The Best Ryokan in Japan

By: Claire Bullen

September 23, 2014

Japan is a beguiling mystery to many travellers: while it’s known worldwide for its hyper-modern megalopolises, the country’s traditional identity hasn’t yet been lost to modernity. Here, we go in search of the best ryokan in Japan, for a window into this nation’s unique history and heritage.

Having first flourished in the golden era of the Edo Period (though some date to centuries earlier), ryokan, or traditional inns, served initially as monk-founded guesthouses. These days, thousands of ryokan are still found all over the country, varying from hostel-like shared quarters to top-notch luxury enclaves. And while there’s variation, most tend to offer some common features: traditional constructions, minimalistic rooms with tatami mats and spare furnishings, yukata robes for guests, a high level of service and, if you’re lucky, onsen steam baths and fresh, delicate Japanese cooking.

We’ve narrowed down the search for the best ryokan in Japan to just five contenders. Some offer luxurious amenities that cater to international guests while others remain resolutely lost in time. No matter which one you choose, you’re certain to enjoy a memorable stay.

Best Ryokan in Japan | Keiunkan
Sparse, minimalistic rooms are a signature of traditional ryokan interiors © 633highland/Wikimedia commons

For the truly historical, there’s nowhere better to visit than the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in the Yamanashi Prefecture. Founded all the way back in 705, the ryokan has the stunning distinction of being the world’s oldest continually operated hotel – it’s been overseen by 52 subsequent generations, and even served samurai. Of course, its facilities have modernised since the 8th century, with rooms equipped with individual showers and coffee makers alongside outdoor bathing facilities and traditional décor.

Best Ryokan in Japan | Onsen
Enjoy a traditional open air spa whilst staying at a Japanese ryokan © tomophotography/iStock/Thinkstock

For another ryokan with its fair share of history, head to Yutouya in Hyogo Prefecture, located in a bucolic spa town. Founded in 1668, in the heart of the Edo Period, the guesthouse is today a calming retreat. A number of indoor and outdoor steam baths are available, while an attractive garden complements a long soak.

Best Ryokan in Japan | Food at Miyamasou
Food at the Miyamasou includes delicious foraged delicacies © Spanish Hipster 

Many onsen ryokan in Japan are located in rural, mountainous enclaves, and as such make for an idyllic, calming escape from chaotic city life. Miyamasou is one such ryokan, though its location in the Kyoto Prefecture ensures it also remains accessible to travellers. Now on the site of an old temple, the ryokan is elegantly austere, though viewing platforms, a traditional onsen, and light “herb food,” which includes plenty of freshly foraged delicacies, make it worth seeking out.

Best Ryokan in Japan | Hoshinoya, Kyoto
For a more opulent interpretation of the traditional ryokan visitors should visit Hoshinoya © Hoshinoya Kyoto

Of course, ryokan can also lean unapologetically towards luxury. Hoshinoya is a consummately modern iteration, with an entryway that’s only accessible by private boat. Rooms here are more opulent, and the on-site Michelin starred restaurant proves its high-end credentials. And for a luxury ryokan that’s accessible from Tokyo, Seiryuso, which has traditional onsen baths as well as a garden spa with sauna and hot spring swimming pool, is perfect for those looking to drift away into water-induced bliss.

Best Ryokan in Japan | Seiryuso onsen
The immaculate garden spa and spring swimming pool at Seiryuso will ensure utter relaxation © The Ryokan Collection

Whether you prefer tradition or modernity, these incredible ryokan in Japan span the full spectrum. What you’re guaranteed, though, is a uniquely Japanese experience – and absolute tranquillity.

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Which of these ryokan in Japan would you most like to visit? Do your tastes skew traditional or modern? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Claire Bullen

Claire Bullen

Claire Bullen

Claire is a born globetrotter: before relocating to London, she spent time in New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. When she's not in pursuit of the next exciting meal, she can be found haunting indie bookstores and sketching outdoors. Follow Claire @ClaireMBullen

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