Sleeping in a ryokan is an essential experience as I told you in my article on the 10 unmissable experiences in Japan. There is nothing better than immerse yourself in the Japanese way of life with an enchanting setting. During my 3 stays in the land of the rising sun, I had the opportunity to try a dozen ryokans and I have the pleasure of giving you a little glimpse !
A ryokan is likely a term that you have never heard if you have never explored this country. It is in fact a traditional inn in which you can spend the night. However be careful, don’t think that it’s simply a place to sleep. It is a whole experience, a place where you can relax and and enjoy some calmness while relaxing. It should be noted that the Japanese have very few holidays and they really enjoy them as a time to relax without focusing on the price and for them it is a way to escape from everyday life.
There are around 70 000 ryokans throughout Japan, all at a wide range of prices. However, if you are looking for one at a destination that is quite touristic, you should expect high prices.
4pm : Arrival
You arrive in the middle of the afternoon. After dropping your shoes off at the entrance and putting on slippers, it is time to walk to reception. Mostly, you will have a welcome tea and some sweets (usually in a pretty hall) or even directly in your room.
Discovering the room
I think that what surprised me the first time was the simplicity and the minimalism of the room : no embellishments or flashy decorations, even in a room costing 400€ per night, there is no a sign of ostentation. Japanese style is very simple : a low table and chairs in the main room with a floor made of tatamis. As Westerners, what is different in the more luxurious rooms is a question of detail : tatamis are more beautiful than in a standard ryokan (yes yes this actually does make a difference ^^), a very good quality table, a view of nature, …
In some cases (like for example in the Kurayado Iroha ryokan located in Miyajima that I told you here), the room can have a western style, meaning that you have a section with beds and another with tatamis, which is actually a little more comfortable.
In the wardrobe, you will find a yukata (a light kimono) that you will wear in the room but also in the dining halls or when going to bath. It is not uncommon in certain spa towns to see tourists walking around in the street in yukatas as they are coming from hotels to other ones to try their baths. I think that this was the most destabilizing part for me, I mean it’s so complicated to knew if I was committing a mistake or not. Sometimes I even had this impression when I walked down to breakfast in my pyjamas and it was quite disturbing.
5pm : Relaxing in the baths
The key moment in a ryokan is relaxing in the baths. For very high-end establishments, you can have a bath in your room which I tried during my visit of the town of Beppu.
Regardless of where you go, the baths are separated by gender. In a few rare cases, you will find mixed baths but you shouldn’t be afraid of nudity as bathing is one of the most simple activities … After having read a few basic rules and letting your embarrassment in the changing room, you can get into the baths. First of all, don’t forget to wash in the spaces provided for this purpose before getting into the warm baths. In the thermal stations, there are onsens which means that they are natural and warm baths. Some ryokans have outdoor baths with quite a magnificent and breathtaking view which is very nice for relaxation. One word of caution though regarding the temperature of the water : you really need to like it very, very hot !!! It’s happened to me that in some baths that I haven’t been able to go any deeper than my legs ! However, this doesn’t seem to pose a problem for the Japanese ^^
Some ryokans offer private baths or the so-called family baths. These are perfect if you want to enjoy one with your partner.
7pm : Diner
Another cultural difference : here they eat relatively early ! You can dine between 5.30pm and 7.30pm. Served in a communal hall or in your room, the meal is a real happy moment with an assortment of local food : meat, raw and cooked fish, tofu, soup without forgetting the rice, of course ! For the most luxurious accommodations, you would have a kaiseki-type meal which would be more elegant and refined. For me, this is always a real moment of pleasure to taste these really tasty little dishes which are so different from French food.
9pm : Back to your room
After the meal, you can return to the baths which usually close at around 11pm. Otherwise make your way to your room where you can settle on your futons for the night. Regarding the comfort of this bedding, I noticed great differences between ryokans : some were rather comfortable while others were less comfortable, however I advise during your stay to alternate between traditional hotels with real beds and ryokans so as not to affect your back too much.
8am : Breakfast
After a great night’s sleep, it is time to enjoy the breakfast. Just as for dinner, you need to choose the time you want to take it and it is not a question having it whenever you want to (it is not very flexible but this is how it works). Japanese breakfast can confuse some people : there is fish, miso soup, rice, … in short, you have to like salty taste. I must say that the first time I was a little surprised and honestly I never expected to eat fish early in the morning but to my great surprise I very quickly adopted this habit ! In some cases, as an alternative they offer a western breakfast but I strongly advise against this as the quality of this, even in luxury ryokans is rather disappointing.
10am : Check out
Check out is relatively early, 10am in most cases. However, it should be noted that the Japanese often leave after breakfast and at around 9am, the ryokans are already deserted… That’s why you should arrive early the day before to enjoy everything.
As you will have understood, sleeping in a ryokan is an essential experience if you decide to travel to Japan. It is a little confusing but so enriching ! Take the plunge and you will come back delighted !
- During the tourist season (I think in Spring during the flowering of the cherry trees), it is essential to reserve your ryokan early. In fact, this kind of accommodation has very few rooms and very quickly becomes full.
- The relationship between quality/price is often confusing : prices are very high and I find that in the majority of cases, it is hard to justify.
- For private baths, don’t do what we did : if you arrive on the day and ask if there is still one available, they will often reply in the negative. A few days or weeks beforehand, be sure to send an email to do the necessary.
- A few useful websites to make your reservations : the very well-known Booking offers some of the best known ryokans, but for others, you can consult the following websites : Japanese Guest Houses, Japanese Inn Group and Japanican !