10 of the best luxury ryokans in Japan
Quintessentially Japanese, the ryokan offers an alternative, yet traditional take on the hotel. James Jayasundera shares 10 of his favourite luxury ryokans, some historic and some that approach the concept from a contemporary angle with great success.
As the epitome of minimalist Japanese culture, ryokans are essentially Japanese-style inns. Combining simplicity with a modern touch, they are an absolute must for any traveller visiting Japan, and are the perfect recipe for true relaxation away from the buzz of the vibrant and energetic cities.
The elegant Beniya Mukayu is located in one of the four hot springs towns south of culturally rich Kanazawa, effortlessly combining a fine fusion of the modern and traditional. Each of the 17 rooms has its own private hot-spring bath with uninterrupted views of the ornamental garden, so you can slowly steam while admiring the surrounds. As with all ryokans, the noticeable absence of a bed can be a daunting prospect, but rest assured, I swear by the comfort of the softly woven tatami mats. Most luxury ryokan serve meals in the room, but Beniya has its own restaurant and its own take on Japanese kaiseki cuisine.
I couldn’t review this aspect of Japanese culture without featuring the centre of luxury ryokans: Hakone. Gora Kadan is an absolute must for those fond of a beautiful landscape built as a retreat for a high-ranking Imperial family, it is possibly the most expensive ryokan in Japan, but if you only ever stay in one ryokan make it this one. Located in the charming village of Gora in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, Gora Kadan is the ultimate onsen/ryokan combination. Two wells source mineral-rich spring water to the open-air hot-spring baths which claim rights to healing properties. With private gardens and a backdrop of mountainous forests, this ryokan is certainly one with a view.
Named Hanafubuki, which literally means falling cherry blossoms, this ryokan summarises the purity of the idyllic coastline of the Izu Peninsula, just south-west of Tokyo. Tucked away in the verdant woodland, Hanafubuki is a series of scattered villas close to the Jogasaki bays, one of the most scenic areas for coastal walks. Running throughout the ryokan is an eccentric nautical theme, and even the central dining area is designed to look like a ship with a mast and sail. This peaceful luxury inn makes for an excellent stop between Tokyo and Kyoto.
The romantic Hanaougi Bettei IIyama is a perfect pit stop for couples. Located in the scenic mountain area of Takayama, also known as the Japan Alps, the inviting wooden buildings make for the perfect place to cosy up with your loved one. The food here is sensational as well, with divine kaiseki meals and marbled Hida beef served upon the open hearth. Combine the hot-spring baths on private terraces with the warm wooded design, and you have the perfect place for a romantic retreat.
Hoshinoya was was once a noble’s retreat, and provides the ultimate ryokan experience resonating with a long history of luxury. Only reachable by private riverboat down the Hozu River, this hideaway epitomises the purity of Kyoto, and is at its most beautiful during autumn, when the leaves turn red and gold. Let your taste buds be dazzled by Michelin-starred chef, Ichiro Kubota, and retreat to your private verandah to take in the delightful forest and river views. This is Arashiyama’s exclusive gem and is the most peaceful place to stay near Kyoto.
The picturesque cherry blossom season and infamous image of Itsukushima Shrine are what makes the unmissable island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, so significant. Iwaso was the first ryokan to open on the island in the late 19th century, and it is still the best. While the inn visibly incorporates quintessential 19th-century Japanese traditions into its interiors, the newly renovated rooms are bright and comfortable. Aesthetically pleasing and typically Japanese, this ryokan has so much to offer, but the best part of staying here is to enjoy the spectacular views of Itsukushima Shrine after hours when the crowds have dissolved.
Kayotei, Yamanaka Onsen
Kayotei is located in picturesque Yamakana, a hot-spring town to the south of Kanazawa. This ryokan is a treasure trove for ancient Japanese antiques and artefacts, such as elaborate hand painted screens and intricately crafted ceramics. Traditional kaiseki meals are served in the luxury of your own room, and as you soak up the impeccable service, surrounded by the traditional wooden interiors which amplify Japan’s long history from within, you will soon fall in love with this utter delight.
Notonosho, literally means the waters of Noto, giving a key indication of the ryokan’s success. Offering elegant and refined rooms, with unrivalled panoramic views of the stunning coastline, it is located on the northern Noto Peninsula off Toyama. Established nearly a century ago due to the high pH levels in the surrounding hot-spring waters, visitors are drawn back here each year for the ultimate detox experience. Tranquil and elegant, this haven of ‘old’ Japan will guarantee you a peaceful stay, with unmissable onsen experiences.
Comprising ancient store houses stretching out along the canal, this cosy ryokan is very inn-like with just six rooms and offers a unique approach to anticipating guests’ needs. Hospitable and decadent, Ryokan Kurashiki intertwines an impressive collection of antique pieces with oak beams and polished floor interiors, to achieve a homely and luxurious experience. With Japanese tatami mat rooms, kaiseki multi-course meals and relaxing baths, I can guarantee a stay here will be at the envy of others.
Sekitei is a must for the landscape gardener in us all; a central ornamental garden embeds the five maisonettes which are cleverly arranged so that each one has views of the island of Miyajima across the water, without having their privacy disturbed. Each of the maisonettes comprises living, sleeping and dining spaces, and the luxurious cedar-wood baths have some of the best views. Fine meals are served with fresh fish and locally sourced seasonal ingredients, and the hospitality is second to none. Every details has been considered to enhance your immersive cultural experience.
These ryokans are suggested by the team at Ampersand Travel.
Ampersand Travel specialises in luxury tailor-made travel to the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia and the Far East, creating journeys that fully engage the senses and constantly surprise and delight. With over 13 years of experience, James Jayasundera and his team understand that everyone is unique, and they place great emphasis on getting to know their clients. They handcraft exceptional luxury holidays for individuals and small groups, combining the perfect mix of experiences and hotels in unforgettable ways.