Immerse yourself in the culture of Japan with a ryokan stay experience

These traditional Japanese style inns have been welcoming weary travellers for hundreds of years. You too can soak up the serenity at a luxurious ryokan in Kyoto.

A boat on a river in front overlooked by cherry blossom
  • Paul Ewart
  • January 2020

Eyes shut, I’m almost fully submerged in steamy water within a deep, square, cypress wood bathtub. Fragrance from the wood mingles with the scent from fresh herbs gently bobbing on the surface as a sudden breeze from the open window prompts me to open my eyes and take in the display. Surrounded by nature, the emerald river outside fills most of the windowpane. On the far side of the bank, craggy rocks meet a hillside of densely packed maple trees in varying autumnal hues. A bird of prey soars overhead and I spy a small deer lapping at the water’s edge. I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed.

A traditional Japanese bath
A soak in a fragrant Japanese bath is the ultimate cultural immersion.

In this era of homogenised hotels, it’s often hard to guess what country you’re in once you’ve checked in. Indeed, globalisation has meant that the “travel high”, which comes from experiencing a culture truly different from our own, is becoming increasingly rare. Yet for travellers in search of authentic cultural immersion (in the case quite literally a traditional Japanese bath), there is hope.

For the uninitiated, a ryokan is an ancient Japanese inn. Once a place for nomadic samurai to rest their weary heads and to reflect, these days ryokans cater to anyone hoping to experience Japan of yesteryear.

Tied into Japanese culture’s respect for “omotenashi” (hospitality), ryokans tend to be serene, infused with ritual, silence and the philosophy of Zen. Indeed, while the country – Tokyo especially – may be synonymous with the fast and futuristic, ryokans are time capsules, where taking things slow is par for the course.

Though in the past geared towards local travellers, these traditional stays are now on the to-do list for international holidaymakers to Japan.

A floating Japanese tearoom
Japan's ryokans fuse tradition with the philosophy of zen.

Responding to this demand are new hybrid ryokans, which fuse traditional elements with additional 21st-century comforts. One of the properties spearheading this trend is upscale ryokan Hoshinoya Kyoto, where I’m staying.

Set among lush forests in the temple-rich Arashiyama district, it is still only nine kilometres from Kyoto’s city centre. Appropriately, Kyoto is the nation’s historic heart. Having been the country’s imperial capital for more than 1000 years, reminders of its royal history remain, alongside an abundance of shrines, temples, teahouses and palaces.

While temple touring in Kyoto is serious (and fascinating) business, getting to Hoshinoya is complete fun. Embarking on the 15-minute journey, I step aboard a cute wooden motorboat and there’s a palpable sense of leaving the world behind as the Oi River gradually narrows and nature takes over.

Arriving, I’m led by a smiling attendant decked out in traditional garb through cherry blossoms, flowing waterfalls and a Zen rock garden where a huge 400-year-old maple tree takes centre stage. Entering my villa, built in the Meiji era (1868-1912), I’m instructed to remove my shoes in the ‘genkan’ or entryway, and change into slippers.

A pillow on a bed next to a lamp
Most ryokans feature minimalist design with a Japanese accent.

Inside, the décor is minimal with shoji paper sliding doors, hand-blocked wallpaper and latticed lanterns. Televisions are refreshingly absent, instead entertainment takes the form of in-room calligraphy sets and an array of traditional activities that showcase artisan skills of yesteryear including “karakami” (woodblock printing), tea ceremonies and “monko” (appreciating incense), which I trial the next morning.

Sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat, an instructor takes me through the ceremony. Essentially, a piece of burning charcoal is buried in ash within a small pot, around which – using several precise tools – you artfully create a mound of the ash, then a small piece of fragrant wood is placed on it, producing a sweet scent as it is warmed.

“Shape the ash like a volcano,” says my instructor, as she flattens the white ash with a tiny silver tool. It’s time-consuming and is a real exercise in patience and slowing down.

This meditative practice at the end of my stay reminds me what a luxury it is to get the time – and space – to truly think and wonder. A ryokan, it seems, is much more than a room for the night.