You’ve probably come across the term ryokan in your travel books or perhaps you’ve had a friend suggest that you stay in one if you visit Japan.
But what is a ryokan? And how the heck do you pronounce it?
What is a Ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that was popular during the Edo period of 1603 – 1868. If you’ve ever watched a samurai move you’ve probably seen one before.
These are the little inns you enter through sliding screens and are sparsely furnished with tatami-covered floors and large cedar bathing areas.
When staying in Japan you can book a room in one of these lovely ryokan and experience first hand what it may have been like to be a traveling member of the Imperial Court.
You’ll find plenty of options and price ranges of ryokan to stay at including the world’s oldest hotel the Hoshi Ryokan built in 718 and still in operation by the 46th generation of the same family.
What to Expect
While the overall look of a ryokan may not have changed in over 200 years, your experience will be different than the wondering Ronin of times past.
Today, Japan’s modern ryokans are the masters of subdued comfort and luxury. At some of the top ryokans you will be met at the door by a kimono adorned host and ushered into a Japan that has changed little since the turn of the century. With it’s shoji screens, immaculately designed gardens, and steaming Japanese tubs you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a Kurosawa film.
Also, if you’ve never slept on the floor before, be prepared for that experience. While it sounds awkward, the futon style mattresses are actually very comfortable and plenty many people have mentioned that they’ve had the best sleep in their lives while staying at a Japanese ryokan.
While most of the budget ryokan will not come with any meal service, the more expensive ones will include the kaiseki meals – which is an experience in and of itself.
The kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal that is usually served for breakfast and dinner. The meal consists of several small dishes of meat, fish, soup and rice that are simply seasoned and beautifully presented.
If raw fish or Japanese food makes you a little nervous, some ryokans will cook you up a more westernized meal of cold eggs and toast or a similar take on a foreign classic. But if I was shelling out the cash for a top notch ryokan, I’d take it like a man and eat the kaiseki =)
While some ryokan have a communal dining room, more than likely you’ll be served your meal in your room. And while it’s not necessary to find a ryokan that serves the kaiseki, if you want to have the complete Japanese experience you’ll want to find one that does.
How do you say Ryokan?
This is one of the hardest words I had to pronounce when we went to Japan. Most times it sounded like I had just come back from having my wisdom teeth removed and I had a mouth full of Novocaine.
The problem lies in the nasty ryo combo as the Japanese don’t really have a way of pronouncing R’s in their language. Fortunately, I’ve found audio recording of a Japanese female pronouncing it:
And here is a nice little tour through a ryokan from a Japanese television show. I always get a kick out of the picture-in-picture people that are watching while you are watching.
In upcoming posts we’ll be highlighting some of the best ryokan in Japan. Stay tuned!
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