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Having co-founded InsideJapan Tours back in 2000, Alastair knows a thing or two about the finest places to stay. Here are 8 of his favourite luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese inns); each unique, and happily off the beaten track, they are so much more than just a bed for the night.
Alastair’s favourite luxury ryokan
Sit back in a steaming, mineral rich hot spring bath and survey the immaculate Japanese garden in front of your eyes. If you can tear yourself away, an impossibly elegant, kimono-wearing hostess will bring you one of the most incredible meals you will ever eat to your room. The ultimate private dining experience.
Staying in a traditional Japanese inn is an experience you really can’t find anywhere else in the world. These 8 off the beaten track options are particularly special.
Lamp No Yado, Suzu, Honshu
There’s nothing like getting away from it all. The Lamp no Yado – literally lamp lodging – is on the very northern tip of the crooked finger that is Japan’s Noto Peninsula, tucked away from pretty much everything. This collection of traditional wooden buildings is at the base of a steep cliff. Having been constructed in a rocky cove, the waves crash against the rocks just a few feet in front of the inn. You’ll need a car, and faith in your sat nav (even as it feels that you might be heading off the edge of a cliff) to get there. In recent years, the dirt track here has been paved, and a car park added to the clifftop, bringing it into the 21st century. Just a bit.
The stand-out rooms here are the two-floor maisonettes. The bathroom has been built almost over the water, and the wooden tub is surrounded on a three sides by glass windows. Take a soak and slide the windows wide open to let in the cool breeze and smell of the ocean. A bath at home will never be the same again!
Meals are served in the cosy dining room. In season, whole crab is on the menu – freshly-caught that morning from the waters of the Japan sea. And of course, lovers of sashimi will be very well catered for. So, why the name? Just wait until dusk and the magic will be revealed!
Yagyunosho, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Honshu
Hidden behind a row of tall, swaying bamboo, this small understated ryokan is, in many ways, the epitome traditional Japanese luxury. If bling is your thing then Yagyunosho is not for you. The rooms are almost completely empty, with just the classic alcove sporting an antique scroll and an elegant ikebana flower arrangement. You certainly won’t find many chairs!
Discretion, privacy, and service are the order of the day here. An escape from the modern world into a haven of quiet and contemplation. This is for anyone looking for the ultimate classic ryokan retreat.
Asaba, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Honshu
With a history dating back some 500 years, Asaba ryokan will probably be the oldest hotel you ever spend a night in. But the current building actually dates from the early 20th century – the steaming, sulphur-rich waters of the local Shuzenji hot springs having finally damaged the original temple building beyond repair.
The stand-out feature is the huge pond (appropriately populated with huge Koi carp), and the Noh theatre stage on its far edge. Now that’s a view to wake up to! Extraordinary food and spacious tatami rooms are, of course, a given. You’ll also find some western comforts here, such as chairs!
Takefue, Aso District, Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu
Take one of Japan’s most spectacular roads, deep in the heart of Kyushu, off the tourist trail and into a secluded bamboo forest. Beneath this towering bamboo awaits Takefue, quite possibly the world’s most luxurious (and expensive) farmhouse-style lodging.
Heavy black wooden beams, and straw and plaster stucco walls are the order of the day. They create a cosy feeling, even as you gaze out of huge windows onto the mysterious, almost other-worldly bamboo. Anyone who has longed to step inside a Hayao Miyazaki Studio Ghibli film can have their dreams fulfilled. Discreet, modern comforts are provided and the baths are, well, huge!
Sansou Murata, Yufu, Oita Prefecture, Kyushu
Sansou Murata is a genuinely unique lodging. This collection of traditional Japanese houses were collected from Niigata prefecture in north-eastern Japan, and reconstructed on the outskirts of fashionable hot spring resort town, Yufuin, in Kyushu. With high, steep roofs and internal wooden beams, each building is rustic and spacious.
But it’s not all old-world Japan; stylish wooden floors, leather sofas and modern art adorn the walls of the 12 individual guest suites. It’s quite a mix but it works (even featuring in Architectural Digest). Anyone interested in architecture and design will love this place. As will anyone who loves great service, top-notch food and beautiful lodgings.
Oyado the Earth, Toba, Mie Prefecture, Honshu
If spectacular 270-degree sea views from a remote cliff-top luxury Japanese eco-hotel gets your feet itching, then you need to book a room at The Earth Toba right now!
The Earth is a place you don’t ever want to leave. In fact, having checked in there is little motivation to step outside of the hotel, at all. Sit on your balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean and read a book, treat yourself to a deep-cleansing spa treatment, soak in your private hot spring bath, and explore the full vastness of your vast 100 square metre suite! There is a serious side though; the Earth sits amidst 180,000 square metres of primeval forest that was purchased by the ryokan to be preserved for future generations. They seek to help guests remember our place in relation to the natural world around us. Be sure to try the Japanese cuisine and wine marriage pairing course at dinner.
Sekitaitei Ishida, Nagano Prefecture, Shimoina District, Honshu
If you like culture to go hand in hand with your luxury accommodation then head to this ryokan in Achi town – the lower foothills of the Japan Alps. The rooms here are all about comfort; you can even choose a bed if you prefer this to sleeping on a futon. You’ll have a bath with silky-smooth hot spring water in your room, so you can sit back and admire the soft green moss of the Japanese garden. It isn’t quite as immaculate as some of the other luxury inns featured in this blog, but nowhere else will local performers coming to entertain you every night. Watch drumming, shamisen playing, dancers, shakuhachi flute performances and Noh theatre on the on the ryokan stage. Every night is different.
Oh, and there’s also a handy well-stocked bar to get you in the mood.
Bettei Senjuan, Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, Honshu
Japan has a lot of mountains. Some people like to climb them, others appreciate from afar. You can do both at Betei Senjuan, a modern luxury ryokan located next to the slopes of Mount Tanigawa in Gunma prefecture. This area is spectacular as is this ryokan.
Some rooms have baths so large that it’s like having your own personal swimming pool. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame the mountains beyond; you’ll almost feel like you are outside among the trees. But it is the design features which will really make any architecture aficionado’s heart quicken. A spectacular 8-metre high, curved glass corridor; clay walls with straw fibres and chips of iron oxide; a shimmering stainless steel ‘tatami’ mat, and Edo-style ink marbling. It’s a designers dream, and worth coming if only for that alone.
With a team of experts that have lived or travelled extensively in Japan, we can help you find the best spots to visit. And the very best places to stay, do get in touch.
After a bit of Japanese luxury wanderlust? Lose yourself in our video below.