Traditional Japanese Accommodation: Ryokan

Photo of old Japanese street. Windows overhanging a walkway.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to stay in a centuries-old traditional Japanese inn?

To step back in time and experience all the wonder and pleasures of traditional Japanese culture, cuisine, architecture, interior furnishings and hospitality in an authentic Japanese inn?

More and more visitors to Japan are discovering the wonderful experiences of staying at a real Japanese ryokan (Japanese inn), and indeed remembering their stay at a traditional ryokan as one of the highlights of their trip to Japan.

We talk you through all you need to know about traditional Japanese inns.

Ryokan food.
Food in a Japanese ryokan is often excellent and usually plentiful
Ryokan room.
A typical tatami-mat floored room in a Japanese ryokan

What is a ryokan?

A ryokan is an old-fashion Japanese-style inn. Ryokans have been apart of Japanese culture for centuries. Some of the earliest ryokans were (and still are) located on the Tokaido Highway which connected the capital city of Tokyo and the imperial palace in Kyoto. Traffic was busy as samurai, traders, and others made their way between the two most popular destinations in the country. Ryokans were set up to welcome these weary travelers who needed to rest before continuing on their long and arduous journey. Some ryokans were very simple and offered extra rooms in their houses for travelers. Others were more elaborate and the owners worked hard to make their guests feel as welcome as possible.

What is it like to stay at a ryokan?

Photo of entrance to a Ryokan.

The entrance to a ryokan is recognizable by a small wooden sign and a split curtain in front of the entrance. Both the pathway to the ryokan and the stone or concrete landing inside the door are sometimes sprinkled with water as a sign of welcome.

Unlike a hotel, a typical ryokan contains old fashion Japanese-style rooms and large baths for the guests. The typical room in a ryokan has tatami (straw)-mat flooring, wooden walls, an alcove, sliding paper doors, a sitting room, low tables, sitting cushions, and futon bedding. At some of the high class ryokans, the rooms are absolutely beautiful. The simple and elegant designs and decorations are truly works of art. In such rooms, guests are given the chance to experience Japan in a different historical time and place.

At most ryokans, a Japanese-style dinner and breakfast is included in your stay. Ryokans take tremendous pride in serving their guests the best of the local cuisine in the area. In Gifu Prefecture, for example, expect a meal of Hida beef, river trout, and freshly-picked mountain vegetables. Along the seacoast, guests will invariably dine on freshly-caught fish and other seafood delights.

Photo of Ryokan bathroom. View is of trees and mountains.

While the rooms may have shower or tub and a bathroom, in the hot spring areas the big attraction is the communal bathing area. Hot spring water is usually piped into the bath, and the baths are sometimes located outdoors as well as indoors. Many ryokans try to make the bath as natural as possible - that is, either out of natural rock or wood. If the bath is indoors, there is sometimes a view the bathers can gaze upon such as a river, a ravine or a distant mountain range.

In the winter it is so much fun to relax in a steaming, hot outdoor bath while watching the snow fall all around you. At some outdoor baths guests can drink hot sake in cups which rest on small wooden boards floating on the water.

Ryokans are situated all over Japan. Some ryokans are located on the beach and offer a magnificent view of the sunrise and sunset. The baths are open all day and night so guests can slip in anytime and watch the sun rise and set over the ocean. Other ryokans are near lakes and mountains, and offer a view of the water or the distant peaks from their rooms and baths. In Shizuoka and Kanagawa prefectures, for example, ryokans offer spectacular views of Mount Fuji in the distance.

Photo of Ryokan room. Tatami mats and low tables.

Travelers who are visiting Japan should not miss the unique experience of staying at a Japanese ryokan. It is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the many facets of Japanese culture, and it will certainly provide some precious memories of your visit to this fascinating country.

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