The best trips to Japan include at least a one-night stay in a ryokan — a traditional japanese inn that captures the customs and charms of old Japan.
A ryokan offers such a quintessentially Japanese experience that it’s worth going out of your way to find it. Luckily, you won’t have to look hard to find a ryokan in Japan because they’re an integral part of Japanese culture.
But staying in an accommodation with sliding paper doors, rollout futon and communal mineral baths might be alien concepts to many of us, so here are some notes on what to expect, look for and savor at a ryokan.
A bit of Ryokan History
The first ryokan are thought to have originated during the Nara Period (710–784), but they took quite a different form than they do today.
They were simple shelters established by monks where travelers could rest. During these ancient times, traveling was a major—and often dangerous—endeavor, and these free shelters were welcome sights for those who had long distances to go.
In the centuries that followed, religious pilgrimages became very popular in Japan, and accommodations were made for pilgrims to stay near temples. These were called shukubo and still exist today.
As travel culture grew, journeying to hot springs to partake in mineral baths for health became common, and hot spring resorts came into being.
Finally, the proliferation of railroads in Japan offered people a faster way to travel than on foot. Ryokans began to spread along rail lines, and they began to offer more amenities, such as meals, a clean change of clothes to to relax in, and charming hospitality.
The Ryokan Experience
A stay at a ryokan is a great way to experience the traditional Japanese way of life.
Ryokan innkeepers take pride in preserving Japan’s old-world charm, even in such ultra-modern urban hubs like Tokyo.
Many ryokan are set in quaint buildings in picturesque areas or historic neighborhoods.
What’s included in a Ryokan stay?
At a ryokan, you’ll be treated to more than just a night in a private, comfortable room.
You’ll also typically get a delicious Japanese-style set-menu dinner, breakfast, slippers and a yukata for your stay.
You’ll get access to the ryokan’s gardens and amenities, such as the onsen and saunas.
Most ryokan provide guests with slippers and a yukata, a lightweight cotton kimono, which is a wonderfully comfortable garment to relax in before and after a dip in the onsen, or hot spring bath.
The Ryokan House
Although some ryokan with Western-style rooms and decorations exist, the majority tend to be decorated with a quintessentially Japanese aesthetic.
They feature many unique Japanese architectural details, such as sliding paper doors, called shoji, and the fragrant straw-mat flooring called tatami.
Your room will have a traditional Japanese futon, which is fluffy bedding that is folded out on the floor.
Many ryokan rooms offer lovely little garden views, offering glimpses of Japanese stone lanterns and bamboo fountains.
Onsen and Ofuro
The highlight of a ryokan for many is the onsen, or hot spring mineral bath with therapeutic qualities. Japanese travelers love to soak in these healing waters for their health benefits.
While typical ryokan have public onsen that separate the sexes, more luxurious traditional japanese guesthouses may offer your own private onsen.
Another amenity you might find a ryokan advertising is an ofuro. Similar to an onsen, an ofuro is a large, deep public bath, but it is filled with normal hot water, not mineral water.
Although it may not have the same health benefits as onsen, taking a dip in an ofuro is still a very relaxing experience.
Where are the Best Ryokans in Japan?
In Tokyo, you’ll find many ryokan clustered in Asakusa, the historical “Old Quarters” that served as the city’s geisha district in days past.
Asakusa retains an old-world charm, its narrow streets lined with traditional houses and shops. The streets here feel leafier and the vibe slower paced than the rest of Tokyo.
Although Kyoto could quite possibly be the mecca of traditional Japanese inns with unique, historical accommodations in nearly every corner of the city, two lovely districts for a quintessential ryokan experience are Gion and Arashiyama.
Centrally located Gion was the pleasure quarters of the ancient capital, and that spirit of history and hospitality are still alive in Gion today.
If you don’t mind staying farther afield from Kyoto’s main attractions, Arashiyama is perhaps Kyoto’s most atmospheric, poetic district, surrounded by beautiful forests and located at the foot of a hill.
This famous onsen town is a historical and perennial favorite among Japanese travelers. The small, old-fashioned town is home to seven of the most beautiful hot springs in Japan and is full of different ryokan offering various amenities, settings and experiences.
We offer a relaxing, one-night retreat to Kinosaki Onsen on our Soothing Hot Springs tour.
The famous region of Hakone, home to Mt. Fuji, is a-bubble with volcanic activity, creating an absolute haven for hot springs. With stunning natural settings and old-world charm, Hakone offers great ryokan experiences.
Specifically, we recommend Gora Kadan, Hakone Ginyu and Yama no Chaya—all extremely atmospheric ryokan that are 4-star or better!
A night at the famous Hakone Ginyu is included in several of our Japan tours, such as our Discover Japan in Luxury tour.
When you think of the iconic Japanese onsen, an image of rosy-cheeked macaques sitting in a steaming hot spring in the snow might come to mind.
Well, this image comes from Nagano Prefecture, a region famed for its mountains, natural hot springs and ryokan culture.
For a truly iconic, onsen-in-nature experience, head to Nagano in winter, where we recommend staying at Shibu Onsen, Biyu no Yado, or Kokuya, all world-class ryokan in lovely natural settings.
Or, head to Nozawa Onsen Village, a remote town of quaint ryokan surrounded by mountains.
This picturesque island in Hiroshima Bay is named for the multitude of shrines, or miya in Japanese, that have been erected here over the centuries.
It’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its history and beauty, and you can expect such a place to also be home to elegant ryokan, such as Iwaso and Kurayado Iroha.
For mountain lovers and those who fancy a step back in time to historical Japan, we recommend a ryokan stay in the craggy slopes of the Japanese Alps.
We love staying at Takayama Onsen, a ryokan located in an traditional town of wooden houses. You’ll be treated to a stay at this mountain retreat on our Kaiseki to Onsen tour.
Some unique ryokan to experience once in your life
Hakone Ginyu ryokan, Fuji Hakone Izu National Park
Why we like it?
Located in the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, this luxury ryokan is located on the side of a mountain providing stunning views of the surrounding mountains and gorge.
Some rooms offer onsen on a private terrace, which are lovely for dips in the moonlight!
Kuroyado Iroha ryokan, Miyajima
Why we like it?
The stylish rooms at Kurayado Iroha feature tatami-mat flooring and private bathrooms.
The top-floor indoor and outdoor public baths overlook the Setonaikai Sea and offers stunning views of the famous Otorii Shrine Gate, which rises from the ocean.
Hidatei Hanaougi ryokan, Takayama
Why we like it?
This lovely ryokan offers large indoor and outdoor hot-spring onsen and a very traditional stay. Some rooms feature a private onsen set in Japanese-style gardens, and the food is excellent!
Think multi-course kaiseki meals with local ingredients, such as top-quality Hida beef. This ryokan also offers Western beds for those of us who prefer it to futon.
How much are ryokans?
When you’re planning a stay at a ryokan, it’s important to know that prices are charged by the person, not by the room.
Prices vary widely depending on the size of the Japanes guesthouse, its amenities, its location and the time of year in which you’re traveling.
This means you can pay anywhere between 7,000 (US$70) and 110,000 yen (US$1,000) per person!
With so many ryokan options out there and such differences in price, it can be time-consuming to find the perfect ryokan for you.
Many of our Japan tours, such as our Authentic Japan tour, include ryokan stays as part of the package and include all costs, ensuring that you get this unique opportunity without the hassle of arranging the details yourself.
Other types of traditional Japanese accommodations
Of course, Japan is endlessly fascinating, with many other types of traditional accommodations to soak in the local vibes and enjoy life as the Japanese did centuries ago.
Here are a few more ideas.
You can think of a minshuku as a “ryokan for the people.” With the same historical ambiance as a ryokan, the minshuku offers less luxurious amenities, has a more casual vibe and is often a less costly option.
These accommodations are lovely for mingling with other travelers, much like a bed and breakfast, while still enjoying quintessentially Japanese elements, such as the onsen, yukata, tatami and futon.
As mentioned briefly above, the shukubo is a “temple lodging.”
These are wonderfully atmospheric accommodations located on temple grounds, allowing you to feel the peace and calm of Japanese Buddhism.
You’ll get the unique opportunity to see temple activities at night and to eat traditional Buddhist food, known as shojin ryori.
If this sounds intriguing to you, try our short, 2-day stay at a shukubu on our Mt. Koya tour, at the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism.
This historical type of farm house is unique to Gokayama and Shirakawa-go, neighboring regions in the snow-heavy Japanese Alps.
These fascinating houses have steep roofs that resemble hands in prayer and have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
You can spend the night in a gassho-zukuri house to see what traditional Japanese farm life was like in these snowy altitudes.
Our final words about Ryokans
If you’re going to travel all the way to Japan, make sure you take the opportunity to have your own ryokan experience! It really is one of the must-do things in Japan.
Those of you who have stayed in a ryokan, wouldn’t you agree? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below.