Ask Shinichi Nakazono what he enjoys most about being an innkeeper and his answer will be an invitation to join him over a glass of shochu at his kitchen table. His home is Kagoshima, a breezy port city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, where active volcano Sakurajima puffs and belches across the bay and windsurfing is king. The middle-aged, goateed Nakazono loves nothing more than to spend warm evenings regaling his guests with stories of Kagoshima's history while extolling the virtues of shochu, Kyushu's immensely popular sweet-potato liquor. Such moments make fond memories for travellers who hang their hat for a night or two in his two-storey wooden inn, Ryokan Nakazono, which stands behind a Buddhist temple in the quiet neighbourhood of Yasui. A steaming cup of green tea, a futon rolled out across tatami mats, the peal of a temple bell as a wake-up call - the simple pleasures of staying at a ryokan (traditional inn; literally 'travel lodging') are tempting increasing numbers of foreign visitors from Japan's sterile hotel precincts. From the snowbound villages of Hokkaido to the subtropical islands of Okinawa, about 60,000 ryokan dot the archipelago, offering travellers - as they have done for centuries - a soothing hot bath, a wholesome meal and a sound night's sleep. Ryokan tend not to be located in city centres or near major railway stations, but lie hidden in atmospheric outer neighbourhoods, clustered around mountain hot springs and in rural or even island settings. Near the meandering Takase River, in Kyoto's Shimogyo district, a sense of timelessness pervades the narrow hallways of Ryokan Hiiraiwa, a 90-year-old inn with a weathered tiled roof and wood-crafted exterior that receives about 8,000 foreign guests annually. Its manager says most travellers simply want to spend a night stretched out on a futon amid the earthy smell of tatami grass before paying a visit to the incense-filled pavilions of nearby Higashi Honganji Temple the next morning. If some inns look and smell as if they were constructed during feudal times, they probably were. Ryokan began to flourish towards the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), when Edo, now Tokyo, took over from Kyoto as Japan's centre of government. To keep the power-hungry daimyo (provincial lords) in check, the Shogun required them to make long, expensive annual trips to see him in Edo. Five highways were built to cope with all this travel and it was along these that ryokan sprouted to service the daimyo with sake, song and a place for slumber. Establishments such as the 145-year-old Hiiragiya Ryokan, in Kyoto's Nakagyo district, which offers 33 classically furnished rooms - some of them said to have been used by samurai for plotting assassinations in the mid-1800s - today rival Tokyo's top hotels for luxury. Exquisitely presented Kyoto cuisine, called kaiseki, along with discreet mod-cons such as dehumidifiers, plasma televisions and remote-controlled curtains, make it a place for high-rollers, as its guestbook shows. The stockinged feet of Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and author Yukio Mishima have all polished its wooden floors. On the west coast of Honshu island, in a hot-spring village called Awazu, is Houshi Ryokan, Japan's oldest inn. Built in AD717, it is also the world's oldest hotel, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But don't go looking for any 1,300-year-old ghosts: ageing gargoyles stand guard at Houshi's gates and are said to fend off any mischief-makers from the spirit world. And human afflictions, from haemorrhoids to hysteria, are just as easily disposed of in its milky mineral baths, say the proprietors. Checking in, dining and even navigating the bathtubs of a ryokan all involve their own subtle rituals, though no one expects foreign visitors to be expert in such matters. In the six years it has taken me to master juggling the three sets of slippers provided for garden walks, bath time and toilet trips, I still cannot wear my yukata (robe) without it unravelling in front of the female staff at least once during my stay. Thankfully, most are forgiving of my poor knot-work and try to make my visit an educational rather than an embarrassing one. Arriving at a ryokan, you may be greeted with all the ceremony once laid on for visiting daimyo, with the kimono-clad staff and even the chef and gardener turning out. On the other hand, if you've been delayed or arrive too early, you might want to shout a friendly 'konnichiwa' from the foyer to announce to the hostess you've arrived. Taking one's shoes off and swapping them for slippers in the foyer will impress the staff, though remember that not even slippers can be worn over the tatami mats. During the Heian period (AD794-1185), tatami mats were used solely for sleeping or sitting on, and to wear anything other than socks on them is still considered a terrible sin. Dining is the greatest highlight of staying in a ryokan. It rates so highly with the Japanese that accommodation brochures often look like restaurant menus. What a ryokan serves will almost always depend on its location and the season. In winter, on Hokkaido and Honshu, most ryokan serve fresh crab hotpot; summer on Honshu is the best time for grilled river fish; autumn means oysters in citrus and soy sauces; and in Okinawa, anywhere you stay should have a good supply of seafood year round. Dinner is typically served in the early evening at a low table in your room. At the Tokiwa Ryokan, one can hear the hallways creaking as the staff deliver trolleys laden with fresh crab to guests' quarters. The staff will often pour your drinks and may personally cook dishes over a charcoal grill. In larger establishments, you may be given the choice of dining in your room or with other guests. At Taikyou Ryokan, north of Kyoto, on the west coast, I leap at the chance to dine at one of the sunken tables in its old-style Agura restaurant. Taikyou made its name as a weekend hideaway for wealthy Kyoto merchants, writers, poets and their geisha during the late 1800s. The restaurant's yellowing mariners' maps and old photographs of geisha strolling nearby quays offer diversions between courses of simmered, grilled and sashimi-style seafood dishes served by wisecracking staff in colourful judo-style pyjamas. After feasting oneself silly, the last thing to do before bedding down is to hit the bathtub for a long, hot soak while the staff clear your dishes and lay out your futon. Communal baths are de rigueur in most ryokan, although many also provide private showers. There is no need to take shampoo or that favourite sea-sponge back-scraper because everything is supplied. And all ryokan provide small towels with their names on, which they encourage guests to take home as souvenirs. If there is one crucial point to remember, it is to never take soap into the bath. This is the ultimate faux pas and is guaranteed to incur the wrath of your fellow bathers. Shouting, singing and talking loudly to oneself are also out. A hearty sigh, on the other hand, will send a message to your bathmates that you are enjoying one of Japan's most savoured pastimes. Five of the best Iwanoyu, 3159 Suzaka, Nagano, tel: 81 26 245 2453. Located in snowy western Honshu, this inn is famous for its cave-like hot spring and private teahouse. Tawaraya Anekoji-agaru, Fuya-cho Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, tel: 81 75 211 5566. Located near Hiiragiya Ryokan, this 300-year-old inn boasts a staff of 60 to tend 18 rooms. Asebino, 931-1 Yugashima, Amagi Yugashima, Tagata, tel: 81 558 85 1926. Set in the mountains of Shizuoka prefecture, close to Mount Fuji, Asebino's big drawcard is its 20-metre-wide outdoor hot-spring bath. Tamanoyu Yunotsubo, Yufuin, Ota, tel: 81 977 84 2158. This ryokan offers 18 villas set around gardens in Japan's most famous hot-spring village, Yufuin. Miyama Sou, 375 Harachi-cho Hanase, Sakyoku, Kyoto, tel: 81 75 746 0231. Seasonal tsumikusa-ryori, or herb cuisine, is the highlight of this cosy rural ryokan.