The Best Traditional Ryokan
Hiiragiya Ryokan (Kyoto; tel. 075/221-1136)
If ever there was an example of the quintessential ryokan, Hiiragiya is it. Located in the heart of old Kyoto, it's the ultimate in tatami luxury: a dignified enclave of polished wood and rooms with antique furnishings overlooking private gardens. Six generations of the same family have provided impeccable service and hospitality here since 1861.
Tawaraya (Kyoto; tel. 075/211-5566)
This venerable inn has been owned and operated by the same family since it opened in the first decade of the 1700s; it's now in its 11th generation of innkeepers. Located in old Kyoto, its guest list reads like a who's who of visitors to Japan, including Leonard Bernstein, the king of Sweden, Alfred Hitchcock, and Saul Bellow.
Ryokan Kurashiki (Kurashiki; tel. 086/422-0730)
Located right beside the willow-lined canal of Kurashiki's famous historic district, this ryokan occupies an old mansion and three 250-year-old converted warehouses, yet it contains only five elegant suites, each with a tatami living room and sleeping quarters with Western-style beds.
Iwaso Ryokan (Miyajima; tel. 0829/44-2233)
The setting here is as romantic as any you'll find in Japan. If you can afford it, stay in one of the ryokan's 80-year-old cottages, where you'll have a view of maples and a gurgling brook on one of Japan's most scenic and famous islands. If staying here doesn't make you feel like a samurai or a geisha, nothing will.
Hakusuikan Ryokan (Ibusuki; tel. 0993/22-3131)
I'm usually partial to historic Japanese inns, but this sprawling complex right on the coast, with manicured lawns dotted by pine trees, offers an assortment of accommodations (the oldest building is 45 years old), along with one of the best hot-spring spas I've ever seen, modeled after a public bath of the Edo Era, as well as a museum filled with antiques.
The Best Western-Style Hotels
Park Hyatt Tokyo (tel. 800/233-1234 in the U.S. and Canada)
Occupying the 39th to 52nd floors of a skyscraper designed by Tange Kenzo, this gorgeous property offers stunning views of the city, one of Tokyo's hottest restaurants, rooms you could live in, and legendary service. No wonder it was the hotel featured in Lost in Translation.
The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo (tel. 800/241-3333 in the U.S.)
Occupying the lofty reaches of Tokyo's tallest building, this luxury property in Tokyo Midtown ranks as one of Japan's best hotels, with Tokyo's largest rooms and coolest bathrooms (the two sinks and counters are at opposite ends, making them perfect for couples). It cocoons guests from the mad whirl of central Tokyo, yet Roppongi's hopping nightlife is just outside its doors.
Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-So (tel. 800/819-5053)
Surrounded by a lush, 7-hectare (17-acre) garden, this top-rated hotel is a wonderful respite in one of the world's most crowded cities, with its impeccable service and a terrific spa and health club.
Nikko Kanaya Hotel (Nikko; tel. 0288/54-0001)
Dating from the 19th century, this rambling, old-fashioned hotel combines the rustic charm of a European country lodge with design elements of old Japan -- and it's just a 15-minute walk from Toshogu Shrine.
The Fujiya Hotel (Hakone; tel. 0460/82-2211)
Established in 1878 and nestled on a wooded hillside, the Fujiya is one of Japan's oldest, grandest, and most majestic Western-style hotels. Resembling a ryokan from the outside, it boasts a comfortable interior of detailed woodwork, old-fashioned antiques-filled guest rooms, and a delightful 1930s dining hall. It also offers indoor/outdoor pools, extensive landscaping, and hot-spring baths. A stay here makes you feel like you've traveled not just to Hakone but to another century.
Shima Kanko Hotel Bay Suites (Ise-Shima; tel. 0599/43-2111)
Its secluded setting on a hill overlooking a bay, hushed atmosphere, attentive service, and Zen-like decor make this 50-suite property seem more like a Japanese inn than a hotel. Enjoy the stunning views from the rooftop garden or from the privacy of your own bath or balcony.
The Westin Miyako (Kyoto; tel. 800/937-8461 in the U.S. and Canada)
First built in 1890 but completely remodeled, this smartly appointed hotel sprawls across more than 6.4 hectares (16 acres) of hilltop on the eastern edge of town near many famous temples. Good views, a free shuttle service from the train station, indoor/outdoor swimming pools, and a Japanese garden make this a winner. There's even an annex with Japanese-style rooms as well.
Nara Hotel (Nara; tel. 0742/26-3300)
From far away, this 1909 building just a short walk from Nara Park resembles a palace. Rooms in the main building have high ceilings, antique light fixtures, and old-fashioned decor.
Unzen Kanko Hotel (Unzen; tel. 0957/73-3263)
This rustic mountain lodge of ivy-covered wood and stone was built in 1935 to cater to foreigners in search of Mount Unzen's cooler climate. It offers a casual and relaxed atmosphere, hot-spring baths, and comfortable, old-fashioned rooms not far from the Hells.
Towada Hotel (Lake Towada; tel. 0176/75-1122)
This Japanese-temple-meets-Western-lodge property occupies a secluded wooded hill overlooking Lake Towada. Its oldest wing, built in 1938, was crafted by shrine and temple carpenters. It offers both Japanese- and Western-style rooms, all facing the lake.
The Best Affordable Japanese-Style Places to Stay
Homeikan (Tokyo; tel. 03/3811-1181)
Although it's a bit far from Tokyo's main attractions, this is my top pick for an affordable, authentic Japanese inn in the capital. Rooms do not have private bathrooms, but pluses include a Japanese garden, nice public baths, and detailed tatami rooms adorned with traditional architectural features. Meals (optional) are served in your room. Another great plus: The owner speaks English.
Arai Ryokan (Shuzenji; tel. 0558/72-2007)
Fifteen historic structures, all registered as national cultural assets and situated around a river-fed pond, comprise this sprawling ryokan, in business since 1872.
Ryokan Fujioto (Tsumago; tel. 0264/57-3009)
This 100-year-old inn is nestled back from the main street of Tsumago, a delightful village on the Edo-Era Nakasendo Highway. Meals feature local specialties, and the father-daughter team running it speaks perfect English.
Antique Inn Sumiyoshi (Takayama; tel. 0577/32-0228)
Located in the heart of Takayama on the banks of the Miyagawa River, this 90-year-old former silkworm factory features an irori (open-hearth fireplace) in the high-ceilinged communal room, antiques and painted screens throughout, and simple but delightfully old-fashioned tatami rooms overlooking the river.
Minshuku in Shirakawago's Ogimachi
Nestled in a narrow valley of the Japan Alps, Ogimachi is a small village of paddies, flowers, irrigation canals, and 200-year-old thatched farmhouses, about two dozen of which offer simple tatami accommodations and meals featuring local cuisine. This is a great, inexpensive escape.
Temple Accommodations on Mount Koya
If your vision of Japan includes temples, towering cypress trees, shaven-headed monks, and religious chanting at the crack of dawn, head for the religious sanctuary atop Mount Koya, where some 50 Buddhist temples offer tatami accommodations -- some with garden views -- and two vegetarian meals a day.
Miyajima Morinoyado (Miyajima; tel. 0829/44-0430)
This public people's lodge, on picturesque Miyajima, is modern yet traditional and would easily cost four times as much if it were privately owned.
Tsuru-no-yu Onsen (Nyuto Onsen; tel. 0187/46-2139)
This rustic inn, with a history stretching back to the Edo Period, thatched-roof building, and outdoor hot-spring baths, is as close as you can get to time travel. To really save money, opt for the self-cooking wing and prepare your own meals.
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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.