Ryokan: the Japanese guest house

November 2, 2017

The term ryokan refers to a traditional Japanese inn. When Roman and I first came to Japan in 2008, we stayed at two ryokans (one in Kyoto, and another in Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu). The rest of our nights were spent in more modest accommodation at Kyoto’s Cheapest Inn (a tall, narrow hostel with five floors of bunk beds), and the Comfort Inn (an American hotel chain). Ryokans are not cheap, but as the cost of a night’s stay is listed per person, they can be more affordable for a solo traveler or a couple than for a family of several people. The price usually includes a meal, breakfast and/or dinner, and that meal is in the kaiseki style of Japanese cooking.

I spent a lot of time looking for ryokan options for the four of us, but in the end decided it was just too costly for our travel budget, and it would never live up to the ryokans of my memory. As much as I savour the experience of the traditional Japanese inn, I also know that the serenity and quiet beauty of our stay would evaporate in light of our present company. I imagine looking out into a Japanese garden, sipping a cup of green tea, when a high-pitched cry – “Peter hit me!” or “Sam ripped the paper walls!” – punctures the peace.

Even though we did not stay at a ryokan this time around, I wanted to write a little something about this form of accommodation on the blog, as it is one of my favourite things about visiting Japan.

Ryokan accommodation normally consists of a large room with tatami mats. Our room in Fukuoka had a low table and chairs with a kettle and tea-tray. There were no desks, dressers, no television set; however, some modern ryokans do have these amenities (but wouldn’t they just spoil the atmosphere? You can find all these things in a typical hotel room for a lot less money). Our sleeping futons and bedding were laid out by the staff in the evening. We were provided yukatas (robes) during our stay. The ryokan had a small, private garden just outside our window with a moss-covered lantern and a tranquil green pond. It had a private toilet, but a common bathing area with seated Japanese-style showers, and a few hot stone baths to soak in. When we stayed at the Kyoto ryokan, which was more pricey, our meal was brought on trays into our room, and we ate in our yukata robes sitting cross-legged on cushions. In Fukuoka, we went down to the common dining room and were served dinner there, also on a low-table on tatami mats. I can’t imagine how we sat through the meals — our back muscles must have been stronger then. Both dinners were the best I’ve eaten in Japan (although it’s possible that with the passage of time, they have grown more delicious in my memory). Even though the ryokan in Fukuoka was older and less expensive, it was my favourite of the two: it was a small, traditional building with the little Japanese garden out back. Our stay there was tranquility personified.

Eating dinner at our ryokan in yukata robes (a long time ago when we were much younger!)

Many ryokans are found at the site of Japanese onsen, or hotsprings. These inns include an outdoor onsen on the property, or sometimes indoor baths with water from the hotsprings. Some are simple and traditional, while others are more like resorts with spas and karaoke. While searching for ryokans for our current trip on japaneseguesthouses.com, I also came across Japanese inns that can be booked as part of a Buddhist temple stay in areas like Nara or Koya-san (Mount Koya). Guests are woken in the misty hours of the early morning to witness the Buddhist ceremonies and ringing of the bell.

We spent just a handful of hours staying at ryokans, and even though a decade has passed, the memories remain super vivid and aren’t likely to fade any time soon.


Koya-san is a magical place

1 comment

  1. Comment by Mark

    Mark Reply November 4, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Guys, went through your blogs savouring, admiring, salivating and very happy. Happy for for you discovering new lands and yourself, for us, which your blog makes part of this great experience, for your kids, who definitely managed to pick the right parents.
    Thanks you for writing and posting your (and kids!) stories and impressions, photographs and maps – you even don’t know how much it is valued and appreciated.

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