Ryokans are traditional inns run by Japanese families. They are all characterized by a silent environment, precise architecture, simplicity and minimalism. Ryokans are normally designed like a maze and feature tatami mats, sliding paper doors called shoji, and futon beds. Most ryokans boast an onsen (a hot spring) and are all-inclusive. Additionally, they serve kaiseki, traditional multi-course Japanese dinners that embody omotenashi (meaning wholehearted hospitality). Unknown since a few years ago, today the ryokan have increased their popularity among Japanese tourists, but also international travelers who want to experience the true lifestyle of Japanese people. In 2018, Airbnb classified the ryokan as one of the most trending non-traditional accommodations, with a booking growth rate of 600%.
Some ryokans have maintained their classic original design, while others have been modernized to spoil travelers. Today, some of them include luxury spas, Michelin-starred restaurants, smart toilets, and many more comfortable amenities.
1. The history of the ryokan
The history of the Japanese ryokan dates back to 705 AD, when Fujiwara Mahito founded what today is the oldest inn in the world. During that time, the inn – named Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan – served as a refuge for travelers. Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan inn is located in the small town of Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, at the foot of the South Japanese Alps. There, a hot spring has flowed freely since its founding, becoming the hotel’s only direct source of hot water. Thanks to its 1300-year long history, the hotel was included in the Guiness World Record book.
The development of ryokans accelerated during the Nara period (710-784 AD). During that moment, a specific form of accommodation called fuseya increased its popularity throughout the country. Fuseya were free rest houses set up by Buddhist monks and used by travelers for overnight stays. Later on, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), the economy started to develop and highways were constructed. In that moment, trade activities between Tokyo (at that time named Edo) and Kyoto flourished. Many inns were opened along the highway connecting the two cities, and became very popular among traders and samurai traveling on that route. At that time, the most popular inns were the kichin-yado (a cheap inn), the hatago (inns providing meals), the honjin and the waki-honjin (both accommodations for lords). Today, the hatago would correspond to the ryokans, while the honjin and the waki-honjin would be luxury ryokans. With the diffusion of the railway, people started traveling by train even just for leisure purposes. During that time, many ryokans were established near tourist spots all over Japan. Following the end of World War II, Japan entered a period of rapid economic development and became a popular tourist destination also among international travelers. With the development of tourism, ryokans became a popular accommodation alternative for any kind of traveler willing to experience an authentic Japanese atmosphere.
2. Konansou: A ryokan at the foot of Mt. Fuji
An outstanding example of ryokan is Konansou, one of the best Japanese inns. Konansou is a luxury ryokan nestled in the Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen resort at the base of Mount Fuji and on the shore of Lake Kawaguchi. The inn boasts 51 guest rooms with amazing views of Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchi from their windows. Guests can enjoy various hot spring facilities, such as large public baths, private open-air scenic baths, sauna rooms, waterfall showers, and a rooftop bath with a breathtaking view. Konansou serves haute Japanese style cuisine prepared with seasonal ingredients. Guests can dine in their room, in a comfortable private cabin in the restaurant, or in the banquet room with other guests.