Conceived in the 18th century, the ryokan represents an exclusive form of rural hospitality based on treating guests as family.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Conceived in the 18th century, the ryokan represents an exclusive form of rural hospitality based on treating guests as family. With growing interest in heritage architecture, the ryokan – updated with modern amenities – is coming in favour with travellers and design lovers.

The ryokan has evolved, gone modern and reinvented itself to own an edgy aesthetic glamour, juggling quaint romance with the immediacy of contemporary style. Far from stagnating over time, today’s ryokan is a dynamic, creative space.

Japan’s premium new ryokan have audaciously positioned themselves above the destination’s glitziest international five-star hotels. Suave, sometimes even smug, they preside over the upper echelons of design and exclusivity. Here are five modern ryokan worth a visit, on your next trip to the land of the rising sun.
My Reading Room
My Reading Room


Set along a river, on a rind of land wound around Arashiyama’s verdured hills, this heritage villa accessible via boat is a harmony of the old and the new in ryokan style. Heritage walls are unalterable, structurally. But they can be made contemporary with those vibrant, signature Hoshinoya hues sparkling with quartz-like effect. The tatami sofa in the Ku suite is at eye level when you sit in traditional Japanese style (to behold the seasons), but the sofa itself is urbane. Hoary moss-covered stone steps lead to increasingly more modern rooms that follow the river’s meander. Tradition returns in a Zen garden recalling Kyoto’s famous Ryoanji Temple rock garden. The 1848-established Ueyakato Landscape Co, which maintains gardens at Nanzenji and Higashi Honganji temples, is the mind behind the ryokan gardens. Trees are positioned by envisioning how they would look 100 years on. Salon & Bar Kura in Dozou “earthen storehouse” style has traditional Japanese architecture but interiors are spare and smart. The lobby lounge boasts the most splendid feature – creep out through a window onto a terrace strip with low chairs to sip matcha tea as the river, the seasons and eternity roll by.

11-2, Arashiyama Genrokuzancho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan  616-0007. kyoto/en
My Reading Room
My Reading Room


This British-owned contemporary ryokan is a live-in art gallery with artworks selected and curated by co-owner and creative director Peter Grigg. His own art adorns 15 individually decorated rooms. Vast windows and floor-to-ceiling glass function like tableaux framing the ethereal natural surrounds. The window behind the bar grandly showcases a vista of the looming Mount Yotei amid forested trees while well-positioned windows unveil nature’s great show, as engineer-turned-chef Oshihiro Seno architects culinary showmanship. The windows can also be opened so guests can enjoy a cool breeze. For dessert, you are escorted up to a “living room” from where a sprawl of glass frames an ingeniously lit outdoors. It’s as if, suddenly, you’re in an enchanted garden.

76-4 Hanazono Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, Japan 044-0084. 
My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room


Tokyo’s first contemporary ryokan stands out prominently among other modern boutique hotels in the metropolis. Set daringly in the capital and not in remote rurality, this vigorously modern number has become a model for the urban ryokan. Accessible to in-house guests alone, Tokyo’s most private address generates wonder about what lies behind towering wooden doors. Enter and you’re in a vestibule with tremendous ceilings. Geometrically patterned walls stretch like vistas seen from a shinkansen ( Japanese bullet trains). They are made up of boxes of bamboo and chestnut, fancy repositories for your shoes, taken away in ryokan tradition upon entry. Blackclad staff, nimble like ninjas, escort you to the lift. The servers remain in a deep bow, until the lift doors shut. Extraordinary. This ryokan upholds that impressive aspect of Japanese hospitality. Such guest rooms are usually an intimate affair; the 84 rooms at Hoshinoya Tokyo flout convention. Enclosed in washi-paper windows, the rooms are lanternlike. They have bold-hued walls and low Japanese chairs with marvellous fluted armrests. TVs, the bane of contemporary existence, are mercifully concealed in slick wooden cases. Over the building’s facade hangs a wrought-iron grille bearing a kimono motif which patterns your room when the sun strikes. The feel of the subterranean restaurant is evocative of a museum showcasing superb ornaments. The onsen is open to the heavens and views of the stars at night, or the rain which comes torrentially down onto the city in summer.

1-9-1 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan 100-0004. 
My Reading Room
My Reading Room


Perched on a hill against a bamboo forest is Japan’s most exclusive ryokan, a converted private villa combining Japanese finesse and French influences. The original villa was transformed into two contemporary tatami-matted Japanese suites flanking a French auberge-style restaurant. Next to it is a modern new wing comprising 11 sophisticated Western rooms with Monte-Carloesque jacuzzi-encrusted private terraces. Communal spaces feature a clever assemblage of European antiques, uber-cool Danish chairs and owner Mr Hiramatsu’s amazing collection of antique model boats that reinforce a maritime feel. But it’s the two Japanese suites, Matsu (Pine) and Ume (Plum), that wow. They are creations of Kinoshita who designed the teahouse at Kyoto’s celebrated Golden Pavilion. At Matsu, choice Japanese antiques and adornments are exhibited mindfully and tastefully amidst delicate woodwork and paintings by the famous Tamako Karaoke. On the terrace, by the jazzy private open-air onsen, the swish seating area shows how Japanese low seating can evolve into an attractive outdoor feature.

1993-237, Atami, Atami City, Shizuoka, Japan 413-0033. atami
My Reading Room
My Reading Room


“Mukayu” means empty and this place is about the elegance of emptiness. The lobby is white, light and strikingly nude, barely alleviated by minimalist seating. Stretches of glass overlook lovely gardens but, here, glass doesn’t “frame” the surrounds; it conjures a seamlessness with nature. There’s a purity that’s palpable, an infusion of calm. The shrewd use of space and the impression of void create that sense of what’s fashionably called “zen.” Now, there are artworks, hand-picked by owner Mrs Nakamichi. But the art is as silent as the space, and all the more eloquent for it. Flashes of colour come in regional ceramics and lacquer ware used during supper or tea ceremonies conducted by Mr Nakamichi in the garden teahouse. One of artist Kenya Hara’s masterwork, the teahouse is named Tsukubai (meaning stone wash basin) Ho Sun (“mind” in zen terminology). This installation with a contemplative composure presides outside the spartan nature-inspired spa, as are rooms with glass facades that have private outdoor onsen embowered in a tumble of foliage. The White Green Suite, in a rarefaction of style, is a culmination of this ryokan’s philosophy.

55-1-3 Yamashiro Onsen, Kaga, Ishikawa, Japan 922-0242. ryokan/beniya_mukayu/
These stellar hotels offer services and aesthetics modelled after traditional ryokan culture.
My Reading Room

Ritz-Carlton Kyoto

The Ritz has admirably incorporated ryokan aspects into an abode that has 409 pieces of contemporary art that fascinatingly evoke old Kyoto. The showpiece is in the principle private dining room Ebisugawatei at its Italian restaurant, La Locanda. The room overlooks an indoor garden (tsuboniwa), which is a feature of Kyoto homes, to get sunlight.

Kamogawa NijoOhashi Hotori, Nakagyoku, Kyoto, Japan  604-0902. hotels/japan/kyoto 
My Reading Room


The spacious lobby flows into a stunning infinity pool that seems to slip into the seas yonder. Villas stock Balinese furniture. Sankara says this is Yakushima, and not Balinese, decor. By whichever name, the upholstery with leafy motifs recalls the nearby rainforests of Yakushima that visitors can visit – unless you prefer to bask on the sundeck’s swank surfboard deckchairs.

553 Haginoe Aza Mugio, Yakushimacho, Kumage-gun, Kagoshima, japan 891-4402. en/
My Reading Room

Hoshinoya Fuji

Outdoor kitchens in this glamping resort are tucked into different levels of the forested hillock, in a fiesta of garden gastronomy. There’s a charmingly lit Dutch-oven dinner kitchen offering homecooked meals and cooking workshops.

1408 Oishi, Fujikawaguchikomachi, Minami Tsuru-gun, Yamanashi, Japan 401-0305.