Practical Advice About Staying at a Japanese Ryokan

If you are traveling to Japan and are contemplating staying at a Japanese style hotel called a ryokan (Japanese guesthouse), then the following information may assist you with your decision. Ryokans have existed since the 8th century and are typically located on the Tokaido Highway which is connected to the capital city of Edo (current day Tokyo) and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Ryokans were built to welcome the wary samurais and traders who needed rest before continuing on their long journey.

While you can find ryokans scattered throughout all of Japan, the best and most authentic ones are located in more scenic areas, such as Hakone near Mt. Fuji, Kyoto and Kanazawa. I stayed in two different types on my recent trip to Japan in November 2017 – a higher end one in Yudanaka, near the Snow Monkey Park and a three star one at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Each offered a memorable experience and it was interesting to observe the other guests enjoying the retreat. One evening I went to the karaoke bar in the ryokan and sang Frank Sinatra songs with a group of Japanese business men. Please note that a typical ryokan is focused more on maintaining the special atmosphere and appearance than providing the latest modern conveniences.

There are several key components that are consistent regardless of the type of ryokan you stay:

  • The Room
  • The Bed
  • The Food
  • The Onsen

The Room

As you enter the room, there will be a very small foyer where you take your street shoes off and put on slippers. This area is called the “agari-kamachi”. Next, you go through the “shoj” which are the sliding paper doors that separate the “agari-kamachi” from the sleeping room. The room will have a table, low to the ground, with fresh hot tea that will constantly be replenished as needed throughout your stay. Near the table will be chairs that do not have legs, allowing you to sit on the ground at the table.

The Food

Staying at a ryokan is a full service experience. Breakfast and dinner are included in the price of your room. The food served is Japanese kaiseki style, a beautiful array of colors consisting of multiple dishes and seasonal ingredients. Meals tend to be comprised of dried fish, seafood and pickled vegetables. Soup, salad and rice are also included in every meal. Please note there are no substitutions and no menu selections. In your room, you will be given a kimono to wear over your clothes and you are expected to wear this when eating your dinner and breakfast along with your slippers. Some ryokans offer a choice of dining in your room or in the main dining room.

The Bed

After you return from dinner, the staff will have already come into your room while you were dining and assemble your bedding. This consists of a futon mattress, sheets blankets and a pillow, placed on the “tatami” which is the reed floor matting. If the futon is too thin for your preference, you may ask the housekeeping staff to provide another mattress so you can “double up” for additional comfort. I have to admit that I thought sleeping on the floor in this style would be uncomfortable since I am accustomed to Western style beds with a box spring and mattress, but I did sleep quite well in both ryokans.

The Onsen

Japan is home to over one hundred active volcanoes – nearly 10 percent of all active volcanoes in the world! While they can cause major destruction at times, they also offer relaxation in the form of hot spring baths or as they are called in Japan, onsens. Most ryokans will have an onsen built into the property. Depending on the ryokan, some will offer public, private or both. Rules and etiquette will be consistent across the board. It may sound counter-intuitive, but bathing is not for cleansing in Japan. The hot spring baths are used once you’ve already soaped and scrubbed in the adjacent shower or often seated on a small bench beside a hand-help shower nozzle.

Some basic rules to follow:

  • Take off all your clothes before going inside an onsen room. No bathing suits are allowed.
  • Wash yourself thoroughly first, ideally with a wash towel, before entering the water.
  • Enter the water quietly, do not jump in.
  • Never take the wash towel inside the water with you.
  • Submerge yourself up to your neck in the steaming hot water.
  • Do not submerge your head under water since getting hair in the water is considered unhygienic.
  • Do not stretch out and recline like in western hot tubs.

Ryokans charge per guest and not per room. The average one night stay at a typical ryokan is about 16,500 yen $150 per guest which includes dinner and breakfast. Some very high end ryokans can run up to $700 per person per night. Usually an additional charge is applied if you are using the onsen.

Similar to Western style hotels, determining factors to room rates are the room size, room location, room view and day of the week. If you tend to be a finicky sleeper and have dietary restrictions than I recommend you stick with western style hotels. But if you are willing to immerse yourself into the Japanese culture and appreciate the full experience of Eastern lodging alternatives, then I recommend you stay one night in a ryokan, two nights at the most. Another alternative exists for those who want to stay at a traditional Japanese style hotel but with modern amenities – sort of a “hybrid ryokan”. Here, you can have a western bed but enjoy the Japanese cuisine and onsen. For more information on specific ryokans in Japan, please contact Beth.