In today’s Japan Travel Q&A we answer a question about staying in ryokans from Eryn in New York City:

“What’s the difference between staying in a ryokan and a hotel?”

Don’t feel like watching a video? Read below for today’s answer!

Great question, Eryn!

Staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese-style inn – is a great way to fully immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture.

But for non-Japanese, there can be many surprises when staying at a ryokan, because it’s very different from staying at a hotel.

So in addition to all the information below, make sure to watch our virtual ryokan tour in the video above. It’s a step-by-step walk-through of the ryokan experience, and will help you really see what the experience is like.

The interior of a traditional ryokan in Hokkaido, Japan
The tea room in a traditional ryokan in Hokkaido

Differences Between Ryokans & Hotels

These are some of the key differences between ryokans and hotels – and we go into much more detail below (as well as in the video).

  • Your minimalistic tatami mat room
  • Trading in your shoes & “regular” clothes for yukata – a Japanese-style robe – and slippers
  • Onsen (hot springs), and Japanese bathing culture & etiquette
  • Your multi-course kaiseki dinner & traditional Japanese breakfast
  • Traditional Japanese futon bedding

Please keep in mind that not everything we will describe applies to every single ryokan. However, these common elements will give you a good understanding of what it’s like to stay at a ryokan.

There are some other things you’ll want to know, too, so keep reading (or watch the video above) for more details.

The dining room at Ryokan Kurashiki, Okayama, Japan
A Japanese chabudai and zaisu dining area at Ryokan Kurashiki, a wonderful traditional ryokan in Okayama

Japanese Ryokan Basics

As with hotels or inns in any country, every ryokan is different.

They range from modest and basic properties akin to guest houses, to highly luxurious ryokans where you’ll experience the best in Japanese hospitality.

Most people tend to associate ryokans with the countryside of Japan – and this is definitely the quintessential way to experience a ryokan stay.

City dwellers retreat to rural ryokans to relax and rejuvenate for a couple of days. Grounds are usually very peaceful, with an emphasis on nature and beautiful gardens, or views of surrounding streams and mountains.

But Kyoto and other Japanese cities are also home to some beautiful, traditional ryokans – even Tokyo has a handful – so if you’re eager to experience an “urban” ryokan, then Kyoto is the best place to do so.

The streets of Yamanaka Onsen in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
The streets of Yamanaka Onsen, Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture

Arriving At Your Ryokan

Upon entering your ryokan, the first thing you’ll do is remove your shoes in the indicated area, and slip on the slippers that have been provided for you.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that ryokans are typically much smaller than most hotels. They’re often family run, and in many cases have been handed down generation to generation.

Check-in formalities at a ryokan are usually much quicker and simpler than in a hotel. You’ll be led to your room by the nakai-san – your personal room attendant – who will politely show you the way.

When you get to the room, you’ll take your slippers off – you don’t wear slippers on tatami mats (you can wear socks or simply be barefoot). If you’re not sure when to take the slippers off, the nakai-san will be happy to show you.

He or she will show you your yukatas (robes) – change into these as soon as they leave the room. You’ll be wearing these comfortable robes for the duration of your stay!

Often, Japanese sweets will be beautifully laid out on the room’s central table for you, and your nakai-san may prepare your first cup of green tea for you. You don’t need to do anything – just enjoy the hospitality and the aromatic smell of the tatami mats.

Tip: Before your nakai-san leaves the room, ask him or her to show you how to operate the electric hot water maker, your room’s heating system (particularly if it’s going to get cold at night), and the Japanese toilet – with all its buttons – since instructions for these are not always available in English.

A traditional Japanese tatami mat
A tatami mat, found in all traditional Japanese houses, temples, and ryokans

Rooms at a Traditional Ryokan

When entering your traditional Japanese-style ryokan room, you may be surprised at what you find – or don’t find!

Unlike hotel rooms, traditional Japanese-style ryokan rooms have very little furniture. In fact, when you walk in chances are that all you will see is a low central table, and some traditional zaisu (chairs without legs).

The flooring is tatami matting, which is both aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to walk, sit or lay on. But you may be wondering: where are the beds? Don’t worry, we will discuss traditional Japanese-style bedding below.

As for the bathrooms: if you’re staying at a luxury ryokan, you’ll have your own private en suite bathroom, as you would expect.

But at many very traditional ryokans (even at some fairly luxurious ones), your room may not have an en suite bathroom. This is very important to many travelers, so if you have any doubt make sure to ask before selecting a ryokan.

Winter scenes at Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma, Japan
Winter scenes at Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture

Bathing at Ryokans: Onsen

Bathing is an important part of Japanese culture, and perhaps nothing is more enjoyable – and potentially confusing – to non-Japanese travelers than the bathing experience at a ryokan.

We’ve included some helpful tips so you can enjoy your experience to the fullest – but it’s best to accept that, no matter how much you prepare, you’ll probably make an etiquette mistake (or two).

Don’t worry! Japanese people are very understanding – the key is to always just be respectful, and if you don’t know what to do, ask – even sign language works (see our article on Japanese etiquette for more on tips and taboos).

Onsen Basics

In addition to the traditional hospitality (and the food), hot springs – called onsen in Japanese – are one of the biggest reasons travelers make the journey to rural ryokans.

Not all ryokans have natural hot springs, but even those without onsen will offer a traditional bathing experience, and the etiquette tips below will also apply.

Visiting a Japanese onsen is therapeutic, relaxing – and fascinating. It can be a little confusing the first time, but once you get the system down it’s both fun and incredibly rejuvenating.

Snow covers Ginzan Onsen, located in Obanazawa, Yamagata, Japan
Ginzan Onsen (Silver Mountain Hot Spring), Obanazawa, Yamagata Prefecture

Bathing & Onsen Etiquette Tips

These tips apply to both onsen and to regular baths.

  • No bathing suits allowed. Some onsen are gender-separated, and some are communal. Regardless, swimsuits are simply not permitted. If for any reason this sounds unappealing to you, another option is a ryokan with private onsen – a great solution for many travelers.
  • Wash yourself thoroughly before entering. When going to an onsen, first you’ll pass through a changing room, where you will disrobe and place your garments (everything but your small onsen towel) in the basket provided. Then continue into the shower area, where you’ll find shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Rather than standing while you shower, you sit on a short stool and shower there. Once you have thoroughly bathed, then it’s time to head out to the onsen itself.
  • Don’t let the small towel into the onsen water. You’ll be given two towels: one large and one small. The large one is for fully drying off after your relaxing soak (leave it in the changing room). Take the small towel with you out to the onsen, however it’s important to not let the towel touch the water. Most people use the little towel to discreetly cover themselves while walking from the shower area to the onsen waters, and then place it on their head, tie it around their forehead, or lay it somewhere near the edge of the bath. There is no hard and fast rule, other than to keep it out of the onsen.
  • Tattoos are not always permitted. Tattoos are not common among the general Japanese populace, and have traditionally been seen as a symbol of the Japanese underworld. As such, many onsen have regulations that prevent people with tattoos from entering. While this doesn’t always apply to non-Japanese, if you have a tattoo and another guest complains, you may be asked to leave the bath. If at all possible, to prevent this from happening we recommend you cover the tattoo with a band-aid or large bandage. If this is not possible, but you really want to experience onsen, the best solution may be to select a ryokan that offers private onsen – fortunately, these are quite common.
A Japanese multi-course dinner served at a traditional ryokan
A traditional multi-course dinner, a key aspect of the ryokan experience

Food & Dining at Ryokans

When staying at a ryokan, your main tasks are to soak in onsen, contemplate nature, drink green tea in your tatami-lined room, take relaxing naps, and partake of incredible, memorable meals.

Cuisine is an integral part of the ryokan experience, and for most people one of the highlights. Most ryokan stays include breakfast and a kaiseki dinner, both of which typically feature a beautifully-presented and colorful array of local and seasonal specialties.

The kaiseki dinner is a multi-course affair, served either in the privacy of your tatami-lined room, or – at many ryokans – in a common dining room. Be sure to bring your camera, and your appetite.

While every ryokan is different, dinner usually features:

  • Local vegetables, both grown and foraged
  • The bounty of the sea, and often local rivers
  • Local meats
  • The staples of Japanese food, such as miso soup, and of course rice
  • Drinks including local sake or shochu, beer, and tea

These beautiful feasts are an unforgettable culinary experience, and a great way to sample Japanese foods you may never get to experience again.

Breakfasts are just as colorful: at breakfast you’ll usually find a selection of traditional Japanese dishes – fish, rice, miso soup – as well an egg, toast on occasion, and tea and/or coffee.

Tip: If you have any dietary restrictions, food allergies, or other important requests, be sure to make this known as far beforehand as possible, as ryokans plan their meals well in advance and cannot always accommodate last-minute requests.

A Japanese futon on a tatami floor in a traditional ryokan
While you enjoy dinner, ryokan staff will prepare your futon for a good night’s rest

Traditional Futon Bedding

The word futon is originally a Japanese word, and refers to the type of bedding you’ll experience at most ryokans. Don’t be misled by the word, as Japanese-style futon are quite unlike futons in Europe or the Americas!

As you will have noticed when you first entered your room (described above), upon entering a traditional Japanese-style room, you won’t see any bedding.

While you’re at dinner enjoying your kaiseki feast, ryokan staff will discreetly visit your room and lay out your plush Japanese-style bedding for you.

To most travelers, the futon mattress is surprisingly plush and comfortable, and the down comforter is also very warm – making for an extremely restful night of sleep for most.

However, if you are concerned about this type of sleeping arrangement, it’s worth noting that many high-end ryokans have begun incorporating some western-style elements – such as western-style beds – into their rooms. If having a western-style bed is a priority for you, simply take this into account when selecting a ryokan.

The dining area of a traditional Japanese ryokan
Staying at a ryokan is the perfect way to experience traditional Japanese culture

Ready to Stay in a Ryokan?

For most of our clients, we usually recommend spending 1-2 nights in a ryokan if it’s your first time visiting Japan.

Even though most people fall in love with the experience, it’s not always for everyone. But even among those who don’t love it, one night is usually worthwhile, if just for the fascinating cultural experience.

Looking for more inspiration?

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