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Ryokan Guide – All You Need To Know About Traditional Japanese Inns

Dive into the serene world of Japan’s traditional inns with our Ryokan guide. Here you will find answers to all of your ryokan-related questions and more!

Shu Ono, a renowned onsen enthusiast and ryokan marketing expert, will share his unparalleled insights into this unique aspect of Japanese heritage. With a background of collaborating with nearly 400 accommodations and personal stays at 30 ryokans annually, Shu’s expertise offers a deep dive into what makes these inns so special. Join us in this ryokan guide as we explore the essence of ryokan stays, guided by his seasoned perspective on everything from etiquette to the selection of the perfect inn. 

Table of Contents

Ikaho Onsen Kouunkan Kyoto Room
Kouunkan in Ikaho Onsen

Ryokan - Traditional Japanese Inn

What is a Ryokan?

Ryokan is an ancient and traditional Japanese form of lodging. It’s a unique form of lodging in the world because it is filled with traditional Japanese culture and lifestyle.

By staying in a ryokan, travelers to Japan can experience the traditional Japanese way of life. Upon entering a ryokan, you first take off your shoes. In the Japanese-style room, you change into a yukata (Japanese bathrobe) and spend the night on the tatami mats. At night, you will sleep on a futon.

Nishiyama Ryokan Bed Traditional Accommodation
Nishiyama Ryokan in Kyoto

Onsen vs Ryokan - What is the difference?

Onsen basically means “natural water” that gushes out of the ground. Ryokan is one of the lodging styles that are available to book and stay in Japan. By law, if the source water is over 25 degrees Celsius, it is called an onsen, but even if it is less than 25 degrees Celsius, it is considered an onsen if it contains certain ingredients.

It does not necessarily mean that an inn has an onsen. Some ryokans have large baths that do not produce hot spring water. This is mainly found in inns in urban areas. In this case, they are not called onsen but rather boiled water heated from the tap.

In hot spring resort areas, there are many facilities that have onsen, even if the name of the facility is “hotel.” Therefore, in Japan, there are many lodging facilities that offer hot spring baths, even if they are Western-style. Conversely, there are also lodging facilities that are called ryokan but do not have hot springs.

Tokiwa Indoor Bath
Tokiwa in Yuda Onsen

How Staying at a Ryokan Differs from Hotels?

Staying at a ryokan is, of course, a lot different than your usual hotel. Hotels are basically the same as the common form of lodging in other countries, with beds in Western-style rooms, while ryokans are usually Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats. In hotels, guests can wear bathrobes but must get dressed to go to restaurants or the lobby. In a ryokan, on the other hand, guests can change into a yukata and walk down the hallway outside their room or even go outside the ryokan in their yukata.

There are various types of ryokans available these days. Some ryokans have simple Western-style rooms like those found in hotels, while others have combination rooms of Japanese and Western-style with twin or double beds on tatami mats.

Grandia Housen Room Bed
Grandia Housen in Awara Onsen

Types of Ryokans

What Are the Different Types of Ryokans?

By size, they are divided into large, medium, and small inns. Large inns have more than 100 rooms, medium-sized inns have 25 rooms or more, and small inns have less than 25 rooms. Large ryokans have banquet halls, large communal hot spring baths, and a souvenir store, and require facilities for group guests. Some small-sized ryokans have fewer rooms but have guest rooms with open-air baths. Some luxury onsen ryokans have only five rooms and are limited to five groups per day.

There are luxury ryokan, family ryokan, ryokan for groups, and ryokan for single-party use called itto-gashi, among other types. Luxury ryokans offer luxurious kaiseki cuisine and are mainly for couples. Family Ryokans offers child-friendly facilities and a variety of plans for children to enjoy. The single-party itto-gashi style ryokan is only one guest per day.

Takamine Onsen Cozy Lobby
Takamine Onsen in Komoro

By region, there are several ways to distinguish between urban ryokan, ryokan in hot spring resorts, ikkenyado (stand alone inn), and hitou-yado (secluded hot spring) inns. Ikkenyado refers to a ryokan located in the mountains or by a river, where there is only one ryokan. Hitou-yado refers to a small inn in a hidden or secluded hot spring site, rather than in a so-called hot spring resort.

There are three types of structures: wooden, thatched, and concrete. Some of the wooden buildings are more than 100 years old. Most wooden inns are now more than 50 years old and were built during the Showa period. Thatched roofs are buildings with a thick layer of thatch on the roof. The ones in Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture and Miyama in Kyoto are examples. Concrete buildings were built in the late Showa period and after the Heisei period. Some ryokans opened as wooden ryokans in the early Showa period and were rebuilt with concrete buildings in the late Showa period or later.

Rankeisou Ryokan Outside
Rankeisou in Sanjo

What Is the Difference Between Modern Japanese Ryokan vs Traditional Ryokan?

The most significant difference between modern Japanese ryokan and traditional ryokan is the newness of the buildings. Most modern ryokans are constructed of concrete, while traditional ryokans are often buildings with a majority of wooden parts. However, there are cases where the former and the latter are mixed. For example, there are ryokans whose buildings are made of concrete but were founded in the Edo period and have been around for a long time.

Even if the building is wooden, there are ryokans that have done away with tradition and simplified their hospitality, while there are ryokans that offer only simple overnight stays.

Ikaho Onsen Kouunkan Kouunkan
Kouunkan in Ikaho Onsen

What Is a Minshuku?

A minshuku is a small family-run inn. Facilities are the same as those in ryokans, with Japanese-style rooms, tatami mats, and yukata (Japanese bathrobes), but many inns have shared toilets or small baths and are cheaper than ryokans.

There are no restaurants, large public baths, or banquet halls. They are rarely found in large cities but are found in suburban cities, fishing ports, and farming villages.

Ryokufuso Ryokan Traditional Japanese Room
Ryokufuso in Kyoto

Choosing and Booking a Ryokan

Should I Stay In a Ryokan and Why?

Yes! 120% recommended! There are over 35,000 ryokans in Japan for you to choose from. If you want to experience Japanese culture in its entirety, stay at a ryokan. You can enjoy the full experience of traditional life with Japanese hospitality.

Iwaso Ryokan Miyajima Open Air Bath
Iwaso in Miyajima

How to Choose a Ryokan?

Ryokans come in all shapes and sizes and cater to different audiences, and that’s why it’s useful to check out our ryokan guide before deciding on what you would like to experience. You will have to learn a bit about them ryokans order to choose the best one for you.

Ryokans vary in type, size, features, and price range, so there are so many different options to choose from. I stay 30 nights a year on business trips, and I never get tired of the same ryokan because I visit them in different seasons, stay in different rooms from the previous one, and they renew some part of their facilities.

When I go with my family, we often decide based on the onsen, kaiseki cuisine, comfort of the rooms, word-of-mouth reviews, proximity to places we want to visit, and our budget for one night.

The more you stay at a ryokan, the more you will discover that it is a different and more profound experience than a hotel.

Kijitei Hoeiso Indoor Bath
Kijitei Hoeiso in Hakone

What Is the Average Cost of Ryokan in Japan?

It is difficult to say what is the average cost because even within a single ryokan, there is a wide range of prices, including overnight stays with no meal, breakfast, half board, and seasonal specials. Even in the same hot spring resort, the price ranges from 8,000 yen for one ryokan to 70,000 yen for another ryokan.

Please also note that there are fluctuations in the exchange rates between each country and the Japanese yen.

Kamesei Ryokan Delicious Food
Kamesei Ryokan in Chikuma

How to Book a Stay in a Ryokan?

Online Travel Agents known as OTAs are common. In OTAs, you will notice the ryokans with the most reviews and the highest ratings. Try a Google search of the ryokan’s name. You can tell if a ryokan is foreigner-friendly by whether or not it has a proper English website. Also, some ryokans offer special room plans or discounts that are only available on their websites, so it is recommended that you check their websites every time before booking through OTAs.

Kokuya Traditional Japanese Room
Kokuya Ryokan in Shibu Onsen

The Ryokan Experience: Etiquette and Expectations

Ryokan experience is something you will remember for a long time. For many people, it is the highlight of their stay in Japan. After all, you get delicious food, soothing hot baths, and the traditional culture of Japan all in one! But it is good to know what to expect and how to behave.

Can You Explain the Ryokan Etiquette?

Ryokan etiquette is quite simple once you learn the basics. If there are steps at the entrance, take off your shoes there, observe public manners in the public baths, wear a yukata properly, and do not make too much noise inside the building.

As long as you follow these rules, you should be fine. According to people who have traveled across Japan in the past, “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do”. One way to learn ryokan etiquette is to follow the example of the Japanese guests staying at the ryokan.

Ryokan Yukata

What Are Your Best Advice for People Who Are First Time in a Ryokan?

Since ryokan is one of the forms of lodging available in Japan, think of it as a Japanese-style hotel. There is no need to feel self-conscious. Since this is the first time for most foreign travelers to stay in a ryokan, the Okami and employees of the ryokan will be happy to help you understand how to enjoy your stay. Please relax and enjoy the atmosphere of a home away from home in a foreign country.

Hotel Iya Onsen in Iya Valley

What Do You Wear Under a Yukata?

Basically, you should wear underwear or T-shirts. It is not necessary to wear a T-shirt inside a yukata in hot summer. Conversely, in winter, you may wear long sleeves under the yukata and have shirt sleeves showing under the yukata sleeves.

Girl in Yukata

How to Interact With Ryokan Staff?

It is not necessary to be able to speak Japanese, but if you can say a few words of greeting (おはようございますohayo gozaimasu, こんにちはkonnichiwa, etc.), it will make it easier for the ryokan staff to pay attention to you. You may also say hello in English. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you can simply bow a little in greeting when you pass by.

Grandia Housen Hot Springs View
Grandia Housen in Awara Onsen

Who Is Ryokan Okami?

Okami landlady is like a female manager who is in charge of all aspects of the inn’s hospitality. Some ryokans do not have an okami, but most traditional ryokans with a strong sense of propriety have an okami. The o-Okami is the grand landlady, who is the Okami’s mother. The Okami’s subordinates are the waka-Okami, the young landladies who are the daughters of the Okami.

What to Expect in a Ryokan Room?

You will be surprised at how completely different it is from the way you would spend time in a Western-style room. But there is a wonder that anyone can immediately feel at home and relaxed.

There are three main differences from hotel rooms: 

  1. The rooms are on tatami mats. Tatami is a floor mat made of igusa straw.
  2. In a purely Japanese-style room, there is no bed, and a futon is laid out on the floor. The room attendant may come to lay the futon on the floor.
  3. Yukata (Japanese light robe) are always provided. For women, some ryokans offer a selection of colored yukata near the front desk, and for men, yukata in different sizes are available. Some ryokans also have yukata in various sizes for men and women.
Ryokufuso Ryokan Traditional Japanese Room
Ryokufuso in Kyoto

The fourth point may be a little confusing, but in standard to luxury class ryokans, a room attendant (called a nakai-san) may come into your room. They may come in to make tea right after you check-in, or they may come in to lay out your futon while you are eating or taking a bath. If you do not want them to come in during your stay, just hang a “Don’t disturb” tag on the outside knob of the door. However, then you will have to lay the futon yourself.

Nishiyama Ryokan Tea Ceremony
Nishiyama in Kyoto

Ryokan Onsen Hot Baths

What Is the Etiquette for Using a Private or Public Onsen?

Bathing in a hot spring is a great experience that you can have in most ryokans. Especially in onsen hot spring resorts, both public and private baths are onsen, so please enjoy relaxing in them as many times as you like!
Manners do not change whether you are in a private bath or a public bath.

You must enter the bathtub naked and must not put a towel in the bathtub. Wash your body before getting into the bathtub, and after the second bath of the day, you may soak yourself in the bathtub by simply pouring hot water over your body.

You are not allowed to shout, run, or bring your smartphone to take pictures in the bathhouse.

Araya Totoan Bath Indoor
Araya Totoan in Yamashiro Onsen

Do All Ryokan Have Private Onsen?

Not all ryokan have private baths. There are two types of private baths in a ryokan. The first is in the rooms, which guests can use anytime they want to. The second is outside the rooms and can be privately used for 40min to 50min. For the second type, guests should book in advance. In any case, getting a reservation in a ryokan with private onsen is a great idea!

Kokuya Private Bath
Kokuya in Shibu Onsen

How Long to Soak in Onsen?

Hot springs contain ingredients that make the body feel warm. Whether or not the water feels hot depends on the individual. Generally speaking, it is said to soak in the bathtub for 15 to 20 minutes per session. There are various ways to enjoy onsen.

One way is to first warm yourself in the indoor bath for 5 minutes, then move to the outdoor bath for 5 minutes, and then return to the indoor bath or to a place with a Jacuzzi, for instance, to unwind for a total of 15 minutes to fully enjoy the onsen. Most communal bathhouses have a large wall clock; some people leave after 5 minutes, while others stay in for 20 minutes or more. I bathe three times per night at a ryokan: once after checking in and before dinner, once before going to bed, and once the next morning.

Hanaikada Kyoto Arashiyama Ryokan Bath Onsen
Hanaikada in Kyoto

I always go to the open-air baths in the morning when there are fewer people. I especially recommend it! At ryokan located in the mountains, you can soak in the hot water while breathing in the fresh air and admiring the spectacular view. At ryokan by the seaside or along the river, you can enjoy the view of the trees, listen to the birds chirping, and warm yourself in the hot spring. A morning bath is a great way to start a very good day.

Kayuu Taiji Hot Spring Indoor Bath
Kayuu - Taiji Onsen in Wakayama

Is Tattoo Allowed in Public Baths?

Recently, more and more ryokans are allowing tattoos in their communal baths. If you are still concerned about wearing a tattoo, choose a ryokan with private baths or reserve a guest room with a bath.

Since the spacious baths at onsen ryokan are one of the most enjoyable parts of the ryokan experience, it is recommended that you check the website before making a reservation to see if the baths allow tattooed guests. If it does not say so, you can ask by e-mail or check the reviews by guests who stayed in the past.

Matsuya Sensen Outdoor Hot Spring
Matsuya Sensen in Awara Onsen

Ryokan Food

All of us here at Japanko Official love ryokan food! It is so fun to try many different and unique local dishes. Ryokan food is truly one of the highlights of staying in a ryokan

Do Most Ryokan Include Meals, and Which Ones?

Many ryokans include meals and offer half board (ryokan dinner and breakfast). However, it depends on the location of the hot spring resort or sightseeing spot you wish to visit. Ryokans located in cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto often offer overnight stay plans with no meals or breakfast, as there are many restaurants nearby.

Araya Totoan Traditional Meal
Araya Totoan in Yamashiro Onsen

Should You Book a Ryokan With a Meal Included?

To fully enjoy your stay at a ryokan, we recommend that you choose a half-board plan that includes dinner, where you can enjoy the best of Japanese cuisine. Incidentally, some ryokans offer a plan that includes dinner but not breakfast. The opposite plan is also available.

Haiya Ryokan Summer Cuisine
Haiya in Awara Onsen

What Sort of Food Can You Expect in a Ryokan?

The ryokan dining experience can be one of the highlights of your time in Japan.

Meals are usually served in the dining room, but sometimes, they are served in the room where you will be staying. In that case, futon bedding will be laid out after the meal is over.

Change into a yukata, and be sure to have your picture or video taken of you over the beautiful kaiseki dishes!

Ryokan breakfast is usually served in a manner similar to the traditional home cooking of the area. At ryokans near the sea, local fish such as horse mackerel and flatfish are served as dried fish called himono.

Haiya Breakfast Set
Haiya in Awara Onsen

Recently, an increasing number of ryokans are offering Western-style meals. However, Western-style meals are often simpler than Japanese breakfast, consisting mainly of bread, salad, and eggs.
At some ryokan, special meals can be arranged for vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or gluten-free. We recommend that you inquire ryokans about your meal preferences as soon as you make your reservation, not at the last minute.

Kokuya Western Style Breakfast
Kokuya in Shibu Onsen

Is There a Kaiseki in a Ryokan?

Japanese-style kaiseki meals are common for a ryokan dinner, but some ryokans serve buffets or Western-style courses. In the kaiseki course, starting with an appetizer using several seasonal vegetables, sashimi and tempura are served, followed by a main fish or meat dish (wagyu at some luxurious ryokans) using local ingredients, and finally rice and soup, and finally dessert with seasonal fruits.

Iya Onsen in Iya Valley


Our exploration into the world of ryokans has revealed a rich tapestry of Japanese tradition and hospitality. Ryokans are not just a place to stay; they are a deep dive into the cultural heart of Japan, offering experiences that are both serene and profound. As we conclude this ryokan guide, remember that choosing a ryokan for your stay is choosing an experience that connects you to the essence of Japanese life. May your travels be filled with the discovery and enjoyment of these unique cultural gems.

Shuichiro Ono

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