If you want a well priced slice of traditional Japan you can’t go past the ryokan or traditional Japanese Inn. These traditionalinns were popularised in the Edo period and survive today as a uniquely Japanese slice of tourism. A ryokan is laid out in the traditional Japanese style with a formal entry way and often a common area with couches, tables or more commonly in today’s ryokans a computer desk with free internet access.
Guest rooms are usually furnished in the traditional style with a tatami room that functions as a living/dining room and bedroom. Ryokan staff will generally change out the bedding while you eat breakfast for a floor level table and seats. Generally baths are of the traditional family style – large shared pool sized baths not attached to the guest room and requiring a timed alotment by the Mistress of the house. Many modern ryokan will have private toilets and sometimes bathrooms attached to the guest room but this is not standard and you should check on the layout of your ryokan before booking accomodation. Additionally most ryokan do not have a restaurant and will generally order food from a local eatery to be served at breakfast (and dinner on request).
This leads to some unique and charming behaviour that I find charming but may deter some travellers. Many ryokan will allocate you a parlour maid that may change out your bedding and furniture and serve you meals and the timing may seem a little strict to some people. Usually rooms are charged per head rather than per room, this can make some ryokan stays exceptionally well priced and others seem steep depending on the size of your party and your room. I have found that travelling as a lone female with a group of men I have tended to be given a large elegant room to myself by the host.
The expectation is that ryokan act as a bed and breakfast and so they expect you to rise for an early meal, this will generally be the time they change your linen and put away your futon. Many ryokan have curfews where they lock the outside doors, though many will also offer an after hours service. Also they will generally clean your room while you are out sight seeing during the day. This means if you aren’t home soon after dinner, intend to sleep in or wish to stay in your room during the day you should tell the staff. Usually ryokan managers are gracious and accommodating and will make arrangements for this (such as if you intend to have a rowdy night out, or are ill and wish to sleep in) but they can become irritated if you alter their regimented schedule without due warning.
Particularly if you are in an onsen ryokan I would advise booking a dinner with at least one night of a stay in such an establishment. Many coursed elegant and seasonal kaiseki cuisine served to you in your own private tatami room is an exquisite luxury that is very affordable in many ryokan. For extra fun most ryokan will offer you yukata – light cotton Summer kimonos for wear around the inn particularly after bathing. A long hot bath and a beautiful Japanese dinner in customised hotel kimono is a treat unique for your holiday in Japan!
Types of ryokan:
- Traditional ryokan – A traditional Japanese inn often preserved since its inception, the Japanese style buildings may not contain all the modern conveniences you expect like internet or private bathrooms but they will transport you to another time.
- Modern ryokan – A modern ryokan will often look like a squat concrete square building but will often surprise you with its elegant Japanese interiors
- Ryokan hotel – This may look like a normal hotel from the outside and the lobby and be complete with vending machines or a karaoke room but the guest quarters will be traditional Japanese rooms and baths
- Minshuku – More like a Western bed and breakfast minshuku tend to focus on homeliness and are more common in smaller towns. Expect family style food rather than kaiseki, may be prefered for longer stays.
- Shukubo – Buddhist temple stays, for the ultimate in depth experience of Japanese culture you may wish to stay in a temple however note that these are working temples and you will be expected to keep the life of one of the monks including prayer, chores and food restrictions.
Like bed and breakfasts in the West Ryokan are as variable as you want them to be from budget no frills (no food, no private bath!) to sumptuous elegant mansions tittering with staff and dripping in history. I like to choose ryokan with a bit of quirk – a mad hostess who presses stories, sweets and cats on you is exactly what I’m after but you may be different. Read reviews and decide for yourself.
Things to remember and enquire about before booking
- Most ryokan do not have credit facilities please bring cash
- Your room is likely to be paid per person and not per room
- Your room should be booked according to the guidance of how many people can comfortably fit in it
- Your ryokan may require you to leave your room during the day
- Your ryokan may have a curfew enquire before going out for the evening
- Meals should be booked when you check in, breakfast is likely included in your room
- You may not have a TV or internet in your room
- You may have to book time for or pay for a private bath session, otherwise bathing may be communal
- Yukata are not to be worn outside of the hotel
- Shoes should not be worn on the tatami mats
Reviewing and Booking Ryokan
I heavily use the Japanese Guest Houses service and I think they’re great but they don’t have the cheapest options if you want something truly budget you may wish to shop around. They’re great for booking onsen ryokan and a guide to onsen towns also.