The ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto holds its own magnetic allure against popular sister cities Tokyo and Osaka. As the bustling heart of the country during the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto is also widely acknowledged as the cultural capital of Japan and its legacy can still be seen today in traditions such as kado (the art of flower arrangement) and chado (tea ceremony), preserved for both the Japanese and visitors around the world.

Kyoto is also home to numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens - often easily accessible when walking through its streets. But when considering a Kyoto hotel, people are increasingly looking towards ryokans for a truly Japanese experience.

Best described as traditional Japanese inns, ryokans are a hallmark Japanese experience because of how they have retained the customary environment, hospitality, and traditional architecture - often passed down and maintained through generations. Some of them even include attached onsen (hot spring) facilities - another highlight in Kyoto.

While ryokans and onsens in Hakone and Kanazawa are also well-known, picking a Kyoto ryokan or onsen has benefits such as its accessibility to major airports, proximity to world-famous Kyoto attractions, as well as a plethora of options with different price points.

So what should one consider when picking a Kyoto ryokan? Can you go to onsens in Kyoto without staying at a ryokan? What are some of the expected Japanese etiquette to keep in mind? Read on to find out everything you need to know about Kyoto’s onsens and ryokans.

The difference between ryokans and onsens

Ryokans had their beginnings in wayfarers - catering to passing travellers on foot, which included samurai and tradesmen moving between Tokyo and Kyoto.

The first ever to appear was Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in 705 CE, and amazingly, is still in operation today. It remains as the oldest ryokan in Japan, and also holds the title as the longest continuously-running hotel in the world. This ryokan, along with many that followed, were built on the site of rejuvenating hot springs, which is why the pairing became somewhat synonymous. But while ryokans and onsens are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. 

The former is an accommodation, while the latter is a natural hot spring water experience, sometimes in the form of open-air baths. Some ryokans don’t have onsens, and some onsens are dedicated facilities with no overnight options. In fact, because of the therapeutic properties of hot spring water, many choose to visit standalone onsens regularly for its health benefits.

A typical onsen is a communal affair, with several large sharing pools, each boasting different natural minerals and temperatures for its purported healing properties. They often come with lockers and changing rooms for both genders, and can sometimes include a restaurant or massage services on premise. Private onsen baths can be found too, but these will usually be attached to a ryokan. Travellers may also have reservations about going to private open-air baths or outdoor onsens, but rest assured that the bath will typically be surrounded by a high wall to prevent nosy onlookers.

Another common point of confusion is mistaking sentos (public baths) for onsens. Though similar in format with their lockers and hot communal public baths, sentos are utilitarian hot baths with no natural minerals in their waters while onsens are more akin to that spa visit. They were built as early facilities for those with homes without private baths, but as time went by, owners started adding herbs, minerals and water jets as upgrades, which made them have their own benefits. Both have their fans, but be aware of which you are going to so you are not disappointed.

But whether you’re looking for a memorable ryokan stay or relaxing onsens in Kyoto, the cultural city is a great place to start.

Choosing the right Kyoto ryokan for yourself

Ready for a ryokan? Then expect the following: Overnight lodging in a private traditional Japanese-style room with tatami mat flooring (mats made of woven straw), futons for sleeping comfortably on the mats, and options of breakfast and yukatas (a light cotton kimono). These are typical of standard ryokans, but do know that there are many styles available as well.

Some are family-run like Fujiya Ryokan, with rooms that start from S$50 per pax. They boast standard Japanese innkeeper hospitality, with warm and professional staff that can point you towards the city’s best offerings, as well as the charm of having a resident cat on premise.

entrance doorway to sangen kyoto ryokan entrance doorway to sangen kyoto ryokan

Some ryokans, like Sangen Kyoto, are reimagining the traditional inn as a gathering place for travellers to experience traditional Japanese rituals, meals, and activities. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

room in sangen kyoto ryokan with tatami mat flooring futon traditional furniture room in sangen kyoto ryokan with tatami mat flooring futon traditional furniture

A stay at the Sangen Kyoto ryokan promises you an intimate experience in the heart of Kyoto’s Ninenzaka area, with opportunities to experience everything from sushi to shabu-shabu to ikebana. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

Others, like Sangen Kyoto, are operated by a younger generation of owners that adds a more casual vibe to their ryokans. “Traditional ryokans, sometimes they have a distance between guest and host,” said Shusui Tanaka, its owner. While he and his staff are passionate about sharing the traditional offerings in Kyoto - the whole reason why Tanaka ventured into hospitality after he graduated from university eight years ago - they want to approach it with less formality, and include crafted experiences that are less intimidating.

Essentially, it’s like having local friends bring the quintessential Japanese encounters to your doorstep. “We can have shabu-shabu (Japanese hotpot) or sushi with a chef in the dining area, or shisha (water pipe) at the rooftop,” he shared. In fact, Tanaka himself is an ikebana (Japanese floral arrangement) instructor, who can arrange for sessions in the premises as well. 

The four-storey ryokan has only four rooms for up to a total of 12 occupants, so a stay there is both intimate and exclusive. But perhaps best of all is its excellent location. From the rooftop, you can easily spy the iconic Yasaka pagoda. And staying in the Ninenzaka area in central Kyoto means that you’ll have access to its rich mix of shops and cafes the area is best known for - including the famous Starbucks housed in a machiya (merchant home).

In fact, having access to some of the best Kyoto attractions and epic views is common with ryokans in the city. As businesses who have been around a long time, they are often strategic in their location, with access to either central Kyoto, a tranquil setting, or proximity to other choice sites.

Just be sure of your priorities when looking for that best ryokan in Kyoto, as you won’t likely be able to find them all in one. Do you need a Kyoto ryokan with private onsen baths? Would you require them to arrange for cultural experiences like a tea ceremony workshop or geisha (female artist) performance? Are beautiful Japanese garden views, like the ones in Yachiyo, important? Or is staying somewhere like Hirashin, so you can remain in the city centre, preferred?

A Kyoto ryokan experience you can save or splurge on

When looking for a ryokan as a Kyoto hotel stay, many think that it has to be an expensive affair. However, ryokans can actually cater to a variety of budgets, depending on their location, room types, and offerings.  

Fujiya, as mentioned, allows one to enjoy the traditional ambience with prices starting at just S$50 per pax per room. Others like HOSHINOYA and Aman offer the most indulgent escapes with prices from S$1,000 - S$4,000. Oftentimes, this is because of the exclusivity accorded to their guests, along with unique experiences only the resorts provide.

aerial view of chartered katsura river boat departing for hoshinoya kyoto ryokan aerial view of chartered katsura river boat departing for hoshinoya kyoto ryokan

A stay in the luxurious HOSHINOYA Kyoto ryokan begins before you even reach the inn, with a tranquil chartered boat ride down the Katsura river. Image credit: HOSHINOYA Kyoto

forested view of kyoto river from room balcony at hoshinoya ryokan forested view of kyoto river from room balcony at hoshinoya ryokan

Truly indulge in Kyoto’s breathtaking natural scenery at the HOSHINOYA ryokan, with luxury guest rooms having private balconies that overlook one of the city’s rivers. Image credit: HOSHINOYA Kyoto

Visiting HOSHINOYA Kyoto itself is a picturesque journey, with a chartered river boat ride drifting you towards a private pier beside the historical building. The ryokan has an elegant outlook finished with local craftsman touches, and provides guest ryokan like monko - the art of incense appreciation. For Aman, their retreat provides a forested escape, as well guest-only indoor and open-air baths attached to a spa. The onsen baths at Aman also contain mineral hot spring water, nourishing your skin with every soak.

view of a room in hirashin ryokan in kyoto japan with low table and tatami mat flooring view of a room in hirashin ryokan in kyoto japan with low table and tatami mat flooring

Furnished with traditional tatami mats and simple decor, staying in a Kyoto ryokan like Hirashin gives you a chance to experience a slower, more relaxed side of Japanese culture. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

overhead shot of a teapot tea cup and snacks served at hirashin ryokan in kyoto overhead shot of a teapot tea cup and snacks served at hirashin ryokan in kyoto

If you’re planning to enjoy a relaxing day indoors at your ryokan in Kyoto, be sure to check if they offer some yummy afternoon tea or treats at no extra cost to satiate you until your next meal. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

To witness the festivities of Gion Matsuri (Gion festival) in 2023, I picked Hirashin for its location as it was just minutes away from the main streets of the parade. The Kyoto hotel was housed in a modern building rather than an actual inn, and offered an affordable no-frills city ryokan experience with traditional rooms starting from S$120 a night. While there wasn’t much of an epic view (there were just neighbouring buildings), I enjoyed the daily sets of afternoon tea and treats brought to the room, as well as returning in the evening to my futon laid out. There was also a sento at the basement for guests to enjoy.

If you’re looking for a Kyoto ryokan with private onsen, then consider Yunohana Resort Suisen or Hanaikada. The first offers the luxury of being a secluded resort amidst mountains and forests, while the latter is perfectly situated at Arashiyama - known for its beautiful bamboo groves, riverside shops and forest temples.

Visit a Kyoto onsen and soak up the community culture

Even if you’re not staying at a Kyoto onsen hotel, a visit to the local onsen is highly recommended to experience a slice of Japanese culture - while feeling rejuvenated after. I visited Hananoyu, but Sagano Tenzan-no-yu is also popular among visitors when looking for central Kyoto onsens.

entrance area of hananoyu kyoto onsen entrance area of hananoyu kyoto onsen

After a long day of visiting Kyoto’s most popular attractions, a trip to an onsen like Hananoyu is perfect for rejuvenating and recharging your energy. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

bath essentials vending machine in hananoyu onsen in kyoto bath essentials vending machine in hananoyu onsen in kyoto

Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten your bath essentials on your visit to Hananoyu onsen in Kyoto! Essential items including slippers and body lotion, as well as add-on services like massages, can be purchased from their convenient vending machines. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

At Hananoyu, I exchanged my shoes at a locker near the entrance with the provided slippers.  There is a ticketing machine listing all the bath and body items you can purchase, including admission tickets to massage services, razors to body lotions. And don’t worry if you can’t read Japanese, the reception provides an English-language flyer that translates the text on the vending machine buttons.

I paid S$7 for my ticket and another S$4 for a set of towels. I exchanged the ticket at the counter and was given my locker key. I was then directed to the onsen on the second floor, where large curtains indicated the male and female entrances.

The rules of an onsen, whether in the form of indoor or open-air baths, are simple. You strip down and place all your items in the locker (except for the small towel and your locker key), and shower thoroughly with the provided toiletries before getting into the pools. It is important that you do so to keep the natural waters clean. Admittedly, the idea of getting completely naked with strangers can be intimidating for some, but most of those who have been through it found it a liberating experience One small caveat - those with tattoos might face problems entering an onsen. Smaller ones can be covered with bandages but for anything larger than your palm, it is best to check with the onsen beforehand if entry is possible.

Hananoyu boasted two outdoor soaking (or rotenburo) spots - one a more communal pool and two small open-air urn baths. Inside, there were more indoor baths with varying degrees to choose from. There’s no real order to follow, but it is recommended to start with the lower temperatures before moving to the hotter ones. There are bubble and jet baths for those who wish to soothe tired muscles, and a cold bath for after a sauna or steam room session. If you are using those two indoor bath rooms, be sure to dry off a bit before entering, and bring along the provided towels outside the rooms for sitting on. After the session and before the cold bath, make sure to wash off your perspiration from the lukewarm water in the urn as well. You can use your small towel, but remember - it should never touch the bath waters.

tables and floor seats in a rest area in hananoyu onsen in kyoto tables and floor seats in a rest area in hananoyu onsen in kyoto

After you’ve washed up from your bath in Kyoto’s Hananoyu onsen, take your relaxation one step further with a delicious meal at their in-house restaurant, or simply enjoy a moment of peace at their rest area. Image credit: Morgan Awyong

After you are thoroughly relaxed, head towards the shower to wash up again before towelling down with your large towel at the lockers. Afterwards, I chose to head down for a meal as Hananoyu had an in-house restaurant attached. The lobby itself also provided a large rest area with recliners, a small shopping area, and massage rooms. The nice hot meal after the soaks was an incredible way to end the day at one of the onsens in Kyoto.

Kyoto’s attractive mix of natural beauty, heritage sites and traditional experiences makes it a quintessential destination when travelling to Japan. Complete your visit with an authentic visit to a local ryokan or onsen, to fully embrace the spirit of Kyoto, Japan - or discover even more secret onsens in Japan to enjoy on your next trip to the country!

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Best time to visit
Kyoto is a popular destination year-round, with each season offering its own unique weather, sceneries, and appeal! Ryokans and onsens are typically available for bookings throughout the year, although prices may vary depending on seasonal appeal. You should also take into consideration Japan’s local tourist seasons between March to April, and October to November, when booking your stay.

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Kyoto has an extensive public transportation system across the city including JR trains, private railways, and municipal bus lines. You can also opt to flag down a taxi on the street, use a private-hire vehicle, or walk through this highly walkable city.

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