By Scott Haas
September 03, 2015
Credit: Courtesy Sanyo-so, Prince Hotels

Since a spa getaway seems to be on most everyone’s list these days, on your next trip to Japan, work in a visit to a ryokan. These hot springs inns can range from old fashioned, past-their-prime places, to massive properties where guests are entertained around-the-clock with buffet dinners and breakfasts, huge bathing areas, and karaoke rooms. But the small inns with no more than thirty rooms, up-to-date baths with glass walls overlooking forests, and first-rate food are what we suggest.

Historically, many of the best ryokans did not welcome foreigners, figuring that outsiders wouldn’t appreciate or understand the philosophy behind the experience, which creates a Zen-like atmosphere in which you bathe in natural hot springs many times over the course of your stay, nap on futons placed on tatami mats, eat small amounts of local vegetables and fish or shellfish, and take quiet walks in nature. There isn’t much to do at most ryokans except relax.

Our Top Five

These days, though, everyone is welcome in most ryokans, where a typical stay is no more than three nights (and usually just one or two). Here are some of our favorites:

Sanyo-so, located in Shizuoka prefecture not far from Mishima Station, is a classic and famous property, with wide hallways and a huge entryway that conjures up images of horse-drawn carriages. Baths and rooms are new and large, but the property’s claim to fame is its sprawling, perfectly landscaped interior gardens designed in 1929 by Jibe Ogawa. The silence of a stroll here is memorable.

The Kayotei, which overlooks a brook and small canyon in the small hot springs village of Yamanaka in Ishikawa prefecture. It’s the epitome of Japanese charm, with its first-rate baths and large, quiet rooms. What makes this ryokan unique is the quality of its food: Chef Yutaka Ebihara focuses on organic produce, an unusual decision in Japan—where only two percent of what’s eaten is organic.

Beniya Mukayu, one of the few Relais & Chateaux properties in Japan, is a delightful combination of East and West located in Kaga, Ishikawa. Guests dine in a room with other guests—which is different from many ryokans that have private or in-room dining—and the sprightly co-owner, Sachiko Nakamichi, offers daily yoga classes. You can also buy a massage.

Hoshino Karuizawa breaks the thirty-room-or-less rule, but that’s because guests stay in private villas alongside a fast-moving stream. The property is part of the Hoshino Resorts group, which translates to top service and high standards for meals. Several things about Hoshino Karuizawa are very different from other ryokans: A beautiful library and dining room that looks like a terraced landscape; its grounds that are lit at night by fiery lamps; ultra-modern baths; the newness of it all; and, guests have access to public baths next door to the property.

Takinoya, located in Hokkaido, has stone, outdoor baths with hot mineral water that is milky blue. The staff offers textbook omotenashi—Japanese hospitality. This property is among the best examples of a Japanese ryokan that at one time was off-limits to foreigners, yet now, one feels at home there.

Before You Go

A few things to know before you embark on your experience.

Tattoos. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but some baths will not allow guests with tattoos, because of their association with organized crime in Japan. They may ask you to cover them with a bandage.

Socks. Ryokans take your shoes at the entrance, and while you will be given socks to wear during your stay, make sure what you’ve got on when you get there are new and clean.

Nails. Men’s nails should be trimmed; women’s should be trimmed and polished.

No Talking. Baths are places of silence.

Shower Before, Soap Up After. Shower before you get in, and after a soak, little wooden stools are available beside showers and buckets.

For more information about the customs and how to conduct yourself in the ryokan, refer to Japans’s tourism office.