What is a Japanese ryokan
Staying at a Japanese ryokan (旅館) or traditional style inn is one of the must have experiences on any trip to Japan. A Japanese ryokan provides the opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture and customs. These include staying in a tatami (straw mat) room with sliding doors, sleeping on a futon and wearing a typical yukata robe after a soak in an onsen hot spring bath. They also provide the chance to try local seasonal cuisine and elaborate food such as kaiseki ryori (traditional Japanese cuisine).
There are many different ryokan in Japan, ranging from the no-frills budget variety to the top end luxury. Prices usually start at around 5,000 yen per person per night for a no-frills ryokan without any meals. The average cost of a stay at most places is usually around 10,000 yen per person per night, but can rapidly rise for the more elegant ryokan. This might sound expensive, but it is an all-round experience and one which should be experienced, if only for a night.
Everything you need to know about staying at a ryokan
On arrival, you typically leave your shoes at the entrance and put on a pair of slippers. You will be shown to your room and the slippers must be taken off before entering the tatami rooms. The room maid will then serve you tea with a Japanese sweet. This is done on the low table and you sit on the zabuton (cushions) in the center of the room. A tray is then provided with your towel and yukata, which you put on before taking your bath.
With your yukata on, you will be shown to the ofuro (bath) with the water usually coming from an onsen (hot spring). Some ryokan have rooms with private baths, but usually bathing will be communal with the men and women’s bath separated. It is important to be able to differentiate between the signs for men and women here so as not to make a mistake.
After your bath, dress in your yukata again and return to your room. Your dinner should be laid out for you by the room maid. A typical dinner will include standard dishes like tsukemono (pickles), sunomono (vegetables in vinegar), zensai (appetisers), grilled fish or sashimi, tempura and nabe (hot pot).
After dinner, while you are taking a stroll in the garden or having a look around, the maid will clear up dinner and prepare your bedding. As mentioned above, you will sleep on a futon, which is placed down on the tatami floor.
In the morning, the maid will knock on your door to make sure you are awake and then put away the bedding before serving your breakfast. A typical breakfast will consist of tsukemono, nama tamago (raw egg), hoshi-zakana (dried fish), miso shiru (miso soup) and rice.
Here are a few suggestions for affordable ryokan (traditional style inn) on a budget.
- Shimizu, Kyoto
Located close to Kyoto Station, which makes it perfect for exploring many of central Kyoto’s famous temples. All the rooms have en suite toilets and showers. Prices from 5,000 yen room only.
- Kyoto Yoshimizu, Kyoto
Located in Maruyama Park near Chion-in Temple, this ryokan is perfect for exploring the older side of Kyoto from Gion (the geisha district) to the ancient temples and gardens. Rooms cost from 7,800 yen –11,800 yen a person a night for a single, or 7,800 yen –10,800 yen for two sharing.
- Shiraume, Kyoto
Set in the heart of Gion overlooking the Shirakawa River. Rooms cost from 15,000 yen a person, room only, or 22,000 yen a person including breakfast and dinner.
- Homeikan, Tokyo
Ryokan are few and far between in Tokyo compared to the more traditional Kyoto. This one is located near Tokyo University with the rooms costing 6,825 yen or 11,550 yen for two sharing.
I highly recommend a stay in a traditional ryokan while visiting places like Kyoto and Tokyo. Domestic travel in Japan is now becoming more affordable and ANA is currently running a campaign for tourists to Japan. You can visit anywhere in Japan for only 10,500 yen.