Of all my travels, my trip to Japan stands out as the one that surprised, unsettled, and amazed me the most. Out of everything I did during my stay in Japan, my experience in a ryokan is one of the souvenirs I remember most vividly. There was a long list of things I wanted to do while I was in Japan, but staying at a ryokan was at the very top, and it’s the experience that I spent the longest pondering. What kind of ryokan should we choose—modern or traditional? Should we go for a city or a country ryokan? Are we expecting a natural onsen (hot spring) on site? Is an elaborate kaiseiki (multi-course) dinner a priority?
But what is a ryokan, exactly? In short, it’s a traditional Japanese inn. But if upon hearing the word “inn” you imagine a rustic, cozy accommodation with friendly hosts and voluble guests, you’re in for a surprise. Staying at a ryokan is a widely different experience than staying in a hotel, and you should definitely be aware of the ryokan etiquette if you consider visiting one. The following tips should help you prepare for a stay you’ll most likely remember for a lifetime.
Choosing a Ryokan
There are ryokans all over Japan, some located in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and others located in the country. Country ryokans are often located in areas that feature breathtaking scenery that change through the seasons. If you can spare the time to reach a country ryokan, you should do it, as I feel that they offer a more immersive experience. You’ll also witness a slower, lower-tech side of Japan that you may not get to see otherwise.
A pedestrian street bordering a canal in Sanzen-in, Ohara.
Steps leading to the Sanzen-in Temple and the Seryo ryokan, an hour north of Kyoto.
The ryokan we stayed at is called Seryo, located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto. We chose this ryokan because it’s close to several smaller and less crowded but magnificent temples (including the historic thousand-year-old Sanzenin Temple) and because a natural hot spring feeds the local ryokan hot baths. We felt that the location offered a great combination of sightseeing and an off-the-tourist-path journey.
Seryo, a traditional ryokan located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto.