One of the easiest ways to try out Japanese cultural experiences is staying at authentic Japanese accommodation.
Japan’s traditional inns are more than just a place to sleep at. They are also where you can experience the life of Japanese people through tasting local food, putting on yukata clothing and sleeping on futon bedding and through interacting with the people working at these facilities.
Here are the 4 types of authentic Japanese accommodation that I recommend if you want to experience an authentic Japanese cultural experience.
Ryokan is a traditional inn with an onsen.
Onsen refers to a public bathing facility using natural hot spring water, which is great for your health. In addition to the health benefits, it makes your skin soft and smooth and it gives a great relaxation effect, especially if you soak in the outdoor bath that’s surrounded by nature.
Good onsen ryokan usually have an inside bath as well as an outdoor bath called Roten Buro. Some onsen ryokan have a private bath so you can book such a facility if you’re not comfortable with the concept of the public bath.
Japan has the biggest number of onsen hot springs in the world and onsen places are all across Japan. As you could imagine, good onsen ryokan are located close to the source of onsen hot springs, so they are usually situated in remote places or often away from big cities.
The other feature for onsen ryokan is that two meals are usually included in your accommodation fee.
In the evening, you’ll get a kaiseki course meal with multiple small dishes ranging from sashimi to grilled to steamed food plus a bowl of soup, rice and pickled vegetables. These small dishes will be served one by one so you can take time to appreciate beautifully presented food and the taste of each dish.
A variety of seasonal and regional ingredients are used in the kaiseki cuisine so their menu changes depending on the times of the year. Also, the menu is structured in a way that you’ll have a healthy and balanced meal by having all the small dishes.
In the morning, you’ll have a Japanese-style breakfast, which consists of small plates of food such as grilled fish, a small hot pot, eggs and seaweed, as well as a bowl of rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables.
So, you’ll get to experience Japanese full course meals both in the morning and evening, which is a great advantage of staying at a ryokan.
For high-end ryokan, their facilities are like an art museum. You’ll find flower arranging in the lobby, have a welcome Japanese tea served when arriving, and get to watch a theatrical performance at night.
For most cases, you’ll be staying in a tatami mat floored room with futon bedding. You’ll be served by a dedicated hostess and she will be preparing your bedding while you are having dinner. Nowadays, some ryokan have rooms with a western-style bed too.
One thing to note for onsen ryokan is that typically the price for one person is set based on double occupancy so if you are travelling on your own, you would need to pay extra to secure a room for yourself.
Minshuku is usually operated by a family who lives inside the same house you’ll be staying at or the next door building.
Two meals are included as part of the packaged fee. Compared to the kaiseki cuisine that’s often served at ryokan, at minshuku, you’ll have home-made dishes using vegetables from the home garden or other ingredients produced in the region.
Minshuku are usually found in a rural area so you would have a chance to try fresh edible wild plants especially in the springtime, which is a unique local experience of the Japanese countryside.
Bathrooms and toilets are shared and the amenities are minimal. What's provided are a toothbrush, bath towels and cotton kimono that can be used as room wear as well as pyjamas.
Each room will be tatami mat flooring and you would have futon bedding to sleep on.
Compared to customer service-focused ryokan, you would find minshuku a homey place as many Japanese would describe it as “grandma's house” in the countryside.
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Shukubo is a temple lodging that’s located within the temple grounds.
What’s unique about Shukubo is that you can experience a religious ceremony at the Buddhist altar in the early morning, which is a precious opportunity that only guests who stay at Shukubo can participate in. You get a chance to listen to monks chanting sutras and hear some of the Buddhist teachings directly from the chief monk.
Two meals are usually included in the packaged fee and oftentimes these meals are the so-called Shojin Ryori cuisine, which is cooked using only vegetables and soybean-based products.
At some temples, monks will be taking care of your meals and futon bedding. At other places, you would be served by the wife of the chief priest.
Shukubo were originally constructed as lodging for monks who stayed for religious training so they are often located in sacred mountains or they function as the training centre in some cases.
Nowadays, there are Shukubo that are purely for leisure travellers, so some are providing very good customer service like ryokan usually do.
4. Business Hotels
Business hotels are usually located in cities.
As the name suggests, Japan’s so-called business hotels were originally developed for Japanese business people who travelled around different parts of Japan, so they are more affordable than big global hotels, as they keep costs down by providing only essential services.
Some hotels introduce a self-check-in and check-out system, while others don’t provide amenities in their rooms, so you have to take whatever amenities you need at the reception area and bring these to your room by yourself.
In addition to business travellers, business hotels are attracting leisure travellers too.
Some of the business hotels are providing extra services such as complimentary breakfast and public bath using an onsen hot spring. Some of them even have different types of bath tabs like a jet bath and outdoor bath.
Rooms for business hotels may be rather small and so is the bathroom. Many locals would use a public bath to stretch their legs and get a bit of a different experience than simply taking a shower in their room.
For instance, some hotels provide the latest hairstyling tools and skincare products in the public bath area. Others might have complimentary drinks and dessert like ice cream.
Rooms at business hotels that are recently built are very functional and so you may not be bothered too much by the size of the room.
Staying at a business hotel is also a part of the Japanese experience, as locals, especially young generations, are more used to the western-style facilities than traditional ones. I feel combining business hotels with the other 3 choices will give you a full perspective of the Japanese lifestyle.
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