The ryokan: the ancient Japanese inn that is the next big Airbnb thing
Hundreds of years ago, they were a place for Japan’s nomadic samurai to rest their limbs and reflect. But these days, the ryokan – a traditional, family-run Japanese inn that is usually close to a hot spring – seems to be the buzzword on trendy travellers’ lips. Many of them feature modern spins such as onsite Michelin-starred restaurants, robotic toilets and luxury spas, and they are proving a hit with both Japanese tourists and international visitors.
Airbnb’s annual travel trends report identified the ryokan as one of the most popular alternative accommodations desired by its users in 2018, with a reported 600% rise in bookings (yurt bookings increased by 155%, while nature lodges had a 700% growth). The accuracy of the figures is unclear: last year, Airbnb was accused of misrepresenting data in New York by removing more than 1,000 listings to rig its survey, while another report misleadingly highlighted that outer London boroughs such as Barnet were more popular than Westminster and Kensington.
Still, what does seem clear is that travellers are eschewing conventional lodgings for places that focus on unusual experiences and “de-plugging”.
The history of the Japanese inn
The roots of the ryokan supposedly lie in the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a hot-spring hotel in Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture about 80 miles west of Tokyo. Founded in 705 AD, it is the oldest hotel in the world. Ryokans flourished in the 17th century as trade increased between the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Many were built along the storied Tokaido highway that links the two, and became popular among traders and samurai using the route.
What can I expect from a ryokan?
Tied intrinsically into the culture’s deep respect for omotenashi (hospitality), ryokans tend to be soothingly silent and infused with the Japanese philosophy of Zen, whether through hushed halls, the precision of architecture or the sublime simplicity of the food they serve. They’re intimate and minimalist – sometimes designed like a maze – and typically feature aromatic tatami mats (no shoes inside, and guests should swathe themselves in the yukata robes provided), shoji (sliding paper doors) and soft futon beds. Many ryokans house a hot spring onsen, a traditional bath, and are usually all-inclusive; a highlight is the multi-course kaiseki meals that revolve around local fish and foraged ingredients.
At the luxurious 84-room Hoshinoya ryokan in Tokyo’s Ōtemachi financial district, which opened last year, beautifully composed dishes served on handmade earthenware and lotus leaves include creamy hamo (pike eel) roe placed inside a red flower, or a sardine confit with smoked tuna skin.
Where are the best ryokans?
Near Kyoto, try Miyamasou, a ryokan with a two-Michelin starred restaurant, and in the ancient city there’s grand dame Hiiragiya, with its striking gardens; Tawaraya Ryokan, which has been in one family for 300 years; and the delightful three-room Morisho in the geisha district. North-west of Kyoto is the 150-year-old, beautifully landscaped Nishimuraya Honkan. Closer to Tokyo, the Relais & Chateaux Gôra Kadan in Hakone is popular, and in the big smoke there’s Hoshinoya Tokyo, with its huge cypress doors, towering double-height genkan entrance and rooftop onsen.
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