“Konnichiwa!” That’s all I was able to pick up as the desk clerk at our ryokan smiled and welcomed us. I walked up to the reception area, I smiled back and shyly repeated his greeting. While I had prepared myself on how to stay at a ryokan by reading as much as I could get my hands on – tips, do’s and don’ts, ryokan etiquette, etc., I was still nervous. I wanted to avoid at all costs committing a faux pas. Despite all I’d read though, I still made some blunders, as you’ll discover below.
What is a Ryokan?
Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns that began during the Edo-era (1603 – 1868). Staying at a ryokan offers you the opportunity to experience true omotenashi – heartfelt, compassionate hospitality. And it is this characteristic that sets a ryokan apart from the best hotels in Japan.
The highlight of a ryokan stay is undoubtedly the food. Nightly rates include breakfast & dinner (excluding alcohol) – and dinner is something you do not want to miss. You’ll most likely be served kaiseki-ryōri – Japanese haute cuisine comprised of a multi-course meal of 8 – 13 dishes, on average.
Out of my long list of things I wanted to do in Japan, staying at a ryokan to experience part of the Japanese culture was at the top. And it was one of the highlights of our trip. We were in Japan during sakura – cherry blossom season, which is a magical time of the year (March-April). It is also one of the busiest, especially in Kyoto, which is renowned not only for its stunning blossoms, but also for its superb cuisine. Although I’d reserved our ryokan well in advance, my first two choices were fully booked 3 months prior to our arrival date.
We would have liked to stay in a ryokan out in the countryside to enjoy some natural scenery, but we didn’t have the time to travel outside Kyoto. Our ryokan still offered seclusion from the busy city, which was ideal. For many travelers, one night stay is sufficient. We stayed two nights – and would do the same again. We didn’t want to rush off in the morning, but instead return to our ryokan for more pampering after arduous sightseeing the next day.
Your ryokan will recommend that you check in no later than 4:30 pm (generally), as your dinnertime must be scheduled the day of your arrival, and it is expected that you will need time to settle in. If you can’t avoid checking in after that, it is quite likely you will miss kaiseki-ryōri .
As you walk in, you’re expected to take off your shoes at the entrance, place them in the available cubby holes, and step into a pair of slippers. Although I knew this, I had missed seeing the slippers at the entrance, and we walked into the lobby with our street shoes on. I noticed my mistake as we were standing in front of the reception desk. (Blunder #1)
After exchanging our shoes for slippers (we got some help), we were ushered to a sitting area to begin the registration process. The man handling our check-in asked us at what time we would want dinner. He politely made us understand it had to be between 6 and 7:30 pm. We chose the earliest, as you want to get your food as soon as the chef has finished preparing it. Breakfast was scheduled for 7:30 am. (I cringed and hoped we’d be on time).
While we were completing our registration, matcha tea and traditional cookies appeared before us. We began to enjoy the Japanese hospitality at once. As we sipped our teas, we were given the details of using the grand bath. Another important part of staying at a ryokan is that you may (and should) experience soaking in a hot bath before (and even after) a meal.
If your ryokan has a natural hot spring available, then you will have access to an onsen. If you’re staying in an urban area, then you most likely will be bathing in an ofuro – or a spa. Whether it is onsen or ofuro, the idea is you’ll soak in hot water to relax, particularly before dinner. Depending on the facilities, your soaking area can be private or communal. A couple of things to keep in mind: You will be nude and you must clean up before and after your soak. Men and women bathe and soak separately, for the most part. I’ll share onsen etiquette with you in a companion post in the future. Trust me. You want to know this before you venture into this experience!
After our tea and cookies we were ready to be shown to our accommodations. A diminutive nice-looking looking lady dressed in a kimono or nakai-san came up and smiling, motioned for us to follow her. She was assigned as our attendant during our stay. She didn’t speak English, and I think I understood her name was Ayia. We started to grab our bags, but she wouldn’t let us. Between Ayia and a much younger staff girl, they carried our luggage. I was glad I hadn’t over-packed.
We walked down low-lit and quiet hallways. Aiya opened the door, and we walked into the agari-kamachi – the ante-room, if you will. It is here that we took off our slippers and prepared to enter our room.
While some ryokan may offer western-style rooms, most do not. That means you’ll be sleeping on the tatami reed mats covering the floor.
You already know you take off your shoes at the entrance of the ryokan. At the ante-room, you take off your slippers. You do not step on the tatami covering your room with anything but your socks or bare feet. The slippers are to walk around the communal areas. You’ll also get a different pair of slippers, which are to be used strictly in the bathroom. Unfortunately, I forgot this simple rule and walked to the breakfast room with my bathroom slippers the next morning. They’re identified with the picture of a man and a woman stitched on the top, so everyone knew I had screwed up. I was mortified. (Blunder #2)
Aiya placed our bags on top of a tatami protector. It is important to remember that you luggage should not touch the tatami. As I looked around, our room was as minimalistic in decor as I had imagined it. There was a low black lacquered table and two zabuton – cushions for sitting on. Aiya showed us that our room was stocked with hot water and several teas, plus more cookies.
Before leaving, Aiya laid out our yukatas – cotton kimonos – and told us to change into those. She also showed us small complimentary decorated bags containing an assortment of toiletries, including toothbrushes and toothpaste and some Japanese-styled socks.
This is basically all you wear while at your ryokan. But you must know how to wear it properly. An important thing to remember is to tuck the right side of the yukata under the left side. Japan-Guide.com shares tips and photos on how to wear your yukata here.
I wrapped it wrong the first time, as you can see in the photo below. Only the dead are dressed with the right side on top. When she saw me, Aiya let out a string of Japanese words, but I understood she was chastising me. She then fixed it in a second, and it was all good. Yet… (Blunder #3)
The moment Aiya left, I started exploring the room. Primarily, I was looking for our beds! I found our futon (sleeping quilts) and our makura (pillows) behind the oshiire, a closet specifically designated for the futon.
Next to the closet was a sliding door or shoji. I slid it open to find a small area for the sink and towels and, in a separate room, our bathing area complete with a soaking tub with the traditional area for cleaning yourself completely before bathing.
As the former capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, Kyoto enjoys superb culinary tradition where food is elevated to an art form. Kyo ryori or Kyoto cuisine proudly incorporates the changes of the season with an emphasis on elegant simplicity. Because I have professional training in Peruvian cuisine (Peru has a very important Japanese influence – we even had a Japanese president!), staying at a ryokan for the culinary experience in Kyoto was a must for me.
Ryokan utilize local ingredients and are sourced daily. Each meal during your stay is unique – and this is a particular source of pride for Japanese master chefs in Kyoto. At a traditional ryokan, you eat your dinner in your room, which adds to the feeling of extreme pampering. Dinners such as this can be quite expensive at a restaurant; that is why the price of your nightly stay is higher compared to hotels.
Below, some photos of our magnificent multi-course kaiseki-ryōri dinner. From beginning to end, we had 16 different dishes. The experience was out of this world!
I will be publishing a companion post, where I describe our experience eating at our ryokan, including more photos and maybe a couple of videos. If you already subscribe to my blog, you’ll get a notice in your email inbox. If not, check back when you have a chance… or subscribe 😉
After dinner, Aiya transformed our room from a dining area to a traditional Japanese bedroom. The futons might not look too comfortable, but they really are!
We got up with a start and rushed to breakfast. Unfortunately, we were 5 minutes late, and our meal was already spread out on the table, waiting for us. (Faux pas #4) No one made us feel bad, but it was awkward to walk into a room full of people already eating.
The chef explained to us that traditional Japanese breakfast is a much more simple meal than dinner. It looked anything but simple to me. Considering that all I have early in the morning is usually coffee – eating grilled fish, miso soup, tamagoyaki – a carefully shaped omelet – nori and rice, it was quite good and a chance to try something different.
Another Night at our Ryokan
Upon our return and after another long day, we were glad to be heading to our ryokan for a nice leisurely soak followed by some more exceptional food. To our delight and surprise, the second night involved a completely different kind of dinner. This time, we were about to have sukiyaki. ‘Yaki’ means to sauteé. Aiya started by sauteing veggies, then adding beef and other ingredients to create a delicious and filling dish. (I also share more details about this meal in my upcoming post, Meals at a Ryokan).
Oh, I might as well tell you about Blunder #5. Do you see those big chopsticks Aiya is using? Well, you are not to eat with them, so as to avoid cross-contamination of the food… Yep. I was wondering why they felt so big as I used them. Aiya saw me and gently took them away, handing me my own set of much smaller chopsticks.
Part of our dessert had real gold shavings on top. I felt like royalty. Slept like a baby again.
It is customary to check out between 10 and 11 am. After our breakfast, we went back up to our rooms to finish packing. Since our train to Osaka was not until the afternoon, we left our baggage at the front desk. By the time we returned, the taxi cab we had requested was waiting for us. We got our bags and the nice man at the front desk gave us a set of beautifully decorated chopsticks as keepsakes. Saying sayonara to our hosts was a production. As we walked to the taxi, three staff girls ran behind us holding up a banner with a farewell message. They continued waiving and wishing us a good trip until the cab turned the corner and we couldn’t see them anymore. Talk about hospitality ’till the last possible moment. That is Japan.
If you are planning to go to Japan, I would urge you to consider staying at a ryokan for a night or two. There are over 63,000 ryokans in Japan these days. You should be aware that some hotels refer themselves as being a ryokan, but they’re not. Here are a couple of websites, which are very useful to help you select a true ryokan and provide you with more information.
Japan… Arigatou Gozaymasu! I can’t wait to see you again.