A lot of visitors skip ryokans. Maybe they’re not sure what they’re about, or the price seems a bit high. But let me tell you, this is a classic Japanese experience you don’t want to miss. A night in a traditional ryokan is your own slice of Japanese history and hospitality.

A ryokan is essentially a traditional Japanese inn. Think of it like a step back in time, a chance to live the same way people in Japan did centuries ago. These places have been the backbone of Japanese accommodation for hundreds of years, and staying in one is your ticket to really experiencing the heart and soul of the culture.

Entrance to a ryokan in Osaka, Japan

If tatami floors and sleeping on a futon are unknown territory for you, don’t fret. That’s why this guide is here: to give you the lowdown on what to expect, what to do, and how to enjoy every second of your ryokan stay.

So, are you ready to trade that standard hotel room for a slice of Japanese tradition? Awesome! Let’s roll out the futon, slide the shoji doors open, and step into the tranquil world of ryokans. Get ready to experience Japan in a way you’ve never done before.

What Is a Ryokan? From Ancient History to Modern Luxury

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, let’s tackle the big question: what is a ryokan, anyway?

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, their roots stretching back to the Edo period, around the 1600s. These places were a haven for weary travelers, offering hot meals and a warm futon at the end of a long day’s journey. But they weren’t just pit-stops; they were also meeting places, where news and stories from across Japan would be exchanged.

So, how does a ryokan differ from your run-of-the-mill hotel? Well, think less of a Marriott, and more of a guesthouse run by your Japanese grandma. There’s an emphasis on simplicity and tranquillity, and a level of hospitality that goes above and beyond what you’d normally expect. You get to sleep on futon beds rolled out on tatami mats, eat traditional Japanese meals, and even relax in an onsen, or hot spring bath, if you’re lucky.

Different Types of Ryokan

There’s a fair bit of variety when it comes to ryokans:

  • You’ve got your city ryokans, perfect for those who want to dip their toes in the tradition without straying too far from the urban hustle and bustle. These places usually have a more modern twist, blending the traditional with the contemporary.
  • Then there are the onsen ryokans, which are often found in the countryside, near natural hot springs. These are your go-to places if you’re after a spot of relaxation, with communal or private baths fed by the thermal waters.
  • And finally, there are the countryside ryokans, for those really wanting to escape the city noise. These places are often found in small towns or rural areas, surrounded by nature, and offer an experience that’s as traditional as it gets.

Each type of ryokan has its charm, and there’s one to suit just about every traveler. Whether you’re a culture vulture, a relaxation seeker, or someone who just wants to try something different, there’s a ryokan out there for you.

Navigating The Choices: How to Pick Your Perfect Ryokan

Alright, now that you’re on board with the whole ryokan experience, let’s chat about how to pick the right one for you. With a myriad of options available, it can feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but don’t worry – I’ve got your back.

  1. Location, Location, Location:
    It’s an old real estate saying, but it holds true for ryokans, too. Want to wake up to the sounds of nature in the countryside or prefer the bright lights of the city? Your preference will dictate the type of ryokan you should be considering.
  2. Pricetag:
    Ryokans range from budget-friendly to wallet-busting luxury. Set your budget before you start looking. Remember, most ryokans include two meals (breakfast and dinner) in their price, so factor that in when comparing costs.
  3. Amenities:
    Some ryokans are traditional in every sense, offering the bare essentials, while others are more like modern hotels with free Wi-Fi, en-suite bathrooms, and TV. Make a list of what’s non-negotiable for you.
  4. Mealtime:
    The food at a ryokan is often a highlight. You can usually expect a multi-course dinner and a Japanese-style breakfast. Some places offer the choice between Western and Japanese breakfasts.
  5. Onsen Availability:
    If you’re all about those hot spring baths, make sure to choose a ryokan with onsen facilities. Not all ryokans offer this, particularly those in cities.

Room Types: Traditional vs Modern, Size Matters

In terms of rooms, you’ve got a couple of options. The most traditional rooms come with tatami mat flooring, futon beds, and a low table for meals. Then, there are more modern rooms, sometimes with Western beds and furniture, that still retain a Japanese aesthetic.

inside a tatami-floored room inside a ryokan in Gifu, Japan
Ryokan in Gifu, Japan

And size? It can vary. Some rooms are compact, perfect for solo travelers or couples, while others are more spacious, accommodating families or larger groups. Check the room size (it’s usually measured in tatami mats) before you book.

How to Find and Book a Ryokan

There are various platforms where you can find and book your ideal ryokan, from global giants like Booking.com and Expedia to Japan-focused sites like Japanican and Rakuten Travel. And yes, English is typically available on these sites, so no need to dust off your Japanese dictionary.

When booking, keep an eye on the cancellation policies. Some ryokans are strict with changes and cancellations. After all, it’s not just a place to sleep, it’s an experience, and they are preparing for your stay well in advance.

In the end, choosing a ryokan comes down to what you’re looking for in your stay. Don’t rush your choice – take your time, weigh up your options, and you’re sure to find a ryokan that feels just right for you. And remember, the aim is to enjoy the experience, not just the destination.

The Ryokan Rundown: What to Expect

Alright, you’ve chosen your ryokan – great job! Now, let’s run through what you can expect when you step foot into this unique slice of Japanese culture.

The Arrival

Once you arrive, you’ll be greeted with a bow and an “irasshaimase” (welcome). Check-in is usually at a low desk in the lobby. You’ll be asked to take off your shoes at the entrance (don’t worry, they’ll keep them safe for you), and you’ll be provided with slippers. You’re entering a different world now – embrace it.

Room with a View

Ryokan rooms typically have a minimalist charm. You’ll find tatami mat floors, shoji (sliding paper doors), and maybe a tokonoma (an alcove for displaying art). The centerpiece is a low table where meals are served if you’re dining in-room.

Arai Ryokan in Shuzenji Onsen, Izu Peninsula

In terms of the layout, your room will likely change from day to night. During the day, it’s a living space with the low table at the center. At night, while you’re at dinner, staff will transform the room, moving the table aside and setting up your futon bed on the tatami floor.

Futon 101

Speaking of futon, let’s talk bedding. This isn’t the Western-style futon you might be thinking of. A Japanese futon is a thin mattress laid out on the tatami floor, topped with a fluffy, duvet-like covering. Don’t knock it ’til you try it – many find sleeping on a futon incredibly comfortable.

Culinary Delights

One of the highlights of a ryokan stay is the food. Dinner is often kaiseki-style, a traditional multi-course meal showcasing seasonal and local ingredients. It’s a feast not just for your stomach, but your eyes too. Breakfast is typically Japanese-style with rice, fish, miso soup, and pickled veggies.

Onsen Etiquette

If your ryokan has an onsen (hot spring bath), there are a few rules to keep in mind. First, you’ll need to wash thoroughly before entering the bath – it’s a communal space, so cleanliness is important. Also, most onsens are enjoyed naked. Don’t worry, though – they’re usually segregated by gender. If you’re shy, some ryokans offer private onsens or “kashikiri” for your use.

You’re all set! A stay at a ryokan is sure to be an unforgettable experience. Just remember, it’s about embracing a different pace of life and immersing yourself in the culture. So, take it all in and enjoy every moment.

Ryokan Recommendations: Where to Immerse Yourself in Tradition

Alright, time for some name-dropping. I’ve got a handful of ryokans that I’ve either visited myself or had good buddies give them the thumbs up. Check these out for an unforgettable ryokan experience:

Tokyo: Hoshinoya Tokyo

Nestled right in the heart of the buzzing city, Hoshinoya Tokyo is a sanctuary of tranquility amidst the chaos. Its charm lies in the masterful blend of traditional ryokan ethos with a modern urban aesthetic. It’s a bit of a splurge but definitely worth every yen.

Kyoto: Tawaraya Ryokan

Step back in time at Tawaraya Ryokan, an establishment that’s been serving travelers for over 300 years. It’s renowned for impeccable service, exquisite cuisine, and a serene atmosphere. The location is a real winner too – just a short stroll from downtown Kyoto.

Hakone: Hakone Ginyu

For an onsen experience to die for, make a beeline for Hakone Ginyu. This ryokan features rooms with private open-air baths overlooking the stunning mountainous scenery of Hakone. It’s the perfect place to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

Kanazawa: Motoyu Ishiya

If you’re looking to explore the historic city of Kanazawa, Motoyu Ishiya is your ryokan of choice. With a homely vibe and a delightful on-site onsen, it delivers a uniquely personal and relaxing experience.

Takayama: Wanosato

Wanosato is an 160-year-old ryokan set in the picturesque countryside of Takayama. With only eight rooms, it offers an intimate experience, complete with kaiseki dinners featuring locally sourced ingredients.

So, whether you’re a city slicker or a mountain trekker, there’s a ryokan waiting for you. And remember, these are just starting points, there are countless ryokans out there, each with its own unique allure. So, get out there and discover your personal slice of traditional Japanese hospitality.

Final Words: Dive into the Ryokan Experience

There you have it, folks – the lowdown on the traditional ryokan experience in Japan. From the deeply rooted history and the types of ryokans you can find, to the finer details of etiquette and recommended spots to stay, we’ve covered the full spectrum.

Now, it’s over to you. Are you ready to swap the familiar comfort of a hotel for the charming authenticity of a ryokan? To trade in your usual vacation routine for a cultural adventure that goes beyond tourist traps? I hope so because, let me tell you, it’s a decision you won’t regret.

FAQ: Your Ryokan Questions, Answered

Still got a question mark hovering over your head? Don’t fret. Let’s tackle a few of the most common ryokan-related queries:

  1. Can I wear my yukata outside my room?
    Absolutely. Feel free to stroll around the ryokan premises in your yukata. Some people even wear them out to local festivals or to grab a bite nearby.
  2. Can vegetarians/vegans enjoy kaiseki cuisine at ryokans?
    Yes, but make sure to notify the ryokan in advance about your dietary restrictions. They can prepare a vegetarian or vegan-friendly kaiseki meal.
  3. Are tattoos allowed in onsen baths?
    In many places, tattoos are still associated with Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicate, and are often not permitted in public onsen. However, many modern ryokans are relaxing these rules or provide private onsen facilities.
  4. What if I don’t speak Japanese?
    While it’s true that not all ryokan staff will be fluent in English, many ryokans in popular tourist areas are accustomed to foreign guests and can communicate effectively.
  5. Are ryokans kid-friendly?
    Definitely. Staying at a ryokan can be a great cultural experience for kids. Just bear in mind that the serene atmosphere of some ryokans might not be suitable for very young or energetic children.

The ryokan experience is all about embracing the unfamiliar. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone, opening up to new ways of living, and enriching your understanding of the world. So go on, take the plunge. The world of ryokans awaits you.


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