Staying at a Ryokan in Japan? Here's What To Expect When You Stay at a Traditional Japanese Inn

By Megumi Koiwai
Updated: April 12, 2024

Every trip to Japan should include a few days outside the city to disconnect and recharge. A trip within a trip, if you will. For these short escapades, staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is worth looking into. Of course, you can get great food and service in the city, but ryokan are known for their supreme hospitalitykaiseki dinner, and Japanese breakfast, and most of all, on-site hot springs (onsen) in the room or at the facility to share with other guests. It's an all-in-one package for a unique and authentic Japanese experience. 

Keep reading for some basic history and what to expect if you're staying a ryokan in Japan.  

What is a ryokan?


The word "ryokan" in Japanese is written as 旅館, combining the characters 旅 (means "traveling") and 館 (literally "mansion," more commonly used as a hotel or a place to stay). It's believed that ryokan were originally meant for traveling noblemen like samurai. This might explain their signature hospitality practices, which we still see today.

Very few countries can claim to have hotels that have been around for more than 1,000 years. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Yamanashi Prefecture, which has been open for business since 704 AD (over 1,300 years), is considered the oldest hotel in the world, according to Guinness. It's likely that the second-oldest and third-oldest hotels on the planet are also in Japan. 

There are many perks to staying at a ryokan: hospitality and care, seasonal meals, traditional architecture, and a hot spring bath that's always filled up. This is often why ryokan also tend to be a pricier accommodation option. But don't be fooled: it's worth every penny you spend. 

What's the difference between a ryokan and a hotel?

While ryokan are traditional Japanese inns, this should not be synonymous with "old." There are new and modern ryokan in Japan, too. This can make it tricky to understand the differences between ryokan and hotels. Here are a few tips:

  • Ryokan will almost always have a Japanese design and feel, while hotels will be more akin to what you might see in Europe or North America (think Hilton). While not a strict rule, staying at a ryokan means you will sleep on futons laid down on tatami floors. 
  • Staying at a ryokan almost always includes dinner and breakfast at the on-site restaurant.
  • Most ryokan have a public hot spring or rooms with private baths.

Japan residents opt for ryokan when they want to decompress and spend most of their time in one area, or spend most of their stay in their rooms. Hotels are the go-to for business trips or trips where they spend most of the day out and about. 

Ryokan in Japan: Know before you book


Your experience at a ryokan might also differ from other ryokan in other cities or regions within Japan. Accommodations in remote locations might not have the same facilities and amenities as newer ryokan in city centers, for example. You should decide where to stay based on the kind of ryokan experience you're looking for and taking into consideration your needs. Whether you want to stay in a ryokan surrounded by beautiful nature with a rustic feel or a more modern ryokan close to the city is up to you.

Expected costs: While some cost much more, the average stay at a ryokan can cost between ¥15,000 and ¥25,000 per person. It's customary for ryokan to provide towels, basic amenities, and a yukata for you to sleep in at night. That said, with a higher-than-ever focus on sustainability in the hospitality industry, more ryokan are asking guests to bring their own amenities if they can. Be sure to check before booking!

Checking in: More traditional establishments may ask guests to remove their shoes at the entrance and change into slippers. From there, checking in at a ryokan is as simple as checking in at a Western-style hotel. Many places now also have brochures, signage, and English-language websites. It can be an intimidating setting for first-timers, but fret not; the staff is lovely and helpful and will answer any questions you may have. 

Other things to know: Older ryokan tend to be small and architecturally fragile. If you are traveling with a large suitcase with wheels, they may ask you to avoid pushing it along the hardwood floor or on the tatami floors. It's always best to travel light, but if you do have large baggage, ask the front desk if they can help you carry it to your room. 

If traveling with groups of people, try to avoid having drinking parties inside the rooms past a certain time. It's important to be respectful of other guests!

Staying at a ryokan in Japan: What to expect


Reception: Japan is known for its supreme omotenashi, or hospitality; ryokan are no exception. If anything, ryokan may be the best place to experience the best version of omotenashiExpect a courteous greeting by ryokan staff. At more traditional establishments, you might notice staff wearing traditional Japanese clothes. The Okami-san, the wife of the ryokan owner or the owner herself, usually wears a beautiful kimono. 

Guest rooms: Ryokan guest rooms usually have tatami mat flooring, a low wooden table for tea and complimentary snacks, futon bedding (prepared by the staff while you're out for dinner), shoji screens, and yukata robes. You can wear your yukata to go to the onsen or dinner if these are outside your room. 

Onsen: Hot springs are ryokan's biggest attractions. If you are staying at a luxury ryokan, you'll likely have a private onsen bath in your room for uninterrupted relaxation time. 

A note on tattoos: Some ryokan now accept guests with tattoos, though it's safer to check on their official website before booking. 

Kaiseki: The standard ryokan food


It's customary for ryokan to serve kaiseki ryori for dinner. Kaiseki is a unique cuisine and the epitome of high-class Japanese food. It's a multi-course dinner using simple flavors and seasonal ingredients served with the utmost care. Every season (and every visit) promises a new array of dishes to look forward to. 

Most kaiseki menus change every month, and it's a great way to learn more about the ingredients grown and harvested in the area. 

Vegan, vegetarian, and halal travelers: Unfortunately, ryokan are notorious for rarely being able to accommodate those with dietary restrictions. That said, it's always better to ask beforehand. Your preferred accommodation can make adjustments!

Buckle up and get ready for a relaxing and well-deserved stay that will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

If you're looking for a no-fuss, no-frills booking experience, check out this Ishikawa experience that includes a one-night stay at a traditional inn, a kaiseki dinner and a tea ceremony.


FAQ on staying at ryokan in Japan

Do I need to tip if I stay at a ryokan in Japan?

Japan doesn't accept tipping in any situation. If you want to show your gratitude or appreciation to the staff after checking out, a simple "arigato gozaimashita" (Thank you so much) or "Totemo suteki deshita" (It was wonderful) is sufficient! 

How far in advance should I book a stay at a ryokan?

It's recommended to book your stay at a ryokan several months in advance, especially during peak seasons like spring and fall. 

What sets a ryokan experience apart from a regular hotel stay?

A ryokan offers a unique blend of traditional Japanese aesthetics, hospitality, and cultural experiences that you won't find in a regular hotel. It's a chance to escape the ordinary and immerse yourself in the beauty of Japan.

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Megumi Koiwai
Megumi Koiwai is a freelance writer based in Tokyo. She likes to write essays about her life and curate cultural recommendations on her Substack newsletter, love or not to love. She's either always eating and/or traveling. Always out on the lookout for the best outdoor drinking spots in the city.
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