Ryokans originated in the Japanese Edo period as rest stops for travelers situated along highways. Traditionally built from wood, and comprised of tatami-matted flooring, communal bathing, and dining areas, ryokans maintain their popularity among the Japanese and foreign travelers alike. In spite of being perceived as expensive compared to the Tokyo capsule hotels and chain inns, a surprising number of Ryokan owners offer travelers a place to rest for relatively low prices.
Tokyo-based Sadachiyo is a modern ryokan decorated and styled in the same manner as the Edo period rooms. Unlike many ryokans, however, Sadachiyo’s owners have an eye on the desires and customs of the contemporary traveler. Each of the 20 rooms boasts its own bathroom and toilet, while tea, coffee, and wifi are available in the lounge area. In spite of being situated in Japan’s bustling capital, Sadachiyo’s owners go that little further and provide a selection of ‘courses’ or ‘entertainments’ for their guests, including a ‘Tosenkyo’ course (in which guests aim to hit a target with a fan), an array of musical entertainment, and a ‘Yakata bune’ course (a karaoke night on a chartered boat). Traditional cuisine is provided and traditional customs followed. Staff informs new arrivals of etiquette on arrival over green tea. It is expected, not just in Sadachiyo but in every ryokan, that guests will follow the basic rules of Japanese living.
Tokyo Ryokan in Tokyo has maintained a traditional stance on communal bathrooms, but the ryokan is small (only three rooms, sleeping up to three people) and all facilities are kept to the highest standards of cleanliness. The ryokan owners do not provide meals or amenities, other than a towel, as most modern-style hotels tend to.
With respect for conventional Japanese living, guests are encouraged to treat the ryokan as a home. The most outstanding feature of this ryokan is the interior. Like most ryokans, paper walls and doors are in abundance, but unlike some of the larger spaces, the wooden ryokan is kept clutter-free with minimal decoration. The space is ordered and run according to fundamental Buddhist principles; the website introduces guests to the idea that the ‘innermost concludes the universe. Atman is Brahman’.
Ryokan Sanga, a remote ryokan situated in Kumamoto Onsen town in Kyushu, offers an escape from busy city life. The ryokan is remarkable for its setting alone; natural materials are preferred to concrete, Mount Aso sits overhead instead of flashing neon signs, and taxis and public buses are the only means of accessing the remote location. A world apart from the Toyko-based ryokans, Ryokan Sanga offers guests the chance to bathe in onsen, or naturally-occurring hot-spring baths, which are held in high regard as healing spaces. The ryokan offers three types of onsen, including public outdoor baths, public gender-specific indoor baths, and private baths. Rooms are private, and encompass a small variety of ryokan room-types. The more expensive include private baths, as well as a larger living space.
Fujioto Inn, located in historic Tsumago, is a minshuku (a budget ryokan). Tsumago itself is a well-preserved postal town in the Kiso Valley, which runs alongside the mountains that make up the central Alpine range. Traffic is virtually non-existent here since cars are prohibited on the main street in the day. The owners of Fujioto Inn provide traditional Japanese meals (serving as many as seven courses), yakata to wear while dining, and Japanese footwear, which may be worn around the town. The owners themselves maintain a strong presence in the minshuku, and are responsible for the highly regarded cuisine. For those wishing to stay close, Fujioto is surrounded by its own private garden. Additionally provided is a traditional Hinoki bath, run with scented Kiso Valley cypress wood. Although Fujioto is not as grand or as large as some of the other ryokans on this list, this family-oriented space lends it a personality often lacking in more popular ryokans.
One of the most luxurious traditional ryokans, Tamahan is located in the historical Gion section of Kyoto. Originally a private summer home, Tamahan opened to paying guests in 1929. Its pull, bar the high standard of its accommodation, is its Kyoto cuisine. Dinner is traditional Japanese (not Western Japanese), and is served in as many as five courses. Kaiseki, a traditional Japanese dish which first emerged in the 16th century, is served on the guests’ first day. There are 11 private rooms, each of which boasts its own wooden bath, European-style toilets and bidets, and all are air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter. In the Gion district, shrines and temples abut modern bars and restaurants.
Sumiyoshi is loocated in the mountainous region of Takayama of the Gifu Prefecture, on the Miyagawa River, a place that can accurately be described as idyllic. With rooms overlooking either the river or the Sumiyoshi gardens, guests are hard-placed to find a better situation in which to unwind. The owners of Sumiyoshi have endeavored to maintain the architecture and style of the Taisho period building. Ornaments from the period fill the ryokan. Traditional Japanese cuisine is served in private rooms, and any questions about what is to be eaten, and even how to it eat, are happily answered.
Eko-in is a remarkable place to stay, being situated in a 1000-year-old Buddhist temple. Guests stay in the temple itself, in Japanese-style rooms and using communal facilities. One room includes a private onsen, but all boast views of the inner garden. As might be expected of a temple ryoken based in Mount Koya, guests are encouraged to use the Ajikan Practice Hall (the meditation style of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism), to attend morning services and can join the Goma fire ritual. Lessons in Buddhist sutra writing are also on offer. More conventional recreation includes use of the public onsen (divided by gender). Cuisine is traditional Japanese vegetarian, which is eaten in the guests’ private rooms.
Kyoto-based Shimizu is a medium-sized ryokan, with 12 private rooms. Each room has its own private shower and toilet. This space manages to maintain a sense of privacy and calm away from the bustling streets without feeling completely remote.There are five baths, some private and some communal, including a Japanese lime bath and hot spring bath. Traditional meals are on offer, should guests wish to avoid heading into the city, and vegetarian meals can be arranged, with each meal is served in the guests’ private rooms. Shimizu is a well thought-out medium between modern-style hotel and traditional ryokan. Guests are invited to take part in evening activities, such as calligraphy classes, and are welcome to borrow bicycles for use around the city.
Iwaso Inn on the island of Miyajima is a luxurious ryokan with a long history. Opening in 1854, the Iwaso Inn provided shelter through the Meiji period, after which it was redesigned as a modern Japanese hotel. It’s close to Hiroshima, but allows visitors to maintain a much sought-after distance between themselves and what has become a popular destination for tourism. A World Cultural Heritage Site since 1996, Miyajima was originally designed by Taira no Kiyomori, a powerful figure of the 12th century. With ancient architecture alongside views of natural beauty, the island itself is worth exploring, before crossing the water to the better-known sites. The ryokan is made up of three separate buildings and 42 rooms, some of which have private onsens and toilets, while others are communal. There are three large communal baths, two of which are open-air, but sheltered from the elements. The Wakamiya hot spring is left uncovered.
Yutouya was established as a ryokan in 1688 and boasts a reputation among Japanese creatives. Situated in Kinosaki Onsen, a hot spring in the Hyogo prefecture, Yutouya offers its guests an opportunity not only to enjoy the privacy of the ryokan’s own baths, but to sample the local hot spring bath houses. Yutouya itself offers a variety of room types for guests with different needs, including a private guest residence. The ryokan has six of its own baths, including outdoor and indoor baths, and private baths attached to the more expensive of the guest rooms. Although a visit to the local restaurants is recommended to try Kinosaki Onsen’s famed seafood (crab is especially good), the ryokan’s own menu is something to write home about, offering seafood alongside delicacies such as Wagyu Beef.