Ryokan are Japanese-style hotels that can found throughout country, especially in the onsen regions. Compared to the major chain hotels the accommodation is basic and the amenities few. Instead, the ryokan serve as the symbol of Japanese omotenashi (hospitality)—sleepy retreats where guests can go to relax and find a little peace (indeed, some ryokan owing to their location in the mountains may not even have cellular reception). They vary greatly in terms of size and cost—from company-run chains to family-owned and run establishments—but in general the price for a one night stay (including dinner and breakfast) is ¥15,000-25,000.
For the ryokan in the onsen region the main attraction is the natural spring water that flows into the communal baths (rooms do not have a private shower or bath). The water quality, color, and even texture differs from region to region, and so visiting each onsen is very much a unique experience. Guests take full advantage of this with some using the baths up to three times before departing the next day (before dinner, after dinner, and the following morning). After all, there is often nothing else to do—often the best you can hope for in terms of night life in the quiet onsen towns is a small izakaya. And this really is the charm of staying in the ryokan: quiet solitude away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Yes, there may be a moment of frustration when you switch on your smartphone’s WiFi to find no signal, but one soak in the tub and a few beers at dinner, and checking emails should be the last thing on your mind.
Many of the establishments were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and stepping into their lobbies is something like entering a time warp—green-beige decor, timeworn furniture, filament bulb-lit corridors. Some, rather oddly, house “entertainment rooms” filled with all the latest in arcade game technology from the early 1990s, as well as the occasional claw machine encasing soft toys that look like they have been glaring out of their windows for the best part of three decades. And because guests very much keep themselves to themselves, even during peak seasons the ryokan can feel empty.
Dinner is kaiseki-style: a traditional multi-course dinner which will typically include sashimi, meat, pickled vegetables, as well as one raw course served in a small Japanese stove to be cooked on the table (sometimes this will contain a live sea snail like abalone so if you are squeamish probably best not to open the lid before it is cooked). There is no menu; however, if there are certain foods which you cannot eat then say so when you make the reservation or when you check in at reception, and the ryokan should accommodate.
You will need to let the onsen known when you arrive what time you would like dinner. Dinner time typically starts from 6pm and finishes at 10pm, giving guests time to head back to the baths or relax in their rooms. While you eat the ryokan staff will enter your room and lay out futons for each guest, so you do not need to worry about making up the bed. At some ryokan you may also have the option to have dinner in your room.
Partly due to their cost and partly due to their remote location, ryokan are not places where guests book to stay for a week; they are weekend getaways at which most guests will only stay for one night. You should be heading to the ryokan for the pleasure of relaxation and a good night’s sleep in the silence of an onsen town.