Originating during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that would have taken in weary travellers in need of a night’s stay. During this time, feudal lords from across Japan were required to travel to Tokyo, then known as Edo, every other year to visit the shogun. Trade also flourished between Tokyo and Kyoto, making ryokans a place of rest for lords, samurai and traders alike.
Nowadays, ryokans are still rooted in a deep respect for omotenashi – or hospitality – and are much more than just a place to sleep. A unique experience to Japan, staying in a Japanese ryokan offers you a true taste of the country’s social etiquette and traditional hospitality. You’ll find a range of options, from small family-run or historic ryokans to those that are more modern and hotel-like. Whilst they’re a more costly option, it’s well worth treating yourself to at least one night during your travels.
Ryokan rooms vary greatly depending on the size, style, price level and tastes of the specific ryokan. The following is an example of what can typically be expected at an average priced, traditional ryokan.
Rooms are typically designed for two to four occupants, although larger groups can sometimes be accommodated as well. They are almost always covered by tatami flooring, with a low table at the center of the room. There is often an adjacent smaller sitting room separated from the main room by sliding doors. This area is typically carpeted, with a Western-style table and chairs.
Japanese beds consist of futon (Japanese mattresses) laid directly on the tatami floor. The futon will not be laid out when you first enter the room. Instead, they are kept in the closet during the day to be set out in the evening and put away again in the morning by the ryokan staff. A separate closet offers space for clothing, luggage and your yukata.
One of the most popular things to do at a ryokan is to indulge in a hot bath, and ryokan often takes great pride in their beautiful bathing facilities and spas. Usually the ryokan's baths are supplied by hot spring (onsen), although ryokan tend to have nice large baths even if they are not supplied by a hot spring. For more information on Japanese baths, see our page on how to take a bath.
Ryokan baths are usually gender segregated communal facilities with typically at least one indoor bath per gender. Many ryokan have a whole range of indoor and outdoor baths, sometimes found in separate locations across the ryokan. Occasionally there are some mixed gender baths as well.
A highlight of staying in a Japanese ryokan is the food. Dinner typically starts between 6 to 7 pm and will most likely be kaiseki-ryori, which is Japanese-style haute cuisine. Expect multiple courses of delicious dishes, featuring locally-sourced ingredients and seasonal specialities. Served on beautiful lacquerware and ceramics, each dish is a work of art. You might see the likes of miso soup, sushi or a nabemono hot pot, with rice served last to signal the end of the main meal.
Likewise, breakfast also features multiple dishes of Japanese cuisine. In contrast to dinner, rice is served first and eaten with the other food. Eggs, tofu, grilled fish and pickles are just some of the dishes that may be accompanying it.