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Japan Luxury Ryokans - A Primer + Impressions

Japan Luxury Ryokans - A Primer + Impressions

Old Sep 21, 22, 5:46 am
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Japan Luxury Ryokans - A Primer + Impressions

We've had a second home in Japan for quite some time, but during the pandemic we spent the better part of 2 years living here and traveling the country, exploring many iconic locations without the crowds (we visited every single prefecture during this period), and staying at some the best ryokans (and some hotels) that the country has to offer - 80 to be exact.

Takefue's private Onsen bath, "Chikujo No Ma"

Despite being as Japanese as we are Americans, I still continue to be astounded by the incredible attention to detail, from the ornate fashion (including Kimonos) to seasonal Bonsai and Ikebana arrangements to the Omotenashi hospitality to the delicate cuisine. Many of these aspects are central to the ryokan ethos. Now that Japan is finally opening up to individual travelers, I figured that now is a good time to share some of our experiences staying at many top ryokans. But first I'll start by briefly explaining what a ryokan is, and what it is not.

What is a Ryokan?

Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto

There are purported to be over 50,000 traditional inns, which are known in Japan as ryokans. While there are no hard and fast rules on what defines a ryokan, the majority of them are small hotels with wooden outer panels, traditional Japanese architecture and decor, minimal furnishings, water gardens, guest shoes that come off at the entrance, soft tatami-matted (a woven, straw textile wrapped around a springy, rice-filled core) rooms, gourmet kaiseki (traditional Japanese) cuisine, wooden baths (usually with Hinoki cedar wood), and - in many but not all ryokans - natural mineral hot spring baths known as Onsen, with quite a few luxury properties offering in-room Onsen baths.

View of the Japanese garden, pond and Noh stage from the 2F Moegi Suite at Asaba Ryokan in Shuzenji, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture

The other aspect that differentiates ryokans is that the experience is much more than the accommodation itself. The more "authentic" ryokans do a wonderful job in showcasing the traditional local craftsmen and artisans - their works are proudly on display, whether it's a hanging scroll on the wall, an intricate flower arrangement, a ceramic piece, beautiful kimonos, and locally-designed plates and bowls during meals. They really are meant to show off the best that the local area has to offer and serves to help preserve the traditional industries of Japan. Finally, ryokans are where you'll really get to see the Omotenashi spirit in action - the top ones truly represent the pinnacle in Japanese hospitality.

ryugon - Minamiunonuma, Niigata Prefecture

The same thing goes for food. While it's true that Kaiseki is a traditional, multi-course Japanese meal that often consists of sashimi, clear soup, simmered dish, fried dish, grilled dish, steamed dish, rice/miso/soup/pickled vegetable dish and dessert (among others), often served in a common order, the contrast in the ingredients, presentation and execution is stark, depending on the location and season that you visit. And you often won't get the chance to try some of the dishes without actually visiting the region (and in some cases, the ryokans there themselves.) The seasonality of ingredients like fish, rice, vegetables and fruits also leads to major variations, meaning that a kaiseki dinner at the same ryokan will be a completely different experience should you visit in October and then May. Whether it's Wagyu beef or Strawberries, Japan generally prioritizes quality when breeding, rather than volume, size or even resistance to diseases. If you've ever tried Shine Muscat grapes, Beni Hoppe Strawberries or Kumamoto's Ozaki Beef, you'll be in for an tasting experience that will astound you. When it comes to breakfast, most ryokans offer both Japanese and Western options. Since you're already staying at a ryokan to get the complete Japan experience, I highly recommend everyone stick with the "Wafu" (Japanese-style) breakfast. Not only are they awesome, but there's only so much innovation that can happen when the staple Western breakfast diet is toast, fruit, eggs, yogurt, juice and coffee Some top ryokans focus on Japanese-European "fusion" cuisine, which is also awesome; if you haven't tried this style of meal, rest assured that the combination of Japanese ingredients and flavors with French or Italian influences is a match made in heaven.

The first of 12 courses at Gosho Gekkoju in Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto Prefecture

Among the other unique aspects are the Yukata (Japanese-style robes - not to be confused with Kimono) that are offered (to borrow, not keep), primarily to get to the Onsen baths as well as to wear in the room and during meals. However, many people wear the Yukata throughout their entire stay on property, and quite a few will keep them on when venturing out of the property. This is particularly common in major Onsen towns like Arima, Kinosaki, Kurokawa, Ginzan and Kusatsu Onsen.


In-room open-air Onsen bath at Atamiso in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture

One of the highlights of any ryokan stay is the Onsen experience. Onsens get their water from geothermically-heated springs, with different compositions of minerals such as hydrogen, sulfur, iron, radium and sodium. Some are extremely pungent in odor, some are white while other are more clear or blue or even golden in color, and some have more slimy texture than others. Many Onsen ryokans offer a variety of Onsen experiences, such as expansive, communal baths that can either be indoors or outdoor "open-air" baths with views of a river, mountains, garden or valley, and are which are generally gender-segregated. Do note three things: First, you must wash yourself before entering the bath, and it's considered rude to let towels or your hair get into the tub. Secondly, bathing is generally a a naked experience - swimwear are almost never permitted, although most allow you to use a small modesty towel while walking to and from the bath. Finally, many ryokans (especially in rural areas) do not permit people with tattoos to use the communal bathing facilities; this stems from the association of tattoos with members of Japanese organized crime. This is slowly changing, however, with places like Kinosaki Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen recently completely abolishing the no-tattoo restriction in all communal baths. Outside of such places, for those that are adverse to soaking in the buff with strangers, or have tattoos, your best bet is to stay at a ryokan that has Onsen in the room, or one that offers private "family" baths that can be rented by (roughly) the hour. One final thing - just about all of the communal baths at ryokans are gender segregated, with the exception of ryokans at Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture.

While the communal Onsens are an experience not to be missed, most luxury travelers on this forum (and high-end Japanese visitors, too) will want the flexibility of being able to bathe in one's own room. Most top ryokans have suites with in-room Onsen. Most of these Onsens are of the "gensen kakenagashi" variety - this means the natural hot spring water comes directly from the original source and is continuously flowing (and overflowing), 24/7. Naturally, this is the most authentic, legitimate and desirable type of Onsen. We did, however, encounter some Onsens that were not free-flowing; you have to turn on the tap and wait for the bath to become full. This is a major hassle, and for those looking for the ability to jump into the Onsen on-demand, it's a hurdle that will serve as a real deterrent. Some of the finest ryokan suites have both indoor and outdoor Onsens, and this comes in really handy during the cold Winter months... the indoor Onsen is usually in the same indoor area as the shower, so that you can warm up before venturing outside and jumping into the open-air Onsen bath.

Tatami, and why shoes have to come off:

Tatami-floored living room in the Hagi Suite at Asaba Ryokan in Shuzenji, Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture

The main reason is simple: Almost nobody in Japan enters their own homes with their shoes on. It's considered disgusting and unhealthy. The other reason - at least for ryokans that have them - has to do with Tatamis. As explained earlier, Tatami is a mat used as flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms, especially in ryokans, and are usually made using rice straw at the core, and then woven with soft rush straws that form the covering. Shoes can easily damage Tatami, given their delicate nature, which is why you generally will not find large, heavy, Western style tables, chairs or beds in Tatami rooms either. Most luxury ryokans do not have Tatamis on every square inch of the room, but rather have a Tatami mat area that is typically considered as a "Japanese tea room" where there's a small coffee table and "Zabuton" mats to sit on (we usually find very little use for these areas.) If you are adverse to the idea of having to sit on a Tatami floor or sleeping on Futons, fear not: the vast majority of ryokans have many different room options, including Western-style rooms with real beds, a couch and even dining tables and chairs. Just make sure to do your research beforehand.

Among the ryokans that have an exception to the shoes-off rule are properties that are part of the Fufu luxury ryokan chain. They are unique in having guests keep their shoes on until they get to their room. On top of that, all rooms have real beds, Western sofas, more flexible meal times and Samue rather than Yukatas. Originally referred to work clothes worn by Japanese monks, today Samue are just as likely to be leisure wear. There are separate tops and bottoms (pants), and are more comfortable - but far less stylish - than most Yukatas.

Hiiragiya entrance inside walkway (Kyoto)

Other typical differences between ryokans and hotels:

- Generally, ryokans are have far less rooms than the typical hotels, with luxury properties generally ranging from 1 to 40 rooms total
- Ryokans tend to be family owned and run
- Ryokan room rates often include half board meals (dinner and breakfast)
- Facilities like gym and pool are usually non-existent
- Laundry service is not offered in the vast majority of ryokans
- Room service is typically not offered. This is generally not an issue, given that food volume at dinner is gut-busting, and many ryokans have light snacks in the room, while some of the finer ryokans also prepare things like "Onigiri" rice balls for a midnight snack
- Meal times are quite rigid - dinner start times typically range between 17:30 and 19:30, while breakfast is between 08:00 and 10:00, with some exceptions. While this stinks when you're in a touristy place like Nikko where you want to get an early jump on the top sites before the horde of package tourists arrive, some properties like Fufu Nikko offer breakfasts what a last order of 11:00, allowing you time to hit the hot spots at the crack of dawn, and return before the day trippers arrive. When it comes to dinner, I understand why the time range is so narrow - the meals really are extremely intricate, and having to craft each dish at different times for different guests is probably not very scalable.
- Outside of (foreign) tourist hotspots like Hakone, Nikko and Fuji Five Lakes, the staff at many ryokans will struggle to communicate in anything other than Japanese. Some folks appreciate the authenticity of such a place, whereas others will be annoyed when misunderstandings occur.
- Guests that are not staying at the ryokan are not permitted on site.
- The nightly rate is per person per night, rather than per room. This is quite typical of Japanese properties (even some hotels.) This has partly to due with meals being included in most rates.
- Most domestic travelers stay at a ryokan for no more than one night. This is mainly due to costs. Because of this, as well as the fact that it's quite easy to get to many top rural areas from Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, weekend bookings at ryokans can be a tall order (remember, many luxury ryokans have only a handful of rooms.)

Inner walkway at Yoyokaku in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture

In summary, ryokans - especially the best ones - are an experience in and of itself, whether it's exploring the gorgeous garden, marveling at the architecture, decor and artisinal works, lazing away in an Onsen bath, or enjoying a meal that will tickle your taste buds... all of it usually in an incredibly beautiful setting. While some of the nicer luxury hotels can provide some aspects of the ryokan experience, and are often more convenient with more facilities, they are much more of an "accommodation" property than anything else. Staying in a top ryokan is a full-on cultural experience that I recommend that every visitor to Japan do at least once - if you splurge on one thing during your time in Japan - and you believe that you can fully embrace the ryokan experience - it should be this. On the other hand, if you are the type that expects things to work in a similar way to a western-style luxury hotel and need every aspect of your stay tailored to your every whim, then you will most likely be disappointed.

We've stayed at hundreds of ryokans over the years, but will focus only on properties we've visited no more than 3 years ago. Note that my opinions are very subjective and - with few exceptions - we stayed at the top category room at each ryokan. Choosing different rooms can dramatically alter one's opinion, not unlike at standard luxury hotels.

Dry rock garden at Minamikan in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture

My Top 10 Ryokans Overall (in no particular order):

View from our Hagi suite room at Asaba Ryokan

Asaba (Shuzenji, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture) - 19 rooms total
A stylish and wonderfully serene ryokan located just off the center of Shuzenji town, Asaba is one of the most famous (and expensive) ryokans in all of Japan. The architecture is on the traditional side, but inside it's fresh and Japanese modern, with a nice scent emanating from the hinoki cedar wood and fresh tatami mats. The food is divine, service is extremely refined, the staff are gracious and graceful and the common areas are light, open and airy. Meals are served in one's room by a dedicated butler ("Nakai-san") - this is something that is quickly disappearing, most likely due to the country's labor shortage as a result of its rapidly greying demography (and the high cost of having so many employees on hand.) Most rooms face a spectacularly gorgeous garden that features a large pond and a Noh theater stage. The Noh stage is used for performances by famous Noh, Shamisen, and other traditional performers, with the year's upcoming calendar of performances published around mid-January. They book up FAST. One significant drawback - some of the rooms are small, and - unbefitting of a ryokan of such caliber - lack shower and bath facilities (only a toilet), so the only way to clean yourself is by visiting the communal bathing facilities. Avoid these rooms! If you want a view of the pond and Noh stage, and a private Onsen bath in your room, then Moegi is a great choice. If you don't need a view of the Noh stage, but instead prefer seclusion and an unbelievable garden outside your ground floor window, then Hagi is the one to get.

Fufu Luxury Premium Suite at Fufu Nikko

Fufu Nikko (Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture) - 24 rooms total
Fresh and new (opened on October, 2020), Fufu Nikko is far and away the top luxury ryokan in town. And you'll want to visit Nikko and stay here, because it's yet another spectacular property in Fufu's expanding portfolio. Their properties are more modern than traditional, the rooms are much more Western than Japanese, and staff are generally on the younger side. Fufu ryokans will likely satisfy those that prefer a more hotel-like experience. By ryokan standards, its vibe is one of youthful exuberance, without being pretentious. Shoes are allowed on premise, and every room offers Onsen baths. In fact, I don't know whether all Fufu properties even have a communal Onsen bath. Meals are served in their restaurant, although if you want to dine in one of the handful of Koshitsu (private dining rooms), you'll have to ask as soon as you check-in. They usually prioritize families and those that are staying in the higher category rooms. Service is less intimate, and they don't assign a butler for each guest, so the service level is a bit less personalized compared to what one would find in a smaller, family-run outfit. If you can swing it, definitely choose the Fufu Luxury Premium Suite. Fufu won't give you the same vibe as more traditional ryokans, but this is a good way to ease into the experience. Note: The RC Nikko is technically not in Nikko proper (where Tosho-gu Shrine is located), but located along the banks of Lake Chuzenji (and within walking distance to Kegon Falls) about 10 miles away. The RC is also quite new and is a good option if you want to visit the Falls and go on some beautiful hikes in the area. But if your primary purpose of visiting Nikko is to check out the phenomenal shrines (such as Tosho-gu), then definitely stay at Fufu Nikko - they're within walking distance to all three of the major ones.

Walkway to the main reception building of Takefue through a "rock gate" and a picturesque bamboo grove

Takefue's Shien-an room. Yes, there are 3 different Onsen baths visible in the picture (she's dipping her toes in the foot bath), for a grand total of 4 Onsens in the Suite!

Takefue (near Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto Prefecture) - 12 rooms total
Takefue stands for "Bamboo Flute," which is an appropriate name for a ryokan that is nestled within a bamboo grove about a 5 minute drive away from picturesque Kurokawa Onsen town. More than any other ryokan, Takefue is THE property that allows you to "get away from it all." This is the ryokan - above all others - that we could spend all day without itching to go out and explore the area. It's in a gorgeous setting, incredibly tranquil and exclusive (the property grounds are enormous and the rooms - especially the top category ones - are really spread out.) There are a ton of nooks and crannies, such as Onsen foot baths along the walkway, free local ice cream stations at various points, numerous outdoor sitting areas, including one located in a central area with spectacular views of a man-made pond and waterfall, which is especially photogenic in the evening when they light up the waterfall and the bamboo grove behind it. Takefue really offers bespoke experiences for each guest. You're assigned a Nakai-san that serves as a "real" butler - he/she will serve your meals, act as your local expert/concierge, book your private Onsen bath appointments (and escort you there at the right time) - basically anything you need, they'll be there for you. Upon check in, you'll be taken to an area where you can choose from many dozens of different (and stylish) Yukatas, and you can select multiple Yukatas to wear on different days (or different times of the day.) Although each room has its own Onsen bath (ours had FOUR different Onsens!), they have 3 awesome and massive Onsens that you can reserve for private use. Each of them are very, very different from one another. One is the size of a pool, one is set in a gorgeous bamboo forest, and the third bath is in a cave. In each of the private Onsens, you can bathe in either your own swimwear or special Onsen wear that they will provide for you. This allows for friends and family members to enjoy the Onsen experience together.

Back to the rooms: we stayed in "Shien-an," a commodious Suite that had a Western bedroom, a Japanese dining area with an "Irori" wooden hearth, a Western-style living area, two toilets, and four separate Onsen baths. There's an indoor Onsen and three outdoor Onsens - a huge, pool-style Onsen, an Onsen foot bath as well as a separate area where the Onsen is shallow and has a "mattress" at the bottom of the bath, allowing you to lay down (face up) and enjoy the bathing experience for hours on end. Then there are the little touches.... Every afternoon, they place dozens of cut open Yuzu (a Japanese citrus) fruits into the Onsen baths, which adds a very pleasing aroma. And then they have floating trays with cut-outs to place your sake or beer bottle and glasses so you can drink while bathing (the quantity and quality of the minibar items - all free of charge - are extraordinary.) Meal wise, the default is to be served in your room by your butler, but there are three private dining rooms - all facing the central courtyard (with the pond, waterfall and lighted-up bamboo grove), and this is one instance where we felt it was worth spending two of our three dinners outside of our room. This place is almost perfect. The one drawback, if you can call it that, is the food quality is a small notch below the best that ryokans have to offer. On the plus side, each evening's meals are completely different. In fact, guests staying for more than one night can choose to have a Suppon (soft-shelled turtle) course which - along with Fugu (puffer fish), is considered one of the real (and expensive) delicacies in Japan. Kumamoto is also home of the Basashi (horsemeat sashimi), and it's awesome here. If you're only going to stay at Takefue and visit Kurokawa Onsen, you can get around by public transport and taxi. If, on the other hand, you want to see more of Kyushu, you can do worse than renting a car and exploring further afield, including Mt. Aso, Kumamoto Castle, Beppu Onsen (the Onsen area with the highest volume of natural hot springs in all of Japan) and Yufuin (another famous and charming hot springs town.) Book one of the Tokubetsu-shitsu (special rooms) at Takefue; they're the only ones that guarantee guest access to the Chikujo No Ma private Onsen (the most amazing one that is surrounded by a bamboo forest.) We loved Shien-an (which is designated as one of the four Tokubetsu-shitsu), which is a mixture of old and new. Each room, however, is quite different in layout and atmosphere, so make sure you select a room that's to your liking. For instance, many guests that prefer a full-on traditional room love Omachian.

A5 Hida Beef Sukiyaki. The best Sukiyaki ever. By far. Full stop.

Garyu Villa at Wanosato

Wanosato (near Takayama, Gifu Prefecture) - 8 rooms total
Like Takefue, Wanosato dishes out an amazing traditional ryokan experience in an otherworldly setting. It's set in an isolated location about 20 minutes away from central Takayama (a tourist hotspot, and rightfully so.) There are a mere 8 separated villas, and there's really nothing else around. The grounds are not expansive, it doesn't have a garden per se, but the natural setting more than makes up for it. The views of the moss forest and river from each room is to die for. The main building houses the reception/common area, the restaurant (with private rooms) and the communal Onsen baths. The reception area is Instagram-worthy, with its Irori hearth surrounded by traditional antiques adorned along the walls. There are no Onsens in the rooms, but the communal baths are incredible. Meals are served in the main building, but each guest gets their own private koshitsu room. And the food is absolutely spectacular. It's technically kaiseki, and they use local ingredients (including the famous Hida Beef), but it's creative, imaginative and has some European (mainly French) influences in their servings, and it's wonderful. Tofu with friend Fungus and Foie Gras on top. White-spotted Char and Flat Fish sashimi with Ponzu and Momiji Oroshi (spicy grated daikon radish.) Corn Sherbet with Soy Sauce Jelly. Baked Apple Canale. All creative, all wonderfully presented, and all unforgettable. And the A5 Hida Beef Sukiyaki is THE best Sukiyaki I've ever had in my life. The flavoring was the best balance of sweet, salty and umami - I've never had Sukiyaki that's come close, and I've had my share of top-notch Sukiyaki. If you're worried about being Kaiseki'd out, then Wanosato is a great choice to mix things up, food wise. Wanosato isn't for everyone, but it's unique, it's tranquil, and you won't ever forget it. The 3 Garyu Villas are more voluminous than the standard Villas and are closer to the main building, so if they're available, make sure to snag one of them immediately.

Outdoor communal Onsen at Myoken Ishiharaso

Myoken Ishiharaso (Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture) - 19 rooms total
Located in rural Kagoshima - about 25 minutes away from Kirishima National Park and Kagoshima City center, this is yet another ryokan that is in an fairy tale-like setting. Ishiharaso is located along the banks of the Amori River surrounded by a gorgeous forest. This area is renowned for the quality and quantity of Onsen, and it's not hard to understand why... along the river you'll see hot spring water gushing out naturally in various areas, so much so that Ishiharaso has several communal outdoor Onsen, including footbaths in a few areas. Since the Onsen along the river are exposed, you're able to go in with bathing suits. There are several other communal Onsen facilities throughout the property, including a few private rental baths that are private but still offer views of the river. The architecture as well as decor is decidedly contemporary yet warm. We stayed in Kirara, a Japanese-Western Suite in the newer, Ishikura building that offered an indoor and outdoor Onsen bath, and had 85m of total indoor living space. At the time we stayed at Ishiharaso, Kirara was the best Suite on site, but it's subsequently been eclipsed by a newer and larger room called Rurimurasaki. The Kaiseki dinner is spectacular - in fact, it's the only ryokan in Japan that received a perfect 5.0 rating from the widely respected Ryokan GP publication/website. Breakfast is served in the main restaurant, while guests staying in higher category rooms can have dinner served in the comfort of their own room. Ishiharaso has some English-speaking butlers/servers - we had Clement as our server for both dinner and breakfast - he's fluent in Japanese, English and French, and really went to great lengths to explain every detail of every ingredient in every serving. Ishiharaso is not near any particular major attraction (with the exception of Sakurajima Island, which is still about a 45 minute drive away), and there is no Onsen town area to speak of, so I'd recommend this for travelers that have been to Japan numerous times, have plans to be in Kyushu anyway, or want to go somewhere off the main tourist circuit.

View of the Japanese garden from "Kiri no Ma" suite room at Nishimuraya Honkan

Matsuba-gani Red Snow Crab from Tuiyama Port in Hyogo. Pictured is Crab sashimi. The sauce on the right is Ponzu mixed with the Crab Tomalley and Momiji Oroshi - grated daikon with chili peppers. Sublime.

Nishimuraya Honkan (Kinosaki Onsen, Hyogo) - 34 rooms total
For fans of crab that plan on being in Japan between November and March, I highly recommend they visit the Western coast of the country between Hyogo to the South and Kanazawa to the North (known as the Hokuriku region.) This area is home to the famed Zuwai-gani - Japanese Snow Crab, and it's far and away the world's most delicious crab. If you don't believe me, make sure to go and try it for yourself, like thousands of others that descend upon the region in the Winter months. Although Zuwai-gani is the generic name for the Japanese Red Snow Crab, the names are different depending on the region in which they're caught (examples include Matsuba-gani in Kyoto, Tanza-gani in Ishikawa Prefecture and Echizen-gani in Fukui, just to name a few.) Not only that, but there are sub-brands that are given to certain crab that are caught off certain ports/bays! Most of the top chefs in Japan claim to be able to taste the difference (similar to how Sommeliers can identify the differences of various wines.) In any case, high quality Snow Crab are sweet, plump and extraordinarily flavorful, whether it's eaten raw (sashimi styled), lightly boiled in a hot pot, grilled, fried (often Tempura style) or used as a broth in Ojiya (rice porridge often served at the end of a meal, just before dessert.) Nishimuraya Honkan is located in Kinosaki Onsen, one of the most picturesque Onsen towns in all of Japan, with a beautiful little river that cuts through Kinosaki. It's the quintessential Onsen town - bustling, full of tourists, tons of gift shops, restaurants, snack shacks and 7 famous public Onsen bath houses, all of which are tattoo-friendly. Amidst all of that, Nishimuraya Honkan is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the town; once you enter its gates, it's like you've entered another world. The center of the ryokan is a gorgeous green inner Japanese garden that is immaculately landscaped, and many of the rooms face the garden, save for the exception of rooms in the new, annex building. Nishimuraya Honkan is a very traditional property and offers a dizzying array of room types (traditional/modern, Japanese/Western, 1F/2F, small/large), but three things apply to all of them: first, there is no Onsen in any room (only in the communal baths), all meals are served in one's own room (there is no restaurant), and the Matsuba-gani Crab are among the most amazing Crab your taste buds will ever come across. At an additional cost, you can pre-order Tsuiyama-port Matsuba-gani - Tsuiyama Port only allows 5 designated boats to go out for Crab every morning, and the ones destined for Nishimuraya Honkan are each individually kept in a saltwater-filled container, which supposedly minimizes the stress level of the Crab and consequently helps to maintain their sweet taste and firm texture. It's not cheap, but it's definitely worth it. Note that there is no ryokan in Kinosaki that offers in-room Onsen baths; I've been told that it's a town-wide rule... my guess is that there is only a finite amount of Onsen water that can be pumped into the ryokans. Note also that Matsuba-gani season in Kinosaki runs from November 7 to March 31. There's a commonly held belief that the best time for the best quality crab is between late November and late December. Opt for a Suite in the old building on the ground floor for a wonderful, birds-eye-level view of the incredible garden.

One of the numerous amazing Kaiseki courses at Sanso Murata

Sanso Murata (Yufuin, Oita Prefecture) - 12 rooms total
Yufuin is one of the top Onsen towns in Kyushu, and is about 25 minutes away by car from its larger Onsen neighbor, Beppu, and while there are several highly rated ryokans in Yufuin, Sanso Murata was our favorite of the bunch. It offers some of the most exceptional service, incredible F&B and luxurious accommodations in all of Japan. While it doesn't have an awe-inspiring garden, the property grounds are nothing to write home about and it's not located in the main tourist area, Sanso Murata offers a level of exclusivity and seclusion that luxury travelers will appreciate. We stayed in a room called Hou, an enormous, 2-story Suite that has a Western style living room, a dining room, a spacious Japanese sitting room, two toilets and the bedroom on the 2nd floor. Each room has an Onsen bath, and ours was an indoor one that could be "converted" into an open-air bath by sliding upon the glass doors. The Kaiseki dinner on both nights was spectacular - authentically Japanese but gorgeously presented and prepared in a way that brought out the best in the local, seasonal meat, fish and produce. Among the ryokans we stayed at, I give Sanso Murata the #1 status when it comes to service (with Takefue a close second)... they really, really went out of their way to make sure we had a perfect stay - nothing was too much trouble for them. It started upon first arriving at the property on a stormy afternoon - when the three of us we pulled up in front of the entrance, FOUR people rushed out to greet us, with three of them each opening the door for each one of us, handing us an umbrella and quickly and whisking us away inside, while the fourth person took the keys from my hands and parked our vehicle (even though the parking space was about a mere 30 meters away.) While it's uncommon nowadays to have meals served in one's own room, and even in such cases, one server usually is assigned to two or three rooms at a time, that's not the case here. At Sanso Murata, we had one server exclusively dedicated to looking after us for the entirety of our meal. This not only allowed for much more attentive service, but it also gave extra time to engage in small talk, and have the server describe each course in painstaking detail. It really was a bespoke experience for us. For Onsen buffs, a night at Sanso Murata, followed by a stay at a ryokan in nearby Beppu is quite the convenient, unbeatable combo.

One of the common areas inside Kakunodate Sanso Wabizakura

Wabizakura (Kakunodate, Semboku, Akita Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
A luxury ryokan located about 10 minutes by car from Kakunodate, a former Samurai district that is well known for being one of the top Sakura Cherry Blossom spots in the Tohoku (Northern Honshu) region. Although Tohoku is considered a backwater by most Japanese, we were pleasantly surprised by quite a few ryokans in these neck of the woods, with Wabizakura taking top honors (by a hair.) Kakunodate is not an Onsen town, and in fact Wabizakura is about the only Onsen ryokan in the area; this is courtesy of the owner, who was on a mission to dig and dig until he discovered high quality hot springs water. After contracting a drill company to bore into the ground, after about 1000 meters they hit the jackpot. Although Japan is a volcanic island, and there's a commonly held belief that you'll find Onsen anywhere in the country as long as you dig deep enough, the Onsen still has to be the right temperature and contain high quality mineral composition. The Onsen discovered at Wabizakura is supposedly top notch, and we enjoyed the bathing experience in our in-room, open-air Onsen bath. The ryokan is in a very isolated location, the common area is very traditional but extremely stylish, and the rooms are warm and contemporary. There is no garden, and the landscaping is not as immaculate as in many other luxury properties. This is more than made up for by the exquisite Kaiseki cuisine that focuses on local wild mountain vegetables, fish and beef, as well as the Onsen quality. We must have jumped in and out of the Onsen bath about 10 times during the course of one chilly afternoon day. We stayed at one of two Royal Suites, which are a comfortable 81m and have dedicated dining rooms - guests staying in a Royal Suite can have meals in the comfort of their own room; all others have theirs served in the main restaurant.

Onsen with a view from our suite room at Shogetsu

Shogetsu (Gero Onsen, Gifu Prefecture) - 21 rooms total
From the outside, Shogetsu lacks the traditional charm of other top ryokans - There's no garden, and the entire ryokan is contained within one tall (by ryokan standards), nondescript building. Step inside, however, and it's like you're in another world. There are green spaces, artsy lounges, Zen-style rock gardens with small flowing streams, and best of all, sweeping views of the townscape below. Shogetsu is located on a hilltop overlooking a valley (where Gero Onsen proper is located), and you can enjoy the view from the lounge, your own room and even from the communal Onsen baths. We stayed in a corner Suite with an open-air Onsen bath in the balcony. Gero Onsen is renowned for the quality of its Onsen, and Shogetsu definitely did not disappoint. The other highlight at Shogetsu was the marvelous Kaiseki cuisine - it's creative Japanese at its finest. Fried "new" (new harvest) Potatoes with Uni (Sea Urchin) and Caviar on top might not sound appetizing, but the execution was exceptional. Ditto for the Hida Beef Tongue Stew with Eagle Fern Tempura as well as the Baby Sweetfish that was deep fried with a variety of herbs. Breakfast was also not an afterthought here. Shogetsu makes for a good combo with Takayama (Wanosato.) Gero Onsen is not a convenient place to get to, but if you happen to be in the area, Shogetsu is definitely a place worth staying and savoring.

Wild-caught Red Sea Bream wrapped over Konbu sea kelp and Cherry Blossom leaves, topped with White Asparagus foam and Caviar. The Mushroom powder and Spinach powder are designed to look like Hazakura. Hazakura refers to Sakura Cherry trees during the period after the cherry blossoms fall off and the trees sprout new green leaves)

Sanso Amanosato (Shimoamano, Katsuragi, Wakayama Prefecture) - 8 rooms total
We've stayed at many of the very best Auberge ryokans (ones that serve European-inspired Kaiseki cuisine) throughout Japan, and thought that Sankara Resort in Yakushima and Arcana in Izu were the ones to beat. But Sanso Amanosato blows them all away. Not much has been written about this property, but in our minds, Sanso Amanosato is one of the very best culinary destinations in existence. It's located off the tourist trail, but actually it's not TOO far off. It's about a 90 minute drive from Osaka and Nara (not sure how to get there via train/bus, sorry), and 30 minutes from the amazing Koyasan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and definitely worthy of its status.) In fact, for visitors planning to check out Koyasan, combining a "Shukubo" (Temple stay) there along with a night at nearby Sanso Amanosato would make for an incredible combo stay. And a dramatically diverse dining experience (Shukubos like Ichijoin serve fabulous vegan Buddhist cuisine.) Or, you can even make a day trip out of it - the ryokan sets aside a few tables for guests who only want to dine there. We stayed in a Suite called Hachiyo, which was 64m - not cramped but neither was it particularly spacious - but the walls and floors use light-colored wood, the ceilings are vaulted and there is a ton of natural light that makes its way into the room. The Suite's living room was Western style with a sofa and coffee table. No complaints. Their in-room bath is not Onsen, but three separate private Onsens can be freely rented by guests staying at the property. Amanosato does not have a Japanese garden, but I must emphasize again that it's the food that's the star attraction. The presentation is gorgeous, each course is immaculately prepared, and your taste buds will be infused with so much Umami sensation that you'll immediately want to extend your stay. Wild-caught Red Sea Bream from Kada in Wakayama Prefecture, wrapped over Konbu sea kelp and Cherry Blossom leaves, topped with Caviar and White Asparagus foam. Kumano Beef consomme soup with thinly-sliced beef, Ostrich Fern, Mountain Butterbur and Gold flakes. Lobster stuffed with the Oven-roasted Lobster Tomalley, Parmesan Cheese and Bamboo Shoots with Aosa Seaweed and butter sauce and Endive Confit. All unique, all beautiful, all flavorful without being rich and heavy, and all memorable. We're going back this December.

Some other notable ryokans we've recently experienced:

Gora Kadan - the Kadan Suite "Aoi" features a private garden and open-air Onsen bath

Gora Kadan (Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture) - 39 rooms total
Just missed my top ten. A plethora of competitors in the area, but GK's modern Japanese architecture and ambiance, polished service, good food and the ability to have meals served in one's room gives it a slight edge over the others. Please note that only first-floor rooms have Onsen baths; rooms on the second floor only have regular hot water. Its architecture is Japanese modern and has first-rate Omotenashi service. Gora Kadan is always a good choice.

One of several small and pretty gardens at Takachiho Ryokan Shinsen

Shinsen (Takachiho, Miyazaki) - 15 rooms total
Another one just outside the top ten. We loved our 3-night stay here. It's in the center of Takachiho town and near the famed Takachiho Gorge. Some other worthy sightseeing areas in the vicinity. The 15-room ryokan has 3 different areas, each with different landscaping. Meals are served in private dining rooms, and each of our meals were served in a different one (in different locations.) The majority had inspiring views of different gardens, with some of them lit up after dark, adding to the charm. The food was spectacular here - they spare no expense. It's mainly traditional Kaiseki fare, but many dishes were unique surprises. They even source their Caviar locally and it's their own brand. We stayed in the top Suite with 100m of space called Manyo, which was contemporary, luxurious and cavernous. The only drawback: no Onsen in the room or anywhere on premise, although they claim the bath water does have some unique mineral properties that are similar to Onsen. If it had a real Onsen, I'd definitely find a place for Shinsen comfortably in my top 10. If Onsen doesn't matter to you, then this is truly one of the top notch gourmet luxury ryokans in all of Japan. Very charming Okami-san (proprietress), who really runs a tight ship and goes above and beyond to ensure a wonderful stay. Another rarity - they offer laundry service here, a huge benefit for travelers that are in the middle of a long-ish trip and don't want to bother with washing clothes themselves (Chikusenso is the other ryokan we're aware of that offers this service.)

Fufu Luxury Suite with a view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Notice the cluster of trees on the left that partially obscure the view

Fufu Kawaguchiko (Fuji Five Lakes area, Yamanashi Prefecture) - 32 rooms total
We've stayed here twice. Very similar to Fufu Nikko, but a slight notch below in most aspects. Nonetheless it's a very high quality experience. Larger than Fufu Nikko and feels a bit more corporate and less intimate, but most of what is stated about the Nikko property applies here. It's located in a slightly elevated position about a mile or so from Lake Kawaguchi, and offers a good (but not exceptional) view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Why only good? The view is partially obscured by very tall pine trees on the left side; I was told that they planned to have the trees cut, but they're not on the Fufu property, and the owner of the land decided against removing the trees. Still, it's a very comfortable and luxurious place to stay, with good food. And for people that crave for the most picturesque views that Fuji has to offer, nothing beats the Lake Kawaguchiko area. It's also not far from Chureito Pagoda, which offers among the most scenic (and crowded) views of Mt. Fuji with the gorgeous Pagoda in the foreground. Get there early! For luxury travelers visiting the Fuji Five Lakes area, Fufu Kawaguchiko is the only choice. As is the case with Fufu Nikko, try to book one of the two 136m Fufu Luxury Premium Suites here.

View of the pool (and ocean) from the lobby at Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima

Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima (Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture) - 29 rooms total
More of a Auberge hotel than a ryokan. It's as close to Aman as a Japan property can get, except that the food is superior to most Amans. The French-inspired Japanese cuisine is fantastic - we used to think it was the best, until we stayed at Sanso Amanosato. Still, the F&B is exceptional here. Large, beautiful outdoor pool. Sadly, no Onsen. Service is very refined. Sankara has a fleet of vehicles you can rent directly from the property for day trips to some of the most incredible scenery (and hiking) you'll find in Japan. The island of Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its famous moss forests were the inspiration behind the setting in the anime Princess Mononoke. We've stayed here twice, and preferred the 104m Villa Suite over the larger (and far more expensive) Sankara Suite. The Villa Suite had better views of the ocean, and the size difference is mainly attributed to the dedicated massage/spa room in the Sankara Suite. If you don't have the need for it, then the choice should be an easy one.

View from our suite at Bouyourou

Bouyourou (Mikuno, Fukui Prefecture) - 7 rooms total
This is the highest end property in Fukui, which is home to the famed Echizen-gani Snow Crab. Many connoisseurs consider the Echizen variety to be superior to all others. We visited in the Summer as part of a reconnaissance mission to find a legit alternative to Nishimuraya Honkan. We think we may have found it, but we'll reserve judgment until we pay a visit this November during crab season. Bouyourou was completely rebuilt in late 2021, is right along the Ocean (with all rooms offering expansive Ocean views), and has a love-it-or-hate it architecture and interior. It's decidedly modern and does not have a garden. All 7 rooms have the same rates; the differences between them are not significant. I wish the Suites were a tad more roomy. Service is high quality. Meals are served in dedicated, private rooms. Room rates are insanely high, even during non-crab season.

Onsen with a view from our Suite at Gosho Gekkoju

Gosho Gekkoju (Kurokawa Onsen, Kumamoto) - 8 rooms total
If Takefue is booked full (it almost always is), Gosho Gekkoju is a great fallback option. Upon entering the property through a massive gate, you'll feel like you've been ushered into another world. There's no central garden, but the entire landscaping throughout the entire property is gorgeous. It's a relatively new ryokan, so it's squeaky clean as well. The Suites have ample space, with the ones higher up the hill having better views of the valley below and mountains beyond. Service is personal and attentive, and the food is just short of exceptional (not unlike Takefue.) All rooms have Onsen baths, but there are also several private rental Onsens, including one that's located inside a cave.

View from the main restaurant at Hyakuna Garan

Hyakuna Garan (Nanjo, Okinawa main island) - 18 rooms total
We have yet to find a bona-fide small luxury hotel or ryokan in Okinawa. After our stay at several of the highest regarded properties, we're still searching. The Garan Annex is a stand-alone structure adjacent to the main building, is immense (130m), has a rooftop hot tub and a panoramic view of the ocean. The room was slightly dated and the food was hit or miss. As is the case with the vast majority of Okinawa properties, Hyakuna Garan has no Onsen facilities. We enjoyed our stay here, but it's not a place that we'd think about returning to. We stayed here for 4 full nights last December.

Pool Villa at Jusandi

Jusandi (Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture) - 5 rooms total
An intimate property located in a remote part of Ishigaki Island. We booked a 1BR Pool Villa, which felt tighter than the listed 60m, mainly due to the layout (it's thin and long.) Pretty pool that is lit up at night. A short, 5 minute walk through the jungle will get you to the Ocean. We went in December, and unlike at Hyakuna Garan, the Ocean at Jusandi was not hospitable and had high waves. Rocky shore with no beach. Jusandi's calling card is its fantastic Italian-Japanese cuisine - the chef is a superstar. Plenty of dashi-based flavorings added Umami to fusion dishes. Still, it's quite out of the way (you'll need a car), and we felt that one visit to Ishigaki was sufficient if you just intend to stay here. For us, we used it as a base to explore the far reaches of Ishigaki, and also took a day trip (by a short ferry ride) to Iriomote Island, yet another beautiful UNESCO-inscribed location, where we hiked and kayaked.

An open-air Onsen on the deck of our Villa Suite Premium (room #H) at ryugon

ryugon (Minamiuonuma, Niigata Prefecture) - 29 rooms total
A unique experience in beautiful, rural Niigata. Very traditional architecture that will make you feel like you've been taken back to feudal Japan as a Samurai. Inside (especially in the common areas) it's a mixture of old, new and avant-garde. It's quite artsy in a mostly tasteful way. Very mixed reviews, including by Japanese, but it probably has to do with the rooms. We booked one of the the Villa Suite Premium rooms that offer an ample 75-93m of space (depending on the Villa), and all three have private open-air Onsen baths on the deck. Of the three Premium Villa rooms (G, H and J), go with H. It's the most private, has an amazing view of a large pond (and a forest on the other side), and was a great place to pass the time. Food was innovative and mostly excellent. This region is known for top-notch rice, and we were blown away by how awesome it was, especially during harvest season which starts in October. And now, with the new Joetsu Shinkansen (aka Bullet Train) connecting Tokyo to Niigata, it's easily accessible and you can get there in just a few hours, door-to-door.

Lamp no Yado. Yes, that's a looong swimming pool nestled between the ryokan and ocean

Lamp no Yado (Suzu, Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture) - 14 rooms total
A place that'll make you feel like you're at the edge of the world. About as inconvenient of a location as you'll find, it's at the very tip of the Noto Peninsula, where no rail lines run through - you really need a car to get here and also tour the area. The property is nestled in an alcove below some surrounding cliffs. Looking down from above, it almost looks like a small village. The structures are old Japanese, and most rooms are very traditional as well. Good food, very nice Onsen and wonderful views of the (rough) Sea of Japan. A unique ryokan that's a very nice place to relax and get away from it all, we had a blissful time here.

The third course on the kaiseki menu at Beniya Mukayu was sushi.

Beniya Mukayu (Yamashiro Onsen, Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture) - 17 rooms total
A very stylish modern ryokan. We stayed in the Byakuroku Terrace Suite, the top category room that had a very nice Garden View with private open-air Onsen bath and a very generous 100m of space. Everything about this ryokan is almost perfect, until you get to the restaurant for dinner. Nothing wrong with the food - in fact, it's darned good here. The problem has to do with the tables being close to one another and voices really echo in the dining area, making it feel like you're at a Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown than a serene and tranquil retreat. For such a famous and expensive ryokan, they can do better. Offer private dining rooms, or - better yet - the ability to have meals in one's own room.

Beautifully presented appetizers at Kayotei

Kayotei (Yamanaka Onsen, Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
A wonderfully traditional and famous ryokan in the Hokuriku region, I think this property is a tad overrated. In our most recent visit, we stayed in the Higashiyama Suite, which features an in-room Onsen bath and is the top room at the property. We've had nice stays at Kayotei, and it's a decent value among luxury ryokans, but the place does not excel in any one thing. The rooms are decent with decidedly minimalistic furnishings, the meals are good but not memorable (even during Crab season), and service is not quite as personalized as one would expect in such a small, family-run property. If you're in the Kaga area, the top choices are Kayotei, Beniya Mukayu and Hanamurasaki. We're not in love with any of the three, but would not object to staying in any of them again should we make a return visit to the area.

A marvelously crafted Byobu (traditional Japanese folding screen) in one of the common areas at Tawaraya

Tawaraya (Kyoto) - 18 rooms total
In general: if you want to stay in a ryokan and have no means to venture out of Kyoto/Osaka/Tokyo for the privilege, Tawaraya is undoubtedly a top choice. In general, I am torn on whether to recommend a visitor's one and only ryokan stay to be in Kyoto. On the one hand, Kyoto (both "Kyo" and "to" mean the same thing... Capital) is Japan's ancient (and long-time) capital, where just about every cultural aspect (traditions, religion, artistic techniques) originated. As result of its regional heritage, Tawaraya certainly does a wonderful job in preparing and displaying some of the best that Japanese culture and history has to offer. On the other hand, it doesn't have an Onsen bath, there are plenty of top luxury hotels in the city worth trying, and most visitors will likely spend the majority of their time touring Kyoto itself. On the other hand, Tawaraya is steeped in history, and connoisseurs that have seen documentaries about Tawaraya will no doubt marvel at the attention to detail in every aspect of the architecture, design, decorations and artwork (which change monthly with the seasons!) that's found in every nook and cranny of this ryokan - we spent hours slowly exploring every corner of this small property. A 100% authentic Japanese experience, with rooms all completely tatami-laden, meaning no Western beds or furnishings to speak of. More so than even Hiiragiya, you'll really feel special and privileged when staying here as a guest.

The sitting area in the "Tokubetsu Shitsu" (aka. Special Room) Suite at Hiiragiya

Hiiragiya (Kyoto) - 28 rooms total
A much larger property than its rival, Tawaraya (which is located just across a small street.) Hiiragiya is slightly less atmospheric, slightly less historic, and slightly easier to get reservations at. Some rooms are almost TOO traditional that it might scare some people, while my Junior Suite in the Shinkan (New Wing) was far too modern for such a traditional ryokan in an ancient city. Food was good, but not exceptional. No Onsen.

Suite Villa Onsen with a view at Onyado Kawasemi

Onyado Kawasemi (Iizaka Onsen, Fukushima Prefecture) - 12 rooms total
A highly-rated ryokan in Tohoku, Onyado Kawasemi has a picturesque garden and pond, stylish and comfortable accommodations, delicious kaiseki meals and open-air Onsen baths in each room. Dinner and breakfast are served in one's own room. We stayed in a Suite called Wabisuke, the top room at the property - it was plenty spacious and tastefully furnished. The Onsen was awesome, and the view of the garden and pond from our room was a calming influence. The only drawback was our butler - she was not quite as warm and charming like most others at top properties. Onyado Kawasemi is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The first two (of 12 total) courses at Sakurayu Sanshuyu

Sakurayu Sanshuyu (Nanyo, Yamagata Prefecture) - 7 rooms total
Another famous Tohoku ryokan, but this one is overrated in my opinion. It's a nondescript property located along the main highway, there is no real garden to speak of.... our room had a yard, but it was poorly maintained (if it was at all) - there were shabby weeds all over the place. We stayed in one of the Tokubetsu-shitsu special rooms called Oyama Renge which featured an open-air Onsen bath and 79.3m of space. Meals are served in the room. Good property overall, and quite cheap by luxury ryokan standards, but not worth visiting the area just to stay here.

Minamikan - Mizu no Oto Suite room

Minamikan (Matsue, Shimane Prefecture) - 16 rooms total
A renowned (and yet still underrated, in our opinion) ryokan and by far the top in all of Shimane. We loved our 3-night stay here. It's right along the Ocean, has one of the most famous dry rock gardens in all of Japan (it's particularly picturesque at night), and offers elaborate Kaiseki fare. It's also an extremely good value - even the top category room was only 40,000 yen per person per night, half board. Mizu no Oto ("the sound of water") was a Tokubetsu-shitsu that was in the annex building, had a bedroom, dining room, a Japanese-style living room and an excellent Onsen bath, and was an enormous 121m in size. Meals are served in a private room in the main building, and focuses on local ingredients to great effect. Minamikan is an 8-minute walk from the amazing Matsue Castle and about 45 minutes by car or bus from Izumo Taisha, one of the most important Shrines in all of Japan.

"Okushoin" special room at Ichijoin

Delectable "Shojin Ryori" (Buddhist vegan cuisine) at Ichijoin

Ichijoin (Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture) - 23 rooms total
For a real taste of "old Japan," and an authentic spiritual experience, there's nothing better than staying at a Shukubo (temple lodging) in Koyasan. While there are Shukubos in other parts of Japan, Koyasan has over 50 of them, and it's a real special thing to stay at one of the holiest locations in the country (nearby Kumano Kodo is also another notable area), and a place that's also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll get to observe (early) morning prayers by Buddhist monks, partake in Sutra writing, try your hand at a Buddhist form of Yoga called Ajikan, and otherwise soak in the atmosphere of being a guest in an active, honest-to-goodness temple. The Shojin Ryori (Buddhist vegan cuisine) is incredibly varied and sublime. Trust me when I tell you that you won't miss not having meat, fish or dairy products, at least for one night, anyway. Problem is, at many Shukubo most rooms (including at Ichijoin) are tiny, and don't have en-suite bathrooms. We selected Ichijoin because it appeared to offer the most comfortable accommodations - at least in its top room, called Okushoin. It had a huge living room and bedroom, two toilets, two sinks, heated floors and was the only one with both a view of the lake/garden and complete privacy. Meals are served in the guest rooms, and as I said earlier - it was one of the most memorable culinary experiences we've ever had. Koyasan itself is an awesome place, and a slower paced, 2 day trip would really allow you to immerse yourself in the history and mystique of it all.

Presidential Suite at Chikusenso Mt.Zao Onsen Resort & Spa

Chikusenso Mt.Zao Onsen Resort & Spa (Zao Machi, Miyagi Prefecture) - 32 rooms total
I felt this was overrated, and it's also one of the most expensive ryokans in the country. There was nothing particularly wrong with Chikusenso - it's just that nothing really stood out as its calling card. It's nestled in a forest some 5-10 minutes drive from the main Togatta Onsen town (which is nothing to write home about), giving it an air of tranquility and exclusivity. There are some unique aspects to its architecture and furnishings, such as the massive hanging bronze bell that looks like it was taken out of a Temple's belfry. Our gargantuan, 116m Presidential Suite was stylish, comfortable, private and featured a Western style living room, a tea room, a family room, a dining room, a separate bedroom and a massive bathroom. The food was varied (for a multiple-night stay, they can mix it up by offering a Fugu course or even a Tempura course), and pretty good. But at this price, "pretty good" isn't good enough. One drawback of our Suite was the fact that the outdoor Onsen was detached from the room - there was no simple access to it. You need to leave the room, walk down a hallway, down a flight of stairs, open a door (don't forget to bring the separate key!) and viola! Sorry, but it's way too inconvenient. It would've been much better if we could've walked straight out to a private patio where a welcoming Onsen was waiting for us.

Japanese living room in Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan's Imperial Suite

Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan (Takayama, Gifu Prefecture) - 28 rooms total
Possibly the top ryokan in the convenient center of Takayama, but it's a single, multi-story building that has nothing - like a garden - that helps to give it a charming ambiance from the outside. Inside, it's clean and reasonably well maintained, but again, nothing is particularly memorable. We stayed in the 90m Hanayagi no Ma Imperial Suite, located on the top (6th) floor of the ryokan. Service was warm and professional, and the kaiseki meals were good but not amazing like Wanosato. Speaking of Wanosato, these two properties would serve as a good combo for a trip should you have the time, what with Kachoan being located in the heart of historic Takayama, and Wanosato enabling a wonderful experience that will help you to unwind in a more remote and tranquil location.

A delightful Japanese breakfast at Sui Suwako

Sui Suwako (Lake Suwa, Nagano Prefecture) - 8 rooms total
Impressive. Located on the banks of Lake Suwa and about 40 minutes by car from the spectacular Matsumoto Castle, this is definitely the top luxury ryokan in the vicinity. It's a new-ish, modern ryokan that has 8 rooms in a 5-story building. The top room type is the "Wide Japanese/Western-style room with Open-air Hot Spring Bath" (there are only 2 room types here).... not supremely opulent, but simple, functional, comfortable and sufficient. We stayed in Room 501 on the top floor, and is likely the best room with the best view of the Lake and mountains. Meals are served in the room and were excellent, including the Wakasagi (Japanese Smelt) Tempura, which they specifically prepared for us (I learned before hand that Wakasagi is a delicacy - it's a small fish that is caught in Lake Suwa, but not in large volumes.) One interesting feature of Sui Suwako: it has a rooftop Onsen with sweeping views of Lake Suwa, the surrounding town and some of Nagano's famous mountains. It's communal and bathing suits are actually required, so that families and members of the opposite gender can enjoy the open-air Onsen experience together. We've stayed here twice, and wouldn't hesitate to pay Sui Suwako a return visit.

The main restaurant buildings at Hakone Suishoen. These two structures were formerly the Summer villa of the Mitsui family.

Hakone Suishoen (Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture) - 23 rooms total
Suishoen is less celebrated than Gora Kadan, Ginyu and Yama no Chaya, but I think it's right up there with the Hakone holy trinity. Little known fact: it's part of the Fufu Group, but doesn't use the Fufu name because it's quite different from the others - it's a bit more traditional in architecture and aesthetics, and also seems to cater to a slightly more mature demographic. The only hint of Fufu-ness is in the naming of the room types. As is the case with Fufu properties everywhere, the top room category is the Luxury Suite (there are 2 such rooms at Suishoen.) We stayed a one of them, dubbed Negau, which has a separate bedroom/living room with Western-style furnishings, an outdoor open-air Onsen bath and 96m of space (123m incl. deck.) The room is stylish, if a tad on the dark side. Meals are served in the main building (in private rooms), which was built during the Taisho era (at the turn of the 20th Century), and was the former vacation home of the founder of the Mitsui group. One benefit to Suishoen is that in addition to serving a wonderful kaiseki meal, they offer a Teppanyaki option as well. If you're in the middle of a long Japan trip and worry about being kaiseki'd out, then staying at Suishoen and having Teppanyaki is a good way to mix things up. I wouldn't say the Teppanyaki was the best I've ever had, however....

Aonagi Suite room at Setouchi Retreat Aonagi

Setouchi Retreat Aonagi (Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture) - 7 rooms total
A famous ryokan that finds itself on many "ryokans to stay at before you die" lists, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's definitely exclusive, and this ryokan does make you feel like you're on a retreat. But I find the Tadao Ando architecture to be cold and bland, and even the interior is beginning to show its age, both in terms of design and maintenance. Of the 7 rooms on site, the best one is the Aonagi Suite, which is a massive, 169.6m duplex-style room. We generally prefer single-story units, but one benefit of this maisonette-type layout is it allows for gigantic, floor-to-ceiling windows that offers a wonderful view of the property's iconic outdoor pool as well as a panoramic view of the Ocean (and islands) in the distance. Only the Aonagi Suite allows for meals to be served in the room - all other guests will be dining in the main restaurant. No Onsen in the room, which is a bummer, although they do have a private indoor pool with Jacuzzi Onsen bath, but in my opinion it's just not the same. Setouchi Retreat Aonagi is 20 minutes by car from the main Dogo Onsen area, and if I was to return to the area and could only stay in one ryokan, I'd rather stay at the next property instead.

Both a large indoor and smaller open-air Onsen in the Oborizuki Suite room at Bettei Oborozukiyo

Bettei Oborozukiyo (Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture) - 19 rooms total
We were pleasantly surprised by Oborozukiyo, and it's far and away the top luxury option (in fact, most likely the only option) in Dogo Onsen. It's a mere 5 minutes walking distance from the main center, which includes Dogo Onsen Honkan, the historic public bath house (currently undergoing exterior renovations) that was one of the settings used in Miyazaki's anime masterpiece Spirited Away. Dogo Onsen is one of the more charming Onsen towns in Japan (although not quite as atmospheric as Kinosaki); many of the restaurants, shops and cafes give out a Taisho era vibe (post Meiji restoration period but before WW1), which is part of its charm. Our Oborozuki Suite was the top room type ("G-Type Special Room with Open-Air Bath) that had a enormous indoor Onsen bath and an open-air Onsen on the deck. The room is comfortable, generously proportioned (94m) and has two bathrooms, which always makes Mr. KI-NRT happy. Meals are served in a private room in the main building; we ordered Shabu Shabu for the main hot pot course and it was phenomenal.

Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. Ryokan Kurashiki is the building behind the lamp post on the far end of the canal

Ryokan Kurashiki (Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture) - 8 rooms total
A letdown. This the default luxury choice in this scenic town that's worth visiting, even as a day trip between Osaka/Kyoto/Nara and Hiroshima. It's at the heart of the old canal district, and the authentic building really blends in nicely to the rest of the historic town. There are many different rooms, each with its own characteristics. Unfortunately, we wound up choosing the wrong room. "Luxury Suite Inui" was pretty good as a room (although modestly sized at 63.1m), and is a stand-alone structure, but it required a steep flight of stairs to get to the Suite. This turned out to be a bigger problem than it otherwise would've been - because of the stairs, meals cannot be delivered to Inui, and is the only room that requires its guests to dine in the main restaurant. Not only did we feel that the kaiseki meals were merely decent, but the server was poorly trained, indifferent, and did a poor job of explaining each course as it was served to us. Also - no Onsen anywhere on site, although I'm not sure that any ryokan in Kurashiki has Onsen facilities.

Migiwatei Ochi Kochi - Upper Suite

Migiwatei Ochi Kochi (Tomocho, Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture) - 17 rooms total
Established in 2010, this ryokan is located in Tomonoura, a old major trading port town near Fukuyama. Often bypassed in favor of the more popular Onomichi, it nevertheless oozes history and charm. You probably don't need more than 1 full day here, although we stayed for 2 nights and used it as a launching pad for visiting Bentenjima Island, Sensuijima Island and the gorgeous Abuto Kannon Temple (aka. Bandaiji), not to mention strolling around Tomonoura old town. Migiwatei Ochi Kochi is a modern ryokan that has 17 rooms scattered within a 5-story building. No real garden, but it's on the edge of the coast, so every guest will have access to awesome views of the Seto Inland Sea and some of the surrounding islands. It's a very scenic area for sure. We booked one of the Upper Suite rooms (#203, Shien to be specific), a luxurious accommodation that had a wonderful blend of old and new aesthetics. It had Western beds, a Western-style dining area (where all meals are served), a living room and a large and wide balcony with amazing views. The hard product is terrific. The Onsen bath in the room was soothing, as was the private rental Onsen. The first night's kaiseki dinner was among the best we've ever experienced. The next evening's dinner, however was less impressive. Still, this is a place that likely would crack my top 20 list (for now) if I ever bothered to have one.

Yoyokaku property grounds

Yoyokaku (Karatsu, Saga Prefecture) - 19 rooms total
We loved this place. We often hesitate before staying at a super traditional ryokan, wondering if it's going to be creaky, worn down and stuffy. This was absolutely not the case with Yoyokaku. It was formed in 1893, and oozes historic charm - if you want to go on a time machine to old Japan, this might be the quintessential Japanese luxury inn. We felt like we were staying in a museum, and in fact, we sort of were. Aside from the ryokan's beautiful traditional architecture and the magnificent, well-kept Japanese garden, there are several rooms on site that feature Karatsu pottery exhibits by some of the pre-eminent craftsmen of the area. We spent many hours exploring Yoyokaku, and were even invited to the Chairman's residence (he has now retired from day-to-day duties, giving up the responsibility to the next generation), which is located on the far side of the garden. He hosted us for several hours, where he served us tea and some traditional Japanese sweets, and then showed us around Yoyokaku, explaining many of the intricate details that make Yoyokaku the historic ryokan that it is. He also speaks good English, and he's not the only one. The current proprietress (the Chairman's daughter-in-law) was an English teacher prior to marrying into the family, so she's also fluent. The Kaiseki meal was excellent, and focused on the bountiful catch from the waters around Saga Prefecture. Speaking of Saga, it's an incredible place to visit. Karatsu is a historic town that served as one of the primary trading ports with Korea and China from ancient times - many of the influences from the Asian mainland still exist today. Yoyokaku is minutes from the Ocean, and you can see pretty Karatsu Castle in the distance. One of the most authentic ryokan stays that we've ever had. No Onsen, though.

Okutsuso ryokan entrance

Okutsuso (Okutso Onsen, Kagamino, Okayama Prefecture) - 8 rooms total
One of the biggest disappointments. Okutsuso is highly rated by Japanese ryokan connoisseurs for its Onsen and food, but overall, we were very underwhelmed and bummed. This is the one ryokan where the impact of COVID seems to have really taken a tool on the business as well as its service quality. First off, we were the only guests staying at the property. Aside from the young (and probably pretty new?) proprietress, who wasn't particularly warm and engaging, most of the staff were either new recruits or trainees with very little experience in the hospitality business and no knowledge of the ryokan's history or the surrounding area. Food quality was also nowhere near what we expected given the glowing reviews given out by (pre-COVID) Japanese guests. While the building itself (and the interior) is traditional and charming (Okutsuso was founded in 1927), the ryokan's footprint is very small. There's no real garden, and making the short walk outside (about 100 feet) from the main building to our room, a detached cabin called Sekitantei, there were regular houses that were packed tightly immediately next to the ryokan. And although both the room as well as the communal baths (at least the open-air ones) are along the banks of the Yoshii River, there were numerous buildings just on the other side, meaning that the outdoor baths needed to be covered by a wall to maintain privacy. And, consequently, shutting off any view of the river from the Onsen. Even though our room was the best one at the property, it still had some glaring shortcomings. No shower (even though there was an open-air outdoor Onsen), one sink, and the indoor hallway connecting the entrance to the deck was coooold. Upon check out, nobody offered to help us with our belongings, which is very unusual in a luxury property (or, at least, ryokans that are priced like one.) Food was also a letdown, so much so that I was left to wonder whether the executive chef was either let go during the pandemic, or left on his own for greener pastures.

Communal Onsen at Arimasansoh Goshobessho - there are two different types of hot springs at Arima Onsen, and both are unique and special

Arimasansoh Goshobessho (Arima Onsen, Hyogo Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
We've tried quite a few ryokans in Arima Onsen, and none of them cut the mustard for us. Most of them are massive, old hotels from the pre-bubble era, while the smaller properties are quite run down. We had high hopes that Arimasansoh Goshobesso would fill a gaping hole by offering top notch service, maximum comfort and privacy, a killer Onsen experience and delectable cuisine. While I'd consider it a luxury property, and it's definitely priced as such, there are a few major shortcomings that are hard to overlook. The main issue has to do with the in-room (indoor) Onsen bath in our very large (and very dark) 100m detached Villa (the top suite type at the property.) It's not of the free-flowing variety: you need to fill up the large tub from the tap. Even though the water is genuine Onsen, it took us almost an hour to fill it up. And there is no way to regulate the temperature, so before each use you'd have to refill the tub with Onsen... talk about inconvenient. There is a communal Onsen, but it's indoors with no views. Food is French-Japanese fusion and was only so-so. Although Arima Onsen is regarded as one of the three most famous Onsen towns in Japan, and the quality of the hot springs really is amazing, unfortunately it has no luxury property that I can recommend to people of this forum. A shame.

At Hotel Iyaonsen, guests can enjoy a short trip by cable car to a natural hot spring in the valley.

Hotel Iyaonsen (Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture) - 20 rooms total
A great experience. It's located in Iya Valley, a remote, mountainous area of rural Shikoku Island, and getting to the ryokan is part of the adventure. There are no trains that get close to the area, and buses are few and far in between (a rental car is the best way to get around.) However, the roads leading to Iyaonsen are twisty and treacherous in many places, often only being wide enough for one vehicle in certain parts. As luxury ryokans go, this place is on the lower end of the scale, but the incredible setting (especially during fall foliage season, when it's astonishingly gorgeous) and Onsen experience more than make up for some minor shortcomings. If you're going to stay here, try for Tamayura (Room #505, a corner Suite on the top floor), the only room with an en-suite open-air Onsen bath. At 47m, it's not massive, but the large windows and commanding view of the valley and mountains below give it an airy feel. You'll also definitely want to take the ropeway down to the bottom of the valley, where there are communal (gender-segregated) Onsen baths along the river on the valley floor, as well as two private Onsens that can be rented by guests of the ryokan. Tremendous Onsen quality in an idyllic setting. One other note - I don't think that Tamayura is made available for online booking. We called to secure the room, and before we did that, no booking sites (including their own) showed availability (or even existence) of the room.

Suite type "DW" at Takinoya

Takinoya (Noboribetsu, Hokkaido Prefecture) - 30 rooms total
One of the most renowned luxury ryokans in Hokkaido, Takinoya did not impress as much as we were anticipating. It's good, but nothing about it blew us away, except for the Onsen quality (but then again, Noboribetsu has awesome Onsens everywhere, and I'm sure all ryokans in town will have the same great quality.) Food was merely "good," which surprised us given the reputation of Hokkaido having the most incredible seafood. In fact, Uni (sea urchin) from Hokkaido is considered the best in the world, and curiously it was not offered at Takinoya. And service from our Nakai-san (room attendant) was indifferent. On the plus side, the small water garden was beautiful, our Japanese Suite ("DW" type) was spacious (92m) and featured an open-air outdoor Onsen bath, and meals were served in our room. Also, the communal Onsen baths were wonderful and faced a scenic forest.

"Tsuru" top-floor suite at Ginrinsou

Ginrinsou (Otaru, Hokkaido Prefecture) - 18 rooms total
Another distinguished and historic property located on a hillside overlooking the charming Otaru town and the Sea of Japan. The outdoor architecture is old-school Japanese (in a good way), and inside it's semi-traditional but very well maintained. The best room was Tsuru, a gigantic Suite located on the top floor of the ryokan in the new wing (118.6m), with a 270 degree view of Otaru and the Bay. It was bright, airy, and also had a in-room Onsen bath. One of the more inspiring ryokan Suites we've ever stayed at. Our time at Ginrinsou was marred by two major shortcomings. First, the kaiseki meal was decidedly average - how can a top property along the coast of Hokkaido serve "ok" food? Ginrinsou does also have a French restaurant on site, although we did not try it. Even worse, the snobbery was on another level here. The Nakai-san talked down to us several times about not following "Japanese tradition" (men are supposed to sit on the dinner table seat seat farthest from the door, since they're not supposed to lift a finger or move around once they are seated - at least in old times.) And when I sat down in the "wrong" seat, she scolded me for doing so and for not doing things the right way. This was just one of several examples where the service level was downright abrasive. Oh, and as soon as we checked out and paid our bill at the front deck, we immediately ceased to become a guest, if you know what I mean. I will never patronize this establishment ever again.

"The Suite" at Arcana Izu

Arcana Izu (Yugashima, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture) - 16 rooms total
An Auberge Ryokan located on the Izu Peninsula, Arcana is famed for its French-Japanese dining experience. It's certainly wonderful, but has since been overshadowed (in our minds) by Sanso Amanosato. All rooms overlook a valley and a river below, allowing for maximum privacy. We stayed in the 86.4m "The Suite", the top room on the top (5th floor.) Large windows, lots of natural light, and a massive and wonderful Onsen on the deck. However, this property could stand for a refurb - for instance, the tiles in the bathroom are funky, 70s style and really shows its age. We also inspected lower category rooms, and found them to be far less spacious and much darker, for some reason. Creative and wonderful cuisine is the main reason to come here, but I'm not sure that it's enough for me to recommend visitors to go out of their way to stay here, especially with Asaba being a mere 15 minutes away from Arcana.

Uni, Fugu and Konbu sea kelp-cured Suzuki (Japanese Sea Bass) at Unzen Kyushu Hotel

Mt.Resort Unzen Kyushu Hotel (Unzen, Nagasaki Prefecture) - 25 rooms total
Fresh and relaxing modern ryokan with contemporary, (mainly) Western decor, giving it a hotel-like atmosphere. The best rooms are found in the Hanare (separate area), and our Terrace Suite Hanare A was on the ground floor, generously proportioned (90.18m) and featured a semi-open-air Onsen bath that was amazing (the Unzen area is well known among aficionados for the quality of its Onsen, which makes sense, given that it's a very volcanic region that's also extremely active to this day.) Drawbacks include the room only having one sink, no views of the hot spring fields (many of the rooms in the main buildings do have such a view) and food quality being uneven. We loved the service here; in fact, on two of our meals (served in a private room), the GM himself personally served us, and we got to know him well. Ryotei Hanzuiryo is the other luxury option in the area. It's far more traditional and slightly older, but is rated higher among Japanese luxury travelers (we have not yet stayed at Hanzuiryo but intend to do so in the future.)

Inner garden at Teien no Yado Sekitei

Sekitei (Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture) - 12 rooms total
Located in Hiroshima Prefecture - about 30 minutes from Hiroshima city center and 15 minutes from the ferry terminal that takes visitors to Miyajima Island (and its famous Torii gate) - Sekitei is an iconic property that has a beautiful garden, nice views of the Seto Inland Sea (and surrounding islands), and great food. It's offers up an authentic ryokan experience, and meals here are exceptional - particularly the Oysters and Anago (Conger Eel) that are harvested here. It's consistently rated as one of the 10 culinary destinations among Japanese travelers, although I'd say it's just outside my own top 10. There are 12 rooms, most of which face the inner garden in a U-shaped arrangement, while several detached rooms are farther down the hill, offering better privacy (but inferior views.) Some rooms have Onsen. Every room is different, with varying degrees of space, layout, view and privacy. We stayed in Oimatsu, a 2-story Suite that had an open-air bath, but one that we had to fill up ourselves, which is a major hassle. We visited the communal open-air Onsen instead, and it was wonderful. A nice bonus - even though the rooms had tatami mats for flooring, the floor was still heated - a godsend given that we stayed here during the Winter. Remember, shoes are collected and stored away at the reception area upon arrival. Dinner is served in the room, while breakfast is provided in the main restaurant.

Iwaso Ryokan main building

Iwaso (Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture) - 38 rooms total
This celebrated traditional ryokan is.... old. Established in 1854, Iwaso has three distinct areas - the main Honkan building is as gorgeous and traditional as they come. Swarms of tourists visit Iwaso to photograph the Honkan and the beautiful natural surroundings. The rooms are extremely dated and quite small here. The Shinkan (new wing) is new, but only in relative terms. It's pretty run down from what we saw, and again, even the Suites are tight on space. There are also four separate single-story Hanare cottages, and we chose one called Senshin Tei. It's wonderfully Japanese, and tremendously uncomfortable. First off, insulation was non-existent, there is no floor heating, and the heater did nothing to warm up the room. There's also only one main room that serves as the living room, dining room (meals are served here) and sleeping quarters (at night they move the table to the side and roll out the futon beds, in traditional non-luxury ryokan fashion.) There's only one sink, no WiFi, and you can't have hot water running in both the shower and bathtub at the same time. And no... no Onsen in the room, although there are communal Onsen baths. We were so uncomfortable in the cottage that we switched to a standard room in the new wing (that's all they had available.) It was very tight (26m) and oddly laid out - the sink was not in the bathroom, but rather next to the living room window. Even here, the WiFi was spotty at best. Dinner is served in the room, while guests in the Hanare cottages can also have breakfast in their room as well. It's a shame about Iwaso. It's located in an awesome area - just next to Momiji Bridge and a 5 minute walk to the famed, ocean-bound Itsukushima Shrine Torii gate. And during the Koyo (Fall foliage) season, the trees around the ryokan burst with vivid red/green/yellow/orange colors that is a sight to behold.

A Type Suite at Bettei Otozure

Bettei Otozure (Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture) - 18 rooms total
Bettei Otozure is a sister property to the very large and historic (but pretty old) Otani Sanso, which are both connected via a private indoor walkway (guests at Otozure can visit, dine and use the facilities at Otani Sanso, but the opposite is not possible.) It offers much more intimacy and a higher end experience than the more hotel-like Otani Sanso. It's a contemporary ryokan with Western-style furnishings; we stayed in the "A-Type Room" (82m) that had a living room, dining room and a separate bedroom. The balcony (which also features an open-air Onsen) is a massive 32m, and has several lounge chairs to relax on the deck. Although there's not much to do in the immediate area, we had a car, so during our 3-night stay at Otozure we enjoyed visits to Hagi, Motonosumi Inari Shrine, Tsunoshima Bridge, Beppu Benten Pond, and Yamaguchi City (and its awesome Ruriko-ji Temple), and also spent a lazy afternoon strolling around sleepy Nagato-Yumoto town. Bettei Otozure is very good but not exceptional. Meals are in the main restaurant; only guests staying in rooms #204 (a Type B room) and #206 (Type C) have the option to have meals served in their room. Good choice for those intending to visit the area, but it falls just short of being a destination ryokan.

Choseiden Suite at Kotohira Kadan

Kotohira Kadan (Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture) - 43 rooms total
This ryokan is situated within easy walking distance to Kotohira-gu Temple (aka Konpira-san), one of the top tourist attractions in Shikoku Island. It's a historic property, but one where it seems ownership has been resting on their laurels. It needs a refurb (even if it's traditional, it stands to be tastefully refreshed from time to time.) We erred in choosing to stay in Room #101, a stand-alone villa dubbed Hanare-Choseiden, which is a capacious 152m but was scary old. Some might call it traditional, but it was so much so that if ghosts do exist in this world, our room would be among the first places to find them. Putting that aside, the room technically had two bathrooms, but one of them is so "traditional" that a famous Sumo wrestler (I won't name him here) that stayed in the same room supposedly ran out of the bathroom screaming in fear. Staff are robotic and cold, and seemed worn down from working there, for whatever reason. Food was okay. Perhaps a different room may have moved the needle closer to the center, but we're not about to make a repeat visit here to find out.

Longtooth Grouper and Red Sea Bream Hot Pot at Kumano Bettei Nakanoshima

Kumano Bettei Nakanoshima (Katsuura, Wakayama Prefecture) - 44 rooms total
Located on an island off the Southeastern tip of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, this ryokan is located on the private island of Nakanoshima, which is a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland. While not quite as luxurious as many others on this list, it is the only luxury option in the area, and is definitely worth visiting. Nagi No Sho is a Luxury Deluxe Ocean View Room with open-air bath and offers 75m of indoor living space. From the balcony we were treated to a wonderful view of the Ocean as well as a nearby island. Sadly, the view is partially ruined by the existence of some sort of water (or oil?) storage tank - it's a real eyesore. While Nagi No Sho's bath is not an Onsen, thankfully there are several Onsen facilities on site, including one that can be rented for private use. Nakanoshima also has a spectacular seaside communal Onsen - it's huge and mystical, especially at night. This is one of the few ryokans where the top room was already booked at the time we chose to stay. Kihinshitsu is the one to get - it is 112m and the only room of the 44 total at Nakanoshima which has an in-room Onsen. If you intend to explore the Kumado Kodo region, you should definitely check out Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the three main shrines along the Kumano Kodo trail network, as well as nearby Nachi Waterfall. Kumano Nachi Taisha with the waterfall in the background is one of the most photographed scenes in all of Japan. There are many other things to do in the area as well.

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan. Continually operating since its founding in 705 A.D., it's the oldest hotel in the world

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan (Hayakawa-cho, Yamanashi Prefecture) - 37 rooms total
We went out of our way to pay a visit to this ryokan because it is declared as the oldest hotel in the world by Guinness World Records. Keiunkan was originally established in 705AD, and has been been owned and continually operated by the same family of 52 generations since its inception. Wow. The ryokan itself, however, is not wow. Far from it. We were half hoping for some artifacts denoting its past history, but nothing about the experience would suggest that it is a 1300+ year-old inn. Rather, it's a single, rather large (and bland) building built in the 90s, with absolutely zero historic charm. In some ways, it's not the fault of the owners. The property in its previous location (a few miles downriver) was completely destroyed by a devastating typhoon about 60 years ago, which took most of the antiques (and an exhibit of its history) along with it. The best room is the Kitadake Suite on the top floor, a relatively large accommodation that has a wonderful, open-air Onsen on the balcony. The food was also better than we expected, given its isolated location (it is in the middle of NOWHERE) and had lightning-fast WiFi. The not-so-good: the only in-room shower is outside on the deck - we couldn't imagine showering outside in the dead of Winter. Well, maybe if we first jumped into the Onsen bath to warm up. The public Onsens do not have showers, which is a bit unsettling. While it's not super inconvenient to have to shower in one's own room, I worry about other people not cleaning up before jumping into the Onsen. While this ryokan has history unlike any other, you won't feel it at all when staying here. Too bad.

Delectable Japanese breakfast at Hotel Ridge

Hotel Ridge (Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
This is a small, modern ryokan that is in a quiet location atop a hill overlooking the Naruto Strait. It's located at the Northeastern tip of Shikoku and just across the bridge connecting Shikoku and Awaji Island (which itself is a large island located between Kobe and Shikoku.) We chose to stay here after taking a tour of the Naruto Uzushio Whirlpools (one of the 3 top whirlpools in the world) and Cherry Blossom viewing in Tokushima, and it's almost certainly the top luxury option in the area. Recently renovated in 2019, it's a modern Japanese architecture with mainly hotel-like Western furnishings. There are only 2 room types - Waso (Japanese-style) and Yoso (Western Style), but the differences are minimal. All rooms are roughly 60m - not terribly spacious, with the living room being nothing more than a small sitting area that faces the Strait. No Onsen in the room, although there's a small, public Onsen facility on site. Dining choices include a traditional Kaiseki meal and a French option at La Table, which is what we opted for. It did not blow us away. The Japanese breakfast, however, was more in line with what we expect of a top luxury ryokan. Most guests staying here are either traveling between the mainland and Shikoku, or are in the area to check out the Naruto Whirlpools and highly regarded Otsuka Museum of Art.

Ryokusone Yamaboushi Suite upstairs bedroom

Ryokusone (Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture) - 7 rooms total
Kanazawa is really crying for a top-notch luxury hotel or ryokan; we've never been satisfied in any of our stays in the city, but Yamanoo Bettei Ryokusone is our go-to option (we've now stayed there 3 times.) It is situated atop a small hill overlooking the city and is about a 10 minute drive to the Higashi Chaya District and Kenrokuen Garden. If you really want to be near the tourist center, this may not work for you. This small ryokan is quite traditional in look and feel, which many guests will appreciate. On the other hand, Ryokusone has a very small footprint, meaning there's not much else to see on site - no real garden to speak of, for instance. It would've been nice if it had one, given that Kanazawa is home to one of the three most famous gardens in the country (Kenrokuen is a major tourist attraction here.) Special Room Yamaboushi is the top room here - it's a 2 story maisonette-style (duplex) Suite that has the bedroom on the 2nd floor. The interior adornments are stunning (see accompanying photo of the bedroom.) On the first floor it's more Western in style, with a couch, coffee table and large TV. Yamaboushi has both an indoor and outdoor bath, but sadly, neither are Onsen (there is no Onsen facility anywhere on site.) The food here during our first visit in 2019 was fantastic, although the kaiseki dinner in our most recent stay (in the Summer of 2022) was less impressive. Keep in mind, however, that seafood and produce are generally at their best in non-Summer seasons, so perhaps this may have had something to do with it.

B type Suite bedroom at Matsushima Sakan Shoan

Matsushima Sakan Shoan (Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture) - 11 rooms total
Tucked away along the coast in an isolated area about a 10 minute drive from Matsushima's city center (and 45 minutes Northeast from Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region), this ryokan has spectacular views of the Bay and good food that's served in a Koshitsu (private room), especially the sashimi that they offer from the bountiful seafood that is locally caught. We stayed in a "B Type" Suite - they're the highest category rooms with a view. It wasn't particularly large, but the higher-category Tokubetsu Shitsu Suites, while more spacious, do not have a view. There is no Onsen anywhere on the property; the lack of one is really a bummer given the serenity and beauty of the setting and views from the ryokan.

An oasis of tranquility at Atamiso

Atamiso (Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture) - 11 rooms total
We chose to stay here because it appeared to be the most luxurious ryokan within (somewhat) close proximity to Bandai Atami National Park and the wonderful hiking trails along the picturesque Goshikinuma Ponds. We had an odd experience here, but not in a bad way. It was among the most intimate stays we've had - while Atamiso technically has 11 rooms, they only accept a maximum of 2 groups of guests. Their explanation: with COVID, they decided to reduce the available # of bookable rooms (as well as staff), and they are going to keep it that way. Really? From what I can gather, even during the best of times they never really made all rooms available, as the new owner wanted to cater to higher-end guests (the former owner passed away 9 years ago.) Which is just as well, given that over half of them are very small and very humble. We originally chose a room without a view (named Sogetsu) because it had an Onsen. However, they offered to let us stay in a room with a wonderful view of the spectacularly gorgeous Gohyakugawa River (Tenga no Ma), which does not have an Onsen, and gave us the keys to Sogetsu to use the Onsen anytime we wanted. Not only that, but they turned the two communal Onsens into private ones for us and the other group (both had awesome river view, and we got the Onsen that was previously intended for women's use.) We had dinner in a yet another different unoccupied guest room, and were served by Satoshi Asano, the executive chef himself. He went into great detail in explaining all aspects of each course, including the lacquerware and ceramics and the history and uniqueness of them. Service overall was extremely personal and attentive, and we could tell that this is a small-time operation - as we left the ryokan to get into our vehicle, we found Chef Asano washing our car window! If Atamiso continues to allow only two groups of guests to stay here, I would definitely recommend it for the intimate nature of the experience.

View of the "Satoyama" landscape surrounding Maki No Oto Toyama

Satoyama no Auberge Maki No Oto (Nanto, Toyama) - 3 rooms total
Founded in 2005, this small, highly rated Auberge ryokan is located in a rural area of Toyama in a pretty, Satoyama (rural farmland) setting and is renowned for its French-Japanese fusion cuisine. We were unimpressed in almost all aspects. Given the Satoyama scenery, a garden is really not necessary - the farmland setting itself is the calming influence here. We booked the best of the three rooms (Executive Room Yamaboushi); it occupies the entire 2nd floor of the building, but even then, it was not super spacious - it felt smaller than the 57m that's listed on the ryokan's website. It's also not luxuriously appointed - everything from the desk to chairs to the couch were basic, although it seems the intent of Maki no Oto is to exude a "country" vibe, which it (sort of) manages to pull off. The room had only one sink, and the bathroom's sink and shower are not separate from the toilet, so if one person is powdering their nose, their partner will need to wait before using the toilet. Food was underwhelming - not sure if the executive chef was on a leave of absence, but we left the ryokan wondering what the fuss was all about. Note that there's a sister property in Kanazawa, also named Maki No Oto, so make sure not to be confused between them if trying to make reservations here. But I wouldn't recommend this place.

79m Cottage Suite at Yunotani Senkei

Yunotani Senkei (Totsukawa, Yoshino, Nara Prefecture) - 9 rooms total
The Kii Peninsula is HUGE. Nara, Wakayama and Mie Prefectures all share parts of the region, which is also mountainous and not very easy to navigate through its interior. However, it's an amazing place to visit, even if many of the top attractions are very spread out. Kumano Kodo, Koyasan, Ise (including Ise Jingu Shrine) and Shima call it home; Amanemu, by the way, is located on the Eastern tip of the Peninsula - a bit too far to use it as a base to explore the major Kumano Kodo sights. We chose to stay at Yunotani Senkei because it was the highest end ryokan within proximity of Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine (one of the three most important Shrines along the Kumano Kodo), although it should be noted that it's still a 30 minute drive away, so you really need a car to get around. We stayed in the Fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, so service was somewhat abnormal. While meals are normally served in the main building restaurant, we had both dinner and breakfast delivered - at one time - to our room. It was presented in a bento way - pretty nicely done, but it's no substitute to a traditional, multi-course Kaiseki affair. All 9 cottages have a rural-modern vibe (like a luxurious log cabin), and our cottage was a very comfortable place to pass the time. In fact, the rooms and all facilities are fresh spotlessly clean - the ryokan was established in October, 2017. While there is no Onsen in the room, the public facilities are wonderful, and there is also a open-air Onsen that's available for private use, which I'd highly recommend. Pretty good service - unlike most ryokans, the proprietress here moves quickly, speaks in a very high volume and in "familiar" (rather than formal) Japanese. It wasn't a turn off at all, though, because she did it in a way that was warm and full of enthusiasm and energy. If we were to venture in the area again, we wouldn't hesitate to return - it's an excellent rural retreat in a beautiful, isolated part of the Kii Peninsula.

Seryo front entrance

Seryo (Ohara, Kyoto Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
A mere 30 minutes by car from Kyoto will take you to Ohara, a rural, farmland area with rolling hills, gorgeous scenery and lots of history. Seryo is situated atop a small mountain, allowing for impressive views of the valley below. It's also within walking distance to three important temples that are definitely worth visiting - Sanzen-in, Hosen-in and Shorin-in. But the main reason to come here is to hike the trail between Kurama and Kibune, with most of it taking place within the massive grounds of Kurama-dera Temple... it's awesome, and is one of the best side trips from Kyoto (along with Ine, Tamba-Sasayama, Uji and Amanohashidate.) Seryo itself is about the only luxury ryokan in Ohara, but it's really only luxury (for the purposes of this forum) if you book the one room that has an Onsen - the Sakura no Ma Japanese Suite with open-air bath. The room isn't a Suite, but it's fresh and clean, and I doubt that most people will spend too much time in their room anyway, given the numerous sights that are worth visiting nearby. Meals are served in the main restaurant and are good but not great.

Lounge area at Katsuragi Hotel Kitanomaru

Katsuragi Hotel Kitanomaru (Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture) - 49 rooms total
Staying here was an afterthought for us - at the last minute, we decided to break up our 6+ hour drive from the Fuji Five Lakes area to Osaka, and this property was conveniently situated to serve this purpose. It's considered a "local luxury" property and attracts an upscale clientele, but I think it's because there are a lack of options near Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. This property was originally founded by the chairman of Yamaha as a private rural retreat, and is still owned by the company. It's set away from Hamamatsu in a forest environment - there are some short hiking trails on the property grounds, as well as a large garden that's viewable from the lobby and dining room. The lounge area has an impressive, classic Yamaha piano, which gives it a sense of place. Unfortunately, our room was terrible. Since we booked last minute, the only room available was the Deluxe Western-style Twin Room, which was one category higher than the Standard room. It was a suffocating 28m in size, with small windows and and worn down furnishings. The vast majority of rooms are either Standard or Deluxe rooms. At the rates this property commands, I'd recommend that they combine two of these rooms into one Suite - all of them. Most hotels and ryokans in Japan built in the early to mid 20th Century are quite small, but Yamaha needs to get with the times. If they actually did this, we'd stay here again. It's a beautiful property, the architecture is traditional Japanese and quite impressive and the region is underserved in terms of luxury properties. Meals are in the restaurant, and the kaiseki dinner course was the one aspect that exceeded our expectations.

Dinner at Kifu No Sato - Clear soup with Tai (Red Sea Bream) and White Hair Leek. The cheek portion of the Sea Bream was full of awesome fat and flavor, and the Sea Bream broth soup was light but umami-infused.

Kifu No Sato (Yunogo Onsen, Okayama Prefecture) - 35 rooms total
There are three famous Onsen towns in Okayama - Yubara, Yunogo and Okutsu - they're all in the Mimisaka region, and Kifu No Sato is the top luxury ryokan in Yunogo. We decided to overnight here on our road trip from Osaka to Hiroshima. Given that it was during the height of the pandemic, the town was pretty dead. Even so, it really looked like Yunogo Onsen has seen better days - most of the structures looked like they were built during the postwar economic boom period, and were really beginning to show their age. And Kifu No Sato (at least from the outside) was no exception. The ryokan is housed in a bland, yellow building that could use a fresh coat of (different colored) paint, but things were better once we stepped inside. There were some very pretty Bonsai and Ikebana flower arrangements, including at the front entrance, that helped to dress things up. Our Hiougi (which stands for Leopard Lily) room was a nicely appointed 75m Suite with a living room, dining room, a separate bedroom and a wonderful open-air Onsen. The kaiseki dinner was served in our Suite's dining room and was pretty darned good.

Impressive, thatched-roofed entrance gate to Kannawaen

Sanso Kannawaen (Beppu, Oita Prefecture) - 30 rooms total
Beppu town supposedly generates more thermal hot springs water than anywhere else in the country, and upon visiting area, it's easy to believe. There are hot springs steam rising all over the city, and you can even smell the sulfur. It's an awe-inspiring sight. We weren't quite as impressed with Kannawaen. The facilities are decent, but could stand to be renovated (note that the property is undergoing reno as we speak, so my opinions might not be applicable for much longer.) The building itself looks like a big-box hotel, but the wonderful garden (which features a traditional Noh theater stage, a tea house and a Koi pond) gave it a decent atmosphere. We booked the top room on the top floor (Special Room Shun), a 143m Suite where meals can be served in the room, but upon check-in, we were informed that it was not available due to renovation on the entire floor where it's located. It really would've been nice if they had notified us in advance. We went with Ume, a stand-alone 166m Suite with an outdoor open-air Onsen. It was a nice, but did not have any view of the city and Ocean. They do not serve meals in this room, but after bringing up the issue with the GM, he made an exception and had the kaiseki course served in our room. Everything was pretty decent (including the food), and the Onsen was exceptional. But if we were to return, we'll probably try out Amane Resort Seikai, a 46-room resort that's right along the coast and offers panoramic views of the Sea, or its adjacent sister property, Amane Resort Gahama.

First course at Kinugawa Kanaya, clockwise from top center: "Chawanmushi" Savory egg custard with Scallops, Gingko Nuts and Lily Bulb; Raw Amaebi Sweet Shrimp; Savory Sponge Cake with Japanese Yam Shoots; Ayu (Sweetfish); Mashed Tofu with Persimmon and Crown Daisy; "Imaho" (the ear of rice)

Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel (Kinugawa Onsen, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture) - 41 rooms total
Kinugawa is an Onsen town about 30 minutes from central Nikko, and the Kanaya Hotel there (another Kanaya ryokan can be found near Lake Chuzenji, close to the Ritz-Carlton Nikko) is a somewhat aging luxury property that is considered (at least according to Kanaya's brochure) to be the first Western-style luxury establishment in the country. More of a hotel than a ryokan (shoes don't come off at the entrance, and you can book a stay without having meals included), Kinugawa Kanaya exudes luxury from a bygone (Western) era, with furnishings in the common area being dark brown leather in hue. There's a photogenic garden that's located in the back of the property which is worth seeing, and from most rooms you'll get a good view of the Kinugawa River and valley - it's especially attractive during the Fall foliage season. Since we didn't intend to spend too much time in this property, and the John Kanaya Suite was freakishly expensive, we opted for the Standard Japanese-Western Room, a 66m Junior Suite that has a tatami living room (which is also where meals are served) and a Western-style bed. Unlike the common areas, the room was bright, airy and contemporary Japanese. The star attraction here is the exquisite kaiseki cuisine. Every little serving was arranged beautifully and prepared to perfection. There was quite a bit of creativity in the offerings, but even something typical like Gindara Saikyo-yaki (grilled Black Cod marinated with Saikyo Miso) was fabulous. Not everything was Japanese - the Butternut Squash Mousse with Pink Pepper was amazing, and the main dish was a choice between Bouillabaisse and this ryokan's specialty dish, Tochigi Wagyu Beef Stew. They were both delectable. If ryokans were rated just on food quality, Kinugawa Kanaya would easily crack my top 10.

Hazu Gassho lounge area

Hazu Gassho (Toyooka, Shinshiro, Aichi Prefecture) - 5 rooms total
There are a serious dearth of luxury properties within an hour radius of Nagoya. We were hoping that Hazu Gassho would serve as a decent option, but unfortunately, it didn't pass muster. Upon first glance, it's quite wonderful - it's located in a secluded spot surrounded by a forest, with a tranquil river flowing behind the ryokan. The Meiji-era buildings are charming, as are the interior decor - if you're into old Japan, Hazu Gassho is bound to delight.... if not for the fact that noise insulation is terrible - the rooms themselves (including ours, called Hanakaida, a 50m suite) are reasonably comfortable and had a separate bedroom/living room, but we heard the sounds of people walking on the hallways and in the room above us. Given the ryokan's relatively large footprint and the fact that it only has 5 rooms, they really should consider making each unit a detached one. Other drawbacks include the lack of an Onsen anywhere, unless you take a courtesy shuttle to an Onsen facility at a sister property that's located about 10 minutes away (way too much of a hassle for us.) Food was not memorable.

Kazahana Suite room's outdoor open-air Onsen bath at Takimotokan Yukinosato

Takimotokan Yukinosato (Yoro, Gifu Prefecture) - 11 rooms total
Located about an hour away from Nagoya in the Yoro area, and a 3-minute walk from lovely Yoro-no-taki Falls, Yukinosato is perched halfway up a mountain with commanding view of the landscape below, especially from the reception area. There were 3 of us during our visit, so we booked the two Suites there - Kazahana and Kangetsu. Both were Japanese-style tatami rooms and had open-air Onsen baths with great views. Between the two, Kazahana is the choice - it has its own yard (where the Onsen is located), whereas Kangetsu is on a higher floor with the Onsen on the balcony. We found Kazahana to be in a more serene setting. The kaiseki dinner was wonderful, especially the succulent and perfectly marbled A5 Hida Beef Chateaubriand steak. You'll have to pay extra for it, but it's well worth the additional cost. Mrs. KI-NRT's mother said it was the best beef dish she's ever had, and that's saying a lot. We combined our stay here with Shogetsu (in Gero Onsen), and we loved the combo of the two ryokans.

View of Amakusa Tenku no Fune's restaurant building (and the ocean)

Amakusa Tenku no Fune (Amakusa, Nagasaki Prefecture) - 15 rooms total
We stayed here during our road trip exploring some of the "hidden Christians" sights (locations where Christianity was secret practiced by locals during the prohibition period), including several historic and stunning UNESCO World Heritage churches in Nagasaki. Amakusa itself is a breathtakingly scenic place, even more so than the more famous Matsushima. There are tons of beautiful small islands dotting the bay, and this ryokan sits on a commanding location up a hill, offering sweeping views of the landscape and sea. It's somewhat closer to being a hotel than a ryokan - shoes stay on (except in one's own room, although I don't think anyone there really polices it), and it's thoroughly Western contemporary in both the architecture as well as interior decor. Most rooms are housed in a building behind the reception area/restaurant, with great views. There are, however, three stand-alone Villas, one of which was ours for 2 nights (Island View Villa B.) While the Villas were somewhat closer to the water, and are much nicer rooms (74m plus a 34m balcony), my guess is that the non-Villa rooms have better views overall. There's no Onsen at this property, but they make up for it by serving up scrumptious, high-end Italian fare using ingredients (especially the amazing seafood) from Amakusa, including purple Sea Urchin that is used in one of the pasta dishes. If you've never had Uni pasta in Japan before, you MUST try it.

Neputa art exhibit at Hoshino Resorts Kai Tsugaru. Neputa is a nearby village known for its artisans

Hoshino Resorts Kai Tsugaru (Owani, Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture) - 40 rooms total
Although Hoshino's KAI-branded properties are billed as luxury Onsen ryokans, we found Kai Tsugaru to be anything but that. Service, amenities and the overall experience were all below the standards that we've experienced at other luxury ryokans in the country. When we first pulled up in our vehicle to the depressingly unattractive main building, there was nobody on hand to greet us and help us with our luggage. There was no welcome tea or local sweets served as we were checking in. Very small hotel grounds. Shoes did not come off. Staff members were dressed in nondescript Western outfits, rather than attractive Kimonos. And as with most other Kai resorts, they offered Samue to wear, rather than Yukatas (why not offer both?) Our room - a 50m Western-style room (category TC2) had carpeted floors rather than hardwood or tatami flooring, and had no Onsen (a common thing among Kai resorts - your only option is to go to the communal baths if you want the Onsen experience - very un-luxury-like.) On the plus side, the meals were above average (especially by Hoshino standards), and there was an attractive, man-made pond behind the main building, with most rooms having a view of the pond. One aspect that we do appreciate about Hoshino is the efforts they make in promoting local customs, culture and artisans. After dinner, they had a well known Shamisen (a traditional string instrument) musician perform and explain the history of the Shamisen. Location wise, this property is a decent base from which to explore the area, especially if you have a car, in which case places like Hirosaki Castle, Sannai-Maruyama Jomon Historical Site and Lake Towada are within reach. Which is what we did by staying here for 2 nights.

Private rental Onsen bath at Hoshino Resorts Kai Nikko

Hoshino Resorts Kai Nikko (Near Lake Chuzenji, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture) - 30 rooms total
Double Ugh. Yet another old, worn down Hoshino Kai property, and much worse than Kai Tsugaru; at least the Tsugaru property was decently maintained inside, but in Kai Nikko the old, moldy smell was incredibly off-putting. It's set along the banks of Lake Chuzenji, and our ginormous 170m Suite had a great view of the Lake that was significantly impacted by an unsightly power line that ran across the length of the street between Kai Nikko and the Lake. This was the only property that did not provide individually-wrapped toiletries. And no moisturizing cream! The kaiseki meal was good but not memorable. No Onsen in the room, but at least they had a private Onsen that is available for guests to reserve. We chose to stay here because the Lake Chuzenji area is quite a ways away from the center of Nikko (where we stayed at the awesome Fufu Nikko), and wanted to see Kegon-no-taki Falls and do some hiking on some of the scenic trails in the area. We definitely should've stayed at the brand new Ritz-Carlton property instead.

Kisara Bettei Toki - Thick-cut Daikon radish with Foie Gras on top, flavored with Porcini Sauce and Mirin.

Kisara Bettei Toki (Toba, Mie Prefecture) - 10 rooms total
We stayed here for one night prior to heading off to Shima (to stay at Amanemu for 3 nights.) Toba is one of the main Ocean resort towns for Nagoya and Osaka residents, along with Shirahama (similar to the role that Atami and Kamakura play for Tokyo folks.) Like Atami, Toba has deteriorated a bit over time, although there are still quite a few decent attractions including the Toba Aquarium. Kisara Bettei Toki is a modern ryokan that offers Omotenashi service, delicious kaiseki cuisine and a great Onsen; it definitely punched above its weight. Examples of the stellar service: upon our arrival the GM noticed that we had a small bird wedged inside the grill of our vehicle, immediately ran inside to grab a towel, and carefully removed it (we didn't know it was there, and unfortunately it was dead.) And when we opted to skip breakfast to get an early start in our visit to Ise Jingu Grand Shrine, they shipped us Sun-dried Lobster, something they were selling at their gift ship for 5000 yen - a very thoughtful touch. Our 68m Hanada Suite was a detached villa (no shared walls) and was nicely appointed, had a great view of the Bay (and surrounding islands), heated floors in both the living room and bedroom and both an Onsen bath as well as an Onsen foot bath on the balcony. There might not be much of a reason for most people to visit Toba, but if you're in the area, Kisara Bettei Toki is a wonderful place to spend the night.

Gougre (savory French puff pasty) with Foie Gras and Miso (soybean paste) mousse. Genius.

Auberge Uchiko (Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture) - 5 rooms total
We loved Uchiko - it's a charming town with loads of history, but we only "liked" Auberge Uchiko. Although our Suite Villa was listed as an 80m unit, it felt far tighter than that. There was no real area to store our roller boards, so we had to place them on the floor near the bed. The architecture and decorations are contemporary "country home" style, which was appropriate given that it was surrounded by beautiful Sakura Cherry Blossom trees (we were not them during blooming season, however.) There was a walkway that ran in front of our living room and balcony, so we were forced to keep the curtains shut for the majority of our time in the room. There is no in-room Onsen, which would otherwise be acceptable if not for the fact that the on-site communal Onsen is open to non-guests until 9PM each day. The fusion cuisine was palatable, but not on the same level (in both presentation and execution) as Arcana Izu, Sankara or Sanso Amanosato.) Which is fine, I guess, given the much lower price point that Auberge Uchiko commands.

Auberge Tosayama Villa

Auberge Tosayama (Tosayama-Higashigawa, Kochi Prefecture) - 5 rooms total
This is an extremely stylish rural retreat located about 45 minutes from Kochi city proper on the island of Shikoku. Everything from the architecture to the interior design exudes a modern, rural atmosphere, allowing it to blend in seamlessly with the beautiful, forested environment. The Villa rooms are located across a small river gorge that is accessed via a suspension bridge. Our 70m Villa Suite was pleasing to the eye, although it was a junior suite layout (we prefer separate bedrooms/living rooms) and felt smaller than the specifications. It was, however partially made up by the comparatively large balcony that had great views of the mountains. No Onsen in the room, but they have both an indoor and outdoor communal Onsen bath. The fusion meal was very nice; highlights included the Sauteed Foie Gras with Uni (sea urchin), the lightly boiled and straw-grilled Bluefin Tuna with Yuzu Ponzu sauce, and the braised Tosa Kuroge Wagyu beef cheek with red wine sauce.

Asan Kotonami - Salted and grilled Ayu (Sweetfish), and Miso-glazed Tofu, Satoimo Japanese Taro and Konjac roasted over an "Irori" hearth

Asan Kotonami (Katsuura, Manno, Kagawa Prefecture) - 28 rooms total
Another stylish, mountain-hut-style resort in Shikoku, on the outskirts of Manno in Kagawa Prefecture. This ryokan opened in 2017 and features a tasteful, modern Japanese aesthetic. Asan Kotonami's claim to fame is its amazing communal Onsen bathing facility; it's like the Disneyland of Onsens. It's huge, and has multiple indoor and outdoor Onsen, and is arranged in great style and substance. Even while walking from the changing room to the baths, there is Onsen flowing along the ground... it appears they have hot springs in abundance at this property. One Onsen was the size of a small pool, while another one allowed someone to "sleep" - it was shallow and laid out in a way (with a fixed water "pillow") where you can lay down in the bath without having your face submerged. And the slightly lukewarm temperature of this sleeping bath allowed me to spend a longer time enjoying the Onsen (most baths in Japan are piping hot, by the way.) Meals were served in semi-private rooms - semi-private in that the walls did not extend all the way to the ceiling, which allowed noise (especially from the nearby bar) to get into the room. I'm not sure if it's always the case, but it was really loud, from the clanging of dishes and cups to the yelling noises by drunk guests in an adjacent dining room. Otherwise, the kaiseki food quality was pretty good.

Karin Suite's indoor and outdoor Onsen at Fukahoritei

Fukahoritei (Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture) - 5 rooms total
Established in 2008, this ryokan was nice, but also incomplete. What do I mean by incomplete? To begin with, it was apparent that Fukahoritei is woefully understaffed - there was nobody to greet us outside when we arrived, and the staff we saw there seem to be constantly running around tending to various matters. Also, there's a ton of construction going on, both on site as well as on the neighboring plots of land. I'm not sure what the plans are for both the ryokan and the surrounding area, but the landscaping at Fukahoritei was torn up with several bulldozers on site (thankfully, no work was being done when we were there.) I can imagine this being a bona-fide small luxury ryokan - the interior, in both the main building as well as our Suite - were attractive with a nice balance of old and new Japan. Karin, a 67.74m Suite that had both an indoor and outdoor Onsen bath, was not super capacious by luxury standards, but had a high ceiling and was smartly laid out with a bedroom, a Western living room and a small tatami seating area. The Onsen experience here was sublime; the thermal hot spring was more slimy than the typical Onsen, and was smooth and soothing to the skin. The dinner was traditional kaiseki cuisine, and was wonderful, especially the Fugu sashimi, Soft-shelled Turtle Hot Pot and the Kagoshima Kuroge Wagyu beef with fried garlic sauce. It'll be interesting to see how Fukahoritei turns out once all of the renovations and landscaping (and re-staffing) have been completed.

Finally, a word about Hoshino Resorts. We've stayed at 6 of their properties, including 4 of their Onsen ryokans, which are all branded as "KAI." If it wasn't already apparent from my impressions of their Tsugaru and Nikko properties, we've been underwhelmed by every single one of them. Most rooms are very small and are open plan (we prefer separate bedrooms and living rooms), and only a handful of units at each property have en-suite Onsen (if there is one at all.) Food is okay (okay is not good enough, this is Japan we're talking about), but the number of courses tend to be less than what's usually offered at competing ryokans. They also seem to have a mish-mash of old, run-down properties (which they typically have acquired from the previous owners, but have done a poor job renovating them, if they even bothered to do that) and brand new builds (like the one in Nagato in Yamaguchi Prefecture.) Service is also very uneven - it just feels very cold and corporate, much more so than Fufu, let alone small, family-run luxury ryokans. I'm sure there are some very nice properties - KAI Atami comes to mind, but who wants to go to Atami? - nonetheless, many of the properties are woefully overpriced (I'm looking at you, Karuizawa) or are dying for a refurb. The only reason for us to stay at a Hoshino property in the future is if it's the only option in a particular area we want to visit; and, admittedly, they often are situated in some enviable locales with some wonderful views, so I'm fairly certain there will be other Hoshino Kai properties in future itineraries of ours.

Thank you for reading my lengthy report. This covers nearly 2 years worth of ryokan stays, so it's actually quite concise if I might say so myself. I only scratched the surface, and left quite a few ryokans on the cutting room floor. Feel free to ask away if you have any specific questions about a particular ryokan, or about ryokan/onsen experiences in general. Happy Japan travels!
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Last edited by KI-NRT; May 19, 23 at 12:11 am
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Old Sep 21, 22, 6:21 am
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This is excellent and very helpful! Thank you.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 7:37 am
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Originally Posted by vprp
This is excellent and very helpful! Thank you.
+1. Well, +1000 really. What a write up. The OP could/should start a website or some such. One question for KI-NRT: how navigable is the typical Ryokan for somebody who doesn't speak a word of Japanese?
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Old Sep 21, 22, 9:05 am
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Incredible. KI-NRT you are an amazing asset to this forum, whether it is descriptions of safari camps and now this stunning comprehensive presentation of ryokans in Japan. Your pictures give me a great sense of each place.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 10:18 am
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Originally Posted by ridefar
how navigable is the typical Ryokan for somebody who doesn't speak a word of Japanese?
In major tourist hot spots like Hakone, Nikko, Kyoto and Kanazawa, the vast majority of luxury ryokans will have at least one English-speaking staff on hand. Fufu and Hoshino properties, in particular, have a high percentage of foreign staff that cater to foreign visitors. Ditto for internationally renowned properties like Asaba and Takefue. One good way to find out: see if the ryokan have an English language version of their website; that should be an indication of their intentions.

Many younger Japanese can speak rudimentary English. Relying on Google Translate on your phone should be sufficient for anything but the most complex of interactions.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 2:03 pm
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Thank you for this! One question: when searching for ryokan, do they generally show up in hotel searches, or are there separate places to search for them?
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Old Sep 21, 22, 3:36 pm
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What a valuable thread - having seen a lot of the highest profile western style across the world, having some of these serene experiences is way up my bucket list.

Because its not always easy to find out, what is the price range youve generally found on your travels for the places youve listed? Im just curious as to how they compare to Amans or something like a Ritz Carlton.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 6:34 pm
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As a relatively frequent visitor to Japan (except of course since Covid started until now), I have still never stayed at many ryokan. OK, some, but no top ones.

Now that we have this amazing post by KI-NRT, that's going to change for me going forward. Thank you so very much for doing this. If I knew how -- and despite being a moderator, I don't -- I would totally want to see a list by prefecture along with a link to the specific ryokan in each prefecture. Something to look into, but in the meantime all I can say is WOW and THANKS!

Originally Posted by EuropeanPete
...Because it’s not always easy to find out, what is the price range you’ve generally found on your travels for the places you’ve listed? I’m just curious as to how they compare to Amans or something like a Ritz Carlton.
It might be difficult to compare prices with a conventional hotel as most (and probably all high end) ryokan prices include at least breakfast and dinner.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 8:01 pm
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This thread belongs in the Flyertalk Hall of Fame. Thanks OP for the effort and staggering amount of information and detail.
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Old Sep 21, 22, 8:28 pm
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Originally Posted by angetenar
Thank you for this! One question: when searching for ryokan, do they generally show up in hotel searches, or are there separate places to search for them?
Quite a few ryokans do not show up in hotel searches. Some ryokans only accept bookings through their own website or by calling them. Others withhold top room categories from major booking engines. Finally, a handful of ryokans do not even publish details of their rooms (Tawaraya is the perfect example.)

Usually, however, if you go to the ryokan website, there should be a link to a reservation system. If you are viewing the English version of the site, many of them will take you to a designated booking engine (often booking.com.) I've found that some of the English-denoted room names/types don't correlate well with the Japanese room names, making it quite confusing.

In Japan, the most reliable (and expansive) booking site is ikyu.com. Sadly, it's in Japanese only. Japanican has a large number of ryokans that are bookable from their site, although they don't always make the Tokubetsu Shitsu (special rooms) available. It's all very confusing, yes! Which is why many foreign travelers rely on the Ryokan Collection to assist with bookings. Their ryokan choices are severely limited, although some of the top properties are part of the Ryokan Collection portfolio.

P.S. - I'll be adding comments on more properties over the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned.

It's all confusing, I know! Stay diligent, and you will be rewarded. Trust me, it's worth the effort!

Originally Posted by EuropeanPete
Because it’s not always easy to find out, what is the price range you’ve generally found on your travels for the places you’ve listed? I’m just curious as to how they compare to Amans or something like a Ritz Carlton.
As RichardInSF mentioned above, it's hard to compare. Most rates include half-board meals, and are per person rather than per room. In general, for nicer rooms at top ryokans they usually start at about 30,000 Japanese Yen per person (I'm not going to quote in dollars, given the crazy exchange rates at the moment) and can blow past 100,000 Yen per person for the very top Suites/Villas at places like Asaba, Chikusenso, Takefue and the Fufu properties. In fact, many ryokans in the Hokuriku region boost their rates during Red Snow Crab season - Bouyourou commands a 200,000 Yen per person rate between November and March (I'll find out if it's "worth it" when we visit this November; it's almost triple the price of Nishimuraya Honkan, which has been an annual pilgrimage for us.) Note, however, that a kaiseki meal at Aman Kyoto's Taka-An restaurant goes for well over 30,000 Yen per person, and Japanese breakfasts can easily exceed 5,000 Yen (and up) at luxury hotels. You CAN, however, book a non-suite and still have a wonderful time. Some entry level rooms have just one room that serves as the living room, dining room and sleeping room (they'll lay out futons at night.) It's not quite a luxury experience but it will still be an incredible cultural experience.

Last edited by KI-NRT; Sep 21, 22 at 8:33 pm
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Old Sep 21, 22, 10:38 pm
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I love this post. I've only stayed in a ryokan once, in 2016 in Takayama. It was on the lower end of the price scale, but still an amazing experience with a very memorable kaiseki dinner. When Japan opens to independent tourism again I would love to visit some of these!

Thank you for such a detailed post with such wonderful photos!
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Old Sep 22, 22, 4:29 am
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-nonsense snipped-

Last edited by Smiley90; Sep 23, 22 at 10:52 am
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Old Sep 22, 22, 5:51 am
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possibly [most likely] best thread ever?

in response to a response.. hopefully it is not merged with any other thread... to clarify one example: if this thread was merged into / with an older thread (older than this one) , the first post in this thread would no longer be the first post, as it would be more recent than the posts in the other older thread.

particularly incredible photos (and your choice of those photos) - almost all of the photos [as in, only a few are not as incredible as others] especially for properties mentioned less or not at all here, new properties, and the ando property which was converted from residence/museum/etc IIRC

forgot to single out photo of "Takefue's Shien-an room" - looks incredible

the time you spent on this paid off. incredible result. illustrates why luxury hotels forum is the best source and resource.

this even exceeds your tiger safari thread i think. really incredible amount of information, and so many properties, vs even best 'trip reports' here.

incredible is probably not the best word, words fall short here

asaba - some other luxury hotel forum regulars agreed.

Last edited by Kagehitokiri; Sep 22, 22 at 9:02 am
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Old Sep 22, 22, 10:25 am
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This thread is wonderful and timely: "Japan will allow visa-free, independent tourism and abolish a daily arrival cap as of Oct. 11, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday" Japan to reopen to independent travelers and lift daily arrival cap, Kishida says | The Japan Times
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Old Sep 22, 22, 10:40 am
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I have been reading all your reviews at TripAdvisor, the number of reviews are astonishing!! Sometimes I wondered you just live at different ryokans lol. Anyway, thanks for the good work!
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