What Are Ryokan?
Ryokan (pronounced ree-yoh-KAHN) are Japan’s ancient-style inns. The first ryokan (and world’s oldest hotel), Nishiyama Onsen Kieunkan, opened its doors way back in 710 CE and today, 52 generations later, hundreds of ryokan exist throughout Japan. They vary in size, design, and cost, but no matter which location you select, you can expect to find many of the same trappings and experiences amongst them.
Traditionally, ryokan floors are comprised of mats called tatami, which feature a woven, straw textile wrapped around a springy, rice-filled core. Due to its delicate nature, patrons are asked to remove their shoes upon entering the hotel. Once inside, you’ll be offered a cotton, kimono-style robe called a yukata. Although sporting this cozy attire is not required, the majority of guests opt to wear it around the hotel, and, in the colder months, stay warm by layering up with plush jackets provided called a hanten.
To create a flexible experience, ryokan rooms are subdivided by sliding, rice paper screens called shoji, and may be furnished as bedrooms or living spaces depending on time of day or personal preference.
Once settled, spend the rest of your day lounging in your room, taking a stroll in your yukata through the beautifully manicured Zen gardens, and soaking in the mineral-rich hot springs called onsen, all before making your way to a kaiseki dinner of classic, Japanese haute-cuisine. And, when it’s time for bed, return to your room where a deceptively comfortable futon, classic buckwheat pillow, and a restful night’s sleep await.
If you're interested in visiting a ryokan during your trip to Japan, consider this 14-day highlights tour, which includes a traditional ryokan inn stay on the sacred island of Miyajima. Or try this 10-day self-guided walking tour of the famous Nakasendo Trail, during which you'll stay in ryokan along the route.
Elements of a Ryokan Experience
Onsen (pronounced OHN-sehn) use water from geothermically-heated springs, which makes visiting a ryokan that offers one akin to staying at a live-in spa. Often, a single inn will offer multiple onsen experiences, ranging from expansive, indoor baths of pumice and hand-carved cedar to steaming, outdoor pools that gaze upon landscaped courtyards and mountain vistas. And, depending on the region, some onsen boast water rich in rejuvenating minerals like sulfur, iron, sodium, and hydrogen.
In ancient times, men and women enjoyed onsen together, but today, aside from a handful of areas in rural Japan, most baths separate visitors by gender. As a result, ryokan typically offer two separate onsen areas, each assigned to men or women, which swap throughout the day.
Upon entering one of these areas, patrons will find a system of cubbies to store their yukata, room key, and other personal items. Guests are expected to follow an easy-to-learn set of rules written to ensure cleanliness and relaxation. Washing and rinsing before entering the hot water are required and bathing stations, shampoo, and soap are provided. For sanitary reasons, swimsuits are prohibited, as are wearing the provided towels while submerging in the pools.
Note that some onsen politely decline service to visitors with tattoos. Originally, this policy developed to ward off members of Japanese organized crime gangs, whose membership is known for their full-bodied tattoos. However, as western tourism to Japan has increased, more establishments have begun welcoming tattooed guests provided their ink is covered with a temporary patch or sleeve. If you have a tattoo, you may wish to call your ryokan ahead of time to inquire about their policy.
A chief reason to stay at a ryokan is to try kaiseki, a playfully imaginative, multi-course dining experience with roots going back to 9th century Japan. Sometimes called “Japanese haute-cuisine,” these set menus follow a regimented order of fourteen or more dishes, which together comprise the blank canvas for individual chefs to showcase seasonal ingredients prepared with personal flair.
When booking your stay, you’ll be given the option to add kaiseki to your reservation. This tacks on cost to your bill, but you will save considerably when compared to the menu prices of kaiseki restaurants outside of your hotel. Upon check-in, you’ll be asked for your preferred dining time. Typically, two options are presented, one early and one late.
When it’s time for your meal, make your way to the artfully designed dining area, where the welcoming, kimono-draped staff await, ready to whisk you off on a multi-hour culinary adventure. In Japan, kaiseki is considered an art form, and as such, the dishes presented are the perfect balance of taste, color, texture and aesthetic. Menus often have a seasonal theme, showcasing local ingredients, which means that kaiseki is also an excellent way to learn about the culinary culture and products of your ryokan’s immediate area.
Another place to learn about and buy locally-made items are the small stalls in the lobby of your ryokan. Sometimes called “omiyage shops,” the name refers to the Japanese tradition of omiyage (oh-mee-AH-ghee) a word used both for the Japanese tradition of never arriving at an important meeting of friends, family or co-workers empty-handed and to describe the types of gifts themselves, typically ornate boxes of individually wrapped sweets or cookies.
A version of these shops can be found throughout Japan in airports, train stations, and department stores, but the ones in ryokans differ in unique ways. First, they feature locally-produced goods and commodities – picture regional sake samplers or cookies baked with matcha grown in the hills nearby – and also, they often showcase the works of local artisans, making them the perfect place to find a unique, regional memento of your stay.
Many ryokan even sell unworn yukata in their shops, at prices far more affordable than in the kimono boutiques of big cities like Kyoto or Tokyo. And, if this is of interest, but you don’t see one on display, many owners will happily sell you the one you are wearing, or even extras from their linen closet should you want to bring some home with you as gifts.
Where To Stay
Koto no Yado Musashino
Situated about 40 kilometers south of Kyoto sits the temple city of Nara, a town known or its sky-scraping pagodas and the community of 1,200 domesticated, spotted deer which, protected since ancient times, freely roam the nearby parks and sacred sites. If your journey takes you here, a perfect place to stay is ryokan Koto no Yado Musashino, a mainstay situated within world-famous Nara Park, boasting views of Mt. Wakakusa, Kasuga Shrine, and The Colossal Hall of the Great Buddha.
At the heart of Shuzenji Hot Springs, on Japan’s Izu Peninsula, which is known as the nation’s largest onsen region, you’ll find ryokan Arai, an expansive complex of traditional architecture constructed from Japanese cypress over 140 years ago. Here, the main onsen, an indoor/outdoor structure built in 8th century-style, is registered as the “First Bath of Natural Cultural Assets” and is considered a masterpiece of Japanese design. Rooms here offer views of the Katsura River or the ryokan’s traditional gardens and koi ponds.
North of Tokyo, in the quaint town of Minakami, a small, family-operated inn called Micasa offers rooms overlooking the jagged peaks of nearby Mt. Tanigawa. While beautiful any time of year, this ryokan is a must-stay in autumn, when the green maple forests transform into a crimson carpet as far as the eye can see. Due to its relatively remote location and modest size, this hotel is amongst the most affordable of its kind, and, for a small increase in cost, guests can upgrade to a room with its own outdoor onsen and garden, perfect for couples who wish to bathe together in private.