Where to stay in Japan: a guide to Ryokan & Shukubo, traditional guesthouses

April 13, 2016

Posted in  Asia, Experiences, Hotel & Accommodation, Japan, Travel Tips, Travelogues

In this guide, I’ll share plenty of handy tips on understanding what these guesthouses are, why they are must-dos, how they’re different, and finish off with a first-hand account of my personal experience at one of each type of guesthouse. Whoopee!

As most people who know me will tell you, I’ve had a long-standing love affair with Japan. Ever since pre-pubescent me stumbled across the anime Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s been one of my favourite places in the world for her fascinating culture, beautiful landscapes and mind-blowingly good food.

So of course I had to eschew the typical hotel and hostels and have a go at more traditional forms of guesthouses. This is how on a recent trip that covered Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, I made sure my itinerary included a stay at both a Ryokan and a Shubuko along the way.

First,  let’s begin with the basics: pronunciation!

1. How to pronounce Ryokan and Shukubo

Whilst Shukubo is relatively straight-forward (Shoo-koo-boh), ‘Ryokan’ is tricky because ‘R’s aren’t at all pronounced the same way in English. It’s a bit like the R and L sound slurred together.

Here’s a handy audio clip:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DB-ThzZiagY]

2. Everything you need to know about a Japanese Ryokan

What is a Ryokan and what makes them so special?

Ryokans are traditional guesthouses in Japan, and though they come in many forms, common characteristics include their rustic architecture, impeccable service and exquisite food. If you’ve ever seen an episode of anime or a samurai movie, you’ve probably seen a Ryokan getting destroyed in a fight scene at some point.

It’s normal for you to sleep on the floor in a traditional guesthouse in Japan but don’t worry, the futon is very comfortable. Also, while onsens (public hotspring baths) have often been depicted as integral to the Ryokan experience, not all Ryokans have onsens, so make sure to check if that’s what you’re after.

Traditional-styled Japanese guesthouse with lots of greenery around
The impressive exterior of the ryokan I spent a night in

How much does a Ryokan cost?

The price range of Ryokans is comparable to hotels, ranging from the equivalent of a one-star to a five-star fee. There are therefore options for the budgets of most travellers.

Where can you find Ryokan accommodation to stay at?

Ryokans can be found all over Japan; where ever you are, it’s likely you’ll be able to locate a guesthouse close by. This is especially true in hot spring areas like Hakone, and you also sometimes find ones conveniently situated in the city center as you will see in Tokyo, or a little way out for more space and quiet, as in the case of my stay.

Okay, I’m sold. How can I book a Ryokan stay in Japan?

This is the website I used for locating and securing a booking at a Japanese Ryokan. Note however that you should book in advance, as many Ryokans have limited guest rooms. You may also have to pay in cash at some places.
Book a Ryokan on Japanican

The Ryokan I stayed at was Amami Onsen Nanten-en, on the outskirts of Osaka (or an additional hour if from Kyoto). Read on for a more detailed review of my stay.

But wait. The title of this post did suggest some kind of comparison would occur to this other kind of traditional guesthouse that can only be found in Japan: the Shukubo.

3. Everything you need to know about a Japanese Shukubo

What is a Shukubo and what makes them so special?

Sometimes spelt as Shokubo, Shukubos are monk-run inns usually situated on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. During their stay, visitors are treated to a brief immersion in temple life. While comfortable and frequently in beautiful, traditional settings, you can’t expect Ryokan-level service but you can expect warm hospitality.

Food-wise, Shukubos typically serve “Shojin-Ryori” (Buddhist Monk vegetarian meals) and often invite guests to attend morning prayers. Some even have onsens!

Japanese bento laid out on lacquer ware, upon tatmi mats in a Japanese guesthouse.
This was an EXTREMELY delish meal served at the Shukubo I stayed at – yes, it was all veg.

Where can you find Shukubo accommodation to stay at?

Not all temples will offer visitors a place to stay. If you are in Kyoto or Osaka, Mount Koya is a short train ride away and is a great place to spend the night in a Shukubo. A mountain that is considered one of Japan’s most sacred, Koyasan has a large concentration of such guesthouses, and the public transport system to these inns is very organized with many being marked out on the visitor maps.

Koyasan itself is worth spending the night for. Aside from gorgeous mountain terrain and a myriad of temples, you’ll find plenty of things to do such as visiting the Okunoin cemetery. Far from being a creepy graveyard, the cemetary is a scenic and beautiful place that houses monuments to many famous historic figures, including one of my favourite haiku poets Matsuo Bassho.

Snowy path through a cemetery, tall trees block the sky
The peaceful Okunoin cemetery of Koyasan with its towering Cypress trees

Okay, I’m sold. How much does a Shukubo cost and how can I book a stay?

I was able to book a Shukubo through this website, and most range from around 7000Y (SGD $85) to 20,000Y (SGD $245) ++ a night. Bear in mind that you may need to pay for your room in cash at some places.
Book a Shukubo with Japaneseguesthouses.com

The Shukubo I stayed at was Muryoko-in at Koyasan, an easy train ride away from Osaka; read on for a more detailed review of my stay.  

4. The Ryokan experience

Staying at a Ryokan, Amami Onsen Nanten-en
Address: Amami 158, 586-0062 Kawachinagano
Website: http://www.e-oyu.com/en/nantentop.html
Rooms from approx Y15,000 (SGD $184)
We paid Y32,700 (SGD $400) for 1 night, 2 pax including meals and taxes

Amami Onsen Nanten-en is a charming guesthouse with a grand total of 13 rooms, an onsen, an expansive garden and even an outdoor pool that is open during the Summer months (July to August). This guesthouse has been around since 1913, and came to be considered a cultural property of the country in 2003. The nostalgia of Japan from yesteryears is very much still alive here, and the sense of traditions preserved is apparent from the moment you step inside. You know you’re going to receive the very best of Japanese hospitality here.

Here’s a video that takes you around the guesthouse:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_ixM6aD7tc]

The ryokan’s location on the outskirts of Osaka guarantees seclusion from any kind of city bustle (it is, in the words of the website, in a “rustic” area with no restaurants or convenience stores in close proximity). This was the perfect place to unwind and recharge. I found perfect contentment wiling away the hours with slow walks around the garden and attempting to chat with mature ladies in the onsen using what little Japanese I had learnt from years of watching anime. Thankfully, the public baths are segregated by gender (not all onsens are).

A road by the river, a red bridge across it
The area Nanten-en is situated in – truly “rustic”

Whilst the service was top-notch, rivalling any Hilton or Ritz Carlton you may have been to, the point that stood out most for me was the food at Nanten-en. With a menu that changes with seasonal offerings, you can expect to enjoy meals prepared with the freshest of ingredients. I arrived at 5pm (check-in is at 3pm) and left after breakfast the next day, and was genuinely devastated that I wasn’t able to have more meals.

Kaiseiki dish, with prawn and other seafood
The one dish that stayed around long enough to get it’s photo taken

With absolutely no bias involved, I daresay the Kaiseki dinner (12 course menu) I had here was the best meal I have ever had in my 25 years of life.

Top tips for staying at Amami Onsen Nanten-en:

Do indulge in the Kaiseki dinner. Go full-out and get the full menu. Every. single. course. is unspeakably delicate and created with the greatest care to deliver a subtle, well-balanced dish using only the best ingredients. It was the hallmark of exquisite Japanese cuisine. Till today I still dream of that meal. Sigh.

For the more energetic, I recommend you plan a day trip out if you wish to spend a longer time here – and a longer stay is highly recommended, if only to have more meals to partake in at Nanten-en. Mount Koya is only one hour away by train, for example.

Also, there is a certain code of conduct to follow when visiting a Ryokan, and especially when using the onsen or public baths. You’ll find this retro video very useful for the necessary knowledge to avoid offending anyone on your holiday.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf9Gum9Bc8k]

Getting there:

Alight at Amami Train Station on the Nankai Koya Line, which is only 40 minutes away from Osaka’s Namba Train Station. Nanten-en is a 2 minute stroll from the station. The guesthouse is also accessible from Kyoto, which is an hour away via Shinkansen from Osaka.

5. The Shukubo experience

Staying at a Shukubo, Muryoko-in
Address: 611 Koyasan, Koya, Ito District, Wakayama Prefecture 648-0211, Japan
Website: http://muryokoin.org/int/
Beds from Y5,400
We paid Y20,572 (SGD $250) for 1 night, 2 pax including meals and taxes

I arrived at Muryoko-in in Winter, expecting a very simple, no-frills experience having just left my super-luxe Ryokan. After all, this was run by monks, a special kind of people who had renounced all forms of temptations including meat. Hesitation be gone, for I was blown away.

Entrance leading into a temple guesthouse inn on Koyasan
The entrance of Muryoko-in

The inn itself is beautiful, and you will find the Muryoko temple listed as one of Koyasan’s ‘places to visit’. Built in the style of traditional wooden architecture, there was also a small zen garden that automatically puts you in a contemplative mood. The monks are attentive, everyone spoke English, the wifi was great and the food was very tasty and filling. Even a family of butchers will find nothing to complain about.

Traditional wooden panelling and flooring of the inn
A peep at the interior of the inn

The highlight of the stay, heck, of my entire trip, was attending morning prayers and being invited to have tea and snacks with the head monks after. Morning prayers with the fire ceremony started at 5am and lasted an hour, a heady session of chanting and incense in semi-darkness. I was asked to pay my respects to sacred statues, so if you aren’t comfortable with this, you may want to let the monk know.

Here’s a video of the fire ceremony and morning prayers:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–A-5Dxmf74]

Following the prayers, we were then invited to have an audience with the head monk, a privilege I was not expecting. I sat in with a group of six others during the tea session, and although no one really spoke english, language was not a problem as one of the monks was able to navigate English, Japanese and Chinese flawlessly. Thanks to the monks and their gentle jokes, there was an amazing ambience of comfort and closeness between strangers that is hard to describe.

Top tips for staying at Muryoko-in:

Please attend the morning prayers, if only to speak with these wonderful, wonderful monks.

I went up to Muryoko-in Inn in late December when Mt Koya is coldest (-3 in the day when I was there) – this was, admittedly, not the best of ideas. A portable heater was provided in the room, but it was far from sufficient. At bedtime, I was wrapped in three layers plus the quilts! The worst part was leaving the room, as there was absolutely no heating anywhere else. You can imagine the idea of bathing didn’t inspire much enthusiasm.

Japanese garden blanketed with snow
Though cold, I must admit Muryoko-in is quite the stunner during Winter

I would recommend going in a warmer season, or else just be prepared with layered clothing and wet wipes! Not that big a deal, really, considering you won’t be sweating much in the Winter.

Getting there:

Mount Koya is easily accessible from both Osaka and Kyoto. Getting to the inn once at the mountain is incredibly simple. After you leave the cable car, you end up at a big bus depot. Ask any station attendants for a map (they’ll be able to speak flawless English) and Muryoko-inn will be marked out along with which bus to take.

Here’s a video showing how to get to Koyasan; gotta love the views:[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l30N2az7FJI]
Found this post useful? You may be interested in local experiences with volunteer guides in Japan and more on the Japanese Sakura season.

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  1. What an original experience! I love the graveyard shot! After my visit to the Pere Lachaise in Paris, I really changed my opinions about cemeteries. I don’t find them scary or boring anymore. I felt the same way as you were – very peaceful!

    1. Oh my… It’s been a looong time since your comment, but I’m going to reply anyway in case it’s still useful information.

      I’ve never rented, but know friends who have. One thing to note is that you’ll need an international license to do so! I’m from Singapore, and my license is accepted in most countries, but I would need to apply for a specific ‘international’ one for Japan.

  2. It’s very useful and nice article. Since I will be in Koyasan in the next winter. Can not wait to try to stay overnight in the shukubo.
    By the way, because of my religion, is it okay if I refuse to pay a respect to their sacred statue? Though I still respect to their way of life.

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