Generally speaking, the idea is to spirit yourself far away from the mundane world, to bask in the tranquility of some seaside or mountainous retreat. Sometimes you’ve only got a night or two away, though, and it can feel wasteful to spend just as much time in hectic transit as you do decompressing. Asaba reconciles these needs beautifully: just two effortless hours by bullet train from Tokyo and in continuous operation for over 350 years, it’s a surprisingly accessible classic of the ryokan idiom. Watch the Izu Peninsula’s resplendent history come alive in the middle of the bamboo-ringed pond, where a floating stage hosts regular Noh performances.
Ryokan proprietors have taken advantage of Japan’s volcanism since time immemorial, often centering their hospitality around geothermal hot springs called onsen. Besides the incredible relaxation, many purport to offer therapeutic minerals, and, to an outsider, there’s something deliciously weird about bathing outdoors in frigid weather. Myojinkan excels in this function: besides the three outdoor onsen with forest views, certain rooms have their own private baths as well. Be warned: fairly strict etiquette is the norm, so it’s best to inquire about the rules before barging in.
Let’s not forget that part of the appeal of a ryokan is simply as an alternative to the relentless forward march of contemporary boutique trends and bleeding-edge design. In Japan, a culture of codified respect, building on the past is raised to an art form. Kyoto’s Hiiragiya, an institution since 1818, boasts finely wrought detailing in several harmonious media (stained glass, woodwork), each a testament to years of painstaking labor by time-tested masters of craft. They do things the old way here because the old way is what works: pristine but never sterile, subtle but never boring.
Kaiseki — an elaborate, multi-course, expertly balanced approach to traditional Japanese dining — plays a profound role in the ryokan’s enduring popularity. Family recipes pass down from generation to generation, each plate a badge of pride and an acute sensual experience. Those at Bettei Otozure espouse a seasonal locavore philosophy across several styles: Buddhist temples, machiya townhouses, and haute-vineyard. Seats fill up quickly and diners tend to linger, so be sure to arrive early.
Intimacy and privacy are a matter of course in ryokans, a function of the typically rural setting as well as the uniquely Japanese spirit of deference. The warmth and modest competence displayed by the staff at Sekitei have made repeat customers out of more than a few visitors. They’ve got a seemingly preternatural gift for anticipating and fulfilling needs before they’ve registered in one’s mind, which speaks to admirable mindfulness and excellent training alike. Here, guests feel like royalty without feeling smothered — as workable a definition of luxury as any we’ve heard.
Perhaps the most important ingredient of a ryokan is its sturdy tether to the unfettered peace of the natural world; the swankiest skyscraper hotel can’t compete with a ryokan’s immersion in the country landscape. One look at Oyado the Earth confirms as much — verdant hills and cloud-scudded Pacific vistas elevate this ryokan experience to the sublime. What’s more, every suite enjoys a private, al fresco hot spring bath, perfect for surveying one’s verdant surroundings. If there’s any way to make a great ryokan absolutely top-notch, it’s by placing it on the eastern shore of Ise-Shima National Park.