Ryokans: A guide to the charming traditional Japanese hotels

There’s no better way to immerse yourself fully into the traditional Japanese culture than staying at a ryokan. In here is quite different in comparison to hotels and will provide you with plenty of delightful surprises.

What is a ryokan

A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. It features Japanese-style facilities and structure. You can find these lodgings all over Japan. Especially in tourist spots and hot spring retreats. The package rate for ryokans usually include accommodation, breakfast, and dinner.

Most of the rooms are big and can accommodate a large group of friends or your entire family. Some even offer rooms with a Western touch and beds, while some can also provide guests with chairs when eating meals. For these reasons, they’ve become highly popular with foreigners and locals alike.

However, they offer more than a place where you can sleep after a day’s worth of sightseeing. Staying in one of these charming inns is a great chance for you to experience the hospitality of the Japanese and their traditional lifestyle. Each of the rooms come with elements like Japanese-style baths, futon beds, and tatami floors. You’ll also get a taste of local cuisine.

The great thing about ryokans is that they have a unique character and ambiance. These traditional inns are far more valuable than providing guests with modern conveniences and the latest facilities.

The story behind the Japanese ryokans

For many centuries, Ryokans have played a major part in Japanese culture. You can find some of the oldest ones around the former Tokaido route that was connecting Edo (now known as Tokyo) and the Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. It’s a busy place where samurai and traders made their way between the two most influential Japanese cities.

A ryokan’s main purpose is to provide these exhausted travelers and traders a place to rest before they continue with their journey ahead. Some were simple homes that offer an extra room or two for commuters. On the other hand, there were also elaborate ones that serve high-ranking government officials. But no matter their type, their owners will ensure that their guests will feel as welcome and comfortable as possible till this day.

Different types of ryokan

Ryokans come in various types, and they vary greatly in style, size, and price. Some ryokan lodgings are run by families with only a few rooms to spare. Meanwhile, some have numerous rooms and with facilities similar to that of a modern hotel. Their rates also range from budget-friendly to expensive ones that cater to high-end clientele.

How much does a night in a ryokan cost?

Staying in one of these Japanese inns can set you back a few thousand yen per night. If you think staying here every day is a bit too much for your budget, consider indulging yourself for one night when you’re in Japan.

It’ll be all worth it since the rate will include an elegant dinner and breakfast the following morning. Usually, the meal is a Japanese haute cuisine known to locals as kaiseki yori which features seasonal and local specialties.

What to expect?

A typical ryokan room has the following:

  • Agari-kamachi which is what you’ll step at the moment you open its door and take off your shoes.
  • Shoji, the sliding paper door that separates your room and the agari-kamachi.
  • Tatami, a reed mat flooring.
  • Low tables made of wood.
  • Sitting cushions called zabuton.
  • Futon or sleeping quilts.
  • A tokonoma, which is an elaborate corner built in the wall where hanging scrolls and flower vases are placed. 
  • A closet for zabuton and futon called oshiire.
  • A sitting area enclosed with a glass called engawa which separates your room with a shoji.

Most ryokans consist of different buildings, such as a Honkan, the main house, and an annex called Bekkan or Shinkan. They also have amenities like a Western-type toilet, bathroom, sink, mini-fridge, a TV, a safe, complementary toothbrushes, towels, and tea.

Your arrival and how to behave in a ryokan

Any ryokan guests are treated with importance upon their arrival. Every staff will ensure that you’ll feel welcome and relaxed the moment you step into the establishment. They’ll also make sure to take care of all your needs. 

The genkan or foyer is where you’ll get your first impression of the Japanese lodging. So expect it that they made special efforts here. The genkan the typical Japanese home entryway made of tile or stone floor. It is lower by one or a couple of steps from the main floor and separates the inside and outside worlds. It also where you can remove and store your shoes since you cannot wear them inside a ryokan or Japanese house.

It’s a rare event that a guest will not be greeted, but if it happens, stand into the lowest level of the genkan and call out hello or the Japanse greeting “Gomen kudasai”. When you get your invitation inside, make sure to remove your shoes, go inside the ryokan, and then change to the slippers they’ll provide you. Don’t worry, the staff will attend to your shoes in the genkan.

Usually, the check-in time is around 3 PM and dinner will follow by 6 or 7 PM. It’s ideal to arrive at least an hour before your dinner so that the staff can welcome and orient you properly. You’ll be able to enjoy a nice hot bath after settling in. If you’ll have a late arrival, inform the ryokan as soon as possible. They can accommodate your arrival by either canceling or delaying the dinner.

Things or activities you can do

People usually visit ryokan intending to relax in a tranquil and comfortable environment. These establishments even go as far as creating stunning baths, gardens, and other common spaces which their guests can fully enjoy. So, make sure to experience these different facilities during your exceptional stay here.

Hot Baths

Pampering in hot baths is one of the most favorite things guests do at ryokans. These places are often proud of their wonderful bathing spas and facilities. A ryokan bath usually gets its water supply from an onsen or spring. However, there are larger baths that are not provided with water from a hot spring which are nice as well.

You can find a wide range of outdoor and indoor ryokan baths. Although the majority have a separate area for male and female, some occasionally allow both genders. Some are even private baths for couples and families who want to indulge bathing together. These baths are smaller though and may require reserving in advance. You can also find high-end ryokans with a private spring bath in a few of their rooms.

Guests in a ryokan normally take their bath before or after dinner, or before breakfast. However, you are also allowed to take a hot spring bath more than once throughout your stay. These facilities are open during mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Some are open for you to enjoy for 24 hours daily.

A ryokan hot bath has a curtain hanging outside the door of its changing room. Blue curtains are usually for men’s while red for women’s. Keep in mind that most ryokans tend to switch their bath’s gender typically during dinner time. This is to ensure that all guests will have a chance to try out each various baths. During your check-in, make sure to ask your attendant about the opening and switching times.


Once guests are done with their ryokan bathing experience, they typically take a leisurely walk around the ryokan gardens or the neighborhood. Some guests even take a stroll in their wooden sandals known as geta and yukata. You can also find old-school game arcades around, especially for ryokan guests.

If you’re a reveler who’s not so much into quiet ventures, there are larger ryokans that can satisfy your desires. They often have bars, restaurants, game rooms, shops, shows, and karaoke rooms inside their premises that operate during night time.

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