Having been to Japan twice now and slept in various Ryokans and Guest Houses I have a better understanding of what to expect from staying in a Japanese Ryokan.
First you have to consider your price range. Are you staying in a hostel ryokan or a more expensive ryokan? The quality and expectations can vary drastically. Are you staying there for the experience or are you staying there just for a place to stay?
Guesthouse Kyoto Compass – was lovely
When I was in Osaka there was only two single rooms open in a hostel that weren’t a budget breaker. The only other hotels what were available in Osaka were way to expensive even divided by two people so Aaron and I cut our loses and booked the two single bedrooms in the hostel. That’s what you get for booking a spontaneous trip to Japan during high season leaving yourself only two weeks to find a place to stay.
Neither of us were impressed with the rooms.
They were small, closet room small, and the bedding worn down to the floor. Rice pillows were given for each room and a small fridge and table. That was the extent. I expected this only because I had stayed in something similar on my first trip to Japan; Aaron had not.
Being 6’3 in a country built for people my height he couldn’t even fit on the mat without his feet falling off. We dragged his mat into my room in hopes of extra padding between us and the floor but when you’re sleeping on something that hard anyways your back is going to hurt. Not to mention tiny rice pillows to sleep on.
It was uncomfortable but it was doable. For me. If you’re expecting the rooms to be like the ones you see on TV or internet then you’ll be disappointed. Most cheap hostels are barren and are only for sleeping purposes. The bedding will most likely be worn and your pillow will most likely be hard. Not a comfortable or restful sleep but that’s what you paid for.
When you’re staying at nicer places like guest houses or proper ryokans your experience can be greatly improved. We stayed in a lovely guest house in Kyoto and I thought it was fantastic. The mat was firm but still had some squish and the pillows were soft. The room itself was much larger and worth the amount of money we spent on it.
We also got a small tea room facing the garden. Aaron on the other hand thought the room looked great but wasn’t impressed with the bedding either. When you’re used to a big fluffy bed nothings going to stray you away from that as a comparison.
We also got a chance to stay on Mount Koya, a Buhhdist town, ( read more about that here) in a traditional ryokan room and it was much the same as the guest house. Big room, mats and pillows with sliding doors and low table settings. There was also a shared washroom and bath house with warm spring water that guest were welcome to use. It was comfortable and traditional and a great experience.
So what can you expect?
It really depends on where you’re staying and how much you are willing to spend. I recommend spending the extra money and spending a few nights at a nice traditional ryokan style place instead of going for a cheap one and that being your impression of them. The two are not comparable. Cheap ryokans are just that, a mat and a pillow in a small room. The more expensive ones are a bigger mat and pillow in a bigger nicer room.
I love staying at ryokans simply because I love the Japanese culture and it makes me feel like I’m in another world. So if you want authentic experience opt for a better room but if you want to do Japan on the cheap and don’t really care about quality then go for whatever’s in your budget.