It is hard to choose a favorite memory from my time in Japan, but pretty high on my list of favorites would be our stay at a ryokan hotel. For many travelers, the highlights of Japan are found in cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto; but, nearly 70% of the Japanese islands are made up of natural wilderness, so it would be a shame to miss out on the mountain beauty.
Ryokans are a great way to experience Japan! Staying at a ryokan gives travelers a taste of traditional Japanese life and an intimate connection with nature, while also having a unique cultural experience. Not sure what a ryokan is or why I recommend staying at one? Keep reading for a comprehensive how to guide for staying at your first ryokan!
What is a Ryokan?
Ryokans are a traditional style of Japanese hotel that remain true to the long history of hospitality in Japan. Offering characteristically Japanese experiences, you can expect to find tatami mat flooring, on-the-floor mattresses, shoji screen walls and minimalist decor. Guests are often expected to don the traditional Japanese casual decor, a Yakuta (casual cotton kimono) and house slippers, which will be provided to you in the room. Another common offering with Ryokans is an elaborate meal served inside your room, typically ranging from 8-12 courses, which you will eat while sitting on the floor in the traditional Japanese fashion.
Where Can I Find a Ryokan?
Ryokans can be found throughout Japan! They are typically in more mountainous areas, since they are often paired with onsens and hot springs, but urban ryokans also exist. Not sure what an onsen is? Check out this blog to learn everything you need to know about visiting a Japanese onsen!
Is a Ryokan a Comfortable Experience?
Ryokans range from simple to luxurious so your level of comfort is likely related the price you pay for your ryokan. It is not customary in Japan to have indoor heating, so if you plan to visit in the winter months, I would recommend ensuring that your ryokan has heat, because that could be a key determinant in your level of comfort.
Our stay at Yunoshimakan was incredibly comfortable with great heating, cozy beds, and an onsite onsen, but I also know travelers who had a less comfortable stay at ryokan run by a local Buddhist temple which offered very cheap accommodations. As with anything, you get what you pay for!
It is important to note that you will be eating, sitting and sleeping on the floor at a ryokan. I found the Japanese mattresses and floor chairs to be very comfortable, but travelers with back issues or chronic back pain might want to be more cautious, since they will be spending a lot of time in postures that they might not be used to.
What About the Ryokan Food?
Sticking to traditions, the food served at ryokans is typically traditional Japanese cuisine, which might look quite unfamiliar to foreigners. We’re not talking about ramen and sushi here! There will be a set “tasting menu” which will come to you in a variety of courses. You are likely to have a room attendant who will bring you all of the courses and set out an elaborate assortment of dishes.
Japanese cuisine frequently plays with texture, so our meal had a lot of interesting dishes that I had never experienced before, such as a fish jello, pickled tofu curd and dehydrated vegetables. My husband and I are pretty adventurous eaters, so this was a super fun experience for us! There were a few dishes that we did not necessarily prefer, but for the most part it was a delight to eat. Plus, the meal is served in your room, so if you really don’t like something, you can simply set it aside without worrying about being rude.
What Do You Do at a Ryokan?
Ryokans typically don’t have a TV in the room, so you might be wondering what to do at a ryokan? In my experience, ryokans are perfect for relaxation and mindfulness. You can let yourself calm down and soak in the relaxing vibes of the ryokan, especially if your hotel also includes and onsen! We wound up spending several hours each day taking dips in the hot springs or soaking in the sauna, leaving us deeply nourished and relaxed!
What Ryokan Do You Recommend?
We absolutely loved our stay at Yunoshimakan Hotel in Gero, Japan. It was easily accessible from Osaka and Nagoya via train (1.5 hours on a JR line), and they offer a train station shuttle bus for straight-forward arrival. I thought the amenities and service were excellent, but the stellar location is what really sets this ryokan apart. The mountain views from the rooms and lovely onsite onsen were both exceptional. We were also the only foreigners in this quaint mountain town which really added to the unique experience. It was a quiet winter oasis and we even caught a little bit of snow!
Another good options is Yammanochaya near Hakone. Two of our friends stayed here during their honeymoon and had a lovely time. Also easily accessible by train (1 hour from Tokyo), this upscale ryokan offers an in-room onsen and soaking tub as well as beautiful views of the natural area.