Enjoy the opportunity to experience unique and culturally rich accommodation by staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn!
With a history dating back to the 8th century, the ryokan is a true reflection of Japanese tradition and hospitality.
Unlike modern hotels, ryokans allow visitors to immerse themselves in traditional Japanese culture completely. From the traditional tatami rooms to the communal hot springs, they offer a glimpse into the heart of Japan.
In this guide, we’ll explore what a ryokan is and the best ways to enjoy your ryokan stay and make the most of your trip to Japan.
History of Ryokan
Ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn that has existed for centuries, since the Nara Period (710-784). During this time, people built free rest houses called “fuseya” to provide overnight accommodation for travelers. Gyoki, a high priest, established nine such places around Kyoto to help travelers who often died of starvation by the roadside.
During the Heian Period (794-1191), aristocrats and the imperial family undertook pilgrimages to religious sites, and they used private manors and temple buildings as lodging houses. These facilities in temple precincts are now known as “shukubo” and are open to the public.
The Kamakura Period (1192-1333) saw the emergence of the “kichin-yado,” a cheap inn that charged only for the wood used for cooking. Then, merchants began to travel more frequently with the development of highways and the money economy during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
To cater to them, “hatago” inns providing meals became established. The daimyo lords who traveled to or from Edo stayed at the “honjin” or “waki-honjin,” official lodgings designated for them. Their traveling attendants stayed at “hatago” inns.
These days, the typical Japanese ryokan corresponds to “hatago” inns, while deluxe ryokans correspond to “honjin” or “waki-honjin” lodgings.
During the Edo Period, strict regulations restricted free movement, but there were exceptions for religious pilgrimages and sightseeing at hot springs. That led to a travel boom, and as a result, many locals began to build ryokans.
With post-war Japan’s rapid economic growth in the latter half of the 1950s, Japanese people became more affluent and began to indulge in traveling more frequently. In line with this new trend, large ryokans were built one after the other at tourist sites and hot spring resorts.
In the era of mass transportation, people prefer to visit ryokans committed to improving quality and offering unique and attractive features.
Additionally, with globalization, ryokans – traditionally loved by Japanese people – are also gaining increasing popularity among visitors from overseas.
Hot Spring/Onsen Experience at a Ryokan
One of the best ways to enjoy the traditional ryokan experience is bathing in an onsen — a hot spring facility. Taking a bath is a vital aspect of Japanese culture and originated in the 6th century with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan.
Temples built bath halls and invited people to take free baths as an act of charity. These communal bathhouses where strangers bathed together took root, and the bathing style became deeply ingrained in the Japanese lifestyle. Today, many ryokans offer luxury hot springs features that provide a refreshing and traditional experience.
Some ryokans have shared hot spring facilities that are affordable and suitable for a family or low-budget trip. However, if you want privacy, opt for a Japanese ryokan with rooms equipped with a private bath.
When choosing a ryokan, remember that those located near famous hot spring resorts offer 100% natural hot springs, while those farther away tend to use ordinary tap water.
It’s a quintessential experience to use the large shared bath at a ryokan, which is considered a place to get rid of fatigue from one’s journey and daily stress. However, some traditional Japanese inns offer guestrooms with an attached bathroom for guests who feel reluctant to bathe in the presence of others. Some take it further, including a “rotenburo,” a private open-air bath attached.
Imagine the pleasure of hot spring water cascading over your shoulders! If it’s your first time in a ryokan, you should experience the joy of these “daiyokujo” baths. They offer different styles such as air bubble baths and saunas, “utaseyu,” “neyu,” and more.
Whether communal or hot springs, bathing in a ryokan may be more complex for tourists, enjoying a ryokan onsen requires following guidelines established for hundreds of years.
Ryokan Onsen and Bath Etiquette
Most large-scale ryokans offer communal baths partitioned into sections for men and women. You must follow these steps to avoid disturbing other bathers in closed baths.
- Firstly, rinse your body before entering the bathtub, as everyone shares the hot water.
- Next, immerse yourself in the bathtub to warm your body before soaping and rinsing off thoroughly outside the bathtub.
- Finally, re-immerse yourself in the bathtub and wipe your body with a small towel as needed.
Some rules to follow in the closed communal bath include:
- Don’t use soap in the bathtub or drain the large bath afterward.
- Don’t immerse yourselves wrapped in a towel.
- Don’t shave and wash in the bathtub.
- Don’t stand while washing yourself.
- Don’t put a towel with which you wash your body in the bathtub.
- Don’t swim or splash around.
- Avoid socializing with others.
The natural hot springs near onsen ryokans provide hot water for indoor and outdoor open-air baths. These baths offer relaxation and calming views of the tranquil gardens and the nighttime sky. In contrast to closed baths, they are also social spaces where you can meet new friends, trade gossip and jokes, and practice your Japanese language skills.
When visiting an onsen, just like with closed communal baths, you should enter the hot spring clean, as it’s intended solely for relaxation and leisure. Bringing a washcloth into the onsen is recommended to wipe your brow from the steam rising from the water.
During the onsen and communal experience, you and everyone else will be naked, and you will all be minding your own business. But you can keep covered until you hop in; some places provide “modesty” towels. If you dip into the bath with a towel strapped around, you are more likely to be noticed.
By following these etiquette practices, visitors can enjoy the Japanese bathing ritual and soak away the aches and pains of daily life.
What to Wear While Staying at a Ryokan?
Knowing what to wear is essential to make your stay more enjoyable and authentic. Beyond mere aesthetics, traditional Japanese clothing provides exceptional comfort. Although there is no strict dress code to follow, staff often offer guests the opportunity to wear Yukata and Geta for free during their stay.
Wearing a Yukata after a bath at a Ryokan is customary. The room maid will ensure that the yukata is the right size for you, and you can wear it around the ryokan for your stay.
A Yukata is a traditional Japanese garment often described as a casual cotton Kimono perfect for the hot summer weather. The yukata has a long and rich history in Japanese culture, dating back to the Heian period (794-1185).
Initially, the yukata served as a bathrobe, and it wasn’t until later that it became famous as a summer garment. Tailors first made Yukatas from indigo-dyed cotton, which they found affordable and easily accessible. Today, yukata is still made from cotton but comes in various colors and patterns.
Putting on a Yukata may initially seem daunting, but it’s easy.
- First, put your arms through the sleeves and ensure you wrap the left side over the right.
- Next, tie the obi sash around your waist, ensuring it’s not too tight or loose.
- Traditionally, people wear the bow of the obi sash at the back, but some modern designs allow you to tie it at the front.
Both men and women can wear yukata, and different styles and designs are available, with women’s yukata and obi often featuring brighter colors and more intricate patterns.
What Else Should You Wear With a Yukata?
The staff will typically provide the following:
- Tabi: Traditional Japanese socks featuring a split-toe design ideal for getas and available in various colors and materials.
- Geta: A classic form of wooden footwear originating in Japan. Its design is distinct and resembles a flip-flop.
- Tanzen: A padded kimono offered during the colder seasons, worn over the yukata.
- Haori: A short jacket for wearing over a kimono, tanzen, or yukata with oversized pockets allowing the sleeves to fit easily and your arms to move freely.
Ryokan Meals (Kaiseki)
Guests may choose a package plan that includes dinner and breakfast served in their room or the private dining room. The staff prepares Ryokan meals with local and seasonal ingredients.
The term “kaiseki” refers to the well-known traditional Japanese-style multi-course meals. These dinners usually consist of eighteen to thirteen courses with an impressive array of small dishes that are local specialties.
A kaiseki may include the following:
- Sashimi (choice cuts of raw fish or shellfish)
- Grilled fish
- Nabemono (boiled meat, vegetables, and fish)
- Tempura (vegetables and fish coated with an egg, water, and flour mixture and deep-fried)
- Pickled vegetable appetizers and side dishes
- Soybean paste soup
- And the staple: rice
The Ryokan staff usually brings courses fresh and at their best, just like you would eat at home, following the spirit of Japanese hospitality.
The courses typically go like this:
- Aperitif and hors d’oeuvres
- Raw fish
- Steamed rice with steamed glutinous rice-stuffed or layered steamed fish
- Assorted delicacies
- Broiled fish and meat
- The ryokan’s famed original dish
The meal also includes vegetables cooked with various ingredients, miso soup with soybeans, pickled vegetables, and in-season fruit.
Price and Accommodations
Ryokans generally offer various plans and deals to match everyone’s needs, depending on budgets and itineraries. While meals usually consist of set menus, the Ryokan staff may do their best to meet your dietary needs for religious or health reasons.
You can also request Western tableware if you are uncomfortable with chopsticks or disposable chopsticks, but we advise against it in the spirit of tradition.
Breakfast is a typical Japanese-style meal consisting of the following:
- Steamed rice
- Miso soup
- Grilled fish
- Fried eggs
- Japanese-style pickles
It is best to send in meal requests early when confirming your booking. And, if you want to explore the hidden eateries around the area on your own, booking a room without meals is recommended, as you’ll get charged upfront whether you eat or not.
Some Ryokans offer buffet-style or “Western-style” meals and different selections for breakfast, but dinner is typically between 6-7 p.m., and breakfast is between 7-8:30 a.m.
4 Best Ryokan Experiences Around Tokyo
Here are some of the finest ryokans in and around Tokyo, where you may indulge in the excellent combination of extraordinary service, therapeutic hot springs, and immersive cultural experiences.
1. Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu (Asakusa, Tokyo)
This establishment has a history of eight decades and offers guests nothing short of the necessities for a classic and cozy stay. Patrons can participate in a complimentary daily Japanese tea ceremony.
2. Onsen Ryokan Yuen (Shinjuku, Tokyo)
This tranquil ryokan offers hot springs, “ikebana” installations, and bamboo walkways for a peaceful stay. Its unique suite rooms have a luxury private open-air bath with incredible scenery. In addition, the lounge offers a traditional garden view.
3. Yutorelo-an (Hakone, Kanagawa)
About an hour from Tokyo by Shinkansen, this ryokan offers 100% natural hot springs and cultural workshops such as “ikebana” and calligraphy lessons. They serve traditional kaiseki meals and provide both Japanese and Western-style rooms.
4. The Edo Sakura (Ueno, Tokyo)
This modern-style ryokan, conveniently located in an entertainment district, offers Japanese-style breakfast and comfortable Tatami flooring. The sixth-floor Hinoki cypress bath offers a stunning view of the Sensoji-Temple and Tokyo Skytree.
Each ryokan has unique features, so consider your purpose, preferences, and budget to select the one that suits you best. With these options, tips, and knowledge, you can have an immersive and memorable local Japanese experience.
We recommend trying the local Japanese cuisine and wearing traditional attire at ryokans as it offers a great experience of Japanese culture and traditional meals.
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