Many travelers consider spending the night in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, a must-do experience in Japan. While Japan’s reputation as a high-priced country is typically undeserved, a ryokan stay is one expense that has the potential to do some serious damage to your budget. With average prices ranging from ¥7,000-100,000 per person ($70-1000), are ryokan worth the cost?
I booked a night at a family-run ryokan just outside Matsumoto, called Ryokan Seifuso. Many ryokan are small establishments like this one with less than 10 rooms, while others are large 100-room facilities on the scale of a hotel. Like Ryokan Seifuso, most ryokan are found in scenic places outside cities, often in areas famous for their natural hot spring waters. Experiencing a traditional Japanese bath (ofuro) is a big part of the ryokan experience, so many people choose ryokan that are able to source their water from local hot springs, rather than those that use artificially heated water for their baths.
At ¥4200 ($42) per person, Ryokan Seifuso was still a little over our typical accommodation budget, but with many ryokan charging over $1000 per night, this one seemed like a good bargain.
There was a modest-looking sign placed in front of the ryokan, welcoming me and one other guest for the evening. We took off our shoes in entrance, and stepped into the slippers that had been laid out for us. Slippers are worn throughout the ryokan, except on the fragile tatami mats found in the guestrooms. The atmosphere in the ryokan’s interior had the same unassuming warmth of a B&B, with decorations more like the kind you’d expect to find in a family home, rather than a sleek hotel. The ryokan is run by an older couple and their daughter, all of whom immediately began overloading us with advice, offering as hand-drawn maps of the local area and free bikes to take out exploring.
Like most ryokan rooms, our room included tatami flooring, futon beds, and a low table with flat zabuton cushions for seating. Most standard ryokan rooms are like this: Very basic, yet amazingly elegant in their simplicity. I was a little skeptical about the futon (since it’s basically a mattress spread out on the floor), but it ended up feeling as comfortable as any soft bed. There was a small box containing the supplies for preparing green tea on the table, and beside the table, we found another box with a set of towels and yukata (light, kimono-like robes). Yukata are mainly worn to and from the baths, but it’s also appropriate to wear them anywhere inside the ryokan.
Many ryokan include a traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast in the room price, which is important to keep in mind when booking a stay. At our ryokan, meals were available for an extra charge, so we opted to dine nearby before returning to the ryokan later to bathe.
We put on our yukata and made our way downstairs to the bathing area (we found out later that we mixed up the male and female yukata – whoops!) Each bathing area had 4 sets of showers and a large stone tub, which was heated with a constant stream of warm, mineral water. Some ryokan have private bathrooms, but in this case, these bathing areas were used for any kind of washing up, from long baths to quick showers. Although the bathing areas were gender separated, we were able privately reserve one room so we could bathe together.
We’ve visited onsen before, but each time I’m newly surprised by how relaxing it is. Using the baths in the ryokan was even more peaceful because after we were finished, we just slid on our robes and dreamily returned to our warm guestroom.
In the morning, we literally couldn’t escape the owners’ friendliness. We needed to hit the road early, but the older couple kept pressing maps into our hands even though we already knew the route. We gently backed away out the door, but they followed us outside, asking us in slow, careful English about the weather in Canada. When they saw our car had a little frost on the windshield, they rushed inside to boil a kettle of hot water before we could politely decline. As we drove away, still waving, I almost felt glad we couldn’t afford a $1000-a-night luxury ryokan. I’m sure the service at those places is fantastic, but it couldn’t possibly compete with this family’s sincere hospitality.
So was it worth it? Overall, yes. It was a truly delightful experience, and one that I’m glad we were able to have before leaving Japan.
Here are a few tips for spending the night in a Japanese ryokan:
- Unless you have a large budget, don’t make ryokan your primary form of accommodation in Japan – opt mostly for AirBnB, Couchsurfing or hostels, setting one night aside for the more expensive ryokan stay
- Like almost all accommodation in Japan, you’ll find more options and better prices if you book well in advance of your stay
- For the most part, ryokan are located outside city centers, so don’t book a ryokan if you’re hoping to stay close to downtown in a particular city
Have you ever been to a ryokan? Do you think the experience is worth the cost?