Ryokans And The Japanese Art Of Relaxation
While most have visions of sun, sea and sand in mind when they think of the perfect curative escape, Japan offers an intriguing alternative far removed from busy beach hotels and fights for sun loungers at dawn.
For more than a millennium, ryokans – the inns of Japan – have been opening their doors along trade routes and highways, offering respite for weary travellers. As the centuries passed, these guesthouses developed a distinct identity that has survived intact into the modern era. Today, they’ve come to represent tradition and heritage, and are embedded within the nation’s culture as a treasured link to the Japan of old. Above all else, a stay in a ryokan provides guests with an experience of deep relaxation.
Ryokans are unlike hotels. These aren’t places to throw down your bags and head out to explore. The hospitality begins from the moment you arrive and cross the wettened threshold, itself a symbol of sanitation and readiness to host. From there you’ll don slippers and yukata robes and discover a world of tatami mat floors and paper screens. Most ryokans are built by hot springs and grant a restorative dip in the piping hot, healing onsen waters.
Meals are typically taken in-room, removing the need to fret over what to wear and affording guests total privacy. Dinners are often elaborate multi-course banquets called kaiseki, prepared by chefs of exceptional skill. Room attendants appear gifted with an ability to conjure what you want before you want it, whether that’s refreshing your tea or sharing hidden spots to glimpse the last cherry blossoms. This is no chance thing, it’s the practice of omotenashi, the Japanese concept of selfless service and meticulous hospitality.
There are rules to follow and customs to observe – no shoes in your room! – but once settled in, guests find that time passes effortlessly and the outside world fades away. Give yourself permission to eat, bathe and do little else, and your ryokan stopover may just be the most healing experience you’ve ever had.
5 Japanese Ryokans To Immerse Yourself In
- Asaba, Izu Peninsula – Often named Japan’s most beautiful ryokan, Asaba’s rooms are built around a tranquil pond, immaculate gardens and a 19th century Noh stage that hosts productions by Japan’s most revered arts performers.
- Hiiragiya and Tawaraya, Kyoto – The two most storied ryokans in Kyoto are helpfully located across the street from one another. Tawaraya, the more elusive and near-impossible to book, and Hiiragiya, a stately, sixth-generation family-run inn whose guests have included Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor.
- Nishimuraya Honkan, Hyogo Prefecture – An elegant ryokan located in one of Japan’s prettiest hot spring towns, Kinosaki. The onsens are known for welcoming bathers with tattoos, which is not always a given.
- Kanaguya, Nagano – Rumoured to be the inspiration for the bathhouse in Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Kanaguya is one of Japan’s more eccentric ryokans. It’s in Shibu Onsen, which is a popular stop for those who come to see Nagano’s enigmatic snow monkeys.
- Tsuruya, Karuizawa – Karuizawa is a mountain town popular with urbanites seeking refuge from Tokyo’s roasting summers. Tsuruya’s cosy rooms and well-kept onsen accommodate guests who come to hike, bike, and explore the town’s excellent café culture.