RYOKAN, CENTURIES OF HISTORY

Ryokan, these traditional Japanese inns, offer travellers much more than just a room to sleep in. They totally immerse them in Japanese culture and antique traditions thanks to their rooms, gardens, their baths and hot springs, and their tasteful cuisine. Each ryokan is unique, its style depending on the region and its owner’s taste. Some ryokan are now really modern, influenced by Western culture. Some others are faithful to Japanese traditional way of life. In both cases, ryokan origins date back to the Nara era (710-794).

At the time, fuseya (rural lodgings) were created to offer a shelter to travellers for the night. As hierarchy grew more important, more sophisticated inns appeared during the Kamakura era (1192-1333), to welcome high born people. Their counterpart, hatagoya (simpler and more popular inns), were devoted to modest visitors.

Little by little, these structures became the ryokan we know today: inns, equiped with bathtubs and surrounded by beautiful gardens and hot springs. They are more than 40,000 in Japan, luxurious or affordable, but all sharing values of hospitality and respect.

STRUCTURE OF A RYOKAN

Traditional ryokan follow a specific room pattern. Each space has a function. In the entrance - or genkan - you take off your shoes and enter your room barefoot. Do not put your luggages in the oshiire (futon closet) or on the tokonoma, because this space is dedicated to decoration.

During the day, a table stands in the middle of the ima (room) to serve the meals, but at night, it is replaced by futon. Anytime, onecan enjoy the view and feel of nature on the engawa, just outside the room.

CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS

The best way to experience the traditionnal Japanese hospitality is to stay at a ryokan. When entering the place, visitors are expected to take off their shoes and put on slippers, or geta (wooden sandals) to walk outside. The Okami, the owner or the owner’s wife, greets guests. Customers are indeed viewed as real guests, in the spirit of onotenashi (“hospitality”). It is no surprise that this word comes from the verb motenasu, meaning to welcome, to greet.

The Nakai explains visitors the rules (diner schedules etc.) and guides them to their room, covered in tatami, makes tea and engages them to wear a traditional outfit.

The Nakai is also the one who places the futon at night or folds them in the oshiire (a dedicated closet) during the day.

In the room, you can usually find a tokonoma, a space dedicated to decoration where you’ll most often see flower arrangements or hanging scrolls. A shoji (a sliding paper door) defines space and let the light subtly go in.

TRADITIONAL CLOTHING

Wearing traditional clothes is a way to leave behind every day life and fully enjoy the moment.

Upon their arrival at the ryokan, guests are encouraged to put a yukata, which is the simple version of a kimono. During the cold season, ryokan make tanzen available for their customers. It is thicker than a yukata and is perfect for walking around in the snowy gardens in the wintertime.

OFURO, A RELAXING TIME IN THE BATHS AND ONSEN

A prominent feature of ryokan is that they have large public baths and private bathtubs. Their sizes vary according to the scale of the ryokan. Bathtubs are usually made of wood, especially Japanese cypress (hinoki), or natural rocks, and they convey a peaceful atmosphere. There are strict rules applying to bath time. For example, it is customary to clean yourself before entering the bath.

In the most prestigious establishments, guests can bathe in onsen. These hot springs find their source in the rich volcanic activity of the country.

There are many onsen around Japan, except maybe in the big capital cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The water is said to have purifying as well as healing virtues. Not only contemplating the natural surroundings is good for the soul, it’s also good for your body if you suffer from back or joint ache, for example. Some ryokan also have sauna or massages services, which are usually located close to the bath area.

In Japan, bath time, especially with onsen, is a special moment for healing your pains, relaxing with your friends or family. As you will surely have understood, bathing can be the highlight of your stay.

ONIWA, BE CLOSE TO NATURE IN THE GARDENS

These natural spaces are a very significant piece of Japanese culture. Gardens are often built on a very specific pattern. They can be made to resemble faraway mountains or springs.

They’re composed of rocks and sand or grass, and each element has its own special place. A rock, for example, is often the symbolic representation of a mountain.

Karesensui gardens (with stones and sand) are becoming less common nowadays, slowly replaced by vegetal gardens, where nature is highlighted at its best. There you can admire the beautiful pink or white cherry blossoms in April, the azaleas in May and hydrangeas in June, as well as listen to the cicadas in the summertime, and enjoy the sight of the pretty colored maple leaves in Autumn.

Some ryokan have what is called tsubo-niwa, inside gardens defined by four barriers or walls. Composed of small trees, ponds and rocks, they bring light and serenity to a building’s inside courts. They’re also said to make vital energy (ki) move around more peacefully.

OSHOKUJI THE ART OF GASTRONOMY

Having a meal in a ryokan is a true experience that has nothing in common with a dinner in a classical hotel. In a ryokan, the chef (Ryori-shokunin) cooks the best tasty local dishes. They are served in traditional dinnerware by the Nakai right after being cooked, to best translate their flavours and freshness. Washoku (Japanese cuisine) has in fact just been recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

For dinner, guests can enjoy local dishes or a kaiseki, an assortment of elaborate and refined dishes such as gohan (rice), sashimi (raw fish), yakimono (grilled fish or meat), tempura, osuimono (soup), vegetables and fruits of the season. In the morning, rice, dried seaweeds, miso soup, eggs, dried fish and pickles are served. The way the Nakai serves them is almost as typical as the food itself, as a certain etiquette must be followed.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE WESTERN WORLD ON RYOKAN

Some ryokan, influenced by Western culture, offer their guests modern furnitures and facilities (like beds – and not futons - for example), as well as bars and Western meals (sugary breakfast, for example). In the most modern ryokan, one can even find cocktail bars. In some cases, the mixture of cultures and influences turned the ryokan into a luxury resort where elegance and western modernity meet the traditions and customs of the East.

RYOKAN IN REGIONS

A ryokan is the best way to experience a region, as you’ll get a taste of its customs, habits, nature and gastronomy.

  • KANAZAWA (Kanazawa Prefecture)
    A traditional castle town

  • SHIRAKAWAGO (Gifu Prefecture)
    The heritage of historic villages

  • KYOTO (Kyoto Prefecture)
    Centuries of tradition

  • KUROKAWA ONSEN (Kumamoto Prefecture)
    Alongside the mountain & river

  • FURANO (Hokkaido Prefecture)
    Overlooking a lavender farm

  • GINZAN ONSEN (Yamagata Prefecture)
    Deep in the silver snow mountains

  • HAKONE (Kanagawa Prefecture)
    Onsen place with the view of Mt Fuji

  • IZU (Shizuoka Prefecture)
    Peninsula facing the Pacific sea