The first time I visited Japan, I was 16 years old. This was the first country I had ever fallen in love with, and little did I know it would ignite a decade long desire to keep returning to this place. From the mundane to the paramount, meticulous pride is put into all preparation and presentation of a good. I’ve eaten sticks of mitarashi dango (mochi filled with red bean paste covered in a soy glaze) off street sides that were served with such care by gentle-faced women who had been perfecting their craft for many years. I’ve consumed more ramen (something many view as casual comfort food) in cramped nondescript stores with lava hot pork broths that have made my eyes roll into the back of my head more times than I care to count. The standard of excellence is already high in Japan, and visiting a ryokan has managed to push this distinction to new heights. If you thought it couldn’t get any better, well my friend, it does.
What is a Ryokan?
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns found throughout the country. There are two different kinds of ryokans you may encounter– city and onsen. City ryokans are exactly as they sound and are located in metropolitan locations. Onsen means hot springs, and these ryokans can be found in towns where they naturally occur. It’s no surprise that many people prefer to squirrel away to onsen ryokans for their meditative and relaxing appeals. It’s not every day that you can claim that you have bathed in geothermally heated groundwater that has risen from the Earth’s crust, right?
Opt in for a half-board arrangement, which should include breakfast and a kaiseki dinner (traditional Japanese multi-course meal). Although it may seem steep paying upfront for meals and lodging, you have to consider the dinner a significant part of the experience. The quality of the meal may even be on the same level as a distinguished restaurant. During my most recent stay at a ryokan in Noboribetsu, I went on a 7-course culinary dinner adventure that practically made me emotional. With the right combination of research and travel promotions, you can find great deals on your ryokan stay.
Some ryokans will offer Western-style rooms with beds or traditional Japanese style rooms with futons on a tatami floor. Contrary to the misconception that sleeping on the floor is uncomfortable, futons are actually quite cozy and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find the firmness is just right. An entire country has been sleeping on futons for centuries with generations of healthy backs. It’s safe to say you’ll do just fine sleeping in one.
I’d recommend sleeping on a futon to get the full experience and will politely squash objections to this all day, every day.
You can also expect to shed your tired travel clothing for some reprieve with a clean cotton yukata or casual summer kimono. Wearing a yukata will slide you into the right state of mind as you stroll around the ryokan premises. You may encounter different yukata components in your closet, ranging from outer jackets, purses, or multiple layers. If you find yourself with a plain colored and printed yukata, wear the plain yukata underneath for extra warmth. Yukatas can be worn throughout your entire stay, whether you are heading to the bath, going to dinner, or simply lounging around the property.
How to Wear a Ryokan Yukata 101 – Crash Course
- Undergarments are optional (socks and undershirts).
- Put your arms through the robe.
- Fold the right hand side of the robe underneath the left.
- Tie the obi (belt) around your waist (it helps to start tying the obi in front and then wrap it around your back).
- Tie in knot/bow in front.
- For men, the obi is slightly lower on the hips. For women, the obi is tied snugly at the waist.
- Turn the obi knot so its final resting position is over your right hip.
- Feeling chilly? See if there is a matching outer jacket available.
How to Stay at a Ryokan
Entering a traditional ryokan feels much like stepping into an entirely different world. Time slows down and the daily buzz of travel and stress respectfully step aside to allow you moments of tranquility. It’s incredible how unnatural silence can feel to us after being surrounded by stimulation from our phones, sounds of movement whizzing through the streets, or even the chatter of others around us. A ryokan is by no means a temple of silence, but it does have the air of a grand library that should be respected.
Words are spoken softly; slippers and socks are provided so you can walk with only a whisper of sound across the tatami floors. It’s worth mentioning that you should also be conscientious of other guests. Allow them the space to rebalance and recharge just as you are. While ryokans are family-friendly environments, I’ve mostly seen adults only. This makes sense given the monetary commitment and the peaceful atmosphere (I imagine some kids might find that stifling).
If you choose to stay in a traditional tatami room with a futon set up (you should), the ryokan staff will take care of the room transformation while you are enjoying your kaiseki dinner. Typically upon check in, you will pre-arrange a time for dinner or you will be informed what time it is served. Be punctual and arrive several minutes early if possible. The chefs labor over this complex meal and so it is ready upon your arrival. Think of your kaiseki dinner as a show and fully immersive journey featuring seasonal and regional specialties. Depending on the size and style of the ryokan, meals may be served in private dining areas, larger open areas amongst other guests, or even exclusively within your own room. Your eating arrangement should be made clear on the booking website so you aren’t taken by surprise.
Although the kaiseki dinner may seem like the star of the show, we can’t forget the supporting role of the onsen. Sulfur baths are extremely popular for their healing properties. During these hot spring baths, the body will absorb small amounts of carbon dioxide, calcium, magnesium, lithium, and sulfur which can promote healthy functions for various organs and bodily systems. Many ryokans will offer onsens inside of the property which are separated by gender. Some may have indoor, outdoor, or even private baths adjoined to the hotel room. For most foreign folks (myself included), the thought of getting into your birthday suit and bathing amongst strangers and people you know is a bit difficult to wrap your head around. However, it’ll only feel odd if you let yourself feel awkward. No one is staring at your body; just get in the bath and enjoy.
Note: Some onsens may have policies on tattoos. If you have large tattoos that can not be covered with a bandage, you may want to consider checking with the establishment beforehand.
Taking a Bath in an Onsen 101 – Crash Course
- Get into your birthday suit (best to remove all jewelry too).
- Wash your entire body thoroughly before entering the bath.
- Sit down on the tiny stool when you are washing.
- Depending on the onsen rules, you can bring a small towel into the bath to leave off to the side or dip in the water.
- Reap in the health benefits of a sulfuric bath and enjoy the soak!
- Keep your conversation at a respectful noise level so you aren’t disturbing others who are relaxing.
- After your bath, make sure you wash thoroughly again.
Are Ryokans worth the high price tags?
The price tag on a one-night stay at a ryokan can vary greatly depending on its locations, offerings, and style. I’ve paid as low as $120 per person for half board in a quality budget onsen ryokan in Hakone (near Mount Fuji) and $260 per person for a highly acclaimed onsen ryokan in Noboribetsu (Hokkaido). To put this in perspective, Noboribetsu is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring town with a special draw because of its proximity to an impressive geothermal crater named Jigokudani. For a location within walking distance to notable attraction, gastronomic dinner, and stunning facilities, I would consider that price a bargain. Prices will vary depending on where you are, but I’ve also seen ryokans priced as much as $500 per person.
Unless you are in a great hurry and simply need to rest somewhere for the night, I strongly encourage you to purchase half or full board, which will include breakfast and dinner or all three meals, respectively. Half board works well if you plan to stay for only one night and want to leave the ryokan to explore during the day. Full board is preferred if you want to plant yourself inside of the ryokan for a full day or two. Ultimately, It’d be a shame to stay at a ryokan and not get to experience the exquisite food that comes with it. Although I’ve only stayed at ryokans for one night at a time, I’ve wished that I’ve had at least two nights to truly unwind and let my senses soak everything in.
The kaiseki (or more formally, kaiseki-ryori) dinner is a critical component of the overall experience. The ryokan may give you an option to select your main entree, such as Alaskan King Crab or Wagyu beef in my case, however, this is not always the standard. To properly enjoy a multi-course meal, pace yourself and take the time to appreciate the delicate arrangements of the food in front of you. Initially, the portions may seem small, but I can assure you that you will have eaten more than enough by the end of the meal. Even if some of the dishes are foreign to you, do try a bit of everything. It’s unlikely you’ll ever encounter them again in any other context outside of Japanese haute cuisine or even at other ryokans.
Where to Find and Book Ryokans
I’ve booked my ryokan stays through third-party accommodation websites, although you can also secure your reservation directly with the ryokan. Depending on which site you use, it may be simple or difficult to sift through the hotels correctly to find a ryokan. Use the search filters to see you can select boxes for “ryokan”, “half board”, or “full board”. It may also help to use the term “ryokan” in the search box. Here are a few sites I have used in my searches:
Admittedly, Japan can be an expensive place; but it doesn’t have to be. With the right combination of mixing and matching budget accommodations throughout your trip and then making a mental allowance to splurge on unique experiences, you’ll come away seeing a lot of value in staying at a ryokan. The glimpse into traditional Japanese culture paired with the restorative qualities in a tranquil environment will be difficult to beat. Go ahead and take the leap in this soulful and restorative experience at a ryokan.
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