Old World Excellence: Ryokan

We got some messages asking if there was any place we visited in the Pacific Rim that was pretty memorable. So, as usual, ask and you shall receive! The team and I were fortunate enough to visit the lovely country of Japan–specifically, it’s Kyoto prefecture.

As much as possible, we try to stay in places that are pretty rife with history. If there was any country that going to be really rich in fully documented history, it would be Japan. We wanted a truly old world experience and we’ve read so much about the traditional inn (ryokan) experience and we wanted to experience that as well. Because really, if you had a choice between a cut-and-dry hotel experience and a place that offered both comfort and cultural immersion, the latter would win each time.

For the unfamiliar, a ryokan (旅館) is a  traditional Japanese inn that started during the Edo period. The Edo period introduced the boom of travelling for leisure and commerce so ryokans started popping up along Japan’s highways.

The first ryokans were pretty humble featuring tatami-matted rooms and communal baths. Tatami is a mat that was popularly used as flooring material in traditional Japanese homes. Its materials are rice straw and wood chip boards–then covered with woven soft rush straw. (Tip: Always take off your shoes and slippers before stepping on tatami) Ryokans also had communal areas where visitors could gather (much like modern day hostels).

What was particularly lovely about the ryokan experience is that the owner will always be present to get to know the guests. Finding out where they’re going, picking up news, current events, or trends), and getting first-hand feedback on how they could morph their business into something better. Ryokan owners are pretty shrewd people and this type of business is usually inherited in the family. So you can bet that the established ryokans of today have the hard-earned experience that comes from generational knowledge.  Pretty exciting right?

Apparently, ryokans are pretty hard to find in large cities as they can be pretty pricey so other opt for the budget friendly hostels or hotels. However, if you really want to experience tradition, going to  prefectures known for scenery is a good idea. Older and well-established ryokans will be present in the area. An added bonus to look out for is if a ryokan has access to a hot spring (Onsen). Normally, an area that has hot springs will have a 100% probability of ryokans.

We scoured the web until we came across Arashiyama Benkei. It was in a perfect location in Kyoto and it turns out it wasn’t just any sort of Ryokan.  We had the pleasure of staying at a ryokan that was started in 1969. It was pretty convenient–being around 15 minutes away from major stations in the area. It’s a short walk but if you have quite a bit of luggage with you, contact your ryokan for a shuttle ride. Arashiyama Benkei is located along the Katsura River so the views are pretty amazing.

They offer indoor and outdoor natural hot spring baths and much like most ryokans, they offer in-room dinner so guests can leisurely enjoy their delicately prepared meals. The presentation is something else and you can just feel the quiet dignity in the air. It was a bit intimidating at first, having to speak softly and be mindful of the mannerisms that might be construed as rude. But eventually, the calmness of the general area seeps into your bones. It’s pretty hard not to be charmed by services that taken decades to perfect. Plus, the yukata they let you use is pretty comfortable and roomy. So if you’re ever going to Japan, please do not pass up a chance to stay at a ryokan. Your travel-weary bones will thank you.