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Japanese hospitality is legendary, but what makes it so special? We have one word for you: ryokan.
In its most basic sense, the ryokan is a traditional Japanese guesthouse — but that doesn’t even begin to sum it up.
A ryokan isn’t just a place to lay your head. Whereas a hotel is a base for activities and excursions, a ryokan is the destination. It’s a respite from the world, where you go to check in, throw on your yukata bathrobe, and sequester yourself from the daily grind. The quality of a ryokan isn’t measured in fancy furniture or plush trimmings — in fact, the very fanciest ryokan guest room might contain nothing but a futon mattress on a tatami-mat floor. Instead, quality is measured by the warmth of its welcome, the character of its hot-spring baths, and the flavour of its exquisite kaiseki meals. It’s a completely different aesthetic experience, and one that we believe every traveller to Japan should have.
We’ve stayed in hundreds — if not thousands — of ryokan around the country, and an unforgettable experience doesn’t need to break the bank. Here are a few of our favourites.
For a proper rural retreat: Wanosato, Takayama
With its thatched roof, waterwheel, and irori hearth perfect for grilling freshly caught fish, Wanosato is a rural retreat straight from a Japanese fairytale. Only 15 minutes’ drive from the popular sightseeing town of Takayama, it’s convenient too.
“Passing beneath Wanosato’s wooden entrance gate, I knew I’d found somewhere special. From the moment I walked in the main building, I felt warm and welcome. The fire was burning in the traditional iori hearth, filling the air with the scent of simpler times. Lush trees overhung pea gravel paths, and a small river babbled just outside my room’s huge window. Hidden among the farming communities west of Takayama, Wanosato is the perfect place to rejuvenate and take a breath of fresh air in the middle of a busy trip.”
– John McMillen, InsideJapan Boulder office, USA
For fabulous food: Furumaya House, Kyoto
Set in a traditional Japanese house with only two guest rooms, Furumaya House is a true countryside idyll. Getting to know Sayaka and Nicholas, the Japanese-French owners, is a bonus!
“It’s hard to say but I think my favourite thing about Furumaya House was the food. I am not a fish or seafood eater, but Sayaka took it in her stride and made me some of the best home-cooked, fish-less food I’ve ever eaten, all with locally grown or sourced ingredients. The dinner and breakfast I had there have long stayed in my memory: fresh tempura vegetables, sesame seed tofu served in a persimmon, wasabi pickled aubergines, and the tastiest new-season rice ever — I’m not ashamed to say I finished the entire bowl of second helpings. It was easily the most idyllic, relaxing place I’ve ever stayed in Japan.”
– Madeleine Bromige, InsideJapan Bristol office, UK
For spectacular ocean views: Lamp no Yado, Noto Peninsula
On a cliff on the northeast coast of the Noto Peninsula, Lamp no Yado really feels like the edge of the world. Come for out-of-this-world seafood, dramatic sea views, and a sense of real seclusion.
“Built into a private cove and completely exposed to the elements, down a drive so steep you’re well advised to accept the inn’s offer of a chauffeur, Lamp no Yado is one of the most remarkable ryokan in Japan. The only thing separating each of the 13 villas from the sea is a cleverly designed infinity pool, which creates the impression you’re hovering over the sea. Exquisite food served with stunning ocean views; the faint sound of the waves crashing below; the uniquely designed hot spring baths and the outstanding service — Lamp no Yado is well worth the effort it takes to get here.”
– Mark Johnson, InsideJapan Bristol office, UK
For unbeatable service: Araya Totoan, Yamashiro Onsen
In a country where hospitality is a fine art, the Araya Totoan is the best of the best — with its pristine tatami rooms and cypress hot-spring baths as immaculate as its kimono-clad hostesses.
“Walking into the Araya Totoan feels like entering a different time. Step across the stone path of your private garden, surrounded by the sound of the water trickling constantly into the wooden tub like a fountain, and feel the mineral-rich spring water turn your skin to silk. Then, after a spectacular dinner, wander along a lantern-lit walkway between centuries-old trees to a peaceful wooden cottage. Built in the late 1800s for the Emperor, it’s now a lounge bar serving fine wines, desserts and liqueurs. It’s a thoroughly dream-like place in which to end the day.”
– Jeff Krevitt, InsideJapan Boulder office, USA
For feeling like family: Yamaichi Bekkan, Miyajima
Small on cost but big on warmth, the Yamaichi Bekkan proves that an unforgettable ryokan stay needn’t cost the Earth.
“The Yamaichi Bekkan may seem modest at first glance, but what really makes it special is the welcome you get from the lovely Shinko-san and her equally delightful son Teppei. Walking in felt so warm and inviting, I immediately felt part of the family. Dinner and breakfast were feasts: carefully prepared and beautifully presented — yet still a comfortable home-cooked meal, not a fancy, formal affair. Nothing was too much trouble during my stay, and it was clear that Shinko-san’s only priority was to make me feel at home, which I did. The Yamaichi Bekkan is the only place I would stay on Miyajima, even if I were rich!”
– Ali Muskett, InsideJapan Bristol office, UK
For the hot-spring town experience: Nishimuraya Honkan, Kinosaki Onsen
Set in a postcard-perfect town complete with canals, cherry trees, and wood-panelled lanes, the Nishimuraya Honkan is the place to get that traditional, hot-spring-town experience.
“When I arrived at Nishimuraya Honkan it was like stepping into a safe and luxurious bubble, away from all stress. The lobby alone took my breath away. The focal point is a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over a beautiful, moss-covered garden. The whole ryokan smelt amazing — think warm, sweet, woody incense. It was immediately calming. Over the next 18 hours I ate the most intricate and stunning meals of my life, soaked my troubles away in an open-air bath surrounded by bamboo, and slept on a futon so thick and fluffy I almost got lost in it. I checked out feeling like a different person: relaxed, shiny, and new.”
– Sam Barrow, InsideJapan Bristol office, UK
For the off-piste adventurer: Bettei Otozure, Nagato
Elegant without being old-fashioned; stylish without being ultra-modern; traditional without skimping on creature comforts: Bettei Otozure is a “Goldilocks” ryokan far from the tourist trail.
“One of the first things that impressed me on my visit to Bettei Otozure was how open everything felt; how seamlessly the lobby flowed into the surrounding gardens and ponds. In the rooms, an entire wall could be opened up to the balcony, merging the boundary between outside and inside. It’s a stunning place to spend the day lounging on a plush couch or relaxing in a private tub, enjoying the breeze. As if that weren’t enough, they also have a gym, spa, and huge open-air bath in which to while away the hours. I was so sad when it was time to jump back in the van and move on to the next place.”
– Kristen Elrod, InsideJapan Nagoya office, Japan
For the overnight hiker: Daikichi, Tsumago
In a beautifully preserved feudal town on an old samurai trail, the Daikichi epitomises the traditional countryside inn, complete with rustic building and hearty, home-cooked meals.
“I stayed at Daikichi on an unseasonably soggy day in May, arriving dripping wet after a beautiful but misty trek along the Nakasendo Way from Magome. Suffice to say the sight of a cosy tatami room was a welcome one! What I remember most vividly is the friendliness of the service: being and ushered inside from the rain to a warm welcome; the care with which each dish was served and explained at dinner; the staff personally checking each guest’s onward travel plans and returning with annotated transport timetables. Sinking into a steaming hot spring bath after a day of travelling wasn’t bad either!”
– Rachel Grainger, InsideJapan Bristol office, UK
If you’re thinking of heading to Japan, we highly recommend staying at any of the above ryokan to experience a slice of Japanese culture and hospitality at its best. If there isn’t any room for you at the inn, we know many other fantastic places — so get in touch and we’ll help you find a ryokan stay to remember.