Ryokans in Japan

Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan in the spring
Photo By SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Suimeikan is a type of traditional Japanese accommodation called a ryokan.

Suimeikan is a type of traditional Japanese accommodation called a ryokan.

Travelers seeking a true glimpse into Japanese culture should stay at a ryokan, which offers traditional accommodations and a Japan of yesteryear.

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While ryokans can be found in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, they are usually pricey small rooms, lacking the best amenities. In other words, a big city ryokan is usually not a full and satisfying experience. For travelers wanting the complete ryokan package, it is best to advise them to head to the countryside, where a traditional stay is often complemented with other customs. One such place is Takayama City, which, despite its name, is hardly a metropolis and extends across the Japanese Alps, filling an area as large as Tokyo, but only hosting a population of 90,000 residents.

Essentially, all the best ryokans, regardless of their subtleties, offer similar amenities and design. For instance, one of the highlights of staying at a ryokan is the kaiseki, a decorative feast of many small dishes, the Japanese version of Spain’s tapas. And any worthwhile ryokan in Takayama City, a place that straddles still-active volcanoes, will have communal and/or private hot water baths called onsens. Lastly, a ryokan, deserving of its name, will have bedroom floors covered with springy tatami mats, usually made of rush or reeds, perfect for a night’s sleep. Tip: Communicating the bed, or at least the absence of a Western-style one, is important. Essentially, the bed is a soft mattress, similar to a really thick comforter that is stowed away in the closet along with a proper comforter and a pillow — which often has a bean-bag quality — and is rolled out in the evening.

Ryokan Asunaro

Ryokans have bedroom floors covered with tatami mats, and soft mattresses are provided as beds.Pictured: Ryokans have bedroom floors covered with tatami mats, and soft mattresses are provided as beds.

For clients interested in staying in a pure ryokan in the heart of Takayama City, where two-thirds of the small population lives and local treats like Hida soba, rice balls on sticks and locally brewed sake can be enjoyed while strolling the lanes in a robe or kimono, then Ryokan Asunaro is a top choice. After kicking off their shoes — a must at all ryokans — and slipping on indoor sandals, guests will come into the beautifully constructed lobby that has dark wood floors and flowing, uneven zelkova beams running across the ceiling. The lobby is filled with gifts for purchase; most are the work of Takayama City artisans. In fact, the area is famous for its woodwork and the sleek, simple furniture is created locally. Tatami mats surround a tea pot that hangs over an in-ground fire pit, known as an irori, and guests are invited to sip the sweet sake and hot tea that Asunaro serves in winter. (Black soy bean iced tea and apple vinegar, which tastes more like a cider than anything else, are poured during the warmer months.) For clients who want to experience the irori in a more private setting, Asunaro’s large deluxe rooms have iroris in their back alcoves, tucked away behind paper shoji doors.

Communal baths are available and the facilities are clean and welcoming; unlike the ryokans outside of the city, the onsens here are not naturally heated by magma that boils below and are not designed with the lava rocks that decorate many other baths in the mountains. Rooms range from 7,000 to 24,000 yen. Taking the room with both meals, usually raises the price by about 4,000 yen. While the kaiseki meals are offered at Asunaro (though at a Western-style table and chair), the old city has myriad food options, and recommending the lower rates to guests (at least for all nights, but one) will allow them to sample some of the great eateries and treats in town.

Some of the places in downtown Takayama City worth a visit are Sumikyu, a restaurant for traditional soba noodles; the old town; and one of the more than half dozen sake distilleries.

If clients are looking to be immersed in nature on skis, kayaks, bikes or in trekking shoes (or if they want to experience a region of open-air onsens) they can certainly take day trips from the old city. Or, perhaps better, they can stay in the wilds of Okuhida at two exceptional ryokans.

Luxury travel advisors can reach out to Yukikio Seue ([email protected]; 011-057-733-0551) for more details.

Hodakaso Sanganoyu

Okuhida’s Hodakaso Sanganoyu, in the village of Hirayu, is a mix between a hotel and a ryokan, though, after leaving the Western-style lobby, guests will note that it is mostly ryokan.  Meals at Sanganoyu are enjoyed in a traditional setting: on the floor and inside private shoji-enclosed rooms. The delicious and artful dinners range from shabu shabu to seafood pots, all with that artful kaiseki-inspired touch. A Japanese-style breakfast is served, too, which also presents about a dozen small courses. Most impressive about Sanganoyu are their indoor baths and open-air onsens. It is also one of the few places to offer numerous private baths, presenting Westerners unaccustomed to Japan’s tradition of nude communal bathing to the same luxuries of hot springs made from lava rocks and surrounding zen gardens, but obviously in a separate setting. Here, the least expensive rooms cost 9,000 yen per person, and 15,000 should guests opt to take both meals. While there are some dining options nearby, it is much more limited than the old city, especially for travelers without a rental car.

There are many alpine trails through the mountains that hikers can tackle on their own, which is the best way to explore the region. But if travelers are interested in taking a guided trek through a cypress and cedar forest that houses an abundance of flowers and waterfalls, they should opt for the Kamoshika course on Mount Norikura. The stunning Kamikochi area is also nearby. There are also numerous rivers for those who enjoy fishing or kayaking, while skiers can choose from a bevy of mountains in winter.

After a day of hiking and a dip in the onsens, guests can head down the block from Sanganoyu to a no-frills izakaya, serving up locally brewed sake, good beer and croquettes speckled with Hida beef. In the village of Hitoegane, stop in for a very local meal at Nagase. They serve up dishes like boiled squid and a yam. Advisors can contact Tomoko Nojiri at 011-057-737-1515.

Hodakaso Sangetsu

Also in the Okuhida region is Hodakaso Sangetsu, where guests can experience the grandeur of modernity with the traditions of a ryokan. Visitors will be stunned by the lobby, with ceilings hoisted to great heights by 500-year-old zelkova trunks. Inside, a tea room looks out onto a carp pond, where tens of thousands of dollars worth of fish swim in a courtyard aquarium. Nearby, tea boils away at the irori pot dangling from a long chain over a fire pit that is swept to look more like a zen garden than a pit of ash. Tatami-matted rooms are large in Sangetsu and many offer mountain- or river-view vistas. Also, the meals, which can be enjoyed traditionally on mats or in Western-style seats, are much more incredible, as they serve stunning kaiseki dinners, which include nearly two dozen beautifully presented dishes, along with top-quality, A-5 Hida beef. Prices are closer to 20,000 yen per night for each person taking both meals, but the baths, which are private, mixed, or gender-specific, are better than the rest. For more details, contact Tatsuhiko Nojiri at 011-578-892-036.

Things to Know

Besides not having the traditional bed in the room, there are other aspects of ryokans that might trouble some guests.

1. Often, other in-room features that are important to guests when staying at a Western-style hotel are a bit outdated at ryokans. Many safe deposit boxes use a key; TV screens are usually no bigger than a microwave; and bathrooms, while clean, are not extravagant. While clients interested in staying in a traditional Japanese accommodation are probably not the sort who will be bothered by these lacking amenities, it is always worth noting.

2. Sometimes there are kitschy elements in the ryokan lobby, like gift shops and, in some places, costumes, that, while only a minor component to the experience, are still present and could be off-putting.

3. The communal hot baths are often separate for men and women, but all bathers must go in nude. The onsens are one of the key ryokan experiences, so if the nude factor is a turn-off to clients, suggest a ryokan with private bath options.

4. It is quite typical for ryokans, along with some Western-style hotels in Japan, to charge per person, usually reducing price slightly for each additional guest. This should be explained, especially to families.

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