Just as there are many different ryokan room prices, there are also many different types or styles of ryokans. No two ryokans are the same, and the quality of ryokan varies dramatically. On the low end of the scale is what we call a “standard ryokan” and at the upper end of the scale is our “luxurious ryokan.” In general, you get what you pay for. On the one hand if you are only paying 8,000 yen per guest then expect the basic, no-frills, “nothing to write home about” ryokan experience. On the other hand, if you are paying 40,000 yen per guest then you will probably have an exceptional ryokan experience with wonderful food, a gorgeous room, a Japanese cypress bath, a view of a Japanese garden, first-class service, and so on. Below is a list of ryokan styles to help you better understand the different types of ryokans and what to expect if you stay at one of them:
A standard ryokan offers guests a basic, “no-frills” version of a Japanese ryokan. The building is usually a plain, concrete building and it looks more like a small inn or hotel than a Japanese ryokan. Inside a standard ryokan there is little traditional atmosphere or character, and while the rooms are Japanese-style they are very plain and simple. A standard ryokan is a ryokan experience “on the cheap,” a ryokan experience without the usually higher ryokan prices found in other traditional or modern-style ryokans.
From the outside, a modern ryokan usually looks like a small hotel and indeed it has all the modern conveniences of a hotel. It is very comfortable and has Japanese-style rooms and baths. It is well maintained so both its interior and exterior look fairly new. There is some traditional Japanese atmosphere but there is little or no history to the place. It is close to a Japanese-style hotel but with touches of traditional Japanese culture here and there. The comfort of the guests is the number one priority, and the Japanese cultural experience takes second place.
A traditional ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn in the truest sense of the term. The owners take great pride in preserving the building’s traditional atmosphere and history. Indeed, the preservation of the ryokan in its original form is deemed more important than catering to the comfort of the guests. Staying in a traditional ryokan would be like staying in a European castle – wonderful atmosphere but at the expense of hotel-style comfort. The Japanese-style rooms and baths are comfortable but they can be dark and drafty. The hallways are also gloomy and there may be few modern conveniences. The building is made entirely of wood and there is usually a beautiful, traditional Japanese garden.
A luxurious ryokan has a long history, traditional atmosphere, and the owners pamper their guests with comfort and all the modern conveniences. The owners and staff go out of their way to make sure the guests are treated like royalty; in other words, Japanese hospitality at its finest. The Japanese-style rooms and baths are very comfortable, and the traditional, “kaiseki-style” meals are outstanding. The ryokan is made entirely of wood and there is also a beautiful Japanese-style garden. Luxurious ryokans are very expensive and usually located in the major hot spring and tourist areas.
From the outside, a ryokan hotel looks like a normal hotel and when a guest enters the building the lobby is like a hotel lobby. A ryokan hotel also has such amenities as a karaoke room, a bar, a gift shop / convenience store, a coffee shop, and a restaurant. The ryokan hotel is brightly lit and very comfortable. The only real difference between a hotel and a ryokan hotel is the ryokan hotel has Japanese-style rooms and baths but there may also be Western-style rooms. Guests can also often choose between having Western or Japanese-style meals.
Here are some other types of accommodation. These are not true ryokans but they offer a genuine traditional Japanese cultural experience:
A minshuku is usually a small, wooden, Japanese-style building. The building is generally not very big, and the rooms are Japanese-style but not as large as the rooms in Japanese ryokans. While the building and rooms are usually clean and comfortable, the rooms and hallways can sometimes be dark and a bit drafty. A minshuku tries to project a “homey” atmosphere and guests are served home-style Japanese cooking. Minshukus are generally inexpensive and the owners pride themselves on their friendly, personalized service.
A great way to experience traditional Japanese culture is by staying at a Buddhist Temple. The most popular places are on Mount Koya (Wakayama Prefecture) and in Kyoto. Temple lodging is known in Japanese as “shukubo” and while the style of accommodation can sometimes be basic the cuisine is often very, very good. The temple monks serve what is known as “shojin ryori” which is vegetarian cuisine, and at many temples guests are also welcome to attend the early morning prayer ceremonies.
“Gassho-Zukuri” (traditional thatched gable roof houses)
The “gassho-zukuri” are located primarily in Shirakawago, Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama, Toyama Prefecture. This style of traditional Japanese architecture means “praying hands.” This comes from the shape of the roof which is thought to resemble two hands clasped in Buddhist prayer. The steep roof is designed to prevent snow piling up on the roof, and it also keeps the inside relatively cool in summer. Another feature is no pegs or nails are used in their construction. and many contain “irori” (Japanese hearths) in the main central area. The smoke from these hearths permeate throughout the gassho-zukuri and have darkened the walls and wood over the years. Traditionally, the smoke was used to keep the silkworms warm (these buildings were used to raise silkworms for making silk and the silkworms were raised in frames in the upper levels of the building). The smoke is also essential to provide a protective coating for the pine and chestnut pillars and beams against insects. Warning: the gassho-zukuri are clean and comfortable but primitive, rustic accommodation. The gassho-zukuri can be dark, gloomy, and drafty. All bathing and toilet facilities are shared, and local home-style cuisine is provided to the guests.