Although an overnight stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) can be astoundingly expensive, it's worth the splurge at least once during your stay. Nothing quite conveys the simplicity and beauty -- indeed the very atmosphere -- of old Japan more than these inns with their gleaming polished wood, tatami floors, rice-paper sliding doors, and meticulously pruned gardens. Personalized service by kimono-clad hostesses and exquisitely prepared kaiseki meals are the trademarks of such inns, some of which are of ancient vintage. Indeed, staying in one is like taking a trip back in time.
If you want to experience a Japanese-style inn but can't afford the prices of a full-service ryokan, a number of alternatives are available. Although they don't offer the same personalized service, beautiful setting, or memorable cuisine, they do offer the chance to sleep on a futon in a simple tatami room and, in some cases, eat Japanese meals.
Ryokan -- Ryokan developed during the Edo Period, when daimyo (feudal lords) were required to travel to and from Edo (present-day Tokyo) every 2 years. They always traveled with a full entourage including members of their family, retainers, and servants. The best ryokan, of course, were reserved for the daimyo and members of the imperial family. Some of these exist today, passed down from generation to generation.
Traditionally, ryokan are small, only one or two stories high, contain about 10 to 30 rooms, and are made of wood with a tile roof. Most guests arrive at their ryokan around 3 or 4pm. The entrance is often through a gate and small garden; upon entering, you're met by a bowing woman in a kimono. Take off your shoes, slide on the proffered plastic slippers, and follow your hostess down the long wooden corridors until you reach the sliding door of your room. After taking off your slippers, step into your tatami room, almost void of furniture except for a low table in the middle of the room, floor cushions, an antique scroll hanging in a tokonoma (alcove), and a simple flower arrangement. Best of all is the view past rice-paper sliding screens of a Japanese landscaped garden with bonsai, stone lanterns, and a meandering pond filled with carp. Notice there's no bed in the room.
Almost immediately, your hostess serves you welcoming hot tea and a sweet at your low table so you can sit there for a while, recuperate from your travels, and appreciate the view, the peace, and the solitude. Next comes your hot bath, either in your own room (if you have one) or in the communal bath. Because many ryokan are clustered around onsen, many offer the additional luxury of bathing in thermal baths, including outdoor baths. After bathing and soaking away all travel fatigue, aches, and pains, change into your yukata, a cotton kimono provided by the ryokan. You can wear your yukata throughout the ryokan, even to its restaurant (in Western-style hotels, however, never wear a yukata outside your room unless you're going to its public bath).
When you return to your room, you'll find the maid ready to serve your kaiseki dinner, an elaborate spread that is the highlight of a ryokan stay. It generally consists of locally grown vegetables, sashimi (raw fish), grilled or baked fish, tempura, and various regional specialties, all spread out on many tiny plates; the menu is determined by the chef. Admire how each dish is in itself a delicate piece of artwork; it all looks too wonderful to eat, but finally hunger takes over. If you want, you can order sake or beer to accompany your meal (but you'll pay extra for drinks).
After you've finished eating, your maid will return to clear away the dishes and to lay out your bed. The bed is really a futon, a kind of two-layered mattress with quilts, and is laid out on the tatami floor. The next morning, the maid will wake you, put away the futon, and serve a breakfast of fish, pickled vegetables, soup, dried seaweed, rice, and other dishes. Feeling rested, well fed, and pampered, you're then ready to pack your bags and pay your bill. Your hostess sees you off at the front gate, smiling and bowing as you set off for the rest of your travels.
Such is life at a good ryokan. Sadly, the number of upper-class ryokan diminishes each year. Unable to compete with more profitable high-rise hotels, many ryokan in Japan have closed down, especially in large cities; very few remain in such cities as Tokyo and Osaka. If you want to stay in a Japanese inn, it's best to do so in Kyoto, smaller towns like Takayama, or at a hot-spring spa.
In addition, although ideally a ryokan is an old wooden structure that once served traveling daimyo or was perhaps the home of a wealthy merchant, many today -- especially those in hot-spring resort areas -- are actually modern concrete affairs with as many as 100 or more rooms, with meals served in communal dining rooms. What they lack in intimacy and personal service, however, is made up for with cheaper prices and such amenities as modern bathing facilities and perhaps a bar and outdoor recreational facilities. Most guest rooms are fitted with a TV, a telephone, a safe for locking up valuables, and a cotton yukata, as well as such amenities as soap, shampoo, a razor, a toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Rates in a ryokan are always per person rather than per room and include breakfast, dinner, and often service and tax. Thus, while rates may seem high, they're actually competitively priced compared to what you'd pay for a hotel room and comparable meals in a restaurant. Although rates can vary from ¥9,000 to an astonishing ¥150,000 per person, the average cost is generally ¥12,000 to ¥20,000. Even within a single ryokan the rates can vary greatly, depending on the room you choose, the dinner courses you select, and the number of people in your room. If you're paying the highest rate, you can be certain you're getting the best room, the best view of the garden or perhaps even your own private garden, and a much more elaborate meal than lower-paying guests. All the rates for ryokan in this book are based on double occupancy; if there are more than two of you in one room, you can generally count on a slightly lower per-person rate; small children who sleep in the same bed as their parents often receive a discount as well. Although most Japanese would never dream of checking into an exclusive ryokan solo, lone travelers may be able to secure a room if it's not peak season.
Although I heartily recommend you try spending at least 1 night in a ryokan, there are a number of disadvantages to this style of accommodations. The most obvious problem is that you may find it uncomfortable sitting on the floor. And because the futon is put away during the day, there's no place to lie down for an afternoon nap or rest, except on the hard, tatami-covered floor. In addition, some of the older ryokan, though quaint, are bitterly cold in the winter and -- though increasingly rare -- may have only Japanese-style toilets. As for breakfast, you might find it difficult to swallow raw egg, rice, and seaweed in the morning. (I've even been served grilled grasshopper -- quite crunchy.) Sometimes you can get a Western-style breakfast if you order it the night before, but more often than not the fried or scrambled eggs will arrive cold, leading you to suspect they were cooked right after you ordered them.
A ryokan is also quite rigid in its schedule. You're expected to arrive sometime between 3 and 5pm, take your bath, and then eat at around 6 or 7pm. Breakfast is served early, usually by 8am, and checkout is by 10am. That means you can't sleep in, and because the maid is continually coming in and out, you have a lot less privacy than you would in a hotel.
Another drawback of the ryokan is that some will not take you. They simply do not want to deal with the problems inherent in accepting a foreign guest, including the language barrier and differing customs. I've seen a number of beautiful old ryokan I'd like to include in this book, but I've been turned away at the door. Sadly, I've also lost ryokan that once accepted foreigners but now refuse to do so because of unacceptable behavior (such as climbing in the window at midnight). In any case, those recommended in the pages that follow do welcome Westerners.
You should always make a reservation if you want to stay in a first-class ryokan (and even in most medium-priced ones), because the chef has to shop for and prepare your meals. Ryokan staff members often do not look kindly upon unannounced strangers turning up on their doorstep (though I did this on a weekday trip to Nikko without any problems at all). You can make a reservation for a ryokan through any travel agency in Japan or by contacting a ryokan directly. You may be required to pay a deposit. For more information on ryokan in Japan, including destinations not covered in this guide, pick up the Japan Ryokan Guide at one of the Tourist Information Centers in Japan, which lists some 1,300 members of the Japan Ryokan Association (tel. 03/3231-5310); or go online at www.ryokan.or.jp. Another useful resource is Japanese Guest Houses (www.japaneseguesthouses.com), with more than 600 member high-end and moderately priced Japanese inns.
Roller Bag Etiquette -- I love my roller bag, but under no circumstances should you roll a bag on tatami or on old wooden floors of Japanese inns.
Japanese Inn Group -- If you want the experience of staying in a Japanese-style room but cannot afford the extravagance of a ryokan, you might consider staying in one of the participating members of the Japanese Inn Group -- an organization of more than 80 Japanese-style inns and hotels throughout Japan offering inexpensive lodging and catering largely to foreigners. Although you may balk at the idea of staying at a place filled mainly with foreigners, keep in mind that some inexpensive Japanese-style inns are not accustomed to guests from abroad and may be quite reluctant to take you in. I have covered many Japanese Inn Group members in this book over the years and have found the owners for the most part to be an exceptional group of friendly people eager to offer foreigners the chance to experience life on tatami and futons. In many cases, these are good places in which to exchange information with other world travelers and are popular with both young people and families.
Although many of the group members call themselves ryokan, they are not ryokan in the true sense of the word, because they do not offer the trademark personalized service and only rarely the beautiful setting common to ryokan. However, they do offer simple tatami rooms that generally come with TVs and air conditioners; most have towels and cotton yukata. Some offer Western-style rooms as well, and/or rooms with private bathrooms. Facilities generally include a coin-operated washer and dryer, a public bath, and sometimes a computer for checking e-mail. The average cost of a 1-night stay is about ¥5,000 to ¥6,000 per person, without meals. Breakfast is usually available if you pay extra; dinner is also sometimes available.
You can view member inns at www.japaneseinngroup.com. Or, upon your arrival in Tokyo, head to the Tourist Information Center for the free pamphlet called Japanese Inn Group. Make reservations directly with the inn in which you wish to stay (most have faxes and e-mail). In some cases, you'll be asked to pay a deposit (most accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa). Many member inns belong to the Welcome Inn Group as well, which means you can also make reservations through one of the methods described there.
Minshuku -- Technically, a minshuku is inexpensive Japanese-style lodging in a private home -- the Japanese version of a bed-and-breakfast. Usually located in tourist areas, rural settings, or small towns, minshuku can range from thatched farmhouses and rickety old wooden buildings to modern concrete structures. Because minshuku are family-run affairs, there's no personal service, which means you may be expected to lay out your own futon at night, stow it away in the morning, and tidy up your room. Most also do not supply a towel or yukata, nor do they have rooms with a private bathroom. There is, however, a public bathroom, and meals, included in the rates, are served in a communal dining room. Because minshuku cater primarily to domestic travelers, they're often excellent places to meet Japanese. Keep in mind, however, that many minshuku owners have day jobs, so it's important for guests to be punctual for meals and checkout.
Officially, what differentiates a ryokan from a minshuku is the level of service and corresponding price, but the differences are sometimes very slight. I've stayed in cheap ryokan providing almost no service and in minshuku too large and modern to be considered private homes. The average per-person cost for 1 night in a minshuku, including two meals, is generally ¥7,000 to ¥9,000 with two meals.
Reservations for minshuku should be made directly with the establishment. Or, contact the Minshuku Network Japan (tel. 0120/07-6556; www.minshuku.jp) for a reservation in one of its 3,000 members throughout Japan.
Kokumin Shukusha & Qkamura -- A kokumin shukusha can be translated as a people's lodge -- public lodging found primarily in or around national parks and resort and vacation areas. Established by the government (though some are privately managed), there are more than 300 of these facilities throughout Japan. Catering largely to Japanese school groups and families, they offer basic, Japanese-style rooms at an average daily rate of about ¥8,000 to ¥9,000 per person, including two meals. Because they're usually full during the summer, peak seasons, holidays, and weekends, reservations are a must and can be made directly at the facility or through a travel agency; many are also in the Directory of Welcome Inns. There are also 36 National Park Resort Villages (nicknamed Qkamura; www.qkamura.or.jp) located exclusively in national parks and popular with families. The drawback for many of these lodges is that because they're often located in national parks and scenic spots, the best way to reach them is by car.
Shukubo -- These are lodgings in a Buddhist temple, similar to inexpensive ryokan, except they're attached to temples and serve vegetarian food. There's usually an early morning service at 6am, which you're welcome -- in some shukubo, required -- to join. Probably the best place to experience life in a temple is at Mount Koya. Prices at shukubo generally range from about ¥7,000 to ¥15,000 per person, including two meals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.