Why a Hot Springs Hotel in Japan is a Brilliant Alternative to a Ryokan.

I have a confession to make. There’s something about Japan that scares me… It’s something thousands of tourists do in the country every week, for some it’s potentially the highlight of their trip – yet, the very idea of it brings me out in a stress rash.

I’m talking about staying in a ryokan – one of the traditional Japanese inns that dot some of the most beautiful spots in the country.

Room in a hot springs hotel in Japan. It looks like a room in a traditional ryokan, but there are a lot of small differences.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.

I was hosted on this part of my trip by the Japan National Tourism Organisation see below for more details.

These sleeping spots with their traditional tatami mat lined rooms, gracious hostesses wearing kimono and delicious homemade dinners served to you in your room are like catnip for many travellers to Japan, but the etiquette and lack of anonymity involved in staying in one makes the introvert in me very nervous.

On my last trip though, I found a brilliant alternative that combines the tradition of a ryokan with the anonymity of a big hotel. If you’re an introvert traveller like me, or just a bit worried about putting a foot wrong in a traditional ryokan, you’ll love it. It’s also brilliant for solo travellers and families.

I’m talking about the hot springs hotel – also known as a ryokan hotel or an onsen hotel.

What is a Hot Springs Hotel in Japan?

It’s basically where the Japanese go on holiday if they just want to get away from it all.

A Japanese hot springs hotel is designed to be pretty self-sufficient, it has bars, restaurants, entertainment and an all-important on-site onsen to soak in.

The foot bath in a hot springs hotel in Japan. These are a great alternative to a traditional ryokan for some travellers.
Image from Yumoto Kankyo Hotel Saikyo, used with permission

Like a ryokan, the rooms are traditionally Japanese in style in that you sleep on a futon on tatami mats, but a hot springs hotel is bigger than a traditional ryokan, often with over 100 rooms – which is why it’s often called a ryokan hotel.

However, unlike a ryokan there’s a check-in desk, rather than a hostess to greet you and once you’re in the hotel you don’t need to deal with anyone else if you don’t want to. This is very different from a traditional ryokan, particularly a high end one, where you might see your host, or someone else working on the property several times during your stay as they serve you tea, dinner, breakfast and make up your room at night.

Think of a hot spring resort in Japan as like a British health spa – or, as one of the other journalists I was travelling with on this trip put it ‘Japanese Centre Parcs’ although trust me, there are no slides in the middle of the pools here!

Where I Stayed

My hot springs hotel was called the Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo and it was located in the Yamaguchi prefecture in the north-west of Honshu island – Nagato would be the nearest large town to spot on a map.

Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo 20110201
新幹線 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

The hot spring that runs through this town is one of the region’s oldest and people have been soaking here for over 600 years – with even the feudal lords who ruled over Japan way back when coming here to take a dip.

To add to the mystique, the spring itself was supposed to have been discovered by a Buddhist monk and the source of the spring is actually contained inside the town’s small temple.

The water itself is best known for its ability to soothe aches and pains and because it’s highly alkaline, it’s also famous for leaving skin very smooth.

Is a Hot Springs Hotel as Authentic as a Ryokan?

Yes, but in a different way.

As I said, a ryokan hotel is where the average Japanese person goes on holiday whereas some traditional ryokans might be populated mostly by foreign tourists, and while a hot springs hotel might not be as steeped in history as a small 200-year-old inn, it’s just as steeped in tradition.

For example, shoes. As is often the case in Japanese society, they’re coming off if you’re staying at ryokan hotel.

While the main areas of the hotel are carpeted or tiled (always a good sign that it’s okay to keep shoes on), enter your room and you’ll stand on a small tiled area with a cubby hole next door. This is your cue for shoes off, house slippers on.

If you forget, the yellow glow and faint woody smell of the tatami mat that lines the floor of the sleeping, sitting and lounging area ahead of you should remind you that it’s time to go barefoot – you should never step on tatami with any kind of shoe or slipper on your feet – socks are okay.

For me, sticking to rules like this meant this onsen hotel was the perfect combination of old and new.

I got to sleep on futon with the smell of tatami mat lulling me to sleep, I got to sit soaking in the hot, silky water, under a thick canopy of dark green trees as the sun set around me, I got to try an amazing seven-course Kaiseiki dinner full of intricately presented dishes (including the infamous potentially poisonous fugu) and I got to experience the traditions – but I did all of it without the true formality that comes alongside staying in a traditional ryokan.

Fugu aka pufferfish as part of our meal at a hot springs hotel in Yumoto Japan
That’s fugu in the blue and white plate.

What to Wear at a Hot Springs Hotel

You don’t need to wear normal clothes outside your room if you don’t want to. In the wardrobe in your room, you’ll find a robe called a yukata and an over jacket. These are all you need to wear during your stay.

Whereas kimono are beautiful but rigid, yukata, is the perfect mix of comfort and glamour so I’d recommend donning yours as soon as possible!

Note, there’s a right way to wear it. Make sure you wrap it so the left side lies over the right side (the other way is used to dress the dead) and tie the sash (aka the obi) in around your waist. Keep your undies on and if you want to wear a t-shirt or thin layer underneath too that’s fine.

If it’s hot, or you just want to look more formal, wear the outer jacket on top as well. It’s super stylish and made me feel far more dressed up. I don’t like wearing robes outside my room even in health spas, but this made the outfit as suited to the real world as well as the chilled out vibe of the onsen hotel.

What’s Your Room Like in a Ryokan Hotel?

While they can have western rooms, the whole point is to stay in a traditional Japanese room – and these don’t differ from the traditional design you’ll find in a smaller ryokan.

A ryokan has a very set layout. You have the vestibule into which you first enter, there’s the main room which doubles up as your sleeping/dining area then you’ll usually find a second sitting area, often surrounded by glass or patio doors. Screens are often used to separate these two areas.

My room at Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo also had all of these things and once I was inside, I wouldn’t know I wasn’t in a traditional ryokan.

You’ll also sleep on a futon which is put up in your room while you’re out at night. This was surprisingly comfy, except for when I was trying to read when the lack of head board, or pillow propped up again the wall was a problem.

A Big Difference Between a Ryokan and a Rokyan Hotel

One way a hot spring hotel can differ from a traditional ryokan is dining.

In a traditional ryokan, dinner is usually provided in your room or a small dining room and it comes at a set time.

It’s seen as rude to skip it, change it or delay it, and that freaks me out a bit – at a hot springs hotel though, there is often a large restaurant in which you can book a set time and dine with others. Some, like Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo, do also offer in-room dining.

Kaiseki dinner served at our hot springs hotel in Japan
The first courses of my meal at Yumoto Kanko Hot Springs Hotel

Another difference between the two properties – freedom.

A ryokan is more like staying in someone’s home, you’re not really expected to come and go as you please. You should arrive before 5pm and staying out late wouldn’t go down too well.

For many people that’s a welcome relief, the whole point of staying in the ryokan is to immerse yourself in its world, to not actually want to visit what’s outside, but to me that’s just a bit too claustrophobic to be relaxing.

Although to be fair, I didn’t actually want to leave Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo – why would I? It has everything I need including a bowling alley.

Trust me, you haven’t tested your bowling skills until you’ve tried to lob a size 9 ball down an alley in an ankle length yukata (thankfully we swapped our inside slippers for bowling shoes).

A Hot Springs Hotel Japan offers a lot of onsite  entertainment over and above the onsen - ours had a bowling alley.

While there was a bar, vending machines on each floor supplied us with the beer we needed for our next Japanese ryokan hotel experience – karaoke.

There are four karaoke rooms at the Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo and the night we were there they were doing a rapid business in Japanese love songs for the five old ladies in the room next to ours – lord alone knows what they thought when we started on Avril Lavingne and Arctic Monkeys but smiles were exchanged all round.

Another very local touch is the kabuki theatre on the property.

However, the main reason you won’t want to leave Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo is the onsen.

Okay, so this isn’t the exact onsen, but I couldn’t take a pic there are everyone was nude!

The Onsen at Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo

As I said, Yumoto is located on an ancient hot spring and as an onsen hotel YKHS has four pools containing water from te spring for you to enjoy. Two indoors, two outside where you can soak under the trees.

As is normal, they are separated by gender, but each day the pools swap so you can see a different outlook as you soak.

Fast forward to the changing room of said onsen where I’m being hugged by a tiny Japanese lady repeating the world ‘Australia’ in a happy, high pitched voice to her friends.

For a normally reserved society, hugging a random stranger isn’t normal for the Japanese but when that random stranger has just mimed getting undressed in front of you – and you’re replying with the words ‘all nuddo’ a few barriers come down.

See while I’m up enough on my onsen etiquette to know I need to bathe naked, I’m never sure EXACTLY when I need to get my kit off.

At YKHS there’s a sliding door leading from the changing room which I think leads to the pool, but I’m not 100% certain so, getting ‘nuddo‘ is not something I want to do without checking I’m not going to be walking into a corridor or something.

Hence my trying to ask the other ladies in the changing room, in the manner of mime.

After working out what I wanted to know, we find ourself in the group hug. Yet again I’m thankful for the fact that the extra size of the hot springs hotel means there are people around to reassure me I’m not about to make a total fool of myself!

Another thing I really liked about this hotel – the little towel they give you to wipe your face/preserve your modesty a bit was big enough to cover things pretty well – sometimes I can be more like a flannel!

If the whole ‘sitting naked with strangers’ thing freaks you out, then there is a foot soak in the hotel which you can use fully clothed. There’s also a outdoor hot springs foot soak a short walk away.

The foot bath at Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo

How Much Does it Cost to Stay in a Ryokan Hotel?

This is the last difference I’ll talk about between a ryokan hotel and a traditional ryokan – and it’s a big one.

Ryokans charge differently from most normal hotels – they don’t charge by room, they charge by person.

How much you pay depends on the quality of the ryokan, but a stay in a moderate ryokan will set you back from 20,000 a head (£140 or $AU250) for your room, your dinner and breakfast.

A ryokan hotel charges by room – a room at the Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo costs around £140 for two people including breakfast, you can add £40 if you want dinner as well.

It doesn’t specify but I doubt that’s a full kaiseki meal so if that dining option really matters to you, perhaps book via a site like Japanican which spells out the inclusions a bit more clearly than western websites do.

You’ll also need to add the charges for extra entertainment like bowling or karaoke to this.

The last benefit of a ryokan hotel over a traditional ryokan might be for single travellers. Because they charge by person some ryokan won’t accept single travellers – but you can book in solo a ryokan hotel.

6 Groups of People Who’ll Love a Hot Springs Hotel

  • Introvert travellers – you don’t need to deal with anyone if you don’t want to.
  • Explorers – it’s not really worth booking a ryokan if you’re heading out all day or coming back late. A hot springs hotel gives you the chance to experience sleeping in a traditional Japanese hotel room with more freedom.
  • Independent folk: Because you don’t have to book a meal you can go an explore local restaurants – assuming there are some (do check before you book).
  • Solo travellers – for the cost reasons above.
  • Families with younger kids: While you’ll still need to respect the rules and quiet atmosphere of the hotel it might be more suitable than a small, silent onsen.
  • Those watching the pennies: They aren’t a budget option, but they can work out cheaper than a traditional ryokan if you aren’t into the multi-course meal experience.

Can You Stay in a Hot Springs Hotel in Japan With Tattoos?

Tattoos in Japan are often associated with gangs and therefore you will often find that many onsens and onsen hotels won’t allow people to soak in their baths if they have tattoos.

This is particularly likely to be the case with a hot springs hotel as the baths are communal – so, while you can stay, Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo with tattoos, their website expressly states no-one with tattoos can bathe.

If you have tattoos and wanted to soak in an onsen, a traditional ryokan with a private onsen for each room is likely to be a better option. You can find a list of tattoo friendly onsen here.

How to Find a Ryokan Hotel

To find a list of traditional ryokan and ryokan hotels visit the website of Japanese Guesthouses who highlight their favourites. This also explains all the etiquette points and answers pretty much every question you might have on the world of ryokans and onsen, and hot springs hotels.

If you’re interested in trying Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo you can check prices and book it here.

They do have some Western rooms so make sure you pick a traditional room.

As I said, I’m not totally sure what the dinner option offers so if you do want to have a kaiseki meal in your room, you might want to look at Japanican instead.

How to get to Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo

The closest station is Nagato Yumoto station which connects to the Shinkansen at Asa station via the JR Mine line. This part of the journey takes an hour.

You can reach Asa from Hakata in Fukuoka in just under 40 minutes, from Hiroshima a direct train will take just under 70 minutes. Both journeys are available via Japan Rail Pass.

So Did I Enjoy Staying at my Ryokan Hotel in Japan?

Yes, Absolutely. In fact, it was one of the highlights on my last trip.

It really made me feel like I was doing something that Japanese folk actually do on their holidays and there was something supremely cool about that – even if that robe did seriously mess up my bowling skills!

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Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which mean I earn a small commission if you use them to book. This does not cost you any extra.

My trip to Western Japan was hosted by the Japan National Tourism Organisation who paid for my flights and hotel and organised the itinerary. However, they have not had any input into what I write about, or what I say about it, all opinions and excitement are mine, mine, mine.

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