Staying in a ryokan is a uniquely Japanese experience, so it was top of my wish list when drawing up our itinerary for Japan. The one we chose was Fukuzumiro Ryokan in Hakone, a 125 year old traditional wooden ryokan on the picturesque Hayakawa River.
What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn featuring tatami-matted sleeping rooms and communal bathing facilities. Staying in one offers visitors a glimpse of Japanese lifestyle and culture that is hidden when you stay in Western-style hotels.
The concept of ryokan had its origins in the Edo period (1603–1868), when inns sprung up along Japan’s Tokaido Highway which ran between the city of Edo (now known as Tokyo) and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. The ryokan offered highway travellers a place to rest and refuel along the route. They ranged from simple single rooms within households, through to elaborate and luxurious multi-roomed establishments.
Nowadays, ryokan exist mostly in scenic areas outside the big cities (although some can be found in cities) and offer an alternative to the more widely popular western-style hotels. As we were planning on staying two nights in the mountain town of Hakone I thought that was perfect place to have a ryokan experience. And the ryokan we chose was Fukuzumiro Ryokan.
Fukuzumiro Ryokan in Hakone
Hakone is part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and is around one hour from Tokyo by train. We took the Hikari 507 Shinkansen train from Shinagawa station in Tokyo to Odawara (which is the nearest Japan Rail station to Hakone). At Odawara we purchased a three-day Hakone Freepass, a pass that includes return rail travel on the Odakyu line between Odawara and Hakone-Yumato as well as unlimited rides on eight different types of transport in the Hakone area, such as the Hakone Tozan mountain switchback railway line and the Hakone Ropeway (which was unfortunately closed while we were there due to volcanic activity).
From Hakone-Yumuto station it was a five minute taxi ride up the road to Fukuzumiro, a three-story wooden inn consisting of 17 guest rooms, each with a different layout. Fukuzumiro has been operating as a ryokan since 1890, and has played host to many famous Japanese writers, artists and actors.
It was late morning when we arrived (check-in is not until 3:00pm) so we just dropped our luggage off before continuing up the mountain to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum.
After a full day of sightseeing, we returned to the ryokan around 4.30pm. As we stepped into the entrance hall, we were asked to remove our shoes, which were put into a labelled pigeonhole in a wooden shelving unit, and we were given slippers which we could wear around the ryokan (but not on the tatami-mats of the sleeping rooms, where you wear just socks or bare feet, and not into the toilets – there’s specific toilet slippers for that).
Our attendant, Yoko, showed us to our room which was a large space on the first floor overlooking the river. Guest rooms in authentic ryokan are constructed using traditional Japanese methods: flooring is tatami, the walls are wooden and/or paper screens, and all the doors are sliding doors. Our room consisted of two rooms separated by sliding paper screens, an additional smaller dressing room where our luggage had already been stored, and a balcony that ran the full length of the room and overlooked the Hayakawa River. The toilet for the room was across the landing, and was not shared by any other rooms.
Ryokan rooms are measured in terms of tatami mat flooring. A single mat is 1.62 m2, and this room was 10 mats in the first room, then the screens, then two areas of 8 mats and 6 mats, plus an attached dressing/luggage room of 4.5 mats. So altogether, that equates to 46.17 m2. Japanese people are quite au fait with mat measurements for rooms, but it takes a bit for visitors to get their heads around.
We were welcomed with a cup of tea and a sweet, and given yukata to wear around the ryokan. By this point the girls were beside themselves with excitement – What? We get to lie around in a dressing gown, doing nothing? Yay!
Bathing in the ryokan onsen
Yoko discussed timing for dinner, asked whether we wanted Japanese or Western breakfast in the morning (we chose Japanese), and then suggested it was a good time to go to the ryokan’s onsen to take a bath before dinner. Like many ryokan, the rooms at Fukuzumiro do not have attached private bathrooms (only one room – a large family room – has a private bathroom). Instead, there is a shared onsen facility.
Now, my girls had already been worded up about onsen ettiquette and they were not at all thrilled about the prospect of communal naked bathing, so when I booked a ryokan, one of the features I looked for was one which had a private bath in addition to the mens’ and womens’ sections. Fukuzumiro has a ‘family bath’ which consists of a smaller room with a hot spring bath which could fit about two persons. If it’s free at the time, it can be used as a private room, with a lock on the inside of the door. The girls were happy with this idea.
Meanwhile, The Poolboy and I each went to the mens’ and womens’ areas. (These areas swap once each day, so that over 24 hours you can experience the two styles of baths –wooden round ones made of pine (ohmaru-buro) and one made of rocks (iwa-buro) to resemble a grotto.
According to the Fukuzumiro website, the onsen at the ryokan is:
“Alkaline simple thermal. The temperature of the spring water: 62.9 C. ph8.9. It’s effective for remedying fatigue, and improving your health, relieving nerve pains, muscle aches, stiff shoulders, paralyses of limbs, stiffness of the muscles, bruises, sprains, chronic disorders of internal organs, poor circulation, and treatments after illnesses.”
The hot spring water is constantly pumped from 100 metres below ground, and it is definitely hot. Lowering myself tentatively into the iwa-buro bath I had mental flashes of a lobster being dropped into a saucepan of boiling water. However, I soon became used to it, and it was a very relaxing experience.
After bathing we returned to our room in our yukata and slippers where Yoko soon appeared to start setting up for dinner. Most ryokan include dinner and breakfast in the tariff (which is charged per person rather than per room). Having dinner and breakfast in the ryokan is a big part of the experience. Some ryokan have a communal dining area, but most serve meals in the rooms where guests sit at low wooden tables on zabuton (sitting cushions).
Dinner at Fukuzumiro
Our dinner at Fukuzumiro was in a style known as kaiseki (a number of small, varied dishes.) We were given a printed menu, which was really handy to know what each dish was, and what was still to come, and it was a constant and seemingly never-ending parade of dishes to our table. Each dish was beautifully presented. We had previously ordered wine from a menu which Yoko had shown us when we discussed dinner timing.
The sleep experience
After dinner concluded, we sat at the table while Yoko and an assistant prepared the bedding. Because of the large size of our room, the table did not need to be put away, but I believe in some ryokan, the table is moved to make room for the beds. Futons were laid out on the tatami floor, and were then made up with sheets, a pillow and a light quilt. During the day, the futons and bedding are stored in cupboards in the wall of the room called oshiire.
I’m not going to lie…it wasn’t the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. It was definitely on the firm side. And in the morning, the light streamed through the gaps in the blinds so I was wide-awake at the crack of dawn. However, there are much less pleasant places to be wide-awake at such a time. The sound of the water rushing over the rocks of the Hayakawa River was very soothing, and sitting on the balcony as morning broke, looking at the river through the trees was a very relaxing experience.
The girls were happy to lie in their beds, on their devices – yes, even a 125 year old ryokan offers free wi-fi in the rooms. The room also had a refrigerator and a television, but it seemed a shame to spoil the quiet of the river-side setting so we never turned on the TV.
Then it was back down to the onsen for our morning bathe. This time the areas had swapped around, and I experienced the wooden tub baths, and as there was no-one else around at the time, the girls even got brave enough to try the women’s area themselves.
Breakfast and check out
At 7.30am, Yoko came into the room to pack away the bedding and set up breakfast, which was another multi-dish extravaganza. All very tasty items which certainly set us up for a big day ahead. It was so interesting to experience a full Japanese breakfast served like that, rather than picking at Japanese items from the hotel buffet. There were some dishes (like the whole fish…) we possibly wouldn’t have tried if they hadn’t been served to us.
After breakfast we had time to relax and get changed out of our super-comfy yukata, back into our street clothes. The Poolboy and Queenie headed off early to get the 9am bus to Gotemba and The Impossible Princess and I took charge of the luggage and were ready well before the 10am checkout time.
Staying in the ryokan was hands-down one of the top holiday highlights for all of us. However, we only stayed for the one night, and I’m not sure I (or my back) would have been as thrilled to volunteer for a second night on the futons.
Staying in a ryokan is a relatively pricey option. Of course, there are ryokan and ryokan. At the lower end of the scale are ‘standard’ ryokan from around 8,000 yen per person, but you can pay up to around 40,000 yen per person for one of the more exclusive ryokan with exceptional food and amazing setting.
Ryokan Fukuzumiro was mid-range. We booked through www.booking.com and paid 67,860 yen for the four of us (around AUD $775) which included the room, dinner and breakfast (wine was extra). However I note on the ryokan’s website that the rack rate charges for our particular room for four persons are 21,100 yen for the standard meal plan and 24, 250 for the premium one. Remember charges are per person, not per room.
Our night in the ryokan was an opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture in a unique environment and I’m so glad we did it.
The detailsHakone Tonosawa Spa FUKUZUMIRO
Address: 74 Tounosawa Hakone-machi Kanagawa-ken Japan 250-0315
English website: http://www.fukuzumi-ro.com/eng/
Bookings: The reservation button on the ‘Rates and Reservations’ page of the ryokan website takes you to http://www.japanican.com/. I I booked through www.booking.com
Have you had a ryokan experience? Or is it on your bucket list?
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