What is a Ryokan – When traveling the world, part and parcel of experiencing the uniqueness of the culture you’re immersed in is staying in the traditional-style homes of the locals.
Whether it be a ranch-style home in North America, colonial-era inspired apartments in Europe, villas in Santorini, penthouses in NYC, or wooden lodges and chalets in Canada, staying in one of these homes that are considered to be the face of the region in terms of housing (despite them possibly not being completely unique to the area), gives travellers a sense of connection that you just can’t quite achieve by staying at a hotel.
When visiting Japan, one of the core experiences that many first-timer’s get excited about is residing in an authentic ryokan for the first time. For those who are not sure what a ryokan is, it is simply a traditional Japanese inn providing accommodation for visitors.
However, take what you’ve experienced and know about hotels and throw it out the window, because they’re as different as night and day. From the time of check-in, to the ceremonious welcome tea, right into the laying out of the futon on the tatami mats, through to the last bow before you set off after checking out, staying at a ryokan is as quintessentially Japanese as it gets.
It is an alternative to staying at a hotel that provides a more simplistic way of living, an almost enforced time to relax and unwind, and the extra touches in the bathing experiences (hello, onsen!) and foods (kaiseki meals at their best) served sets it far apart from staying at any other type of accommodation – not to mention the pictures you’ll get of yourself in a traditional yukata will make everyone back at home jealous! It’s one of those things that you simply cannot miss when you’re visiting Japan, and one that will most likely be the highlight of your trip.
What Is A Ryokan – History
So you’ve had a look at some pictures online and you’ve decided that yes, you’re definitely booking a stay at a ryokan. There’s something irresistible about the simplicity of the rooms with minimal furniture, and the thought of laying on full, fluffy futons with no restrictions on space (and not having to worry about falling off the bed) sounds like a dream come true.
Over they years, many ryokans have learned to adapt to the comforts expected of human nature today, however, many still adhere to the original ryokan ways of providing on the simplest of necessities for the stay.
It may come as a shock but ryokans were actually developed all the way back during the eight century Keiun period, with the oldest documented one, called Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, was opened in 705AD.
Some were built along the busy highways, and their purpose was to serve the travellers along the way. As technology and transport were either non-existent or at the bare basics back then, people often slept under the stars when traversing across Japan, but this, of course, posed a number of problems, hence the introduction of ryokans.
Back then (and within some ryokans today, still), they typically featured a tatami-matted room, communal baths, and few other areas where visitors wore their ryokan-supplied yukatas.
What Is a Ryokan – Traditional Features
There are many things that set ryokans far apart from hotels. We’ll explain the traditional basics in this article, but please be aware that ryokans are all developing at their own rates, and some might be providing more than what we’ve listed, whilst others may feature things differently than what we’ve describe.One of the biggest differences between hotels, and an absolute staple for a ryokan, is the minimalistic tatami mat that covers the flooring of your room. Unlike hotels, no shoes are to be worn inside the ryokan, so you trade your shoes for indoor slippers which are provided by the ryokan. Feel free to walk around in your socks or bare feet on the tatami mats!
After you check in, you will be led to your room by your host, where you’ll come across one of the barest rooms you’ll ever see – expect a low-level table, possibly with chairs without legs, and not much else.
Ryokans generally lay out some wagashi (Japanese sweets) on the table and your host will prepare some tea for you to enjoy. Adhering to the olden-day style of wearing yukatas, at almost all ryokans, you will have a lovely set laid out for you and your guests when you arrive in your room.
In the past, visitors would change into their yukatas and wear that in and around the ryokan – when they’re heading to the bathhouse, when they’re using the common rooms, etc. Nowadays, foreigners see it more of a novelty and an experience. Whichever it is, change into it immediately and enjoy it for the rest of your stay!One of the key features of a ryokan would be the onsen – it would almost be incomplete without one. Onsens are natural hot springs where people can relax in, and is deemed one of the most therapeutic experiences you can have in Japan. The olden style ryokans will generally have either one communal onsen, or two which are divided by gender.
Please note: no bathers are allowed in onsens; everyone enjoys it in the nude, so it can be quite an eye-opening experience for those game enough to try it (especially the mixed gender ones!).However, many ryokans today also offer the option of private onsens that are directly built into the rooms, and thus this saves many foreigners from having to strip down in front of strangers. Many people opt for this, as you get the best of both worlds – the chance to experience a true ryokan as well as an authentic onsen experience.
If you’re visiting a communal onsen, there are a few etiquettes that you should know before hopping in:
- Again, no bathers allowed. You must swallow your embarrassment!
- Wash yourself before entering. You will pass through a changing room and a shower before all onsens – strip down and pop your clothing into the baskets, and then sit down on one of the small stools and wash yourself thoroughly.
- The small towel is for your modesty on the way to the onsen, however, you cannot let it touch the water. Most people just lay it on their heads or on the floor just outside of the onsen.
- Just an FYI, many onsens won’t allowed tattooed bodies in onsens. Rather than a hygiene issue, it’s more to do with tattoos being associated with the Yakuza (gangsters) in Japan. Please respect them if they ask for you to leave due to your tattoos.
Another key feature that ryokans offer is the amazing food that you will be dining on – the kaiseki cuisine. For those who are not aware of what it is, kaiseki is a traditional multi-course dinner that’s considered the ultimate style of eating Japanese food.
The methodology and techniques of preparing a kaiseki meal is usually learnt and honed over years of practice, and the meals are meant to highlight the seasonal freshness of the ingredients. Some people travel all the way to places like Kyoto to eat a traditional kaiseki meal, so know that it is something quite special.
What Is a Ryokan – The Dos and Don’ts
Whilst it may seem like a strange and foreign concept, there is, in fact, such thing as ryokan etiquette, and its very real, and very practiced. Below we’ve broken down the rules into simple dot-points. Make note, otherwise you might find yourself in a sticky situation!
- When entering a ryokan, it’s best to assume that you need to take off your shoes at the door before stepping in. Some ryokans these days will have an area inside where you can check-in whilst wearing shoes, however, it is considered rude to walk in with your shoes on at most places. Your host will advise if you don’t need to take them off but otherwise, please do. There will be indoor shoes waiting for you inside if you’d like!
- Ryokans are places people go for some peace and serenity, so try not to make too much noise, especially when you are wandering around outside of your room. That includes ducking out to make a phone call, drinking alcohol, and general conversations that can generally be had in normal hotel rooms, but will be heard in the next room over due to the sheer thin materials of the walls in ryokans.
- If you have dinner booked, make sure you know what time it will be served, and arrive before or (at least) right on time. As per ryokan tradition, the itamae (chef) and nakai (waitress/host) will be waiting on you to serve you the food at its best, and it is considered rude to keep them waiting.
- If you have an allergy, try to let the ryokan know as soon as possible, although some might not be able to meet your requirements. If you are a picky eater, at least try to sample all the dishes laid out on your kaiseki meal – it is considered rude to leave too much food leftover when you’re done.
- Almost all guest rooms in a ryokan will feature an area called a tokonoma, which usually consists of Japanese artworks or vegetation. It is purely for decoration purposes, so please don’t touch or fiddle with it, and just enjoy the ambience it brings to the room.
- When putting on your yukata, wear the left side wrapped over the right side. It is perfectly acceptable to wear your yukata outside of the ryokan, when you’re walking in the gardens, or even around the neighbourhood.
- Try not to roll your luggage around on the tatami mats, they’re quite fragile and will tear and/or rip if too much pressure is applied on them.
- The indoor slippers are meant to be worn around the ryokan, but not inside your room. Please leave them outside when you enter your room.
The Popular Locations For Ryokans in Japan
So by now, you’ve probably gone and had a look to see whether ryokans are available in the areas that you’re traveling to offer ryokans, but if we could suggest, the below top two areas are some of the most popular areas across Japan to garner a ryokan and onsen experience. There are often many to choose from, and they range in price so you can be selective about which one you’d like to stay at:
Just under a two-hours away from Tokyo is Hakone, a small but popular destination for those who are after a day or two outside of the bustling city to get back in touch with nature and explore some traditional Japanese monuments. As you can tell, these quieter areas are definitely the ones where experiencing the tranquillity of a ryokan is at its peak.
To make your choice, check out our selection of the best Ryokan in Hakone.
Anyone who is visiting Japan for the first time will most likely have Kyoto on their list, and it’s no wonder why – Kyoto offers a wonderful respite from the technologically robust concrete jungles of Osaka and Tokyo, with its famous bamboo rainforest, plentiful stunning and historically significant shrines, and deep-rooted cultural villages and towns that allow you to peak into Edo-period Japan.
It’s also mainstream enough now that accessibility to the area is easy from most major hubs in Japan, and all major activities and attractions there have now provided extensive information online on how people can best plan for them. Kyoto is also an area brimming with fantastic ryokans. In fact, it’s arguably one of the most majestic areas in Japan to stay at a ryokan with incredible onsens.
If you want to learn more about some of the best ones, read this blog post about the best Ryokan in Kyoto.
But you can actually find Ryokans a bit everywhere in Japan and here is our Ryokan Collection for other cities in Japan:
- Ryokan Tokyo
- Mt Fuji Ryokan
- Ryokan Osaka
- Ryokan Nara
- Ryokan Kobe
- Ryokan Hiroshima
- Ryokan Miyajima
- Ryokan Nagano
This article covers the basics of what it means to stay in a ryokan, one of the best ways Japan could offer the world a glimpse of their beautiful and poignant history.
The experience is far greater than you can imagine – you can learn a lot by staying at a ryokan about Japanese mannerisms and cultural behaviours, and that’s not even considering the beauty of the architecture, presentation of your kaiseki meal, respect and professionalism of your nakai (hostess), or even the languid pudding your body will melt into as you sink down into your first onsen.
If we haven’t convinced you yet that you need to lock in a ryokan during your stay, we don’t know what will. Get booking today!
PS: If you are interested to know about the rules you need to follow when you travel to Japan, make sure you read this blog post: Japanese Etiquette.