Staying at a ryokan can be one of the most rewarding cultural experiences you can have while traveling through Japan. Though all of them are different, most have a basic outline of rules built on respect that were crafted to ensure you have an incredible stay. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that typically emphasizes a historic appearance, welcoming atmosphere, and comfort. They usually have relaxing onsens, baths fed by a natural hot spring, and prepare multi-course meals for their guests. Safe to say, they seem like something out of a fairy-tale if you’re not used to Japanese culture.
Much like classic Western hotels, not all ryokans are equal, though many have similar expectations, structures, and amenities. Still, entering one for the first time can be intimidating if you aren’t sure of what to expect. Here’s what to anticipate during your stay at a ryokan, along with how to act respectfully and ensure you have a great time while exploring this amazing part of Japanese culture.
How to choose the right ryokan for your trip
You’ve been waiting for this your entire trip — you’ve booked an amazing ryokan nestled in the foothills, and after weeks of traveling, you want nothing more than to soak in a legendary onsen and eat delicious, ryokan-prepared food for dinner and breakfast. You’re shown to your room to find it has no fluffy bed for you to plop onto for a nap, and head to the dining area only to learn your evening meal was not included in your stay. Even worse, you quickly learn there is, in fact, no legendary onsen. Uh oh.
Let’s talk about expectations.
Safe to say, you can easily manage all expectations for a ryokan by doing a little research and determining what you want from your stay ahead of time. This will help you identify which ryokans to book, as not all have onsens, included meals, or Western-style beds (though the full ryokan experience includes trying out the futons on tatami mats that are offered by most ryokans).
In addition to your choice of room style, you can often choose which meals — and which types of meals — are included in your stay. Many ryokans offer a Western breakfast or dinner but will serve Japanese meals unless you specifically request otherwise.
You’ve walked in the front door. Now what?
Respect is a major player in Japan, though it’s easy to quickly fall in love with the custom of offering bows and smiles to those who help you or when passing an elder on the sidewalk. Upon arriving, be respectful to those working at the ryokan and other guests. Most expect you to remove shoes upon entering the front door, and will provide slippers inside you can wear around the building. You’ll check in and a staff member will most likely show you around the ryokan and to your room.
What to expect in your room
Don’t be alarmed if you walk into your room and there’s no bed. Many ryokans have turndown services that make the bed while you’re at dinner, getting the mats and blankets from closets in your room, and replacing them in the closet with the daytime furniture in the morning.
It’s important to note most ryokans do not have central heating or air. Rooms are typically equipped with portable heater and ac units, depending on the season. This dates back to the original creation of the ryokans and how owners are generally keen on keeping the original structure for both tradition’s sake and to maintain a cozy atmosphere. In addition to this, ryokans usually have common bathroom areas for multiple rooms or entire floors to share, and these are often not heated or air-conditioned.
As mentioned earlier, rooms can vary from ryokan to ryokan. When venturing into your room, you’ll come across the agari-kamachi, the space right inside the door where you are expected to remove your shoes or slippers. The rooms themselves are what you might expect of historic Japan — simple yet comfortable, with the shoji, or sliding paper doors lining the tatami mat floor, speckled with low wooden tables and sitting cushions called zabuton. You may also notice a pile of folded clothes, that when you open up looks like a large robe. This is a yukata, which literally means “bathing clothes” and is a traditional garment you can wear around the ryokan, whether you’re off to the onsen or to dinner. During the winter, there might be two yukatas, which you can layer for warmth.
Hot water steaming up from the earth to melt stress away and relax your muscles — in short, onsens are magical. If you stay at a ryokan without an onsen, visit one in town before you leave Japan. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes; some resemble natural pools lined with stones while others look more like baths lined with ceramic tiles. Whether your ryokan has onsen tubs in private rooms or a large communal bath, an onsen soak is a must when visiting Japan. If you’re unsure about specific onsen rules, always ask the ryokan staff. They’d rather have you ask than jump in the wrong pool, wearing a swimsuit, without rinsing off first. Like ryokans, onsen rules vary from tub to tub, but most have the same general expectations.
- Ask whether the onsen pools are co-ed or not. Many locations separate males and females, and you definitely don’t want to find yourself in the wrong one.
- Before entering an onsen, you’ll see an area with buckets or showers. Use these to rinse your body before getting your soak on.
- After you’re squeaky clean, don’t put a swimsuit on as most onsens require you to wear nothing but your birthday suit. Some have modesty towels for you to cover yourself up somewhat when walking around, while others offer light wraps to wear.
- No alcohol or glass bottles near the onsen.
- Never wash inside the tub, and keep your hair out of the pool. The small towels that most onsens have can be used to tie up hair.
- Don’t watch others when they’re washing outside of the tub or walking around. This sounds self-explanatory, but for many, this might be their first time seeing a large number of unclothed folks in one place. Be aware of where your eyes focus when you’re zoning out.
- It’s also important to note that tattoos are still somewhat stigmatized in parts of Japan, so some onsens don’t allow people with tattoos into the communal baths; though some that follow this will allow those with tattoos to book private rooms instead. If you have tattoos be sure to check the onsen or ryokan’s website in advance for what it does or doesn’t allow.
Experiencing a traditional ryokan meal
Like all other pieces, the food differs between ryokans. One thing you can count on, though, is that multiple plates filled with tasty courses are in your future. Though Western-style dinners are often offered, the kaiseki ryori, or traditional Japanese multi-course cuisine, is where a ryokan really shines. Meals are typically taken in your private room or in a communal dining area depending on the ryokan. Either way, colorful dishes of handcrafted foods will cover the table and your tastebuds will be quite happy.