So much of travel is about the experiences you have that connect you with a place. For visitors to Japan, the experience of staying in a ryokan is a fantastic way to see customs and traditions of Japan up close. It’s little wonder that it’s often described as the “ryokan experience” because a ryokan is not just a place to stay but an experience all on its own. To stay in one for a night or two is something special, allowing you a chance to connect with Japanese culture and tradition in a totally new way.
What is a Ryokan?
With all this talk of ryokan, it’ll surely help if we first explain just what a ryokan is. Found throughout Japan, ryokan are a traditional type of Japanese inn, operating as a guesthouse for travelers. Holding true to old Japanese customs, they tend to be found in postal towns or rural areas to service people traveling on Japan’s medieval highways. So, to reach them, you’ll likely need to grab your rail pass and head out into the countryside.
Staying in a ryokan, guests experience Japanese traditions up close, since they too are expected to follow them. Guests will stay in traditional rooms with tatami mats on the floor and thin sliding doors. They’ll also bathe in hot spring baths known in Japan as onsen, as modern ryokan tend to be associated with hot spring resorts. Ultimately, the goal of a ryokan is to provide guests with a sanctuary where they can relax and only concern themselves with life’s more basic needs.
What to Expect from a Japanese Ryokan
The idea of staying at a ryokan rather than an ordinary hotel may seem a little daunting at first. If you’re nervous and unsure what to expect, here are a few of the finer points to help put you at ease.
The ryokan experience begins the very moment you first set foot inside the establishment. It’s a tradition for guests not to move past the first entryway, known as a genkan, until they are invited in. While each guesthouse will have their own check-in process, it’s typical for guests to be served with green tea, whether in the lobby or in their room.
Check-in is usually from 3pm and expected to occur before dinner, so that guests can follow the ritual of getting settled in and bathing before dinner.
It’s important to remember while staying in a ryokan that this is a place full of tradition and custom. That means there are some expectations of you and how you behave here. In terms of what is expected, it’s simple – follow the established rules. After all, this is all about experiencing a new culture and that means respecting the traditions and way things are done. Many places will actually take time to show you around and then explain the rules of the ryokan over tea.
One of the simplest rules to grasp regards the clothes you wear inside the ryokan. You will be given a kimono-like robe known as a yukata that you’re to wear in and around the inn. While most will give you slippers that you wear indoors, some will also provide footwear that you can wear around outside. Please note that it’s only on the tatami mats that it’s ok to be in socks or bare foot.
Staff and The Experience
For your ryokan stay, everything from your room to the staff’s service will follow a traditional approach. At night you’ll be sleeping on futon beds set atop the tatami mats on the floor. During the day and before meals, staff will make up and arrange the rooms as per custom. While I say staff, it’s likely that you will actually only interact with one person, an attendant that will help you with each step of your stay.
Fair warning don’t expect the staff to necessarily speak much or any English. While staying at ryokan may seem like something just for foreign tourists, it’s just as popular an activity among the Japanese. Thankfully, you can prepare yourself by reading articles like this, or even consulting online manuals to the experience that guide you through each and every step of your stay.
Amenities and Meals
The types of amenities and things included with your stay will strongly depend on what type of ryokan you stay at. Of the many inclusions that are possible, really the two main ones are meals and onsen.
Traditionally, ryokan weren’t just a place to stay for those traveling Japan’s highways, they were also where guests would dine. Keeping to that, most ryokan will serve you dinner and breakfast during your stay with the meals included in the price of accommodation. Typically, meals are served in your room at set agreed times and eaten at a low table in your room. Sticking with tradition, most places will serve local variations on high-end Japanese cuisine, although it is possible to find some that do serve western food as well.
Then there are those that don’t serve food at all. Generally, these are budget ryokan whose lack of meals makes sense considering their lower prices. That’s not much of a problem either, as with budget ryokan you’ll likely already be in a big city like Tokyo, where you can find plenty of dining options nearby.
Staying at a ryokan is supposed to be focused on rest and relaxation, which is why the onsen is such a staple of the experience. After all, what’s more soothing than spending an afternoon unwinding in a hot spring.
Since visiting an onsen requires cleaning your body as part of it, they tend to replace bathrooms in the ryokan. Most of the time you’ll find that they are common bathing areas that are split by gender. There are certainly a whole separate set of rules for using the onsen that you need to know, but one to remember is that it’s normally required to be naked to use them.
It’s often the case that nicer ryokan also have private onsen that you don’t need to share with other guests. This could be a single private onsen that guests can take turns using, or one that is included with their room. Some places only have a private onsen in their more expensive rooms, while more high-end ryokan may have them in each guest room.
Part of the appeal of a ryokan is that staying there is a retreat from the world, removing life’s usual distractions. That starts with outdoor gardens and pools that create a tranquil setting to aid in your relaxation. So that you don’t go stir crazy though, many provide games and things like table tennis to keep you entertained. With fewer distractions, couples can find this quite a romantic experience, especially with time soaking in a private onsen together, sometimes known as a couple onsen.
In this day and age, the big question though is does it have Wi-Fi? Of course, that will depend on the guesthouse, but typically ryokan only have Wi-Fi in the lobby area and not in guest’s rooms.
How to Choose the Right Ryokan for You
The decision of which ryokan to stay at is going to come down to a few things. Essentially, it’s going to depend on how much you’re willing to spend and how full a ryokan experience you want to have. Ryokan can vary greatly in terms of price, but that naturally affects what is included in the experience.
People assume that staying at a ryokan has to be an expensive experience, but much like hotels, there are both high-end ryokan and more budget-friendly options. In small towns, minshuku are a great type of ryokan for those trying to travel Japan on a budget. They are often simpler with communal dining and fewer amenities but can also feel a little more family-oriented. Then there are city ryokan like in Tokyo and Kyoto that offer cheaper rooms, as they may have fewer amenities or not include meals.
It’s important to remember that you won’t be staying at them every night of your Japan trip but for a night or two it’s worth the experience.