A ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel. A typical ryokan has tatami floors, sliding doors, a public bath, an indoor garden, a low table, and futons. They also serve traditional Japanese cuisine to guests. Ryokans are usually located near nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Most of the time, staying in a ryokan would cost you more than in hotels. Nevertheless, you should try staying in a ryokan for at least a couple of days for a uniquely Japanese experience.
I have only stayed in one ryokan so I can't speak for all ryokans in Japan. Most of the things I wrote here are based on my experience at Sumiyoshi Ryokan, a family-owned inn in Hida, Takayama.
No Shoes Policy
Like in all Japanese houses, you have to take off your shoes before entering a ryokan. Leave your shoes at the genkan (entryway) and change into slippers that are laid out for you. I'm not sure about the other ryokans, but at the ryokan we stayed in, there was usually a man who would put our shoes on the shelves.
The elevated floor is the clean part of the house and is where the genkan ends. Do not step on the elevated part with your dirty shoes. I heard that the biggest pet peeves of the Japanese are people who don't remove their shoes before entering a house. Some foreigners like myself find this Japanese custom a little difficult to do. My family and I would usually spend several minutes putting on or taking off our shoes. To avoid this, I recommend wearing shoes that are easy to remove when you visit Japan.
Do not forget to wear a nice pair of socks. It is not only considered polite to wear socks indoors, it is also more comfortable. For the toilets, a different pair of slippers is provided.
Rooms and Rates
A standard hotel room in Japan can accommodate a maximum of two persons. In ryokans, rooms can accommodate up to four persons. Some even more. The cost of ryokans per night ranges from 7,000 to 15,000 yen per person. With an additional fee, you can request for breakfast and dinner, which would be served either to your room or to a private dining room. In some ryokans, guests have their meals in a communal dining hall. Upon your arrival, you will be asked what time you want to have your meal.
At night, the housekeepers go to your room to lay out your futon. A futon is a mattress with a duvet. It is surprisingly warm and comfortable! At daylight, the housekeepers come back to put away the futon while you're having your breakfast.
Ryokans typically don't have bathrooms inside the guest rooms. However, some offer a limited number of rooms with ensuite bathroom. For the comfort of foreign guests, many ryokans have added Western toilets as most foreigners are not used to squatting. The toilets are modern, with buttons and all.
Ryokans provide each guest a yukata, a Japanese clothing that is more casual than kimonos. This is worn before or after a bath or during your morning strolls. Here is a step-by-step guide to wearing a yukata.
Our room at Sumiyoshi Ryokan.
Ryokans have a communal bath, which means you have to share it with other guests. Although it is a uniquely Japanese experience, many foreigners shy away from using a public bath. In some ryokans such as the one I stayed in, they have a shared "private" bath. This has a lock and families or couples can use it for their own private enjoyment.
In a typical bath, you will be provided a basin and a small towel. Bring your stuff to the changing area, which is connected to the bathing area. When you're ready, go to the wash area and take a shower. Usually, soap and shampoo are provided. When you're clean, you can now get into the hot water. A hot bath is a perfect way to soothe your tired body!
Bear in mind the following dos and don'ts when it comes to bathing in a Japanese bath.
- Do not wear a towel or a bathing suit in the tub. Any type of clothing is not allowed.
- Do shower first before dipping into the tub.
- Do not stand while showering. Get a chair and sit as you shower.
- Do not dip your small towel into the hot water. The small towel is usually placed on top of the head.
- Do not go to the changing room dripping wet. Dry yourself inside the bathing area.
- Do not wash your clothes in the shower or in the tub.
- In public baths, do not be alarmed if a local talks to you while bathing. In Japanese culture, a public bath is a common place to chit chat with strangers. It is perfectly normal.
Here is a video teaching how to use a public bath.
If you're staying in a ryokan, I highly recommend you to avail their meal package. The food is the highlight of my stay at Sumiyoshi Ryokan. Ryokans offer breakfast and dinner. It's best to try both meals. They serve many dishes in one meal and they are beautifully presented. They always include local specialties and seasonal foods. Rice is generously offered, so don't feel shy to ask for another bowl! The server will be more than happy to fill your bowl for you.
Ryokans are always very hospitable and they go out of their way to make their guests feel welcome. Every time we returned to our ryokan, we were served tea with biscuits or chocolates. These little gestures warm my heart.
Even with her limited English, our server showed us ways to eat some of the dishes, such as wrapping rice with seaweeds. My family always had fun interacting with her. Since it was winter, we had blankets to cover our laps. Our server did not stay with us during the entire meal, but she would come and go to attend to our needs.
On New Year's Eve, we were served sake. I don't drink alcohol, but hey, we were in Japan! It was my first time to taste sake. It was sweet and tasted a bit like Sprite, but much better. Our server took our picture as we said "Kanpai!" in unison.
Our delicious dinner at Sumiyoshi Ryokan.
Hoba miso. Food with fermented soybean paste is grilled on a hoba (magnolia) leaf over a stove.
Food presentation is nice.
Seasonal foods are served in ryokans.
After check-out, most ryokans will give something to their guests as a token of appreciation. Each of us had received a pair of good-quality chopsticks. It was really a nice gesture!
Our host hailed a taxi for us. He waved goodbye and did not leave until our taxi was out of sight.
Staying in a ryokan may seem intimidating to first-time visitors. I also felt the same way and was even uncomfortable about the idea of staying in a traditional inn. After my stay, I was happy and did not regret it one bit. It was an absolutely worthwhile experience. Travelers should sometimes go out of their comfort zone to experience new things.
You will never receive the same amount of warmth and pampering in a regular hotel. In a ryokan, the hosts know each of their guests. The man at the genkan had memorized all of our shoes. Their attention to detail shows how much they care for their guests. It was truly a wonderful experience that would stay with me forever.
© Rainy Kua 2016