Tips for Staying in a Ryokan in Japan
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period, where travelers along Japan’s roads were able to stay.
There are many still in Japan, particularly in small Japanese villagers, and the same family has owned many for many years.
We have stayed in ryokans in Nozawa Onsen, Takayama and the enchanting Kyoto and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them and the very real Japanese experience that we get be meeting and staying with local people.
Staying in a ryokan is a particularly unique Japanese experience, and one not to be missed. Here you will sleep on a tatami-mat on the floor, which are actually very comfortable. Most will have an onsen, a communal though segregated bath, where visitors may wear yukata, a lightweight kimono and where you will be very well looked after.
Staying in a ryokan is an experience but as with many things in Japan, there are etiquette guidelines that you need to be aware of.
These are some things to do when you stay in a ryokan.
Research to find an authentic ryokan, as a number of hotels now state that they are a ryokan but this will not be the real experience.
The Japanese are not very showy when it comes to advertising, so it is often very difficult to find ryokans and indeed authentic cafes. Get very clear directions before hand or you may find yourself wandering around. Most ryokans are small family run inns, and it takes a little bit if internet research to find them. Looking at others reviews will certainly assist.
Footwear in a Ryokan or in Japan generally
Take your shoes off when entering the ryokan and out the slippers on that will be at the door. Do not wear your slippers into the tatami matted room but leave the slippers either outside the shoji doors of the room. There is a different set of slippers to wear in the toilet, so you will need to slip one pair off and put the toilet ones on.
Wear the wooden sandals provided for you when you take a walk in the garden or outside. You will get used to this. One pair for walking around inside the ryokan, a different pair for going to the toilet, a different pair again for walking outside and none in the tatami matted bedroom.
Sleeping Arrangements in a Ryokan
You will go into your room, leaving your slippers at the door, and you will see what appears to be sea grass matting. This is the tatami mat, and it is expensive. There may be a low table and fairly minimal decoration.
Inside a cupboard, you will find a rolled up mattress and a doona, which will be placed out each evening by the owners of the ryokan for sleeping. However, we do put ours out in the day to sit on, and that’s ok.
What to wear
Wear the yukata, that is provided in the ryokan. It is part of the experience and a normal and comfortable way to dress.
Eating at a Ryokan
You need to like Japanese food or be prepared to have a go, as traditional Japanese ryokans will only serve Japanese food, and there will be no options. What they will serve you, however, is exceptionally excellent fresh Japanese food. Sometimes, one of the staff or family may speak English so that you know approximately what you are eating, at other times you will just have an excellent experience not knowing what you are eating. Serendipity!
- Don’t ask for a knife and fork; you will be using chopsticks.
- Do schedule your dinner at a normal time, between 7:00 and 8:00 pm
- Don’t be late for dinner. If it is unavoidable, let them know.
- Don’t leave too many dishes untouched or barely touched.. It will cause the chef/cook to worry. Also don’t eat everything or the owners will not feel that they have given you enough food. Leave a little on your plate as a sign that you enjoyed it and they have fed you really well but that you have had sufficient.
Bathing in an onsen
- Take your basket of soap, washer, shampoo etc to the onsen, whist reciting the rules
- Take off shoes inside doorway
- Walk into little open area and remove all clothes. Don’t be modest there is absolutely no need whatsoever.
- Put clothes AND YOUR TOWEL on an available shelf, not someone else’s
- Enter ‘the’ onsen and make your way through the steam
- Grab a washbasin and small stool and take it to an available space near the taps around the sides of the onsen.
- Fill the basin with some water from the onsen, to help you get used to the temperature. Give yourself a good rinse.
- Now enter the onsen. Temperatures very depending upon where you stay in Japan, but expect hot.
- Get out of the onsen and wash your self –thoroughly – every nook and cranny.
- Once you have rinsed off every single soapsuds you go back into the onsen, for a relaxing soak.
- You can take your ‘clean’ washer into the onsen, but it can only be put on your head. DO NOT use it on your arm or other part of your body.
- Dry off your body as much as you can with your washcloth. Now clean up your area. Rinse down where you were squatting, return your stool and basin and go back to the dressing room. Do not walk water in here, or else crossed arms.
- Now you can use your towel and Get dressed, go out and put your shoes on.
- Some other rules. If you have your periods you can’t enter. Also many onsens will not allow people with tattoos to enter. Ask first, or cover it with a band-aid. Tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. Just be aware that you might have to do some homework on this one.
Leaving the ryokan
Give a small gift of cash to the staff, preferably in an envelope, when you depart. Although tipping is not a normal custom in Japan, ryokans are an exception because of the personal attention received. It will probably be refused out of politeness, but you should insist gently. Or, a gift from your home country, which is a nice way to thank the staff for taking care of you.
This is a great post to allay peoples fears and make them more relaxed. Bring on the Onsen!
Thanks; onsens are a very levelling experience where body image and nudity fail into insignificance. Conquering the heat however is another matter 🙂 Love onsens too.
Awesome tips! I stayed at a Ryokan in Kyoto 4 years ago and am excited to do so again in April.
Thanks for the share. This will come in handy!
We love staying in ryokans. It is a special experience
It all sounded so good until the bathing part. Sounds a little college dorm to me. Everything else sounds lovely though.
LOL; actually an onsen is probably the furthest thing from a dorm ritual. It is bound in tradition and is quite serene actually. There is an entire process that you need to go through but it is wonderful.