Let’s be clear: the ryokan does not need reinventing. These Japanese country inns have remained among the world’s finest hospitality experiences since they first began appearing in the eighth century. But the formula—traditional materials, tranquil seclusion, hot spring onsen baths, ceremoniously prepared meals—is as good now as it was then, inspiring these modern interpretations that will ensure it stays relevant for another thousand years.
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Zaborin is every inch a classic ryokan, from its unspoiled natural setting to the elaborate artistry of its kaiseki dinners. But its unapologetically modernist influences is where it truly stands apart — most notably in the abundance of poured concrete, but also the technological luxuries like flatscreen televisions and Bluetooth sound systems.
Yes, Villa Rakuen is a modern, ten-story luxury hotel, but the classic ryokan experience is present in all the details, from open-air baths and tatami rooms to private Japanese gardens and miles of sea and sky outside the windows. Get past the height and vintage of the building and it feels like a natural update of the old tradition.
Izu Peninsula, Japan
While ryokans are as familiar as it gets for the Japanese, for many foreign travelers they are uncharted territory. Arcana helps smooth out any possible intimidation by offering one part traditional ryokan and one part international boutique hotel. For example, instead of a central onsen bath, there’s a spring-fed hot tub on every balcony.
Bettei Senjyuan is proof positive that contemporary design need not clash with the ryokan’s traditional presentation. The long, arcing main corridor may be a work of modern architectural innovation, but it exists in perfect harmony with the timeless charms of the tatami-style rooms within — as perfect now as they’ve always been.
To call an Aman hotel a country inn is to understate matters severely. Amanemu is the ultimate luxury ideal of the ryokan — a thoroughly modern, unmistakably high-end interpretation of those timeless Japanese pleasures, with a location, in Ise-Shima National Park, that offers extraordinary beauty in every direction.
On a hill overlooking Japan’s Inland Sea, and the famous red gates of the Miyajima Shrine, you’ll find Sekitei. The ten rooms here nicely blend the modern with the ancient and have a remarkably residential feel — they’re actually detached villas, cascading down the terraced hillside along with ponds, springs, and plunge pools.
Bettei Otozure looks for all the world like a ryokan reconsidered for a design-conscious modern world. The presence of electronic amenities and luxury-hotel comforts do nothing to distract from the main event: views of the sublime Japanese countryside as seen through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel
Agora provides something approaching a ryokan experience, but in a city-based luxury-hotel environment. Though urban in setting it’s surrounded by greenery, looking down at the city from its hilltop perch. And while its rooms explore a range of styles, all of them feel more like secluded ryokan rooms than typical urban luxury fare.
Numazu Club comprises a restored 1907 teahouse and a guestroom complex built in 2006. The old building is a paragon of the sukiya style, an austerely refined approach to the classic tea ceremony; the new building utilized venerable wood-and-clay construction techniques to match the serene architecture of its companion.
Arimasansoh Gosho Bessho stretches the conceit of our story to its limit. It’s got most of the traits of a classic ryokan, to be sure, but the traditional keiseki meals are replaced by a hybrid French-Japanese restaurant with Western-style tables and chairs, and the rooms feature leather chairs, flat-screens, and beds with big feathery comforters.
By this point in our story you should have noticed that the clean lines and simple materials of modernist architecture provide a nice complement to the traditional forms of the ryokan. Beniya Mukayu is yet another strong example of this convergence — further proof that the two traditions are even closer than we think.
Lake Akan, Japan
Even for a ryokan, Hinanoza is in a tranquil, secluded place. Set on Lake Akan, deep in the old-growth forest of Eastern Hokkaido, the multi-level hotel, opened in 2004, is within range of no less than four national parks. It’s most notable feature, though, might be the woodcarving everywhere on display, a specialty of the local area.
This article was written by Mark Fedeli and appeared as "Serenity Now" on Tablet Hotels.