Ultimate Guide to Tokyo Ryokan
(+12 Exceptional Ryokan Inns to Stay At)
By The Japan Switch Team | November 13th, 2023
When planning your dream Japan trip, one of the biggest questions is, where will you stay? Obviously, you want affordable, yet comfortable accommodation, close to the action, but also a haven of peace after a long day of walking (and filling your tummy with ramen!). These are things to consider when traveling anywhere, and while they’re also valid aspects to consider in Japan, another, bigger question remains unanswered.
Will you stay in a traditional hotel or a ryokan in Tokyo?
Well, arguably, a traditional hotel is a ryokan, though not how Western travelers might understand it. Let’s get into it!
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What is a Ryokan?
A ryokan (旅館), also referred to as a ryokan inn, is a type of very traditional Japanese inn, hearkening back to the old days, long before air travel made discovering the world so easy. These inns are found throughout the country, often in hot spring resorts (though you can stay in a ryokan without a spring, also).
The history of the ryokan
As trade evolved, cross-country journeys became more common, and with them came the invention of the inn. Basic types of the ryokan have already existed in the country’s rich history for centuries, with many such inns dotting the imposing Tokaido Highway.
While nowadays, we can find accommodation in most (rural, urban, busy, or deserted) places through just a few clicks, in the old days, one had fewer options to choose from. Inns had to exist alongside main roads, and for Japan, there was no road more important than the Tokaido Highway. Since the highway connected Tokyo (then commonly referred to as Edo), Japan’s capital, with Kyoto, the seat of the Imperial Family, it was heavily used by tradesmen, samurai, merchants, and many others.
Hence the appearance of the ryokan. Although it’s still difficult to pinpoint how this tradition started, it is believed that the first ryokan inns were built by Nara monks. Here, they cared for travelers for free, out of a desire to see them safe through the night. But the concept progressed from there.
As is the case with hotels to this day, different ryokans catered to different clients. Back in those days, it was not uncommon for some who lived along the main road to welcome travelers into their own homes, when they had room to spare. While such accommodation was fitting for merchants and traders, more imposing ryokan inns were designed to accommodate state officials, samurai, and other members of the high classes.
At its core, the ryokan inn held a simple enough concept – provide tired travelers with bread and board for the night, so they could be safe, and resume their journey well-rested the following day.
Unlike many hotels around the world, which have built heavily on that simple idea, the ryokan inn remains a simple concept to this day, which might make it seem quite different from your previous hotel experience.
What’s in a typical Tokyo ryokan room:
- Tatami (畳) mat floors – these reed floor mats are actually a great convenience for hotels, as they are very easy to disassemble and clean;
- Shoji (障子) doors – these are sliding doors made of straw that separate the different areas of the room;
- Low, wooden tables;
- Futon (布団) sleeping quilts – as you may already be aware, in Japan, it is traditional to sleep not on a proper, Western-style bed, but on these special, comfortable sleeping quilts;
- Oshiire (押入れ) – a spacious closet used for storing the futon quilts during the daytime (it is not traditional to leave one’s bedding in the room after one wakes);
- Zabuton (押入れ) cushions – also sometimes referred to as sitting futons, these are special-made soft cushions used for sitting on the floor of the room;
- Takonoma (床の間)) – a special alcove built directly into the wall, typically used to display objects of artistic value, such as hanging scrolls and flower vases).
Obviously, depending on your chosen inn, you may find additional items inside your ryokan room, but the above is a good basic list of what exists inside an inn room. As you can see, the layout is quite minimalistic, with no television, speaker system, or other amenities you may be accustomed to in Western-style accommodations.
The different parts of the room…
Above, we mentioned the shoji straw doors used to separate one area of the room from another, but how many areas are there exactly
Most ryokan rooms follow the same basic structure, and are comprised of:
- The agari-kamachi (玄関) or genkan – the entryway into a house or room, reserved specifically for taking off and storing one’s shoes. As this is important in Japanese tradition, we will circle back to this topic below;
- The engawa (縁側/掾側) – refers to the only part of the room that is not based on tatami floor mats, instead tending towards glass for its construction. This is a traditional sitting area, separated from the room itself with straw sliding doors;
- The main room/sleeping area.
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Bathrooms at a Tokyo ryokan inn
A common question among travelers is – are there private toilets at a traditional inn? The answer is, it depends on the inn. Since it was not customary, in the early days of this tradition, for rooms to have their own private bathroom, some ryokan rooms do not feature an ensuite.
It’s not uncommon for a traditional-style inn to feature a shared toilet, although some offer guests the possibility of using a bathroom per reservation (if they’re not comfortable sharing).
While some, more luxurious ryokan inns may provide guests with a dedicated ensuite, it’ll typically be quite small, and basic (in tone with the rest of the room).
Since many ryokan inns also feature onsite hot springs (onsen, 温泉), additional bathing facilities may be quite limited, with guests expected to bathe in the hot springs, instead.
How a hot spring works
First of all, know that traditional onsen are typically separated according to gender, so always check before moving past the curtain that you’re entering the right onsen.
Observe shoe etiquette – you’ll most likely be assigned special soft slippers to move through the dressing room and immediate onsen area.
Take all of your clothes off. It is not customary for guests to wear anything in the onsen. Hot springs are less a bathing opportunity and more of a cleansing experience in Japanese tradition. And since all clothes worn in the outside world are considered already dirty (or sullied), it’s greatly discouraged to bring them into the onsen. The full nudity may be striking at first, but you soon get used to it, especially as you see everyone is naked in an onsen (so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about).
Take a pre-bath. Once again, the onsen experience is not so much about washing as it is a spiritual cleansing. Because of this, and as a sign of courtesy to the other guests, it’s customary to wash yourself before entering the onsen. There is a special area designed specifically for this, right outside the dressing room. Here, guests are provided with a showerhead (and sometimes invited to sit on a stool while they wash themselves). It is not customary to bring soap, shampoos, or shower gels into the onsen with you. Rather, all of your actual washing ought to be done in this pre-washing area.
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Must-know Tokyo Ryokan etiquette
to be mindful of
Since a ryokan inn follows old Japanese tradition, you may be asked to observe some rules, as a mark of respect both to your hosts, as well as the other patrons.
- No shoes. Out of respect for your hosts, it’s customary to take off your outdoor shoes when entering a ryokan. Remember to place your shoes in a specially designated area near the door, with the tips facing the door. Inside a ryokan inn’s common areas, guests are provided with special soft slippers to wear.
- Take off your slippers where there’s tatami matting. In your inn room, as well as other common areas that may be covered in tatami mats, you are not permitted to wear even your inn-provided slippers. According to tradition, only bare feet and socks/stockings are allowed on the mats. Don’t worry, since these are easy to disassemble, the tatami floor mats are typically very clean, so there’s nothing unhygienic about going barefoot.
- For similar reasons, avoid dragging your luggage over the tatami. Because tatami mats are so delicate, guests are encouraged to pick up and carry their luggage as much as possible, to avoid dragging it over the floor mats.
- Be respectful of the sliding doors. Naturally, the sliding straw doors that are customary to a ryokan inn are quite delicate themselves, so guests are asked to handle them only when necessary and with the utmost care.
- Discard your outdoor clothes. In keeping with the onsen view of outdoor clothes as “soiled” (and also to deepen the cultural experience), guests are encouraged to not wear outside clothes in the ryokan. Instead, you will be presented with a yukata (浴衣) set, consisting of a light robe (the yukata itself), an obi sash (帯), and a yukata jacket. You’re expected to wear these both in your room, as well as in common areas of the ryokan.
Tokyo Ryokan Meals
One final aspect to explore before we talk about our favorite Tokyo ryokan inns is the food. While the design itself sets these inns apart from traditional Western-style hotels, it’s the dining experience that, for many guests, marked the true difference,
When booking your ryokan stay, you may notice that many of them offer a nightly stay with two meals (the dinner on the night in question, and breakfast the following day).
Depending on the inn and your own preference, you may be encouraged to eat inside your room, or in a common dining area, with other guests. For either choice, employees of the inn will come and explain each dish to you in great detail. Whereas Western-style accommodations offer a wide range of foods, ryokan inns provide solely Japanese dishes, and make a whole show of the presentation, and serving.
You definitely don’t want to miss these traditional Japanese meals when staying at a ryokan inn.
Top 12 Ryokan in Tokyo
Naturally, a wide range of inns is available to travelers, with some more traditional than others. While all ryokan inns remain faithful to the basic inn tradition, some may offer a few extra luxuries for their guests.
1. Onsen Ryokan Yuen Bettei Tokyo Daita
Called “Setagaya’s best kept secret” by Time Out magazine, this wonderful haven is located at a convenient one-minute walk from the Setagaya Daita Station. The location is one of the inn’s many assets, as it’s close enough to the city center, but just far enough to allow travelers some respite. When first arriving, don’t let the modern-looking exterior fool you, what lies inside is 100% true to Japanese tradition.
Fully equipped with a luxurious spa, and on-site onsen, the Onsen Ryokan Yuen Bettei Tokyo Daita allows guests to choose from a wide range of rooms, including deluxe rooms with private open-air baths and a view of the cherry blossom trees in spring.
2. Chashitsu Ryokan Asakusa
Taking its name from a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, chashitsu (茶室), this inn has modeled its rooms to resemble the traditional space for just such a ceremony. Nestled inside the busy Tokyo district of Asakusa, the Chashitsu Ryokan Asakusa provides a wonderful air of intimacy. The rooms are sparsely, yet tastefully furnished and the low lighting makes for an ideal romantic setting (but also great if you’re on a journey of self-discovery and exploration!).
Located only minutes away from the famous Senso-Ji Temple, this traditional ryokan inn is an excellent option when you’re looking both for sightseeing accessibility, but also for a complete cultural immersion.
Link: Chashitsu Ryokan Asakusa
3. Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu
Also located inside the Asakusa district, the Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu is a beautiful, modest-looking inn. Minutes from Nakamise-dori, this particular ryokan also offers guests the option of staying in a Western-style room. And while quite elegant, it pales in comparison with the spacious, well-lit, beautiful simplicity of the traditional Japanese-style rooms the ryokan offers.
If possible, we recommend the luxurious top-floor rooms, as they provide an unparalleled view of the city. At the very least, take a dip in the cedar wood open-air bath on the top floor, with a view of Asakusa’s iconic five-storied pagoda, as well as the Tokyo Skytree.
Link: Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu
4. Ito Ryokan
With only a 2-star rating, the Ito Ryokan may appear quite modest, particularly when compared with some of the other inns on our list. That being said, what it may lack in grandeur, it more than makes up for both in atmosphere and location. At only 200m from the Revival Monument of Japanese Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Chuo area, the Ito Ryokan offers easy access to sightseeing spots like the Genyadana Monument, and the Amazake Yokocho Shopping Street.
The rooms of this accommodation are simplistic, but beautiful, providing guests with access to a shared shower room.
Link: Ito Ryokan
5. Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa
Back in the very popular Asakusa district, we’ve got this wonderful mid-range traditional-style ryokan inn. With travelers reporting the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa has some of the best futon beds in the entirety of Tokyo, this wonderful, peaceful abode has an instant advantage, and it’s not the only one.
Located just a 2-minutes walk from the Kaminarimon Temple and 5 minutes from the Asakusa Subway Station, the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa constitutes a great home base for exploring Japan’s capital. As an additional treat, the inn allows guests to book 30-minute private slots at the inn’s shared bathroom, to enjoy a little privacy.
Link: Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa
6. The Edo Sakura
You can’t write up a list of Tokyo’s best ryokan inns without at least mentioning the Edo Sakura. Located at a brisk walk from both Uguisudani and Iriya stations, the Edo Sakura is central and provides guests with easy access to Asakusa, as well as other popular tourist spots, like Ueni Park, and the Tokyo Skytree.
Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, the Edo Sakura is an inn with great prestige among seasoned travelers. Like many inns, it offers a choice between Japanese-style (tatami) rooms and Western-style hotel rooms. A great benefit for travelers is that all rooms come with a private ensuite, as well as a small mini-fridge and an electric kettle right in the room.
Link: The Edo Sakura
7. Hoshinoya Tokyo
With an impressive 5-star rating, the Hoshinoya Tokyo is one of the top luxury ryokan inns in Tokyo today. Although deceiving in its smooth, all-black modern-style appearance, the Hoshinoya Tokyo is a haven of tradition and old-school ryokan vibes. Artfully blending together modernity with tradition, the Hoshinoya Tokyo dazzles both through comfort, as well as its rooftop natural hot spring onsen, providing an unparalleled view.
Located within walking distance of Tokyo Station, the Hoshinoya is a great choice if you’re interested in staying true to Japanese tradition, with some artful amenities (the inn provides complimentary Japanese performances, as well as all-day Japanese food and beverage lounges).
Link: Hoshinoya Tokyo
8. Ryokan Sansuiso
A few minutes walk from the JR Gotanda Train Station, on the Yamanote Line, the Ryokan Sansuiso is a beautiful morsel of Japanese tradition, on a budget. The location is extremely convenient for tourists looking to explore every nook and cranny of Tokyo.
All its tatami floor rooms also come equipped with special amenities, like a yukata, free wifi, and other goodies, although toilets and bathrooms at the inn are shared. Although it’s only a 2-star accommodation, the Ryokan Sansuiso is a favorite of travelers from all over due to its convenience and hospitality.
Link: Ryokan Sansuiso
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9. Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa Hanakohro
With locations in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Naeba, as well as in numerous countries outside Japan (England, India, Australia, China, etc.), few hotel chains compare to the Grand Prince Hotel accommodations.
While many of their hotels offer Western-style accommodations, the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa Hanakohro (a direct off-shoot of the Takanawa Hotel in Tokyo) provides guests with a traditional ryokan experience. Blending luxury with simplicity, the Hanakohro presents guests with a complete cultural immersion of good taste and complete relaxation. Not only does it invite you to stay in a traditional inn after a long day of exploring, but the Hanakohro is also fully equipped with a minimalist Japanese spa, to pamper yourself, and rest your weary legs.
10. Yuen Shinjuku
As part of the same hotel family as the above Onsen Ryokan Yuen Bettei Tokyo Daita, the Yuen Shinjuku is known among travelers as a fancy, decently priced ryokan in Tokyo.
Only a few minutes walk from the Taiso-ji Temple, the Yuen Shinjuku offers rooms that are an interesting blend of both Western-style and traditional inn aesthetics. The rooms have a minimalist design but provide great comfort. Best of all, the Yuen Shinjuku provides guests access to one of the few natural, open-air hot springs onsen in Tokyo, respectively the Hakone hot spring.
Link: Yuen Shinjuku
11. Ryokan Seiko
Located in the busy Suginami Ward of Tokyo, Ryokan Seiko stands out from other inns thanks to its vintage, retro vibes. Designed both as a place of accommodation, but also as a morsel of history, the Ryokan Seiko is furnished with all sorts of souvenirs from days gone by, like black telephones and gramophone players.
One thing to note about the Ryokan Seiko is that it provides no dining experience, expecting travelers to dine out. However, with plenty of wonderful dining options in the area, the Ryokan Seiko is a solid option for a traditional inn stay in Tokyo.
Link: Ryokan Seiko
12. Tokyo Inn Sakura An
With a 3-star rating and within walking distance from the Hanayashiki Amusement Park, the Tokyo Inn Sakura An provides guests with peace and quiet, as well as various amenities. Featuring free bikes, wifi, soundproofed rooms, and security, the inn is a great option for a budget-friendly, yet traditional Japanese stay.
Located in the sought-after Sumida Ward, the Tokyo Inn Sakura An provides guests with spacious family rooms, making it an ideal choice if you’re traveling with children / larger groups, and are looking for a traditional stay that won’t break the bank.
Link: Tokyo Inn Sakura An
Tokyo Ryokan: Wrap-Up
Whether you opt for a luxurious 5-star Tokyo ryokan inn, or one of the more homely, cozy names on the above list, staying in a ryokan inn while in Japan is highly worth it. As long as you read up on the cultural shift beforehand, as to avoid unpleasantness, staying at an accommodation so markedly different from what you’re accustomed to can be a wonderful, eye-opening experience.
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