I Stayed at a Ryokan in Japan
Staying at a traditional Japanese inn can be a little pricey, but definitely worth it.
Japan offers plenty of lodging options, from the quirky (capsule hotels right in the middle of all the action) to the lavish (five-star hotel destinations with state-of-the-art facilities). But if you’re looking for something a little more authentic, then consider staying at a ryokan, even just for one night.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that have been around since the 8th century A.D., when they served as rest stops for traveling feudal lords and samurai warriors. If you close your eyes and imagine a traditional Japanese home, you’ll likely conjure up an image of a ryokan: a low, wooden structure with sliding doors, paper screens, tatami mats, and futons to sleep on. These days, some ryokans offer Western-style beds—but where’s the fun in that? If you’re after authenticity, then a futon is the way to go.
The oldest hotel in the world is, in fact, a ryokan called Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, established in 705 A.D. Like many ryokans, this one is situated near an onsen, or hot spring. Ryokans are generally located in more rural areas, though you can probably find a few in cities, albeit without the hot springs and the surrounding silence.
Where We Stayed
Yama No Yado Shimofujiya has been around since the 1860s.
The ryokan we stayed at isn’t nearly as old as Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, but it has been around since the 1860s, now operated by the sixth generation of the founding family. Yama No Yado Shimofujiya is located in the Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo. We took an hour-long Shinkansen ride from our Tokyo base, a 45-minute bus ride, and a 15-minute shuttle ride.
A cab is another option, but we were lucky to have a Japanese friend make a call to the ryokan in advance and arrange a pick-up time. It’s worth noting that the staff speaks very little English, so we communicated mainly through sign language, basic Japanese/English, and Google translate during our stay!
The shuttle ride took us on a scenic route up a mountainous area with plenty of foliage, just starting to bloom in the spring. I imagine that it looks enchanting in the winter, with everything covered in snow.
When we got to the inn, we removed our shoes at the entrance and were provided with slippers by the very hospitable staff. As we checked in, they tried to explain that our room only had a toilet and a sink; the women’s bathing area could be found on one floor, while the men’s bathing area was on another. They then accompanied us outside to show us the onsen, again segregated by gender. Couples can book a specific time so they can enjoy the onsen together in private.
Our room at the ryokan.
3 Baths in Less Than 24 Hours
We were shown to our room, which was simply furnished with low chairs and a table, and which looked out onto the quiet street. (Some ryokans have rooms with their own little garden.) One of the members of the staff helped me get dressed in a yukata, a casual kimono that can be worn around the premises. Important to note: If you’re dressing yourself, belt the yukata left panel over right; the other way around symbolizes death.
We made sure to read up on bathhouse and onsen etiquette before our trip, so we knew to take a shower and get cleaned up before taking a dip. You’ll have to go in there completely naked, so leave your modesty at the door. It’ll only be as awkward as you make it.
After enjoying our separate baths, both in the bath house and the onsen, we made our way back to our room, where we were served a sumptuous kaiseki dinner. My advice: Skip any kind of snack in the afternoon to make room for the many courses. The meal featured sushi, shabu-shabu, steak, and a whole lot of other seasonal dishes artfully served on delicate plates.
Once we were done with our meal, a staff member came and brought out our futons, and prepared our beds with such great care. We then made our way back to the onsen for our reservation. Slowly immersing ourselves in the hot water on a cold spring evening, underneath a starry sky, after having a sumptuous feast—it was the perfect way to end the day.
Bathing areas are separated by gender. This is the women's onsen. Couples can book a private onsen in advance if they want to enjoy a bath together.
The next morning, we again used the baths. There’s just something so relaxing about the ritual of self-care and sitting still, something we don’t do enough of in our everyday lives. After our third bath, we made our way to the common area, where we sat with other guests (mostly locals) to enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast. My American companion, used to pancakes and eggs for his morning meal, initially experienced a bit of culture shock as he was served fish for breakfast, but he happily gobbled it all up.
This was breakfast.
As we packed up and reluctantly made our way out of the ryokan, the staff thoughtfully gave us some souvenirs. We boarded the shuttle and as it pulled away, we looked back to see a number of staff members seeing us off, waving goodbye. The service was impeccable but, more importantly, it seemed heartfelt.
Yama No Yado Shimofujiya is located at 11 Yumotoshiobara, Nasushiobara, 329-2922, Tochigi Prefecture. They don’t have their own website, so you’ll have to book through a third-party site. Our overnight stay, including the meals, cost about ¥20,520 per person.
Ryokans may seem overpriced for the simplicity they offer, but what you’re paying for isn’t the luxury of a fancy hotel room with all the amenities you can ask for. What you’re paying for is the luxury of time, space, and silence, and a charming glimpse into Japan’s past.
Photos courtesy of Tisha Alvarez and Alex England (main photo)