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The babble of a hot spring, the sound of sliding doors, the light patter of bare footsteps on tatami floors – it must be a ryokan. Billed as the most authentic sort of place to stay in Japan, these millennia-old inns not only offer somewhere to lay the head and rest, but also a fully-fledged travel experience in their own right. You'll usually catch them hiding between the pine forests or fir groves of mountain resorts and spa destinations, but it's also possible to discover traditional ryokan in Tokyo and other big cities.
Don't book a ryokan expecting anything like the stay you'd get in a traditional Western hotel. With centuries of tradition behind them, these folksy inns are steeped in custom and culture. Everything from the architecture to the routine of removing shoes as soon as you enter comes from a legacy of 100s of years of heritage. So, get ready to see swathes of natural materials in the building, with dark woods and real stone helping to make ryokans looks natural and organic. Inside, paper shoji sliders divide up the space, there's rarely central heating and all the beds are futons that rise just centimetres off the ground. It's certainly different.
Eating in a ryokan is also part of the experience. The kitchens in these historic inns serve up Japanese haute menus that go from steaming teas to meticulously cut sashimi and sushi, all rolled in seaweed and washed down with drams of fine sake. The flavours are salty, fresh and sharp, reflecting the seasonal changes of Japan's natural environment.
It seems right that some of the best ryokans of all are to be found in the ancient Japanese capital. Surrounded by serene Buddhist monasteries and temples and leafy highland forests, the ryokans in Nara are a great place to transport yourself back to the Japan of yesteryear. Tradition is still strong in those parts, just as the immersive Mikasa Ryokan shows, perched high on a hill overlooking the city.
These days, you can also find enthralling Japanese stays like this in big metropolises. Ryokans in Kyoto offer a taste of heritage amid Shogun castles and buzzing bar districts. Ryokufuso is one of the most acclaimed there, awash with simple, soothing rooms dressed in tatami mats and paper walls, complete with a traditional communal spa area for unwinding and relaxing.