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Traditional Japanese Accommodation





Let’s face it: a hotel is a hotel wherever you go. And while some of Japan’s hotels are very nice indeed, you’re probably searching for something unique to the culture. If this is what you’re after, you’ll be pleased to learn that Japan is one of the last places in Asia where you can find truly authentic traditional accommodation: ryokan, minshuku and shukubō .

Ryokan

Simply put, ryokan are traditional Japanese inns. Ryokan are where Japanese travellers stayed before they had heard the word hoteru (hotel). They are Japanese-style accommodation with tatami-mat rooms and futons instead of beds. Most serve Japanese-style breakfast and dinner, as well. However, this simple explanation doesn’t do justice to ryokan.

A high-end ryokan is the last word in relaxation. The buildings themselves set the tone: they employ traditional Japanese architecture in which the whole structure is organic, made entirely of natural materials such as wood, earth, paper, grass, bamboo and stone. Indeed, a good ryokan is an extension of the natural world. And nature comes into the ryokan in the form of the Japanese garden, which you can often see from the privacy of your room or even your bathtub.

But more than the building, the service is what sets ryokan apart from even the best hotels. At a good ryokan, you will be assigned a personal maid who sees to your every need. These ladies seem to have a sixth sense: as soon as you finish one course of your dinner, you hear a knock on the door and she brings the next course. Then, when you stroll down the hall to take a bath, she dashes into your room and lays out your futon.

It is said that there are more than 80,000 ryokan in Japan, but that number decreases each year as modern Japanese find hotels to be more convenient.

Many ryokan in Japan pride themselves on serving kaiseki ryōri (Japanese haute cuisine), which rivals that served in the best restaurants. Staying at one of these so-called ryōri ryokan (cuisine ryokan) is like staying at a three-star ‘residential restaurant’, where you sleep in your own private dining room.

Another wonderful variety is the onsen ryokan: a ryokan with its own private hot-spring bath. These places were like luxury spas long before anyone had heard the word ‘spa’. Some of the top places have rooms with private en suite onsen baths, usually built overlooking gardens. When you stay at an onsen ryokan, your day involves a gruelling cycle of bathe-nap-eat-repeat. A night at a good onsen ryokan is the perfect way to get over your jet lag when you arrive in the country or a special treat to round out the journey in Japan.

Onsen





Japan is in hot water. Literally. The stuff percolates up out of the ground from one end of the country to the other. The Japanese word for a hot spring is ‘onsen’, and there are more than 3000 of them here, more than anywhere else on earth. So if your idea of relaxation involves soaking your bones in a tub of bubbling hot water, you’ve come to the right place.

With so many onsen , it’s hardly surprising that they come in every size, shape and colour. There is an onsen on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. There are onsen high up in the Japan Alps that you can only get to by walking for a full day over high mountain peaks. There are onsen bubbling up among the rocks on the coast that only exist when the tide is just right.

Some Japanese will tell you that the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture – that is, something that didn’t ultimately originate in mainland Asia – is the bath. There are accounts of onsen bathing in Japan’s earliest historical records, and it’s pretty certain that the Japanese have been bathing in onsen as long as there have been Japanese.

Over the millennia, they have turned the simple act of bathing in an onsen into something like a religion. Today, the ultimate way to experience an onsen is to visit an onsen ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with its own private hot-spring bath. At an onsen ryokan you spend all day enjoying the bath, relaxing in your room and eating sumptuous food. Like many of the best things in life, some of the finest onsen in Japan are free. Just show up with a towel and your birthday suit, splash a little water on yourself and plunge in. No communication hassles, no expenses and no worries. And even if you must pay to enter, it’s usually just a minor snip – averaging about ¥700 (US$6) per person.

Onsen Town

Kinosaki (Kansai;) Kinosaki, on the Sea of Japan coast in northern Kansai, is the quintessential onsen town. With seven public baths and dozens of onsen ryokan, this is the place to sample the onsen ryokan experience. You can relax in your accommodation taking the waters as it pleases you, and when you get tired of your ryokan’s bath, you can hit the streets in a yukata (light cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) and visit the public baths.

Hidden Onsen

Lamp no Yado (Noto-hantō, Central Honshū;) Noto-hantō is about as far as one can go in Central Honshū, and the seaside is about as far as one can go on this peninsula. A country road takes you to a narrow 1km path, from where you have to climb a switchback hill on foot. Sit in the rotemburo (outdoor bath) and enjoy the Sea of Japan views through craggy rocks.

Semitropical Onsen

Urami-ga-taki Onsen (Hachijō-jima, Izu-shotō;) Even in a country of lovely onsen, this is a real standout: the perfect little rotemburo located next to a waterfall in lush semitropical jungle. It’s what they’re shooting for at all those resorts on Bali, only this is the real thing. Sitting in the bath as the late-afternoon sunlight pierces the ferns here is a magical experience. Did we mention that’s it’s free?

Onsen-Beach Combination

Shirahama (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) There’s something peculiarly pleasing about dashing back and forth between the ocean and a natural hot-spring bath – the contrast in temperature and texture is something we never tire of. At Shirahama, a beach town in southern Kansai, there is a free onsen right on the beach. And Sakino-yu Onsen here is just spectacular – you sit in the tubs and watch the rollers from the Pacific break over the rocks just a few metres away.

Do-It-Yourself Onsen

Kawa-yu Onsen (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) If you like doing things your own way, you’ll love this natural oddity of an onsen in southern Kansai. Here, the onsen waters bubble up through the rocks of a riverbed. You choose a likely spot and dig out a natural hotpot along the riverside and wait for it to fill with hot water and – voila – your own private rotemburo . In the winter, it gets even better: they use bulldozers to turn the entire river into a giant 1000-person onsen. It doesn’t hurt that the river water is a lovely translucent emerald colour.

Onsen Ryokan

Nishimuraya Honkan (Kinosaki, Kansai;) If you want to sample the ultimate in top-end onsen ryokan, this is the place. With several fine indoor and outdoor baths and elegant rooms, your stay here will be a highlight of your trip to Japan, and will shed some light on why the Japanese consider an onsen vacation to be the utmost in relaxation.

Onsen Ski Town

Nozawa Onsen (Nagano Prefecture, Central Honshū;) What could be better than a day spent on the slopes, followed by a soak in a jacuzzi? Well, how about a day on the slopes followed by a soak in a real natural hot spring? This fine little ski town boasts some first-rate skiing, reliable snow, ripping alpine views and no fewer than 13 free onsen. Best of all, the onsen here are scalding hot, which is a nice contrast to the snow outside and it feels wonderful on tired skier’s legs.

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