Your Guide to Ryokans in Japan
Discover the wonderful world of ryokans in Japan. Whether it’s ryokans in Kyoto or ryokans in Tokyo, it’s the most authentic way to experience your luxury Japan vacation.
What is a Ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn or hotel and one of the most authentic ways to experience Japanese culture, food and hospitality during a luxury vacation in Japan. Ryokans were actually developed in the Edo period (1603-1868) for lords and samurai warriors as a place for them to rest and relax after long periods on the road.
Indeed, these quaint inns have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but nowadays welcome all to stay and soak up the experience. Many offer hot spring baths (onsen), traditional hospitality and an elaborate kaiseki dinner each evening - a tasting menu comprising multiple courses of classic Japanese cuisine.
While there are varying degrees as to how olde worlde a ryokan can be, the experience of staying at these traditional Japanese hotels is very different to that of a modern western hotel.
Instead of enticing you with high-tech amenities, ryokans are stripped back and best for those looking to step away from the digital world. Most of your days at a ryokan will be spent either in your room soaking in a private onsen or in the gardens basking in nature.
That said, we’d highly recommend doing it if you’re looking to enjoy some of the country’s most unique customs and traditions while away.
Typically, very little English is spoken by the staff in a Japanese ryokan, though there may be one or two members of staff who speak a little English. With a Scott Dunn luxury Japan vacation, your private guide will help translate for you 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 always willing to help.
How Long Should You Stay in a Ryokan
We would recommend one or two nights to be perfect. However, if you have a more extensive trip planned, ryokans in Japan are often the only accommodation in some places, so you may experience more than one in an itinerary.
Ryokans vary in terms of cost and modernity - some are more commercial and will offer a more comfortable stay with a greater amount of amenities, while some will be extremely minimalist and traditional. The latter may not make for a supremely comfortable experience for more than a couple of days, so if you have little ones or enjoy your creature comforts opt for just a night or two.
To find out more details in regards to what to expect at a Japanese ryokan in terms of cost and amenities, get in touch with a travel consultant who will be more than happy to put together a package for you.
What to Do at a Ryokan
The experience of staying at a ryokan in Japan is usually very private, with most of your time spent in your room. On the other hand, many ryokans are set in amongst beautiful gardens and scenery just waiting to be admired. It can be pleasant to go for a slow wander and take stock of your surroundings, or to simply curl up with a book and a mug of green tea in your room. Whatever it is you like to do - comfort and relaxation should be the main agenda.
Your own private onsen in a ryokan is another perfect place to do this - a serene and supremely calming space where you can sit back and reflect on the day’s events and let your worries float away. The water is usually very hot, since it often comes from the mineral-rich thermal waters of Japan’s many volcanic hot springs, so don’t stay in for too long and don’t put your head under the water.
It’s worth noting that an onsen is a place for bathing and relaxing in warm waters - it is not a place to wash, so don’t go with the intention of lathering up or washing your hair.
After your soak, why not take a walk and discover the charm of the surrounding neighborhood? It is quite a common sight in the evenings to see ryokan guests strolling around town in their yukata and geta (wooden sandals).
If you’d like something a little more lively, larger ryokans come with additional activities that cater to groups and events. Some may even have bars, karaoke rooms, game rooms, shows and on-site shops that are open well into the night.
The other main activity on the agenda during a Japanese ryokan stay is of course dining, and foodies certainly won’t be disappointed.
What Can You Expect to Eat and Drink
One of the main attractions of staying in a Japanese ryokan is the spectacular food. As mentioned earlier, kaiseki dining is typical of a ryokan experience in Japan - a wonderful culinary showdown 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 uncanny and wonderful but it’s always elegantly served and is an experience worth trying for the most authentic taste of Japanese cuisine and culture.
Kaiseki dishes are usually from a set menu, and might comprise the following:
- Miso soup
- Various sushi dishes and sashimi
- Mixed boiled vegetables
- Grilled meat and fish plates
- A deep fried dish (tempura)
- A vinegared dish
- A steamed pudding
- A dessert such as local fruit or sorbet
Different ryokans serve different styles. Some serve the traditional style of Kaiseki, some offer a little more simplified menu, while some prepare Western-style. There are also some ryokans which serve an even healthier version, containing only plant-based ingredients without any animal products called “Shojin-Ryori”, a Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Shojin-Ryori is getting more popular not just amongst vegetarians and vegans but also those who are interested in a sophisticated cuisine.
You’ll be able to wash it all down with beer or sake, or non-alcoholic drinks if you prefer.
Breakfast is also an experience in itself. Some ryokans serve a feast just like dinner, some serve a basic menu of soup and three dishes, while some offer a Western or buffet style breakfast. Expect to be served a number of small plates, all savory, which again might consist of pancake-based dishes, grilled fish, eggs or meat and vegetables.
Our Asia Travel Specialist and Japan expert Stacey Tieger agrees:
“The food at a Japanese ryokan is often the highlight of the stay and best demonstrates the local delicacies of Japan. As well as an amazing dinner, they also include a Japanese breakfast which is another multi-course meal with lots of local specialties to try. We encourage guests to try both traditional and western style options while staying at a Ryokan, to truly experience the local cuisine”
When it comes to where you eat, meals might be enjoyed privately in the comfort of your room, or in a dining room with other guests.
If you have any food allergies, be sure to let your ryokan know in advance of your arrival.
What Would Your Traditional Japanese Room Be Like
Bedrooms in a Japanese ryokan are typically very pared back with minimal furniture and decoration, yet are spacious and calming - allowing you to relax and immerse yourself in your surroundings fully. You won’t find any modern conveniences in a ryokan - like iPads or televisions - so it’s a great place just to switch off and focus on the present.
On a Scott Dunn Japan vacation, the bedrooms in the ryokans we recommend are big, bright and airy, with a separate living area and a bedroom. The style is simple and traditional with tatami mat flooring, a couple of chairs, perhaps a table, and a futon or floor mattress for a bed. If you need a more comfortable Western-style bed, some Ryokans do offer these, but it’s best to find out in advance of arrival.
Many rooms have no shower, so do keep in mind that it’s customary for guests to either enjoy the onsen or large public bath on-site.
At a ryokan, you will experience the best of Japanese hospitality - omotenashi. The staff will pay very close attention to all guests, ensuring all your needs, down to the smallest detail, are taken care of. They’ll go beyond a simple welcome to make you feel at home despite being thousands of miles away in a foreign land.
When visiting a ryokan, omotenashi might include picking you up at the bus or train station, offering you a small snack or refreshment upon arrival and taking the time to introduce each dish of your meal.
In most cases, the windows of your room in a ryokan will look out upon the beautiful gardens or grounds of the ryokan, so they’re a great place for quiet reflection and rejuvenation.
Many ryokans close their doors at night. If you’ll be doing a late check-in, it’s best to notify the ryokan beforehand.
What You Will Wear at a Japanese Ryokan
On arrival at your ryokan in Japan, you will remove your shoes and be given a pair of slippers to wear during your stay. This is tradition in Japan, and shows respect for the local culture. In some cases, you may be given a separate pair of slippers for use in the bathroom.
You will also be given a traditional robe or kimono, named a Yukata. You will wear this to meals, to sleep in and when relaxing - sometimes even outside if you are heading to the public onsen in the ryokan. In fact, once you are given it, it’s acceptable to wear it almost all of the time during your stay.
During certain times of the year, it can get cold and a yukata alone won’t suffice. A tanzen (outer robe) will be provided for you to wear over your yukata, to keep you warm and comfortable.
While extremely comfortable to wear, it’s important that you tie your Yukata correctly, since worn incorrectly can represent death, so it’s wise to ask your travel guide how to do this, or to research it online first. The most important thing to remember is that the left side must always fold over the right side. The other way round is typically performed when the Japanese dress their recently deceased loved ones.
At the end of your stay, make sure you leave your slippers and Yukata at the ryokan.
The experience of staying in a ryokan is rooted in Japanese custom and tradition, so naturally, there are a few things to be mindful of.
- Appropriate dress: As mentioned, your Yukata will be the outfit of choice during your stay at a ryokan, as well as the slippers provided. Remove any shoes upon arrival at your ryokan.
- Being on time: It is polite to let the staff know at what times you would like to take breakfast and dinner, and to be on time. This is particularly important during dinner service as a meal will have been prepared especially for you at the indicated time, so be sure to show your hosts respect by arriving on time, if not a couple of minutes early.
- Maintaining a calm, quiet presence: A stay at a ryokan in Japan is supposed to be a relaxing experience and a time for reflection - much like visiting a wellness retreat or health spa - so respect the ryokan and your fellow guests by keeping your voice low and by keeping your phone on silent.
- Respecting the rules of the onsen: If the onsen in a ryokan is communal, the same rules apply as with any other Japanese onsen - tattoos should be hidden or covered and going naked is the norm. If you have your own private onsen, you do not need to follow the above.
Etiquette in a communal onsen
Before you enter the baths, it’s essential that you wash yourself. Using an onsen is more for relaxation than cleanliness, and using the baths without washing your body is strictly prohibited.
If you have long hair, you’ll also need to tie it up before entering the water.
Almost all Japanese onsen require guests to go au naturel while in the baths. You can use a small towel to stay modest as you move between baths and the changing room. If you do use a towel, you should not take it into the water with you. Instead, you’ll see many people wearing their towel on their heads or leaving it in a designated area near the bath.
How to Book a Ryokan
If you would like to book a ryokan as part of your luxury Japan vacation, simply speak to one of our friendly travel consultants who will help you choose the perfect ryokan for you. Depending on your itinerary and the length of your stay, our experts can recommend some of the best ryokans in Japan and will ensure you are clued up on what to expect ahead of your trip.
We recommend a rural setting for the most authentic Japanese 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, with our most popular ryokans located near Kanazawa, Hakone and Hiroshima.
Situated on Japan’s west coast, Kanazawa is a fascinating historic town, home to several temples and castles. A stay here means getting the chance to explore the area’s culture and history, as well as its budding art scene.
History buffs and creatives alike will love this smaller city with renowned geisha and samurai districts and gorgeously preserved architecture.
A trip to Hakone is all about the great outdoors and soaking up its spectacular natural beauty. Home to Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji, when you’re not hiking or exploring its beautiful lakes, time here can be spent relaxing at one of the many hot springs and quaint ryokans.
Located to the west of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Hiroshima offers plenty to discover, including shrines, the Hiroshima peace memorial and stunning countryside home to wild deer. Ending the day enjoying a kaiseki meal at your Japanese ryokan is the perfect way to relax after all that sightseeing.
Hiroshima has a mix of everything making it ideal for families or groups that need to cater to many tastes.
When it comes to enjoying a unique ryokan stay on a Scott Dunn vacation, our experts know all the best spots and will make recommendations bespoke to you and your trip.
“Our expertise is in knowing which ryokans in Japan will meet the needs of our guests. We know which ryokans can accommodate special diets, have the best private onsens and those that are family friendly. It’s what we do best.” - Stacey Tieger, Asia Travel Specialist and Japan expert.
Book Your Ryokan Stay
Ready to book your Japan ryokan stay? Get in touch with one of our travel consultants or browse one of our luxury Japan tours below which offer a stay at one of these traditional Japanese hotels as part of the experience
The Okunoin Hotel Tokugawa is an award-winning Japanese ryokan featuring hot spring bathing, wonderful hospitality, delicious kaiseki dining and a stunning Japanese garden, close to Nikko’s most popular attractions.
Experience the local way at this luxury ryokan located in the small hot springs village of Yamanaka in Ishikawa prefecture. Run by a father and son duo, the pair bring you into the heart of Japanese culture with visits to different Japanese artisans and authentic interactions with the locals.
A former retreat of the Imperial family and situated in the heart of Hakone National Park, Gora Kadan blends Japanese traditions with modern design elements. Boasting fantastic views of Mt. Fuji and spectacular Kaiseki-style cuisine, this is one of Japan’s most chic ryokans.
Now in its seventh generation, this classic hot spring ryokan is the real deal. Peaceful and elegant, offering tasteful décor, impeccable service, onsen bathing and Kaiseki dining, the hotel provides guests with an authentic taste of Japanese life.
With a fusion of minimalist, modern and traditional Japanese design, Zaborin evokes peace and relaxation from the moment you step into the property. Each of the 15 villas feature a private indoor and outdoor onsen with clear forest views of the stunning scenery, making this a spectacular getaway.
Set in the quaint Yamashiro Hot Spring village and surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, Araya Totoan is a perfect retreat for those looking for an authentic, off the beaten track experience. Enjoy your private onsen followed by a kaisaki dinner for a truly authentic Ryokan experience.