If you've done any planning online for an upcoming Japan trip, you've come across a type of hotel called a ryokan. These traditional lodgings are the best way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and hospitality. Ryokan are all about taking it slow and easy, enjoying top notch service, eating fantastic food, and relaxing in the public bath.
There was a time when booking an overnight stay at a ryokan was not easy for foreign guests. They remained off the digital grid for years, so it was impossible to get on a hotel booking website and find a ryokan until recently. You needed to know someone in Japan who could arrange a stay for you or go through a booking agency. Thankfully, nowadays anyone can find a multitude of ryokan listed online, from mid range lodging to high end luxury experiences.
Ryokans have become something of a expected and highly anticipated part of a Japan vacation for many visitors. Here at KyoTours Japan, we often host guests staying at some of the old ryokans in Kyoto. Hakone near Mt. Fuji is another popular ryokan hotspot, especially with the onsen hot springs in that area being some of the best in Japan. But many of these guests often express a certain hesitation regarding their ryokan stay...
Imagine my shock the find so many travelers are nervous about their stay at a traditional ryokan! Rules and customs grate on their nerves as they worry about making a mistake and offended someone or embarrassing themselves. Sometimes I forget what it was like when Japan was new to me and it felt like a cultural faux pas situation was bound to occur at any moment. But still, an overnight stay at a ryokan is nothing to get nervous about! Here are some explanations and tips that should put you at ease if you are a feeling a little overwhelmed with your pending experience at a traditional Japanese lodging.
The Golden Rule of Japan Travel
Before anything else, let's get the easiest tip out of the way. This is a top piece of advice for Japan: If you don't know something, ASK SOMEONE! Everyone here is super friendly and will be happy to go out of their way to help you as a visitor. I promise. If you don't know how to do something in your room, what to do with something on your breakfast tray, or where you need to take your shoes off... ASK! The locals will go out of their way to help you out, and this goes double for ryokan staff whose job it is to make you feel at home.
You're not the first person to stumble their way through Japan, and your hosts know this. Seriously, relax. Get curious and talkative and people will open up and explain even the most mundane thing to you with pleasure and patience. You can even try to throw in a few Japanese words!
Check In and Relax
Check in time at ryokans is usually around 4:00 or 4:30. Some places might have a cutoff time not much after that, but many ryokans are learning to cope with the special scheduling needs of foreign guests arriving by train from various destinations. But whatever time your ryokan tells you to be there, be there at that time. Not only is tardiness seen as rude here, but your evening at the ryokan may be set up around a certain schedule.
Do not expect your check in to be a speedy affair. You may be led into a separate area and served tea and sweets while you wait for your host, or you may be accompanied to your room. Either way, expect an explanation of the hotel's policies, information about the faculties, and the details of the schedule. Westerners often just want to get to the privacy of their room and relax, but accept that things might take a little longer at a ryokan.
Your host may ask what time you want dinner served (sometimes it's at a pre-decided time). My suggestion would be to pick a time that will give you enough time to have a bath (more about this later) and relax before your meal. You'll also be informed about the breakfast schedule. This is usually at a scheduled time, but you might get to choose this meal time as well. Don't be afraid to schedule an early breakfast. I'm not gonna lie: most older ryokan tend to be noisy and creaky, and there's a good chance you'll be awoken in the morning once the staff starts moving around the hallways. Get up and take an early bath and make the most of your time before breakfast.
Suit Up and Wind Down
Did you know that you don't need to pack pajamas (or a toothbrush!) when visiting Japan? Almost all hotels provide some sort of pajamas for guests, and at ryokans you'll be given a traditional yukata kimono to wear around the hotel. This light and airy garment is all-purpose relaxation wear for your time at your lodging. You can usually wear this traditional kimono throughout the ryokan, but there might be certain areas like the dining room or the lobby that are for regular clothes only. The staff will let you know about any of these limitations, but if you're not sure, just ask.
When putting on your yukata, make sure you wrap it around you the proper way. Wrap the right side around you first, and then wrap the left over that before tying it. If you reverse this, then you're wrapping yourself in a way reserved only for corpses. This is super unlucky! The staff might politely say something to you if put it on incorrectly and offer to help you fix it. Yes, Japanese people are very superstitious!
One more step before you can truly unwind. Make sure to put your luggage away in a part of the room without tatami mat flooring. This traditional matting might get scuffed or torn by the corners or wheels on your suitcases. Also, make sure not to put anything in the tokonoma, the alcove included in many traditional Japanese rooms. This space is meant as a display area for scrolls, flowers, or other small works of art. Keep this area clear. Of course, some uninspired modern ryokans have decided that this treasured area is the perfect spot for the television...
Ryokans are all about relaxing, so once you're settled in, take some time to take it easy. Your room will probably have a hot water thermos pitcher (which will amazingly keep water hot until the next morning) or an electric kettle, so feel free to enjoy some tea as you take a breather. There might not be any chairs in your room, but spread out on the tatami floor and stretch out and wait for dinner or bath time. If it's winter, cozy up under the kotatsu heater table, but be careful because you may not want to leave!
Strip Down and Plunge In
This is it! The most nerve-racking and wonderful experience you can possibly have in Japan. It's time for a traditional bath. You'll probably be nervous, and if you're not, well then you're of a stronger constitution than most of us. Bathing in Japan is done in the nude and in communal baths. I know, I know. But it's time to strip down and face the music. Check out some information about bathing in Japan that we've shared before on this blog. This chance to enjoy a bath is not to be missed, and may become one of your favorite part of the whole Japan vacation.
Try to get a bath in before dinner. This is the traditional way to unwind and get your appetite up before the probably large meal that is on its way to your table. While you're in the bath, this will give the staff some time to prepare your room for dinner, since most ryokans serve meals in guests' rooms.
Here's a big tip that I guess can be included in the bathing section: be cautious of the toilet slippers. Most Japanese bathrooms will have a separate room for the toilet, and they often have slippers in this room so that you don't get your feet dirty. Wearing these toilet slippers out of the toilet is a very, very common faux pas for foreign visitors here. Japanese are VERY forgiving if you make a mistake, but the toilet slipper slip-up is the one thing that might earn you a few dirty looks. Let this be the one thing that you allow yourself to be nervous about so you don't make this common mistake.
Dig In and Enjoy
Apart from the bath, the meals are the part of a ryokan experience that the Japanese most look forward to. Prepare yourself for a large kaiseki-stlye dinner, which means you'll be treated to multiple courses of seasonal foods. This will be a highlight of your vacation that you won't want to forget, so take lots of pictures of your food!
Here's a surprising bit of culture that I've discovered over the years: Most Japanese people will assume that as a foreigner, you can't eat a good portion of Japanese food. Which may very well be true for many of us. Their cuisine is uniquely delicious, but much of it is also uniquely difficult for an unfamiliar palate. The textures are unlike anything we have in the West, with lots of slippery, chewy bits and oddly tasteless pieces of... well, things that you're not really sure what they are. Therefore, it's perfectly fine if you don't eat everything! Don't worry about leaving things on your plate, as the meals are huge and the staff won't be insulted. This can work in your favor when served something that you don't want to eat.
Breakfast the next morning will be similarly large, but more manageable. If anything, breakfast might be more interesting because sometimes it's something of a puzzle that you need to assemble. A plate of pickled vegetables, a wrapper of roasted seaweed sheets, a raw egg still in its shell, a pickled plum... what do you do with all this stuff? Well, I'm not going to tell you here (sorry!) because it might be different depending on what you're served and I want to make sure that you do it as the chef intended. Simply ask the staff. They'll show you what to do with the egg and seaweed, and how to stir the fermented natto soybeans (THIS will be the stuff you don't eat at this meal, trust me). Finally, be warned of bones in the grilled fish. Japanese cooked fish is notorious for not being de-boned.
Keep in my mind that many ryokans won't be able to do much to accommodate special dietary needs like vegetarianism or gluten-free diets. Any special requests regarding food should be made at the time of reservation, or upon check in at the latest. Any last minute requests could be seen as rude and imposing, as the staff WILL go out of their way to make sure you're happy. Don't abuse their hospitality and keep your expectations and requests reasonable.
Tuck In and Drift Off
After dinner, feel free to take another bath. Make the most of your stay and try to fit in as many baths as possible! Another dip will give the staff the chance to set up your room for sleeping. They'll move aside the low table and lay out futons on the floor. Sometimes guests ask me if this means they'll be sleeping on just a sheet on the hard floor, and I assure them the futons are just as comfortable as most regular bed mattresses.
I think most Japanese guests tend to go to bed early at ryokans. Frankly, there's often little to do besides take a bath and relax with a book or some sake before going to bed. You can go out if you want, but some ryokans might have a curfew, however this is rare. Get ready to wake up early for another bath before breakfast, and then bide your time relaxing before checkout.
A stay at a ryokan should absolutely be a part of your Japan vacation if at all possible. There are a number of online resources to find and book these traditional hotels, and prices range from surprisingly reasonable to mindblowingly outrageous. Even travelers on a budget can book a good ryokan experience with some careful research. Don't let price get in the way of an exciting traditional adventure at a ryokan.
Enjoy your stay, and if you happen to be staying in a Kyoto ryokan, let KyoTours Japan show you around town the next day.