Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) offer the best in food, service, and traditional atmosphere. These unique Japanese-style inns allow guests to appreciate the traditional culture of Japan and follow the same traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years. Some of the earliest ryokans were located on the Tokkaido Highway, which connected the military capital in Tokyo and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. It was a very busy highway as daimyos (feudal lords), samurai, traders, and others made their way between these two cities. Ryokans began to appear along this and other highways beginning early in the 17th century to welcome the weary travelers who needed rest before continuing on their long journey.
Upon your arrival at a ryokan you will be provided with a Yukata (cotton kimonos) for use in your room and around the ryokan. It is even acceptable to wear these outside of the ryokan at some locations. Slippers are also provided for guests when entering the ryokan, as wearing shoes inside of a ryokan is disrespectful. Guests walk around the ryokan in slippers, but remove them upon entering any room with tatami mats. Occasionally there are even bathroom slippers to be worn only in the bathroom.
During the day, guest rooms serve as the living room where you may enjoy chatting over tea and a Japanese sweet (both of which you will normally find in your room), or just relaxing in your yukata. Some ryokans have legless chairs that allow comfortable seating. A pair of regular chairs and a small table are typically found in your room as well. At bedtime, your guest room undergoes a transformation into a bedroom. Your warm and comfortable futon mattress is spread out on the tatami floor by a maid.
Traditional Japanese food, featured at ryokans, has a well-earned reputation for being healthy, delicious, and served with a wonderful presentation. During your ryokan visit, your palate – as well as your senses – are in for a treat. Meals of local specialties are set according to the season and are served “Kaiseki” style, which means there are many dishes with smaller portions instead of one main entree. Rice and miso soup will, of course, accompany the meal, and you can always expect green tea to be served. Something important to remember is to not leave your chopsticks inside of your rice bowl since this is taboo!
Most, if not all, ryokans house beautiful baths or onsens in place of private showers. Most are separated into a men’s and women’s bath, and some have private or family baths. Remove your slippers upon entering the bath area. Then you will remove all clothing and enter the shower area. Everyone is required to shower before entering the bath. There will be wooden stools to sit on while you shower off, and typically there is provided soap and shampoo. After showering off you may enter the bath. It’s important to remember that these are traditional baths made for relaxation and healing, so talking loudly and splashing are strictly prohibited.
Many people are aware that it is taboo to have a tattoo when using the baths/onsens. Having a tattoo is not common in Japan, so it is confusing and may be offensive to the Japanese if a foreigner enters the bath with a tattoo. With the high amount of tourists that visit Japan nowadays, it is becoming more and more common to see tattoos, so some baths/onsens may allow people with small tattoos to enter. However, it is always best to cover up your tattoos and to ask if you may still use the bath/onsen.
Onsens are known for their healing properties, and can be enjoyed in many settings such as among a beautiful garden, on the rooftop of a hotel, or in a cozy room inside of a ryokan. The hotel mineral water is said to heal ailments, refresh the fatigued, and rejuvenate the mind, so be sure to soak up the joys of an onsen during your visit to Japan!