STAYING OVERNIGHT IN A RYOKAN (旅館)
Staying in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese guesthouse – is a must when travelling through Japan. It is a truly wonderful way to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture. Ryokans come in all shapes and sizes, from simple and old to extremely luxurious and modern.
Rooms are generally simple, and furnished quite sparingly. There is often only a low table with 4 legless chairs and a television. There usually is a tea set with a thermos with boiling water. In the wardrobe there will be a yukata for all guests – a simple kimono. You may wear this yukata throughout your stay; in the room, but also in the common areas, at breakfast/dinner and when you go to the bathhouse – the onsen. For ‘pretty large’ people (like me) there are almost always size XL yukata available. These are often placed in the corridor or at reception. For the cold evenings, you will usually get a haori – a kind of large unisex overcoat. You wear the haori over your yukata.
You sleep in a ryokan on the floor with tatami mats, on a thin mattress – a futon. Usually you get 1 futon per person, but often there are extra futons in a closet in the room. I always need 1 or 2 extra futon layers to avoid painful ‘futon hips’.
You are not allowed to enter the ryokan with your shoes. Shoes are removed at the entrance and placed in special lockers. Slippers are provided for you at the entrance, which you then remove in your room – before you step on the tatami mats. The tatami may only be touched with bare feet or socks. The toilet also has its own slippers. It takes some getting used to the whole slipper regime. In the beginning you will definitely make ‘foot mistakes’. But after a few days you will definitely get used to it.
How do you wear a yukata?
A yukata is a type of bathrobe related to the kimono. The yukata is usually worn over your underwear. It is also recommended for ladies to wear a t-shirt/shirt underneath.
The yukata is tied as follows:
- Put the yukata on and fold the left part over your hip. Then fold the right part over it. Left over right. If you do this the other way round, you may get strange looks. This is because ‘right over left’ only happens to a dead person.
- Next, take the obi – the belt – , wrap it around yourself once or twice and tie a knot. Leave enough room for a knot.
- Women tie the yukata around their waist, men at hip height.
- The overcoat – haori – is worn over your yukata.
What will you eat?
You usually book a ryokan including a sumptuous dinner and breakfast. You can sometimes book just an overnight stay, but that would be a shame. You see, the food is amazing – we think it’s a real treat. It is, without exception, wonderful, healthy and delicious. And full of stuff you’ve probably never seen and tasted before.
When you check in, it is agreed with you what time dinner and breakfast will be served and where it will be served (in a dining room or in your room). You are then expected to stick to these agreed times. Arriving too early or too late for dinner or breakfast is not appreciated.
If you wish, you may attend dinner and breakfast in your yukata. This may feel a bit weird at first, but just give in to it. It really is part of the whole ryokan experience. During dinner, they usually prepare the futons and blankets in your room. Then, when you return to the room, your bed is ready and there will be fresh tea.
In a ryokan, you can use the onsen; a communal bath with water from a geyser. Most ryokans have their own hot spring that heats the onsen. These baths are often incredibly hot – up to 45 degrees Celsius! The onsen often has a separate section for men and women, but sometimes it is a mixed affair. An outdoor pool is called a rotenburo. A ryokan generally has several indoor and outdoor pools.
There is a whole ritual connected to bathing in an onsen. It is very important to follow the rules. Before entering the onsen, you will have to wash yourself extensively – from your hair to your feet. You do this while sitting on a little stool, in a separate rinsing area with a shower. This washing ritual is not an option, it’s mandatory. Japanese find it truly gross if you sit in an onsen without rinsing off first. In addition, you have to be careful to rinse off all the soap carefully. In a rotenburo – an outdoor pool – , there are sometimes no separate showers or rinse-off areas. Even then, you should rinse off first, before entering the water. You do this by kneeling at the side of the onsen and scooping water with a small bucket over your (lower) body.
Completely clean you will then enter the big hot bath. To be able to scrub off properly, you will be given a small onsen towel. This towel is not supposed to touch the onsen water, so many Japanese put the towel on their head while sitting in the onsen.
Children are welcome in the onsen, if they know how to behave themselves, of course. It is definitely not a play area or a normal pool, and submerging is definitely not done. We took our 1-year-old daughter to the onsen, she was not potty-trained at the time. We found it an exciting endeavour, but the Japanese themselves didn’t seem to mind.
How can you book a ryokan?
Ryokans can be reserved in several ways. The most convenient way to do this is to check booking.com, agoda or Japanican. These sites allow you to book directly. We found Japanican to be the most convenient website to make reservation. The website Japanese guesthouses provides a great overview of available ryokans per region. This website however is not very convenient for making a reservation. But this too is manageable. Booking ryokans directly by email is also possible. We recommend to send your email in English and in Japanese (f.i. translated with google translate).
What did we pay for an overnight stay? Around €80 – €90 per person per night including dinner and breakfast. Of course, you can spend a lot more money. But with a bit of research, you can keep costs down quite well.