The History and Culture Behind Japan's Unique Kind Of Inn; The Ryokan

Hospitality is key when it comes to tourism. If or when you go traveling, it always makes for a better experience when you’ve had a comfortable place to stay. Unless you fancy roughing it up and sleeping on benches in train stations, a warm, inviting accommodation goes a long way for making a good impression of a country or destination. Hotels are found all over the world and specialize in making you feel at home. In Japan, they go a little beyond just the generic hotel or motel. These special Japanese inns offer travelers a slice of their culture and history; their own spin on the idea of an inn. These inns are called “Ryokan”.

Exploring Japan: The Meaning of Ryokan

Ryokan simply means “traditional Japanese Inn”. This means the Ryokan’s entire architecture, ambiance, equipment, and services are meant to specifically emulate the Japanese style. The buildings have a staple wooden look to their interiors. Their rooms are adorned in Tatami, and beds are low-lying Futons.

Other factors include having a large lobby where the guest may meet and converse (even with the owner of the Ryokan itself). These inns also often have an Onsen or a mini-Onsen; a “Furo”. A Furo is a small, steep, square-shaped bath tub traditionally made from wood. The water may or may not come from a hot spring. However, in case hot water is available from the nearest spring, it can be piped leading to the Furo as well. Nowadays, the bath tubs in a Furo are made with stainless steel or plastic for easier upkeep. Like its western counterpart, the Bed n’ Breakfast, staying in a Ryokan also usually entitles you to a meal or two. In fact, some of the people who opt to stay in a Ryokan go for the quality of the food. The food is served directly in your room (unlike going to a restaurant in a normal hotel) so a friendship between customer and service is automatically formed. Some Ryokan go as far as giving a detailed explanation of the food they’re serving you, making it a truly personal gastronomic experience!

The origins of the Ryokan date all the way back to about 710 – the Nara period, when weary travelers would take shelter in free rest houses located on paths along forested areas. These resting facilities were called “Fuseya” and were set up by Buddhist monks who would take pity on those who would starve to death midway through their journey. Sources say that the location where this first started was the area around Kyoto, and rightly so because of the new centralized state system that had been implemented. This centralized state system required people from provinces to make trips to the center, where they could transact business. Eventually, by the time the Edo period rolled around (1603-1867), the classic Ryokan we now know of today appeared along the highways due to Edo’s booming economy. They served people who wanted to go on pilgrimages, a tour, or for a hot spring bath for a price. Many of these Ryokan still stand up to today!

By the 1950’s, travel was made more accessible due to the advancement of technology and public transport systems. Japanese businessmen took this opportunity to create bigger Ryokan, hoping to draw in tourists and commercialize this hospitable, cultural aspect of Japan.

Some Of The Best Ryokan In Tokyo

Being a bustling city full of business and tourists, you’d think that visitors would want to stay in a modern hotel. Not so fast! The very point of traveling for leisure is to understand and absorb the culture and heartbeat of the city. That is why many foreigners opt to stay in a Ryokan over an ordinary hotel, even if they must pay a bigger price. Despite being far from scenic views that are usually on the outskirts of Japan, Tokyo still has some great Ryokan spots. Here are a few of them!

The 5-star rated Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo (Ochonamizu) has been around for more than a century and continues to serve travelers. Though there are many different franchises, the one in Ochonamizu retains the most history, being the first one ever made. We do have to admit that it may not have the same classic look as other Ryokans do due to attempts to modernize and renovate the inn.  You can rest easy knowing it holds a candle to knowing the real deal about hospitality and comfort with its fluffy beds and spacious rooms. It’s like luxury and tradition blended together with a touch of modern taste… For about 25,000 yen a night!

 Homeikan is the Ryokan you’d make a booking for if you want a good ol’ fashioned, traditional ryokan – kept the same since the last time you – or your father – visited. Homeikan is located a little further away from the center, so you can say it’s more relaxing. Think of it as a vacation away from the city, while still being in the city! The pros? Service here is impeccable and extremely friendly. Pricing isn’t that bad either (around 11,200 yen a night). As for the cons; it’s a bit of a long walk to the train station – around 10-15 minutes on foot. Their facilities are also a little old as well – so flush twice!

Wakana Inn (Kagurazaka) is a low-key Ryokan found in Shinjuku-ku that not everyone knows about. Sort of like a speakeasy, but for inns. It doesn’t even have its own website! But hey, that’s part of its charm, and what makes it so great. Although Wakana only has four rooms, and you have to share a bathroom with everyone else, you get to experience a humble Ryokan for what it was initially meant to be so long ago. It’s also around many restaurants and interesting amenities and is located right in the heart of Tokyo.

Why Choose Ryokan Sawanoya?

Your choice of Ryokan may depend on convenience (if it’s close to your business meeting, or to an event you’re about to go to, etc.), but truly - Ryokan Sawanoya takes the cake when it comes to being a fantastic ryokan to stay in when you visit Tokyo. Run by a family dedicated to ensuring you a hospitable stay, Sawanoya has captured the hearts of many travelers, winning 5 consecutive years of TripAdvisor's highly recommended list and certificate of excellence. Their rooms are quaint (hello, tatami mat!), and have a good balance between upkeep, tradition, and comfort. They even go as far as giving you a “western” option for your breakfast. Additional plus points go to them for having a coin laundry and dryer section everyone is welcome to use, as well as wifi in the lobby. If you’re bored, they’ll even help you rent out bicycles to go around the area! The address of Ryokan Sawanoya is 2 Chome-3-11 Yanaka, 台東区 Tokyo 110-0001. Prices range from about 5,400 yen for a room for 1 (no personal bathroom), to about 11,232 yen for a room for 2 persons, plus toilet.

Tips On The Best Ryokan In Hakone

Mount View Hakone is where you want to go if you want to get the full bang out of your buck in terms of pampering and comfort. Its interiors are superbly clean, crisp, and semi-modern, but not too modern that it takes away the Ryokan’s crucial Japanese appeal. It offers a breathtaking view of the mountains. The food is visually appealing and tastes superb too! If you’re willing to shell out around 27,000 yen for this lovely experience, Mount View Hakone is the place to do it.

Hotel Yamada is next up on the list of great Ryokan in Hakone. Looking for a Ryokan that has a flat screen TV? (Other Ryokan don’t allow televisions in rooms because they like peace and quiet). They have 15 rooms, so there’s usually one to spare. There’s even a free shuttle service waiting for you if you’re in Gora train station, and have a booking for this hotel. Not only does it boast of 5 separate Onsen (that overlook gorgeous mountain scenery), it’s also near quite a number of attractions in Hakone.

Why Choose Ryokan Tonosawa Quatre Saisons?

Looking for a refreshing massage? Ryokan Tonosawa Quatre Saisons has got it for you. Their staff speak English, so you don’t have to worry about thinking of what to say! This Ryokan is perched aside a serene river, giving off a serene ambiance. A little less outmoded as the other Ryokan, their beds are non-traditional, and their rooms have a much more modern hotel feel to them. They do have public bathrooms for guests, and their food is pretty good as well. You can get good deals on this hotel from 13,000 yen onwards!

The Best Modern Ryokan in Osaka

In case you’re spending some time in Namba, try checking into Hotel Ichiei. Founded in 1950 and is up and running with a whopping 22 rooms today, this building allows you to have the Ryokan experience with a hint of contemporary hospitality. If public baths aren’t your thing, then Hotel Ichiei is the best choice. All the rooms have their private bathrooms. Another cool Ryokan feature? Your breakfast and dinner are served straight to your room!

Why Choose Kaneyoshi Ryokan?

Review after review of booming praise goes to Kaneyoshi Ryokan, giving it a 4 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor. Found in Dotonbori (a 5-minute walk from Nippombashi station), This inn is amazingly clean, and their service is intuitive, helpful, and cheerful. Reviews of this Ryokan rave about the details make this Ryokan great. One guest commented how the inn’s bath products (Shiseido brand) really helped them moisturize their chapped skin during the colder autumn months like November. The complimentary pitchers of water and tea were also well-loved. Another one claimed their hotel concierge helped her connect to someone on the telephone – known in Japanese as “Tsunagu”. Heading to Osaka? Be the next positive reviewer! Kaneyoshi Ryokan is a great choice.

The Best Ryokan In Kyoto with an Onsen

Momijiya Bekkan Kawa no Iori, Takao is, easily, the best Ryokan that has an Onsen in all of Kyoto. This hotel falls on the higher end price range, around 78,000 yen. Every now and then there are offers online that slash this price to almost half, or even less! Those are the greatest deals because you can tell that they really don’t scrimp on you. They serve the best meals and go all on out on their ingredients, and you can choose to have them after or before you indulge in an open-air bath. Cleanliness and an utterly beautiful scenic view of the mountains are a given. Book as soon as possible!

Why Choose Ryokan Shimizu?

Just minutes away from the Kyoto station sits the lovely Ryokan Shimizu. It’s affordable and has great value for the amount that they ask for (As low as 5000 yen in Dec-Feb!); truly top-notch in their family style class of Ryokan. We must take into account how they make sure you enjoy a neat tatami room and have the benefits of a private, large Onsen bath. Sure, you may have paper-thin walls as most other Ryokans do, and you might end up hearing your neighbors. But that’s why you chose a Ryokan – it’s part of the cultural immersion!

Cheapest Ryokan: Here’s Some Good Advice

Tourists often look for the cheapest Ryokan in hopes of getting good value for their money. The truth is, if you’re on a tight budget for accommodation but still want a Ryokan, you might as well spend that budget on a hotel that can maximize your funds. Cheap Ryokans are not worth it, and you will leave more disgruntled than you would have had you booked a capsule hotel. Our advice is for you to save up until you have enough money for a medium to high-end Ryokan, and splurge on that. You won’t regret it!

In terms of the most interesting Ryokan, there really is no such thing. Each Ryokan has its own story to tell. Nothing too eccentric here, as they don’t deviate much from traditional hospitality because tradition is what they offer. How they differ depends on the facilities, amenities, perks, and vibe that is unique to each inn. The Ryokan you choose really depends, ultimately, on the location you plan to stay in, the amount you can afford, and the aesthetic trip you are looking for.