Ryokan (Japanese-style inns) (旅館)
A ryokan is a guest house that accommodates visitors for a fee, usually in a Japanese style building with traditional furnishings. Its management is regulated under the Hotel Business Law.
There are various types of ryokan: kanko-ryokan (resort ryokan) and onsen-ryokan (ryokan with hot springs) for sightseeing and pleasure: kappo-ryokan (ryori-ryokan, or ryokan for Japanese cuisine): shonin-yado (ekimae-ryokan, or ryokan in front of a railway station for example) in urban areas for business people or students on school excursions. Some have medium sized to large facilities, and some are small family businesses. Among them, accommodation facilities similar to private homes or whose owners have other types of business often call themselves "minshuku."
Since the management can decide the name of their business: ryokan, minshuku, hotel, or "pension" (resort inn), in reality, they freely do so for purposes such as their image strategy regardless of size or management style. For this reason, it is difficult to exactly define each kind of institution.
This situation and the fact that Western style hotels and Japanese style ryokan often occupy the same area can be attributed to the distinctive Japanese culture.
Differences between ryokan and the ryokan business
The Hotel Business Law defines four types of ryokan business: the hotel business, the ryokan business, the budget hotel business, and the lodging business. "Ryokan" means an establishment which performs any of these types of ryokan business.
The following are not requirements; there are exceptions that are not mentioned here.
Ryokan are valuable because they provide an element of Japanese artistic elegance in modern Japanese society.
Guest rooms are in traditional Japanese style; each room is supposed to accommodate two or more guests. Although relatively low priced ryokan used for business trips, called "shonin-yado" or "business ryokan," have traditionally accommodated one guest per room, many resort ryokan or onsen-ryokan (hot spring ryokan), especially high-end establishments, usually do not accept a solitary guest, because their business plans assume two or more guests per room. If a solitary stay were accepted, it would cost much more than a single room.
Under agreements with ryokan, many travel agents offer lodging plans for solo travelers to stay alone at resort or onsen ryokan which usually accept only two or more guests per room, but their prices are inevitably rather high.
In contrast, many hotels offer single rooms or twin rooms, if available, to many solitary guests.
Guests find a table in their room with a can of tea leaves, a teapot, some tea cups, and an electric pot full of hot water on the tatami floor or on the table, and they can help themselves to tea. The can of tea leaves, the teapot, and the tea cups are in a wooden container. Also, some sweets are often to be found on the table. These are also served at some minshuku.
They have banquet rooms in a Japanese style. When a large group of guests is staying they almost always have a banquet as dinner.
Communal baths are usual. Nowadays, many high-end ryokan have guest rooms with a bath and some of them feature guest rooms equipped with an open air bath.
Since the amount of hot water supplied to each onsen-ryokan by the hot spring source is limited, you should ask if the open air bath of your room uses 'running hot spring water.'
Also, some of the older traditional ryokan with a wooden structure often cannot install additional bath tubs to their guest rooms.
You may wear yukata inside the facility such as in its corridors and banquet rooms, or in an onsen (hot spring) resort town you can walk around outside in yukata. Most ryokan used to have no bath facilities of their own, and even today visitors walk to communal baths in many onsen resort towns. Yukata with the logo of the ryokan on them help advertise the ryokan, and also the sight of visitors in yukata helps to create an onsen atmosphere in the town. This practice is different from hotels which require guests to dress suitably enough to go out when they are outside their rooms.
Ryokan in onsen towns rent guests geta (wooden clogs) or umbrellas when they go out in yukata.
Female managers of ryokan called "okami" usually play an important role in the business including serving guests. This practice varies in different regions. The okami is usually a woman manager or the wife of a manager. She usually wears kimono to meet guests.
High-end or tradition-minded ryokan have woman staff called "nakai" who wait on the guests in each room. They usually work in kimono just like Okami.
Room and two meals as standard
The guest rooms are in Japanese style as mentioned earlier, and the price of accommodation usually includes dinner and breakfast (one night and two meals per day). In contrast, meals are optional at hotels. However, some ryokan accept guests who need no meals, only dinner, or only breakfast. Today, many shonin-yado (ekimae-ryokan for example) for business people, or business ryokan provide the option of 'sudomari' (stays without meals) or including only breakfast.
No choice of meals
Guests at a ryokan used to have no choice of meal, which was unpopular.
Today, some ryokan offer a few plans for dinner which guests can choose from. Not only ryori-ryokan (which are centered on cuisine), but many kanko-ryokan and onsen-ryokan usually promote themselves on the quality of their food, such as local cuisine using famous local foodstuffs.
There used be a problem that the amount of food was too much for small eaters such as elderly people and women, but these days ryokan meals are lighter than they used to be, and more and more ryokan are improving quality while reducing the size of dishes.
Although some ryokan offer dining in a large banquet room, or a communal dining room, at many ryokan nakai serve meals on a tray to each guest room, which is called 'heya-shoku' or eating in the room. However, ryokan which serve "heya-shoku" often provide guests in a large group with dinner in the large banquet room.
Time restrictions relating to service
Services are not always available twenty-four hours; guests are often assigned to a certain time period for dinner or taking a bath. Also, the check-out time is often set rather early in the morning. This is also unpopular, even if it is necessary to ensure the smooth running of the ryokan.
Sales system: reservation system: information on websites
You can either book rooms directly by phone or ask travel agents or tourist information centers to make reservations on your behalf.
If you ask a travel agent to make reservations, there is usually a charge of 10% to 25% of the cost of the accommodation as a booking fee. For this reason, seasoned travelers often study information about ryokan on the Internet before they book rooms by phone.
You can obtain information regarding the availability of rooms of increasing numbers of ryokan on the Internet, but in many cases you cannot complete the reservation by Internet only. However, because providing information on the ryokan and local scenic spots via the Internet is essential today, if they do not have websites or don't update them, they are considered of low quality.
Geisha or hostesses at banquets
Guests sometimes ask for geisha or hostesses to serve at their banquets, but of course this is not essential. There used be geisha-okiya (geisha houses), and now there are agents of hostesses in hot spring resorts to meet these requests.
The situation today
The demise of the 'banquet boom' is said to be hurting the business of high-end ryokan and hotels in resorts close to the metropolitan area, and some of those facilities constructed during the boom have been forced to close or to go out of business. Many ryokan in urban areas are in a difficult financial situation and have turned into business hotels (budget hotels), because customers on business trips are increasingly using budget hotels or other hotels, and the number of students on school excursions has decreased due to the falling birthrate.
On the other hand, many ryokan have loyal customers who usually do not usually require banquets, and most of them were built before the bubble economy. They are stable in business because of their steady number of customers. Many of them do not need big advertisements for promoting their business because most of their guests are repeat customers.
Some old traditional ryokan have elderly managers and have not been able to hand their businesses down to the next generation because of the effects of the declining birth rate. Even when business is going reasonably well, some ryokan are forced to close due to the lack of a successor.
In a rare example of a success story a ryokan altered its business plan to target foreigners and groups of students, promoting its Japanese style budget facilities (so called bed and breakfast), and has regained profits.
Jisui-ryokan (self-catering ryokan)
In addition to ryokan, there are jisui-ryokan in hot spring resorts. They provide only lodgings without all the other services to people who wish to stay many days for "toji" hot spring therapy (they are similar to condominiums in foreign countries, or short-term apartments in Japan except for the purpose of 'toji'). Besides being entertaining spots themselves, hot-spring resort towns have therapeutic areas where hospitals for hot-spring cures and jisui-ryokan are located. Some ryokan have 'jisui-bu' or self-catering sections in addition to their ordinary ryokan business.
Jisui-ryokan rent their rooms just like apartment houses with fixed charges per night, and most users stay for a week to two months depending on the individual. The following are charged for when staying at jisui-ryokan: the room charge including bathing and electricity; rented futon (no charge if users bring in their own futon); rented heaters such as kotatsu (a small table with an electric heater underneath and covered by a quilt) or oil space heaters in winters; and gas for cooking. Users have to clean their rooms by themselves during their stay. Coin washing machines are available on the premises.
Jisui-ryokan house kiosks where they sell soap, detergent for clothes, and food such as seasonings or canned foods. Users can buy perishable food such as meat, fish, and tofu (soy-bean curd) from vendors who come around.
Causes for the slump in business of onsen-ryokan
Most onsen-ryokan have been experiencing a slump in business.
The following are some causes of these economic difficulties unique to onsen-ryokan, in no particular order:
Changes in how people travel
People used to travel in large groups such as those of company employees, community groups, and groups of farmers' association members, but nowadays people mainly travel in small groups on private business, such as a family, friends and acquaintances, and mothers and daughters. Company outings' are already extinct in many companies. Their business practice of accommodating as many guests as possible in a large room, which used to make profits, cannot be maintained. This is because their main resources of business are rooms or spaces, and the more guests per space the more profits would be made theoretically.
Good-bye to banquets
Onsen-ryokan and banquets are inseparable.
More alcoholic beverages are consumed at banquets which are lively. This was a big source of profit for onsen-ryokan. They served meals with the emphasis on only good-looking arrangements. Large plates full of food were good enough. It was also efficient because all they needed to do was arrange those dishes in the banquet rooms. Purchasing a big amount of foodstuff at one time brought costs down. They did not have to serve expensive high-quality sake to drunken guests who cannot tell one brand of sake from other. Guests in a small group do not drink as much. Guests in a small group evaluate meals on their ingredients, how they are cooked, how they are arranged, and what kinds of plates and bowls are used. It takes more work for staff to serve heya-shoku and to clear the table of each guest room after the meal.
Also, in the 1990s, after bureaucrats' practice of entertaining each other was widely criticized in newspapers and on TV, the 'banquet boom' rapidly disappeared. This caused ryokan to lose a lot of customers.
Needs relating to meals
Guests generally prefer to eat what they like including Western-style or Chinese-style dishes, rather than the set menus at ryokan such as banquet dishes or "kaiseki-ryori" (traditional Japanese cuisine consisting of a number of small, varied dishes of seasonal and regional specialties). The fixed pattern meals of ryokan have not met these needs. Many of their customers have turned to hotels or minshuku. However, getting foodstuffs from areas far from the ryokan has a big impact on the cost, and some people question whether guests really want to eat the same food as in big cities after traveling to stay at ryokan located far from those big cities.
As you can see from ryokan promotional material, they still keep the old practice of emphasizing the number of dishes, or luxurious looking food. Old-fashioned and aged ryokan tend to have few options other than serving a large number of dishes, because they cannot compete on sophisticated services or facilities alone.
Some people are of the opinion that tourists want to separate lodging from meals, and others point out they in fact want itemized details of food, services and prices. In fact, travel agents for ryokan often fix the meal menu, losing customers who turn to hotels with varied menus, or minshuku which have a lot of control in selecting the foods they purchase.
Not such a soothing view
People who stayed at onsen-ryokan for banquets preferred to enjoy the night life in hot-spring resort towns rather than bathing in an "onsen". For this reason, ryokan have competed to expand their facilities paying little attention to appearances, resulting in conspicuously ugly concrete blocks, which are damaging the scenery around them. People started a banquet upon arriving at a ryokan in the evening, and went to bed after that. For those guests who leave early straight after breakfast, as was common previously, the unsightly buildings may not be a problem, but it is not satisfactory for those guests who wish to slowly wander around the resort town.
Studying Yufuin Spa and Kurokawa Spa which have been prosperous for a long time tells us that soothing scenery with surroundings full of various plants and fields is evidently important for onsen-ryokan business. Some exceptions are special buildings such as old folk houses or concrete constructions that stand on a unique land form, because their views are considered to have cultural and emotional values by photographers and TV reporters who often cover them.
Doubtful quality of onsen water
Triggered by the hot-spring water deception issue following the case at Shirahone Spa, and those cases of contamination with Legionella bacteria at a number of public bathing facilities, users are worried about the quality of onsen water. Although large ryokan can boast about their fancy facilities such as open-air baths, the quality of the onsen water is a disadvantage. Since the capacity of the source of hot water is limited, ryokan associations or local governments usually control the water distribution. Traditional vested rights relating to water allocation make the improvement of water use (such as using the spring water only once) difficult. This was one of the reasons behind mislabeling the quality of onsen water at Ikaho Spa.
Deteriorating atmosphere of onsen towns
In onsen towns, there used to be a few communal baths surrounded by a number of onsen-ryokan, with souvenir shops and restaurants around them, as well as bright-lights district nearby including adult-entertainment shops on narrow alleys. However, along with the slump of onsen-ryokan, these small businesses closed one after another, and some areas are almost completely occupied by abandoned houses.
It is pointed out that some of the reasons for this are that architectural standards make it hard to build new shops, in addition to the weak motivation of aged owners of these businesses, and the lack of successors. The standard often requires a new building to have smaller floor space making it harder to rebuild a shop of the same size. They can do nothing but let old buildings get older without being able to rebuild them. These difficulties of rebuilding shops contribute to the closing down of businesses. This helps to harm the onsen atmosphere again resulting in a vicious circle.
Being too dependent on travel agents; lagging behind in using the Internet
Onsen-ryokan, being traditional accommodation facilities, have built deep interdependent relationships with travel agents. However, as travelers get used to using the Internet, and as making reservations on airline and business hotel websites is becoming more common, those relationships, in favor of travel agents, are working against onsen-ryokan. Large ryokan face difficulties in cutting down on their deals with travel agents in spite of the heavy burden of agency fees on their business, because large ryokan need a large and steady number of reservations. After all, their customers are turning to competitors such as hotels that are making use of the Internet.
Although the onsen-ryokan business is not lucrative by its nature due to seasonal variations in the number of travelers, they have repeatedly borrowed money to finance their competition in increasing or upgrading facilities and equipment. Travel agents have recommended this. Also, financial institutions have increased their loans to onsen-ryokan, trusting them as major local industries. So, most onsen-ryokan have excessive debts. Although the extremely low interest rates have helped them, if the interest on loans increased, it would be a big burden on their business. They are worried about the declining value of collateral due to the decrease in land prices.
Aside from underlining the responsibility of the management, which is inevitable, as seen in some examples of the regeneration of onsen-ryokan around the country, lenders might have to consider waiving debts to a certain extent in order to take a step forward for the future of the industry.
Emerging onsen resorts in many places
The drilling costs of hot springs have decreased, because more advanced drilling technology became available. It is known that drilling 1000 m to 2000 m would reach hot spring sources in most places in Japan. Drilling firms across the country usually receive orders on a payment-by-results basis. The drilling cost is usually 100 million yen to 200 million yen, and many local governments drilled for onsen using the "Furusato Sosei" Fund (regional development fund temporarily provided by the national government) provided under former Prime Minister Takeshita's cabinet. The loose definition of 'onsen' by the law is encouraging these trends. These new facilities, some of which should be called warm bath facilities, have new luxurious bathing houses with relatively low prices, and people visit them to enjoy onsen on a day trip. For this reason, onsen-ryokan are no longer attractive enough to lure tourists merely because they are at old traditional onsen resorts.
All that said, in reality, these warm bath facilities are very popular across the country, and there are some relatively small onsen-ryokan with ten to twenty rooms that are so popular that you will have a hard time to make reservations. Conclusion: the Japanese people have never tired of the onsen itself, but they are fed up with those unattractive concrete onsen facilities and those inhospitable onsen-ryokan who assign dinner and bathing time to their guests.
Movies and dramas that feature ryokan
Take Me to an Inn (April 2001)
Dondo-hare (April 2007)