Well, first of all, “What’s a ryokan?” Well… That’s an extremely difficult question to answer. In light of this fact, we at JAPANiCAN have thrown together this guide – Ryokan 101 – in order to offer information that should hopefully answer your questions. So, again, what’s a ryokan? Well, try to imagine a top class restaurant that also offers comfortable accommodation, throw on top of this a building with exquisite architecture set against the backdrop of beautiful natural scenery which changes with the seasons, then we are beginning to get a picture of what the essence of a ryokan is. While, with a hotel, we pick a destination and then book a hotel nearby, with a ryokan, we pick a ryokan and that is the destination. We’ve written this guide and divided it into 5 different categories (and included a miscellaneous section and some useful links). If, once you’ve read the whole guide and there are still some questions left unanswered, please leave a comment and we will do our best to answer your questions. Let’s begin…
As with hotels, rooms in ryokan vary a lot in both size and contents. However, the basic differences from a hotel are that the room is usually designed in a traditional Japanese style. The rooms are referred to as “Japanese-style rooms” on the site, or in Japanese they are called washitsu. The rooms are invariably floored with tatami and tend to have sliding shoji doors and guests usually sleep on soft fluffy futon. Futon are usually stored in cupboards during the day and laid out only in the evening before going to bed. Some rooms have their own showers/bathrooms. On JAPANiCAN’s accommodation details pages, these facilities are indicated using this icon: .
Room sizes are traditionally measured by the number of tatami mats in a room. On the JAPANiCAN site, we have converted room sizes to both square feet and square meters. At first glance, on paper, rooms might appear slightly smaller than standard hotel rooms, but it must be remembered that when futon are put away during the day there is more available space in the room. Also, unlike hotel rooms on JAPANiCAN, the size listed for Japanese-style rooms refers only to the main room. This means that the entrance way, toilets, bathrooms etc. are not included in the displayed room size (meaning that you’ll have more space than is listed on the site!). Traditionally, ryokan made use of traditional Japanese-style toilets, but these days, more and more ryokan have adopted Western-style – some of them surpassing the bog -standard toilet, with high-tech warming seats and built in bidet functionality. Rooms equipped with private toilet facilities are indicated using this icon: .
Rooms generally contain standard amenities, including yukata, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo etc. As it is traditional in Japan for people to remove their shoes when entering someone’s house, so too is it common for guests to have to remove their shoes when entering a ryokan. It is important that guests respect this tradition and pay attention to any points at which they might be required to remove outdoor footwear. Most ryokan will provide slippers for guests to use indoors, after they have removed their shoes.
One of the things that must be said about the relationship between food and ryokan is that really, one of the main attractions of the ryokan is its food. Generally, the food served is traditional kaiseki-ryori cuisine. Due to an abundance of local specialties and seasonal varieties of food in Japan the menu will change accordingly throughout the year to suit the season. Great care is taken in the presentation of the food, and often even the motifs and designs on plates and bowls will be seasonally inspired. The typical format for meals in ryokan is that the fee for a one night stay includes both dinner and breakfast. These are sometimes served in the guest’s room at a low table, with comfy cushions to sit on or sometimes at a restaurant or dining hall – depending on the ryokan.
Some ryokan also offer a breakfast-only option, and also a no-meal option, but please be warned: a lot of ryokan are situated in extremely remote rural areas, and there won’t necessarily be other eating options in the immediate vicinity. That being said, this depends on the ryokan and its location, so it is important that guests check these details on the JAPANiCAN website before booking. A growing number of ryokan are sensitive to guests’ food requirements, and will gladly alter their menu to suit individual wishes, however, these requests are necessary in advance and can be requested via the JAPANiCAN Customer Service department. Although meals are traditionally served in rooms, it is becoming more and more common for ryokan to have dining areas as well for guests to take their meals in.
Another one of the unique aspects of the ryokan tradition is the incorporation of onsen into the communal bathing facilities. Typically, ryokan are very common in areas with natural hot spring sources and the majority of ryokan contain separate male and female public baths. Whilst arrangements vary, the standard practice of Japanese bathing applies to pretty much all bathing facilities in Japan. Ryokan usually provide a yukata, which guests will change into before making their way down to the baths. There will usually be a room to change in and place clothes in a basket. Sometimes, there is a secure locker for guests to store important belongings in while they are bathing, with a key system or code system – similar to a swimming pool locker.
Once visitors have removed all of their clothes, they step through to the bathing area, armed only with a small towel. There is always a section for showering immediately upon entering, and it is very important to shower whilst seated on the small stools in cubicles before entering the bath. Because everyone shares the communal bath water, it is considered rude to get into the bath without having showered and washed first. Also, the small towels that visitors take into the bath should not be dipped into the bath water, and bathers should not submerge their heads in the bath water. Aside from these rules, a bath should be enjoyed and is the perfect place to relax. Baths are open early in the morning, usually until midnight, and sometimes even overnight. Sometimes male and female facilities switch, to allow guests to try different baths and also to give the staff an opportunity to clean, so please double check the hours with staff. As with toilets in Japan, it’s important to look out for the symbols for man (男) and woman (女).
Of course, people are welcome to bathe whenever the bath is open, however, the common format for bathing in the evening is to change into a yukata and bathe before dinner, and to bathe again after dinner while the staff clear away from dinner and lay out futons in the room. For those who are shy or uncomfortable about bathing with others, or for those who want to take a bath together as a family, there are options. One is to book a room that has an attached open-air bath; another is to rent a private bath which ryokan often have on offer. Please check before booking as to whether these options are available.
Tattoos are considered taboo in Japan, because they are historically linked with gangsters and crime families, so a number of hot spring facilities ban those with tattoos from using communal areas. However, sometimes it is possible for those with tattoos to make use of the 2 private options mentioned above. Those with tattoos who are concerned about this issue are asked to contact Customer Support to inquire about the rules and options available at specific ryokan.
As mentioned above, some guest rooms have their own showers/bathrooms. On JAPANiCAN’s accommodation details pages, these facilities are indicated using this icon: . However, the water in bathing facilities in rooms is not often sourced from onsen.
There are three major varieties of ryokan, which require explanation: the first is a standard ryokan (which we have used as the basis of this article), then there are minshuku and shukubo.
Minshuku differ from ryokan in that they are more akin to a bed & breakfast or guesthouse. They are usually part of a private household that offers accommodation to travelers. Guests cannot expect the kind of service that they would receive at a standard ryokan, for example, they might have to lay out their own futon before they go to sleep, or share common toilets with other guests. On the other hand, due to the fact that minshuku are run by a family, there will be a more personal atmosphere to the accommodation and equally, the rates will be lower than that of a normal ryokan.
Shukubo are literally “temple lodgings”; a temple that offers room and board to travelers. Again, guests should not expect the high standards service as they would experience in a ryokan, but conversely, this is an experience in itself in which guests can witness a Buddhist priest’s lifestyle up close and have access to a unique and not often seen side of Japanese traditional culture. The food on offer at shukubo will be the kind of vegetarian food that the monks eat every day. For those with an interest in Buddhism, this is the perfect place to experience the authentic lifestyle of these religious monks.
One big difference from a normal hotel is that ryokan are not commonly used as a base for sightseeing, and those considering staying in a rural one should be aware of this. Saying this, there are some exceptions – particularly for ryokan situated within famous sightseeing locations such as Kyoto, Takayama, Hakone, and so on.
Would you prefer to spend most of your time in the countryside relaxing in a bath, or would you prefer a brief ryokan experience in Kyoto, with more sightseeing?
Is the ryokan you are interested in within easy reach of public transit, supermarkets, convenience stores, sightseeing etc.? Are you happy with its location?
Would you like to eat all of your meals at the ryokan, or are you interested in different options i.e. breakfast only, or no meals etc.?
What kind of season do you want to go in and what kind of food do you want to eat?
It is also important to note that ryokan are typically more expensive than hotels. This higher rate is generally a result of included meals, service, location and scenery, and the experience and stature of the ryokan itself.
When a guest first checks in to a ryokan they will usually be welcomed by their nakai san. The nakai san will wait on guests for the duration of their stay at the ryokan. They will serve dinner and breakfast, and organize laying out and putting away futon in guests’ rooms. Recently, some ryokan do not have nakai san, so there may be some cases where they are not present.
Service at ryokan is superlative, and all of the staff will try to make your stay as pleasant as possible. It is not guaranteed that all ryokan will have English-speaking staff, however, some do. Wherever possible, we have tried to indicate this on the JAPANiCAN.com site.
Whilst ryokan supply a host of amenities for bathing, business-related facilities , for example, Internet access, copy machines, rental PCs etc. are not likely to be available. As mentioned above, people tend to stay at ryokan to get away from it all and enjoy a quiet retreat to a more natural environment.
Alcohol is on sale at ryokan, sometimes from vending-machines, sometimes from fridges in rooms or from a bar.
- check-in and check-out
Check-in and check-out times vary from establishment to establishment, however, check-in is usually around 14:00-15:00 and check-out around 10:00-11:00.
All fees are included in a JAPANiCAN booking, however, all guests (including Japanese) must pay a 150yen tax to the Japanese government for the use of any onsen. This fee is unfortunately not included in the JAPANiCAN fee and will have to be paid in person at the ryokan.