Ryokan, Machiya, Minshuku: Japanese Accommodation Explained

Hoshinoya Tokyo has taken the ryokan concept and reimagined it for an urban audience
Hoshinoya Tokyo has taken the ryokan concept and reimagined it for an urban audience | Courtesy of Hoshinoya Tokyo / Expedia
Culture Trip

So, you’re coming to Japan and looking to immerse yourself in Japanese culture? Staying in traditional digs, bathing in a communal Japanese-style bath and breakfasting on rice and grilled fish goes a long way towards helping you get Japan’s number. We’ve picked out a selection of top traditional Japanese accommodation, all bookable with Culture Trip, to help get your trip planning started.

Accommodation-wise, you have three main choices. Ryokan are inns, ranging from basic to seriously luxurious, whose rooms arranged in the traditional Japanese fashion, with futons instead of beds, tatami mats on floors, half-board typically included and formal service. Minshuku also provide meals, but tend to be simple, family-run B&Bs; bathrooms are often shared, but you get to interact with local families. Finally, machiya are traditional wooden townhouses in Kyoto, particularly popular with merchants and craftspeople before WWII, where the residential area used to be at the back, while the front end was used as a shop or workshop. Many have been converted into self-sufficient units available for short-term rental, so that you can self-cater in a traditional Japanese house.


1. Hoshinoya Tokyo, for an urban ryokan experience in Tokyo

Boutique Hotel, Ryokan

A woman walks behind a screen past a stylish dining room with a large wood table and shelves with dishes at Hoshinoya Tokyo
Courtesy of Hoshinoya Tokyo / Expedia

A short walk from the Imperial Palace and the National Museum of Modern Art, this upscale Tokyo inn takes the ryokan concept and reimagines it for an urban audience. Each floor of this 17-storey skyscraper is essentially a six-room ryokan, with each of the rooms connected to a central ochanoma (shared lounge), where you may help yourself to refreshments. Rooms combine traditional features such as futons and shoji window screens with Western dining tables and free-standing baths deep enough to swim in. Dining-wise, choose between Western and Japanese breakfasts, then treat yourself to elegant, seasonal Japanese fish dishes in the evening.

2. Zaborin Ryokan, for hot springs and high-end cuisine in Hokkaido

Ryokan, Luxury

A guest villa with an indoor onsen and raised bedroom area, all with floor-to-ceiling views of the woods at Zaborin Ryokan
Courtesy of Zaborin Ryokan / Expedia

If it’s luxury in the countryside that you seek, then look no further than this high-end, multiple-award-winning ryokan attached to natural hot springs in the wilds of Hokkaido, overlooked by the snow-tipped peak of Mount Yotei. Take your pick of the 15 individually conceived villas, slumber on luxurious futons and soak in your very own private indoor and outdoor onsens, or else meditate on the surrounding nature through the floor-to-ceiling windows. In the dining area, treat your taste buds to an exceptional kita kaiseki (reimagined fine dining) menu, with seasonal ingredients supplied by local producers and an in-house forager.

3. Nishimuraya Honkan, for private hot spring baths on the Honshu coast


The pretty exterior of Nishimuraya Honkan with Japanese trees and shrubs, stone lantern and a small stone bridge along a pebbly path
Courtesy of Nishimuraya Honkan / Expedia

Relaxation is the focus at this luxe ryokan-with-onsen on the north coast of Honshu, a short train ride from Kyoto. Breathe in the cypress-scented air as you float in the rectangular outdoor pool, surrounded by a bamboo grove, or else opt for a different vantage point by soaking in one of the round fukunu-yu baths. Inside, the rooms are all decorated in the austere sukiya style: kanji scrolls on walls, tatami mats, minimal furnishings, traditional low dining tables and seats to kneel on. The superior rooms and suites with private open-air baths are worth the splurge.


4. Minshuku Kojima, for a home-from-home in Nozawaonsen


A traditional dining space with pillows around a table, tatami mats and sliding doors to bedroom at Minshuku Kojima
Courtesy of Minshuku Kojima / Expedia

This low-key, family-run minshuku comprises eight traditional, sparsely furnished tatami rooms where you roll out your futon by night; facilities are shared here, so form an orderly bathroom queue. The generous breakfast spread includes miso soup and rice grown in the hosts’ own fields; you can also opt for a home-cooked dinner featuring home-grown seasonal vegetables. The Nitta-no-Yu onsen across the street is a wonderful place to soak your aching muscles, après-ski. Minshuku Kojima is particularly popular during the winter ski season due to its designated ski drying room.

5. Minshuku Genroku, for skiing and hot spring soaks in Nozawaonsen


Traditional dining space with low table and cushions on tatami mats with shoji screens at Minshuku Genroku
Courtesy of Minshuku Genroku / Expedia

Whether you’re here to hit the hot water or the powder, this friendly minshuku makes for an excellent stay. Dust off your Japanese phrasebook, or be prepared to communicate in the universal language of smiles, since no English is spoken. However, there’s nothing quite like being thrown in the deep end to make your trip memorable. Dine on extensive Japanese breakfasts and dinners – which include produce from the owner’s own vegetable garden – then rest easy in your snug futon room.

6. Minshuku Inn Shirahama Ekinoyado, for a wallet-friendly stay in Shirahama


The half-circle sign depicting a Japanese man in a tub with Japanese writing for the Minshuku Inn Shirahama Ekinoyado
Courtesy of Minshuku Inn Shirahama Ekinoyado / Expedia

If you’re looking to hit the white-sand beaches and onsen of Shirahama, a hot springs resort town south of Osaka, but wish to avoid the stratospheric cost of staying beachside, then this minshuku near the JR Shirahama train station just might be the answer. While the location is not the most scenic, all five rooms are simply furnished in the traditional manner, with tatami mats and rolled-up futons. Unlike many minshuku, all rooms are en-suite – a bonus if you prefer not to queue for your morning ablutions. Some rooms have freestanding tubs on private terraces so that you can bathe al fresco, while the rice-and-seaweed pandas that form part of your extensive breakfast are almost too cute to eat.


7. The Gion House, for self-caterers in Higashiyama, Kyoto


A traditional dining area with low table and cushions on tatami mats with sliding doors to other rooms at the Gion House
Courtesy of the Gion House / Expedia

Ideal for exploring the centuries-old narrow lanes of Higashiyama – the geisha district of Old Kyoto – this handsome Kyoto machiya is divided into two stylish, self-contained units. Pretend it’s your very own Japanese home as you bed down on a thick futon, kneel on the tatami mat beside your dining room table or admire the scroll paintings on the terracotta-coloured walls.

8. Machiya Maya Gion, for a Japanese-Western melange next to Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto


Bright traditional dining area with Western-size table and chairs, traditional artwork and sliding glass door to patio at Machiya Maya Gion
Courtesy of Machiya Maya Gion / Expedia

Natural light pours through the floor-to-ceiling windows as you while away the hours in your extra deep soaking tub. A traditional machiya facade in the heart of Kyoto’s geisha district hides two individually styled, spacious suites that are a curious amalgam of Japanese features – tatami floors, Kyoto rock garden, fusuma sliding doors – and European mod-cons such as rainfall showers and underfloor heating. Even if you don’t opt for the temple garden view suite, Kyoto’s oldest Buddhist temple, Kennin-ji, is just a pebble’s throw away.

9. Gojo Machiya, for traditional touches and modern convenience


Dining room with exposed beams, wood table and chairs, TV and adjoining full kitchen and small outdoor garden space at Gojo Machiya
Courtesy of Gojo Machiya / Expedia

The owners of this lovingly updated 19th-century machiya have picked a full-on “Japanese culture” theme and run a few miles with it. In the common spaces, you’ll find samurai armour and traditional wedding kimono on display, as well as Noh masks and wooden Japanese dolls. The kitchen is thoroughly modern; central heating and improved lighting are other contemporary additions, and you can choose between sleeping on futons or Western single beds. Traditional shoji and fusuma paper/wooden latticework doors add a smidgen of privacy. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in yet more Japanese culture, take a walk to the nearby Kyoto National Museum, one of the best museums in Kyoto.

Get even more in touch with traditional Japanese culture by staying at one of the best traditional guest houses in Kyoto, bookable with Culture Trip. Alternatively, check out the best spots in Japan where modernity and tradition meet.

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