Japan – staying in a ryokan

STAYING 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.

Slippers

When you arrive at the ryokan you will be welcomed at the reception and will be shown to you room. 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 in your room may only be touched with bare feet or socks. If you want to take a short walk near the ryokan, you may wear the ryokan’s sandals or geta (wooden clogs) provided.
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.

Your room

Most rooms are pretty standard. Rooms are generally furnished quite sparingly. Ofcourse a room in a luxury ryokan will have more facilities than a basic ryokan, but usually you will find the following items in the room:
There is often a low table with 4 legless chairs with zabutons (cushions) for sitting. Your room may have a tokonoma (a a little alcove built into the wall, used for flower vases and hanging scrolls), a (glass-enclosed) sitting area separated by a shoji (sliding paper door) and a television. You may also have a private bathroom, and lucky bastards may even have a private onsen. There usually is a tea set with a thermos with boiling water and some sweets, like mochi or cookies. You can sit on the zabuton while relaxing and enjoying your tea with a delicious macha mochi.

You will 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’. In most ryokans, someone will come into your room to make the bed for you while you are having diner. Be aware of that before you make a total mess of your room. Then, when you return to the room after diner, your bed is ready and there will be fresh tea.

Yukata (浴衣)

You will get a yukata – a simple cotton kimono. You may wear this yukata throughout your stay; in the room, but also in the common areas, at breakfast/dinner, when you go to the bathhouse – the onsen and for a stroll outside the onsen. 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.

For ‘pretty tall’ people (like me, I’m 6 foot tall) 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 (羽織) – a kind of unisex overcoat. You wear the haori over your yukata. In winter, you may also get a tanzen, this is a rather thick padded kimono, that you wear over your yukata, in the same way as wearing the yukata. The haori is smaller in length than the yukata and tanzen. Sometimes you will also get tabi, kind of split-toed socks. These are Japanese-style socks.

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 to avoid flashing. It’s also okay to wear a short legging underneath.

The yukata is tied as follows:

  • Put the yukata on and fold the right part over your left hip. Then fold the left part over your right hip. 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. Check the bottom of the yukata to make sure the lengths are even.
  • 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. In most ryokans you will get Kaiseki (懐石), this is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. Kaiseki is a type of art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food. Mostly fresh seasonal ingredients are being used and they are prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor. Local ingredients are often included as well. The dishes are carefully and beautifully presented on plates that are chosen to enhance both the appearance and the seasonal theme of the meal. Dishes are beautifully and symmetrically arranged and garnished, often with real leaves and flowers, as well as edible garnishes designed to resemble natural plants and animals. It’s a true feast.

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.

Onsen (温泉)

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 (露天風呂) . A ryokan generally has several indoor and outdoor pools. Before dinner is a good time to take a Japanese style bath. It’s also really nice to go to the onsen very late at night or early in the morning, when it’s really quiet. You may use the bath in your room or you may use the large public bath in the ryokan. 

There is a whole ritual connected to bathing in an onsen. It is very important to follow the rules. When you arrive at the public bath, you put all of your clothes into the baskets in the changing room. Take the small towel provided for you. You go into the bathing room, naked. No bathing suits are allowed. Don’t be a prude, we were all born naked. 
Before entering the onsen, you will have to wash yourself extensively – from your hair to your feet. Cleaning your body is done in a separate rinsing area with a shower. The large public bath you see is only for soaking your body. There will be a small wooden or plastic stool for you to sit on, and soap, shampoo, and a mirror will be provided for you. Be careful, it’s slippery! These stools are very low and they sometimes are so small that only one of my butt cheeks’ll fit on it. I managed to topple over a couple of times, one time I even fell into the bushes. That’s a bit embarassing, I can tell you.

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. Now it’s time to relax. Or to be boiled like a shrimp, because some onsens are too hot to handle! 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.

Besides the onsen there are generally a few more rooms in a ryokan for relaxation, like a library or a room with massage chairs.

Children 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.

Tattoos in the onsen

There’s one particular rule around bathing in an onsen that you’ll have to be aware of. In most onsens people with tattoos are not allowed in. Where do these anti-tattoo rules stem from? Historically, Japanese people do not have tattoos; they’ve been associated with outlaws for centuries, and since the 20th century, members of the Yakuza, a local mafia, known for being heavily tattooed. There’s a social stigma around tattoos that runs deep. Bathhouses in Japan are typically private businesses with the right to refuse customers with tattoos. Some ryokans will allow tattoos, or will allow that you tape them. While some may accept small, less noticeable tattoos, others may refuse entry to guests with larger pieces. If you have tattoos, you’ll have to be creative. This link will give you an overview of tattoo friendly onsen in Japan.

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 find 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 do 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.

This is a list of the ryokans we’ve visited. It’s a mix of luxury stays and more basic minshuku’s. What they have in common is that they all offer half board and an onsen:
Tsumago, Matsushiroya
Koya-San, Shojoshin-in
Ibusuki, Ryokan Syusuien
Mt. Aso, Sozankyo
Minakami, Onsen Pension Hanasakiyama
Yudanaka, Ryokan Hakura
Hakuba, Hakuba Ski-Kan
Ainokura, Gasho Minshuku Nakaya
Norikura/Kamikochi, Norikura Kanko Hotel Yamayuri
Aizu Wakamatsu, Shosuke-no-Yado Takinoyu
Zao onsen, Zao Plaza Hotel
Nyuto onsen, Ganiba onsen

Planned:
Tsuwano, Noren Yado Meigutsu
Kurokawa onsen, Ryokan Yamamizuki
Iya valley, Iya Kankou ryokan
Sounkyo onsen, Sounkyo Kanko Hotel
Lake Akan, New Akan Hotel
Lake Toya, The lake viw Toya Nonokaze
Noboribetsu onsen, Noboribetsu Sekisui-Tei