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Best 4 Ryokan in Japan

2018.11.22

Best 4 Ryokan in Japan
Where should tourists stay when traveling in Japan? Hotels and guest houses are great, but we strongly recommend traditional Japanese “ryokan.” It is a place where you can experience “Japanese culture” at once, such as ryokan rooms made in traditional architectural styles and decorations, dishes made with local seasonal ingredients, hot springs that are gifts of nature, and the spirit of hospitality. For tourists who haven’t stayed at a ryokan before, let us show you an outline of what ryokan is, its history, ryokan manners, recommended ryokan, etc.

What is ryokan?

What is ryokan?
What exactly is the Japanese ryokan? To make things easier to understand, let us compare them with Western-style hotels. The biggest difference between a ryokan and a hotel is the “sense of distance from the guests.” At hotels, if you close the door of your room, the room becomes a completely private space. Without the permission from the guests, even hotel staff cannot go inside. Unless the guest asks, hotel staff do not initiatively provide customer service. Hotels provide secured privacy and allow guests to have a pleasant time.

On the other hand, the ryokan is characteristic for the very close distance between the guests and staff, such as taking your belongings to your room, making tea for you, and laying out your futon (bedding) while you are having your meal. You may feel somewhat awkward when you are not used to it, but it comes from the spirit of traditional Japanese hospitality of “wanting to care for guests like family.” So you can expect meticulous hospitality from the ryokan staff.

What is ryokan?2
The tatami matted “washitsu (Japanese-style room)” takes up most the room in the ryokan. There are no beds, and as stated above, the staff comes to your room before bed time (often times after dinner) to spread out the futon for you.

Further, another large difference compared to hotels is that they have large public baths. This is because ryokan have been passing down the tradition of being a sanatorium for recuperation in the hot springs. Also in Japan, there has always been a tradition from old times of hospitality by offering a bath.

What is ryokan?3

History of ryokan

History of ryokan
When did ryokan in Japan start? It is said that accommodations for travelers started to develop in the 12th century. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the culture of traveling using roadways that ran throughout the country, spread among commoners as well, and various styles of accommodations were created depending on the social position and purpose of the person staying.

For example, accommodation for samurai with a high social status such as feudal lords were called “honjin (headquarters).” The buildings had posh gates and entrances, but no food was offered, nor were there any hospitality by staff. In other words, only a place to spend the night was offered. Accommodation for samurai of low rank and for commoners was called “hatago.” Hatago did not have fancy facilities, but they offered two meals for staying one night, and it was enjoyed by the guests. Areas where there were hot springs had hot spring therapy lodgings, and basically, guests would stay for long periods of time there and cook meals on their own, since there were no meals offered.

During the Meiji Restoration, abolishment of discrimination based on social status and regulations by the shogunate resulted in the integration of the various styles of accommodation. Further, it is said that the hospitality of offering food by teahouses and restaurants were also combined to this integration, finally resulting in today’s “ryokan” style. In essence, Japan’s culture of accommodation condensed and evolved into Japan’s ryokan of today.

“Nakai” and “Okami”

“Nakai” and “Okami”
At ryokan, most of the hospitality is carried out by female staff called “nakai” and “okami.” Staff that take care of guests’ detailed needs are “nakai-san” (in Japan, we add the term of respect of “san” after the title as a form of courtesy). It is the rule for a party of guests to have the same nakai-san responsibly take care of them until their departure. If you have any problems or any requests, please ask your “nakai-san.”

The “okami-san” presides over all the nakai-san, and is in charge of the services provided by the ryokan. Generally, if the ryokan is under private management, the spouse of the ryokan owner becomes the okami-san. It is not too much to say that the quality of hospitality of the ryokan depends on the competency of the okami-san. If you felt services provided by the nakai-san were good, and felt comfortable staying at a certain ryokan, then it may have been because of a good okami-san.

“Nakai” and “Okami”2
When you stay at a ryokan, try to see what kind of an okami-san they have.

Ryokan manners

Ryokan manners
At ryokan, there are unique manners you should observe. Nobody will get mad at you for not knowing them, but you may want to know what they are.

First, about booking. You basically should not stay overnight without meals. One of the important services of ryokan is the delicious food they serve, so missing out on the meals would reduce your enjoyment. There are some ryokan that allow guests to stay without meals in recent years, but you definitely should try their food.

Bringing your own food and drinks are basically not allowed. However, some ryokan allow guests to bring alcoholic beverages and snacks to enjoy after their meal. Please check with the ryokan when you book your stay. Some ryokan that allow this lend out wine glasses and wine openers.

In long-established ryokan that are traditional Japanese architectural-style, you may have to take off your shoes at the entrance. In that case, you can just leave take off them, since nakai-san or a “gesoku-ban,” an attendant in charge of footwear, will put your shoes in the shoe closet for you.

After you are shown into your room, the nakai-san will make tea for you with the pot in the room. It is sort of a welcome drink. You can eat the snacks on the table when the tea is served. They are usually popular local snacks, and they are often sold in the shops within the ryokan, so if you like them, you may want to buy some as souvenir.

Ryokan manners2
Inside the closet, you will find yukata (informal cotton kimono) for all of you staying. In a ryokan, you can wear your yukata in basically all public areas such as the hallways and restaurants. If you ask, the nakai-san will gladly show you how to wear a yukata.

Ryokan manners3
You won’t have to lay out the futon, since the staff will do it for you while you are having your meal or taking a bath. You can also leave your futon where it is. The staff will put them away during breakfast, etc. Take note that you should tell the staff beforehand if you intend to sleep until just before check-out time.

Please take note that you may mistake where to put your belongings. In the case of ryokan, there is a space along the wall called “tokono-ma,” and this is not a place to put your baggage, but a place to decorate, such as hanging scrolls and flower arrangements. Put your baggage in a corner of a room, or rooms with a wooden floor such as the wash stand. Please be especially careful when pulling your wheeled luggage, since it may damage the tatami mat. Also, it is courteous to hang wet towels on the towel hanger, because they can dampen the tatami mat or fusuma (paper door) if you leave it there.

Ryokan manners4
You do not have to tip, since they are included in the lodging charges. However, if you had asked a special favor, or had caused some kind of trouble, you may want to pay the staff “to show gratitude,” which can be similar to tipping.

In recent years, it has become well-known among foreign tourists that in the large public baths, you must bathe without wearing anything. Also, please wash yourself or pour hot water on yourself (this is called “kake-yu”) to wash away sweat and dirt before you get into the bathtub. It is common courtesy not to put your hand towel into the bathtub.
Useful guides to enjoy onsen (hot springs)

The bath in the ryokan is not only a place to wash yourself, but also a place to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the clouds of white steam, so please refrain from talking loudly or running around. If you do not want to be in a bath with other people, you can use the “uchi-buro (bath in the room).”

Four of Japan’s world class ryokan

There are numerous ryokan all over Japan. Each has its own allure, but the editorial staff has chosen four famous typically Japanese traditional ryokan that we would like to show you.

“Kagaya” (Wakura Onsen, Ishikawa Prefecture)

This ryokan was established in 1906. It has been ranked No.1 overall for 36 consecutive years in the “Top 100 Hotels & Ryokans Voted by Industry Professionals,” and is Japan’s best ryokan both in name and substance.

“Kagaya” (Wakura Onsen, Ishikawa Prefecture)
Their hospitality of never saying “no” to the guests is well-known. Please experience their meticulous ways of handling all matters very carefully, tailored for each guest. Incidentally, the tradition of the okami-san greeting guests in all rooms is said to have originated at Kagaya.

“Kagaya” (Wakura Onsen, Ishikawa Prefecture)2
The Japanese traditional beauty is condensed in the guest rooms, which is absolutely how Japanese ryokan should be. You can see the Sea of Japan from the room windows, allowing you to enjoy the sun set into the ocean from your room and their large public bath.

“Kagaya” (Wakura Onsen, Ishikawa Prefecture)3
You are sure to enjoy their meals using an abundance of sea food from the Sea of Japan.

Their entertainment zone called “Nishiki Oji,” which is 80 meters long and 3,300 square meters. You will find many shops there that look like a temple festival, and they also have gorgeous entertainment for day after day.

“Kagaya” (Wakura Onsen, Ishikawa Prefecture)4
Just by staying overnight, you will experience Japanese hospitality to your heart’s content, guaranteed!

●80 Yo-Bu, Wakura-Machi, Nanao-shi, Ishikawa
●0767-62-1111
●Fees: 31,470 yen and up (1 night, 2 meals, price for 1 person when 2 people stay in a room, tax and service fee included)
http://intl.kagaya.jp/
*Foreign language speaking staff: English, Chinese
*Foreign language signs, menu: English, Chinese
*Meals: menu can be changed for guests with food allergies/religious dietary restrictions; No halal food

“Suimeikan” (Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture)

It is a well-established ryokan that started the business in 1932 and located in the Gero Hot Spring area, which is one of the three best hot springs in Japan, along with Kusatsu Hot Spring and Arima Hot Spring. It is situated along the bank of the Hida-gawa River, so the name of the ryokan comes from the phrase “the sun rises near the water, where there are clouds of white steam.”

Their bath has all the characteristics of a large public bath in a Japanese hot spring ryokan should have, which are, made of hinoki cypress, is open air, and has a great view. Some of the rooms also has hot spring baths. They also have a entirely reserved bath, if you do not want to bathe in public baths.

“Suimeikan” (Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture)
Aside from traditional Japanese food, they also have Western-style and Chinese food restaurants. At “Restaurant Kita no Ryo,” they offer kaiseki ryori (banquet dishes) using local specialty Hida Beef, and they have fireside seats along with regular seats.

“Suimeikan” (Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture) 2
They also have a tea room, Noh theater, and a Japanese garden. In the ryokan, some works of representative artists of Japan are exhibited.

“Suimeikan” (Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture) 3
They also have a tea room, Noh theater, and a Japanese garden. In the ryokan, some works of representative artists of Japan are exhibited.

●1268 Koden, Gero-shi, Gifu
●0576-25-2800
●Fee: 17,820 yen and up (1 night, 2 meals, price for 1 person when 2 people stay in a room, tax and service fee included)
https://www.suimeikan.co.jp
*Foreign language speaking staff: Chinese, Korean, Spanish, English
*Foreign language signs, menu: basically English
*Meals: ingredients can be changed; vegetarian menu available; No halal food

“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)

This ryokan was established in 1874. Many great writers that represent Japan such as Katai Tayama and Yasunari Kawabata have stayed here.

“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)
This tasteful building was built in 1933. Surprisingly, 90% of the building is registered tangible cultural property, which makes it a “museum where you can spend the night.” You can experience some time in a space of typical Japanese traditional beauty.

“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)2
“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)3
They have three kinds of bath — “Tengu no yu,” “Retro-modern tiled,” and “entirely reserved large open air.” The reserved bath gives you a feeling of stress-free openness.

“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)4
Dinner is kaiseki ryori, using an abundance of ingredients from Izu. Not only do they have sea food such as red bream, but there are many from the mountains such as horseradish and Shitake mushrooms. Comparing the tastes of different local sake of Shizuoka is popular.

“Ochiai-ro Murakami” (Izu Amagi Yugashima Onsen, Shizuoka Prefecture)5
After breakfast, the owner of the ryokan does a tour of the facility. Overnight guests can participate free of charge, so please try.

●1887-1, Yugashima, Izu-shi, Shizuoka
●0558-85-0014
●Fee: 27,000 yen and up (1 night, 2 meals, price for 1 person when 2 people stay in a room, tax and service fee included)
https://www.ochiairo.co.jp/
*Foreign language speaking staff: English, Chinese
*Foreign language signs, menu: English
*Meals: vegetarian menu prepared as much as possible; No halal food

“Shimazaki Toson no Yado Nakadanasou” (Shinshu Komoro, Nagano Prefecture)

This ryokan was established in 1898. Nakadanasou had a relationship with Toson Shimazaki, an advocate of naturalist literature, known for works such as The Broken Commandment and Before the Dawn. Nakadanasou is a prestigious ryokan, and the name of the ryokan is mentioned in Shimazaki’s work.

“Shimazaki Toson no Yado Nakadanasou” (Shinshu Komoro, Nagano Prefecture)
The current owner is the fifth. The ryokan consists of the Taisho-kan built in 1898 and the Heisei-kan built in 1993. Among foreign tourists, the Taisho-kan is popular since they “can experience a Japanese traditional architectural style.”

You can enjoy a Japanese-style full course meal along with wine made in local Komoro. In October of 2018, they opened their own winery called “Gio Hills.” You can look forward to great wine brewed there. Further, you can also enjoy creative banquet dishes at “Harikoshi-tei,” which used to be an old house that was moved to the premises, now operating as a restaurant separate from the main buildings.

“Shimazaki Toson no Yado Nakadanasou” (Shinshu Komoro, Nagano Prefecture)2
The bathroom is unique, with tatami mats right by the bathtub, which serve as a dressing room. They also have an open-air bath where you can have a panoramic view of the mountains of Shinshu. You can enjoy from October to May, the “apple bath” which is famous with many apples floating in the tub.

“Shimazaki Toson no Yado Nakadanasou” (Shinshu Komoro, Nagano Prefecture)3

●Nakadana, Kojo, Komoro, Nagano
●0267-22-1511
●Fee: 10,950 yen and up (1 night, 2 meals, price for 1 person when 2 people stay in a room, tax and service fee included)
https://nakadanasou.com
*Foreign language speaking staff: English
*Foreign language signs, menu: English
*Meals: vegetarian menu, etc. possible; No halal food

Summary of ryokan

How did you like our article? You must want to stay at a ryokan now. Staying at a ryokan is experiencing Japanese culture in and of itself. Going sightseeing to various places is wonderful, but how about just staying and relaxing at a ryokan? You’ll get to know about the goodness of Japan even more. Lastly, let us tell you that “mornings” at a ryokan is another great experience. Fancy breakfast, morning bath, and sleeping in…these are the best parts of a ryokan. Welcome to the world of ryokan!

*The above information was last updated August 27, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.

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