Thoughts: My Experience Staying at a Japanese Ryokan

During my time in Kyoto on my recent Japan trip, I had the privilege of staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan. We were at Ryotei Rangetsu for only one night (although we would have loved to stay for longer if our wallets permitted us), but it was definitely a unique experience, and hopefully this post will be informative to anyone considering one during their next Japan visit.

Ryokan (旅館)

First, for those who don’t know, a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and interact with the owner and other guests. Other traditional components of a ryokan include sliding doors, water from hot springs (onsen), geta sandals, and private baths. We splurged on a high-end room that had all of the above, including two delicious traditional meals (breakfast and dinner) served in our rooms.

Location and Exterior

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A view we had in the Arashiyama district

Ryotei Rangetsu is located in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, a beautiful area filled with temples, shrines, a famous bamboo grove, and the magnificent Katsura River. Our room actually provided us with an amazing view overlooking the river, and even with all of the tourists, we felt at peace in our private backyard.

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Ryotei Rangetsu’s large courtyard

The entrance of Ryotei Rangetsu (see picture at the top of this post) is right along the road next to the river, and looks so scenic that we saw many tourists mistake the inn as an attraction before being awkwardly turned away by the owners. The courtyard inside the main gate was spacious and well-maintained, with each individual tree and grass patch meticulously groomed by the caretakers of the inn.

Room

When we entered the main building to check in, the staff greeted us warmly and instructed us to take off our shoes for them to store near the front, as the entire building was a shoe-free zone. A staff member led us to our room, where we found a beautiful tea and snack setup waiting for us.

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Tea and a delicious cracker waiting for us in our room

The young woman then briefly explained some of the amenities in our room and scheduled our private dinner. While her English was fine, she didn’t really give too thorough of an explanation of ryokans and what we should expect, since Ryotei Rangetsu didn’t seem to be that hot of a tourist attraction. This was fine, as we had done our research and figured most of it out on our own.

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A room in Ryotei Rangetsu

Our room had a separate dining room and sleeping room (this is not always the case in many ryokans), so there was no setup required to move the table and futon back and forth between dining and sleeping. The bathroom was lovely and had a separate shower and bath area, with traditional wood finishings. The backyard could be accessed through the bedroom or the bathroom, and contained the private onsen and river view that made the room one of the most expensive in the inn. Overall, our suite was immaculate and traditional, while having some modern amenities such as power outlets, wifi, and a small TV.

Dinner

Dinner was amazing and felt like a meal at a two Michelin star restaurant with nearly ten courses. We were served the meal on the low dining table in our room while sitting on cushions on top of the tatami floors. Each course was small on its own, but by the end, I was comfortably full and satisfied with everything we had. I’ll let the pictures below speak for themselves.

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The only thing that was disappointing about the dinner was that it was actually not included in the price of the room (only breakfast was). We paid a little over $100 a person since we also added sake and whiskey, but I would say it’s well worth it compared to some of the more expensive tasting menus in western restaurants.

Breakfast

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Our traditional Japanese breakfast

For breakfast, we were also able to schedule the time for the meal service, so we picked a late time after we had gone out for an early morning walk. Unlike dinner, it was served in one giant course that I was barely able to finish, even after the walk. As you can see above, the meal contained a multitude of small dishes alongside the “main course” of the ginseng porridge in the bottom left.

Service and Amenities

During our entire stay, it felt like we were the only guests at the inn. We had the same staff member attending to us during the entire evening and she was very respectful in a traditional Japanese way. For example, during our dinner, she would bring each course, and after explaining the dish, she would close our sliding doors to give us privacy and wait outside for the kitchen to bring her the next course. Many of us who are used to western culture may not be entirely comfortable with the near servant-like attitudes of these staff members, especially when they seem to apologize for every little thing that may not make us perfectly comfortable.

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The indoor bath

After the dinner, I ventured out to the public bath in the inn. The men’s side was empty except for one guy who was on his way out, so I had the entire place to myself. The area was separated into three rooms: an entrance with showers and washing sinks, an indoor hot water bath, and an outdoor bath. The communal area was peaceful and relaxing and it was great to unwind there after a long day of walking around.

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The outdoor bath

After spending some time at the public baths, we got ready for the massage we had scheduled earlier. Scheduling the massage was as easy as calling the front desk and giving them the time. At precisely 10:30pm, two massage therapists showed up at our room door and we received the massages on our futons in our rooms. The prices were actually reasonable (about $60 for a 60-minute massage) since the ryokan didn’t have massage therapists in-house but instead worked with an outside business.

Private Onsen

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A private onsen at Ryotei Rangetsu

In the morning before we left, we finally spent some time in our backyard and the private onsen that received its water directly from the hot springs of the Arashiyama mountains. The main reason we didn’t check it out the previous evening was that during summer nights, many insects (some quite large) enjoy hanging out in the backyard area since the ryokan is a source of light in the mountainous forests of Arashiyama. It was a luxurious experience for sure, and the view was amazing as well. But was it worth it?

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The ryokan provided us geta sandals

Conclusion

In the end, I definitely do not regret staying at Ryotei Rangetsu during my trip to Kyoto and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in a traditional Japanese ryokan. However, I would skip out on the private onsen. All in all, we paid about $800 for the room for one night because of it ($1,000 if you include dinner), and the price goes down to around $400 (still not cheap, but much more reasonable) if you get a room without a private bath! Plus, the public baths are great and likely will not have many people anyway, so the private onsen is not really necessary.

I hope you enjoyed this post and will give traditional ryokans a thought when you visit Japan in the future. I’m excited to hear your experiences too, since I only stayed at this one particular ryokan during my visit.

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