Crash Course: Ryokan

When most travelers come to Japan, they don’t necessarily envision themselves bedding down in the nearest Best Western. Yet ryokan (Japanese inns) may seem a bit mysterious and intimidating. So, what exactly goes on behind the curtain? Here’s a quick look at what staying in a ryokan entails.

Ryokan came to prominence in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when more and more travelers began using the new “highways” to journey between Kyoto (the old seat of power) and Tokyo (the new head of government). To support these travelers, inns sprang up along the route, promising a good night’s sleep, a chance for a bath and often a meal or two. Those same principles still apply today and a night in a ryokan is a highlight of many a trip to Japan.

The famous Tawaraya ryokan in Kyoto (I WISH I could have stayed here!)
The famous Tawaraya ryokan in Kyoto (I WISH I could have stayed here!)

Like old-style Japanese homes, ryokan are mainly covered in tatami mats so your shoes will have to come off at the door. Often you’ll be met by a kimono-clad owner or manager, who will lead you to your room and perhaps serve you a cup of tea and a small sweet. Don’t panic – you WILL have somewhere to sleep, even if you don’t see your bed. It’s in the closet and will be put out after dinner.

A typical room at a ryokan
A typical room at a ryokan

You might as well make yourself at home, so go ahead and put on the proffered yukata, a cotton robe that ties with a thin sash. Some ryokan include instructions on how to tie your yukata properly; if not, just remember, the left side goes over the right before you tie it. If you have time before dinner, head down to the baths to scrub up and relax before your meal.

Yukata for guests' use
Yukata for guests’ use

A ryokan bath can be both extremely relaxing and nail-bitingly terrifying for some guests. Baths are gender-separated but usually public. Anyone can come in and use the facilities while you are in there. If sharing your soak isn’t a comfortable thought, try bathing late at night (most Japanese bathe before dinner) or ask the staff if you can reserve the bath for a period of time.

Before you head into the steaming tub, make sure you sit down and rinse off. Grab a stool and a bucket and pick a spot at one of the shower heads. Soap and shampoo are nearly always provided  so you shouldn’t have to worry about toting that along. Scrub up (most Japanese take a sitting down shower) and make sure you have no soap suds on you before heading off to the tub. Then enjoy a well-deserved soak.

Indoor bath
Indoor bath

When you’ve had enough (or when your skin starts to shrivel 🙂 ), towel off and put your yukata back on. In a ryokan, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk around in your bathrobe (but underwear is highly recommended!). Depending on where your meal will be served, head on up to either the dining area or back to your room.

A ryokan dinner is an absolute must. It’s a fantastic chance to try kaiseki-style food (that multiple dish style of eating that has its roots in the tea ceremony) and you’ll often be served regional specialties. In Tsumago, we tried bee larva; in Takayama, the Hida beef cooked in hoba miso was divine; and on the Izu Peninsula, we had fresh fresh fish and our own wasabi to grate. Some ryokan offer room-only plans, but try to have at least one dinner in-house.

Fresh fish for dinner at a ryokan on the Izu Peninsula
Fresh fish for dinner at a ryokan on the Izu Peninsula

After dinner, if you’ve been out of your room, you’ll probably find your bed laid out for you upon your return. Your “bed” is actually a futon mattress, often covered with a thick comforter. Pillows can range from small sacks filled with rice to large fluffy places to lay your head. In any case, lie down and get comfortable … and count the ways in which a night in a ryokan is so much cooler than a chain hotel. 🙂

Futons laid out at a ryokan in Nagano
Futons laid out at a ryokan in Nagano

There’s much more to be said about staying in a ryokan, so if you’re curious you can check out this link or this booklet published by the Japan Ryokan Association.

5 thoughts on “Crash Course: Ryokan

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  1. What a great write up! This guide would have been really helpful for me on my first trip to a ryokan 🙂 On a youtube video I watched, the woman gave this useful phrase to remember how to wear a yukata: “left over rice” = ‘left over right’. I never forget it!

  2. A stay at a traditional Japanese ryokan is a must have experience in Japan and offers you a great chance to sample some amazing food and soak in a natural onsen. We are lucky to have some goods ones here in Gifu, especially in the Takayama and Hida region.

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