Welcome to the ryokan (旅館), traditional luxury lodging, dining, and hot springs (onsen) all rolled into one. Here are some tips on how to get around in one. Though be forewarned, ryokan can be some of the most expensive types of lodging in the entire country.
The great thing about ryokans is that you really do get the royal treatment. When you arrive, you are asked to take off your shoes and are led to a traditional Japanese room with tatami mats, shoji sliding doors, tables and chairs arranged so have to sit on the floor, the whole shebang.
Later, a staff member assigned to your room will help you settle in, make you green tea, and later in the evening, if you pay a little extra, will cook a delicious dinner for you. I was staying with a friend in Kinosaki (城崎), which was a fishing town famous for it’s crab, so that’s what we had for our first night. The next night we were fed a delightful beef dish called shabu-shabu. Then at bed time, thick, comfy futons are spread out on the floor and we settled in for the night. Also know that the staff may not have very good English skills, but you can reserve a spot online at certain English websites.
So what do you do between all of this delicious food and sleeping? Take baths! Lots and lots of baths! At least if you are in an onsen town like Kinosaki. The way the town works is you are given a yukata (a light kimono) and a couple of towels, and then travel around from onsen to onsen. Some ryokan provide a pass that gives you free access to all of the major onsen in the area or you can buy passes to get access to the various hot springs. But there are plenty of other towns that have ryokan without onsen. In these towns, just explore and enjoy them like you would anywhere else.
Now the big question, is it worth the price? Well, at a nice ryokan it costs roughly ¥15,000 to ¥20,000 (approx. $150-$200) per person per night. So while it is definitely too expensive to stay at every day, I would say for culture and anime lovers, it is worth staying at a ryokan for at least one night while traveling in Japan.
For those who want more information, be sure to visit Japan Guide’s site. And if you want to make a reservation at a Ryokan: Japanese Guest Houses, JAPANiCAN, and the Japan Ryokan Association have good options available.