Are Japan’s centuries-old inns, or ryokan, going the way of the geisha?Alan Brown pays a visit and discovers an institution that’s recasting itself for a new generation.

Tetsuya Miura The ryokan's new front entrance.
| Credit: Tetsuya Miura

It is early evening in Kyoto, and I am alone in my room at Yoshi-ima ryokan, sitting cross-legged on the tatami, sipping sake, my skin still glowing from a hot bath. I am looking out at a jewel of a garden, where the bamboo, stirred by a breeze, shimmers. There’s a knock on my door. A maid enters, bowing, with a beautiful lacquer box, filled with seasonal delicacies like mountain potatoes, carved in the shape of leaves; bundles of mushrooms; and grilled ginkgo nuts. I pick up my chopsticks, but I'm in no rush: I know from experience that this elaborate kaiseki dinner will go on for hours, in a seemingly endless procession of courses.

When I first visited Japan more than 20 years ago, I shunned all things Western and stayed only in ryokan. From Sendai to Nagasaki, I donned yukata robes, contemplated indecipherable calligraphy scrolls, and slept on futons and buckwheat husk–stuffed pillows. I was experiencing the “real” Japan.

Or at least the “traditional” Japan. Ryokan originated during the Nara period (710–784), when monks built free rest houses throughout the country to accommodate travelers. For much of the 20th century, visitors had no choice but to stay in them, given the paucity of Western hotels (in 1965, there were about 260). Ryokan are Japan’s country inns: intimate establishments, typically with breakfast and an extensive dinner included. As recently as a few decades ago, it wasn’t unheard-of—particularly in rural areas—to share rooms with strangers. Privacy wasn’t an option anyway: room dividers were so thin you could hear every snore and sniffle; the baths were communal. During steamy summers, everyone slept with their doors and windows wide open to the breeze.

Recently, however, ryokan owners have been tinkering with time-honored tradition—lest they end up out of business. Lifestyle changes among the Japanese and competition from international hotels have led to a drop in the number of ryokan, declining from 80,000 in 1988 to fewer than 60,000 in 2005. So, to make rates more competitive, some give guests a meals-free option. Others go out of their way to accommodate foreigners who, in the old days, were at best a nuisance: they didn’t speak the language; walked on the tatami in their shoes; and used soap inside the communal bath. A group of 30 ryokan have formed “The ryokan Collection” to market themselves as boutique inns, with designer flourishes, architectural details, and, of course, cultural authenticity.

The ryokan of Kyoto, a former imperial city and a popular tourist destination, are among the first to have instituted modernizing touches—and with much flair and frills. English-speaking staff and Western-style breakfasts are now available even at the city’s legendary Hiiragiya and Tawaraya ryokan—both centuries old and famed for their refined aesthetics, attention to detail, and guest lists that have included royalty and Hollywood stars.

At Yoshi-ima, a lovely wooden 19th-century building in the Gion district, all rooms have locking doors, private toilets, and tiny private baths (folding myself into mine required a yogi’s flexibility). The moment I slid open the front door, I was gathered up by a bevy of kimono-clad women and led down a narrow hallway to a spacious room. I was handed an illustrated pamphlet in English that covered every aspect of inn life, from bathing to footwear etiquette. There’s even a “foreigner specialist” on call, an amusingly earnest Mr. Kanda, who introduced himself with “it rhymes with 'panda,'” and who was eager to act as my guide, interpreter, and problem-solver.

Foreigners now make up more than a third of the guests. In the hallway that evening, I bumped into three Seattle women who were returning from sightseeing, toting Starbucks takeout bags. They couldn’t have been happier with their ryokan experience, they said, sipping their lattes, but they’d “tired of the endless cups of green tea.” I eyed their lattes, amused at how globalization had made its way into this old-world sanctum.

Even out in the countryside, changes are under way. Tucked into the deep mountainous Kiso River valley outside Tsumago, Hanaya began life as an umayado, accommodating both people and horses—under the same roof! Isomura Isamu, Hanaya’s 72-year-old current owner, is the ninth generation of his family running the inn. In the 60’s, when Tsumago’s ancient buildings were meticulously restored and the town was revived as an “Old Japan” attraction, Hanaya reopened after a decades-long hiatus. It got so busy that travelers often doubled up, Isomura recalled. "People liked sharing rooms. They got to meet strangers and have interesting conversations."

Everything changed with the opening—despite local efforts to stop it—of a 300-room modern hotel and spa in 1995, which siphoned guests away. So a few years ago, Isomura rebuilt Hanaya to accommodate changing tastes. The new building lacks the charm of the old, but it has walls instead of sliding fusuma panels between the rooms, and real doors. "People expect locks nowadays,” Isomura told me. "We put in air conditioners, because guests aren’t comfortable sleeping with doors and windows open.” They’ve also put coin-operated TV’s in the rooms and enlarged the bath. “If you have ten guests, they have ten different needs.”

Not every ryokan, though, has modernized, as I happily discovered when I reached Nagano, the next stop in my journey. The town, located in the relatively isolated foothills of the Japanese Alps, most recently came to international attention when it hosted the 1998 winter Olympics. There, I checked into Oyado Kinenkan, a centuries-old, three-story structure on a quiet backstreet lined with mom-and-pop stores a few minutes’ walk from stately Zenkoji Temple.

Proprietor Toru Watanabe, his wife, Harue, and their son and daughter-in-law all live and work on the premises. It’s backbreaking work when the inn is full, which is rare now. Before the games, this sleepy city was a three-hour train trip from Tokyo—far enough that visitors spent the night. For the Olympics, though, the government built a bullet-train line, reducing travel time to 90 minutes.

"There used to be about forty inns. Now, there are only about eight,” Mrs. Watanabe told me, appearing with a plate of sweet-bean pastry. The perfect okami, or mistress of the inn, she perched at the edge of her seat, expectant, until I took a bite and smiled my approval. Only then would she continue: “These days, foreigners are the only ones interested in Old Japan.”

Even here, off the tour-bus circuit, concessions, however slight, have to be made. Today, the Watanabes (who have a son living in the United States) are brushing up on their English. Rates have been the same for some time ($31 without meals; $67 with dinner and breakfast), allowing guests a meal-free option. Oyado Kinenkan’s fiberglass tubs and vending machines—typical of modest inns all over Japan—can’t match the pampering service of a Kyoto inn. But its ancient wood floors, polished to a sheen, and heavy wood beams that crisscross the ceilings, are evocative of a Japan that is rapidly disappearing. It'll survive simply because it offers a glimpse of a life you won’t see in hyperactive Tokyo or tourist-jammed Kyoto.

Not that more “updated” ryokan don’t have their place: Japan has long been a tantalizing jumble of tradition and innovation. Sumo and baseball, Sony and Kabuki. No country seems more adept at absorbing multicultural influences while holding to its identity. Personally, I hope they won’t adapt too much. I can get a latte almost anywhere in the world, so I'm secretly grateful to ryokan owners for holding to a “No Internet” policy. Even after decades of traveling here, I still love leaving my shoes at the door and having the kimono-clad maids fuss over me. And nothing is as therapeutic as an evening soak in a hot bath, followed by good sake and a leisurely kaiseki meal. E-mail access, be damned.

Alan Brown is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.