What Is a Japanese Ryokan?

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Image Source: Flickr user City Foodsters

My parents recently lived in Yokohama, Japan, for four years as expats, and during that time, they did everything they could to soak up the culture by immersing themselves in the community and taking numerous trips throughout the country. My mom, especially, was often a tour guide for the friends and family who visited them on a regular basis while they were living there. As a “professional” tourist slash temporary local, she accumulated plenty of travel advice for visiting Japan, but I wanted to know — out of all the countless places you could go and things you could do in Japan, what’s the ONE thing you have to make sure to include in your itinerary?

Instead of listing off tourist hot spots, her favorite ramen restaurants or sushi bars (of which there are many), or even her favorite cities (like Kyoto), she passionately replied with this:

Stay in a ryokan.

Specifically, she recommends staying in a ryokan in a small village, preferably out where you can enjoy being in nature. Japan has so many offerings, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring temples and other historic landmarks, natural wonders and gardens such as the bamboo forests and cherry blossoms, flashy city experiences à la the robot cafe, futuristic tech, and luxurious high-speed trains, but a ryokan is how you experience authentic Japanese culture. It’s also what the locals do to relax.

So what is a ryokan? It’s similar to a hotel but also a spa, and really it’s so much more. According to the Japan Ryokan Association, “Experience the elements of Japanese culture and customs: living in a room with Tatami (straw mat) flooring, changing into a typical Yukata (robe) after taking an Onsen hot-spring bath, sleeping on a Futon (bedding) put down directly on the Tatami floor, and etc. in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel.”

It’s all about experiencing Japanese hospitality, so you have to go with the right mindset and be prepared to experience it fully. The JRA adds, “In Japan, there is the following proverb: ‘Go ni itte wa go ni shitagae’ (literally, ‘When in a village, do as the villagers do,’ which is equivalent to the English proverb, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’).”

Image Source: Flickr user st3f4n

It’s not just a hotel, where you drop off your luggage and return at the end of the day to sleep. It’s an immersive experience. It’s a peeling away of your culture and your busy city life — you leave work and worries behind. It’s all about relaxing and being with your family (or just being alone). Here are some more things to keep in mind before you visit a ryokan:

  1. If you’re visiting Japan during Winter, even better. A traditional aspect of the ryokan is an onsen, a natural hot-spring bath, which makes the experience especially enjoyable in cold weather. Winters in Japan get cold.
  2. Speaking of onsens, they are the BEST. The higher-end ryokans include a private onsen in your room, but if it’s a communal onsen (which is still wonderful), be aware that everyone will be fully nude. They are segregated by sex, but just something to keep in mind. I’d recommend giving it a shot; it’s a relaxing, uniquely Japanese experience. There are many rules of the onsen, but they usually provide a helpful visual chart with all the instructions.
  3. You may not be able to use a communal onsen if you have tattoos. In many public pools, baths, or gyms, you are not allowed to have visible tattoos due to their historical association with the Yakuza, Japan’s mafia. So just check the website or call ahead to find out if they are allowed and/or can be covered up.
  4. A ryokan incorporates the most important elements of Japanese culture that need to be preserved. You’ll be able to enjoy the art, the aesthetics, the architecture, the peacefulness, the hospitality, the gardens, the food, the tea ceremony, the ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement), and more.
  5. It has a very spa-like feel to it. They will give you yukata (the Japanese Summer kimono) to wear during your stay, and everyone walks around in them.
  6. Depending on the ryokan, there are various activities and services offered. Some even have karaoke rooms or arcade rooms for kids. Some are better for families, couples, or solo travelers. They would also make a great girls’ trip, but if you’re traveling with a group, be respectful of the rules about being quiet and peaceful.
  7. Japanese cuisine is integral to the experience. Some will bring your meals to the room or have restaurants. You often get an amazing seven- to nine-course traditional Japanese or French meal plus a full breakfast included in the cost of the reservation.
  8. Be willing to go with the flow and try it all. Since some of the best ryokans are in small villages, there may not be many English speakers, so you have to have an adventurous spirit. This is also how you really experience Japanese hospitality. They love it when you love it.
  9. With all that it entails, it is on the expensive side. My mom recommends that you take your budget for your hotel and triple it for an exceptional ryokan. Double it for a really good experience. They typically charge per person, and you’ll need one to two nights.

And finally, here are a few recommendations for mountain or coastal towns that have exceptional ryokans:

  • Hakone
  • Karuizawa
  • Izu Peninsula
  • Matsushima
  • Yamanouchi (Aburaya Tosen is one highly recommended ryokan in this area. This is also where you’ll find the snow monkey park!)

Image Source: Lenny Sharp