Japan. One of the most fascinating and intriguing cultures of all time.
For many people, traveling to Japan is either at the top of their bucket list, or it remains one of their top travel experiences. Spending a week travelling through central Japan, I can now see why.
It’s an absolutely magical island with so many of its ancient cultural traditions still wonderfully intact.
One of those traditions is staying in a Japanese Ryokan.
What is a Japanese Ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn or hotel.
What makes them so unique is they are usually designed with straw tatami mats as the flooring, paper sliding doors and walls, futon style beds on the floor, and separate living/dining/sleeping areas. The decor is very simple, yet elegant, and inspires rest and relaxation. It’s a minimalists dream.
Here is the coolest part… they are ANCIENT! The first one was built and accepting guests around 700 AD, making it the oldest hotel in the world. Other ryokans started popping up in 800 AD and have been a Japanese tradition ever since.
That is exactly why I knew I HAD to stay in one during our trip to Japan!
Many traditional Japanese Ryokans will also have a very luxurious feature called on Onsen.
What is an Onsen?
An Onsen is a pool or a bath formed around a natural hot spring. The result is naturally warm waters containing therapeutic minerals, healing powers and an ultra relaxing tradition.
Since Japan is an island with lots of volcanic activity, there are thousands of natural thermal pools all across the country. Many Ryokans and hotels are built around these incredible natural baths so guests can truly have a restorative experience.
You go in, usually completely naked, and relax in the warm water. Yes, most Onsen baths now have separate bathing areas for men and women, but that wasn’t always the case. Traditionally Japanese men and women would bath together in an Onsen, but since opening up the tradition to Western culture, gender separation is now the norm.
Our Ryokan Onsen Experience
We spent the night at Suimeikan Ryokan and Hotel in Gero, one of Japan’s three most famous hot spring towns.
The entire stay was quite the experience from start to finish and I am so glad we did it! I would recommend to anyone travelling in Japan to follow in our footsteps for an unforgettable part of Japanese culture.
A Ryokan and a Western Hotel
Lack Of Furniture
When I first walked into my room at the Ryokan, the first thing I noticed was how stark it was. Not cold or impersonal by any means, but just very minimal! I actually quite like the simple and clean style of the room, but it might take some adjusting for people who like more decor.
The only real furniture I saw was a table and chair set, without legs, sitting directly in the middle of the room.
Well that is what Trevor thought! Upon inspection of the entire room, there were no beds to be found. That is because in traditional Japanese Ryokans, the nakai-san (like a room attendant) will make your bed while you are out dining. The set-ip is simple: Two Japanese futon beds on the floor. The futon mattresses and duvets are kept tucked away in closets during the day, keeping the already minimalistic room even more organized.
When you go for breakfast in the morning, the beds are removed and replaced with a table, or sometimes nothing at all.
Meals Are Usually Included
Unlike most hotels in North America, the Ryokan room rate usually comes with a set dinner, as well as breakfast. The kaiseki dinner uses local and in season ingredients paired with tapas-sized portions to create a multi-course meal overflowing with flavour. This helps to make your stay at the Ryokan a truly immersive dive into Japanese culture.
Traditional Robes To Wear
In many Ryokans, especially if they have on Onsen, you will find Yakata robes in the room for you to wear. You are encouraged to wear the robes for the entirety of your stay, and I highly suggest you do! I actually wish Western hotels would start a trend of doing the same thing.
The robes are very comfortable and solve the “what will I wear for dinner tonight?” dilemma.
You can wear them to the restaurant, to the onsen, around the hotel, or even throughout the town.
Naturally Warm Pool
Most hotels can’t boast that they have an ancient natural hot springs running through them, but many Ryokans can!
They differ from hotel pools because they are naturally occurring, filled with minerals, usually un-chlorinated and contain very warm waters. Public onsen baths are most commonly segregated based on sex, and some luxury rooms even come with their own private bath.
Etiquette for Staying in a Ryokan and Onsen
A ryokan experience can come with perks that require a bit of planning, like welcome matcha tea service and a set dinner. Being on time, especially before dinner hours, helps your hosts provide you with the best service possible. Plus they’ve planned to make you an amazingly fresh dinner and the food will likely spoil if you arrive too late. I also learned that our kimono-dressed hostesses who welcomed guests at the door were only done their shift when the last person checked in.
Of course there are times when a long travel day will have you checking in late, so just be sure to notify the Ryokan.
Regardless if your bathroom is private or shared (which shared bathrooms are very common in Ryokans!) there will be a separate pair of slippers that you should only use for entering the washroom. Switch your normal ‘room’ slippers for these each time you go into the bathroom and always remember to remove them afterwards.
Onsen’s are just for chilling out and relaxing in, not for bathing. To keep the waters as clean and therapeutic as possible, you are required to give yourself a good wash and scrub down before entering the bath. I didn’t want to wash my hair, but it was required to be put up in a bun and kept out of the onsen water.
This can seem a little foreign to western visitors, but you are usually required to enter the onsen completely nude. You are given a small towel for covering up as you walk between the showers and the hot spring itself, but it’s against the rules to have the towel in the water. For this reason, people will either just walk naked from washing to the pool, OR, they might put the small towel on their head while they soak.
Tattoos are still quite taboo in Japanese culture and many Onsen’s will not allow any bathers with visible tattoos to enter. Many guests are asked to cover them up with a bandage, or book a room with their own private onsen bath. If you have a few small ones here or there, you’ll likely be okay unless someone complains. You can always talk to your host to find out the particular rules at your Ryokan.