Robert Schrader in Shikoku

Ryokans vs. Onsens

As one of the top Japan travel resources on the web, my site attracts a lot of first-time travelers to the Land of the Rising Sun—and, understandably, a lot of questions. One question I often get, however, tends to confuse even experienced Japan travelers: The age-old onsen vs ryokan debate.

The short answer is “no”; the long answer is a sort of Venn diagram. I’m better at writing than I am at drawing, however, so I’ve put together a concise blog post that compares and contrasts onsens and ryokans, using real-life examples whenever possible.

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What is an Onsen?

Generally speaking, the word onsen refers to any hot spring in Japan, be it a public bath in a city or town, or a private bathing area inside a hotel or inn. It’s important to note that what distinguishes an onsen from an ordinary bath is that it is fed by a natural hot spring, even if the bath tub or bathing area itself is artificial.

What is a Ryokan?

In addition to being the oldest type of hotel in the world, the ryokan is defined by a few features, chief among them tatami mats for sleeping. While most ryokans feature communal baths and other areas where guests may walk around dress in yukatas, this is not necessary. The price of a ryokan often includes breakfast and dinner.

(TIP: Make sure to check out this article on Japan Starts Here, which highlights some of Japan’s best ryokans!)

Are All Onsens Also Ryokans?

The primary difference between onsen and ryokan relates to whether or not you can sleep there. Not all onsens have their own accommodations or are situated particularly close to them. For example, I visited a public onsen on Yakushima Island, and the nearest guest house was mine, a 20-minute walk away. On the other hand, while Dogo Onsen in Shikoku has many hotels nearby, including some ryokans, it is not itself a ryokan.

Do All Ryokans Have Onsens?

While the majority of ryokans have some sort of public bathing area, this is not true in every case. For example, some ryokans feature a bath, but it’s not fed by a hot spring so it can’t be thought of as an onsen. Other ryokans simply lack a public bathing area, for one reason or another. If your ryokan doesn’t have an onsen, there’s probably a public one nearby, so no need to worry.

Japan’s Best Onsens and Ryokans

Takaragawa Onsen in Gunma prefecture is probably the best-loved ryokan in all of Japan, in large part because of the beautiful outdoor onsen on its premises—there is not difference between onsen and ryokan at this place! Other amazing ryokans I’ve stayed at include Tokiwa Hotel (a favorite of the royal family) in Kofu, Yamanashi, the convenient Ryokan Kyoraku in Kyoto and simple Homeikan, which is one of the only ryokans in Tokyo.


As far as onsens are concerned, I really enjoyed the historical atmosphere of the aforementioned Dogo Onsen, but to be honest, I haven’t visited many other public onsens in Japan. That’s because I usually select ryokans that have on-site onsens!

The Bottom Line

When it comes to onsen vs ryokan, they simply aren’t the same thing, though they’re both essential to the Japan travel experience. Even if you stay in a ryokan that happens to have an onsen, or bathe in an onsen with a ryokan on-site, you should visit standalone onsens and ryokans as well. Whether you’re looking for a complete itinerary or just a place to start planning your trip, make sure to check out my guide to three weeks in Japan.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Japan

About The Author

is the author of 1025 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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