Ryokan, The Epitome of Traditional Japanese Accommodation

Want to experience the traditional life? There’s nothing better than staying in a ryokan and experiencing true Japanese hospitality, omotenashi. Skip the modernised ones and go for a fully traditional ryokan complete with tatami mats and futon beds. Put on a yukata and dine on kaiseki the Japanese way. 

Table of Contents

  1. Basic Understanding of Ryokan
  2. Closer Look at Ryokans
  3. Ryokan Manners and Etiquette
  4. Famous Ryokans to Check Out
  5. Takeaway

Basic Understanding of Ryokan

What is a Ryokan?

A Ryokan 旅館 is a traditional Japanese inn. Their history dates back many centuries, as far back as the 8th century. Their popularity flourished in the Edo period when travelling became more frequent as people travelled to and from Edo (old Tokyo), and comfortable places to rest became necessary for weary travellers. 

What separates them from other accommodations?

A traditional Ryokan has a distinct exterior and interior appearance from modern hotels around Japan. First, let’s have a look at the typical exterior appearance of a traditional ryokan and its classic Japanese architecture:

Next, let’s have a look at how your room should look like:

Tatami flooring, a low table, zabuton 座布団 (floor cushion), and futon are what your room should contain. Additionally, yukata will be provided; you can wear this not just in your room but also around the ryokan. Aside from these, traditional ryokan typically provide these services as well:

  • Onsen - Public Bath

  • 2 Meals - Dinner and Breakfast; Dinner is Kaiseki Ryori, breakfast may vary

  • ご案内 Go-annai (Guidance) when you check-in. The staff will, apart from leading you to your room, give you a tour of the ryokan and its facilities, give you a tour of your room, and perhaps even serve you tea and wagashi in your room. 

For a detailed look at some of a ryokan’s characteristics, have a look at:

Closer Look at Ryokans

Kaiseki Ryori 

One of the highlights of a ryokan is dining on Kaiseki Ryori 懐石料理. 

What is Kaiseki Ryori?

A traditional Japanese multi-course meal. Ryokan’s pride themselves on serving only the best Kaiseki Ryori. A master chef trained in the arts of Washoku (Japanese traditional food) will be in charge of planning and preparing the menu which will use the best ingredients as well as embody the spirit of the season. The entire set meal will consist of appetiser, main dish, rice, soup, pickled vegetables, and dessert. Elaborate sets may contain a variety of side dishes.

Onsen Centred

Most, but not all, ryokans are located in hot spring areas. Even if there’s no hot spring, chances are it will have a public bath. Recently, the number of ryokans offering rooms with private baths are increasing as well if you prefer to wash in private. 

Ryokan Manners and Etiquette

It is important to follow the customs and traditions when visiting a ryokan. Let us learn and abide by them as a sign of respect to the traditions: 


It is not news that Japan respects timeliness above all else. This applies to ryokan as well. Aside from check-in and check-out times, dinner time is also (even more) important. When you check-in to the ryokan, the staff will confirm your dinner time with you (they may re-confirm with you again after leading you to your room). 

Whether you are dining in your room or in the dining hall, you are expected to arrive on time. Some ryokan have their staff come to greet you so being late will be really awkward. 

The same goes for breakfast. If it is served in your room, the staff will greet you with a cheery “ohayo gozaimasu” so make sure you’re not completely dishevelled for breakfast.

No Shoes on Tatami

Shoes are strictly prohibited on the tatami floors. Once you enter your room, you must remove your shoes at the genkan (front entrance). Only barefoot and socks are acceptable on tatami flooring.     

Also, be careful about heavy luggage. The weight may damage the tatami so keep it to the solid floor areas. 


Yukata is provided. It is not compulsory to wear but since everyone will be wearing it, you’ll certainly stand out if you don’t. The yukata can be worn all around the Ryokan. Do note that some ryokan have restaurants that are open to outside guests, they may request you to wear proper clothing. 

Also, pay attention to the proper way of wearing yukata: left side over right side. The other way round is how corpses are dressed. 

Essential Phrases 

Not confident in your Japanese? We’ve got you covered with these essential travel phrases for hotels. Don’t worry; it works for ryokans too! 

Traveling in Japan: Essential Japanese Phrases in Hotels

Famous Ryokans To Check Out

If you are looking for a ryokan to stay, here are some of the most famous ryokans in Japan: 

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan

First established in 705, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan 西山温泉 慶雲館 is recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest hotel in the world. Built next to a flowing stream, it is the epitome of traditional Japanese architecture. It has 4 open-air hot springs, each with its own charm and beauty. 

※ Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, "About Keiunkan"
※ Guinness World Records, “Oldest hotel

Awazu Onsen Houshi

First established in 718, Awazu Onsen Houshi 粟津温泉法師 was Guinness World Records oldest hotel until Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan came to light. Since 2020, they have offered a self-service option plan which is more affordable than the standard plan in response to Covid. Since Ryokan’s are usually quite expensive, do take this opportunity to visit a highly acclaimed historical ryokan whilst you still can. 

Houshi Ryokan
※ Japan Today, “World’s second-oldest hotel offers new self-service stays to cope during pandemic

Ryokans in Kyoto 

Kyoto is one of the best places to experience a ryokan stay with the sheer number of them available. Luckily, we have an article just for you: 

Traditional Japanese Experience: A look at Ryokans in Kyoto


Part of what makes a trip to Japan amazing is the chance to experience its culture. A ryokan is not just a place to spend the night, it is history, culture, and tradition all wrapped up in one. Not to forget delicious food, stunning views, hot spring soaks, and admiration of the beautifully designed buildings, there’s nothing ryokans are lacking in. At least once in your lifetime, splurge on yourself and enjoy a healing retreat at a ryokan. 

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