Between long flights, dashing around sightseeing areas, and dealing with public transportation, traveling isn’t always as relaxing as you might want it to be. What’s that saying about needing a vacation from your vacation? In Japan, though, you can get away from the worries of globetrotting by staying in a ryokan. Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns, and there’s a steep difference between them and Western-style hotels.
At a ryokan, you’re invited to step into an idyllic plane that resembles ancient Japan. Every flower in the garden, morsel in your meal, and each drop of hot spring water is designed to encourage you to do absolutely nothing. As relaxing as these places are, however, common ryokan elements can take adventurers by surprise. Here is our guide to staying in a ryokan in Japan.
While it’s possible to find ryokan hotels in Japan in large metropolises like Tokyo and Kyoto, most Japanese people prefer to go to rural and picturesque onsen (hot springs) towns. Part of the purpose of lodging in a Japanese inn is to recconnect with nature. Ryokan range from opulent to no-frills budget, but what’s included or excluded sometimes confounds first-time travelers to Japan.
Before booking, consider whether you’ll stay in a Japanese or a Western-style room. Japanese-style rooms are minimalist in decor to help you shake off the worries of modern society. Upon entering, the first thing you’ll notice is the distinct smell of the tatami (rice straw) floors.
Tatami matted rooms inspire a flurry of nostalgia for the Japanese, but for unaccustomed Westerners, they can induce bewilderment. Conventional accommodations usually come furnished with a low table, legless chairs, and not much more. Instead of beds, guests sleep on futons, and the private bathrooms are often much smaller than their Western counterparts.
Although the differences between Japanese and Western rooms might seem overwhelming at first, every traveler should experience at least one night in a tatami room. If you can’t picture yourself getting a good night’s rest on a futon, keep this in mind. Family-owned and economy ryokans don’t always have Western-style rooms. Large resort-style and luxury ryokans in Japan that cater to foreign guests might have Western rooms, but they tend to be limited in number.
When lost on which type to choose, we recommend reserving a Western room first. It’s much easier to switch from a Western to a Japanese room upon arrival than the other way around.
Your journey to rejuvenation begins as soon as you cross the threshold. Luxury and family-owned ryokans often employ personal attendants (nakai-san) for guests. In these circumstances, it’s customary to tip your nakai-san by presenting an envelope supplied with 1,000 yen per person (around US $10) at check-in. Resort-style and economy ryokans disperse nakai-san duties among their staff members, so you don’t need to tip at these kinds of establishments.
Inside, you’ll receive slippers and yukata (cotton kimono) for wearing during your visit. To put on the yukata, slip an arm into each sleeve, fold the left side over the right, and secure it with an obi belt. Tie the obi by wrapping it front to back, crossing back to the front, and knotting it on your right side. Men wear their obi on their hips whereas women don it at their waist. You can sport the yukata anywhere on the property, as pajamas, and even around town.
After changing, Japanese people might begin their vacation by sipping a cup of green tea and enjoying a small snack. If the taste is too bitter for you, pop your sugary treat in your mouth before drinking. You can fritter away the rest of your time by strolling in the garden until supper is ready.
Most ryokans serve Japanese kaiseki (haute cuisine) course meals. These are lavish affairs that for many is the highlight of their trip. Kaiseki dishes vary by season and region, but they always feature a variety of cooking styles. The chefs expertly arrange the plates to reflect the beauty and taste of the ingredients, and everything from the decorative pottery to the garnish holds as much meaning as an oil painting.
Kitchens prepare kaiseki meals well in advance. If you have any food allergies or lifestyle diets, please inform the staff when you book your reservation. If you can’t finish every bite, that’s fine, but do try to take at least a small nibble of everything. Untouched plates cause the chefs to feel a great deal of shame!
Some ryokans offer guests the option to eat kaiseki in their room rather than the dining room. In these instances, you'll either make a reservation at check-in follow the pre-determined schedule. Resort-style ryokans sometimes have all-you-can-eat buffets with international cuisines that don’t require pre-arrangements.
Unless you stay in a resort-style ryokan, your breakfast is all but guaranteed to be quintessentially Japanese. An ordinary Japanese breakfast consists of grilled fish, rice, miso soup, and vegetarian side-dishes. Family-owned and luxury ryokan might be able to slightly adjust meals to your needs if you make requests in advance to your stay.
Westerners sometimes feel shy about washing up in a communal bath, but don't skip out on any chance you have to take a dip in an onsen. The thermogenic waters are rich in revitalizing minerals that will relieve any ache and recharge your weary spirit. Japanese people love them so much, they might bathe before dinner, after dinner, and for a third time before breakfast.
To take a Japanese bath, take off your yukata and store it with your body towel in a provided locker or basket. Next, scrub your body and wash your hair in one of the showers. You can use your face towel for privacy, but don’t let it touch the hot springs' water. Place the towel on the perimeter of the tub or your head while you're soaking. The best onsen ryokans in Japan have outdoor and indoor baths for your pleasure.
If public bathing isn’t an option for you, consider looking for a luxury ryokan with private open-air baths attached to the guest rooms. Some ryokans also have small communal hot springs baths that you can charter for private parties. Nearly every resort-style ryokan has en suite bathrooms, but in-room baths and showers might be quite small compared to Western hotels. Family-style and economy ryokan often have individual toilets per every room, but because most Japanese people bathe in the onsen, showers aren’t always included.
After bathing and eating, all that’s left to do is sleep through the night. If you decide on a tatami room, the staff will stealthily lay out your futons, blankets, and pillows as you dine. One futon fits one person, and Western rooms follow suit with separate single-size beds.
It might feel strange for some people to sleep on the floor, but most find futons strikingly soft and supportive. The buckwheat seed pillows also tend to baffle first-time ryokan guests. Though they might seem bizarre at first, the seeds mold to your head and fully support the curve of your neck. With a full belly and a warm body, you’ll drift off to slumber-land before you know it.
As with all good things, your stay in the ryokan will come to an unfortunate end. Check out usually takes place at 10:00 or 11:00 am. You don’t need to put your futon away, but Japanese custom dictates that you should tidy up your space. The staff will follow you out as you depart to say farewell, and that they eagerly wait for your return on your next ryokan experience.
***The images featured in this article are from multiple establishments and don't represent one ryokan.***