Ryokan is a broad category of lodging that can be loosely translated as "Japanese traditional inn". They can be expensive or cheap. There are ryokan that haven't had a foreign guest since 1962 and ryokan that deal with foreigners daily. There are ryokan that are charmingly rustic and ryokan that are modern. There are ryokan that are quiet and ryokan that are party palaces.
Selecting a ryokan is no easy task. Here are a few things you might want to consider before making a booking.
1. Ryokan are an attraction onto themselvesRyokan are run on a tight schedule. Breakfast is early and dinner is earlier.
Most Japanese (and residents of Japan) book a ryokan to spend most of the day there. They might go for a walk in the neighborhood but they don't plan a busy itinerary on days they stay at ryokan.
Ryokan are something of an attraction onto themselves. The rooms are quaint and relaxing. There are common areas where you can hang out. It's nice to take a stroll in the ryokan's garden. Breakfast and dinner are elaborate time consuming events. Everyone goes to the onsen bath three times a day. The rest of the time people spend relaxing or drinking beer in their rooms.
If you plan to see 7 temples a day — your ryokan's schedule can get in the way. Ryokan are expensive for their meals and onsen. If you miss these things you're wasting your travel budget.
2. Food is ImportantGood ryokan often serve elaborate kaiseki meals that might cost 15,000 ~ 40,000 yen per person at a restaurant. In other words, much of your room rate is going towards the included meals.
When comparing ryokan it's just as important to compare the meal plans as the rooms themselves.
3. Private Shower and BathSome ryokan don't have a private shower and bathtub in rooms. In such cases, you must cleanse yourself in common bathing areas. For most customers, this isn't a big deal since they plan to visit the onsen regularly anyway. Rooms normally have a private toilet.
4. Private OnsenRyokan rooms with private onsen are pricey but often worth the experience. Some ryokan also have private onsen available for rent by the hour.
5. Old BuildingsRyokan located in historical buildings can be charming. Keep in mind that they often have very thin walls. It's sometimes possible to hear every breath next door.
6. Mega Ryokan versus Small RyokanMega Ryokan are large resort type lodgings. They may have multiple onsen, bars, cafes, restaurants, game rooms, karaoke and concert halls with nightly performances.
Small ryokan are quieter. The type of establishment where you get to know people.
7. Off The Beaten PathFar too many international tourists are focused on the Tokyo-Hakone-Kyoto travel circuit. Japan has 47 prefectures and all of them have excellent ryokan. Many prefectures are within easy reach of Tokyo and Kyoto due to Japan's excellent shinkansen train system. Domestic flights in Japan are generally convenient and inexpensive.
8. Ryokan AlternativesRyokan are not the only unique type of lodging in Japan. Onsen hotels have many of the features of a ryokan such as Japanese style rooms.
Pensions are Japanese Bread & Breakfast that have western style rooms. They may offer onsen, meals and unique rooms.
Minshuku are Japanese Bread & Breakfast that have Japanese style rooms.