To put it simply, a ryokan is a Japanese-style inn. But unlike its Western-style counterpart, the ryokan is an embodiment of the Japanese lifestyle which was treasured and passed down over generations. From the traditional and often historical architecture to a skillful level of attention and service, spending the night at a ryokan is definitely an ideal way to experience the “true Japan”.
The origin of the Japanese ryokan dates back to more than 1300 years ago when the Buddhist monks started setting up the so-called fuseya (free guest house) to assist travelers. Back in those days, transportation between regions was difficult and traveling was indeed perilous, resulting in the death of a large number of travelers. That’s why the fuseya was established to provide shelter for those in need.
As times went on, the priorities of travelers changed: they required not only a space to stay overnight, but also good meals and comfortability; and thus facilities had to modify to adapt to the guest’s growing demand, forming the basis of modern-day ryokans. Omotenashi – “offering the best service without the expectation of a reward” – is the core value of every ryokan, and if you want to experience this traditional lifestyle and hospitality, there is no better chance than staying in a ryokan.
Where to find ryokans?
Ryokans can be found all over Japan, and to some extent in Taiwan. However, they vary greatly in terms of size and style. Some ryokans are small family-run businesses, while others boast facilities like a modern hotel with hundreds of rooms. Regarding price, ryokans also range from no-frills, budget options to the luxury establishment catering for the affluents. While extremes do exist, the average cost of a stay is between 15,000¥ and 25,000¥ per person, per night. That includes an elaborate dinner in the evening, followed by a sumptuous breakfast the next morning.
The characteristics of Japanese ryokans
As an embodiment of the traditional Japanese lifestyle, ryokans combine many of the best elements from the olden times, such as tatami floors, futon beds (which are usually stored during the day and laid out only in the evening before going to bed), and Japanese style baths. Many establishments also incorporate onsen, natural hot springs, that’s why ryokan is very common in areas with hot spring sources. The way a ryokan blends with its surrounding is another important facet of the ryokan culture. Stunning gardens, open-air baths, rooms with an impressive view are usually an integral part of most ryokans, especially those in the high-end category.
When staying at a ryokan, another factor that should not be overlooked is the food. In fact, many Japanese people select (or neglect) a ryokan based on the quality of the food provided. That’s why great care is taken in both the preparation and presentation of each dish, and every single dish should reflect the ryokan’s personality. Meals are typically kaiseki-ryōri (Japanese haute cuisine) – a multi-course menu that features local and seasonal specialties. But in some special cases, it is replaced by shōjin ryōri – vegetarian meals using foods processed from vegetables and soybeans. In general, meals are served in the inn’s dining hall, but a good number of ryokan serve meals directly in the guest room, with attendants bringing each carefully prepared dish to the table.
Because of their emphasis on traditional style and atmosphere, ryokan might appear rigid for first-timers who are unfamiliar with the procedures and etiquette. But in reality, ryokan are very hospitable places, and staying in one is indeed a unique experience when traveling to Japan. However, there are certain etiquettes that you should follow to enjoy your stay.
- During your stay, you are encouraged to wear the yukata – a casual summer kimono made of cotton or synthetic fabric. You can wear it to the dining hall, to the onsen, and in some hot spring towns, you can even walk outside in yukata.
- The onsen or Japanese style bath is perhaps the most challenging part (at least for me). It’s a communal bath and you share it with other guests. The baths are segregated into male- and female section. You are not allowed to bring anything in this area, except for a small towel. Before entering the bath tube, you have to wash your hair and body. After taking a bath, you should cleanse yourself once again with cool water. It’s a lengthy and stringent process but the end effect is purely relaxing.
- Don’t drag your luggage on the tatami floors because heavy bags and suitcases may damage the surfaces. There is usually a designated area for putting your bags. Very often your attendants will handle the luggage for you when the check-in process is completed.
- When wearing the yukata, put the right lapel tightly over the left, with the obi tied loosely to your side. Never put the left lapel over the right, because it is believed to bring bad luck. Only dead people wear yukata that way!
- When inside the onsen, make sure that your head and towel don’t fall into the water.