What is a Ryokan?
Ryokan is a Japanese Inn and it is one of the coolest hotel experiences you did not know you needed. I say this because the key difference between a hotel and a ryokan is while a hotel is a place to just lay your head for the night, a ryokan is more about resting your soul. Historically, ryokans are located in areas with natural hot springs. They have existed since the eighth century AD. It is a place where travellers eat and appreciate the food, soak in the nearby hot springs to heal themselves, and rest the night before continuing their journey.
I have stayed in many different kinds of Ryokans - old, new, cheap, luxurious, modern, and traditional. They all differ greatly in their food, design, ambience, and history. But everything is imbued with the traditional culture of Japan. You may see tatami flooring, sliding paper doors, ikebana flower arrangements, Japanese gardens, Japanese yukata robes, and communal baths. I was surprised to see arcades, table tennis, karaoke booths, and other simple leisure facilities in Ryokans. You will not find gyms or swimming pools anywhere.
Things I wish I knew before staying in a Ryokan:
1. Always get the food
Depending on the ryokan and its location, they can be a little out of your budget. So you might consider skipping their meals and only paying for the room and facilities. NO. It is not advisable to get a discount by opting out of the food. Because you are not getting the full ryokan experience which reflects the spirit of hospitality unique to the Japanese. While they can be a couple of hundred dollars extra, it is absolutely worth it when you are being treated to sumptuous meals prepared with the greatest care. Unless you do have any special dietary restrictions and not all ryokans can cater to them, always get the food.
2. Always do your research
As I mentioned, not all ryokans are the same. It is worth it to take the time and research to avoid any uncomfortable surprises. For example, most ryokans have a common bathing area usually segregated by gender, using water from the nearby hot spring. That means there may not be an en suite bathroom. The ryokans also usually give a day pass for the locals to access the hot spring facilities. So you might see more people in the bathing area than there are in other parts of the hotel. Nowadays, newer and more high-end ryokans have the option to have en suite bathrooms or private hot tubs, Japanese-style bedrooms with futons or Western-style bedrooms with raised beds.
3. Choose Japanese-style bedrooms
In Japan, there is the following proverb: “Go ni itte wa go ni shitagae” (literally, “When in a village, do as the villagers do”, which is equivalent to the English proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). I highly recommend the Japanese-style bedrooms. The beds/futons are comfortable and cozy. The tatami floors and interior design are all so beautiful and allow you to soak in the cultural experience during your time there.
I have stayed in Western-style bedrooms and they are usually the cheaper rooms. While there has never been a bad bed in any Ryokans I have stayed at before and my husband’s feet are not longer than the bed, why not just experience something different? “Go ni itte wa go ni shitagae”
4. Leave the futons alone
After you enter your Japanese-style bedroom, in some ryokans, you may be wondering where the futon (Japanese beds) are. Usually, Western-style rooms have a separate living room, bedroom and dining room. However, an authentic Japanese-style room is all mixed. So the futons are packed away for more room and the staff will help lay them out in the evening when you are away to use the communal baths or other facilities. They will also pack them away in the morning. One time, we laid out our futons and the staff were shocked and worried for us. So, leave the futons alone!
4. Wear your Japanese robe properly
A Japanese robe (Yukata) is always provided in the room. People wear it after bathing to relax in the hotel. In hot spring resort towns, you may even go onsen hopping and stroll through the streets in your yukata. Depending on the season, different types of Japanese clothing may be provided for warmth such as a tanzen (a thick padded kimono worn over your yukata), a haori (coat worn over your tanzen or yukata), and tabi (socks!).
To wear a Yukata/Kimono: 1. Put your hands through the sleeves. 2. Wrap the right side of the panels first then the left. 3. Wrap the sash around the waist.
You must wear the left panel over the right! Wearing them the other way around is only reserved for the deceased. They are dressed in a right-over-left kimono before being buried.
5. Onsen Etiquette
Besides the food, the highlight of a ryokan experience for me is a slow soak in the baths. These baths are filled with natural onsen (hot spring) water or enhanced with health-bestowing minerals, and made from cedar wood, natural stone, or tile. On special occasions like winter solstice, you might find Yuzu (Japanese citrus) in the baths! It is truly a unique, therapeutic, and deeply relaxing experience, but there are rules.
The six main rules for females are: 1. Strip naked and put your clothing in a basket/locker. 2. Enter the bathroom with only a small towel (like a hand towel) and grab a stool and a plastic wash basin. 3. Wash yourself first in the shower area sitting down so you do not splash others nearby. 4. Only wash your hair here. You may choose to wash them before or after using the onsen. 5. Tie up your hair before getting in the bath. 6. Leave your small towel with your personal toiletries or fold it and put them on your head. This is because you cannot put your towel in the bath.
Back when I was still living in Japan, my mother came and visited me in Tokyo. I was working so she decided to go to the onsen by herself for the first time and was scolded by a Japanese patron because she dipped her towel in the bath. It was unfortunately her first and last time at the onsen.
Another thing to bear in mind is that most onsens do not allow people with tattoos to enter. There is a long-standing stigma associating tattoos with criminal gangs. The Japanese are a real sticklier for rules so if you have tattoos, check with your ryokan or your travel provider in advance. If your ryokan has a private bath, it shouldn’t be an issue.
6. Treats after Onsen
Most ryokans give out free ice cream bars or probiotic drinks in the lounge area near the onsen. So be sure to not miss out on your free treat after your extraordinary bath.
Which Ryokans should you stay at?
Here I would just recommend two ryokans I have stayed at:
1. Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen
- Unique outdoor hot spring on the seashore of the Sea of Japan
- Easy buffet-style dinner available
- Day pass available
Location: Fukaura, Aomori, Japan
2. Ryokan Hakone Ginyu
- Popular area, easily accessible from Tokyo
- High-end, luxurious
- Private onsen in every guest room with superb views of the mountain range.
- Great for honeymoons
Location: Hakone, Kanagawa, Japan