What is the Difference Between a Ryokan and an Onsen? Explained

Many travelers who visit Japan often wonder what the difference is between a ryokan and an onsen. Both are accommodations that offer traditional Japanese experiences, but they have distinct differences. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami flooring, futon beds, and communal baths. On the other hand, an onsen is a hot spring thermal bath where people can relax and soak in mineral-rich water. Although both ryokans and onsens have cultural significance in Japan, they differ in their offerings and how they are utilized.

When it comes to staying at a ryokan, guests can expect to experience authentic Japanese hospitality, food, and traditional architecture. Ryokans have been around for centuries, and they have preserved Japanese customs and manners that have been passed down from generations. On the other hand, onsens provide therapeutic benefits that rejuvenate the body and relax the mind. Many onsens are located beside mountains and forests, where visitors can enjoy picturesque views while soaking in hot springs.

In short, although ryokans and onsens share some similarities, they cater to different types of travelers. A ryokan offers a glimpse into the rich history and culture of Japan, while an onsen provides relaxation and wellness benefits. Whether it’s a cultural immersion or a relaxing getaway, both ryokans and onsens offer unique experiences that are unparalleled. So, whichever you choose, be sure to embrace the Japanese traditions and enjoy your stay!

Traditional Japanese Lodging

Traditional Japanese lodging, also known as ryokans, can be described as a type of inn that features tatami-matted rooms, futons for sleeping, and shared bathing facilities. These establishments are often located in natural settings such as hot springs, mountain resorts, or seaside locations. A stay at a ryokan is an authentic way to experience Japanese culture and hospitality.

Most ryokans offer packages that include room, meals, and access to communal baths or hot springs (onsen). It is believed that bathing in hot springs has healing properties, and many visitors seek out this experience for rest and rejuvenation.

Types of Traditional Japanese Lodging

  • Ryokan – A traditional Japanese inn with tatami-matted rooms and communal bathing facilities.
  • Minshuku – Similar to a ryokan, but with more modest accommodations and fewer amenities.
  • Shukubo – Lodging in a Buddhist temple with opportunities for meditation and involvement in temple activities.

Features of a Ryokan

One of the defining features of a ryokan is the traditional style of architecture and decor. The design emphasizes simplicity, functionality, and natural materials. Guests are typically expected to remove their shoes upon entering the building and wear provided slippers.

Another notable aspect of a ryokan stay is the kaiseki-style meals that are served. This multi-course meal typically features seasonal ingredients and is presented as a work of art. The emphasis is on fresh, high-quality ingredients arranged in a visually pleasing display.

Ryokans vs Onsens

Ryokans and onsens are often associated with each other, but they are not the same thing. A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese lodging while an onsen refers to a natural hot spring.

Ryokans Onsens
A type of traditional Japanese lodging with tatami-matted rooms A natural hot spring
Often located in natural settings such as hot springs, mountain resorts, or seaside locations Can be found in various locations, including ryokans and standalone facilities
Features communal bathing facilities for guests to use Offers a unique spa experience that is said to have healing properties

While some ryokans feature onsens on their premises, it is possible to visit an onsen without staying at a ryokan. Many travelers choose to visit onsens as a day trip or as part of a hotel or resort experience.

Natural Hot Springs

One of the main differences between a ryokan and an onsen is the natural hot springs. Hot springs, also known as onsen in Japan, are natural pools of hot water that are heated by geothermal activity and have long been known for their therapeutic benefits. The mineral-rich water is believed to alleviate a variety of ailments, from muscle soreness to skin conditions.

  • Public vs. Private: While both ryokans and onsens offer hot springs, the main difference lies in whether they are public or private. Onsens are typically public, and customers will need to use the communal baths to soak in the hot springs. Ryokans, on the other hand, sometimes have private onsens that guests can reserve for themselves, allowing for a more secluded and intimate experience.
  • Indoor vs. Outdoor: Another difference between ryokan and onsen hot springs is the setting. While both offer indoor and outdoor baths, onsens are more likely to offer outdoor or “rotenburo” hot springs where you can relax while surrounded by nature. Ryokans, on the other hand, tend to have more indoor baths.
  • Water Source: Both ryokans and onsens source their hot springs from natural geological formations, but the water quality can vary depending on the location and depth of the source. Some onsens are known for their high sulfur content, while others have a more alkaline makeup. It’s believed that different minerals can provide different health benefits, so it’s worth doing a little research before choosing a hot spring to visit.

Overall, whether you’re looking for a communal or private experience, indoor or outdoor hot springs, or a specific mineral composition, both ryokans and onsens offer unique experiences for those looking to soak in natural hot springs.

Here’s a chart comparing the differences between ryokan and onsen hot springs:

Ryokan Onsen
Public/Private Private onsens available Public onsens only
Indoor/Outdoor More indoor onsens More outdoor “rotenburo” onsens
Water Source Depends on location and depth of source Depends on location and depth of source

As you can see, both ryokans and onsens offer a unique experience when it comes to natural hot springs. Whether you’re looking to relax with others or have a more private soak, there’s a hot spring experience out there for everyone to enjoy.

Japanese Aesthetics

Japan is a country rich in tradition and culture, and this is especially evident in the aesthetics of its art, architecture, and design. It is not surprising, then, that ryokans and onsens follow the same principles of Japanese aesthetics.

There are a few key concepts to understand when it comes to Japanese aesthetics:

  • Wabi-sabi: This is a term used to describe the beauty that can be found in imperfection and asymmetry. In Japanese art, this often involves imperfect pottery or paintings that feature brushstrokes that are intentionally uneven. The philosophy behind wabi-sabi is that there is beauty to be found in impermanence and imperfection.
  • Ma: This concept is related to the use of space. It refers to the idea that the space between objects is just as important as the objects themselves. In Japanese architecture, this often means that there is a sense of openness, with rooms flowing into each other and blurred distinctions between inside and outside.
  • Yugen: This word is used to convey a sense of mystery and depth. In art, this might involve using shading or texture to create the impression of depth. In poetry or literature, it could involve the use of metaphor or symbolism to convey a deeper meaning.

Ryokans and Onsens

When it comes to ryokans and onsens, these principles of Japanese aesthetics are evident in a few different ways. For one, both types of accommodations typically feature traditional Japanese design elements, such as tatami mat flooring, shoji screens, and minimalistic furnishings. The use of wood and natural materials is also common.

In terms of the specific elements of Japanese aesthetics, here are a few examples:

  • Wabi-sabi: In a ryokan, you might find imperfect pottery or artwork on the walls. Similarly, in an onsen, the natural surroundings are often left in an intentionally natural state, with rocks and vegetation that are not overly manicured.
  • Ma: In both ryokans and onsens, there is often a sense of spaciousness and a blurring of boundaries. For example, a room in a ryokan may not have a distinct area for sleeping – instead, a futon can be easily rolled out onto the tatami mat floor wherever there is space. Similarly, an onsen may have outdoor bathing areas that blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
  • Yugen: The sense of mystery and depth that is conveyed through yugen can be seen in the way that both ryokans and onsens emphasize simplicity and minimalism. The lack of clutter and distraction allows for a deeper appreciation of the beauty of the natural surroundings.


Overall, the Japanese aesthetics that are evident in ryokans and onsens are an important part of what makes these accommodations so distinctive and appealing. By embracing imperfection, emphasizing the use of space, and creating a sense of mystery and depth, these traditional Japanese lodgings create an atmosphere of tranquility and relaxation that is hard to find elsewhere.

Japanese Aesthetics Ryokan Onsen
Wabi-sabi Imperfect pottery and artwork Natural surroundings left in an intentionally natural state
Ma Spaciousness and blurring of boundaries Outdoor bathing areas that blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape
Yugen Minimalism and simplicity Lack of clutter and distraction that allows for an appreciation of the beauty of natural surroundings

Understanding these principles of Japanese aesthetics can help you appreciate the beauty of ryokans and onsens even more fully.


One of the key factors that differentiate a ryokan from an onsen is the level of hospitality. A ryokan is known for its exceptional hospitality, which is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Ryokans offer a highly personalized experience, where guests are treated like family and their every need is taken care of by the staff.

In a ryokan, guests are welcomed with a traditional tea ceremony, and all the rooms are decorated in the traditional Japanese style with tatami mats and futon bedding. The staff is trained to anticipate the guests’ needs and provide them with the best possible experience. This includes arranging for dinner reservations, helping with sightseeing plans, and even providing recommendations for local attractions and events.

Onsen Hospitality

  • In an onsen, the level of hospitality is not as high as in a ryokan.
  • The staff at onsens are courteous and professional, but they don’t offer the same level of personalization and attention as in a ryokan.
  • However, onsens do offer some level of hospitality, such as providing basic information about the facilities and local attractions.

Hospitality Comparison Table

Ryokan Onsen
Level of Hospitality Exceptional. Highly personalized experience where guests are treated like family. Good. Courteous and professional staff, but no exceptional personalization.
Staff Services Expected to arrange dinner reservations, sightseeing plans, recommendations, and more. Provides basic information about facilities and local attractions.
Atmosphere Traditional Japanese atmosphere with tatami mats and futon bedding. Relaxing atmosphere with thermal springs as the main focus.

Overall, the level of hospitality is one of the key differences between a ryokan and an onsen. While both offer a relaxing and unique experience, a ryokan takes the hospitality to the next level by providing a highly personalized service that goes above and beyond the guest’s expectations.

Room styles

One of the key differences between a ryokan and an onsen is the room style. While both types of accommodations feature traditional Japanese architecture and design, the layout of the rooms varies.

In a ryokan, rooms are typically larger and more spacious than in an onsen. The floor is covered with tatami mats, and guests sit, sleep, and dine on the floor. The beds are futon mattresses that are laid out on the floor at night and stored in a closet during the day. Rooms in a ryokan also typically feature a low table and cushions for sitting, as well as a small alcove called a tokonoma where a scroll or flower arrangement may be displayed.

In contrast, rooms in an onsen are typically smaller and more compact, with Western-style beds rather than futons. While there may still be tatami flooring, it is less common than in a ryokan. Rooms in an onsen also tend to be less ornate, with simpler decor and fewer traditional Japanese touches.

Types of rooms in a ryokan

  • Standard rooms: The most basic type of room in a ryokan, these usually have a garden or mountain view and may include a private bathroom.
  • Japanese-style rooms: These larger rooms typically feature a private garden or outdoor bath, and may include a separate sitting area or dining room.
  • Suite rooms: The most luxurious type of room in a ryokan, these offer extra space, a private garden or hot spring bath, and often include a separate living room and bedroom area.

Ryokan room amenities

In addition to the bed and seating area, ryokan rooms typically include a few key amenities to enhance the guest’s experience:

  • Yukata robes: Comfy, lightweight robes that guests wear indoors and sometimes outdoors.
  • Green tea and sweets: A welcoming treat upon arrival and a common part of the in-room amenities.
  • Hot water pot: To boil water for tea or instant noodles.
  • Toiletries: Commonly provided toiletries include toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, and soap.

Onsen room types

While onsen rooms tend to be less varied in terms of layout and size, there are still several options to choose from:

  • Standard rooms: A basic room with Western-style beds and simple decor.
  • Tatami rooms: A room with tatami flooring and low Japanese-style seating in addition to Western beds.
  • Suite rooms: A larger, more luxurious option with extra space and a separate seating area or living room.

Onsen room amenities

While onsen rooms often lack the traditional Japanese touches that make ryokan rooms unique, they do offer several amenities to enhance the guest’s experience:

Toiletries Shampoo, conditioner, and soap are typically provided; toothbrushes may or may not be included.
Bathrobe Guests are given a bathrobe to wear around the onsen facility.
Hairdryer Available in most rooms for guest use.
Mini-fridge Some onsen rooms come equipped with a mini-fridge for snacks and drinks.

Meals and dining

One of the biggest differences between a ryokan and an onsen is the meal experience. Ryokans typically offer the traditional multi-course Japanese meal known as kaiseki, which is known for its delicate and refined presentation. Kaiseki typically consists of a series of small dishes that highlight seasonal ingredients and regional specialties.

In contrast, onsen resorts often have more casual dining options such as buffets or restaurants that serve a combination of Japanese and Western cuisine. While the quality of the food can vary, many onsen resorts have incorporated the use of local ingredients into their menus to provide a unique culinary experience.

Kaiseki vs. Western-style cuisine

  • Kaiseki: A traditional multi-course Japanese meal that is known for its delicate and refined presentation. It typically consists of a series of small dishes that highlight seasonal ingredients and regional specialties.
  • Western-style cuisine: Many onsen resorts offer a mix of Japanese and Western cuisine. The quality of the food can vary, but many resorts have incorporated the use of local ingredients into their menus to provide a unique culinary experience.


In recent years, many ryokans and onsen resorts have started to focus on the concept of farm-to-table. This means that they use locally-sourced ingredients to create their meals, often working directly with farmers and fishermen in the region. This provides guests with a fresh and authentic culinary experience that reflects the local cuisine.

Some ryokans and onsen resorts even have their own farms where they grow their own produce or raise livestock. This allows them to have complete control over the quality of the ingredients that they use in their meals.

Table setting and presentation

Another aspect of the meal experience in ryokans and onsen resorts is the table setting and presentation. In ryokans, the meal is often served in the guest’s room or a private dining room. The table is set with traditional Japanese tableware, including lacquer plates, bowls, and chopsticks. The presentation of the food is also an important aspect, with emphasis placed on the color, texture, and shape of each dish.

In onsen resorts, the dining experience is often more casual, with meals served in a restaurant or buffet style. The table setting is typically Western-style, with dishes placed on white plates and silverware provided.

Ryokan Onsen resort
Traditional Japanese tableware Western-style tableware
Emphasis on color, texture, and shape of each dish Less emphasis on presentation
Served in guest’s room or private dining room Served in restaurant or buffet style

Regardless of whether guests choose a ryokan or an onsen for their stay, both offer unique culinary experiences that highlight the local cuisine and culture.

Cultural experiences

Staying in a ryokan or onsen inn provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Here are some cultural experiences you can expect:

  • Shoes off: Before entering your room in a ryokan or onsen, shoes must be removed and stored in the genkan, or entryway. You will be provided with slippers to wear inside the inn. It is also customary to remove your slippers when walking on tatami floors.
  • Yukata: A yukata is a casual summer kimono, often provided by the ryokan or onsen. Guests can wear it around the inn, both inside and outside, to relax and enjoy the surroundings.
  • Onsen Etiquette: Public bathing in onsen requires observance of specific rules, such as washing thoroughly before entering the hot spring, and not wearing a swimsuit. Also, tattoos are often forbidden in public baths since they are associated with organized crime.

In addition to these basic rituals, ryokans and onsens offer various experiences aimed at introducing guests to Japanese traditions and enhancing their understanding of Japanese culture.

Cultural classes and activities

Ryokans and onsens offer a variety of cultural classes, activities, and workshops that guests can participate in during their stay. Some popular examples are:

  • Tea ceremony: Also called chanoyu, it is a ceremonial way of preparing and serving powdered green tea in a traditional Japanese tatami room.
  • Ikebana: The Japanese art of flower arranging, which emphasizes asymmetry and simplicity, is a popular class offered at ryokans and onsens.
  • Calligraphy: Many ryokans offer calligraphy classes, allowing guests to learn the art of Japanese writing using brushes and ink.

Regional foods and drinks

One of the highlights of staying in a ryokan or onsen is the traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, which is served during dinner and breakfast.

Each region in Japan has their own culinary specialties, many of which are served in the ryokan or onsen. The meal is typically served in a private dining room, and the dishes are presented in a beautiful and artistic manner.

The meal often includes local and seasonal ingredients, such as fresh seafood, vegetables, and rice. Guests can also enjoy an assortment of sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, during their meal.

Region Specialty dish
Kyoto Kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner characterized by its small portion sizes and meticulous presentation.
Kinosaki Onsen Tajima beef, an expensive and high-quality variety of Wagyu beef, is often served as part of a Kaiseki ryori dinner.
Hakone Black eggs, a local specialty, are boiled in hot springs and have a unique taste and texture due to the sulfur in the water.

In conclusion, staying in a ryokan or onsen is not just about relaxing in a hot spring or sleeping on a futon. It is an opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture and customs, as well as taste regional cuisine and learn new skills through cultural classes and workshops.

What is the Difference between a Ryokan and an Onsen?

1. What is a Ryokan?

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, typically featuring tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and local cuisine. It offers guests a unique cultural experience of Japan and can be found in various regions of the country.

2. What is an Onsen?

An onsen refers to hot springs in Japan, known for their therapeutic properties. Many onsen facilities come in the form of public or private baths, and some resorts may also offer overnight accommodations.

3. Can Ryokans have Onsens?

Yes, many ryokans have onsen facilities and are known as onsen ryokans. They offer guests the opportunity to enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality that comes with onsen and the comforts of a more modern inn.

4. Can Onsens have Ryokans?

While some onsen facilities offer suites or rooms for overnight stays, they may not necessarily have all the characteristics of a traditional ryokan. Onsens are typically more focused on the hot springs experience rather than the accommodations.

5. What is the main difference between a Ryokan and an Onsen?

The main difference is that a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that offers overnight accommodations and local cuisine, while an onsen refers to hot springs in Japan that typically offer public or private baths with therapeutic properties. However, some ryokans may have onsen facilities, offering guests the best of both worlds.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you know the differences between a ryokan and an onsen, you can decide which type of experience you would prefer during your next trip to Japan. We hope this guide has been helpful, and thank you for reading! Be sure to visit again for more travel tips and guides.