A Guide to Staying at a Japanese Ryokan and Review of Fukuzumiro, Hakone
I had not heard of ryokans before I started planning a trip to Japan but once I stumbled upon it, I knew we had to fit at least one night in at these traditional Japanese inns. These stays feature yukata robes, tatami mat rooms, onsite onsens (hot springs), kaiseki style meals, and nature surroundings – a place for tranquility and relaxation. Fortunately, I knew we would have a break in the trip between Tokyo and Kyoto where a ryokan stay would fit at our stop in Hakone. Hakone is known for having great ryokans due to the abundance of natural hot springs, making this an idea onsen location. You will not find ryokans in the big cities – it is more associated with a rural, countryside experience so Hakone was really the perfect spot for this. If you are traveling the Golden Route but are not stopping in Hakone or do not have plans to stay overnight in Hakone, you can find them in Kyoto as well.
Basics of a ryokan:
- Your shoes remain at the entrance of the ryokan for your entire stay in exchange for slippers.
- Yukata robes – similar to kimono robes but more casual – are provided to wear for your stay.
- Onsens (natural hot springs) are onsite and depending on the ryokan, you may have a private one, a public one, or even both.
- Food is served kaiseki style and is included in the price of the stay, and it typically includes dinner the night of your check-in and breakfast the following morning.
- The room is outfitted traditional tatami-mat and serves both as your place to seat and converts into your place to sleep on floor futons.
While every ryokan experience may be different, you should know what you want out of your experience, so you know what to look for when vetting ryokans. You can pay up for luxurious stay or you can have a more modest, traditional one. The more expensive stays will include “more” but the definition of more may vary – perhaps it is a more fine dining experience for the food, maybe it is western style beds, or private amenities like in-room onsen or in-room bathroom, – or in some cases all three.
One thing to note is that English may not be as readily available as it is at other types of accommodations. Many ryokans are out in the countryside and family owned for generations. But do know for those that are not as proficient in English, they are familiar with using Google translate. If you specifically require a stay that is English proficient or want more “hotel like” experience, there are Western styled ryokans that you can seek out but in my opinion, you are missing out on the entire point by doing so.
I really wanted a traditional experience so I did not need or want a modernized ryokan. I wanted something that was well rated, reasonably priced, ability to book online, and easily accessible in Hakone – and I found all that in Fukuzumiro. Fukuzumiro was established in 1890 that currently hosts 17 rooms in the three story building with 17 rooms featuring all the traditional features of a ryokan I had read about. I struggled to pick a room since most were still open when I booked four months ahead of our trip. I ultimately selected Sakurka #5 with the description “This room is on the third floor of wooden house. It has the greatest view of all rooms in our hotel; you can enjoy seasonal changes in the scenery of Yusaka-mountain, and smell of fragrant olives in late October.” And after our stay, I definitely think it is the best room at Fukuzumiro. I booked online and it did not even require a credit card to hold the reservation – I was skeptical but when I tried to book that room, it was blocked out so I felt confident it went through. One feature we really liked about the ryokan is that it is walking distance to the Hakone-Yumoto train station so we did not have to worry about arranging transportation into the countryside. We decided that one night would be enough to get the full experience and the price per person was around 28,000 yen or under $200 USD which looking back at the experience was definitely a bargain. Since we arrived right at 3PM check in, we had the full evening and morning to explore all the amenities and for us it was the perfect amount of time.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the staff for our stay as they took our bags and gave us a bin to place our “outdoor” shoes in exchange for “indoor” slippers. Check in was very simple – we showed our passports and then our nakai-san (your room attendant) gave us a tour of the ryokan. As we walked through the halls, I could not believe how beautiful the building and the surroundings were with gardens and koi fish ponds tucked around each bend.
It was explained to us how to onsen process works. There are no in-room onsens but there are both private and public ones. For the public onsens, they have operating hours and there is one for men and one for women. There are also several private onsens that can be booked for hour slots. Since we were the first to arrive, the schedule was completely open. How they make it fair is that each room gets to reserve one private onsen hour in the evening and one for the following morning. Then for any slot that remains open after 8PM until check out, anyone can use them. There are 17 rooms and multiple onsens so while we were nervous we would not get enough onsen time, the slots times far exceed the number of rooms so there is plenty of time. Plus, the public option is available.
Now is a good time to discuss onsen etiquette.
- The thing that throws most tourists off is that onsens are nude – there are no bathing suits allowed. For this reason, many seek out the private onsen option. Funny enough, during our ryokan stay this meant the public onsens were empty and doubled like a private experience. But know this is very normal so do not pack a bathing suit for this purpose.
- Before going into the hot spring, you need to rinse off beforehand. There is typically a room before the onsen where this occurs or a dedicated space in the onsen itself where you can shower with soap prior to taking a dip.
- There is a bit of a taboo around tattoos as tattoos were associated with Japanese gangs so it is not uncommon for ryokans to ban those with tattoos from bathing. If you have tattoos and wish to have the onsen experience, check beforehand that they allow for tattoo’ed individuals to bath.
- Onsens are not “party” atmospheres but a place of tranquility and respect so it is best to refrain from drinking while soaking. Also, the hot springs are HOT so it is not a great combo to be drinking and bathing.
The tour ended with our room which was on the top level of the ryokan. We were instructed to take off our slippers as only socks are needed in the room. The room is very minimalist and zen. The tatami mat floors met wood walls and we had giant windows that overlook the river below. I may be biased, but I think our Sakura #5 room is by far the best room at Fukuzumiro. The view outside was simply stunning as we had the constantly flowing water as a noise machine.
Our nakai-san showed us around the room and where we could help ourselves to hot and cold water, as well as tea. The bathroom was out in the hallway and the proper showers were down near the public onsens. Our room was set up with table and zaisu (floor chairs) where we were served hot tea and wagashi Japanese sweet to start our stay.
Once we were finished, our nakai-san left us to prepare for dinner and we immediately changed into our yukata – I was beyond excited. These robes were insanely comfortable – I was sold and was pretty close to buying one for myself. It also helps transform you into diving deeper into the experience.
The first thing I wanted to do was explore this beautiful place and get a handle on where all the onsens were so we ventured on a walk of the property. I cannot exactly describe the feeling but there was something so peaceful and calming walking around wearing the yukata – I was really loving it.
It was just about time for our first onsen slot and we studied the map to make sure we had the right one. The onsen was super spacious with a full bathroom, area to store your items, and then the room with the onsen that included a shower to rinse off before bathing. And wow, the onsen was so hot with temperature readings of 62.9 C or 145 F so I could not stay in it for very long but over the hour dipped in and out a few times. According to Fukuzumiro, the alkaline (pH 8.9) hot spring water is ” 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.” While I cannot validate the claim, I can confirm it was insanely relaxing and rejuvenating.
We returned to the room and sat on our balcony listening to the river. Kevin poured himself tea and we were just soaking this entire experience up. Just look how legit he looks!
Before long, our nakai-san arrived to set up for dinner. We took our place at the table and prepared for an epic display of food. The meal is kaiseki style which was a type of dining experience we definitely had to try in Japan. And while there are many restaurants that offer kaiseki meals, it felt like the best way to experience was at the ryokan. Kaiseki is a multi course meal that is often referred to as “haute” cuisine so it is typically a higher end meal that is more than just the food but the entire experience. Each dish is a piece of art both by the quality of ingredients, how they are situated on the plate, the plate itself, and even the dish’s orientation on the table. Kaiseki is a series of small dishes in multiple courses so do not be fooled by the small portions in the beginning of the meal – it all adds up to an enormous amount of food. And a kaiseki meal varies by what is fresh that day and especially by what is in season as it was common to see menus as “seasonal” when I was researching to ensure “shun-no-mono” – the best and freshest ingredients to give a high quality meal. The meal typically includes vegetables, different types of seafood, meats, miso soup, rice, and something for dessert like fruit.
At the end of the meal, our nakai-san gave us a menu with all the wondeful dishes we enjoyed.
- Matcha tofu and delicious dashi soup with Saura small shrimp and wasabi
- Appetizer: Steamed with sake of small abalone (Tokobushi)
- Appetizer: Samaurai helmet prawns (Kabuto-Ebi), Ebi Sushi
- Appetizer: Hosho-make, thinly sliced Japanese radish in salmon
- Appetizer: Chimaki gluten, cake wrapped in bamboo leaves, and spring things
- Sashimi: Tuna (Maguro), Skipjack (Katsuo), Fuji-trout (Fuji-masu), Row white bait (nama-shirasu), Shrimp (Ebi), Red gurnard, Greater amberjack
- Medium side dish: Smoked duck breast and summer citrus and many vegetables Japanese style salad, sesame dressing
- Cooking stove on earware: Japanese beef Sukiyaki, silces of beef, cooked with vegetables in a table-top cast-iron pan
- Roasted food: This is grilled Spanish mackerel (Sqwara) with soy sauce. Bamboo shoot (Takenoko) boiled in soy sauce, sugar, mirin nimono, blue plum.
- Fried food: It is covered fat greenling (Ainame) with small vegetables and deep fried.
- Cooked simmer: Fried round eggplant cooked simmer and bean jam dressing with mixed chicken and vegetables
- White rice, miso soup, Japanese pickles
- Desssert: Fruit of the season
After finishing this insane dining experience, our nakai-san returned to clean up and transform the room from dining room to bedroom where futons were laid on the floor. But these were not your every day futons – they were like sleeping on mattresses without the bed frame and included a giant plush comforter, I found them to be very comfortable and slept very well that night.
One thing to note is that the walls are rather thin – the room next to us was very rowdy we were able to communicate to our nakai-san that the noise was a bit too loud and asked if the ryokan has a quiet time – he understood and while I do not know when they simmered down, we all passed out in a hard sleep shortly after the room was set up.
We used our early morning wake up to our advantage and all the onsens were empty so we enjoyed a morning soak before getting ready for the day. I was sad to put normal clothes back on! It was also another great opportunity to take more photos of the ryokan as the place was peaceful and quiet in the morning light.
When we returned to the room, it was transformed back to how it was when we arrived with tables and floor chairs. Breakfast was served around 8AM and it was another beautiful display of dishes. It was no surprise everything was once again delicious – we have really loved savory Japanese breakfasts.
And with that, we made our way back to the front desk, paid our bill, collected our outside shoes, and waved goodbye to our nakai-san as we made our way to the train station as went continued on the Golden Route to Kyoto. I loved how this experience fell in our trip itinerary dividing up our time in Tokyo and Kyoto serving as a pallette cleanser or reset for the second half of the trip.
If you are able to, I would 100% recommend staying at a ryokan for one night on your trip and would certainly recommend Fukuzumiro if you are staying overnight in Hakone. You really only need one night to get the full experience but can definitely do more if you want a more relaxing retreat. We were certainly out of our comfort zone and it was a beautiful thing to lean into and allow yourself to fully immerse. While we did not get as much time exploring Hakone as I would have liked, it was in exchange for maximizing our time at the ryokan which was definitely the right decision. Fukuzumiro, really was the prefect stop to have our first ryokan experience. The experience was a great value for the room, the use of the onsens and the incredible meals.