The Experience Of A Japanese Ryokan

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Visitors to Japan quickly discover something unusual about some hotels when they are booking a room; many offer a choice between western and traditional Japanese accommodation. The latter is a spin on the traditional ryokan, or a Japanese inn, decked out with tatami mats, raised sleeping platforms and futon mattresses which are packed away during the day to provide the guest with a "living" space. But staying in a real ryokan embodies the very essence of Japan, and is an ideal way of embracing its culture and customs. There are over thousands of them scattered across the country, and around 1,500 which are quality establishments belonging to the Japan Ryokan Association. A ryokan experience goes way beyond sleeping a night in a room, however. It involves immersing yourself into Japanese customs, from leaving your shoes in the entry way of your room (so as not to damage the delicate tatami mats), and enjoying a hot spring bath, called an onsen, after dinner. A word of warning, though - many of the people working at true ryokans do not speak English, but this just adds to the flavour of the authentic experience.

Hanayashiki Ryokan

On one trip to Japan, we set aside one night to stay at a famous ryokan in Uji, Kyoto, called Hanayashiki. After spending several days in luxurious western-style accommodation in Kyoto, my first impression of the room was definitely a culture shock. Ryokans in general bring new meaning to the word minimalist; just entering one feels like you are leaving the modern world behind and returning to a bygone era steeped in tradition rather than comfort. There's almost a religious feel to it, where the serenity forces you to drop the tone of your voice a notch or two. The room we had booked was spacious, warm, softly lit and ultimately spartan. In the middle of a floor adorned with a beautiful mosaic of beige coloured tatami mats, was a low level wooden table and two legless chairs with cushions; that was basically it! But this isn't a room designed for lounging in front of a flat screen TV, tapping away on a computer, or making phone calls. It's an oasis away from the bustle of modern life, and a place to relax and reconnect. And you don't need a lot of pretty furniture for that. The expansive view of the Uji River, the calming sound of running water, and the pink hue of early cherry blossoms outside the window below quickly demands your attention.

The Ritual Of Dining 

Dinner and breakfast were included at this ryokan, and for dinner there are options. You can choose to eat in the privacy of your room, in the restaurant, or if you are part of a group, in one of the ryokan's private rooms. In your room or a private room, the seating is traditional Japanese using a low level table and legless chairs with cushions. Once you get used to sitting on the floor, it's surprisingly comfortable, and you can sit either the way the Japanese do, with your feet tucked under you, or with your legs crossed. Dinner is a set-menu smorgasbord in typical Japanese style, with a healthy focus on fish and vegetables. A large number of small courses are served over a long period time, including miso soup, sashimi, steamed fish and tofu, hot pot, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit. The emphasis is on local, fresh produce, always freshly cooked and delicious. The following morning, breakfast can be taken in your room or in the restaurant, and is also traditional Japanese featuring fish of some kind and rice among other things. And it's perfectly acceptable to wear your kimono to enjoy it. 

The Ritual Of Onsen 

After dinner in a ryokan, it is traditional to enjoy the onsen, or hot baths. Japan is famous for its many hot springs which are underground, warmed volcanically, and rise to the surface naturally heated. Many ryokans cluster around these springs as they are used for therapeutic purposes as well as for relaxation. In some ryokans, however, the baths aren't derived from hot springs but simple large tubs. Although some ryokans provide an individual bath for each guest room, or for family use, mostly they are communal with separate ones for men and women. You go along in your kimono, remembering to bring the modesty towel from your room with you, and you undress in a dressing room before entering the bath. If you are not comfortable with nudity, it's acceptable to wear a swimsuit. There is a certain etiquette surrounding onsen in Japan, however. One is that you should wash yourself properly before entering the tub. The bath is surrounded by a lot of washing stations, which commonly have a mirror, a hand-held shower head, soap, shampoo and a stool to sit on, and Japanese people usually wash themselves sitting down.

Would I Like It?

Spending one night at a ryokan offers western visitors to Japan a wonderful opportunity to step back in time, embrace tradition and custom, and enjoy a multi-faceted slice of Japanese culture in one experience. It is truly essential for anyone who wants to experience the true essence of Japan. For more information visit


Joanna Hall


  • 5
    Loved It

    Posted by ShirleyK on 20th Nov 2018

    I have stayed at a place like this outside of Tokyo and it was a brilliant experience from the food to the onsen. Would highly recommend it, just don't forget your modesty towel and don't plan on sleeping much if you're not used to a futon bed!

  • 5
    Want To Do This Next Time

    Posted by Jenny on 20th Nov 2018

    My partner and I visit Japan at least once every 18 months....we love it.....but we have never done this. I always thought unless you speak Japanese it might be difficult. I am inspired now to make sure we allocate a couple of day somewhere cool like Kyoto to have this experience. Thanks for sharing Ultimate Travel!