One of my favourite things about travelling is that it allows you a glimpse into the lives of people who live in the country you’re visiting. For Mr A and I a big part of any trip is always trying to seek out local places. We love to eat where the locals eat, shop where the locals shop and sleep where the locals sleep.
In Japan one of the best ways to do this is by staying in a ryokan. The traditional Japanese guesthouses are often the accommodation of choice for internal travellers and the rules which govern them are a great insight into Japanese culture.
We mostly stayed in ryokans during our honeymoon in Japan and they were some of the highlights of our trip. They were the places where we were most able to interact with Japanese people and had the best opportunities to try new foods and take part in some traditions (such as communal bathing) from the comfort of a hotel.
So if you’re thinking of staying in a ryokan during your visit to Japan, here are a few things to remember:
How to book a ryokan
First and foremost you have to find somewhere to stay. Japanese people are very organised when it comes to holidays and accommodation often books up months in advance, especially during the cherry blossom season. (When I visited the World Travel Market in November the staff on the Japan stand were very worried that I hadn’t yet booked my hotels for April. Turned out it was fine, but it’s an indication of how seriously they take it.)
We used a variety of sites to book our ryokans, including: booking.com, agoda.com, travel.rakuten.com and Japanican.com, as they all offer explanations in English and gave us some reassurance that they were used to Western visitors. It’s worth noting things like curfews (more of that later) and also getting used to the fact that most ryokans have communal bathing in shared bathrooms.
What to expect from your room
Ryokans vary wildly in price in Japan and we found some high-end tourist ones which cost hundreds of pounds a night. However, we mostly stayed in mid-priced ones and were really happy with what we got for our money. Most rooms will have two futons (worth noting when you book a ‘double’ room) which will be folded away for you during the day.
There will also be a low table which you kneel on mats next to as you drink the tea you will inevitably be given to you on arrival and eat any meals which are served in your room.
The floor is covered in tatami matting (this is also how rooms are measured so you may see on a website a room described as “a six tatami mat” room). There is usually always some kind of cupboard space and often a TV. Other than that the rooms are pretty sparse – in keeping with the Japanese minimalism tradition.
Food at your ryokan
Most ryokans we stayed in included breakfast in the price and you can then pay extra for dinner. Breakfast varied in different places, but was always a selection of small dishes, including things like fish, vegetables, eggs, fruit and, of course, rice.
Dinners are called kaisekis and are a multi-course set menu. They are generally more pricey than eating out in restaurants but I would 100% recommend trying one out if you get the chance. It is the perfect opportunity to try a number of Japanese dishes and we ate some of our best meals in Japan at our ryokans. The dishes are always very fresh and healthy and the sheer skill which goes into the presentation of each and every plate makes some of them almost look too good to eat.
One of the things I really enjoyed is that each course is quite light, so even though you are served a lot of food you don’t fill up too easily, perfect for people like me who don’t have big appetites. It’s worth noting that you will probably be served some food that you’re not familiar with, which for us is part of the joy, but may not be too much fun if you’re a picky eater. In fact one of the negative reviews we saw about the food at one place we stayed was that it was “very Japanese” so obviously not to everyone’s taste!
The rules of staying in a Japanese ryokan
Most of the ryokans we stayed in followed the same rough set of rules and I’ve tried to lay out the main ones below:
– What to wear
As in most homes in Japan you will be expected to take your shoes off in the doorway and will be given a pair of slippers to wear.
In your room will be a Yukata (a cotton kimono, which is kind of like a dressing gown) and a belt. The idea is that as soon as you enter a ryokan you are supposed to feel relaxed and at home, so these can be worn at any time. As we discovered when we got dressed up to go down to the dining room for dinner on our first night and found everyone else sitting in their yukatas!
If the weather is cold a short heavier jacket is also provided to wear over your yukata to stay warm.
This is the one area where visitors from other countries may feel a bit embarrassed. Being British we’re not usually used to stripping off in front of other people. However the majority of the ryokans we stayed in had communal bathrooms.
These are separated into male and female bathing and guests are required to wash themselves thoroughly using the taps or showers around the edge of the washroom, before climbing into the communal bath to bathe.
Yes, there will probably be other naked people in the water with you; yes, you will just have to get used to it. Although we felt quite self-conscious to start off with, by the end of our trip we felt much more comfortable and just stopped worrying about it!
A couple of things to note: as the water runs continuously in some of the baths, many have designated bathing times in the morning and evening (make sure you check). Also the water in some of the baths is HOT – something we learnt in the 40C water in Shibu Onsen. Be prepared to inch your way in slowly. However once you make it into the water the experience itself is very relaxing; there’s nothing like soaking away the aches of the day in a steaming hot bath.
This is an important one, as Mr A and I discovered in Takayama. After a great evening out we returned to our ryokan at 11.15pm to find we had been locked out! The lovely old lady who ran the place didn’t speak much English and most of our communication had been done via hand gestures and hoping for the best that we’d understood what was going on.
However the curfew was one of the things that got lost in translation. After a brief moment of panic we managed to find an open window and I had to give Mr A a leg-up through it so that he could unlock the door for me! #honeymoondreamteam
Despite that minor misunderstanding (which is now one of our favourite honeymoon stories) I wouldn’t change our experiences for the world.
Choosing to stay in ryokans was such a special part of our time in Japan. Ryokans are the places where you will experience all of the lovely Japanese traditions and hospitality. In one place we received beautiful handwritten Japanese notes every morning wishing us a nice day; in another a knock on the door revealed our host beaming with a punnet of strawberries; and we definitely lost our British reserve about taking our clothes off in front of strangers!
Have you ever stayed in a place that has made your holiday? I’d love to hear about it!
You can read more about the highlights of our honeymoon in Japan here and discover what a stay in an Airbnb apartment in Tokyo is like here.