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Japanese Ryokan: Overpriced or Authentic?

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Japanese Ryokan: Overpriced or Authentic?

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?

stay in ryokan japan

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.

japanese ryokan inn

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.

ryokan japan hotel

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.

robes traditional japanese inn

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.

traditional japanese hotel

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?

 

 

26 Comments

  1. Agness March 19, 2014

    For me it's way too expensive. Although I agree with Lauren that this could be a lifetime adventure and an incredible cultural experience.

  2. ferretingoutthefun March 19, 2014

    I stayed at a ryokan in Takayama and it was a fun experience! It was a very small place, and if it had an onsen we didn't use it. But we did enjoy traditional Japanese feasts for breakfast (strange for a Westerner) and dinner (excellent). I have no idea how much it cost because we were being treated by our Japanese host family. It was amazing to be able to share in their culture!
    My recent post Walking With Dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural History

    • waysofwanderers March 19, 2014

      Very cool! I think towns with an older feel like Takayama, Kanazawa or Kyoto are perfect places to try it! It really adds to the overall atmosphere.

  3. Rika March 19, 2014

    I stayed at a ryokan in Gunma when I was in Japan and it was amazing!! It was $100/night but it included a kaiseki dinner and breakfast, and it was exquisite. I would do it again in a heartbeat! Still the best meal I've ever had.
    My recent post Roatan Month 19 Roundup

    • waysofwanderers March 19, 2014

      Awesome! This makes me wish I forked over the extra money for the meal!

  4. Erika March 19, 2014

    I have never heard of a ryokan before, but they sound wonderful! Japan is on my list of places to travel to, so I will definitely have to check one of these out when I go. Thanks for teaching me something new!

    • waysofwanderers March 19, 2014

      Definitely! Most Japanese hotels are pretty small and plain, so a ryokan is an awesome place to see more traditional furnishings and culture.

  5. cvail March 20, 2014

    Jessica, Ryokans are expensive, but I think totally worth it. I lived in Japan for three years and only sprung to stay in one a few times…but if you can fit it into your budget, one time on a trip to Japan really immerses you in the culture. I would suggest eating dinner there too…again for the experience. Great post!
    My recent post Finding the Best Hawker Centers in Singapore

    • waysofwanderers March 21, 2014

      They were too cute. We kept telling them we had to go, and they wouldn't let us leave, haha.

  6. Steph (@20YH) March 21, 2014

    Unfortunately when we visited Japan, we couldn't afford a stay in a ryokan, though I really wish we could have (we wound up doing a temple stay instead). I have a friend who lived in Japan for 2 years and she kept insisting that the prices were really reasonable, especially if you included the food, but we really couldn't justify paying $100pp each night (or sometimes more!) when everything else in Japan was so expensive. I'm sure we'll return to Japan one day and when we do, hopefully we can give one a try.
    My recent post Eating Our Way through Vietnam at Lang Viet

    • waysofwanderers March 21, 2014

      I think temples stays give you a similar experience – the traditional food and atmosphere. Either way, it's a nice change of pace from hostels/hotels, which seem to be pretty small and generic in Japan.

  7. Catherine March 22, 2014

    I would love to stay in a ryokan, sounds like a wonderful experience. The owners can really make or break an experience like this, but sounds like you chose the perfect place. Love that they even put a little sign up to welcome you 🙂
    My recent post 8 Reasons You Should Visit York

    • waysofwanderers March 23, 2014

      Definitely! The small ryokan are quite intimate, so the owners' hospitality makes a big difference.

  8. pengosabroad March 23, 2014

    We budgeted to stay a night in a Ryokan in Kyoto and it was well worth it. We had the traditional dinner and tried both the traditional and western breakfasts. The bath was definitely the best part.

  9. mightytravels March 26, 2014

    Good stuff – I'm planning to hit a Ryokan next week in Kyoto. Let's see how it goes! Btw just followed you on Twitter as well – great travel blog you have 🙂 Looking forward to connect!

    • waysofwanderers March 26, 2014

      Thanks, and likewise! I'm sure you'll love Kyoto. Make sure to try soba boro cookies while you're there – they're amazing!

  10. justxmoiii July 5, 2014

    I just love ryokan! I stayed in a small one in Kyoto and received the best service ever. And the place was just so gorgeous. And I could just feel the loved they poured into this place and they gave to their guests by all the small details like the beautiful decorations, the traditional sweets we got when we arrived and some cold drinks waiting for us in our room on a hot day. I think some are really over priced, but usually ryokan are worth every penny!
    I am planning to write about my experience in the ryokan soon 🙂
    My recent post Japan trip Day 3, Osaka

  11. Tina October 9, 2014

    I'm currently at a basic ryokan in Tokyo right now, Tokyo Ryokan. I did a lot of research on ryokans, and this one was one of the cheapest options at $70/night for two people (but it does not offer any food). There is an onsen not on premises but nearby, which I haven't checked out. After a 10-hour flight sleeping upright, sleeping on the floor was a welcome experience and we (including a 6'5" partner) slept like a log.

    I really appreciated the hospitality of our hosts and the common area with library of guidebooks available. The location was very good. I think the ryokan experience, as elaborate or basic as you like, is worth one night's experience. I'm very happy with our decision to stay in a ryokan in Tokyo.
    My recent post Flying Singapore Airlines’s A380 LAX-NRT

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2014

      That's actually decent – I think the cheapest accommodation I found in Tokyo period was $50/night for two people. Enjoy Tokyo – it's such an awesome city!

  12. Old OE'ers April 27, 2015

    Thanks for the advise. My husband lived in Japan for several years and we decided that we would stay in a Ryokan when we visit in Sept this year. However, trying to find a traditional real down to earth Japanese ryokan has been a heck of a mission. Everything advertised on the net is the high end accommodation. We're doing this major trip on the tightest budget, so high end is way out of our reach. so happy I found your site and will look up the named ryokans now.

  13. jadk001 October 8, 2015

    Thanks for this – Really helped with my decision for an upcoming trip to Japan – I really want to get out and see the other side of Japan and have an "authentic" experience – Sounds like exactly what you had! I have saved this place and will try incorporate it into my trip and the people you stayed with seem so genuine and amazing from what you have said!
    My recent post That one time when … I bonded with a Galápagos sea lion

    • waysofwanderers October 9, 2015

      Cool! This is definitely an awesome, affordable ryokan – enjoy!

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