Ryokan, or Japanese-style inns, are what you might imagine when you think of “traditional” Japan. Typically they feature some of the trappings of old Japanese structures, like tatami-floored rooms, and are usually found near hot springs, or onsen. They’re more than just hotels—ryokan offer a unique chance to experience an elaborate dinner and breakfast featuring seasonal, local cuisine, as well as the opportunity to indulge in a luxurious piping hot bath, sleep on a futon, and even wear a yukata (a light cotton kimono).
Since the 8th century, Japanese people have been staying at these inns, which are characterized by a passion for warm hospitality (omotenashi). The oldest of these—the oldest hotel in the world, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan—was established in 705 C.E. Many of the earliest inns were strategically situated along the Takaido route, an ancient road that connected Kyoto and Tokyo.
While ryokan might seem intimidating at first, they’re pretty easy to navigate if you know the rules in advance.
Booking Your Stay
There are many different types of ryokan, but they tend to cost a bit more than an average hotel room—between 15,000 and 25,000 yen (between $140-230) per person. Thus, ryokan are not really a good place to stay every night of your trip to Japan, but they’re a solid option to splurge on for one or two nights. Reservations can typically be made online, although sometimes older inns will request that reservations be made via phone call. The big booking sites (Booking.com, Hotels.com, and the like) have put together endless top 10 lists of recommended ryokan that are definitely English-friendly and easy to reserve, and there are also plenty of hidden gems out there that the most avid tourists have yet to explore, that may require you brushing up on a few easy phrases of Japanese.
Like a typical hotel, check-in is typically from 3 p.m. onwards, with dinner service around 6 p.m. or so. Avoid getting there before check-in time, as usually you will not be allowed into your room. Late arrivals are also highly discouraged, as ryokan are strict when it comes to time in general, although some are more accommodating than others. The schedule is there to make sure that all guests are served fresh meals and that everyone can enjoy the baths and amenities freely.
Most ryokan require that you take off your shoes at the door. Check-in usually occurs at a lobby and lounge area, where oftentimes there’s a small gift shop with local snacks and souvenirs. As in other hotels in Japan, you’ll be asked to show your passport for photocopying. After the paperwork, the staff will explain the grounds and facilities. At this time you’ll learn about where to find the communal baths (and their opening times) and where you’ll take your meals in the evening and the following morning.
Upon entering your room you’ll see your yukata, a pair of slippers, a small towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small wrapped sweet (usually a local delicacy), some tea, and perhaps some informational materials on the area and the ryokan itself. What you won’t see is your bed. Don’t worry, it will appear later; staff typically lay out the mattresses and covers while you’re enjoying dinner or blissfully relaxing in the public baths. There will often be a small table and a space to put your suitcase or hang your clothing.
Make sure to take in the art or hanging scroll displayed in the alcove, or tokonoma. Try not to expect widescreen TVs or hi-speed internet—while newer ryokan most definitely have these things, the older ones are content to keep things simple and WiFi-free.
Probably the most rewarding part of staying at a ryokan is the chance to soak in the communal baths. Oftentimes the water is pumped in from local hot springs. Certain hot springs are said to have healing or beautifying abilities; ask the staff at the ryokan if you’d like to learn some local lore. If you’re a little unsure how to properly prepare for and use the communal baths, it’s best to read up on onsen etiquette before making the rookie mistake of wearing a bathing suit in the water.
Ryokan baths are usually gender-segregated. When you leave your room, take with you your towels, yukata, and any other toiletries you think you may need. The changing area usually has lockers or baskets where you can store your clothes and belongings. Remember that you must shower before you enter the baths themselves. Wash your body thoroughly, making sure to rinse off any soap—then you’re ready for your soak!
If you’re feeling shy about sharing a bath with other people, there are several ryokan in Japan with private facilities, but unfortunately, these tend to be both smaller and pricier.
Depending on the opening hours of the bath, guests typically take a bath before or after dinner. It’s not uncommon (and perhaps encouraged) to bathe two or three times during your stay.
Ryokan nearly always serve kaiseki, or “Japanese haute cuisine,” a traditional multi-course meal of small plates and delicate dishes. The meals are artfully arranged to showcase the natural beauty of the ingredients, which always reflect the current season in some way. Sometimes dinner will be served in your room; other times you’ll eat in a private dining room or shared dining room. Regardless of the location, expect to sit on tatami mats and dine on low tables.
Experiencing the true art of kaiseki is probably one of the most special aspects of staying at a ryokan. While dinner and breakfast are included in the cost of your stay, beer or sake usually cost extra. Feel free to wear your yukata to dinner!
Breakfast will be Japanese-style as well, which will also consist of many small dishes. Expect rice, miso soup, pickles, grilled fish, tea, small vegetables, and natto—sticky, fermented soybeans that tend to be an acquired taste for most people.
Check out time is typically around 10 or 11 a.m., at the same place where you checked in. This is when the staff will hand you your bill for the duration of your stay. Keep in mind that Japan is still very much a cash society; while more and more ryokan accept credit cards, many smaller inns do not. As you depart, remember to leave your slippers in the lobby. Rest assured, tipping is not required.
If you’re staying in Tokyo, it might be worth venturing out to stay at one of the splendid ryokan in Hakone, a town renowned for its unparalleled views of Mt. Fuji. In Kyoto, we recommend Gion Shinmonsho, which hosts a geisha beer garden on its rooftop in the summer months.