Japan: Touch of tradition
Ryokans — traditional Japanese inns — are countryside destinations for many travellers, often because of their proximity to nature and hot springs
The Tokyo Olympics this summer will attract millions of people from around the world to enjoy the games, as well as Japan’s famous indulgent hospitality. The capital will be teeming with people making the most of Nipponese cuisine, music (don’t miss the jazz bars!), sights and art, but if you’re looking to grab a quick quiet getaway, a ryokan is your best bet.
Essentially traditional Japanese inns, these establishments have been around for centuries, hosting travellers and wayfarers and also people who want to take a dip in the hot springs in nearby areas. Sparse but comfortable, there are no bells and whistles to keep you interested, but what you will get a load of is calm, great service, local food (included in room rates) and unhindered access to nature. You can walk around in slippers and yukata anywhere and even for walks out in small towns and villages.
Today, ryokans have upped the luxe quotient: many have been built with a modern aesthetic, which are spectacular (read steeply priced) too. Here are some ryokans you can stay at while in Japan — old and new, budget and luxurious, secluded and city-based.
Gora Kadan, Hakone
Housed in the former summer villa (built in the 1900s) of the imperial family in the heart of Hakone National Park, Gora Kadan exemplifies traditional vibe and contemporary amenities. You can also choose a day trip to the ryokan and make a lunch-and-spa day out of it. But if you’d like to stay, there are several types of rooms available, featuring classic tatami mats, futon floor beds, rice paper doors, private gardens, stone baths, saunas, jacuzzi, private dining along with certain perks like Wi-Fi and televisions. The kaiseki-style meals embrace seasonal produce — expect exquisite combinations of fish and beef courses with eight to nine dishes to boot. Visit Gorakadan.com
Keiunkan, Koshu Nishiyama Hot Spring
The oldest ryokan in the world, this has been around for more than 1,300 years and boasts free-flowing hot springs throughout. Nestled among the mountains of Kai, in Yamanashi, Honshu, Keiunkan is not far from Mt Fuji. It has four open-air baths and two private baths, and its rooms with river and mountain views are large enough to accommodate up to seven people. Another claim to fame is that Keiunkan serves only high-quality Koshu beef. Visit Keiunkan.co.jp
Over 200 years old, this family-run ryokan is now in the hands of the sixth generation. Warm, peaceful and refreshingly authentic in look and feel, Hiragiya has been known to host award-winning Japanese writers, artists, politicians, scientists and members of the imperial family. Those in the main building are as traditional as it gets, featuring old-world Japanese architecture and design of the late Edo and Showa periods, while the rooms in the new building have a more contemporary setting. The flavour remains very Nipponese though — think painted folding screens with gold leaf work or ink paintings, maki-e lacquered writing boxes, papered shoji windows and sliding doors. Visit Hiiragiya.co.jp
Ryokan Kurashiki, Okayama
This property in the Bikan Historical Quarter is the quaint escape you’ve always dreamed of. There is so much to experience in Kurashiki, from an array of art and historical museums to the serene boat ride down the river that flows through the heart of the town. Washoku cuisine is common here, but if you want to stay away from the urban hustle, Ryokan Kurashiki is your place. Formerly a warehouse-cum-office space for local merchants, its eight rooms are cosy and comfortable. The menu changes according to season and usually spans ten-odd courses. Visit Ryokan-kurashiki.jp
Beniya Mukayu, Ishikawa
This ryokan, once a traditional hot spring-centred inn fading with age, has grown over the past two decades. Now, it is one of Japan’s hottest ryokans, with its latest avatar flaunting architecture from Kiyoshi Sey Takeyama and Yakushiyama amenities. A visual spectacle, its minimalist detail blends Japanese design and modernistic flair. The fine dining restaurant, set amid a plethora of trees, offers the best local flavours, including an interesting snow crab tasting menu featuring sashimi snow crab, chargrilled snow crab, cocked female snow crab rice and even snow crab with amber jelly. Facilities include a library, a spa, hot spring and even a temple. Visit Mukayu.com
Nishimuraya Honkan, Hyogo
The hot spring town of Kinosaki is among Japan’s most popular destinations, and the Nishimuraya Honkan certainly tops the healing experience with its soothing atmosphere and tranquil setting. The ryokan is classically Nipponese with sparse decor, tatami mats, paper doors and vivid garden views through massive windows and balconies. In 1960, architect Masaya Hirata built an annex in the sukiya style, which is what we see in Japanese teahouses. This ryokan offers open-air baths with nearly all its rooms, as well as the luxury of a private spa in the middle of the forest. Visit Nishimuraya.ne.jp
Minshuku Daikichi, Nagano
If budget travel is on your mind, then stay at a minshuku — a smaller, cheaper version of a ryokan with basic facilities and modest rooms. The Daikichi used to be a feudal inn, so the rooms are small, and simply done, but with great views of the valley. In true minshuku style, futon beds are provided and the meals are homely — soba noodles, sushi, tempura and mountain vegetables with local drink. Daikichi is the perfect place to enjoy a back-to-the-basics experience, set in the picturesque town of Tsumago surrounded by lush hills. Visit www17.plala.or.jp