No.106 [FOCUS] The unique ryokan experience

Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s leading inns. / Eric Rechsteiner for Zoom Japan

A symbol of Japanese hospitality, the traditional inn is still a great place to stay.

Staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – means spending a night completely wrapped in the living tradition of local history; an unadulterated deep dive into Japanese culture. Thus, a ryokan is the ideal base from which to explore your surroundings while enjoying hospitality at its best.

There are things we cannot experience at home, and every aspect of a stay in a traditional inn is designed to provide an unforgettable experience. After soaking in a hot spring, you can enjoy the local cuisine and learn about the culture and history of the area.

Since ancient times, many people have travelled and recorded their thoughts and feelings of the places they visited. Though the hospitality industry was still small in size, court nobles and aristocrats used to monopolise travel. In the Middle Ages, there were inns for people who went on religious journeys such as the famous pilgrimage to Kumano. In modern times, post stations were established, roads were maintained, and post towns were built and developed. People became a little more reassured, and under the guise of a pilgrimage, they visited mountain areas. During the Edo period, when tourism was booming, famous poet Basho wrote haiku (traditional Japanese three-line poems) about his travels and lodgings, while popular novelist Jippensha Ikku described the journey between Edo and Kyoto along the Tokaido highway in his comic picaresque novel Tokaidochu Hizakurige, arguably his best-known work. Even artist Utagawa Hiroshige depicted scores of inns in his paintings, showing the changes they went through. Today, with travel more popular than ever, the appearance of ryokan have changed in many ways. The types of available accommodation has also diversified. If you look into the history of post towns and lodgings, some things remain unchanged while many others have changed with the times. Let’s see how they evolved to become the jewels of Japanese hospitality.

The starting point of the Japanese hospitality industry as it is conceived today – combining the two functions of “staying” and “dining” – can arguably be traced to the temple lodgings of the Kumano Sanzan priests in the Heian period (794-1185). Each Shinto shrine had an onshi (priest) who took care of the people who visited Sanzan, providing prayers and guidance for the pilgrims to reflect on the spirit of hospitality.

Before the Edo period, it was common for travellers to bring their own food and bedding and cook for themselves. So an inn was a place that, besides accommodation, mainly provided firewood and water and received payment in exchange for use of those facilities. That is why they were called kichin’yado, which literally means “inn where you pay for wood”. These cheap lodgings offered basic services. It was not uncommon for guests to share a large room and pay for their own bedding, share rice and other foods, while they cooked their own meals and paid for the cost of their firewood.

In the Edo period, hatago (traditional Japanese inns) became popular, and kichin’yado came to be synonymous with low-cost inns. As such, they were favoured by itinerant merchants, servants and travelling entertainers. The main concern for budget travellers, more than eating a nice meal, was finding cheap places to keep warm and dry.

At the beginning of the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate (military government 1603-1868) indirectly contributed to the development of a national network of lodgings when it established the Sankin Kotai system, which required all daimyo (feudal lords) to alternate yearly between living in their own domains and Edo. The expenditure necessary to maintain lavish residences in both places and for the household to regularly travel to and from Edo placed financial strain on the daimyo reducing their wherewithal to rebel.

A beneficial side-product of the daimyo’s frequent travels meant road building and the construction of inns and facilities along these routes was encouraged, generating economic activity. At the heart of this network was the honjin, a post station and lodging facility specifically designed to accommodate daimyo, imperial envoys, court nobles, shogunate officials and high priests. These post stations were reserved for high-ranking people, and for the most part lodging for the general public was not permitted, so they cannot be called to be inns in the traditional business sense. In many cases, the residences of merchants and village heads were designated as honjin.

Along with the designation of honjin, the master of the house was granted privileges such as the ability to establish a family name and keep a sword, the financial reward for hosting such VIPs was often meagre and not enough to cover operating expenses. In fact, some families faced ruin due to the increased expenditure, and in the latter half of the Edo period, many former honjin families went bankrupt due to the deterioration of the clan’s finances and the strain on the family’s main business (commerce, agriculture, etc.).

It was not until the Edo period that ordinary people were able to enjoy travel around the country. In the early years of the Edo period, when many political, legal, cultural and ideological changes took place, the government started a process of reorganisation and renewal of Japan’s thousand-year-old highway system. Five roads were formally nominated as official routes for use by the shogun and other daimyo, and to provide the Tokugawa shogunate with the communications network that it needed to stabilise and rule the country.

Travel boomed in earnest from 1601 when Tokugawa Ieyasu established post stations on the Tokaido, a highway that connected Edo to Kyoto following Japan’s eastern coastline. Finally, in 1624, all 53 stages of the Tokaido were completed. Many people came and went along the highway. Tourist destinations were created, and along the route castle towns and monzen towns (towns formed around a powerful temple or shrine, which attracted a large number of pilgrims) flourished. Undoubtedly the development of the 53 stations along the Tokaido was a major project that encouraged people to travel. As new post towns were built, specialised traders appeared, starting transport-related businesses such as lodging houses and teahouses.

Another one of the Five Highways, the Nakasendo, connected Edo to Kyoto through the central mountain ranges of Honshu, the largest island of Japan. Many shorter routes already existed at that time, connecting towns over various distances. Eventually, all those routes were connected, and 69 stations were created for travellers to stop along the road.

It was during the Edo period, with the start of the travel boom for the lower classes, that the hatago came to the forefront. The etymology of the word hatago (literally “travelling basket”) comes from the baskets carried by travellers containing food for horses. Later, they were used to carry their own food and goods. Shops that prepared and sold food for travellers were called hatagoya (the suffix “ya” meaning “shop”) but the name was eventually shortened to just hatago. These lodgings were the original version of what would later become the ryokan. In the Edo period, they were built at post towns along the national highways and were used by both samurai and ordinary people.

Nowadays, one lone hatago still stands along the old Tokaido. Ohashiya is located in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, in what used to be the Akasakajuku, the 36th post station counted from Edo. Founded in 1649, it was both depicted by Utagawa Hiroshige in his Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido series and included in a haiku by Matsuo Basho, who is said to have stayed at the inn. In 1878, it was also used as an imperial residence during Emperor Meiji’s tour the Tokai and Hokuriku regions.

Ohashiya was the last hatago along the Tokaido to remain in business from the Edo period. During its 366 years of activity, it was rebuilt a few times and owned by different families until, in March 2015, its last owners closed it down and donated the building (designated as a cultural property since 1977) to Toyokawa City. Since then, it has undergone design and construction work for preservation and maintenance, including earthquake-proofing. Today the building is open to the public on certain dates.

Hatago received a further boost in activity when an increasing number of people began to go on pilgrimages. As a religious act, a typical pilgrimage involves travelling around sacred places in a certain area. In Japan, where this activity is very popular, it is believed that by visiting several shrines, you can experience psychological, social and spiritual benefits.

However, religion aside, hatago and similar lodgings became increasingly popular with travellers when they began to employ meshimori- onna (meal-serving women) to serve guests, reinforcing the “one night with two meals” principle.

While originally the meshimori-onna were just maidservants hired by the inns, as traffic along the highways and competition between the inns intensified, they became increasingly engaged in prostitution to attract a larger number of travellers. This practice became so widespread during the Edo Period that in 1718 the Tokugawa shogunate passed a law limiting the number of meshimori-onna to two per inn, thus giving them tacit permission to employ a limited number of prostitutes.

Always committed to controlling every aspect of social life around the country, the Tokugawa regime prohibited people from travelling as they pleased. The shogunate was particularly strict regarding the movement of women and weapons. As a matter of fact, only pilgrimages to the sacred Ise Shrine were permitted, while the onshi were allowed to travel around Japan to spread the word and recommend a visit to Ise. They also worked as travel agents and in the management of inns. This led to Ise shrine visits becoming popular among the common people, sparking another travel boom. In time, people started combining religious trips with mountainviewing trips.

The onsen (hot springs) is somewhere else ryokan have established themselves as premier lodgings. Historically in Japan, hot springs were mainly used for treatment and recuperation. Already in the 8th century, the emperor and aristocrats often used hot springs for healing purposes. For example, the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history, which was completed in 720, records that Emperor Jomei visited Arima Onsen and Emperor Saimei visited Iyo no Yu. During the Middle Ages, as religious and sightseeing trips became popular among the common people, recreational use of hot springs took off and their popularity spread around Japan when writers visited these resorts and recorded them in their travelogues and journals.

Ishibe-juku was the 51st post station along the Tokaido. Print by Utagawa Hiroshige from the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido.

These days, ryokan continue to attract people who want to slow down or leave behind their hectic lifestyles for a few days or even just one night, and be pampered in a traditional setting. They are mainly attracted by three key elements: location, cuisine and bathing.

Some ryokan are located in beautiful natural areas steeped in history and tradition. The guest rooms are Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats, and each room is designed for two or more people. In relatively low-priced ryokan (so-called business ryokan) one person per room may be allowed, but many tourist inns, hot spring inns, and especially high-class ryokan operate on the premise that one room should be used by two or more people. If one person is allowed to stay on their own, the cost is significantly higher.

When the guests are shown to their room, they typically find a low table on which a tea caddy containing green tea leaves, an electric teapot filled with hot water and a tea bowl have been laid out. In addition, sweets are often served on the table.

Superior customer service is another element that sets ryokan apart from other hotels. In addition to guiding guests to their rooms, waiting staff also help with raising and lowering the futon (traditional mattress used for sleeping) and serving meals. In many cases, the female manager of the ryokan – the okami (landlady / general manager) – plays an important role in customer service and sales. She is usually the wife of the owner or a female proprietor herself and typically wears kimono when serving customers. At high-class ryokan and inns that have a policy of respecting tradition, a nakai (member of staff / female waitress) is in charge of serving customers in each room. They are often dressed in kimonos like the okami.

The Japanese are famous for loving food, and exquisite cuisine is one thing that unites all great ryokan. One of the main differences between Western-style hotels and Japanese inns is whether or not they include meals. Moreover, it is fair to say that in these modern hotels there is almost no room service. On the other hand, Japanese lodgings are based on the concept of “a one-night stay with two meals”, dinner and breakfast. However, lower, end ryokan allow overnight stays without meals, or either dinner or breakfast only.

A traditional breakfast at a ryokan may include grilled fish, dashi-maki omelette, rice, tofu, Japanese pickles, and miso soup. Many ryokan offer high-quality meals based on local cuisine and dishes made with locally-produced ingredients as a selling point. Dinner usually follows the multi-course kaiseki model with a set succession of several dishes (anywhere between seven and a dozen) which include a fish of some kind, sashimi, a meat-and-vegetable combination and, of course, dessert.

The original form of serving meals at a Japanese inn is the so-called heyashoku where the waitress brings the food to the guest room and serves it on a low table. However, during the Heisei era (1989-2019), the number of places where meals are served in large dining halls have increased to save on time and personnel.

The third key element that attracts a constant stream of customers to the ryokan is the bath. Since many ryokan are located in hot spring areas, their mineral-rich water is favoured by health-conscious guests. Many offer a mixture of bathing options, from large communal areas that might include a rotenburo (outdoor bath) to small private en-suite baths. The latter option has recently become popular, especially in highclass inns, and some ryokan provide rooms with open-air baths. However, in the case of hot spring inns, there is a limit to the amount of hot water supplied from the source,

These days, many ryokan are caught between two opposite trends: on the one hand, business is booming, especially with an increase of inbound tourism. On the other, some of the old ryokan and their owners are aging, and due to the declining birthrate, they are unable to find successors. As a consequence, even if the business is profitable, they have to close. However, there is no shortage of ryokan across the Japanese archipelago. So, pick your favorite one – depending your tastes and budget – an enjoy your stay.

Gianni Simone