Traditional Japanese inns featuring a community bath supplied by underground hot springs are known as ryokans. There are nearly 60,000 of them in the United States, the majority of which are family-run and located outside of major cities. The best ryokans offer a tranquil and relaxing atmosphere for couples, as well as a touch of elegance.
A low table with two legless chairs topped with pillows is common in understated quarters for eating and relaxing. The bed in the separate sleeping room is a futon, which is placed on the floor each night before bedtime. Tatami (straw) mats cover the floors, and shoji (rice-paper) screens separate the sleeping and living areas.
Taking off your street clothes and shoes serves to mark the transition from the hectic world to the tranquility of a ryokan. Each of you will be given a lightweight yukata, a belted cotton robe that you can wear in the room, in the bath, and throughout the resort. In exchange for your shoes, you’ll also get a pair of sandals.
Most ryokans have separate community baths for men and women. Although the Japanese find them relaxing, you may find them excessively warm. Choosing a ryokan with a private rotenburo (open-air bath) linked to your room is recommended (and more fun). You can change the temperature and splash as much as you want.
The majority of ryokans include an evening meal on the day of your arrival as well as breakfast the next day. If a kaiseki supper is available, take it. This consists of artistically presented (and excellent) fish and veggie plates paired with premium saké and plum wine. Note: Don’t be offended if the male member of your party is served first; this is customary in Japan.
Start organizing your trip with The Ryokan Collection, the Japan Ryokan Association, and the Japanese National Tourism Organization. Consider integrating your trip to Japan with stops in bright Tokyo, historic Nara, art-packed Kanazawa, and classically appealing Kyoto.
1. Kai Sengokuhara
Kai Sengokuhara is a hot spring ryokan in a natural environment in the mountains near Hakone. The ryokan serves as both a gallery and an atelier, with artwork by local artists on display and programs in which artists and staff encourage guests to explore their creativity.
There are two indoor tubs, one hot and the other just above body temperature, as well as an outdoor bath with a view of the lovely surrounding forests and garden. After that, relax in the lounge or have a massage that will turn you into a puddle of bliss.
Mattresses from the ryokan’s line provide support while being soft enough to sink into. The best part is that each room has its private onsen with views of the surrounding environment.
Asaba, a classic and magnificent ryokan that is a member of the renowned Relais & Chateaux organization, has been stewarded by the Asaba family since 1675 and is still family-owned.
It is the most luxurious hot-springs inn in the town of Shizuoka on the Izu Peninsula, located two hours from Tokyo. Asaba is as beautiful to look at as it is to be around. It’s surrounded by a bamboo grove and bordered by a fish pond with a waterfall; most rooms overlook it. The ryokan also contains a traditional Noh stage where performances are staged regularly.
Given its age, the interior of Asaba is so bright and spotless that it’s difficult to realize it’s more than 300 years old.
The onsen is open at different times for men and women. It is customary for bathers to enter the water naked after washing. You can also rent a private one in Asaba and use it jointly.
3. Gora Kadan
Gora Kadan (also a member of Relais & Chateaux) was built-in 1989, three hours south of Tokyo, on grounds originally occupied by a member of the Japanese Imperial family. It has received recognition as one of Asia’s top five hotels.
The inn’s modern Japanese architecture, which has long open halls made of wood, concrete, and cold tile, frames vistas of green hills like art. There is balance, harmony, order, and beauty everywhere.
The housekeeper will greet you, carry your bags, show you around your room (and keep it tidy), take care of your basic requirements till you depart, and serve your meals, bowing graciously each time he enters or exits your presence.
Gora Kadan, Japan’s first ryokan to offer private open-air baths, with 37 spacious guest rooms. These wooden tubs are perfect for couples who aren’t used to taking hot baths or visiting onsen springs.
Nagano, situated on the “rooftop of Japan” (a.k.a. the Japanese Alps), has over 200 onsens, some of which are home to the famous snow monkeys. (You won’t be bathing with any of them unless you fall in!) The 1998 Winter Olympic Games were held in the prefecture.
In some rooms, the Myojinkan ryokan offers comfortable (Western-style) mattresses and even an upholstered sofa. Couples who enjoy a range of onsen experiences, such as bathing in co-ed hot springs, are likely to appreciate it the most.
The property is half an hour outside of Matsumoto City, which boasts several must-see attractions. The graceful and towering 400-year-old Matsumoto Castle, which has been designated a National Treasure; the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of woodblock prints; and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which features work by Yayoi Kusama, a world-renowned artist known for her dizzying paintings, sculptures, and infinity-mirror installations.
5. Ryokan Kurashiki
Ryokan Kurashiki is located in the heart of a 300-year-old, wonderfully preserved historic neighborhood that includes museums, galleries, tea houses, and restaurants, and is an hour and a half by train from Osaka and two hours from Kyoto.
Only five big and airy units in the ryokan are available to guests above the age of twelve. Kaiseki cuisine is offered in a private dining room with panoramic views of the city.
The Japanese Toy Museum, the Achi Shrine, and the Ohara Museum of Art, which exhibits European, Egyptian, and Asian art, are all unique local attractions. Enjoy a romantic walk along the Kurashiki canal at night, which is lit up with soothing lights.