Staying in a Japanese ryokan is a special experience when travelling in the country. It really does give you a fascinating insight into the culture of Japan. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to try a kaiseki multi-course menu or soak in an onsen. While some ryokans which are aimed primarily at tourists can be quite pricey, we discovered that booking at ones which are mostly used by internal travellers lowered the price considerably.
This worked well for us, as one of my favourite things about travelling is that it allows you a glimpse into the lives of people who live in the country. 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. We also had fantastic 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 tips.
How to book a ryokan in Japan
First and foremost you have to book a ryokan in Japan. Japanese people are very organised when it comes to holidays and accommodation often books up months in advance. This is especially true during the annual cherry blossom season. So if you are planning on viewing cherry blossom in Tokyo or want to catch the cherry blossom at Matsumoto Castle, make sure you book ahead.
We used a variety of sites to book our ryokans, including: booking.com, agoda.com, travel.rakuten.com and Japanican.com. All of these sites offer descriptions and reviews of the ryokans in English. So this gave us some reassurance that they were used to Western visitors. We thought this may come in useful as they might be more forgiving of any unintentional faux pax we made!
When booking it’s worth noting things like evening curfews, which are common. Plus you need to be comfortable with the fact that most ryokans have communal bathing in shared bathrooms.
What are the rooms like in a Japanese ryokan?
Ryokans vary wildly in price in Japan. 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. (This is worth noting when you book a ‘double’ room.) The futons 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. Plus, its where you 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. This is in-keeping with the Japanese minimalism tradition and means they are very peaceful.
It’s also worth knowing that the walls in Japanese ryokans are usually very thin. They will often just have a screen door to separate them from the rest of the accommodation. Therefore it’s important to be mindful of other guests and to not make too much noise. This is something to consider if you are travelling with a family. For example, I wouldn’t stay in a ryokan with my little adventurer at the moment, as he only has one volume setting – loud!
What is the food like in a Japanese ryokan?
Most ryokans we stayed in included breakfast in the price. 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.
Depending on the size of the ryokan, breakfast may be left outside your room, to be taken on the table inside. Alternatively, it may be served in a communal dining room. In the dining room it is perfectly acceptable to wear the yukata (dressing gown) you have been given.
Dinners in Japanese ryokans are called kaisekis. These are a multi-course set menu. They are generally more pricey than eating out in restaurants. However, I would 100% recommend trying one if you get the chance. It is the perfect opportunity to try a number of Japanese dishes. We ate some of our best meals in Japan at our ryokans. The dishes are always very fresh and healthy. 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. This is perfect for people like me who don’t have big appetites.
Be aware that you will probably be served some food that you’re not familiar with. For us, this was 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 it’s not to everyone’s taste!
It’s also worth noting that most kaisekis are very fish and meat based. So if you are a vegetarian it might be worth searching for a ryokan which specifically caters for vegetarians. Likewise, if you have any allergies be sure that staff are very aware of that. It might be a good idea to have it written out in Japanese, in case the person serving you does not speak English.
The rules of staying in a Japanese ryokan
The rules of staying in a Japanese ryokan are quite straightforward. They usually revolve around social etiquette, such as removing shoes before entering the building, and keeping noise to a minimum. In addition, there’s rules around bathing times and curfews. In all of the ryokans we stayed in the hosts were extremely kind. Although they didn’t always speak English we did our best to understand each other and they were very forgiving if we did make any mistakes.
While rules may vary between different ryokans, I’ve tried to lay out the main ones below.
- What to wear
As in most homes in Japan you are expected to take your shoes off in the doorway when staying in a Japanese ryokan. This is extremely important and you must remember to do it, even if just stepping inside to ask a quick question. There will inevitably be a big pile of outdoor shoes near the door, which act as a good reminder. Plus, there will be plenty of pairs of slippers to put on instead.
In your room will be a yukata (a cotton kimono, kind of like a dressing gown) and a belt. The idea is that from the moment you enter a ryokan you are supposed to feel relaxed and at home. So your yukata can be worn at any time. We discovered this when we got dressed up to go down to 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. We found this came in handy during our stay in an Ainokura grasshouse up in the mountains.
Bathing in a Japanese ryokan is one area where visitors from some countries may feel a bit awkward. Being British and somewhat reserved, we’re not 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. Guests are required to wash themselves thoroughly, before climbing into the communal bath to bathe. To do this sit on one of the low wooden or plastic stools around the edge of the room. Then either use the shower or a bowl filled with water from the taps to wash yourself. All bathing products should be fully washed off before you proceed to sit in the communal bath.
Once there, yes, there will probably be other naked people in the water with you. And 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 stopped worrying about it!
One thing to note is that as the water runs continuously in some of the baths, many have designated bathing times in the morning and evening. (Make sure you check this, otherwise you may arrive to an empty bath.) Also the water in some of the baths is HOT. This is something we discovered when we were trying to figure out how to use a Japanese 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 where we went to see the Takayma Matsuri Festival. 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. We’d kind of hoped 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.
Is it worth staying in a Japanese ryokan?
I definitely think it is worth staying in a Japanese ryokan. It provides such a unique insight into the country and allows you to embrace some of the traditions. Staying 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. Plus, 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.