It’s a cliche to suggest that Japan is a place of opposites, but it truly is in terms of housing. There are some strange and fascinating places to stay, ranging from personal capsules and love hotels to five-star grandeur.
But there is one sort of lodging that has been around for centuries: the ryokan. The ultimate Japanese experience is staying at one of these Japanese-style guesthouses.
Even if you’ve never heard of a ryokan, it’s possible that they appear familiar. Consider old Japan: low, wooden structures with translucent paper screens, sliding doors, straw tatami mats, bamboo, geisha pouring tea, and neatly planned gardens, possibly with a tiny pond stocked with carp and a wooden bridge. When you enter inside, you take a few centuries back in time and everything slows down. It’s a welcome break from the frantic world outside.
Many Ryokans are built next to natural hot springs among Japan’s many volcanoes. As a result, taking a community bath in the hot springs (onsen) has become a ryokan custom.
Ryokans were founded as coaching inns during the Edo era (1603–1868), when feudal lords from all across Japan were required to visit the shogun in Edo (Tokyo) every other year. These were rest stops for the lords and their samurai soldiers after a hard day on the road.
The guests of honour would spend their evenings bathing, partaking in a tea ceremony, and feasting on an extravagant supper that lasted all evening, accompanied by numerous rounds of sake. The ryokan was a haven for warriors, where they might feel secure from enemy attacks. They were frequently constructed with simple defences in mind, such as steep, narrow staircases, low doors, and ceilings that made swinging a sword difficult.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn featuring tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors can wear yukata and converse with the proprietor. Ryokan have been around since the eighth century A.D. during the Keiun era, when the world’s oldest hotel, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, was built in 705 A.D. Another historic ryokan, Hoshi Ryokan, was established in 718 A.D. and was recognized as the world’s second-oldest hotel. These inns also catered to tourists on Japan’s roads.
Traditional ryokan is more usually found in picturesque rural settings, and many have been renovated to their original design in recent years, notably by resort operators Hoshino Resorts, whose first ryokan opened in Karuizawa in 1914.
A conventional ryokan features a big entry hall with sofas and chairs where visitors may lounge and speak; a contemporary ryokan may also include a television in the hall. The guest rooms are built utilising traditional Japanese ways, such as tatami mats and sliding doors. Even though the inn has hinged doors for security, it normally opens into a tiny entranceway where visitors may remove their shoes before entering the tatami floor, which is divided by a sliding door.
Many ryokan rooms also include a porch or balcony, which is separated by a sliding door. Almost all ryokan include common bathing rooms or ofuro, which are normally divided by gender and use water from a local hot spring (onsen). Private bathing facilities may be available in a high-end ryokan. Typically, ryokan gives guests yukata to wear; they may also include games like table tennis and maybe get that tourists can rent for walks outside.
The futon is laid out on the tatami floor as bedding. When visitors first enter their accommodation, they normally discover a table with tea-making materials. When visitors eat in their rooms, the table is also utilised for meals. While the guests are gone, the workers (generally referred to as nakai) will move the table aside and lay down the futon.
What makes a stay in a Ryokan more luxurious
Today, this type of lodging exists in a variety of types, ranging from ancient and luxurious to family-run minshuku and more modern hotels with ryokan elements.
Everything centres on making the guest feel at ease, from the artwork on the walls to the lack of clutter. Don’t plan an evening out since you’ll want to fully immerse yourself in the ryokan experience.
When you arrive, wait to be invited in. Before entering, you must remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Please leave your shoes in the genkan (foyer).
Most ryokans have either Western-style or Japanese-style rooms. The latter are more pricey – but the complete experience is worth it.
Remove your slippers and place them just inside your room’s door. The floor will most likely be covered with tatami mats. Paper interior walls (shoji or fusama), sliding doors, an en-suite bathroom, a low table with a gorgeous tea set, a flask of hot water, and sweets are all included.
A tokonoma is an alcove that is adorned with a calligraphic hanging scroll or a picture, pottery, and seasonal flowers.
Every evening, while you’re eating, employees will arrive to set up a futon with fresh linen and a nice cushion. They return the next morning to load the futon.
In your room, you’ll find a yukata nicely folded. This isn’t just a dressing-gown; it’s a casual kimono set that includes a gown, a belt, and an outer jacket. It is customary to wear the yukata to supper and community baths.
When putting on a yukata, be careful to belt the fabric from left to right. The opposite way around represents death in Buddhism and may be offensive.
If you’re going outside, some ryokans will also give geta – wooden sandals that you may wear with your yukata.
Evening meals at more costly ryokans will be kaiseki-ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) and will most likely be served in your room.
Dinner is served in the early evening, about 6–7 p.m. Dish after course is served on exquisite ceramics and lacquerware. Each meal is a piece of beauty that features seasonal, locally sourced foods, flowers, and a balance of flavours, textures, and colours.
A miso soup may be served first, followed by a range of boiled, simmered, and grilled foods. These may include nabemono hot pot (in which little bits of meat, fish, or vegetables are cooked in broth), delicate sushi, sashimi, or mukouzuke (raw fish), all washed down with warm sake. Rice is served last to signal the end of the main course.
Breakfast may include Japanese (miso, egg, grilled salmon, tofu, nori (dried seaweed), but Western-style breakfasts are generally served as well.
6 World-Class Ryokans in Kyoto
Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, are the original and ultimate kind of local accommodation. They might be extravagant or simple, vast or little, but the guiding principles are always the same: exquisite cuisine, high-class comfort, and omotenashi — hospitality that prioritises the needs of the visitors. At one of these top options, you may enjoy the greatest ryokan in Kyoto, where your stay may include a traditional tea ceremony, a dip in a Japanese onsen spa, or supper with an apprentice geisha.
Nazuna Kyoto Gosho:
This beautiful ryokan is designed on sweets, which is something you didn’t know you needed. A short walk from the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nazuna Kyoto Gosho is a luxurious Ryokan with seven “Wagashi” (traditional Japanese confections) themed rooms spread across two “Kyomachiya” (traditional Kyoto-style townhouse). Each room is uniquely created with its own Wagashi concept. The foyer divides into four guest rooms and leads onto a Japanese garden where visitors may experience the four seasons of Kyoto. The second Kyomachiya is located via the garden and has three guest rooms as well as a dining/lounge area where visitors may have a Japanese breakfast in the morning or complimentary refreshments in the evening. It pays respect to the culture of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Each room has a distinct theme that is designed to highlight the classical elegance of the property while maintaining a feeling of modernism.
Inakatei is flanked by some of Kyoto’s most recognisable buildings, including the Yasaka Shrine, which commands attention in its vermillion splendour, and the Kodai-ji Temple, a royal Zen retreat surrounded by perfectly maintained gardens. However, because the ryokan itself exudes an old-school Kyoto charm, you’ll find it difficult to leave. The traditionally fashioned and garden-wrapped apartments, in particular, exemplify Kyoto grace. Plus, all guest rooms in this ryokan are fitted with a flat-screen TV. At Ryokan Inakatei all rooms include a shared bathroom with a hairdryer and free toiletries.
Kyoto Ohara Ryokan Seryo:
Seryo is a Ryokan located within the naturesque countryside of Ohara, Kyoto. Spend a tranquil moment in the peaceful atmosphere of Ohara after sightseeing through the hustle and bustle of Kyoto City. Ohara Ryokan Seryo, located on a hill near Sanzenin Temple to the north of Kyoto city, is a peaceful, mountain-surrounded retreat with calming indoor and outdoor hot spring amenities and a simple architectural design. It provides kaiseki meals in the traditional ryokan style, using seasonal, locally farmed ingredients for an authentic flavour of northern Kyoto.
This ryokan, located only steps from Higashi-Hoganji Temple and offering both Japanese and Western-style accommodations, stands out for its convenience and adaptability. The recently renovated rooms at Ryokan Matsubaya include a refrigerator, hairdryer, and electric kettle. Most rooms are Japanese-style, featuring traditional futon bedding, tatami (woven-straw) floors, and yukata (Japanese-style robes). All rooms are non-smoking. It’s in a quiet neighbourhood near Matsubaya, making it an excellent choice for couples. And whether you’re reclining in one of the comfortable guest rooms or wandering through the grounds, you’ll feel completely relaxed.
Kinse Inn is a former Edo-period ageya and ryokan that has been converted into a hotel. The vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows on the bottom level are vestiges of Japan’s early 1900s Westernisation phase. The upper guestrooms have a more Japanese atmosphere, with paper lanterns and calligraphy scrolls adorning the walls. There’s even a little Japanese bath on the premises. The whole second floor is available for private rental, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in this one-of-a-kind setting with over 250 years of history.
Ryokan Sumiya Kiho-an:
The Ryokan Sumiya Kiho-an is ideal for a romantic getaway or for anybody wishing to indulge oneself. Choose between a classic guest room with a mountain view and a private hot spring bath. Ayurvedic and other therapeutic treatments are available at the full-service spa. You may also indulge further by taking a tour of the Zen garden or participating in a traditional tea ceremony.
Kyoto’s most affordable Ryokans for budget travelers and Families
Ryokan Shimizu: Ryokan Shimizu, a foreigner-friendly cheap ryokan near Kyoto Station, is a fantastic way to experience a ryokan without breaking the bank.
Ryokan Shimizu is a cheap ryokan that is completely at ease with international tourists. While don’t anticipate luxury rooms, gardens, or meals, if you want a modest ryokan experience (essentially sleeping in futons in Japanese-style rooms), this is a fine alternative, especially if you want to stay close to Kyoto Station. The staff and other guests, both of whom are fantastic sources of information on visiting in Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan, are one of the great selling features here. It’s a must-see for budget tourists looking for a Japanese-style sleeping experience.
Uemura Ryokan: Uemura is a basic, pleasant, and reasonably priced ryokan located on the charming pedestrian-only alley of Ishibei-koji.
Uemura is one of the tiniest accommodations in Kyoto, with only three rooms. Long popular with discriminating international guests, Uemura is an excellent choice for those who wish to experience a ryokan without being obligated to eat all of their meals at the inn (Uemura serves only breakfast). Despite its location in a high-rent neighbourhood, Uemura is a modest and rustic establishment with surprisingly low costs. It is strongly advised.
Matsubaya Ryokan: The Matsubya Ryokan, a foreigner-friendly ryokan near Kyoto Station, is a good alternative for anyone looking to enjoy a ryokan on a low budget.
If you want to stay close to Kyoto Station but prefer a Japanese-style experience over a Western-style hotel, the Matsubaya Ryokan is a fantastic option. You won’t find the gorgeous gardens, decorations, or dinners that you may have seen in photographs of ryokan in glossy travel magazines here, but you will get to try what the ryokan experience is all about: sleeping in a futon on tatami mats. Some customers have complained about the noise and bad service, however, the majority of visitors are pleased with the establishment.
Kyoto Yoshimizu: Kyoto Yoshimizu is the best ryokan for individuals who wish to stay in nature without leaving Kyoto City.
Kyoto Yoshimizu ryokan commands one of the most intriguing settings of any Kyoto hotel, located in the woods at the summit of Maruyama-koen Park. It’s literally surrounded by maple and bamboo trees and looking out the windows, it’s difficult to believe you’re in a metropolis of 1.4 million people. You may take a cab directly to the door, but we imagine that most guests would enjoy the nocturnal stroll through the greenery of Maruyama-koen Park.
Hanakiya: Hanakiya, a modest and welcoming Japanese-style guesthouse located just down the hill from Kiyomiu-dera, is a fantastic accommodation at a reasonable price.
Hanakiya is a modest Japanese-style guesthouse located in the centre of the Southern Higashiyama tourism zone, just down the hill from the famed Kiyomizu-dera Temple. There are actually two guesthouses because there is the main building and an extension. Both are nice locations to stay, and the owner’s kind greeting warms the hearts of many people. It’s an excellent deal, especially given the location. It should be noted that the minimum stay is two nights.
Tanaka-ya: Tanaka-ya is a charming traditional guesthouse in the centre of the Miyagawa-cho geisha area.
Tanaka-ya is an excellent choice for experiencing what it was like to live in a traditional Kyoto house a century ago. It’s a charming small wooden guesthouse on the main street of the Miyagawa-cho geisha neighbourhood, just a short walk from Gion and the Southern Higashiyama tourism zone (and Downtown Kyoto, for that matter). It may not be for everyone, but if you want a traditional experience at a low price, this may be for you. It should be noted that the minimum stay is two nights.
How your day in a Ryokan is spent
Staying at a Ryokan is a one-of-a-kind Japanese experience. Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) provide the greatest cuisine, service, and environment. These one-of-a-kind Japanese-style inns allow tourists to enjoy traditional Japanese culture and follow customs that have been followed for hundreds of years. Some of the first ryokans were built along the Tokaido Highway, which connected Tokyo’s military centre with the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. The roadway was congested as daimyos (feudal rulers), samurai, traders, and others travelled between these two cities. Beginning in the early 17th century, inns began to sprout along this and other routes to welcome tired travellers in need of rest before continuing on their long journey.
People frequently visit ryokan in order to unwind in a tranquil and comfortable environment. Ryokan goes out of its way to build lovely gardens, spas, and other common places for its visitors to enjoy. Make the most of the different amenities available to you throughout your visit.
Indulge in a hot bath, which is one of the most popular things to do at a ryokan, and ryokan frequently take great pleasure in their exquisite bathing facilities and spas. The baths at ryokans are often provided by a hot spring (onsen), however, ryokans sometimes have lovely spacious baths even if they are not fed by a hot spring. See our article on how to take a bath for additional information about Japanese baths.
Private baths are available at a certain ryokan for families and couples who want to bathe together; however, private baths are often smaller than public baths and may need reservations. Some ryokan, particularly high-end establishments, may also feature private hot spring pools in some of their guest rooms.
Guests at ryokans often bathe before dinner, after supper, or before breakfast, and it is not uncommon to bathe more than once during their stay. The majority of ryokan baths are available in the afternoons, nights, and mornings, with some being open 24 hours a day.
After a visit to the bath, many guests like taking a walk about the ryokan’s garden or neighbourhood. It is common to see ryokan guests strolling around town in their yukata and geta (wooden sandals) in the evenings in some old fashioned onsen resorts, such as Kusatsu, Dogo, Shibu, Kinosaki, or on Miyajima, enjoying a walk, additional bathhouses, shopping, or old fashioned game arcades that cater to ryokan guests.
Larger ryokan are generally well prepared for revellers who are less prone to peaceful hobbies. The big mega-ryokan, in particular, are well-known for their ability to accommodate parties and events. They frequently have extra restaurants, pubs, karaoke rooms, game rooms, performances, and stores on their grounds that are open late.
If you wish to learn about Japanese culture, we feel that staying in a traditional ryokan is a must-do during your vacation to Japan. Although the practices may differ from what you’re used to, nothing beats relaxing in a hot onsen in a magnificent mountain setting before donning your yukata and feasting on a superb kaiseki dinner — this is Japan’s culture at its best.
Kyoto and Nara, both old cities, are known for their historic and traditional ryokans. In Tokyo, you’ll discover many contemporary and low-cost ryokans, albeit some may not provide the traditional experience.
Traveling means learning about new cultures, people, and features that are still hidden, like as ryokans. Most of us have mostly been in hotels with the most up-to-date amenities, but staying in a traditional inn on your next trip to Japan may not be something you regret.