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Ryokan Basics

Money Matters

Most hot springs in Japan are open to day visitors, but a few can only be used by guests of the hotel, or ryokan, that owns it. If you decide to splurge and stay in a ryokan, it pays to prepare yourself for the experience -- it's far different from what you might expect from a typical motel or hotel in America or Europe.

One thing to remember: As with most services in Japan, especially those away from the major cities, cash is king -- payment by credit card isn't yet the norm in Japan. This is the case at most ryokan as well. And don't rely on Travelers Checks in smaller establishments or remote locations. We recommend you convert Travelers Checks to cash at banks or large hotels, then use that cash to pay for goods and services.

Don't worry about carrying substantial amounts of cash in Japan as you might in some other countries -- not that you'd want to flaunt the thousand bucks in your back pocket, but it's unlikely you'll encounter the sort of petty crime or hotel room break-ins that you might in other parts of the world.

We know what you are thinking: Japanese ryokan are all small, charming, rustic, traditional, very cozy country inns.

This is a common, but erroneous, assumption. Okay, this may have been true many years ago, but in today's Japan, ryokan means only one thing, traditional style lodging and rooms, but those rooms can be part of a 20-story, 300-room establishment just as they can be part of small country inn.

So what it ryokan style? The main difference between a hotel and ryokan is where and how you sleep. Hotel sleeping in on a raised bed, while ryokan sleeping in on the floor, on a futon.

Even though sleeping on the floor sounds dicey, the floor of ryokan room is slightly soft tatami (tightly woven straw) and it's not as bad as it sounds. In fact, you'll sleep like a baby at most ryokan. The food is usually outstanding, and after a good long soak in the ryokan's onsen, you are in for a long and restful night's sleep.

For readers craving the official word on ryokan, here's how the Japan National Tourist Office describes a ryokan:

"Ryokan has a wide variety of facilities. In most cases, guests are served dinner in the evening of the day they arrive and breakfast the next morning. Rooms are usually Japanese-style, with straw tatami mats used for flooring. Guests sleep on futons (thin mattresses that are spread on the tatami mats at night and stored folded in a closet during the day). Ryokan are characterized by the high-quality service that they offer and their diligence in maintaining a purely Japanese atmosphere and Japanese-style service.

There are many different types of ryokan. Large, high-class ryokan offer superior accommodations, various facilities and deluxe service. Small ryokan located around major train stations in metropolitan areas offer a warm and friendly atmosphere for the weary traveler on a low budget. Countryside ryokan are characterized by an openness and simplicity that are sure to hold a special charm for an urban dweller. Naturally, rates vary greatly from one ryokan to another.

Rates for ryokan vary widely depending on the class and facilities. Lower priced ryokan charge as little as 5,000 yen per person for one night with two meals. Top-class ryokan are generally from 30,000-50,000 yen. Rates are always per person, regardless of how many people stay in a room. The standard rate includes two meals, although a lower rate is available for those who dine elsewhere."

Don't forget that soon, OnsenExpress will open a travel desk where reservations at ryokan and travel arrangements to Japanese onsen and can be made. We will post an announcement on OnsenExpress when our travel desk opens.

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