as simple as you might think it is. In Japan, there's only one proper way to do it — you wash outside of the bathtub and only soak in the tub after that. No soap, shampoo, or anything else, except your rubber duckie, maybe, is ever taken in the tub. Never. Men bathe separately from women and if there is only one bath, the owner will have a system in place for who goes when. Usually she calls each person one by one and acts as the gatekeeper.
There are no in-room private baths in minshuku and ryokan. All bathrooms are shared by everyone and "down the hall." As i said, all you'll find in the bathroom is the bathtub, some short stools to sit on, and some shower heads. The bathtub is much deeper than ours here in the USA — even sitting up, you frequently have water up to your shoulders. Bathtubs are meant ONLY for soaking. And they can be hot, hot, hot! It may take some time to get used to the temperature as you work your way into the water. There are times that i have to work my way in slowly, a few toes first, then up to the shin, then to the knees, then to the waist, inch by inch. But once in, it is soooooooo worth the effort. Very rarely, but it does happen, i just throw in the towel — it is just too hot and i just take the shower and go back to my room.
Never, ever get into the bathtub without washing thoroughly at the showers first. Grab one of the short stools, sit in front of a shower head, and use the provided/shared shampoo and soap. The shower usually has two knobs The top is used to adjust the temperature and you push the bottom one to turn on the water. It automatically stops after about 30 seconds, so just keep hitting the knob to keep the water running.
It's rare now, but in an older minshuku they may not yet have shower heads installed. In these cases, besides the short stools to sit on, you'll see shallow wooden buckets, about 10" in diameter and 6" deep. Instead of shower heads you find faucets. Turn on the faucet, fill the bucket and pour the water over yourself. Pour, soap, pour to rinse, shampoo, pour to rinse, repeat as much as you like.
Only after the shower, or bucket pouring, then get in the tub for a final soak.
While usually the bathroom is shared by all, one person at a time uses it. As i said above, the owner of the minshuku will tell you when it is your turn. Don't even think of trying to use it before she tells you it's your turn. But there are a few occasions where you will find the baths are not private, they are large and built for multiple people to use at once. They are always separated into men's and women's baths, but you will find that there will be other men or women in the bathroom with you. This is not usually the case at minshuku that cater to walking henro simply because the minshuku is someone's house and no bathroom can be that big. But, at places like Kōyasan or lodging that caters to group tours, the bathrooms will almost always have group bathrooms. I'd expect that in all the weeks you are there you may run across 3 or 4 of these situations. Once you get used to it, it is enjoyable. You meet some very interesting people that you might not meet elsewhere while sitting naked with strangers.
After checking into your minshuku or ryokan, the first thing almost all walking henro do is to change into your yukata and put your clothes into a washing machine. Almost every lodging will have at least one machine available, but it's never more than two. Some still let you do your laundry for free, but it seems that the majority now have coin operated machines. The cost is;
If it is a larger minshuku and there are a half dozen guests, or so, then you do laundry as you find a machine available. It all just seems to work out somehow so that everyone gets their laundry done before lights go out. Once the temperatures warm up in mid-April, it is possible to dry your clothes by hanging them in your room instead of paying for the dryer. Most rooms have a dozen hangers hanging on hooks and ledges around the room for this reason.
Besides the fact that they are too hot to walk in, this is another reason that i tell people to NEVER wear blue jeans for the walk — they will not dry overnight when you hang them in your room.
The vast majority of henro make the circuit during the months of April and May. During these two months, it can be very hard for walkers to get a room at one of the temples. As for all the other lodging, you may not get a room at the lodge you prefer but it is always possible to find somewhere to stay. I have never had to spend the night outdoors beause no rooms were available.
If you plan on walking in the spring, it is best to make your reservations at least one day in advance. In areas away from the temples this isn't as necessary but it doesn't hurt. However, you do need to make your reservations no later than the morning of the day you plan to arrive. It is considered a cardinal sin by the Japanese to simply show up at their door in the evening and ask for a room. Please avoid doing this. The only exception to making reservations one day in advance is during the "Golden Week" holiday in late April and early May. Lodging during this week fills up fast and i always try to make these reservations as close to three or four days in advance as i can.
I have read that during the summer and fall some of the lodging is closed since there are so few henro on the road. Apparently, even some of the temples close their shukubō. While you will still be able to find a room somewhere, your choices will be a little more limited. However, as the temples aren't as crowded with bus henro as they are in the spring, the odds of getting a room at the one's that remain open may be greatly improved.
Both the Shikoku Henro Hitori Aruki Dōgyō Ninin guidebook put out by the Henro Michi Hozon Kyōryoku Kai and the Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide put out by Buyodo Publishing list hundereds of minshuku, ryokan, hotels, business hotels, and temples where you can stay. They list phone numbers and distances from the pilgrimage temples to help you plan each nights lodging. I HIGHLY recommend buying and using Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide.
If you are staying on Mt. Kōya, you can make reservations at many of the temples via fax or phone call. www.shukubo.jp/eng/05_syukubo.html
Lastly, there are many places that offer free lodging to henro who are walking the pilgrimage. As i get this information, i post it on the bottom of the Camping Out/Free Lodging page. Beware, though, that information on the lists can change without notice.