Although the traditional Japanese lodging known as the ryokan is often described as a country inn, or as Japan’s version of the French Auberge, many ryokan are more, being beautiful, elegant places that offer a total hospitality experience that is a must-do for any visitor to Japan.
Less common in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, ryokan are most often found in the countryside, usually at places of great scenic beauty, and often around areas with many onsen (hot springs). They are not uncommon: there are an estimated 58,000 ryokan in every prefecture in Japan.
Traditional in form, with a comfortable welcoming area and rooms that often feel like small suites, with sliding doors and tatami flooring, the ryokan experience usually includes a substantial breakfast and a kaiseki dinner. Often, ryokan include onsen, either shared, or, in the most elegant places, private.
The average cost is usually between 15,000 and 25,000 yen per person, including dinner and breakfast, though there are simple ryokan as low as 8,000 yen, and luxury ryokan for which the sky is the limit. But considering that it’s easy to spend a 20,000 yen or more for a fine hotel, the ryokan is a wonderful way to experience all the pampering that traditional Japanese hospitality can offer.
No two ryokan are alike, and many are still owned by local people who take great pride in providing an enjoyable experience for their visitors. Stepping into a ryokan is more than renting a room; it is giving yourself up to the person, often a woman – a nakai-san, your personal room attendant – who has hosted many guests before. This might at first feel strange, to have someone directing you as you’re getting settled in your room, but allowing your nakai-san to manage your experience is one of the great pleasures of the ryokan.
That experience begins with a formal welcome and a room that, while the halls may be typically dark, are often large and well-lit, with walls of natural wood, tatami floors and comfortable chairs, often facing a large window or even opening out onto a balcony.
The nakai-san sets the table for tea, or brings a beer if that is preferred, and one is encouraged to change out of one’s travel clothes into a comfortable traditional robe known as a yukata.
Depending on the time of one’s arrival, this may be time for a before-dinner trip to the onsen, a delightful way to soak off the rigors of travel. While one is soaking, the nakai-san and her assistant may be setting your table for the highlight of the evening: an elaborate kaiseki, Japan’s haute cuisine, which will be served at the table in your room. Simpler ryokan will probably not serve a full kaiseki, which can feature as many as a dozen courses, but many will serve hearty, delicious dinners of local and seasonal fare, and this being Japan, of dependably high quality. Ryokan owners and employees, like all Japanese, take hospitality seriously.
After dinner, the nakai-san will move the table and chairs out of the way, put down futons and dress them with bedding. Sleeping on the floor has never been so luxurious. Once the bedding is set, guests will be encouraged to go use the onsen facilities, if they are common facilities. Higher-end places will have the onsen bath right in the room.
In the morning, the ladies will come in, put away your bedding and futon, and put the dining table back together. Soon after, they will bring in a traditional Japanese breakfast, which will consist, once again, of local and seasonal items, usually all served at once.
Although not necessarily a part of Japanese culture, some ryokan do accept some tip called kokoro-zuke. However, these are only accepted in special cases where the guests have asked for favors outside of the facility’s service. For instance, if you accidentally broke something within the facility, it is polite to leave about 3000 yen behind for the repair fee and leave a note. Remember that even if you are tipping to show your appreciation to their service, leaving a tip for no obvious reason would just leave the employees baffled, possibly running after you to return the bill.
Modern variations on the ryokan include the ryokan hotel, which looks very much like a contemporary hotel – less traditional in form, perhaps even Western style – but which may feature some of the same elements of a ryokan visit, especially the meals served in one’s room and the attention to orchestrated, personal service. Some ryokan hotels may offer Western food in addition to traditional Japanese fare. A ryokan hotel may also have features that more tradition ryokan don’t, especially a bar, restaurant and even a karaoke room.
Another variation on the ryokan is the minshuku, a more modest form of ryokan that often features wooden rooms that are comfortable, but less roomy or elegant than traditional ryokan. The meals are unlikely to be kaiseki, but they will certainly offer delicious homestyle Japanese cooking. They may not feature the views or even onsen opportunities of ryokan, but they will give visitors a sense of traditional Japanese hospitality that will most likely be absent from most modern hotels.
Whatever form and price range one chooses, staying in a ryokan is almost guaranteed to be a highlight of any trip to Japan.