As a frequent traveler and exploration enthusiast, I’ve stayed in just about every type of accommodation conceivable. Over the years, my favorite nights have been spent in cheap European hostels and wild camping sites near mountain peaks under the Milky Way. After my trip to Japan, I’m going to have to add ryokans and Buddhist temples to that list. I’ll share my Buddhist temple experience in another post, and focus on my ryokan experience in this one.
For those of you who don’t know what a Ryokan is, Wikipedia explains it very well “A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner.” We stayed at Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura Honganji in Kyoto, which was conveniently located just 1 kilometer from Kyoto Station.
What makes a ryokan so special is the way they differ from a traditional hotel stay. When Julia and I first arrived to check in, we were greeting by the ryokan host who sat down with us at a table to sign a little paperwork. She then gave us a tour of the lobby, which included a small outdoor garden, gorgeous wall art, Japanese books, and three large tables for the breakfast that would be served in the morning.
Our host walked us through the ryokan slipper routine and took us to our room once we finished our lobby tour. In Japan, you never wear your shoes in your accommodation or a house. Each ryokan/hotel has slippers for the guests to wear, and then a separate pair of slippers for their room, and another pair for their restroom. Once in our room, our host showed us the correct way to wear our yukatas, and how to make a proper cup of green tea.
The final lesson we received from the host was in regards to our beds. As you can see in the pictures above, a ryokan room has no fixed beds. The room comes with futons, sheets, pillows, and blankets in the closet, and you need to make your bed each night, and fold it away in the morning. This is a great way to maximize space in an otherwise small room. If you’ve ever stayed in a Japanese hotel, you’ll know how small they can be. Being able to pack away the bedding makes a small room feel a lot more livable.
One of my favorite things about Japan is the Japanese style breakfast. I’ve never been a fan of the rich, heavy, sugary, and fried offerings we tend to get in our Western style breakfasts. Japanese style breakfasts contain a lot of what we in the West might eat for lunch. Most ryokans offer a Japanese style breakfasts for guests, and this is another major reason I love ryokans. Salmon, rice, miso soup, mixed veggies, rolled scrambled egg, and green tea…it doesn’t get much better than that!
Many ryokans in Japan serve dinner and breakfast. Ours only served breakfast, which was okay by me as I like to get out and explore fun local places for dinner. This ryokan also had everyone eating at communal tables in the lobby, where others will serve you food in you room. At lot of this depends on your budget and where you’re booking. I try not to spend too much money on accommodations while traveling, and was willing to accept a less frills ryokan experience. I’ve read that at some of the really nice ryokans, rooms have their own onsen (hot spring bath), where most have one communal onsen. This Ryokan did have private bathrooms for our room, which was very nice.
If you’re looking for a more traditional place to stay on your visit to Japan, make sure to spend at least one night in a Ryokan. The entire experience is one I’ll never forget, and something I’d highly recommend.
Helpful tips for staying at a ryokan:
- Check in time is usually around 15:00 with dinner being served around 16:00. Keep this in mind if you plan on staying at a ryokan on your first night in Japan. Our flight didn’t arrive until 18:00, and it was 20:30 by the time we made it to Kyoto from Osaka via the Kansai Express train.
- Meals served are usually Japanese foods. Ingredients are usually fresh and local. If you have dietary restrictions, make sure to communicate these well ahead of time.
- Our ryokan had English speaking staff members, but some do not. Know basic terms and phrases. If you do not know these, use Google Translate, and/or have your critical information printed out.
- As I mentioned above, take off your shoes! Slippers will be provided for you.
- Japanese onsen hot tubs are not to be entered without first cleansing your body. You will find a shower style head near most, where you can clean yourself before entering.
- Our ryokan had an elevator, but some of the older buildings do not. Make sure you can carry your luggage upstairs if need be. Pack light in Japan. Rooms are not big, and most trains don’t have room for massive bags of luggage. Stick to one carry on sized bag for each person.
- Keep the noise down. Ryokans are a place of peace and relaxation. Many are older buildings with thin walls. Respect the staff and other guests by keeping your voices and overall noise level down. This is not the kind of place you stay if you’re looking to have parties or blast music.
- Enjoy and have fun!
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