From Tokyo to Kyoto: your guide to Japan’s best ryokans

By Lachlan Probyn,

Let’s be honest, we’ve all dreamed of a trip to Japan. But this time around why not let go of the Egyptian cotton sheets and LCD flat-screen TVs, and immerse yourself in a Japanese custom by staying in authentic accommodation? The solution? A ryokan (旅館) of course!

Once used as free rest houses for long-distance travellers, these Japanese inns typically feature woven-straw tatami mats (畳), futon bedding (布団), and onsen hot spring baths (温泉) all the original gems you’d expect from Japan.

So if you’re ready to delve back into Japan’s past, take a look at our collection of authentic ryokan hotels and soak up a piece of Japan as it was. Just be ready to remove your shoes!

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Your guide to staying in a ryokan

Slippers:

  • No shoes allowed indoors (slippers are provided) – also use the toilet slippers

Onsen:

  • Pick up a key to a locker at reception.
  • Undress completely in the changing room. Leave your big towel, but you can take a smaller towel to cover your privates in between showering/entering the onsen.
  • Wash yourself in the communal shower room – toiletries are usually provided. Enter the onsen! And don’t let your towel drop into the water…it’s seen as unhygienic.
  • It’s suggested that guests wash themselves again before getting dressed.
  • People with tattoos may not use the bath or bathing area.

Noise:

  • Ryokans are considered havens of serenity and relaxation. It is suggested to speak in a low voice, move gently, and avoid talking on the phone.

Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu – Tokyo

A trip to Tokyo inevitably entails a visit to Sensōji temple. This is the oldest temple in Tokyo and symbolises hope and peace in the country. In front, a giant incense cauldron diffuses smoke which is said to bestow health. Fortunately, Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu is a short three-minute walk away, making it a popular accommodation option. This ryokan offers single sex thermal baths which boast spectacular views over the five-storey Asakusa Pagoda – hello relaxation!asakusa-shigetsu-exterior

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A word of warning though, this place is not for friendly giants – everything is small! From the low ceilings to the floor seating and tables, this matchbox-sized inn offers all the accommodation essentials, just in a smaller scale.

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The three-person rooms reflect a typical ryokan style with futon bedding, while the single occupancy rooms come with beds. Wake up to a traditional washoku breakfast of Japanese-style omelets, grilled fish, and boiled rice, and charge yourself for a day of sightseeing in the capital.

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Iwaso – Miyajima Island

Located on Miyajima Island, Iwaso offers several wooden one-storied ryokans nestled amidst the lush grounds of the Momijidani Valley. Founded in 1893, the ryokan reflects traditional Japanese architecture, featuring tiled-roofs, transparent screens, and open communal spaces. Iwaso also offers an inviting open air onsen which draws water from the nearby Wakamiya hot spring. What better way to unwind than by floating in a communal bath, basking in the natural garden surrounds? iwaso-exterior

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The communal rooms come with tatami mats and futons, and reflect a charming blend of original features from the paper sliding doors, to the decorative lattice work. As you sit back and relax, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were a traveller of the Edo or Showa period.

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Just a three-minute walk away from Iwaso, you will find World Heritage Itsukushima Shrine – a poignant symbol of culture and history on Miyajima Island.

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Hakone Tent – Hakone

Are you looking to blend the charm of ryokan accommodation with the convenience of a modern hostel? If so, a stay at Hakone Tent should be pencilled in your itinerary. Opened in 2014, Hakone is the newest baby of the ryokan family, but it nevertheless does justice to this time-honoured accommodation.

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Featuring two ancient onsens with water piped from the Owakudani hot spring, this guest house is the ideal place in which to unwind after a day visiting the sites.

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Single sex dormitory rooms are available and feature typical futon bedding. If communal sleeping is a little too close for comfort, private room options are also available. While tradition is key, Hakone Tent also acknowledges the wishes of the modern day traveller, and offers free WiFi and an excellent bar with draught beer, where you can mingle with fellow travellers!

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Naraya – Kusatsu

With a rich history of 130 years, it goes without saying that ryokan Naraya does things well. Considered the number one ryokan in Japan, Naraya treats guests to indoor and outdoor thermal spas that source water from six different Kusatsu springs.

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The spring is one of the oldest in the region, and is famous for its popularity amongst historical heroes of Japan. Located in the Kusatsu mountain range, this ryokan makes for a truly serene escape from bustling city life.

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The three-storey wooden building voices the charm of a typical ryokan, and features low tables with seating and cushions. A traditional kaiseki multi-course dinner is also served, using local vegetables and famous Joshu beef. Would you ever feel the need to leave? If the therapeutic benefits of a thermal spa don’t quite suffice, book one of the bespoke treatments in Naraya’s on-site spa.


Hiiragiya Ryokan Bekkan – Kyoto

If you’re looking for a home away from home during your stay in busy Kyoto, book a night at Hiiragiya Ryokan Bekkan. Founded in 1818, this traditional inn has been under the same family ownership for six generations, welcoming guests with its warm and familial vibe. Nobel Prize winning Novelist, Yasunari Kawabata, even went as far as saying Hiiragiya was his second home!

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The 28 rooms boast the usual features from the late Edo and Showa periods of Japan, including papered sji windows and sliding fusuma doors. Each also comes with its own special motif, adding a unique touch.

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Polished wooden beams and reed ceilings feature throughout, and bathrooms are either lacquered, marble, or tiled. For some recharging, you can benefit from the kaiseki cuisine which is served each day and is carefully prepared with seasonal ingredients.

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Matsubaya Ryokan – Kyoto

With Kyoto being one of Japan’s oldest and most well-preserved cities, it only seems natural that it is also home to a mix of traditional ryokans. A particular favourite is ryokan Matsubaya. In operation since 1884, Matsubaya is ideally positioned, just a five-minute walk away from the serene Shosei-en garden and the Higashi-Hongan-Ji temple.

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The rooms have recently been renovated to a modern standard, all the while acknowledging their distinctive ryokan features. Think the usual contenders: futon bedding, low furniture, and tatami mats, alongside a private shower and various other mod cons.

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Each room comes with a quintessential Japanese tea set, so you can partake in a tea-sipping ritual for two. Guests are also offered super comfy Yukata (浴衣) robes to wear during their stay! If you’d rather venture outdoors, take a walk through the on-site manicured gardens and appreciate this sanctuary in the middle of the city.

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Looking for some more inspiration on Japan hotels. Check out our guide to wacky hotels in Japan here!