Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns with a communal bath fed by underground hot springs. There are nearly 60,000 nationwide, most located outside big cities and family-run. The best ryokans provide a serene and soothing setting for couples and a touch of luxury.
Understated quarters normally feature an area for eating and relaxing with a low table that has two legless chairs topped by pillows. In the separate sleeping area, the bed is a futon, brought onto the floor each night before bedtime. Floors are covered with tatami (straw) mats, and shoji (rice-paper) screens divide the sleeping and living sections.
Removing your street clothes and shoes helps to signify the transition between the harried world and the serenity of a ryokan. You'll each be provided with a lightweight yukata, which is a belted cotton robe to wear in the room, to the bath, and throughout the property. You'll also receive a pair of sandals in exchange for your shoes.
At most ryokans, the communal baths for men and women are separate. While Japanese people find them therapeutic, they may feel too warm to you. It's advisable (and more fun) to choose a ryokan with a private rotenburo (open-air bath) attached to your room. There you can adjust the temperature and splash to your heart's content.
Most ryokans include an evening meal on the day of your arrival and breakfast the following day. If offered, opt for a kaiseki dinner. This consists of artfully presented (and delicious) courses of fish and vegetable dishes complemented by fine saké and plum wine. Note: Don't be offended when the male in your party is served first; it's Japanese tradition.
Kai Sengokuhara is a hot spring ryokan located near Hakone in a natural setting up in the mountains. Both gallery and atelier, the ryokan is adorned with artwork by resident artists, and it offers activities in which artists and staff inspire guests to explore their own creativity.
The ryokan has two indoor baths, one hot and one just above body temperature, as well as an outdoor bath with a view of the lush surrounding forests and garden. Afterwards, chill in the lounge or opt for a massage likely to turn you into a puddle of relaxation.
The ryokan's own brand of mattresses provides support while being soft enough to sink into. Best of all, guest rooms feature a private onsen with nature views.
Stewarded by the Asaba family since 1675 and still family-owned, Asaba is a classic and beautiful ryokan that is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group.
Two hours from Tokyo, it is the most luxurious hot-springs inn in the town of Shizuoka on the Izu peninsula. Asaba is as soothing to the eye as it is to the spirit. It's edged by a fish pond with a waterfall and backed by a bamboo forest; most rooms overlook this view. The ryokan also has a traditional Noh stage, where productions are periodically mounted.
Despite its age, the interior of Asaba is so light and pristine that it is hard to believe it is even 30 years old, let alone more than 300.
There are separate hours for men and women to soak in the onsen. It's tradition for bathers to enter the water nude after washing beforehand. Asaba also has a private one that you can rent and use together.
Three hours south of Tokyo, Gora Kadan (also a member of Relais & Chateaux) opened in 1989 and stands on grounds once occupied by a member of the Japanese Imperial family. It has been recognized as one of the top five hotels in all of Asia.
The inn's modern Japanese architecture, which features long open corridors built with wood, concrete, and cool tile, frames views of green hills as if they were art. Everywhere there is balance, harmony, order, and beauty.
Upon your arrival, your housekeeper will come out to meet you, carry your bags, acquaint you with the room (and keep it tidy), care for your basic needs until departure, and serve your meals, bowing humbly each time he enters or exits from your presence.
Japan's first ryokan to offer private, open-air baths, Gora Kadan contains 37 spacious guest rooms. These wooden tubs are ideal for couples who aren't accustomed to hot baths and hotter onsen springs.
Located far north in the "rooftop of Japan" (a.k.a. the Japanese Alps), Nagano is home to some 200 onsen, some of which are occupied by the famed snow monkeys. (Unless you fall in, you won't be bathing along with any of them!) The prefecture was the location of the 1998 Winter Olympics games.
Myojinkan ryokan boasts comfortable (Western-style) beds and even an upholstered settee in certain rooms. It is likely to appeal most to couples who would enjoy a variety of onsen experiences including bathing outdoors in co-ed hot springs.
The property is located half an hour outside of Matsumoto City, which has several don't-miss sites. Among them are the graceful and towering 400-year-old Matsumoto Castle, designated a National Treasure; Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, which holds the world's largest collection of woodblock prints; and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which features work by hometown artist Yayoi Kusama, world renowned for her dizzying paintings, sculptures, and infinity-mirror installations.
An hour and a half by train from Osaka and two hours from Kyoto, Ryokan Kurashiki is located in the center of a 300-year-old, beautifully preserved historic district that incorporates museums, galleries, tea rooms, and restaurants.
The ryokan contains just five spacious and airy units, which are restricted to guests over the age of twelve. Kaiseki meals are served in a private dining room that has the best views of town.