WHAT IS A RYOKAN 旅館?
You are planning your next holidays to Japan. You ask for recommendations about hotels and read a few blog articles about the best places to stay in this beautiful country. Everyone tells you about this traditional and authentic experience that you must absolutely do: a Ryokan. The full Japanese immersion where futon meets delicious food.
In this article, i will explain to you what Ryokan is, and why you must absolutely plan at least one night in this type of accommodation during your stay in Japan.
Ryokan: the classic Japanese Inn
Ryokan are typical Japanese inns. It is without a doubt the best accommodation to experience Japanese culture, traditions and customs while visiting the country.
The concept of Ryokan is difficult to define in a few words though. Nowadays, you can find all types of Ryokan from the budget accommodation in the countryside to the super premium Ryokan in the heart of Gion Kyoto.
The easiest way to explain what a Ryokan is, would be to talk about the major differences between a Ryokan and Western Hotels as we know them.
A Ryokan has a beautiful yet discrete aesthetic. In general, it has a timeless and authentic design based on traditional Japanese architecture. The rooms are Japanese style and usually, these establishments only have a few rooms available. The concept is quite different from the overcrowded huge hotel chain such as Hilton & Co.
One of the key difference to also mention is the fact that, at a Ryokan, you will be sleeping in a Japanese Futon on a tatami floor instead of your traditional big comfortable bed (It can be challenging!). If you are not at ease with this method of sleeping, well, it can be worth trying it for one night. However, i wouldn’t recommend you to book too many nights with a futon bedding as it might ruin your experience in Japan.
Another interesting fact about Ryokan is the proximity to Nature. The scenery surrounding these places is also part of the relaxing atmosphere and experience. It is something that is hugely emphasised when visiting a Ryokan. It is not always the case, especially in big cities. However in cities like Yufuin or Aso, in Kyushu, the presence of nature and the beautiful surroundings is something really breathtaking.
There are many other differences to mention between Ryokan and Hotels and it would take a dedicated article to list all of them. However, the last difference worth mentioning is the fact that at a Ryokan people strongly emphasis on etiquette (here is a helpful article from Kashiwaya about the rules you must know). It can be disconcerting for a first timer (especially if you visit a super premium and traditional one). One of the first thing you must know is that: Inside a Ryokan, you are expected to leave your shoes at the entrance and use slippers to walk around. It sounds innocuous but it is a reflex often forgotten by foreigners and it can be considered really disrespectful. It is especially true when entering your room (to respect the tatami flooring) but also within the common areas for most of them. Don’t be that rude foreigner!
A bit of History
Ryokan are part of the Japanese culture and are considered almost as a national treasure. They have been accommodating travellers in Japan for centuries. The ancestors of the Ryokan appeared around the Keiun and Nara period (8th Century AD). One remarkable fact worth mentioning is the oldest hotel in the world, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a Ryokan founded in 705 in Hayakawa and still in activity!
These accommodations were used to host travellers and pilgrims. The concept developed further over the centuries with the expansion of roads and transportation systems. On the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of Ryokan developed even further with the explosion of tourism nationwide and the appeal of Japanese people to rediscover their national cultural heritage and traditions.
The Official Japanese Ryokan website has a very detailed article about The Origin and History of the Japanese Ryokan, worth a read if you want to understand more about the development of these unique accommodations in Japan.
Hospitality at the heart of the experience
One particular thing about Ryokan is the high-level hospitality provided by the staff. It is especially true in high standard institutions. As they say in Japan “Okyaku sama ha kami sama desu” that can be translated as the Client is God. In some of the most expensive Ryokan, you will be amazed by the quality of the service provided by the staff, discrete yet always helpful and attentive. It is a top-notch service where the sentence above take all its meaning.
One of the few examples is regarding breakfast and dinner, the staff will come to your room to serve your meal. In addition to that, they will also make sure that you are at ease and have a chat with you, explain the customs, the local specialities and so on. They will also come and pour you some tea when you are around. In most of the establishment, they will also prepare your futon before you go to sleep.
It is all part of the experience. The staff will make you feel truly welcome and will ensure that you are not lacking anything. One thing to keep in mind when visiting a Ryokan; Tipping is not part of the Japanese culture. If you had a truly amazing time and you wish to leave a tip for the staff, put the money in a small envelope that you will give to the staff. It is a really specific custom known as Kokorozuke.
Where Futon meets Washoku
A Ryokan is not only a beautiful place to rest at night. It is also one of the best ways to experience Washoku: Japanese food.
Washoku is the Cuisine of Harmony, it is the essence of Japanese spirit. A proper ryokan will provide you with Japanese dishes focused on regional and seasonal ingredients. The meals are usually executed the Japanese way; It means that the staff will provide you with your dinner in your room. The dining table is usually a low and large table at the centre of the room and you are seating on a Zaisu (Japanese chairs with no legs). The dishes are served on beautiful ceramic plates with a large variety of things to try and eat.
Any Ryokan addicts will tell you when deciding of where to stay, the food served at a Ryokan is as important as the place itself.
Expensive places usually offer an amazing traditional breakfast and kaiseki dinner. Some of them are really renowned for the quality of their food. If you are lucky enough to visit one of them prepare yourself to be pampered and stuffed for a few hours by extravagant mouth-watering delicacies.
My recommendation if you decide to stay at a fancy ryokan to experience amazing food: Make sure to check the food’s review first to avoid any disappointment. Some places have occidentalized their menu to please the palate of difficult foreigners. It happened to me before and i can tell you that it is sad to be served fusion food when you are expecting regional authentic Japanese cuisine, lost somewhere in the countryside of Japan.
Also, be careful, as mentioned above, not every Ryokan is created equals. Some of them won’t provide you with breakfast or dinner. If you are travelling on a budget, most of the cheap accommodations won’t have a food offering at all. If you are lucky enough, they will have at least a vending machine to buy food and drinks.
A must try: Onsen Ryokan
I couldn’t finish this article without talking to you about one of the most popular type of Ryokan that you can (and must) visit in Japan: the Onsen Ryokan, also called Hot Springs Ryokan. As the name suggests these Ryokan provide you with Japanese hot spring bathing facilities. These facilities can be located indoor or outdoor and can be private (in your room) or public (for all the visitors). Some of the most famous Ryokan are praised for their outdoor Onsen overlooking beautiful sceneries and landscape. Shiosai no Yado Seikai in Beppu is a perfect example with an amazing Onsen facing the ocean.
Needless to say that it is the perfect way to relax after a long day of sightseeing in Japan.
I hope this article has helped you understand a bit more about the concept of Ryokan. These accommodations are an institution in Japan, something that i hope will be preserved, maintained and improved over the years. It is truly a unique experience worth doing at least once during your trip in Japan.
Personally, it is one of my favourite place to stay. Especially while travelling across Japan. It does not need to be pricey to be amazing. Some reasonable onsen Ryokans are fabulous. In big cities, the price can sometimes be discouraging however, you can find amazing deals on the countryside and live a moment that you won’t forget in a high-end institution for not that much money. Do your research and one last thing, don’t forget about the food! Some of my greatest meal memories in Japan have been in a Ryokan, but that’s for a later story! 😉
If you are planning your stay in Japan and are looking for the best hotels that you can visit, i can recommend you the link below: