You only need to spend a few minutes reading through our website or talking to one of our staff members before you’ll begin to hear the word ryokan being bandied about. But what does it mean?
Essentially, a ryokan is a traditional-style Japanese inn – and you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in one. Trust us.
What should you expect?
Ryokan come in many different shapes and sizes, from the very low-budget to the super-exclusive, but they all share a set of similar features. Guest rooms are always be carpeted with tatami: a traditional Japanese flooring made with rice straw and woven soft rush straw, and will usually also have sliding shoji screens made from translucent rice paper and a lattice of wood or bamboo. During the day there may be a low table and some floor cushions laid out with tea-making equipment, until the evening when (usually while you are at dinner) an attendant will come to lay out your futon bedding on the mats.
A feature of ryokan that visitors are sometimes surprised – and even disappointed -about is the spareness of the rooms, even in very high-end establishments. Decoration very often consists of little more than an ikebana flower arrangement or one or two judiciously chosen ornaments, and there will be precious little furniture besides a table and perhaps a couple of floor cushions. Though this may seem bare to Western tastes, this style reflects the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles of subtlety and simplicity – and a lack of opulence should certainly not be taken as a sign that the ryokan you are staying in is somehow sub-par.
There’s nothing in my room?! What on earth am I paying for?
For Japanese visitors, the quality of a ryokan is not judged by what can be packed into the guest rooms, but by the quality of the included meals; the communal onsen baths; and the hospitality of their hosts.
For most Westerners, the idea of “included meals” conjures toe-curling images of all-inclusive, Butlins-style buffet dinners and forcing down oxtail soup while the woman next to you stuffs bread rolls into her handbag (or maybe that’s just me). But in Japan this couldn’t be further from the case.
Dinner at a Japanese ryokan is a real treat, and if you’re anything like me you may find that they’ll be one of the highlights of your holiday. Meals are typically served in kaiseki style, which means lots of courses consisting of lots of small dishes, each beautifully presented and carefully prepared using local, seasonal produce. Even a year after my family’s holiday to Japan last February, my parents’ eyes still glaze over slightly when they think about the delicious oysters we were served at the Yamaichi ryokan in Miyajima!
Communal bathing is another phrase that tends to send unpleasant shudders down the spine of most Western travellers. Naked? With strangers? No thank you very much.
Everyone at InsideJapan felt the same way the first time we tried an onsen (a communal bath supplied by natural hot spring water), but there isn’t a single one among us who wouldn’t strongly advise you to take the plunge! Onsen-bathing is an integral part of Japanese culture, and there is even a term for the bond of friendship formed in an onsen: hadaka no tsukiai, or “naked communion”. You will undoubtedly feel awkward at first, but it’s such an ordinary part of life in Japan that you’ll find that you soon relax.
Every ryokan will have communal baths (one for men and one for women – mixed bathing is rare), and there will usually be both indoor and outdoor (rotenburo) baths. The better the ryokan, the larger and more lovely the baths – and you may even find that there are a variety of different styles of bath, as well as saunas, sand baths and even spa treatments in the very high-grade ryokans.
And if you can’t pluck up the courage to bare all in an onsen, you don’t have to miss out! Many ryokan guest rooms boast private onsen baths, or have a public bath that may be booked for private use.
The final (and perhaps most important) arbiters of ryokan quality are your hosts. Nobody takes hospitality and good service (called omotenashi) as seriously as the Japanese. At a good ryokan you will be received in flawless courtesy and be treated like royalty for the duration of your stay, as your hosts pull out all the stops to ensure that your needs are met.
And that’s why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan!
Here’s TwoToTokyo and their MTV Cribs style, introduction to a ryokan stay when they stayed at the Tanabe in Takayama.
Some tips to remember during your ryokan stay:
– Always remove footwear of any kind before walking on tatami – on pain of death. (not really, but your hosts will not be pleased if you forget this one!).
– You will notice that there is usually a raised floor in the ‘genkan’ entrance to a ryokan. You should slip out of your shoes and straight onto the raised floor. Leave your shoes neatly side-by-side and step into some slippers to walk through the ryokan.
– Japanese breakfast food is often what might be thought of as “dinner food” in the West, so if the idea of being served fish and rice in the morning isn’t your cup of tea – don’t forget to ask for the Western-style optionif they have one or they might be able to do something for you if you tell them in advance. It is polite to at least turn up for your breakfast.
– You may also hear the word minshuku in reference to traditional Japanese accommodation. A minshuku is similar to a ryokan in that the rooms will be traditional in style, but it will generally be smaller and simpler than a ryokan, probably family-run, with just a handful of rooms. In other words, it could be called a sort of Japanese-style B&B.
– There are lots of rules to remember when using an onsen, but the most important is that you are expected to wash yourself thoroughly before bathing, to keep the water clean. For this purpose there are shower heads positioned next to the baths, with a stool to sit on while you wash. Be sure to get rid of all the soap before you get in!
Enjoy the ambience of your traditional ryokan. This is a truly Japanese experience that you will not be able to have anywhere else in the world and why we recommend staying in a ryokan for at least one night on your Japanese adventure.