One of the best ways to experience traditional Japanese culture is to stay in a ryokan. Ryokans can vary from tiny houses with two or three rooms to large complexes that resemble a modern hotel. As well as providing a bed for the night, dinner and breakfast are often included in the price. Onsen baths and hot springs are another common feature and it is well worth planning to arrive early to make the most of this.
Booking your stay
One thing to keep in mind when booking a ryokan is that the owners might not speak much English. Communicating via email is often easier than telephoning, and you should keep your messages short and clear. This is particularly the case with smaller, family run ryokans. If you have a complex or very specific needs then booking through the ryokan associations is the best idea, as the association staff can help relay your message to the ryokan owners.
Arriving at the Ryokan
As a ryokan stay often involves dinner, you should aim to arrive fairly early so you will have time to settle in before eating. Arriving around 2-3pm is normal, although some ryokan will specify a time for you to arrive which you should try to stick to.
On arriving, you will often notice a small step up to the reception area. This area might also have small stools or cushions to sit on. Normally this is a clue you should remove your outdoor shoes before stepping up on to the tatami mats or reception area. There might also be sandals or slippers in this area. If they are on the lower step then these are outdoor shoes for guests wishing to visit the ryokan garden, and you should leave your outdoor shoes next to them. If they are on the tatami mat, then they are indoor slippers you can wear around the indoor areas of the ryokan. Do not worry if you get mixed up as the ryokan hosts will correct you – they are very used to foreigners not knowing which shoes to wear!
Your shoes will be taken away by the hosts and stored somewhere safe until you are ready to go out again. You might like to wear socks or have some ready to put on as the Japanese do not tend to walk around with bare feet.
Checking InOnce the reception desk has found your booking, you will be taken through to a lobby area where the hosts will serve you tea and a small snack. This is usually a traditional Japanese sweet or biscuit. While you enjoy the tea, the host will go through any information you need to know (smaller ryokans where little English is spoken may have an information booklet for you to read instead) and make your reservations for dinner and breakfast. Dinner is usually quite early (6-7pm) as is breakfast (7-8am). Often there is no choice of dishes for dinner and breakfast, so make sure you have emailed ahead with any dietary needs or allergies you might have, and that you remind your host of this when arranging your meal times.
Many ryokans will provide you with a yukata (light cotton robe) to wear around the building. Check out the yukata guide here if you are unsure how to put this on, or ask your host to help you.
If there is an onsen available at the ryokan, the host will give you the opening hours for the bath. There might also be a private bath that can be reserved, so if you are interested in this make sure you ask the host to book you a time slot.
The RoomRyokans offer Japanese, Western and mixed rooms. A Western room will have a bed with a mattress and standard western furniture. The decor might also be Western style. A Japanese style room will have a futon bed, low tables and floor cushions to sit on. The floor will be tatami mats and the decor will be Japanese style, with an alcove and traditional artwork on display. A mixed room usually has Japanese decor with a western style bed and furniture, although these will often be themed to look more in-keeping with the Japanese style. A mixed room is a good choice if you wish to experience Japanese culture but have back pain or other health problems that might prevent you sitting and sleeping on the floor. Otherwise a Japanese room is highly recommended and is much more comfortable than you might expect.
Many modern ryokans have en-suite bathrooms, but in the older ones you might have to share a bathroom with other guests. There will often be a pair of special slippers in the bathroom to prevent any dirt on the bathroom floor transferring to the tatami mat. Remember to leave your indoor slippers on the mat and step in to the bathroom slippers, and to change back as you exit the bathroom.
Once your host has left, change in to your yukata, visit the onsen bath or gardens and relax until it is time for dinner.
DinnerIn most ryokans, the guests will wear their yukatas to dinner. Dinner is sometimes served in your room (especially if you have chosen to stay in a Japanese room) or in a private dining room. Some ryokans will have larger communal dining rooms. You can often choose whether you want a Japanese style table where you sit on the floor or Western style table. It may also be possible to get a sunken table, where a pit is cut underneath the table, allowing both Western style sitting and traditional Japanese kneeling.
The style of cuisine called kaiseki ryori is often served in ryokans. This is an elaborate, multi-course meal that reflects local seasons and delicacies. The dishes served are often small so don’t worry too much if you don’t like one of them, as there will be several others to try as well. Presentation is as important to Japanese cuisine as the taste, so expect beautiful arrangements of food on carefully chosen crockery.
See our page on kaiseki ryori for more information on the type of food to expect.
Water or tea is often served alongside dinner although some ryokans may offer a small cup of sake or local wine as an aperitif at the start of the meal. If you wish to drink alcohol or other soft drinks these will be charged as extras to your bill.
BedtimeWhile you are at dinner, a maid will visit your room, move the table and chair cushions to the side and set up the futon on the floor. Futon mattresses in Japan are much thicker than ones you might have tried in the UK and are far more comfortable that you might expect. However, if you are worried about sleeping on the floor, you can ask to have two or more futons laid out on top of each other to provide more cushioning. There will often be spare futons in the large cupboard in your room, so you can always add extra ones yourself if you find it too uncomfortable.
The maid will also put a duvet and a pillow out for you. The duvets are very similar to ones in the UK, but again you can ask for extra blankets if you are worried about being cold at night. The pillow is traditionally filled with rice husks, which makes it more like a bean bag than a feather pillow. This can take a bit of getting used to. The best strategy is to shape the pillow to hold your head in a comfortable position, then try to stay still and relaxed. Unlike feather pillows the pillow does not reshape as you move your head so the less you move the better! Some ryokans might have feather or foam pillows you can use instead, but you can always improvise with a travel pillow or a folded jumper if you decide to try a rice pillow and find you can’t get comfy.
Many ryokans will provide you with pyjamas to wear – this might be a thin plain yukata or trousers and a wrap around shirt. Ryokans (and Japanese hotels in general) are also very generous on the toiletries provided in the room. As well as shampoo and shower gel, many will also supply toothbrushes and toothpaste, hairbrushes, razors, hair gel and moisturiser. It is possible to turn up to many ryokans with absolutely no luggage at all and still have a very comfortable stay.
Some ryokans will provide a choice between a Western and Japanese style breakfast. Western breakfasts usually involve bread with butter and jam, and maybe an egg or ham. This can be a hit or miss depending on the ryokan.
Japanese breakfasts usually consist of rice, miso soup with vegetables and tofu, fish and pickles. Upmarket ryokans might provide a very extravagant breakfast while cheaper ones may just provide the absolute basics. While a Japanese breakfast might seem hard to swallow at 7am, it is surprisingly delicious and filling and well worth trying at least once during your time in Japan.
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The photos used on this page were taken during a stay at Gora Hanaougi, a ryokan in Hakone.