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Honke Bankyu, Nikko Ryokan Review

One summer day, Tomomi and I thought that it was time to make another trip. We haven’t been outside the city in a while, so I wanted to go to the countryside and Tomomi wanted to go for a nice, long drive. 

We did some research and decided that staying in a ryokan in Nikko would be the perfect weekend getaway. We were really excited that it would be our first ryokan experience together and we decided to stay at Honke Bankyu in the Yunishigawa region of Nikko.

Read through our review to find out what we thought.

What is a Ryokan?

A ryokan is a Japanese traditional hotel and here are some key differences to a standard western hotel:

  • Sleep on floor futons instead of a bed
  • Seat cushions instead of chairs
  • tatami mat flooring
  • Comes with hot spring and unique dinner course
  • Wear yugata during the night and to sleep

Some of these may not sound appealing but staying at a ryokan is more of a cultural experience rather than a luxury and it’s a good way to experience Japanese culture.

Honke Bankyu

Honke Bankyu is a 350 year old ryokan located in the small onsen town of Yunishigawa. The ryokan is located right on the bank of the Yunishigawa river and each room has an awesome view of the river. There is also a private bridge that leads to their dining hall on the opposite side of the river. 

The only pictures we took of the front was when monkeys passed by

The Location

The Yunishigawa area is a small onsen town in the northern part of Nikko. The town is built around the Yunishigawa river and is essentially a smaller, local version of the famous Kinugawa onsen area. 

The only way to get to this area is either by car or bus, running every half hour, from the Yunishigawa Onsen station.

Yunishigawa is definitely not your average tourist spot and this off the beaten path location is filled with nature and breathtaking landscapes. Besides being an onsen town, the area is also famous for the Kamakura festival in the winter, where small snow huts are made all around the city with candle lights inside.

How to Get There

From Tokyo, you can ride the Tobu Limited Express Revaty Aizu line from Asakusa Station straight to Yunishigawa Onsen station.

From Yunishigawa Onsen station, take a bus that stops at “Honke Bankyu Ryokan Mae”. Note that there are only a few buses per day and the last bus runs at 5:10pm. You can see the timetable here.

Check-In Process

The check in process was nothing out of the ordinary. They explained to us information about our stay and guided us to our room. Although we are not sure if there is English assistance, you just need to confirm the following information:

  • accommodation details 
  • time frame for dinner and breakfast
  • make reservation for the private onsen if desired

Having a translator app like Google Translate can be a big help so make sure to download the offline Japanese translation set before starting your trip!

The Room

The room itself was a typical Japanese ryokan room. On one side, there was a low table on tatami mat flooring with seat cushions. Near the window was the sleeping area with a nice view of the other side of the river.

Amenities

The room comes with basic amenities: towels, toothbrush, and a yugata to wear after the onsen. There is also an AC/heater for the hot and cold seasons and a TV. The ryokan also had WiFi, but it was only available in the lobby area.

Room Plans

There were 3 different room plans:

  • room with no bath – room only has a bathroom and shower
  • room with semi open air bath – room comes with a wooden hot spring bath and has a window 
  • room with open air bath – room comes with a complete open air bath next to the riverside

We decided to go with the semi open air bath since it was in the middle, but since we reserved the private onsen, we ended up not using the semi open air bath that was in our room.

The Service

The service is nothing different than what you’d expect at a typical ryokan, but the staff were all very kind, hardworking people. 

The Onsen

Honke Bankyu has a public onsen and 3 reservable private onsens. Even though both onsens have an open view towards the river, they’re carefully designed and positioned so that you can’t peak in from the outside, so rest assured. 

The private onsens are a smaller version of the public ones and are not separated by gender so they’re great for couples or families. It’s also an option for those that have tattoos and can’t enter the public onsen.

We decided to reserve the very last time slot for the private onsen, from 10:15pm to 11:00pm, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

Since the onsens have an open-air bath, you get a nice view of the river during the daytime, but complete darkness at night. The dark view was actually quite nice, but since our onsen becomes one of the few lit up spots in the area, moths started coming in and flying around.

Lesson learned: reserve an earlier time slot for an outdoor private onsen, especially if it’s next to a river.

Dinner

The dining experience was definitely the highlight of our stay. As mentioned before, the dining hall was located across the river and we had to cross Honke Bankyu’s private bridge in order to get there. We stayed on a rainy day, so we used the ryokan’s own Japanese umbrella to keep us dry.

Once we arrived at our private dining room, we noticed two things: the menu and the mini fire pit built into the table. The menu was a true work of art and there were so many items that it looks like a calligraphy poem. 

The mini fire pit was also awesome and we’ve never seen anything like it before. They already had fish and vegetable skewers cooking in the fire pit while we started to receive the appetizers.

Just like any ryokan dinner, the first few dishes leave you hungry and wanting more of each, but towards the end, you’re so stuffed yet they’re still bringing out more food.

Nevertheless, there was so much care put into every dish.

The Price

For our room with semi open air bath, breakfast, and dinner for 2, we paid roughly 57,000 yen in total, which we thought wasn’t a bad deal for a historical, 4-star ryokan. The dinner course by itself could easily be about 15,000 yen per person, so it definitely felt worth the money. 

In Summary

What we Loved

  • Dinner course
  • Abundance of open air onsen baths next to the river
  • Views from our room and the lobby
  • Private bridge

What could’ve been better

  • Having WiFi inside the rooms
  • Better English assistance

Final Thoughts

We thoroughly loved our stay here and next time, we would love to come in the winter to see the Kamakura festival throughout the city. 

The only drawbacks are that the Yunishigawa area is hard to reach and there’s not a lot of English assistance in this area. Other than that, spending a weekend getaway at a historical ryokan was one of the highlights of our 2019!

Tell us about some ryokans you’ve stayed at in the comments below!

What it’s Like Living in the Most Desired Place in Tokyo

For 5 years in a row, Kichijoji has been named the most desired place to live in Kanto and I was blessed with the opportunity to start my life in Japan here.

Living in Kichijoji was pure coincidence. My first company in Japan has a contract with a sharehouse network and new hires from outside of Japan would initially be assigned to live in the sharehouse branch in Kichijoji.

Through that, I was able to live in Kichijoji and see what it was like in one of the best place to live in Tokyo.

About Kichijoji

Kichijoji is located on the western part of Tokyo prefecture, in Musashino city. It’s most famous for its hipster vibes, unique thrift shops, and the huge Inokashira Park. Kichijoji is quite famous and visited by many Japanese people, but it’s not a popula travel destination yet among foreigners. 

Here are some of the things I liked and didn’t like about living in Kichijoji. 

Things I Loved

Passing Through Inokashira Park Everyday

I lived on the south side of Kichijoji and Inokashira Park was located right in the middle of my path to the station. Waking up early is something I don’t usually look forward to, but passing through the park in the morning hours was a great feeling and I always felt refreshed for the day.

I was also lucky enough to experience the sakura season while I lived here. Sakura season only lasts for a little more than a week and during that time, I was commuting through one of Japan’s most famous park for watching the sakura in Tokyo.

Convenient Location

Even though Kichijoji is located outside of the 23 wards of Tokyo, it was still easy to get around. There are two main train lines, Chuo and Keio, that run from Kichijoji to Shinjuku and Shibuya, which are two huge stations that have easy access to other parts of Tokyo as well. 

Unique Shops and Thrift Shops

Kichijoji is known for its unique shops and hipster thrift shops. Even if I’m not the shopping type of person, it brought a nice atmosphere to the neighborhood and is kind of similar to the thrift shop area of Harajuku.

Never Overcrowded

If you go to other stations like Shinjuku, Harajuku, or Shibuya it can get REALLY crowded. Kichijoji does get crowded, especially on a saturday afternoon, but it’s never an overwhelming amount of people and you can still enjoy your time. 

There’s Something For Everyone

Many stations in Tokyo attract a certain crowd. Harajuku seems to be the spot for high school girls and Akihabara is the hub for anime lovers. Kichijoji on the other hand, seems to attract a variety. Inokashira Park attracts a lot of families and couples while the thrift shops and stores attract many people in their 20s and 30s. There are also unique bars that are frequented by many businessmen and local bars for the older folks. 

It was nice to live in an area with this kind of balance. 

Things I Didn’t Love

Long Walk to the Station

With the low salary that this company offered, there had to be a reason why they would assign us to live in such a desired area and I have figured it out. The sharehouse was 30 minutes away from the station.

This meant that every day that I work or decide to go out, I would walk at least one hour that day. No wonder people here are so skinny!

Incredibly Tiny Room

The other reason I was able to live in Kichijoji was because of the room size. I’ve heard that rooms were small in Tokyo, but this room was beyond what I had imagined.

Since it was a sharehouse, the bathroom, kitchen and living room was shared and each room came with a bed, table, and closet. If you open the door to this room and take 5 steps in, you’ll already be at the other side. The width of the room was also no more than 2 meters. 

All of this for 70,000 yen (~$650 USD). 

Nevertheless, I was okay with this room at the time. It was my first time in Tokyo and I was too filled with excitement to care about how small my living quarters were or how far the station was. Eventually, I decided to move out and found a place in the 23 ward with 4x the space, 7 minutes from the station and 25% cheaper. Not bad eh?

Peak Hour Trains

The worst part about living here had to be the train during rush hour. Similar to other big cities, most people live in the suburbs while working inside the city. This meant that everybody living in Kichijoji, and every other city past Kichijoji, took the Chuo Line into Tokyo.

Pat B [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

According to Live Japan, the Chuo line can congest up to 188% of the intended capacity. Being in this train, you can barely even lift your arm and this was the only way to commute to work. I still can’t understand how people can deal with this 5 times a week. 

Conclusion

In summary, I enjoyed living in Kichijoji the short time that I did. It’s definitely one of the best suburbs of Tokyo and has a unique atmosphere to it. You get a nice balance of people as well as a nice balance of city and nature. Even now, after moving out, I still enjoy spending some weekends coming back to the best place to live in Tokyo. 

Have you ever been to Kichijoji? Let us know in the comments!