There is no better way to experience authentic Japanese culture, food and hospitality than to spend a night or two in a traditional Japanese Inn, known as a ryokan. This was the highlight of Asia Travel Expert, Louise’s recent trip to Japan and it’s perfect for those looking for something unique while in the country.
Ryokans have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, offering hot spring baths (known as onsens), traditional hospitality and an elaborate kaiseki dinner each evening.
A night or two in a ryokan is an experience in itself, it’s very different to staying in a western-style hotel, so here are a few common questions answered:
Where on our trip should we stay in a ryokan?
We recommend a rural setting for the most authentic ryokan experience, it’s a great way to escape the cities to relax and rejuvenate for a couple of days. Most ryokans are surrounded by beautiful gardens or have impressive views. Our most popular ryokans are located near Kanazawa, Hakone and Hiroshima.
How long should I stay?
One or two nights is perfect. However, if you have a more extensive trip planned, ryokans are the only accommodation in some places, so you may experience more than one in an itinerary.
How do we spend our time?
Typically a ryokan experience is very private, with most of your time spent in your room. Comfort and relaxation is the main agenda. From soaking in your private onsen and drinking green tea to enjoying a lavish Kaiseki meal in the evening.
What is an Onsen?
An onsen is a natural hot spring bath – found indoors or outdoors at a ryokan. The water is typically around 107 degrees Fahrenheit, which can feel rather hot! As Japan is a volcanically active country, there are plenty of thermal hot springs across the country to source the onsens. The water is packed full of minerals and believed to have great healing properties.
Most ryokans will have a public onsen, usually separated by male and female. There are a few strict rules that apply – no bathing suits are allowed, you must wash before entering and, in most ryokans, you cannot enter if you have a tattoo. All of the ryokans we recommend also have private onsens, so you can relax in the privacy of your room.
What Should I wear?
On arrival, you will remove your shoes and be given a pair of slippers to wear during your stay. You will also be given a traditional robe, named a Yukata. You will wear this to meals, to sleep in and when relaxing. It is very comfortable.
Where do I sleep?
The bedrooms in the ryokans that we recommend are spacious, with a separate living area and a bedroom. The style is simple and traditional with tatami mat flooring. You won’t find any modern conveniences such as iPads and televisions, so it is a great way to escape the digital world for a day or two if you wish.
You sleep on a futon, which is a very comfortable mattress on the floor. Some ryokans do offer western-style beds if you prefer.
What will I eat?
One of the main attractions of staying in a ryokan is the food, which is an integral part of the experience.
For dinner, enjoy an 8-10 course Kaiseki dinner, which is a wonderful culinary experience lasting for around two hours. Each ryokan offers something a little different but many of the dishes offer an array of local and seasonal specialties. Some of the food is weird and wonderful but it is great fun!
A ryokan is also a great place to sample a Japanese breakfast, which are as well presented as dinner. You will have a selection of small dishes, such as rice, fish, miso soup and eggs.
You either eat in your room, a private dining room or a larger restaurant, depending on the ryokan you stay. There is a set menu each evening, but some ryokans can cater for those with dietary requirements if given advance notice.
Do the staff speak English?
Typically very little English is spoken by the staff in a ryokan. There may be one or two members staff who speak a little English. Your private guide will help you translate on arrival, so you can have an introduction to the ryokan and plan what time you are having dinner. Despite the language barrier, the staff are wonderfully friendly and willing to help.
Is it suitable for families?
Yes – many rooms sleep up to four or five people on futons, so you can all share. Some ryokans offer a slightly different menu for children, but it is certainly best for those with more adventurous taste buds.
Can I stay in a ryokan as a solo traveler?
Many of the ryokans do not allow solo travelers, especially during the busier months. However, a few will allow solo travelers and we can help arrange this.
Do all ryokans offer the same experience?
There is a varying degree of how traditional a ryokan be – some have more of an international influence than others. This is great as, if you are little unsure of throwing yourself into the full experience, then you can ease yourself in.
Here are three of our favorite ryokans:
Beniya Mukauyu is a Relaix & Chateaux property, so a very high standard. The style in the rooms is very traditional and luxurious, yet overall, it does have a more international feel to it, some staff speak English and meals are eaten in the restaurant.
This ryokan, has all of the comforts of a hotel such as a swimming pool, a gym and spa but the rooms are very traditional.
Araya Totoan is one of the most traditional ryokans is located in Yamashiro which is the perfect base for exploring Kanazawa. This property has been in the family for eighteen generations, so is a very special place to stay.