Japanese ryokan… Are they a quintessential experience or something that is totally overrated? If you do any digging online, you’ll find that many travel guides glorify staying at a ryokan as a “must-do” activity in Japan. That said, not all ryokan are created equal. Moreover, the experience is not necessarily ideal for everyone. As such, it is high time that someone examine the truths and fallacies regarding ryokan so that you, the reader, can decide whether or not a stay is a fitting choice.
First of all, let’s answer the question of what exactly is a ryokan. Simply put, the term ryokan refers to a traditional-style Japanese inn. While the word ryokan conjures up images of magnificent wooden architecture and tatami floors, many more modern facilities exist as well. Although similar to hotels in function, ryokan are fundamentally different. Rather than just a place to stay, they have become an experience unto themselves. Many Japanese will often travel to far off locations just to stay in a ryokan.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s clear up some misconceptions about staying in a ryokan. I’ve structured the following to allow for easy skimming but I highly suggest at least giving the bolded sections a quick perusal if you’re considering reserving a ryokan.
Ryokan are High-end Accommodation
In general, this statement is false. Ryokan run the gamut from budget to luxury and everywhere in between. If you want a high-end experience, choose your ryokan wisely. Likewise, if you are trying to save money, be sure to do some in-depth searching to find an establishment that accommodates your needs.
Note that many of the cheaper options are ONLY available on Japanese sites like Jalan.net. As a general rule, anything appearing in English has a localization markup tacked on to it. Because of this, it is best to enlist a friend or acquaintance to help with your booking.
Ryokan Serve You Meals in the Privacy of Your Room
This is only partially true. While some ryokan still do this, the service usually comes at a higher fee. The majority of ryokan offer different stay and meal plans, and you can choose this option at the time of booking. That said, it’s becoming increasingly common to have your meals at an on-site restaurant or dining area. Be aware that some plans include dinner and breakfast, while others include only one meal. In most cases, no-meal plans are also available.
Note that not all ryokan have an in-room dining service option so booking a meal plan does not necessarily mean it’s served in-room. If the ryokan has in-room meal service, it is usually specified when you book. As noted, this option is typically more expensive than using the common dining area space.
You Sleep on Futons on Top of Tatami Floors
This is MOSTLY true. Again, times are changing and some ryokan now have Western-style rooms while others have mixed Western/Japanese style rooms. Be wary of this feature when you are booking. If you want to sleep on the tatami floors, be sure to choose a “washitsu” or Japanese style room. That said, a warning about the Western style rooms as they are almost always single beds. Even if it’s a package deal marketed towards couples, it’s not uncommon for a room to be furnished with two single beds. Word to the wise: go for the Japanese style room.
Ryokan Always Have an On-site Hot Spring
This is often true because ryokan tend to be built near naturally occurring hot springs. Many ryokan do provide a communal bathing area using the natural hot spring water. Some ryokan also have private baths which can be rented out for short periods of time. In some cases, the rental charge is free for guests staying overnight. Likewise, some high-end ryokan may even have a private onsen bath in the guest room.
If you’ve never experienced an onsen before, I highly suggest checking out my in-depth guide about what to expect. There are many rules regarding the use of Japan’s ubiquitous hot springs and not all of them are obvious. Before you find yourself stark naked and not knowing what to do, it would behoove you to do a bit of reading!
Ryokan are the Ultimate Japan Experience
I would argue that this statement isn’t really true. While ryokan are certainly a charming experience, Japan has so many alternatives to offer. “The best” Japan experience will always be something different for every traveler and staying at a ryokan is more like the cherry on top. Overnighting in a ryokan is not essential for realizing a great Japanese experience yet a stay is rather special for those who don’t mind the many rules.
As mentioned in the introduction, there’s a fundamental difference between a hotel and a ryokan. People usually book hotels out of necessity. They want to travel to a specific location for sightseeing, shopping, or what have you and need a place to stay. On the other hand, ryokan lovers will often travel far and wide to stay in a famous or historic setting. Because of this, most people staying at one of these traditional Japanese inns will spend the majority of their time indoors.
Personally, I am adverse to staying in a ryokan as I prefer to spend the lion’s share of my time out exploring. For one, dinner is often served fairly early at a ryokan which ultimately means a limited window of time for daytime excursions. Again, most guests are there for the stay and therefore spend the majority of their time in or nearby the ryokan unwinding with friends or family. If you’re like me when it comes to travel, you’d do well to reconsider staying in a ryokan.
Ryokan Have Many Rules Which You MUST Follow
Unfortunately, this one is true and many establishments do a poor job of explaining expected behaviors to foreign visitors. First of all, know that you must not wear shoes inside your room. Yes, even your indoor slippers do not belong on tatami mats! The Japanese are extremely forgiving of tourists blunders however one custom they are strict about is wearing shoes inside.
Moving right along, know that most ryokan will also provide a yukata for guests to wear. It is customary to dawn this while you’re inside the premises. While yukata are generally for indoor use only, if you’re visiting a town like Kusatsu Onsen, you can often venture outside in one. Generally speaking, you are NOT allowed to take your yukata home with you but several ryokan have these available for sale.
Lastly, remember that ryokan are fundamentally different from most modern hotels. One major discrepancy is that prices are set per guest and not per room. While some Japanese hotels also charge this way, a bit of deceptive sneakery is often all it takes to weasel your way out of having to pay. That said, the nature of ryokan make this all but impossible. As such, even budget ryokan can get quite pricey.
Many travel agencies in Japan will offer packages that include both stay and travel costs. Nevertheless, navigating these will require some Japanese (or mastery of Google Translate). Additionally, many ryokan also offer discounts for senior citizens, all-female groups, and couples. If you have a local friend or acquaintance who can help, you can sometimes mitigate much of the damage by seeking out these Japanese-only offerings.
Who Should Avoid Staying at a Ryokan
First of all, budget travelers who are tight on money should likely avoid ryokan. After all, it’s far from the cheapest option available. While some ryokan have reasonably priced stay-only rates, meals won’t be included. In these cases, it very well may be for naught as you won’t really get the full ryokan experience.
As previously mentioned, travelers like myself who are busy with excursions should not stay at ryokan. Remember, a stay at one of these traditional Japanese inns is designed to be an attraction unto itself. That said, casually exploring the local area is usually fine though. For busy travelers, consider just finishing your day with a visit to an onsen instead to capture a taste of the experience.
Individuals with noisy or rowdy children should also not stay at ryokan. Loud children can disturb the other guests who are there to relax. Furthermore, the kids are likely to get pretty bored just lounging about the premises. That said, infants are usually fine so long as they are not overly prone to crying. After all, no one likes a baby raising the roof at 2:00 AM.
Of course, those with any kind of open wound or infectious disease should steer clear of communal bathing. The same goes for women who are having their menstrual cycle. If this applies to you, you can still stay at a ryokan but you’ll not be able to soak in the onsen. As far as many are concerned, this kind of defeats the whole purpose.
Likewise, those with restrictive diets should also steer clear of ryokan. The meals are usually set courses and attempts at altercations can seem Sisyphean. Besides, many dietary omissions (like the ketogenic diet) are typically misunderstood in Japan. Furthermore, many ryokan take great pride in their meals and try to source ingredients from the local area. Seeing as the food is a major part of the ryokan experience, you should opt for other accommodations.
Lastly, know that solo travelers in general may find a stay at a ryokan to be rather boring and/or awkward. After all, these places are designed for groups of people to escape the tedious humdrums of daily life and relax in style. If the thought of eating alone admits the likes of families, groups of friends, and couples seems depressing to you, stay clear of a ryokan!
Who Would Benefit from a Stay in a Ryokan
OK, so let’s finally address the question of who should stay at a ryokan. Astute readers who have read this far will have grasped this concept already — a stay at a traditional Japanese inn is perfect for those looking to relax and unwind. After all, this is precisely the reason why many Japanese choose to stay at a ryokan. As such, the experience is perfectly designed to allow for one to kick back and get rid of some built up stress.
Families wishing to use the onsen would definitely benefit from staying at a ryokan. Often times, guests can book a private bath together which has no restriction on gender. This is similarly a good option for couples celebrating a special anniversary and are on the hunt for something romantic. In either case, just be sure to check with the ryokan ahead of time to see what is and isn’t possible.
Note that for those readers who have tattoos or don’t conform to traditional binary definitions of gender, a stay in a ryokan with private in-room baths is also a great option. Unfortunately, such individuals will often encounter issues in the public facilities whereas rooms with private baths are exempt from these rules for obvious reasons. When it comes to Japan, rather than try to fight the rigidity of the system in vain, it’s best to just work around it if you’re looking to have a pleasant vacation.
Ryokan Wrap Up & Conclusion
Ryokan are often touted as the be-all and end-all of experiences in Japan. While there is certainly some merit in this statement, a stay in one of Japan’s many traditional inns is not for everyone. After contemplating the advice above, and you feel like a ryokan suits your travel needs, then by all means I highly encourage you to experience one. Your ryokan stay can be a truly unforgettable adventure that will be a major highlight of your journey.
That said, ryokan are not for everyone. You’re certainly not missing out on anything by not staying at one. After all, the main attractions at a ryokan are the onsen, the food, and the aesthetics. All of these can be enjoyed separately via other options. For example, you could visit an onsen in Hakone as a day trip. Afterward, dine at a local restaurant featuring a courses meal similar to that served at a ryokan. Japan is a vast country; the options for experiencing its cultural legacies are numerous, even if you don’t stay at a ryokan.
Until next time travelers…