How to visit a Ryokan
Ryokan are Japanese style inns found throughout the country, especially in hot spring resorts. More than just a place to sleep, Ryokan are an opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality, incorporating elements such as tatami floors, futon beds, Japanese style baths and local cuisine, making them popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists alike.
There are many different kinds of Ryokan, varying greatly in terms of size, cost and style. Some Ryokan are small, family run establishments with just a few rooms, while others are large, hotel-like facilities with hundreds of rooms. So basically, Ryokan can range from no-frills, budget varieties to costly establishments catering to the very wealthy.
While extremes exist, the average cost of a Ryokan stay is between 15,000yen and 25,000yen per person, per night. While this may be too expensive to stay at everyday, it is well worth indulging on one special night during your travels. Also keep in mind that Ryokan stays usually include an elaborate dinner in the evening, followed by breakfast the next morning. Meals are typically Kaiseki-Ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) that feature local and seasonal specialties.
Because of their emphasis on traditional style and atmosphere, Ryokan may appear rigid and intimidating at first glance for the first timer unfamiliar with the procedures and etiquette. But in reality, it’s actually very simple to visit the Onsen. These Hot Springs are a special and relaxing experience that everyone should take the opportunity to try.
Where to Stay:
Ryokan range in size from small, family run establishments with just a few rooms, to large, modern facilities with hundreds of rooms, guests and staff. They can be found all over the country, especially around hot spring resort towns, and can be categorized into two types: Onsen Ryokan and City Ryokan.
Onsen Ryokan (Hot Spring Ryokan)
As a volcanically active country, Japan boasts some of the best natural hot springs in the world. Referred to as “Onsen”, these geothermally heated springs are scattered all across the country in both indoor and outdoor facilities.
These waters are considered to have restorative properties with natural minerals that are thought to heal aches and pains, ease and prevent illnesses, and generally maintain a healthy body.
To contribute to the Japanese appreciation for nature, hot springs are an integral part of maintaining a tranquil, Zen-like equilibrium. Many flock to one of hundreds of hot spring destinations as a peaceful getaway, to cleanse the body and soul, and to simply relax.
Japan has hundreds of Hot Spring resorts, ranging in character from large towns with numerous huge Ryokan to secluded Hot Springs, to a solitary traditional style Ryokan.
Furthermore, the Ryokan themselves range in character from self contained mega Ryokan that offer everything from shopping to entertainment, to old fashioned ones that encourage their guests to explore the surrounding town.
Many of the older hot spring towns, such as Kinosaki, Shibu and Nozawa, are centered around public baths.
These hot spring towns offer a unique, traditional feel with guests walking about town in Yukata and traditional wooden sandals called “geta”, as they visit the town’s shops and baths.
The following is just a small selection of recommended places near Tokyo for an overnight trips to an Onsen Ryokan:
Mountain Hot Springs
90-120 minutes by train from Tokyo
Hakone is nestled in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture. It is easily accessible from Tokyo and one of Japan’s most popular natural escapes, complete with hot springs and beautiful views of Mount Fuji on a clear day. A wide array of ryokan are scattered over Hakone’s valleys, mountains, towns and along its lake.
Seaside Hot Springs
1-3 hours by train from Tokyo
The Izu Peninsula is a popular resort area famous for its beautiful coastlines, beaches, mountains and seaside baths. The hot spring towns found around the peninsula vary from highly developed, such as Atami, to smaller towns and single ryokan that are scattered throughout Izu’s mountains and along its coasts.
Ryokan can also be found within large cities, with the main difference to Onsen ryokan being that their communal baths are fed by regular tap water instead of hot springs.
Most of the Ryokan found in Tokyo, tend to be older, cheaper establishments that do not include meals, and are located in the old shitamachi; low city districts such as Asakusa.
While they present an attractive budget accommodation, they do not offer the typical Ryokan experience, which would be better experienced in one of the more atmospheric Hot Spring Resorts listed above.
Kyoto also has its share of budget Ryokan, mainly around Kyoto Station. However, the old capital also offers a considerable number of mid to high level Ryokan.
They usually specialize in Kyoto cuisine and Kaiseki-Ryori.
The simplest way to make reservations for a Ryokan is through a reservation website.
Reservations can also be made directly with the Ryokan through their websites if they have one. But note that many Ryokan do not have English versions, and those that do rarely have an English online reservation system.
Reservations are usually made by phone or fax, but be aware that some establishments may not be able to handle inquiries made in English especially when made over the phone.
Alternatively, reservations can be made using a traditional travel agent.
Same day reservations are not a common practice, and many establishments may not be able or willing to accommodate them, because food preparations must be made in advance of your arrival.
For the same reason, the Ryokan should be consulted in advance about any dietary restrictions.
Ryokan rates are calculated per person, per night, and are typically inclusive of dinner and breakfast.
Only a small number of Ryokan allow guests to opt out of their meals altogether, or to select from different menus, while some of the the lowest priced establishments often do not offer meals at all.
Ryokan rooms are typically designed for two to four occupants, although at times, it’s possible that larger groups will be accommodated as well.
More occupants in a room usually result in reduced per person rates. However, a lot of Ryokan do not accept single travelers, particularly during busy seasons.
The average cost of a Ryokan stay is between 15,000 and 25,000 yen per person per night. However, extremes exist and budget Ryokan can be as inexpensive as 3000 yen. These budget Ryokan often resemble hostels, and may offer little more than a Tatami room with a Futon, shared washroom facilities and no meals.
At the other extreme, luxury Ryokan can cost over 40,000 yen per person, per night. They will have elegant, albeit simply decorated rooms, elaborate public baths, and two impressive meals, and may also include private Hot Spring baths in the room.
At some Ryokan these luxurious facilities may be in private, stand alone buildings.
Consumption tax and service charges are usually included in the room fee; however, additional fees that are not included in the price include drink and minibar charges, as well as bathing taxes, which are usually an additional 150yen per person, per night – charged when staying at some Onsen resorts.
Children’s rates are rarely available, but when they are, the rate is based on the age of the child and the type of meal that is requested, of which you can usually choose from; “adult’s meal”, “children’s meal” or “no meal”.
These details should be specified when making reservations.
When to arrive
Check-in is typically possible from 3pm, with dinner following around 6pm or 7pm. It’s usually recommended to arrive at least one hour before dinner to allow time to be properly welcomed and oriented, and so that you have a chance to settle in and have a bath before dinner. Some Ryokan can accommodate late arrivals, either by delaying or canceling dinner, and they should be informed as early as possible.
Great emphasis is put on a guest’s arrival into the Ryokan. Staff aim to ensure that guests feel welcomed, taken care of and relaxed from the moment they step onto the property. Because a guest’s first impression of a Ryokan occurs upon arrival into the foyer, or Genkan, special efforts are made here.
The Genkan is the entryway into a Japanese home, and is typically a stone or tile floor recessed one or two steps below the level of the main floor.
This physical boundary marks a separation between outside and inside world, and serves as a space for outdoor shoes to be removed and stored, as they are never worn inside Japanese houses or Ryokan.
In the rare event that you have not yet been greeted, stand in the Genkan’s lowest level / ground level and call out a greeting, such as “hello”. Upon invitation inside, guests should remove their shoes, step up to the house level, and change into the slippers provided. Your shoes can be left in the Genkan and will be attended to by the staff.
Check in usually occurs in one of three ways:
Guests are led directly to their room for check in.
Guests are led to a lobby lounge area for check in.
Guests check in at the reception desk in the lobby, as in a hotel.
In all of the above circumstances, guests are handed a form on which they are asked to fill out their name, address and phone number. Foreign travelers will be asked to show their passport for photocopying as required by law.
Typically, the form will be offered alongside a cup of tea and a small snack. This is the case especially when check in occurs in the room or lobby lounge. If tea and snacks are not offered, they will likely be already laid out in your room. Besides welcoming guests to the Ryokan, some tea and a snack help guests avoid feeling lightheaded in the bath.
During check in your attendant will provide a series of explanations with regards to the Ryokan facilities. On the way to your room, the public baths and their opening times will be pointed out, the location and times of meals will be explained, and your first drink order may be taken. Once in your room, you will be shown where to find the Yukata, air conditioning and heating controls and other amenities.
In many Ryokan you will be attended to by one person for your entire stay. Your attendant will be the one to check you in, serve your meals, prepare your room and bid farewell as you depart.
While such personal service tends to be the rule at smaller and better Ryokan, many other places will distribute the various duties among different staff members.
Tipping is neither expected nor required at a Ryokan as service charges are included in the room rate. However you may leave a tip if you wish, especially at better Ryokan whereby you are attended to by one person for your entire visit. In this case, tipping usually takes place at the conclusion of check in, and is given to your attendant. Rather than as a thank you for good service, the tip is more like buying a request, to ensure that the attendant takes good care of you during your stay.
An amount of around 1000 yen per guest is appropriate, and make sure to wrap the bills in paper or to put them in an envelope before presenting them to your attendant.
An alternative to tipping is to bring along a small gift that can be shared by the staff.
However, this option is best reserved only for small, privately owned / family-run Ryokan.
Ryokan Guide: Your Room
Ryokan rooms vary greatly depending on the size, style, price level and tastes of the specific Ryokan. The following is an example of what can typically be expected at an average priced, traditional Ryokan.
Rooms are typically designed for two to four occupants, although larger groups can sometimes be accommodated as well. They are almost always covered by tatami flooring, with a low table at the center of the room.
There is often an adjacent smaller sitting room separated from the main room by sliding doors. This area is typically carpeted, with a Western style table and chairs.
Japanese beds consist of Futon.
Futon are Japanese mattresses laid directly on the tatami flooring.
The Futon will not be laid out when you first enter the room. Instead, they are kept in the closet during the day to be set out later on in the evening and put away again in the morning by the Ryokan staff. A separate closet offers space for clothing, luggage and your Yukata.
Elements of the Japanese style room:
Besides Tatami floors, low tables and Futon beds, there are a few elements of Japanese architecture and decor that help to enhance the room’s beauty.
Most rooms feature a small raised alcove with a piece of pottery or flower arrangement and a small painting or scroll. This alcove is called the Tokonoma and its decorations are frequently changed to reflect the seasons.
Traditionally, the most important person in the room sits in front of the tokonoma, particularly during mealtimes.
Fusuma are sliding doors covered in heavy opaque paper that are used as doors to closets and to separate rooms. Fusuma may be painted or otherwise simply decorated.
Another type of sliding doors or partition are Shoji, which are made up of wooden lattices covered in paper. Shoji differ from fusuma in that the paper used is somewhat transparent, which allows light to filter into a room.
Typical amenities in Ryokan rooms:
Ryokan rooms are usually equipped with a sink, bathroom and Western style toilet.
However, older or budget Ryokan may only provide shared toilets and sinks in common areas outside of your room.
Ryokan also typically provide a television, mini fridge and a safe in each room, along with complementary amenities such as small washcloths for the bath, toothbrushes and tea for every guest.
Towels and Yukata are provided as well, but are not meant to be taken home.
Yukata can be worn during your entire stay at the Ryokan including; to meals, to the bath and to bed.
Ryokan Guide: Dress (Yukata)
Yukata (literally “bathing clothes”) are a traditional garment, similar in style to kimono, but lighter, much more casual, and made of cotton. Yukata function both as a bathrobe and loungewear, which can be worn at all times during your stay, including to the bath, to both dinner and breakfast, and to bed as sleepwear. In some Onsen Resort towns like Kinosaki, Dogo and Kusatsu, it is also common to see guests strolling around town in their Yukata and Geta.
Upon checking in, your attendant will show you where to find your Yukata set, which consists of a Yukata, an Obi (belt), a Yukata jacket and sometimes socks. Some Ryokan may only have one size of yukata available, although more often they offer a selection of sizes either in your room or provided by your attendant. If given a choice of sizes, choose one that rests just at the ankle.
How to dress in Yukata:
Step 1: Put on your Yukata over your underwear, undershirt and socks are optional. Slip your arms into the sleeves of the Yukata and grasp it along its front hem, one side in each hand, at about waist level. Fold the right hand side underneath the left hand side, and hold it in place with your hand.
Step 2: Now fold the left hand over the right hand side and hold it in place with your hand while you get your Obi (belt).
Step 3: Secure everything in place with the Obi (belt) by wrapping it around your waist. Begin in the front and wrap it around your back. The Obi are usually stored folded into little pentagons, so look for these if you are having trouble finding the Obi.
Step 4: Cross the belt around your back and tie it in the front. For men, the belt should rest fairly low on the hips. For women, the belt is tied at the waist.
Step 5: Adjust the length of the belt ends so that they hang evenly from your right hip. Then adjust the knot so that it lies on your right hip.
Step 6: In cooler seasons / locations, the outer jacket can be worn over the Yukata like a coat. Yukata coats have ties at chest level with which they can be secured, and may have a pocket for carrying small items such as your room key. Alternatively, Yukata coat sleeves are designed so that items can be carried inside.
Ryokan Guide: Things To Do
People often visit Ryokan with the aim of relaxing in a peaceful and comfortable atmosphere.
Ryokan go to great lengths to create beautiful gardens, baths, bars and other common areas for their guests to enjoy.
Be sure to take advantage of the various facilities during your stay.
One of the most popular things to do at a Ryokan is indulge in a hot bath, and Ryokan often take great pride in their beautiful bathing facilities and spas. Usually the Ryokan’s baths are supplied by a Hot Spring, although Ryokan tend to have nice large baths even if they are not supplied by a Hot Spring.
Ryokan baths are usually gender segregated communal facilities with typically at least one indoor bath per gender. Many Ryokan have a whole range of indoor and outdoor baths, sometimes found in separate locations across the Ryokan.
Occasionally there are some mixed gender baths as well.
People often visit Ryokan with the aim of relaxing in a peaceful and comfortable atmosphere.
Ryokan go to great lengths to create beautiful gardens, baths and other common areas for their guests to enjoy so be sure to take advantage of the various facilities during your stay.
Some Ryokan also have private baths for families and couples who wish to bathe together, although private baths tend to be smaller than the public bath and requires reservations.
Some high-end Ryokan accomodations may also have a private Hot Spring bath, inside their guest rooms.
Ryokan guests typically take a bath before dinner, after dinner or before breakfast, and it is not uncommon to bathe more than once during one’s stay.
Most Ryokan baths are open during afternoons, evenings and mornings, and some may be open 24 hours a day.
Baths are identified by the curtains that hang outside the changing room door. Usually blue curtains are used for the men’s bath and red for the women’s bath, although this is not standard. Also be aware that many Ryokan switch the gender of the baths (usually around dinner time) so that everyone has a chance to try out all of the different baths. Your attendant should inform you of opening times and switching times at check in.
Small towels are provided in the guest rooms and should be brought with you to the bath. Larger bath towels can be found either in the guest rooms or in the changing room.
Some Ryokan open their baths to non staying guest during the day for an entrance fee of typically between 500 and 1500 yen per person.
Day visitors can usually rent or buy towels for a small fee.
After a visit to the bath, many people enjoy taking a walk around the Ryokan’s garden or neighborhood. In some old fashioned Onsen resorts such as Kusatsu, Dogo, Shibu, Kinosaki or Miyajima it is a common sight in the evenings to see Ryokan guests strolling around town in their Yukata and geta (wooden sandals), enjoying a walk, visiting additional bath houses, shopping or old fashioned game arcades that cater to Ryokan guests.
For those less inclined to quiet pursuits, larger Ryokan are usually well equipped for revelers. These large mega-Ryokan in particular are known for being accommodating to groups and events.
They often include additional restaurants, bars, karaoke rooms, game rooms, shows and shops on their premises that operate late into the night.
Ryokan Guide: Dinner
Together with Hot Spring baths, dinner is the highlight of a Ryokan stay. Ryokan meals are elaborate, multi course affairs with a multitude of dishes and ingredients that are carefully and artfully arranged to reflect local and seasonal specialties, expressed in the Ryokan’s own unique style. Ryokan dinners usually mirror Kaiseki-Ryori, which is essentially multi-course Japanese style haute cuisine.
Upon check in your dinner time will be reconfirmed. Dinner typically starts around 6pm to 7pm. If the Ryokan does not have a fixed dining time, then you will be given a range of times to choose from.
Guests usually dine in either their own guest room, in a separate private dining room or in a communal dining area, usually accompanied with a scenic view. Regardless of the location, most people choose to wear their Yukata to dinner, although wearing your own clothes are also acceptable.
Alcohol is not included in the price of the Ryokan stay, but is usually ordered separately and then added to the final bill. Beer or sake are common accompaniments and most Ryokan will have a selection of non-alcoholic drinks as well. Often the first drink order will be taken when you check in and will be served together with the first course of dinner.
The Ryokan should be consulted in advance if you have any special dietary requests or allergies.
Ryokan Guide: Breakfast
Most Ryokan serve Japanese style breakfasts, which consist of multiple dishes and feature local and seasonal specialties. Only a few Ryokan, especially those with a lot of foreign guests, might offer a Western style option, while large establishments may offer buffet style breakfasts that include both Japanese and Western dishes.
The time and location of breakfast will be confirmed the night before by your attendant, but it is typically held at the same place that you were served dinner. Like with dinner, there is usually one fixed meal time or a range of times to choose from. Many people choose to wear their Yukata to breakfast, but one’s own clothing is acceptable, as well.
Ryokan Guide: Check Out
Check out time at a Ryokan is usually 10am or 11am. This leaves just enough time to have a morning bath and to socialize over breakfast. A staff member might come into your room while you are away eating breakfast to put away the futon. If not, it is acceptable to leave your futon laid out on the floor, although it’s best you try to leave the rest of the room tidy.
Check out normally happens at the reception desk or in the lobby. You may be offered tea again, just as you were when you arrived. While most Ryokan now accept major credit cards, smaller establishments may not. When your bill is settled and you are ready to depart, the staff, including the maid who tended to your room and meals, will be on hand to help you into your shoes and wave and bow goodbye.
Guests should be aware that tipping is not expected or required as it might be in their home countries. Service charges are already included in the room rate, and if you still insist on tipping at a Ryokan, do it at the start of your stay and it usually occurs at the time of check in.
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