View of traditional Japanese wooden slippers worn inside a ryokan.
Japan

Why staying in a ryokan is one of the unmissable Japanese experiences

Ever wondered what it is like to experience a stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn? Let’s start by saying that a time spent in a ryokan is time well spent!
It’s a time to enjoy a peaceful atmosphere.
Time to be surrounded by beauty.
Time to indulge in a relaxing hot bath.
Time to let your taste buds experience heavenly meals.
Time to be pampered.
Time to unwind and relax.
It’s simply time to feel great!

Sounds almost dreamy? Well, that’s what a stay in a great ryokan is like!

Ever wondered if ryokan experience is worth it? Would you like to know where to stay in a ryokan? How long to stay in a ryokan? And how much it costs to stay in a ryokan? Then read on – we have all the answers.

Introduction to a ryokan experience

For the Japanese, a stay in a ryokan is all about relaxing. Most of the ryokans are in rural areas, surrounded by beautiful nature.  The locals love to come to the ryokan to spend a night or two away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and recharge their batteries.

Our tip: while ryokans are found both in huge cities and in rural areas, we would recommend staying somewhere where you are surrounded by nature. Hakone area, a part of Fuji Hakone National park, is a beautiful area where to unwind and enjoy fully your ryokan experience for a night (great) or two (even better!).

Check our 10 day Japan itinerary for more details.

For a foreign traveler, a stay in a ryokan offers a very attractive bonus – that’s because staying in a ryokan is also a great way how to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture and experience hands-on the very best of the Japanese hospitality.

No matter how many luxury hotels you’ve stayed at, a ryokan is a completely different, much more personalized experience. In fact, many ryokans are relatively small, family-run establishments.

From the moment you first step in, a ryokan attendant (your personal ryokan attendant in top-class ryokans) will take good care of you. Leave your everyday troubles outside and your shoes in the entryway – you have come here to relax, to be pampered, to feel great. Put on the slippers, enjoy your welcome cup of green tea and follow the attendant to your room.

The view of the Japanese nature from your window is breath-taking.

If this is your first time in a ryokan, you may be surprised how the room looks. It is furnished in a minimalistic yet tasteful way and feels so comfy and homey. The floor is covered with tatami mats (Japanese woven straw mats) that are so pleasant for your feet (don’t walk on them in slippers). There’s a low table with legless chairs where you can enjoy the delicious Japanese green tea while looking forward to the next experiences – the hot bath and the kaiseki dinner.

View of a futon bed in a Japanese ryokan room.
The futon bed in our ryokan room in Gora. The ryokan room has a minimalistic design, yet it is comfy and homey.

Looking for a bed? Surprise surprise – there probably isn’t any.

While you’ll be enjoying your gourmet dinner, your attendant will put up the futon mattresses on the floor with warm and soft down duvets. They are super-comfortable and make for a good night’s sleep.

Another surprising thing that you might find in a ryokan is a Japanese high tech toilet!

What is a Japanese high tech toilet?

The Japanese toilet is such an interesting experience by itself that it deserves its own note in this article 😊.

Japanese toilet control panel
The control panel of a Japanese toilet (more buttons are on the toilet itself). Japanese love of the electronics is apparent 🙂

Saying that it’s fancy is probably an understatement. Saying that it has more buttons for operation than one could find in a modern airliner’s flightdeck is probably a more precise description.
The toilet in our ryokan in Gora, where we stayed for two nights, had 32 buttons – the most we ever counted.
There was a button to lift the lid.
There was a button to switch on the seat warmer.
There was a button to regulate the intensity of the seat warmer.
There was a button to switch on the nozzles used for the bidet function.
There was a button to choose from several options of spray from those nozzles.
There was a button to switch on the music.
There was a button to choose what kind of music you wish to listen to. Perhaps a classical masterpiece to complement your contemplating? Or perhaps some heavy metal would be more suitable?
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the flushing was completely automatic. But yes, there was a button for it, too, if you preferred to flush in the old-fashioned manual way.  

What are the main reasons people stay in a ryokan?

Getting pampered in a ryokan with an onsen

One of the favorite reasons why people stay in a ryokan is onsen – the hot baths.

Since Japan has plenty of natural hot springs of volcanic origin, many a ryokan are built at places where the hot springs are found. These hot springs then supply water directly to the ryokan’s hot tubs.

There’s nothing like soaking in an outdoor hot tub while watching the snowflakes fall silently into the tub. So pleasant and so relaxing. And yes, so quintessentially Japanese! So put on the yukata (Japanese robe) that you find in your room and head to the onsen for a warm bath before dinner.

Having a gourmet feast in your ryokan

Picture of a young lady dressed in a traditional yukata, enjoying her kaiseki dinner in a ryokan.
A gourmet feast is a part of the ryokan experience.

Another of the favorite reasons why people stay in the ryokan are the gourmet experiences.

Ryokans typically serve the Japanese haute cuisine, called kaiseki, for dinner and breakfast.

Oh, those heavenly, exquisite, mouth-watering meals! Delight for your eyes and an ecstasy for your taste buds, meticulously prepared by ryokan’s chef.

The meals served in ryokan are multi-course feasts, comprising delicacies from local and seasonal ingredients.

Will you drink cold or warm sake with your dinner?

Experiencing the Japanese hospitality

A stay in a ryokan is far more than just a stay in a hotel. It is truly about experiencing hospitality, relaxing and recharging your batteries.

Ryokans are popular with the Japanese people and we believe it is one of the unmissable experiences to be savored by foreign visitors as well.

While there are also some modest, simple ryokans, we definitely recommend choosing one with nice hot baths and gourmet meals – hey, when it’s time to be pampered, it’s time to be pampered. True, you don’t do it every day and neither do the locals.

Sounds tempting? Check out our 10-day Japan itinerary for recommendations where to stay as well as other useful ideas to help you plan your trip to Japan.

What should you know about staying in a ryokan?

There are several handy things to know about ryokan and onsen, a couple of rules and some etiquette stuff so that your ryokan experience stays amazing.

A young lady dressed in a yukata in a traditional ryokan room.
Tatami mat floor, a low table and a legless chair, and Kristine dressed in a yukata, enjoying her ryokan stay.
  • The check-in process is usually very easy. The typical check-in times are around 3-4 pm, and we suggest arriving at these times, so that you have enough time to relax and enjoy the hot baths before dinner. Your ryokan attendant will greet you, offer you a cup of green tea, accompany you to your room and explain some of the house rules such as meal times and opening hours of the hot tubs. Should you have any questions or requests about your stay, don’t hesitate to ask him/her – even if it means using Google translate 😊
  • Slippers (provided by ryokan) are worn inside a ryokan. Leave your shoes in the entryway (lobby) and change for the slippers. However, don’t walk on tatami mats inside your room in them.
  • Inside your room you’ll find a yukata – a typical Japanese dress for both men and women. You can wear this in your room and anywhere inside the ryokan (such as for dinner) and you may also sleep in it.
  • While private bathrooms with those super-fancy toilets are a norm in the majority of luxury ryokans, there are quite a few traditional ryokans (including some in the luxurious end) that don’t have en-suite bathrooms. Just something to bear in mind when booking. Occasionally, you may also find ryokans offering western-style rooms. We would definitely recommend choosing a Japanese-style room for the experience of it, so again, it’s something to bear in mind when booking.
  • The meal times will be agreed upon your arrival. Meals may be served in your room or in a dining area. They aren’t any fast meals, but a true gourmet experience. You may expect up to 10 courses for dinner (don’t worry, the portion sizes are such so that you won’t blow up 😊).
  • Ryokans come in various shapes, sizes and price range. While most are smaller establishments, one may occasionally find larger, hotel-style ryokans as well. There are modest, basic ryokans and there are also beautiful luxury ryokans.
  • Prices are usually quoted per person per night and include gourmet dinner and breakfast. The price range starts at around 70 EUR / 75 USD per person per night including the meals and goes up to more than 300 EUR / 330 USD per person per night including meals in the most luxurious ryokans.

Please note some ryokans, especially the smaller ones in rural areas, accept only cash payment.

What should you know about going to an onsen?

View of a traditional Japanese hot tub (onsen).
Visiting onsen – the traditional Japanese hot tub – is an unforgettable part of the ryokan experience.
  • Japan has an abundance of natural hot springs. These hot springs of volcanic origin have various healing effects – in fact, the Japanese jokingly say they may heal everything except a heartbreak. 😊
    Many ryokans are built at places where the hot springs are found, using them to supply their onsen – hot tubs. Most ryokans have both indoor and outdoor baths – as the water is quite warm, even the outdoor baths can be used year-round. It’s indeed a very pleasant and relaxing experience when you’re soaking in the outdoor hot tub, watching snowflakes fall silently into the tub. We were lucky to experience this in our ryokan in Gora and it was an unforgettable experience.
  • Start your visit to the onsen in a changing room. Undress here and put your clothes in one of the baskets or lockers.
    Depending on your ryokan, you may need to bring your towel from the room or they may be provided in the changing room. We suggest using two towels – a big one (to dry yourself after the bath) and a small one. The small one is typically used to cover your private parts while walking from the changing room to the bath, however it cannot be used inside the hot tub. Put it aside before getting in the tub or put it on top of your head, but don’t let it touch the water.
  • Before taking a hot bath, wash your body properly. You will find sinks with shower hoses, soaps and stools somewhere on the way from the changing room to the baths. Sit down on the stool, wash yourself properly with the soap and rinse all the soap properly before getting in the tub.
  • Enjoy your hot tub naked. Swimwear is not worn anywhere in the hot baths. If you wish, you may cover your private parts with the small towel while walking towards the bath, however don’t let it touch the water – you need to be completely naked in the bath – you hang out with locals in the tub while it’s all hanging out – that’s how the Japanese do it. 😊 Many onsen are gender-segregated, but some are common for both men and women.
  • Tattoos are traditionally not acceptable anywhere in the onsen, due to an age-old association of tattoos with the Japanese mafia. You may occasionally find a ryokan that is ok with tattoos – check with them before booking if this applies to you.
  • After the bath, don’t wash with a shower as you’d wash off the healing waters. Just gently dry yourself with a towel and get dressed in the changing room.
  • Some top-notch ryokans also offer rooms with their private hot springs bath (often situated on the terrace or balcony, overlooking a beautiful garden). These rooms are always pricier; however, you may consider this option if you are not comfortable with being naked in the public hot baths or if you have tattoos.

It may sound like a lot of rules, but in fact it’s fairly easy. So just soak in, relax and enjoy this wonderful experience.


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Michal is the writer and photographer of the Wanderlust Designers.

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