Unwind in Serenity: A Kyoto Ryokan Guide

In the past few years, Kyoto has seen the addition of a great number of new hotels—both large chain and boutique—so there’s increasingly a greater variety of choice when it comes to picking a place to stay within the city. If you want to have a truly unique and truly Kyoto experience, though, you’ll want to spend at least a short while at a ryokan.

What is a ryokan?

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and an incredibly immersive way to experience authentic Japanese hospitality. Some of these establishments have been around for centuries, but newer or more historic, they’re sure to be unlike any other type of overnight stay you’ve had. When you step into a ryokan, you’ll note that simplicity, elegance, and attention to detail reign supreme. The architecture, furnishings, and decor all typically reflect a traditional Japanese style: tatami mat flooring, sliding doors, and low furniture that will be replaced–as if by magic–with fluffy futon bedding at night. The design is minimalistic compared to a Western-style hotel, but luxurious in its own way. Of course, there’s more than the room!

Benefits of staying in a ryokan

Traditional Japanese hospitality in ryokan inns

Staying in a ryokan offers a multitude of benefits that go beyond just a place to rest your head. One of the main advantages is the opportunity to experience traditional Japanese hospitality at its finest. The staff at ryokan are known for their warm and attentive service, ensuring that every guest feels like a VIP. The personalized attention and genuine care make the ryokan experience truly memorable. Ryokan also often provide a range of complimentary amenities, such as yukata (a kind of cotton kimono) for sleeping in and wearing to/from shared baths, tea, and often basic toiletries.

But if you book a ryokan you won’t want to pack your entire day full with sightseeing: aside from resting in your peaceful room, ryokan stays can also be booked with sumptuous Japanese dinners and breakfasts, often served right in your room!

Experiencing kaiseki cuisine at a ryokan

One of the highlights of staying in a ryokan is the opportunity to indulge in kaiseki cuisine, a traditional multi-course meal that showcases the finest seasonal ingredients. Each dish is meticulously prepared and presented. Kaiseki meals are a feast for the senses, with a variety of flavors, textures, and colors to delight your taste buds. The dining experience at a ryokan is often intimate and private, with meals served in the comfort of your own room or in a traditional dining area.

Onsen and relaxing at a ryokan

Another benefit of staying in a ryokan is the opportunity to relax in a tranquil environment. You can kind ryokan across Japan in serene locations, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but many ryokan even in Kyoto City are quite clever about preserving an atmosphere of quietude, even those centrally located: some use gardens with gentle streams to create a soft white noise effect, in addition to their interior lighting and other ambiance. 

You’ll also want to reserve some time to enjoy bathing in an onsen, or hot spring. Ryokan typically feature a large public bath (baths are separated for men and women), which is another quintessential part of the experience. Though modern ryokan may also feature in-room showers for those who prefer them, soaking in the bath before turning in is a wonderfully relaxing experience you’ll want to try at least once. Depending on the room you book, you may even get the treat of a private, open-air onsen bath (rotenburo) – an experience you won’t want to miss while you’re in Japan.

Types of ryokan stays

When you book a ryokan, you may be confronted with more options than you’re used to, as the typical choice of bed size doesn’t really apply here. Instead, you may need to choose between the following options: 

 Simple Overnight Stay (sudomari): As the name implies, this type of stay is the simplest, and includes an overnight stay without meals included. This is usually the cheapest option, but will mean missing out on some incredible ryokan dining.

 Stay with Breakfast and/or Dinner: One of the great treats of staying at a ryokan is the incredible traditional dining experience. Check with the inn when you book about options that include breakfast, dinner, or both. Meal-inclusive options will cost more, but these dinners can include exquisitely prepared, multiple course dinners that you’ll want to experience at least once. 

Special Room Types: Ryokan rooms are not all alike, and some may have special features, such as a private, open-air bath (rotenburo), or interiors that mix Western and Japanese styles (i.e. a Western-style bed as well as a tatami section), which may be preferable for some guests that struggle with mobility and getting to the floor.

Choosing the right ryokan in Kyoto

With a plethora of ryokan to choose from in Kyoto, finding the right one can be a daunting task. However, by considering a few key factors, you can ensure that your ryokan experience exceeds your expectations. First and foremost, it’s essential to determine your budget. Ryokan come in a range of price points, so knowing how much you’re willing to spend will help narrow down your options. However, be aware that staying in a ryokan is different from a simple hotel stay, and you should expect the experience to come with more premium pricing. Next, consider the location. Do you prefer a ryokan in the heart of the city, close to popular attractions, or would you rather retreat to a more secluded spot? The location will greatly impact your overall experience, so choose wisely. If the latter is more to your interest, you may consider heading outside the Kyoto city limits to a location like Yu-no-Hana Onsen in Kameoka, which features a number of ryokan in the mountains.

Finally, check for any special offers or packages that may be available. Some ryokan offer discounted rates or added perks during certain times of the year, so keep an eye out for these opportunities. Conversely, of course, there are certain times of year when demand is high: for example, during winter holidays or Golden Week (a string of national holidays in early April).

Useful ryokan etiquette

To ensure a smooth and respectful stay at a ryokan, you may want to be aware of some basic etiquette before your stay. Firstly, it’s customary to remove your shoes upon entering the ryokan. Slippers will be provided for you to wear indoors, but remember to take them off when entering your room or stepping onto tatami mats. When walking inside the ryokan to and from baths, guests often wear the provided cotton robes, which are typically found in the guest room closets. Just be aware that in most areas, these are meant to be indoor wear only.

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