What is a Ryokan?

A ryokan (旅館) pronouncedryou-kan, is a traditional inn found all throughout Japan, and is most commonly found in hot spring resorts or onsen areas, especially in the Tokyo and Kyoto area. Hakone is also a choice tourist destination, just a short distance from Tokyo. Japanese ryokans are considered the best way to experience the heart and soul of Japan. Stepping into a ryokan feels like traveling back in time and immersing oneself in the elements of traditional Japanese Culture, technology, arts, and spirituality. 

This kind of accommodation is unique from hotels and resorts in that they would have tatami mat floors, shoji sliding doors, futon beds which are set on the floor instead of a bed frame, and communal baths, and visitors would often roam the premises or the gardens while wearing a yukata, as well as be served kaiseki meals. Most ryokans would rarely accept guests with children under 12 years or single travelers, while some will exclusively serve women.

The ryokans usually have communal baths which would often be filled with water from natural springs, whether naturally or artificially heated. The ryokans with their baths sourced from natural hot springs are called “onsen ryokan”, which literally translates to hot spring inn. Onsen Ryokans are also fairly common as well, with an estimated 13,000 established all over Japan, most of which are located away from city centers. These are hot spring inns with communal or private baths supplied with water from hot springs.

Most, if not all ryokans are family run and it’s safe to assume that if you’re staying in one of them, the great-great grandfather used to manage the place too. However, despite the businesses being run by men, women are mostly in charge of waiting on and taking care of guests. These ladies are called “okami”. The okami is usually the owner of the ryokan or the wife of the owner. Most of the time, there are three generations of women that handle the responsibilities–the oo-okami or grand okami, the okami, and the waka-okami or young okami. These three are almost always a mother-daughter or daughter-in-law relationship, where the younger generations apprentice under the instruction of the older. 

Guests are also attended to by the room maid or “nakai-san”. The nakai-san takes care of individual guests and has very little difference with room attendants, who are also referred to as nakai-san. They offer various services to the guests and are often the personnel who receive the guests and see them off. Sometimes there are even more than six of the staff who will bow deeply to welcome guests at the entrance and to see them off. Some ryokans would have Geisha attending to the guests or provide traditional entertainment.

A ryokan would cost about 150 USD on average per person but a luxury ryokan may start from 1000 USD per person per night, with reservations made months or even years in advance for both. The pricing system, payment, and reservation can be confusing for people who are new to ryokans. Most establishments would only accept reservations by fax and the room prices would sometimes be vastly different even in the same ryokan. The room rates will depend on the room as each one is almost always unique, from the size, design, amenities, garden view, and even the season as the demands change as well. 

Even despite the Coronavirus Pandemic, a number of traditional ryokan in Kyoto and Hakone were fully booked three months in advance. 

Another factor contributing to the cost of staying and running a ryokan is the limited number of rooms. On average, there are 14.9 guest rooms in the establishments. Although this limits the number of visitors that can stay overnight, the limited rooms also ensure the quality of service that is unique to a ryokan. Bigger ryokans, however, would offer various other activities for its guests like karaoke rooms and game rooms or arcades but most are equipped with televisions and air-conditioners or heaters to make stays more comfortable while keeping the traditional ambiance that centuries of culture have left.

 

History

A tradition that existed since the 8th century, ryokans are known as the oldest hotels in the world. The first one, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, is a Guinness World Record holder as the oldest hotel. It was established in 705 AD and is still run by the same family for more than 52 generations. The second oldest is Hoshi Ryokan which was established in 718 AD and has since been run by the same family as well for 46 generations. 

The origins of the ryokan goes back all the way to the Nara Period (710-784 AD) to “fuseya” which were safe dorms and lodgings set up by Buddhist monks for pilgrims on their journeys. These free accommodations were thought to be the first in Japan that provided overnight stays. At the time, traveling between regions was perilous, causing a large number of travelers to perish from starvation or the cold, so the Buddhist monks set up the fuseya as a way to assist pilgrims like the samurai and merchants on their journey between the regions of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Osaka. A priest at the time, Gyoki, constructed roads and bridges in dangerous locations and established the nine fuseya, or the Five Home Provinces: Yamashiro, Yamato, Izumi, Settsu, and Kawachi. Many accommodations have popped up in the areas along the Tokaido Highway that connected Edo and Kyoto since then. A number of historical ryokans still exist to this day, many of which have been managed by the same family since their establishment.

As the popularity of religious sites and pilgrimages grew in the Heian Period (794-1191), temple buildings and “Shoen” manors came to be used as rest houses for members of the Imperial Family and aristocrats. These Shoen manors are converted private lands owned by aristocrats, temples, shrines, and powerful families. These accommodations came to be called the “shukubo” or temple lodgings and welcomed religious devotees. These facilities are being run, up to this day and are open to the general public.

This was then followed by the “kichin-yado” which emerged in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). Literally translating to “cheap inn”, these lodgings did not provide meals during a traveler’s stay and would often be charged for wood if they so choose to cook their own meal. These kichin-yado existed alongside the “hatago” in the Edo Period (1603-1867). This newer kind of lodging provided meals for its visitors and eventually became more popular.

Unlike the common travelers, feudal lords or “daimyo” and their entourage in the Edo Period would stay at designated lodgings called “honjin” or “waka-honjin” which were commonly run by esteemed families, Buddhist temples, and shrines. 

Compared to today’s ryokans, hatago is closely comparable to the ordinary ryokans, whereas deluxe or luxurious ryokans stemmed from honjin and waka-honjin. While kichin-yado evolved into “minshuku”, a type of accommodation that is a simpler and budget-friendly version of a ryokan.

Onsen ryokans can be traced back to the Edo Period as well when travel among common folk became more prevalent in the form of trips to nearby tourist spots and “toji-ba” or hot spring resorts and towns. The inns located in and around these areas evolved into onsen ryokans that remain in operation up to the present.

Sekizenkan Ryokan in Shima Onsen

Today, there are more than 50,000 ryokans in Japan, but only a few remain in downtown Tokyo since the Doolittle Raid in 1942 during World War II. However, in the post-war 1950s, Japan began a rapid economic growth. The Japanese became more affluent and started indulging in traveling through company trips, group vacations, and school trips. Following this trend, ryokans started growing around tourist destinations and hot spring towns to accommodate the mass onset of tourists and visitors just from the local population.

Ryokans are also the preferred accommodation for people of note up to this day–from politics, business industries, and the arts. One in particular, was Steve Jobs, who often stayed at his favorite ryokan, Tawaraya Ryokan which is a short distance away from the

The popularity of traditional Japanese inns were greatly affected abroad in the early 2000s after the release of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away, Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time. An award-winning animated work by Studio Ghibli that has since been beloved around the world, being dubbed as the Best Animated Feature Film at the 75th Academy Awards. The film took inspiration from the many ryokans and bathhouses all over Japan, although no specific bathhouse inspired the whole design, the most prominent is the Sekizenkan Ryokan, with its iconic red bridge called “Keiun-bashi”, the hot spring waters “Genrokunoyu” in Shima Onsen. Other influences include Dogo Onsen Honkan, Shibu Onsen Kanaguya, and Tsurumaki Onsen Jinya.

 

Cuisine

Partaking in a kaiseki meal is the best way to experience the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. The origins of the cooking techniques may vary but the roots can be pinpointed in the eras before the Nara Period, in the dishes served to aristocrats and the imperial court. The preparation and flavors evolved into a cuisine around this period, which greatly influenced modern-day Japanese meals. 

Ryokans are known to serve guests local dishes and specialties that are unique to the area, called kaiseki. Kaiseki cuisine often showed off the flavors of the town or region. This practice was borne from the rich variety of vegetation and produce throughout the narrow islands of Japan. Vastly different ingredients would be available throughout all four seasons in the country, as well as a variety of fish that can be caught in warm and cold ocean currents that surround the country. 

Influenced by Buddhism, most dishes would feature vegetables and fish, and very rarely was it meat for a stretch in history. These vegetarian dishes were called “shojin ryori” which for the purpose of its consumption, were prepared for religious reasons. It makes use of vegetables and soybeans. The uniqueness is made apparent by the limited use of oils and spices, letting whoever tastes a dish experience the flavors of the freshest ingredients to its fullest potential.

While kaiseki-ryori” or tea ceremony dishes were borne from “sado” or the art of tea ceremony. “Honzen ryori” was practiced by the samurai, which involves serving formal dinner dishes on trays with legs. This also later evolved into kaiseki-ryori that is served during sake feasts. Around the same time, local dishes and specialties grew in prominence, making dining experiences unique for every region. Kyoto is particularly known for its refined kaiseki-ryori which are also served in many high-class restaurants outside of ryokans.

Meat was later incorporated into Japanese cuisine around the Meiji Period (1868-1912), where Japanese cuisine started to fuse with Western dishes.

Today, ryokans continue to serve kaiseki meals to its guests. These meals are prepared by a highly experienced chef using high-quality ingredients, two of the contributing factors as to why ryokans would be considered expensive. The food is commonly prepared by fusing regional flavors with foreign techniques while still preserving the elements of traditional Japanese cuisine. Each dish is made distinct by the unique touches of the ryokan. Some ryokans, however, have adapted to serving buffet-style meals and “kyodo ryori” or local delicacies.

A traditional kaiseki meal will have five different kinds of dishes cooked in five different methods and served in five colors that usually correspond to the seasons. These healthy dishes can be composed of up to forty ingredients and still be less than 500 calories

In this manner, ryokans can be considered as old inns with high-class restaurants. In some ryokans, guests are served their meals in dining rooms, but it is more common to find the staff serving meals in the guests’ rooms separately.

 

Japanese Architecture and Gardens

Ryokans have long made use of traditional construction methods, be it purely that or a mix between traditional and modern techniques. This style, along with the distinctive designs of Japanese gardens and landscaping is rooted deep into the culture of Japan and the influence of nature, culture, and spiritualism. Japan’s wood culture stemmed from the vast woodland and mountainous areas, as well as abundant forest resources. Wood has also proved to be more resilient against natural disasters such as earthquakes, which is common in Japan. This skillful use of timber is the reason why Japanese Architecture became synonymous with Wood Architecture.

Traced back to the 6th century when Buddhism came to Japan along with master artisans called “Kosho” and built religious temples using Chinese architectural techniques. With time, this type of construction paved the way for new styles and techniques like “Sukiya-zukuri”, which became the most common style among traditional residential structures. “Suki” which is used to describe something well-refined or elegant as seen in traditional tea ceremonies, ikebana, and other traditional Japanese arts. The architectural style of sukiya-zukuri is made distinct by using natural materials like wood and is designed using tea house aesthetics. 

Older, traditional ryokans have slowly refurbished their structures to accommodate for more modern techniques for disaster prevention as well as to install luxuries afforded by today’s technology. The traditional ambiance has however been preserved well, as can be seen in more recent ryokan buildings. Composed mostly of wooden textures, newer ryokans have begun a pursuit of contemporary Japanese architecture that puts emphasis on perfection, function, and a comforting ambiance. 

 

Gardens and landscaping go hand in hand with the facade that the architecture of ryokans project. The roots of the Japanese Garden is intertwined with the evolution of Japanese architecture. Born from the belief of “Shinto”, where gods and spirits reside in nature, Japanese gardens inherited the distinctive feature of white stones or pebbles arranged around Shinto shrines. This white gravel trait soon made its way to Imperial Palaces, Buddhist and Shinto Temples, and Zen gardens.

Later on, in the earlier part of the Heian Period (794-1191), “Shinden-zukuri”, a style in which water was incorporated into gardens, was developed. The water would often flow from a stream, “yarimizu”, into a pond that had a small island in the center called “nakajima”. A small garden party called a “kyokusui” were usually held in these gardens, as is depicted in The Tale of Genji or Genji Monogatari

Landscaping techniques became more prominent in the later parts of the Heian Period. “Jiwari” or allotment of land, and “ishigumi”, or stone arrangement was a trend. Ishigumi would be used to create small, artificial waterfalls with the yarimizu streams. These techniques were compiled in the Sakuteiki, or “The Art of Designing a Garden”. A Buddhist style arrangement that turned gardens into a small paradise, known as “The Pure Land of Bliss” or Gokuraki-jodo, became a trend at the time. This was developed even further in the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) when “karesansui” style came to be known. It made use of the ishigumi but did not use water thus being called a dry landscape. “Sado” or the art of tea ceremony influenced gardening and landscaping as well with the introduction of the chashitsu” teahouse and the “roji” which is the pathway leading up to it.

Throughout the evolution of the Japanese gardens and architecture, they have always gone hand in hand, most especially noted in their use in temples and shrines, as well as structures made by the rich and powerful. Ryokans have emulated these in their aesthetic and throughout their pursuit of high-class hospitality and sophistication in service of those of power and note. The aesthetics go hand in hand with the personalized service that inns provide, providing beauty, comfort, and luxury to guests.

 

Sources:

  • Nitschke, Le Jardin japonais
  • Young, The Art of the Japanese Garden
  • Seki & Brooke, Japanese Spa: A Guide to Japan’s Finest Ryokan and Onsen and;
  • Seki & Brooke, Ryokan: Japan’s Finest Spas and Inns Akihiko Seki
  • Guichard-Anguis & Moon, Japanese Tourism and Travel Culture
Page updated:

Contact us : info@mai-ko.com