One of our favourite cultural experiences as a family while visiting Japan was staying in a traditional ryokan. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that vary from humble and family owned to the five star variety. The best part is the traditional experience that is weaved into your stay ensuring you are fully immersed in the customs and tranquility of Japanese culture and the surrounding village. This style of accommodation is like stepping into another world that is part bed and breakfast, part spa, and part Japanese lifestyle. If you're sick of sightseeing or adventure activities during your holiday, book your family a ryokan stay and relax and unwind together.
If you've visited a typical Japanese home you'll know that many still live in a very traditional way. Homes are adorned with minimalist tatami floors, convenient futon bedding, shoji sliding screens separating living spaces, and meals are eaten on a low table while seated on the traditional flooring. Ryokans embrace this style of design and brands, such as Hoshinoya, are even able to fuse the centuries old style with modern luxury for a decadent ryokan experience. Our children loved our tatami rooms and living in true Japanese style. Tatami floors and futon bedding are incredibly family friendly, toddler safe, and leave plenty of floor space to bond and play. We actually found it more suitable for young children than traditional western style beds and tables.
- Common Spaces
The common spaces in ryokans are where guests can find serenity and enjoy the ambiance of the property. Ryokans that are set in nature will feature Japanese gardens, outdoor baths, and tranquil lounges where you can enjoy tea ceremonies, read books, or engage in art activities. The spaces are quiet and intimate and aren't encouraged for loud socializing.
- Traditional Dress
Ryokans also provide yukatas (Japanese robes) and slippers so you can dress in the customary style while staying at the inn. These comfortable garments can be worn throughout the property, even to dinners at the restaurant. Some guesthouses will have different yukatas for wearing within your room, around the property, and cozy linen pyjamas that are placed on your bed as sleepwear. Family friendly ryokans will have these in all sizes and even a winter friendly outer layer for colder months. They aren't mandatory but add the to the fun experience and make for the best photos.
Policies differ from each ryokan, but shoes should always be removed when walking on tatami flooring. Some guesthouses will require you to remove your shoes at the front entrance and they will be placed in a locker or shelf which you can access when you wish to go outdoors. The rest of the stay you will wear slippers around the property. It is customary to remove shoes before entering your guest room and dining room. Staff are always informative and kind if you aren't aware of the rules, so it is best to take their lead. Our children rarely wear shoes in a ryokan and generally wear slippers throughout their stay.
Staying in a ryokan is a tranquil experience where people go to relax and escape. Some ryokans only allow adults or are geared towards couples but most will allow children. It would still be frowned upon to hear incessant noise, especially late at night. It's not a place to bring friends for a big party. Out of respect it is best to be quiet after the dinner service.
Unlike hotels with 24 hour room service and all day dining restaurants ryokans work on a regimented schedule. Check-in usually takes place before 6pm and meals are served at the same time each day. Breakfast usually has a two hour window and dinner will start at the same time for all guests. The chefs prepare an intricate meal service so each course is served to their guests in unison. The schedule worked well for our children as it follows an earlier dinner seating and although a little inconvenient to not have food at the snap of your fingers, we loved fully immersing in the experience.
Ryokans are often located in hot springs towns and many have their own onsens. Onsen etiquette could be a book in itself, but are generally separated by male and female, bathing suits are not allowed, and you must shower before entering the public onsen. Tattoos must be covered and long hair should be tied up. Many love this relaxing ritual and praise the beauty and health benefit of Japanese onsen water. There are a number of ryokans that will have private onsens in your room as well as special booking times for families who want a private bathing slot.
- One of the most enjoyable experiences while staying at a ryokan is the dining experiences. You will be able to sample traditional Japanese meals which are created from local and seasonal produce. The chefs are intricate with each dish and the presentation and dining service is a true cultural experience. The breakfasts usually include a bento box full of different pickles, salad, omelette, and a single slice of grilled fish all to be paired with delicate steamed rice and fragrant miso soup. For dinner you are treated to a multi course food journey. Depending on the ryokan you have booked dinner can be a Michelin star affair or mouthwatering home cooking. The price of the meals are included in the stay, and everyone dines according to the ryokan's schedule. They also cater to children and will have toddler and child friendly bento boxes that are as cute as they are delicious.
Family Friendly Ryokans in Japan:
- Kai Nikko
KAI Nikko is a quiet and beautiful getaway set on picturesque Lake Chuzengi. The inviting and traditional hotel features spacious, authentic ryokan rooms perfect for families. We loved our gigantic plush mattresses, a private invigorating onsen bathtub, and a welcoming lounge area facing unforgettable views of the lake and Mount Nantai. Each guest, including our children, received yakuta to wear around the property and we were able to enjoy the calm and healing outdoor onsens in traditional fashion. Dining was delicious with warming and comforting Japanese breakfasts and a kaiseki dinner experience for the whole family. We loved their dedication to local art and performances allowing us to learn about the surrounding village and it’s culture.
- Kai Hakone
Hakone, famed for it’s therapeutic onsens and only a short train journey from Tokyo, is a popular destination for visitors who crave rest and relaxation. We loved KAI Hakone’s secluded and luxurious property located along Sukumo River. The spacious and traditional ryokan rooms boasted separate lounges, tatami sleeping areas, deep bathtubs, and beautiful terraces overlooking the peaceful river and natural surroundings. Each of KAI Hakone’s semi-open baths feature views of Mt Yusaka and distinct calming sounds of the river. The grounds were always quiet and tranquil allowing us to fully unwind and feel miles away from the crowds and tourist.
Family Friendly Ryokans in the USA:
- Ten Thousand Waves
Can't make it to Japan? Try the ultimate ryokan experience at Ten Thousand Waves located in Santa Fe. Immersed in the beautiful landscape the property offers luxury accommodation with Japanese touches, an on site spa, outdoor hot tubs, and an izakaya restaurant. It doesn't follow all ryokan etiquette and style but does have enough Japanese flair, minimalist design, and hot springs surrounded by nature to feel like you've travelled to Japan for a serene and tranquil retreat.