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Personnel welcomes an arriving customer at a Ryokan (Japanese inn) by sitting on the floor and bowing deeply. A scene that can still be seen in Ryokan all over Japan today.
The Ryokan has its roots in the Fuseya (布施屋), these were free rest-houses used during the Nara Period (710-784). As there was no accommodation yet at this time, travelers were forced to sleep outside, exposed to the elements and bandits. Getting food on long trips was a challenge and as a result many travelers died of starvation. To make travel less dangerous, Buddhist priests set up the Fuseya. It was also during the Nara Period that an organized system of roads was developed around the capital, which must have encouraged travel.
During the Heian Period (794-1185), it became very popular among the reigning elite to go on a pilgrimage. Pilgrims would stay at Shoen (荘園), manors owned by powerful families, temples and shrines, as well as at temple buildings. Temple accommodations would eventually develop into Shukubo (宿坊). Today Shukubo still exist and are open as lodgings to the general public.
Something that started to look like a real inn developed during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). They were called Kichin-yado (木賃宿). Guests just paid for firewood at these cheap inns and cooked their own meals.
As Tokugawa Ieyasu started to construct highways throughout the newly united country from slightly before the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868), lodging became more important. This became even more so when the economy developed and trade increased. This gave rise to Hatago (旅籠), inns where meals were served. By the second half of the Edo Period few Kichin-yado were left and the Hatago had become the norm.
Besides the Hatago, there were Honjin (本陣) and Waki-honjin (脇本陣), official inns for government officials at the way-stations along the highways. These became extremely important because of the so called Sankin Kotai system, which forced Daimyo (feudal lords) and their entourage to spent part of the year in Edo, far away from their homes.
Especially thanks to the Sankin Kotai and pilgrimages there was very heavy traffic on the new highways. Because virtually all this travel was on foot and the way-stations were only at a day’s walking distance removed from each other, an incredible large number of inns started to flourish along these roads.
Although the general public was officially not allowed to travel during the Edo Period, people could go on pilgrimages and other religious trips which naturally made them extremely popular. Short trips to hot springs and famous tourist attractions were generally also permitted. Many inns were built at these resorts and many exist to this day, now as Ryokan.
As travel restrictions were removed with the onset of the Meiji Period (1863-1912) and railways were developed all over Japan, people started to travel just for leisure. With the termination of the Sankin Kotai system and the fading away of travel by foot, the old way-stations and their inns slowly faded away. But enterprising entrepreneurs were quick to see the opportunities offered by railway travel and near the nation’s newly built stations Ryokan started to sprout up like mushrooms.
Initially, they were similar to the old Hatago, but after the end of WWII, many new Ryokan were built of concrete. And although these days there are some 55,000 ryokan in Japan, traditional wooden ones have become rather rare and usually quite expensive. Anybody who has ever stayed in one, knows that there is really nothing like a traditional wooden Ryokan in a beautiful natural setting. The experience is absolutely unsurpassed.
1 For more information about Ryokan, visit the site of the Japan Ryokan Association.