Why staying in a ryokan is one of the unmissable Japanese experiences – and what you should know

Ever wondered what a Ryokan experience is like? Or a Japanese onsen experience? 

Let’s start by saying that time spent in a ryokan or an onsen is time well spent!

It’s a time to enjoy a peaceful atmosphere.
Time to be surrounded by beauty.
Time to indulge in a relaxing hot bath.
Time to let your taste buds experience heavenly meals.
Time to be pampered.
Time to unwind and relax.
It’s simply time to feel great!

Sounds almost dreamy? Well, that’s what a stay in a great ryokan is like!

Ever wondered if ryokan experience is worth it? Would you like to know where to stay in a ryokan? How long to stay in a ryokan? And how much it costs to stay in a ryokan? Then read on – we have all the answers.

Couple having a kaiseki dinner in a ryokan
Our kaiseki dinner in a ryokan in Gora

What exactly is a ryokan?

soaking feet in an onsen water in a ryokan in hakone gora area japan
Soaking my feet in onsen water while waiting for my welcome drink

Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. And don’t let the “traditional” confuse you – depending on the ryokan, it’s going to feel incredibly luxurious.

No matter how many luxury hotels you’ve stayed at, a ryokan is a completely different, much more personalized experience. In fact, many Ryokans are relatively small, family-run establishments.

“Personalized” is the operative word here. Honestly, the attendants are going to bend over backwards for you to feel pampered and special, like royalty.

For the Japanese, a stay in a ryokan is all about relaxing. Most of the ryokans are in rural areas, surrounded by beautiful nature.  The locals love to come to the Ryokan to spend a night or two away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and recharge their batteries.

For a foreign traveller, a stay in a ryokan offers a very attractive bonus – that’s because staying in a ryokan is also a great way how to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture and experience hands-on the very best of Japanese hospitality.

And what is a Ryokan experience?

View of a futon bed in a Japanese ryokan room.
The futon bed in our ryokan room in Gora. The ryokan room has a minimalistic design, yet it is comfy and homey.

From the moment you first step in, a ryokan attendant (your personal ryokan attendant in top-class ryokans) will take good care of you. Leave your everyday troubles outside and your shoes in the entryway – you have come here to relax, to be pampered, to feel great. Put on the slippers, enjoy your welcome cup of green tea and follow the attendant to your room.

The view of Japanese nature from your window is breathtaking.

If this is your first time in a ryokan, you may be surprised by how the room looks. It is furnished in a minimalistic yet tasteful way and feels so comfy and homey. The floor is covered with tatami mats (Japanese woven straw mats) that are so pleasant for your feet (don’t walk on them in slippers). There’s a low table with legless chairs where you can enjoy the delicious Japanese green tea while looking forward to the next experiences – the hot bath and the kaiseki dinner.

Looking for a bed? Surprise surprise – there probably isn’t any.

While you’ll be enjoying your gourmet dinner, your attendant will put up the futon mattresses on the floor with warm and soft down duvets. They are super comfortable and make for a good night’s sleep.

Another surprising thing that you might find in a ryokan is a Japanese high-tech toilet!

What is a Japanese high-tech toilet?

The Japanese toilet is such an interesting experience by itself that it deserves its own note in this article 😊.

Japanese toilet control panel
The control panel of a Japanese toilet (more buttons are on the toilet itself). The Japanese love of electronics is apparent 🙂

Saying that it’s fancy is probably an understatement. Saying that it has more buttons for operation than one could find in a modern airliner’s flight deck is probably a more precise description.
The toilet in our ryokan in Gora, where we stayed for two nights, had 32 buttons – the most we ever counted.
There was a button to lift the lid.
There was a button to switch on the seat warmer.
There was a button to regulate the intensity of the seat warmer.
There was a button to switch on the nozzles used for the bidet function.
There was a button to choose from several options of spray from those nozzles.
There was a button to switch on the music.
There was a button to choose what kind of music you wish to listen to. Perhaps a classical masterpiece to complement your contemplating? Or perhaps some heavy metal would be more suitable?
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the flushing was completely automatic. But yes, there was a button for it, too, if you preferred to flush in the old-fashioned manual way.  

What are the main reasons people stay in a ryokan?

Staying in a ryokan is completely different from staying in a hotel or an apartment.

It’s all about the experience. And here are the three main reasons that people stay there.

Getting pampered in a ryokan with an onsen

One of the favourite reasons why people stay in a ryokan is the onsen – the hot baths.

Since Japan has plenty of natural hot springs of volcanic origin, many ryokans are built at places where the hot springs are found. These hot springs then supply water directly to the Ryokan’s hot tubs.

There’s nothing like soaking in an outdoor hot tub while watching the snowflakes fall silently into the tub. So pleasant and so relaxing. And yes, so quintessentially Japanese! So put on the yukata (Japanese robe) that you find in your room and head to the onsen for a warm bath before dinner.

Having a gourmet feast in your ryokan

Picture of a young lady dressed in a traditional yukata, enjoying her kaiseki dinner in a ryokan.
A gourmet feast is a part of the ryokan experience.

Another of the favourite reasons why people stay in the ryokan is the gourmet experience.

Ryokans typically serve Japanese haute cuisine, called kaiseki, for dinner and breakfast.

Oh, those heavenly, exquisite, mouth-watering meals! A delight for your eyes and ecstasy for your taste buds, meticulously prepared by Ryokan’s chef. The meals served in ryokan are multi-course feasts, comprising delicacies from local and seasonal ingredients.

Will you drink cold or warm sake with your dinner?

Or maybe you’d prefer a tea ceremony after your long day exploring. No worries, you can still wash it down with some sake.

Experiencing the Japanese hospitality

A stay in a ryokan is far more than just a stay in a hotel. It is truly about experiencing hospitality, relaxing and recharging your batteries.

Ryokans are popular with the Japanese people and we believe it is one of the unmissable experiences to be savoured by foreign visitors as well.

While there are also some modest, simple ryokans, we definitely recommend choosing one with nice hot baths and gourmet meals – hey, when it’s time to be pampered, it’s time to be pampered. True, you don’t do it every day and neither do the locals.

What should you know about staying in a Ryokan?

There are several handy things to know about Ryokan and onsen, a couple of rules and some etiquette stuff so that your Ryokan experience stays amazing.

A young lady dressed in a yukata in a traditional ryokan room.
Tatami mat floor, a low table and a legless chair, and Kristine dressed in a yukata, enjoying her ryokan stay.
  • The check-in process is usually very easy. The typical check-in times are around 3-4 pm, and we suggest arriving at these times so that you have enough time to relax and enjoy the hot baths before dinner. Your ryokan attendant will greet you, offer you a cup of green tea, accompany you to your room and explain some of the house rules such as meal times and opening hours of the hot tubs. Should you have any questions or requests about your stay, don’t hesitate to ask him/her – even if it means using Google translate 😊
  • Slippers (provided by ryokan) are worn inside a ryokan. Leave your shoes in the entryway (lobby) and change for the slippers. However, don’t walk on tatami mats inside your room in them.
  • Inside your room, you’ll find a yukata – a typical Japanese dress for both men and women. You can wear this in your room and anywhere inside the ryokan (such as for dinner) and you may also sleep in it.
  • While private bathrooms with those super-fancy toilets are a norm in the majority of luxury ryokans, there are quite a few traditional ryokans (including some in the luxurious end) that don’t have en-suite bathrooms. Just something to bear in mind when booking. Occasionally, you may also find ryokans offering Western-style rooms. We would definitely recommend choosing a Japanese-style room for the experience of it, so again, it’s something to bear in mind when booking.
  • The meal times will be agreed upon upon your arrival. Meals may be served in your room or in a dining area. They aren’t any fast meals, but a true gourmet experience. You may expect up to 10 courses for dinner (don’t worry, the portion sizes are such that you won’t blow up 😊).
  • Ryokans come in various shapes, sizes, and price ranges. While most are smaller establishments, one may occasionally find larger, hotel-style ryokans as well. There are modest, basic ryokans and there are also beautiful luxury ryokans.

How much does a Ryokan experience cost?

relaxation area in a ryokan in japan with chairs, table, and waters, tatami mat floor and futon beds visible as well
A relaxation area in our room

Ryokans come in various shapes, sizes and price ranges. While most are smaller establishments, one may occasionally find larger, hotel-style ryokans as well. There are modest, basic ryokans and there are also beautiful luxury ryokans.

Prices are usually quoted per person per night and include gourmet dinner and breakfast. The price range starts at around 70 EUR/USD per person per night including the meals and goes up to more than 330 EUR/USD per person per night including meals in some more luxurious ryokans.

And really, the 300 monies is definitely not the ceiling if we’re talking about costs here. The most luxurious ryokans can cost even more, and be aware that some even require more than one night’s stay for you to be able to book it.

And then there is the Japanese onsen experience…

View of a traditional Japanese hot tub (onsen).
Visiting onsen – the traditional Japanese hot tub – is an unforgettable part of the Ryokan experience. / By cherrydonut/stock.adobe.com

Japan has an abundance of natural hot springs. These hot springs of volcanic origin have various healing effects – in fact, the Japanese jokingly say they may heal everything except heartbreak. 😊

Many ryokans are built at places where the hot springs are found, using them to supply their onsen – hot tubs.

Most ryokans have both indoor and outdoor baths – as the water is quite warm, even the outdoor baths can be used year-round. It’s indeed a very pleasant and relaxing experience when you’re soaking in the outdoor hot tub, watching snowflakes fall silently into the tub. We were lucky to experience this in our ryokan in Gora and it was an unforgettable experience.

And quite a few ryokans, of the most luxurious kind, even offer rooms with private ryokans either inside or on a balcony, or even both.

What should you know about going to an onsen?

going to have kaiseki dinner - a couple in yukata with jackets, traditional japanese robe, in a ryokan in hakone area
The light in the elevator was not good so the image quality is awful. But here you can even see a traditional jacket – we felt rather cold without them

Visiting an onsen comes with its own set of rules. At first glance, it seems like there are quite a lot of them, but really, it’s not so bad. You just have to be mindful and respectful, and that’s all.

Preparing for the onsen

Start your visit to the onsen in a changing room. Undress here and put your clothes in one of the baskets or lockers.

Depending on your ryokan, you may need to bring your towel from the room or they may be provided in the changing room.

We suggest using two towels – a big one (to dry yourself after the bath) and a small one. The small one is typically used to cover your private parts while walking from the changing room to the bath, however, it cannot be used inside the hot tub. Put it aside before getting in the tub or put it on top of your head, but don’t let it touch the water.

Before taking a hot bath, wash your body properly. You will find sinks with shower hoses, soaps and stools somewhere on the way from the changing room to the baths. Sit down on the stool, wash yourself properly with the soap and rinse all the soap properly before getting in the tub.

In the hot bath

Enjoy your hot tub naked. Swimwear is not worn anywhere in the hot baths. If you wish, you may cover your private parts with the small towel while walking toward the bath, however, don’t let it touch the water – you need to be completely naked in the bath!

You hang out with locals in the tub while it’s all hanging out – that’s how the Japanese do it. 😊

Most onsen are gender-segregated, but some are common for both men and women.

Tattoos are traditionally not acceptable anywhere in the onsen, due to an age-old association of tattoos with the Japanese mafia. You may occasionally find a ryokan that is ok with tattoos – check with them before booking if this applies to you.

And after the onsen

After the bath, don’t wash with a shower as you’d wash off the healing waters. Just gently dry yourself with a towel and get dressed in the changing room.

As I mentioned already, some top-notch ryokans also offer rooms with private hot springs baths (often situated on the terrace or balcony, overlooking a beautiful garden). These rooms are always pricier; however, you may consider this option if you are not comfortable with being naked in public hot baths or if you have tattoos.

It may sound like a lot of rules, but in fact, it’s fairly easy. So just soak in, relax and enjoy this wonderful experience.

Where are the best places in Japan to have a ryokan experience?

hakone ropeway with snowy mountains and steam from volcanoes

There are ryokan all over Japan, including the big cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, but still, you would get the best ryokan experiences staying somewhere where you are surrounded by nature.

Hakone area, a part of Fuji Hakone National Park, is a beautiful area where to unwind and enjoy fully your ryokan experience for a night (great) or two (even better!). You can spend the day enjoying the national park and then unwind properly.

Another amazing place where you can enjoy Ryokan with onsen surrounded by nature – and incredible amounts of history – is Miyajima island off the coast of Hiroshima. There, it’s really the best way of seeing all the temples and sites illuminated after dark. Or go for a sunrise hike with a tea ceremony up Mount Misen.

In conclusion about a Ryokan and onsen experience…

If you’ve seen our Japan travel guide and the photo diary, we had some trouble getting to our ryokan with onsen in Gora, as it snowed there – unexpectedly – and all the transport got cancelled (buses, trains, taxis… everything!).

And even with all of this stress that delayed our arrival by more than 4 hours, staying in a ryokan is definitely at the very top of the best experiences from our Japan trip.

It’s just… you can’t even really describe how incredible it is. You have to experience it.

That’s why our recommendation for anyone going to Japan is – to stay in a ryokan. It doesn’t matter if it’s a very luxurious one. Just, stay in a Ryokan with an onsen.

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