Going on holiday in Japan is an experience quite different compared to travelling in other countries, mainly because of the wide variety of places in which you can spend the night. Aside from normal hotels (ranging from budget B&B style to top chains like the Hotel Nikko or ANA Crowne Plaza), you can also choose to stay in hostels, rented apartments (such as Air B&B) or even the super-modern Capsule Hotels which Japan is famous for. Aside from these, another option entirely is to step back in time and stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Ditch the futuristic pods and standard double beds for a tatami-clad floor, futons to sleep on and communal bathing facilities. One such ryokan where you can experience accommodation in the Edo-Period style is the Guesthouse Naramachi, located in Nara, Kansai.
This traditional building is over a hundred years old, and before being converted to a Ryokan it used to have roots in the theatre – a detailed history is available to read in the guest book, and the talkative hosts can’t help but give you a run-down of their beloved building on your arrival.
The communal areas on the ground floor include two shower rooms and two toilets as well as a double sink area. There are two communal rooms for relaxing in with plentiful tables and chairs to accommodate the guests. A kitchen area is equipped with a fridge/freezer, microwave and hot water as well as kitchen crockery for guests to use at their leisure. Help yourself to the complimentary tea and coffee on the table, then wash your cup in the sink area next to the meticulously arranged recycling system.
There are two dorm rooms (one mixed, one female only) with four beds each in the bunk bed style. These are the nicest dorm rooms I’ve ever seen – each bed has its own privacy curtain and light so that you don’t bother the other guests, and there is plenty of room for storing baggage and hanging coats. Dorm rooms are priced at the very competitive rate of 2,500 yen per night. The standard double room (with sliding door view down into the communal area) is priced at 7,000 yen per night – room price. This room has no storage closets – if you open up the sliding door expecting to find a closet, what you’ll actually find is that you’ve stumbled into your neighbour’s bedroom! Finally, there are two Deluxe Double rooms that are priced at 8,000 yen per night. In a popular city like Nara, these prices are very reasonable, particularly given that the ryokan is fairly central and easy to get to from both of the main train stations.
The atmosphere of the Guesthouse Naramachi is probably the best thing about it – glance through the guestbook and you’ll see signatures of people from all over the world, showing the cosmopolitan popularity of this guest house. The hosts are around and on hand to answer questions and they speak English well though of course they are also more than happy to help you practice your Japanese. You can hire bikes directly from the ryokan and also book a parking space if you’re bringing a car. There is plenty of information up around the communal areas about local activities and things to do, such as joining in with the daily activities put on at the visitors centre.
As for downsides, shared bathrooms aren’t for everyone, and it can be especially inconvenient if you need to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night as most of the rooms are located on the floor above the toilets. However, as the Ryokan is quite small and doesn’t have availability for many guests at one time, there is rarely much of a queue for the bathroom facilities.
For the safety-conscious it might be a little unnerving to stay in a room that doesn’t lock – the dorm rooms are separated by heavy curtains, and the private rooms have sliding doors which don’t all have locks on. However, there are small safes in the communal area which can be used to store your valuables.
Finally, as this is a small, family-run business, it isn’t the most convenient for people who like to come and go as they please. First, the ryokan is shut between 13:00 and 16:00 every day for cleaning, so you can’t enter your room at that time. Check-in closes at 22:00 and so guests can’t arrive late in the evening. However, if you plan your trip around these finer details then it shouldn’t be a problem.
The Guesthouse Naramachi is in the Naramachi area – not completely central but not too far for those who don’t mind a bit of walking. The JR Nara Station is a 20-minute walk away or you can hop on the loop bus for a set price of about 230 yen. The other major train station is a similar distance away. From the guest house to the main attractions of the city it is also only a short walk of 25 or 30 minutes, and there are lots of places to eat and drink near the guest house. Within a few minutes, you can reach some of the local museums such as the traditional houses of the area, a local museum focusing on the traditional hanging monkey lucky charms, a toy museum and a sake museum. There are several public baths nearby too if you fancy visiting a local onsen.
Most convenient of all is the Family Mart Convenience store which is just across the road from the Ryokan and open 24/7 to cater for all your shopping needs. Check in at the Guesthouse Naramachi is between 16:00 and 22:00, and check out in the morning between 8:00 and 10:00.
While there are certainly both pros and cons to staying in a traditional ryokan as opposed to a hotel, it’s an important cultural experience that I recommend to anyone travelling in Japan. The owners of the Guesthouse Naramachi are friendly and helpful, and you can’t help but feel welcomed when you stay in their cosy little guest house.