It’s a cliché to say that Japan is a land of contrasts – but, in terms of accommodation, it really is. There are some weird and many wonderful places to stay, from personal capsules and love hotels to lodgings in five-star luxury.
But there’s one type of accommodation that has preserved its tradition for centuries: the ryokan. Staying at one of these Japanese-style guesthouses is the ultimate Japanese experience. But there are a few things you should know before you go – here’s our guide for the first-time visitor.
Even if you’ve never heard of a ryokan, they might look familiar. Think traditional Japan: low, wooden buildings with translucent paper screens, sliding doors, straw tatami mats, bamboo, geisha serving tea and immaculately designed gardens – perhaps with a small pond stocked with carp and a wooden bridge.
When you walk inside, you step back a few centuries and everything slows down. It’s a moment of respite from the hectic world outside.
Many ryokan are located next to hot springs that occur naturally close to Japan’s many volcanoes. For this reason, a communal bath in the hot springs (onsen) has become a traditional activity at a ryokan.
Ryokans were established as coaching inns back in the Edo period (1603–1868), when feudal lords from all provinces in Japan were obliged to travel to Edo (Tokyo) every other year to visit the shogun. These were places that the lords and their samurai warriors could rest after a long day on the road.
The guests of honour would spend their evenings bathing, enjoying a tea ceremony and an elaborate meal that lasted all evening, with many rounds of sake. The ryokan was a place of sanctuary, where the warriors could feel safe from attack by enemies. They were often built with simple defences, such as steep, narrow stairs and low doorways and ceilings that made swinging a sword difficult.
Today, this accommodation comes in many forms, from historic and luxury styles, to family-run minshuku and more modern hotels with ryokan features.
Everything revolves around making the guest feel comfortable, from the choice of artworks on the wall to the absence of clutter. Don't plan an evening out – you’ll want to enjoy the ryokan experience to the full.
On arrival, wait to be invited in. You must remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers before stepping inside. Leave your shoes in the genkan (foyer).
Most ryokans offer a choice of Western-style or Japanese-style rooms. The latter are more expensive – but it’s worth it for the full experience.
Remove your slippers and leave them just inside the door of your room. It’s likely that the floor will be covered with tatami mats. You can also expect paper interior walls (shoji or fusama), sliding doors, an en-suite bathroom and a low table with a beautiful tea set, a flask of hot water and sweets.
The alcove is called a tokonoma, decorated with a calligraphic hanging scroll or a painting, ceramics and seasonal flowers.
Every evening, while you’re at dinner, staff will come to lay out a futon, with crisp bedding and a soft pillow. They return the next morning to pack the futon away.
You’ll find a yukata neatly folded in your room. This is not simply a dressing gown – it’s a casual kimono set with a gown, a belt and an outer jacket. It’s normal to wear the yukata to dinner and to the communal baths.
When putting on a yukata, make sure you belt the cloth left side over right. The other way round symbolises death in Buddhism so may cause offence.
Some ryokans will also provide geta – wooden sandals that you can wear along with the yukata if you’re going outside.
You’ll have to get naked like everyone else. Once you’re over any initial awkwardness, it’s fine and no one will pay you any attention. Most baths are segregated for men and women.
But, to avoid embarrassment, know the onsen etiquette before you go in:
In more expensive ryokans, the evening meal will be kaiseki-ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) and will probably be served in your room.
Dinner starts in the early evening, at around 6–7pm. Course after course appears, served on gorgeous ceramics and lacquerware. Each dish is a work of art featuring seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, garnished with flowers and with a balance of tastes, textures and colours.
There may be a miso soup followed by a selection of boiled, simmered and grilled dishes. These could include nabemono hot pot (in which you cook small pieces of meat, fish or vegetables in the broth), delicate sushi, sashimi or mukouzuke (raw fish) – all washed down with warm sake. Rice is served last, signifying the end of the main meal.
Breakfast may be Japanese – including miso, egg, grilled fish, tofu and nori (dried seaweed) – but Western-style breakfasts are usually available too.
There are around 80,000 ryokans in Japan. The most historic is Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in central Japan, which was established in 705 AD. Many historic ryokans are also in Kyoto and Nara, the ancient capital cities.
There are hot spring resorts all over the country, too – from Beppu in the far southwest to Noboribetsu in the far northwest and everywhere in between.
In Tokyo and Kyoto, you can find budget ryokans, but these may not offer the typical experience. In Tokyo, most are in as Asakusa, while in Kyoto they are clustered around in the Higashiyama District.
A room with dinner and breakfast generally costs around 15,000–30,000 yen per person, per night. You can book via reservation websites, such as Japanican.com or Japanguesthouses.com.
For more information about ryokans, visit Japanguide.com or check The Rough Guide to Japan.
Top image © Prasertsak Charoen/Shutterstock