Eat, Sleep, Contemplate: The Ryokan Experience

Courtesy Hoshinoya, Kyoto

Traditional Japanese inns are much loved—and not. Decide for yourself.

There’s a moment all travelers know—let’s call it the “moment of hotel truth.” The luggage has been stored. The various features of the room have been pointed out. In your impatience to get to your computer or your phone or the bathroom, you are sort of suspended in a gray zone of inhospitality. Then, a moment or two later, the bellman is gone and your old rhythms and habits rush back upon you. You settle in. But imagine this: an arrival where such a moment never occurs. Where there is not a single awkward instant of transition between arrival and comfort, but rather, from the moment you step into the hotel, a sensation of floating that makes connection to the habits of your own life first impossible and, you then discover, unnecessary.

This is the ryokan experience, a form of hospitality so total and transporting that to visit Japan without seeking it out is like going to Florence and skipping the Uffizi. The ryokan first emerged during the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule (1603–1868), an era in which Japan began to thrive under a unified economy. Ryokan were essential nodes in that network, and their basic character remains largely unchanged: peaceful, simple rooms with sleeping futons that are tucked away most of the day and brought out only for bedtime; low tables where tea and dinner are served; and common bathing areas or, in many cases, onsen baths.

From the minute you arrive at a ryokan, you experience a contradictory feeling: a near constant sense that your needs are being taken care of, yet that your own needs are secondary to the rhythms of the place itself. Of course this style of hospitality can be smothering, since it leaves little room for individual choice. And there is something discomfiting about the sensation if you’re not familiar with it. The silence of a ryokan room. The smell of the fresh-laid tatami mat. The single hot cup of tea set out for you. You really do lose your bearings in such a totally curated space, and that’s the point. Yasunari Kawabata set his most famous novel, Snow Country, in a ryokan, packing the hopeless love story into a chamber of perfect stillness where the heartbeats of a man are amplified to a nearly explosive volume. Ryokan have this effect: They turn the quotidian—the smell of incense, the sticky feel of a mineral bath, your heartbeat—into something extraordinary.

By quieting the outside world to an indistinct buzz, by distorting our sense of time with elongated pauses, ryokan make other features of life visible. Comfort in a ryokan like Tawaraya in Kyoto or my favorite, Beniya Mukayu in Ishikawa Prefecture, an hour’s flight west of Tokyo, is delivered not by permitting you to transport your usual life to a new room, but rather by placing you in a space where none of the plugs to your daily life can be usefully connected. Hotels endeavor to let you continue life uninterrupted: your Wi-Fi, your coffee, your exercise habits. A ryokan? It aims to liberate you from these burdens.

This is the conversation you’re supposed to have with your ryokan room in those first moments of stillness, that moment of hotel truth. You: “Hey, this is different.” Ryokan room: Silence. You: “Really different.” Ryokan room: Silence. You: “Wow. [Pause.] What happens now?” We travel, it has been said, to find ourselves. This has gotten ever harder in recent years. The tatami silence of a ryokan makes it easy again. 

For the four best ryokans in Kyoto, see our story »

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