So, I did a thing recently. I stayed at a ryokan in what seemed like the middle of nowhere in Japan and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
With all of the hot spring soaking, relaxing, and eating I did during my stay, I 100% reached maximal levels of relaxation and fullness.
This post will first break down and define the ryokan experience and will be followed by a deep dive into my personal experience at a remote, countryside ryokan.
If you are traveling to Japan and are contemplating staying at a ryokan for yourself, then I hope the following information will help you learn more to see if this experience is right for you.
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What Is A Ryokan?
In a nutshell, a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that provides guests with a unique and authentic Japanese overnight experience.
Staying at a ryokan generally involves sleeping on futons on tatami mats, and wearing yukata robes while relaxing in the common areas.
Other activities that guests can enjoy while staying at a ryokan include soaking in an onsen hot spring, taking part in a tea ceremony, and dining on kaiseki cuisine.
When staying at a ryokan, visitors can expect to enjoy traditional Japanese cuisine and hospitality. Truly, the food and staff are both an experience of their own!
Ryokans are typically located in scenic areas such as by the ocean or in the mountains, and many offer views of nearby gardens or temples. Whether you’re looking for a place to relax and rejuvenate, or simply want to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, staying at a ryokan is an unforgettable experience.
Onsen vs. Ryokan
Very quickly before we dive into what the ryokan experience actually looks and feels like, I’d like to go over the difference between an onsen and a ryokan. (Long story short: the primary difference between one vs the other is whether or not you can sleep there overnight.)
Onsen refers to any body of water that is fed by a natural hot spring in Japan (regardless of its location, whether it’s in a manmade tub or in a natural pool). Not all of the onsens you visit will provide you with a place to sleep. A lot of them are day-use facilities only.
Ryokan refers to a “traditional Japanese inn”. Ryokans tend to have a few distinguishing features such as tatami mats for sleeping, traditional wood paneling, and half board (dinner and breakfast). Guests will usually take off their shoes upon entering the inn and will wear yukatas during their stay.
And for the most part, the majority of ryokans have some sort of bathing/onsen area. Staying at a ryokan often costs a lot more, but in my opinion, it is totally worth the money.
History Of The Ryokan
Ryokans have been in existence for centuries, and staying at one is considered an intimate way to experience Japanese culture. The first ryokans are thought to have emerged during the Nara period (710-794), serving as a way to welcome wary samurais and traders who needed rest before continuing on their long journey.
As such, they are typically located on the Tokaido Highway which connects the capital city of Edo (current day Tokyo) to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
Ryokans started gaining popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868), when travelers began to visit hot springs for their health benefits. At first, these inns were fairly basic experiences, offering little more than a place to sleep and some simple meals.
But over time, they began to offer more amenities, such as private baths, activities, and gardens. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the rise of rail travel, ryokans became more widely available and increasingly popular with both domestic and foreign travelers.
Today, there are over 50,000 ryokans in Japan, ranging from small family-run businesses to large luxury resorts.
While some aspects of the ryokan experience have changed over time, others remain steadfastly traditional. Staying at a ryokan is truly a unique way to experience the unique atmosphere and astounding Japanese hospitality.
Where Can You Find Ryokans?
While you can find ryokans scattered throughout all of Japan, the most authentic ones are located in more scenic areas, such as Hakone near Mt. Fuji, or in the Kyushu region of Japan.
Some of these destinations have even been designated onsen towns. An onsen town is a town that is built around a hot spring. These towns are typically home to a bunch of ryokans, and most of the ryokans have private indoor and outdoor hot springs that you can use at any time.
In addition to the hot springs, onsen towns also offer a variety of other activities, such as hiking, cycling, and exploring historical temples and shrines.
If you’re interested in staying in an onsen town, you can consider the following:
- Hakone: Hakone is a picturesque onsen town located just outside of Tokyo. The area is known for its stunning views of Mt. Fuji, as well as its hot springs, which have been visited by Japanese royalty for centuries.
- Kusatsu Onsen: Kusatsu is one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan, and is located in the mountains of central Japan, about three and a half hours away from Tokyo by train. The town is home to several large hot springs, as well as a number of traditional ryokans.
- Yufuin Onsen: Yufuin Onsen is a small onsen town located in southern Japan. The town sits at the foot of Mount Yufu within the Oita Prefecture and is known for its beautiful mountain scenery great for hiking, as well as its hot springs.
- Iwate Prefecture – Iwate Prefecture is located in the Tōhoku region of northeastern Japan, and is known for its stunning natural scenery. From towering mountains to hidden hot springs, there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. Onsen towns include Toshichi Onsen, Osawa Onsen, Hanamaki Onsenkyo and more.
- Beppu Onsen – Beppu is a city located in Ōita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in Japan. The city is known for its hot springs, which are some of the most active in the country. There are over 2,000 springs in Beppu Onsen, and while it is home to some of the most diverse hot springs in the country, the sand bath is its standout feature (requires you to be buried up to your neck in a giant pit of warm volcanic sand).
- Shima Onsen – Shima Onsen is located in the Gunma prefecture of Japan, about two hours from Tokyo by bullet train. The town is best known for its hot springs, which have been used for centuries as a form of therapy. The town is also home to a number of temples and shrines. Shima Onsen has a long history, dating back to the 8th century when it was first mentioned in a Buddhist scripture. In recent years, Shima Onsen has become increasingly popular with foreign visitors, who are drawn to its picturesque setting and its rich history.
What To Expect At A Ryokan
As stated above, a ryokan is not just an ordinary stay at a hotel. Here, you can expect exceptional hospitality, tranquility, and the truest sense of relaxation.
While ryokans can differ in amenities and style, there are several components that are consistent regardless of the type of ryokan you stay in. This includes the room, the food, and the onsen baths.
The Rooms At Ryokans
Ryokans typically have tatami mat floors and guests sleep on futons. The rooms often have shoji screens that can be used to create different areas within the room, and some ryokans also have gardens. When staying at a ryokan, visitors typically are given slippers and yukatas, or casual kimonos, to wear.
Some fancier ryokans typically offer a couple of different room styles. The offerings can range from single rooms to double rooms, and Japanese-style beds to Western-style beds.
Japanese-style: This consists of a futon mattress, sheets blankets and a pillow, placed on the tatami floor.
If the futon is too thin for your preference, you can potentially ask the housekeeping staff to provide another mattress so you can stack them for additional comfort.
Western-style: Some ryokans offer wester-style beds, meaning they are raised off the ground.
While the traditional ryokans may offer only Japanese-style beds, the more modern ones may have both options available. You can choose the bed type when you book your stay.
The room will have a table, low to the ground, with fresh hot tea that will constantly be replenished as needed throughout your stay. Along with the table, there will be chairs that you’ll find do not have legs, allowing you to sit on the ground at the table.
The Food At Ryokans
Staying at a ryokan is a full-service experience. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price of your room. This is one of the main reasons why it’s such a special experience compared to western-style hotels.
Guests are also typically served these traditional meals in their rooms.
Let’s start with dinner. The food served is Japanese kaiseki style, a beautiful array of dishes featuring seasonal ingredients. Many ryokans use local ingredients, so the menu changes with the seasons.
Common dishes include sashimi, tempura, grilled fish, tofu, some variation of rice, and soup.
Once you’re done eating, simply leave your trays outside for the innkeepers to collect.
Breakfast usually consists of rice, miso soup, fish, salad, and pickled vegetables.
It’s important to note that there are no substitutions and no menu selections. Some ryokans may have a vegan option, but still, there are no substitutions if you choose that variation.
If you have dietary restrictions, be sure to do some research before settling on a specific ryokan.
The Onsen At Ryokans
An onsen is a hot spring bath. Most ryokans will have an onsen built into the property.
Depending on the ryokan, some will offer public baths, private baths, or both. And despite them being called ‘baths’, you’re actually supposed to just be soaking. The expectation is that you’ve already showered and are clean before even getting into the tubs.
Here’s an example of what a private tub could look like:
While the shape and size of the baths may differ, rules and etiquette will be consistent across the board. Here are some basic rules to follow:
- Take off all your clothes before going inside an onsen. That means bathing suits are not allowed.
- Wash your body thoroughly first (private parts included), ideally with a wash towel, before entering the water.
- No washing inside the bathtub. There is a separate space provided for washing, usually with bathtubs and showers.
- Do not jump in. No running. No swimming.
- Do not put the wash towel inside the water.
- Do not stretch out and recline like in western hot tubs.
- Do not submerge your head under water since getting hair in the water is considered unhygienic.
- To enjoy onsen safely, do not go into the bath after drinking too much (the high temps are not good for you after alcohol consumption).
- No glass in the area, as everyone is naked.
- Many hot spring places do not accept people with tattoos. If you have a tattoo, you’ll have to be mindful of which onsen baths you’re allowed in.
How Much Does It Cost To Stay At A Ryokan?
Staying at a ryokan can be a unique and memorable experience, but it is important to know what to expect in terms of cost.
Prices for ryokan accommodations can vary widely, depending on the location, season, amenities, and level of luxury.
In general, it is possible to find a basic ryokan room for around $100 to $150 USD per night. For a more luxurious experience, prices can range anywhere from $250 to even $600 USD per night.
Keep in mind that some ryokans also charge per person, rather than per room, so be sure to double-check rates and select the correct number of people when booking.
With a little research, it is possible to find a ryokan that fits both your budget and your travel plans.
Are Ryokans Worth The Money?
If you’ve learned anything at all from this post, it’s that ryokans can be quite expensive, with rates often exceeding $250 USD per night. There are a few factors that contribute to the high cost of staying at a ryokan.
Staying at a ryokan usually includes breakfast and dinner, both of which are typically elaborate multi-course meals.
Many ryokans also offer extras such as private hot springs and traditional spa treatments, which can add significantly to the cost.
While staying at a ryokan is certainly not cheap, it is an experience that is well worth the price–especially if you’ve never experienced anything like it.
I’d say that if you’re a budget-minded traveler interested in experiencing a ryokan, simply book a stay for just one night. In all honesty, while the experience is amazing, 1-2 nights is all you really need to relax and feel rejuvenated.
Read Next: 10 Best Ryokans In Hakone, Japan
My Ryokan Experience: Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan
Shima Onsen is a hot spring town located in Gunma prefecture, Japan.
Despite the long 2-3 hour bus journey to get there, our stay at Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan was absolutely wonderful.
Because I specifically chose a non-touristy onsen town to visit for my first ryokan experience, it was that much more unforgettable!
The hotel offered free bikes to ride around town, as well as yukatas to relax in around the property. We quickly took a spin on the bikes to the local convenience store and picked up some mochi.
Since my boyfriend has a tattoo and many public baths don’t allow tattoos, I specifically looked for a ryokan that offered private soaking tubs. Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan had not only a large public soaking area but also three private open-air soaking tubs that are first-come-first-served.
The private tubs are so adorable and tranquil! Here’s one of them:
This is the entrance to one of the open-air private soaking tubs. And since it was February (winter), the warm sun and hot bath water mixed with the cold air made for a very nice soaking experience.
While the ryokan offered both Japanese-style tatami rooms, they also had western-style rooms consisting of tatami floors and raised single beds.
Next up is the food! The food was, very simply put, unforgettable. I still daydream about it to this day!
For dinner, we had a whole assortment of cute dishes including freshly made konjac, sweet beans, grilled fish, mixed kettle rice, soft tofu, pickled vegetables, soup, and dessert.
For breakfast, there was another huge spread of mini dishes! This time there was fruit, salad, rice, egg, natto, and fish.
Both of these meals were as delicious as they were picturesque.
Was the trek to get to Shima Onsen worth it? 100%. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
Some Basic Onsen Rules To Know
Before you jump right into an onsen for the first time, there are a few rules you should be aware of.
- Get naked.
- As this is a bath and not a pool, you must take off all of your clothing and leave it in the changing area. There is no need to be shy because everyone else there is also doing the same. It’s a judgment-free zone and nobody is going to be looking at you.
- Rinse off.
- After entering the bath area, you’ll need to wash yourself off at the showers before entering the baths. (In Japan, baths are for soaking, not for cleaning yourself. You gotta do that beforehand.) The shower areas typically consist of a showerhead, a small stool, and shower/bath toiletries.
- Put your stuff away.
- Once you’ve completely rinsed off, feel free to enter the baths. Some people like to bring a face towelette with them (to be placed on the head or the face). Aside from this towel, refrain from bringing anything else in.
- Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the warm soothing waters of the onsen!
Got tattoos? Read my post on: 10 Tattoo-Friendly Onsens Near Tokyo, Japan
Essential Tips For Staying At A Ryokan
- Dinner and breakfast are included in the price of your stay. Expect a huge spread of traditional Japanese deliciousness for both meals.
- At some ryokans, you’ll eat sitting cross-legged on the floor. At other more Westernized ones, you can eat at tables while sitting in chairs.
- Just like in Japanese homes, it is customary to take off your shoes before entering Japanese inns. More modern ryokans might not require you to take off your shoes until you get to your room. No matter what though, you should never wear your shoes on the tatami mats.
- Many ryokans feature a public soaking area or onsen, that you can use if you’re not afraid of being naked in front of others.
- It’s customary to shower before getting into the bath so you don’t dirty the water.
- The traditional yukata that you’ll be wearing doubles as both pajamas and the outfit you wear to dinner.
- At some ryokans, walls are divided by shoji, translucent paper room dividers. Since they don’t offer much protection from sound, always be mindful of other guests who might be sleeping.
- During breakfast, coffee is not guaranteed (depends on the ryokan you choose). If you know you’ll need more caffeine than what a cup of green tea can offer, pack your own instant coffee to drink in the morning.
- Tattoos are technically still looked down upon in Japan. Many ryokans do not allow tattoos to be shown in public soaking areas. If you have tattoos, it may be best to look for ryokans offering private onsen tubs.
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