What is a Japanese
Ryokan?

Ryokans are Japanese style inns found throughout the entire country. They are more than just a place to sleep however; they provide a unique cultural experience through their interesting architecture, amazing food and traditional Japanese hospitality. Ryokans tend to include traditional Japanese elements including tatami floors, Japanese style baths and futon beds.

Usually based close to hot springs, ryokans are family-run accommodation that provides an alternative to the modern hotels of Tokyo. Their proximity to geothermal springs has given them a reputation for being a place of relaxation and rejuvenation. They provide guests with the highest level of hospitality allowing you to just sit back and soak in the cultural experience while getting to know the true Japan.

A brief history of japanese Ryokans

Japanese Ryokan

Ryokan originally were places for nomadic samurai to rest their limbs and reflect. Originating in the eighth century the first ryokan, created in 705 A.D. is known as the world’s oldest hotel. They provided a place for travellers to rest, thought to have been the first places in Japan for travellers to stay overnight

The earliest ryokans are based on the Tokaido Highway which connected modern-day Tokyo to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. As this highway was incredibly busy with samurai and traders making the journey every day, ryokans were created to welcome these tired travellers.

Travellers used to have to sleep out under the stars and they often starved to death. Buddhist monks could no longer turn a blind eye and so set up the first ‘fuseya’, translating literally to ‘humble cottage’, with the aim of assisting these travellers.

The difference between Ryokans and hotels

Ryokans and hotels couldn’t be further apart. While hotels have a Western structure and interiors, a ryokan incorporates Japanese style rooms, architecture and furniture. A hotel will have a bed while ryokans have tatami rooms with futon beds. They are easily distinguishable from their looks and therefore hard to confuse.

One of the biggest differences between the two is their customer service style. In hotels services are mostly taken care of at the entrance and front desk of the building, meals are provided in a restaurant and staff tend not to enter guest rooms unless the guest is away. It’s unusual to speak to staff unless you need something, and they will try to stay out of your way as much as possible.

In contrast, at a Japanese ryokan staff visit guest’s rooms very frequently, serving tea and dinner in their rooms and even making the futon in front of guests. At ryokan chat between the staff and guests is very common and even encouraged. Staff tend to be more friendly and informal, striking up conversations often and much more present in the lives of guests during their stay.

Types of Ryokan

Japanese Ryokans

All Ryokan are different. They don’t operate like chain hotels and every one you visit will have its own different quirks. As they’re family-owned each will have its own special way of running and no two ryokans will be the same. Some of the more popular ryokan styles include:

Traditional Ryokan

These are traditional Japanese-style inns that owners take great pride in preserving the building’s traditional elements and history. They are often not as comfortable as a western hotel but provide guests with a unique cultural experience. The building is made of wood and there is usually a traditional Japanese garden.

Luxurious Ryokan

Very similar to a traditional ryokan however there are more creature comforts and modern conveniences. The guest rooms and baths are incredibly comfortable, and the building is made entirely of wood. These ryokans tend to be very expensive and are usually located in major tourist areas or close to popular hot springs.

Minshuku

A small, wooden, Japanese-style building that generally has relatively small rooms. Minshukus are often inexpensive and don’t have as many luxurious touches as a standard ryokan. Owners tend to make up for this with their friendly and personalised service.

Gassho-Zukuri

Traditional thatched gable roof houses primarily located in Shirakawago, Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama, Toyama Prefecture. The style of Japanese architecture means “praying hands” due to the shape of the roof and its steep design prevents snow from piling up.

How much does it cost to stay at a Ryokan?

Ryokans are typically more expensive than the average hotel and for this reason, they are regarded as a luxury stay rather than somewhere a traveller would stay in every night during their trip to Japan. The cost to stay in a ryokan is usually between 15,000 and 25,000 yen per person, per night. Although they are more expensive than an average hotel, it’s important to take into account their lavish meals and cultural experience that should not be missed.

Arriving at your Ryokan

It’s important to know that the check-in process is entirely different for a ryokan than for a hotel. As ryokans are family run and typically much small than a hotel the check-in formalities tend to be much quicker and simpler. When first entering the ryokan you’ll take your shoes off and exchange these for slippers. Then you’ll first be led to your room by the nakai-san who will be your personal room attendant. You’ll take your slippers off before entering the room and then they will show you to your robes which you can change into as soon as they leave the room.

Often, Japanese sweets are laid out on the table in the centre of the room to welcome you and your nakai-san may prepare you your first cup of green tea. Now just sit back and enjoy the traditional Japanese hospitality.

Ryokan etiquette

There are a number of rules that make staying at a ryokan different from a hotel. Following these rules will ensure that you don’t offend the owners and get the most out of your experience.

  • Outdoor shoes should never be worn inside a ryokan and should instead be exchanged for slippers. When taking off outdoor shoes make sure the toe faces out towards the door.
  • Anywhere there is tatami, slippers should be removed. Only bare feet and stockings should be worn on the tatami. There are also designated bathroom slippers which should only be worn in restrooms.
  • The sliding doors (fusuma) and screens (shoji) are made out of paper material and therefore are easy to damage or tear. Guests should make sure they use them with the utmost care.
  • When guests arrive and leave, they should avoid rolling their suitcases over the tatami mats as they can cause damage.
  • Many guest rooms will feature an area called a tokonoma which usually consists of Japanese artworks or vegetation. These are purely for decoration purposes and should not be tampered with.

What should I wear?

In a ryokan, guests will be provided with a yukata which translates literally to “bathing clothes”. A yukata is like a kimono but much lighter, casual and made of cotton. This comfortable robe can be worn in the room, around the ryokan, or when you take a short walk near the ryokan or hot springs. When guests check-in, they will be immediately shown to their yukata set which consists of a yukata, an obi belt, a yukata jacket and occasionally socks.

During colder months guests will be given a chabaori which is a warmer outer robe traditionally worn by Buddhist mons to shield you from the chillier weather.

Inside a traditional Ryokan guest room

Ryokan rooms vary greatly depending on the type of ryokan, price and size. Typical rooms are designed for two to four people. There is always tatami flooring made of soft woven straw with a low-level table to the centre of the room. There is often an adjacent sitting room separated from the main room by sliding doors.

Japanese beds consist of a futon, a Japanese mattress which is laid directly on the tatami floor. The futon will not be laid out when you enter the room but will be kept in storage closets during the day. When evening comes around ryokan staff will set up the futon for you and put it away again in the morning to optimise the size of your guest room during the day.

Many ryokans feature on-suite rooms which are usually equipped with a sink, bathroom and western-style toilet. However, older or more budget-friendly options may only provide shared toilets in common areas outside of the room. Ryokans also typically have a television, mini-fridge and safe in each room including all necessary amenities such as tea and towels.

Bathing at Ryokans: Onsen

Many ryokans are based next to hot springs also known as onsen. This can be a public bath in a town or city or a private bathing area in a hotel or inn. The main difference between an onsen from an ordinary bath is that it is fed by a natural hot spring, even if the bath is artificial. Traditionally, onsens were located outdoors, however many inns have now built indoor bathing options.

There is special etiquette for using an onsen. Guests should always shower before entering an onsen and ensure there is no soap residue that could get in the water of the onsen.

Japanese onsens require nude bathing. This can be unnerving for some travellers but once you realise everyone is doing it, you’ll feel much more comfortable. Most onsens have a separate bathing area for men and women, but some are mixed.

Onsens are for soaking, not for swimming so guests should try very hard not to splash or move around too quickly. If you bring a towel with you into the onsen ensure it doesn’t touch the water – this is considered incredibly rude.

Food and dining at Ryokans

Japanese Meal

One thing that ryokans have that blows hotels out of the water is their meals. Along with the hot springs, the meals in a ryokan are a traditional Japanese affair and are a definite highlight of the stay. Ryokan meals are elaborate with many courses and a range of dishes and ingredients that reflect local cuisine and seasonal specialities. This is called Washoku and is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

A ryokan dinner will not have a set menu and instead, guests will be met with a banquet of beautifully presented dishes. These meals tend to include a dozen or so tiny dishes of locally sourced ingredients. Dinner is large and it’s not uncommon to be overwhelmed by the amount of food.

Dinner at a ryokan tends to start at 6 pm and guests either dine in their own guest room or in a separate private dining room. Cotton kimono robes known as yukata are usually worn by guests during dinner and are provided. Although the meal is included in the price of the ryokan stay, alcohol Is not and must be ordered separately. Two meals are included with your ryokan stay, dinner and breakfast.

Summary

Think you’re ready to stay in a traditional ryokan? It’s considered one of the must-do activities when travelling to Japan and for good reason. The experience gives you a unique insight into the culture of the country and a sneak peek at the history surrounding Japanese inns. Leaving a ryokan will leave you educated and cultured with a newfound respect for Japanese hospitality.

Staying at a traditional ryokan is a unique cultural experience that every traveller should try. With a range of budget-friendly options and all kinds of different types, there’s no excuse not to delve into a piece of Japanese history and try local cuisine before bathing in an onsen.

Why not take a look at the best time to visit Japan where you could stay in a traditional ryokan.

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