Ryokan range in size from small, family-run establishments with just a few rooms, to large, modern facilities with hundreds of rooms, guests and staff. They can be found all over the country, especially around hot spring resort towns, and can be categorized into two types: onsen ryokan and city ryokan.
Onsen Ryokan (hot spring ryokan)
Japan has hundreds of hot spring resorts, ranging in character from large towns with numerous huge ryokan to secluded hot springs with a solitary, traditional-style ryokan. Furthermore, the ryokan themselves range in character from self-contained mega ryokan that offer everything from shopping to entertainment, to old-fashioned ones that encourage their guests to explore the surrounding town.
Many of the older hot spring towns, such as Kinosaki, Shibu and Nozawa, are centered around public baths (sotoyu). These hot spring towns offer a unique, traditional feel with guests walking about town in yukata and geta (wooden sandals) as they visit the town's shops and baths.
The following is just a small selection of recommended places near Tokyo and Kyoto for an overnight trips to an onsen ryokan:
Kusatsu is one of Japan's most famous hot spring resort towns, and is renowned for its excellent water. In the evenings you can see yukata-clad guest strolling around the yubatake at the town center. Numerous traditional ryokan and larger ryokan can be found in Kusatsu as well as some excellent public baths.
Hakone is nestled in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture. It is easily accessible from Tokyo and one of Japan's most popular natural escapes, complete with hot springs and beautiful views of Mount Fuji on a clear day. A wide array of ryokan are scattered over Hakone's valleys, mountains, towns and along its lake.
The Izu Peninsula is a popular resort area famous for its beautiful coastlines, beaches, mountains and seaside baths. The hot spring towns found around the peninsula vary from highly developed, such as Atami, to smaller towns and single ryokan that are scattered throughout Izu's mountains and along its coasts.
Kinugawa Onsen is a collection of large mega ryokan that line the Kinugawa River in Tochigi Prefecture. In addition to hot spring baths, the town has some interesting amusement parks, and can be easily combined with a visit to nearby Nikko.
Traditional hot spring town near the "snow monkeys"
Shibu Onsen is a small, traditional onsen town in Yamanouchi, that is populated by historic ryokan and bath houses. Overnight guests can be seen walking around in their yukata on their way to the town's public baths in the evenings. Shibu Onsen is located near the snow monkeys of the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Kinosaki it a traditional hot spring town built along a tree lined canal. The town's ryokan have a special cooperative which allows guests of any ryokan to use Kinosaki's public baths for free. During the evenings you will see people in yukata strolling along the canal heading to the shops, game arcades and baths around town.
Arima Onsen, found within the Kobe city limits, is one of Japan's most celebrated hot spring towns. Due to its proximity to Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka, the town is quite developed with a mixture of modern and traditional ryokan and public baths, some of which can be found along some atmospheric, narrow streets.
Shirahama is a beach resort town that has long been a vacation destination of Kyoto and Osaka residents. Its large mega ryokan line a 500 meter long strip of white sand beach that is the namesake of the town. Coastal rock formations, museums and amusement parks can also be found in the area.
Kurama is one of the most easily accessed hot springs from Kyoto, less than an hour away in the mountains north of the city center. The town's solitary ryokan is a modern facility with some nice indoor and outdoor baths available to its guests. Daytrippers can use the outdoor bath for a fee.
Ryokan can also be found within large cities, with the main difference to onsen ryokan being that their communal baths are fed by regular tap water instead of hot springs.
Most of the ryokan found in Tokyo, tend to be older, cheaper establishments that do not include meals, and are located in the old shitamachi (lit. low city) districts such as Asakusa. While they present an attractive budget accommodation, they do not offer the typical full ryokan experience, which would be better experienced in one of the hot spring resorts listed above.
Kyoto also has its share of budget ryokan, mainly around Kyoto Station. However, the old capital also offers a considerable number of mid to high level ryokan. Many of these are historic establishments that date back to the feudal era and are concentrated more around central Kyoto and the Higashiyama District. They usually specialize in Kyoto cuisine and kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine).
The easiest way to make reservations for a ryokan is through a reservation website. While there are dozens of these sites available, the ones mentioned below have some of the best English catalogues and offer competitive rates:
Japanican https://www.japanican.com/ Japanican is the English website of JTB, Japan's largest travel agency. It has one of the largest English online catalogues of mid to high level accommodations nationwide, including a lot of onsen ryokan, which are hard to reserve elsewhere. Japanican offers competitive rates and powerful search functions for instant online reservations.
Booking.com https://www.booking.com/ Over the years, Booking.com has also greatly increased its database of ryokan across Japan.
Japanese Guesthouses https://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/ Specializing in ryokan, Japanese Guesthouses works like a traditional travel agent, taking orders and then calling the ryokan to assess availability. Therefore, reservations are not instantly confirmed. Their catalogue is smaller than that of other sites, but they have very detailed information on their listings and good coverage of rural areas such as Shirakawa-go, Koyasan and the Kiso Valley where it is difficult to make reservations without Japanese language skills.
Reservations can also be made directly with the ryokan through their websites if they have one. Alternatively, they can also be made by phone or fax, but be aware that some establishments may not be able to handle inquiries made in English especially when made over the phone. Alternatively, reservations can be made using a traditional travel agent.
Same day reservations are not a common practice, and many establishments may not be able or willing to accommodate them because food preparations must be made in advance of your arrival. For the same reason, the ryokan should be consulted in advance about any dietary restrictions.
Ryokan rates are calculated per person and night, and are typically inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Only a minority of ryokan allow guests to opt out of their meals. The lowest priced establishments, on the other hand, often do not offer meals, at all.
Ryokan rooms are typically designed for two to four occupants, although larger groups can often be accommodated as well. More occupants in a room usually result in reduced per person rates. However, a lot of ryokan do not accept single travelers, particularly during busy seasons.
The average cost of a ryokan stay is between 15,000 and 25,000 yen per person and night. However, extremes exist and budget ryokan can be as inexpensive as 3000 yen. These budget ryokan often resemble hostels and may offer little more than a tatami room with a futon, shared washroom facilities and no meals.
At the other extreme, luxury ryokan can cost over 40,000 yen per person and night. They will have elegant, albeit simply decorated rooms, elaborate public baths and two impressive meals, and may also include private hot spring baths in the room. At some ryokan these luxurious facilities may be in private, stand-alone buildings (hanare).
Consumption tax and service charges are included in the room fee; however, additional fees that are not included in the price include drink and minibar charges, as well as bathing taxes (typically around 150 yen per person and night) charged when staying a night in some onsen towns.
Child rates are not available at all ryokan. If they are available, child rates are usually based on the age of the child, the type of meal that is requested (adult's meal, children's meal or no meal) and whether or not the children need their own futon.