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What Is A Ryokan ? And Why Should I Try Staying At One In Japan?

What is a ryokan ?
Should I staying at one in Japan?

Booking accommodation is an important part of planning your travel to Japan. Choosing the right place to lay your head is the difference between enthusiastically exploring the country and struggling to keep your eyelids open. As I planned my Japan trip, I was amazed at the accommodation options I’d never seen anywhere else. I was excited to stay in a futuristic (albeit minorly claustrophobic) capsule hotel and I was intrigued by the ryokans I saw online.

Room of a Japanese ryokan looking out onto a Japanese garden

What is a ryokan?

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn. Although there are some urban ryokans, I recommend a ryokan in the Japanese countryside to fully immerse yourself in the calming atmosphere of your getaway. 

Every ryokan in Japan is different, ranging from budget accommodation to luxury retreats. Most ryokans are family owned and operated, passed down through the generations. The ryokan where I stayed in Katashina Village was run by four generations of a family who lived onsite. 

Expect to trade your shoes for slippers upon arrival to walk through the large entrance hall (perfect for socializing), then kick off your slippers to walk barefoot on the tatami-matted guestroom. Change into the provided yukata, which can be worn around the ryokan -a reminder to yourself that you’ve escaped the “real world” in favor of a relaxing holiday. Most ryokans provide futon-style beds, which are hidden away during the day and made up in the evening, but some offer Western- style beds, too.

A short history of ryokans in Japan

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Japan is home to the world’s oldest hotel. Founded in 705 AD, 52 generations of the same family have owned and operated Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkan. 

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), ryokans flourished as trade, religious pilgrimages and domestic tourism increased. Today, you’re likely to see a mix of domestic and foreign travelers if you visit a ryokan. 

Beautiful room in a Japanese ryokan

What can I expect if I stay in a ryokan?

Local hospitality

Google Translate says omotenashi means hospitality. But hospitality doesn’t capture the unique brand of Japanese hospitality, centered around caring for a guest without expectation of reciprocity. 

If you’ve been in Japan for any amount of time, you’ve likely experienced this special kind of hospitality. While staying in a ryokan, you can expect to experience omotenashi on a whole new level, since you’re living under the same roof as your gracious hosts.

Incredible meals

If you’re a foodie, you can stop reading right now and go book your stay at a ryokan. The kaiseki dinner experience is a multi-course meal, often consisting of local and foraged ingredients. Local specialties are deliciously prepared and beautifully presented. 

Some ryokans serve meals heya-shoku (in the guest rooms), while others serve meals in a communal dining room. No matter where you eat, the meals are sure to be a highlight of your experience.

Food (Kaiseki Dinner) at a ryokan in Japan
Photo credit: Brittany Kulick

Relax in an onsen

Once you’ve enjoyed your dinner, it’s time to wind down– and what better way than with a visit to the onsen (hot spring). Many ryokans have an onsen on property, and this public bathing experience is how you’ll get clean during your stay, since most guest rooms have a toilet, but no shower. 

Be sure to follow proper onsen etiquette for a relaxing experience in the mineral-rich waters.

What does it cost?

Like any accommodation, price varies depending on location, amenities, and meals. According to the Japan Ryokan Association, the nightly fee per person ranges from ¥5,000 to ¥119,000. 

Most ryokans charge per person instead of per room, and often include dinner and breakfast. When deciding on your budget, be sure to consider the cost of what you would have spent on meals if you stayed at a typical hotel in Japan. 

Is a ryokan right for me?

If you’re visiting Japan, a night or two in a ryokan is a great way to get a glimpse inside Japanese culture. Ryokans are not hotels, but if you love experiencing local customs and traditions, you’ll love this style of accommodation.

Did you find this article useful?

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To experience Culture and History experiences nearby Tokyo, make sure to check out our recommendations of History & Culture experiences nearby Tokyo

Contributor:  Brittany Kulick

Brittany is the founder of The Sweet Wanderlust, a food and travel blog for people with a sweet tooth and a taste for adventure. She’s visited more than 60 countries and Japan is one of her favorites! 

web:  The Sweet Wanderlust

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