Here’s What Hotels Around The World Can Learn From Japanese Ryokans

11/07/2022 | By Todd Plummer

As with many words in Japanese, the translation of omotenashi means one thing, but the actual meaning goes much deeper. Omotenashi, or “hospitality,” is an all-encompassing approach to service while expecting nothing in return. It’s about anticipating your guests needs and serving with precise attention to detail. Japanese hospitality is as legendary as couture is to France or wine is to Italy—it’s part of the fabric of the country’s identity, and part of the reason that you go.

In a country that offers such an unending array of new experiences for a Western traveler like myself, few stand out as clearly in my memory as experiencing omotenashi firsthand at a ryokan, a form of a traditional inn. Found all over Japan, they can range from independent, family-operated inns with just a few guest rooms, to larger, institutional ryokans with hotel-like facilities in the hearts of major cities. Popular with tourists as well as locals, ryokans offer an immersive glimpse of authentic Japanese culture—and no matter where you experience a ryokan, you can count on extraordinary hospitality every step of the way.

As soon as I arrived at my particular ryokan in Kyoto—and as soon as I was gently instructed to leave my outdoor shoes outdoors, something which never really occurred to me back home—the experience was nothing short of transporting. By the time I checked out a few days later, it was clear to me that hotels around the world could stand to learn a thing or two from Japan’s iconic ryokans.

The Ambiance Is Next Level
There’s a real sense of serenity at ryokans. Even in the heart of bustling Kyoto, I felt at peace. Wooden doors slide gently into place, tatami mats and paper walls muffle noise, and even if your ryokan doesn’t boast enormous outdoor space, the windows typically frame some sort of small, tranquil garden which feels worlds away from the city streets outside your door. There’s no sense of being rushed, and no sense that you need to speak above anything louder than a gentle murmur. Guests at ryokans are typically asked to leave their outdoor shoes by the entryway and slip into a clean pair of socks, as well as don a casual yukata robe around the premises.

It’s hard to compare the ambiance of a Japanese ryokan to an American hotel, the two experiences being as different as apples and oranges, but the next time I’m standing in line waiting to check in at a loud, echoey Las Vegas hotel lobby, I’m going to close my eyes and remember all the beautifully quiet moments I enjoyed during my stay at a Japanese ryokan.

Onsens Are Unequivocally Awesome
Due to the country’s volcanic landscape, there is a deep tradition in Japan of onsen, or hot springs, and most ryokans include some sort of onsen access, whether it’s a communal pool or a private onsen enjoyed directly in the seclusion of your room. And while the onsen of today are run through water heater and filtration systems and not simply tapped like magic out of the earth, these hot springs are still very much a far cry from the jacuzzis and hot springs you encounter in the Western world.

During my ryokan stay, I couldn’t get enough of my room’s private onsen. It was all the things I love about hot springs with none of the chaos. First of all, Japan has strict regulations about cleaning onsen and monitoring the safety of the water. Chlorine, if used at all, is limited to a fraction of the amount you find in public pools in North America. Skin irritation is nonexistent, and there is no overpowering chemical smell. Second, onsen is a time to rest and relax. You won’t find children playing football over your head, and voices in public onsen almost never rise above a gentle whisper. The onsen found in ryokans are a spa-like experience, a place to relax and reflect.

Multifunctional Spaces
This might feel a little specific, but guest quarters in a ryokan are typically used as a sleeping space at night, and as a lounge or perhaps a dining space during the day. Guests sleep on foldable futons which are stowed away by the staff after you wake up, and carefully set up each evening in time for bed. In recent years, Western hotels have been catching onto this trend of turning hotel rooms into multifunctional spaces for day visitors or remote workers, but ryokans have long understood the importance of having an economy of space.

Overall, It’s About How Good Hospitality Makes You Feel
Ultimately, there are certain parts of any travel experience that will never stand the test of time. Some things like the thread count of sheets or how many bottles of wine a hotel has in its cellar may impress in the moment—but it’s how an accommodation made us feel that we remember most. At a Japanese ryokan, the sense of hospitality and welcoming is unparalleled.

I remember stepping into that ryokan in Kyoto, and I was greeted with a deep, respectful bow, then offered some tea and snacks. From that moment, it was the same woman who greeted me, organized my check-in, served my meals and was on hand to ensure I was comfortable throughout my stay. We hardly spoke the same language, but by the end of my stay, there was a sense of familiarity and comfort that made me feel truly at ease. In Western hotels, a different member of staff handles every aspect of the guest experience, which may be efficient, but in comparison can feel impersonal. At a ryokan, a much smaller team—sometimes even a single person—handles every aspect of your stay, which really conveys that your hosts are both invested in and willing to take responsibility for giving you the best experience possible.

In the end, where you stay on a trip is directly responsible for coloring how you experience your destination. And having experienced Japan’s ryokans first hand, I can unequivocally say that I can’t imagine truly experiencing Japan without experiencing its most iconic form of accommodations.