17 Contenders for the Best Ryokan in Japan
Japan is a country that effortlessly fuses its most modern elements with the traditional, clinging to its unique elements which have been cultivated over many millennia. While there are plenty of accommodation options throughout the nation, you ought never to skip on visiting ryokans, a type of Japanese inn that aims to preserve local customs and share the culture with visitors. Creating the perfect atmosphere is far more important to the owners than providing a luxury experience (although at times, this is also possible), and authenticity is the name of the game.
Staying in a ryokan is not like staying at a “typical” hotel, and this fact ought to be respected throughout your visit. You may have to sacrifice certain privileges, and do things that are rather unexpected. The rooms are minimalistic, and you must take off your shoes before entering. Beds are often laid out in the evening as futons, and then rolled away discreetly at the start of the next day. The owners may not speak English, and you may only have access to shared bathing facilities. Try to keep your mind open to differing customs - the exemplary quality of the hosting will ensure that you never have a bad experience, even if the creature comforts do not (upon first inspection) meet your Western standards.
Ryokans have been part of the country’s history for centuries upon centuries, and their purpose has varied over the years. Some are simple and functional, originally designed for weary travellers to rest their head in comfort. Others are somewhat more elaborate, suitable for government officials and other authoritative figures. Regardless, ryokans are today celebrated for their attention to detail and welcoming feel. No matter your preferred travel style, to truly appreciate Japan, you should stay in a ryokan at least once. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best.
Tokyo does not have all that many ryokan, because the city does not make for a typical backdrop much like the natural wonders would have many years ago. However, as Tokyo remains one of the most versatile regions in the country (and indeed, the world), more modern versions of ryokan are not impossible to find. While Hoshinoya is certainly not a classic ryokan (it opened just a few years ago), its location ensures that travellers get the best of both worlds. While marketed as somewhat of a luxury resort as part of a small chain, the hospitality synonymous with the more traditional offerings never wavers. Minimalism is rampant here, and there are relics of ancient times gone by present at every opportunity. Expect personalised service, tatami (rice straw) mats on the floor and modern touches such as a world-class restaurant and high-tech features.
This ryokan’s rural setting will transport even the least imaginative traveller back in time with ease. Near to both Takayama and the UNESCO protected Shirakawa-gō and its mountainous villages, a stay here is truly an escape from the everyday. With only eight rooms, your experience will be both homely and intimate; a true take on how a quintessential ryokan stay should be. The property proudly maintains its Gassho-zukuri thatched roof, and you can experience local food exactly as it should be from your hosts. Share with your fellow guests in sitting around the 'irori' hearth, a fireplace which takes centre stage. This is a great ryokan for those who really want to sample genuine Japanese hospitality.
Perfectly located in the centre of Takayama Historic District, this is one of the most historic ryokans in the city offering an oasis in the midst of all the action. All of the rooms are air-conditioned, but they still pay homage to their history - you’ll find the tanami, woven-straw flooring and the traditional futon bedding throughout. While the en-suite rooms do come complete with a bath, we recommend a soak in the hot springs as well. In terms of the food, guests can look forward to a multi-course dinner and a delicious breakfast, and all food is served in the rooms.
Atmospheric with the most amazing aesthetics, this breathtaking inn to the east of the Kamo River is now almost two centuries old. Since its establishment in 1831, the property has fostered both character and charm, building a collection of antiques which you must be sure to look at. The main building is somewhat younger, at around 120 years old, and here many of the rooms open out onto the garden. A visit here would not be complete without the traditional multi-course kaiseki, served to you personally in your room, and of course, as with many of the best ryokan, the public bath is marvellous, made from 400-year-old cypress.
Opulent, decadent and delightful, Hiiragiya is one of the region’s most famous inns. Since its establishment over 200 years ago in 1818, it has hosted some of Japan’s most respected and regal residents, and the service they received will not differ for you. Complete with both a historic building and a modern wing, it is representative of the way the nation has managed to champion the contemporary while cherishing the quintessential elements of such inns. The attention to detail here is astounding, and each of the 28 tatami rooms is unique and intricately decorated. And, of course, you may enjoy multi-course meals from the privacy of your room.
This 300-year-old ryokan has truly stood the test of time and is always ready to treat guests as they they are the only ones present, even when this is not reflective of their books. The height of true luxury, guests can enjoy heated floors in their tatami mat rooms and old-style wooden bathtubs. While you can opt for a Western-style bed, for authenticity purposes, it is advised to choose a room with the traditional Japanese-style futons. You will want for nothing at this family-owned property, and it is best advised to book as far ahead as you can.
Hospitality at Yoshikawa is second-to-none, and guests can enjoy the novelty of both breakfast and dinner served directly to their quaint yet quintessential rooms. Featuring traditional furnishings such as tatami mat floors and paper doors, you will awake on your futon bed to yet more refined service from your personal maid, and can spend your day relaxing in the charming garden, complete with a koi-filled pond.
This ryokan is the epitome of inspirational, both by name and nature. “Ginyu” quite literally represents a person who is seeking inspiration to write poetry by travelling around, which this resort can offer in abundance. Panoramic views of the rural valley will give food for thought to even the least creative writer - and travellers - alike. Overlooking the mountains of Hakone, you will truly feel transported to another world.
This ryokan often does very well in the ratings, perhaps because of the sheer fact that it ticks a lot of ryokan boxes. Found hidden among the woods of Hakone, this ryokan focuses on simplicity as much as it focuses on elegance. Come here to escape from reality, with outdoor springs, a spa, a heated pool and even a small gym. Minimalism coexists with modern touches, and each has a balcony or garden access - some even have their own rotenburo (onsen).
Cross the suspension bridge over the Hayakawa River, and you’ll find yourself stood among bamboo thicket, with only Yamanochaya ahead of you. This inn consists of a single building, isolated from all others in the area; and its serenity complements the limitless expanse of its surrounds. The food here is prepared using only the finest ingredients, and menus are designed based upon whatever is in season. At the heart of the ever-popular Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, guests say that this is the perfect place to unwind and relax.
The quiet mountainside of Izu Nagaoka has surely kept many secrets over the years, but our favourite is the Sanyo-so ryokan. This beautiful region is lush and beautiful throughout all four seasons, and its garden full of wonderful water will take your breath away. Like many ryokans, it is the simplicity of its elegance which highlights its charm. Built in 1929, it still retains many of the traditional elements of Japanese rooms and gardens. While here, guests can relax in the hot springs or savour the traditional local cuisine.
Those seeking the ultimate romantic escape should look no further - Zaborin ryokan is exactly what you need. Found among the secluded serenity of the Hanazono woods in Hokkaido, guests will enjoy a harmonious environment with separate, private villas and their own indoor and open-air hot spring onsen. Admirable architecture is not the only reason visitors in the know flock here; the food offers the ultimate in fine dining, and goes above and beyond. There’s an elegance here that’s out of this world, and we would strongly recommend it as part of a honeymoon or other romantic itinerary.
This ryokan has been loved by writers and artists alike for over 100 years, since its inception in 1901. The Kanbayashi Onsen here are the closest hot springs to the nearby monkey park, where monkeys can be seen soaking and enjoying the natural waters. Here, you are also mere moments from the Shiga Kogen Ski Resort, a great place to sightsee and do sport. The rooms are traditional, with modern creature comforts, and the cuisine is the best in the area bar none, lovingly prepared in true local style by the owner’s wife.
Some ryokan feel the pressures of modern society to conform to emerging ideals - Kayotei is not one of them, and that is part of the reason it is so special. The inn remains frozen in time, still retaining the same charm that it has for many years. It can be found in the village of Yamanaka, known for its abundance of hot springs. Surrounded by an enchanted forest of trees and gardens, it is as special as anything lifted from the pages of a storybook. Featuring ten suite rooms, guests will be charmed by their arrangement in the traditional sukiya style of a tea ceremony pavilion, and the floors are laid with tatami for a more intimate experience. The inn itself is that little bit special, adorned with delightful decorations and works of art.
The Japanese gardens here are picture-perfect, and perhaps the main draw of this ryokan is that it could have been lifted straight from a postcard. You will find spacious rooms in the main tower, alongside some detached, individual cottages across two floors each, complete with a private, traditional wooden bath. You’ll find most rooms complete with the woven-straw floors which are so typical of Japanese interiors, alongside futon bedding. Every room comes with a view, which is just as well - each overlooks either the stunning gardens, or the ocean.
Those looking for luxury will find it in spades at the Iwaso on the island of Miyajima, a World Cultural Heritage Site since 1996. The island itself was designed by Taira no Kiyomori of the 12th century, and today it still maintains elements of its ancient architecture alongside natural beauty spots. Designated as a relaxing retreat and featuring three separate buildings, the ryokan has 42 rooms, each with a breathtaking view. Some of these will have their own onsens and bathroom facilities, while the others will offer a communal and wonderfully traditional experience.
Seeking to combine adventure with authenticity? Ryokan Sakaya is the Japanese inn for you. Combine a ski trip with cultural classics, from the nearby Kenmei-ji Temple to the traditional rooms themselves. Here, you will want for nothing, while still enjoying all of the charms of the Japanese-style arrangements. Each room features a yukata (Japanese bathrobe) as well as a private bathroom with your own bathtub.