Of all my travels, my trip to Japan stands out as the one that surprised, unsettled, and amazed me the most. Out of everything I did during my stay in Japan, my experience in a ryokan is one of the souvenirs I remember most vividly. There was a long list of things I wanted to do while I was in Japan, but staying at a ryokan was at the very top, and it’s the experience that I spent the longest pondering. What kind of ryokan should we choose—modern or traditional? Should we go for a city or a country ryokan? Are we expecting a natural onsen (hot spring) on site? Is an elaborate kaiseiki (multi-course) dinner a priority?
But what is a ryokan, exactly? In short, it’s a traditional Japanese inn. But if upon hearing the word “inn” you imagine a rustic, cozy accommodation with friendly hosts and voluble guests, you’re in for a surprise. Staying at a ryokan is a widely different experience than staying in a hotel, and you should definitely be aware of the ryokan etiquette if you consider visiting one. The following tips should help you prepare for a stay you’ll most likely remember for a lifetime.
Choosing a Ryokan
There are ryokans all over Japan, some located in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto and others located in the country. Country ryokans are often located in areas that feature breathtaking scenery that change through the seasons. If you can spare the time to reach a country ryokan, you should do it, as I feel that they offer a more immersive experience. You’ll also witness a slower, lower-tech side of Japan that you may not get to see otherwise.
A pedestrian street bordering a canal in Sanzen-in, Ohara.
Steps leading to the Sanzen-in Temple and the Seryo ryokan, an hour north of Kyoto.
The ryokan we stayed at is called Seryo, located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto. We chose this ryokan because it’s close to several smaller and less crowded but magnificent temples (including the historic thousand-year-old Sanzenin Temple) and because a natural hot spring feeds the local ryokan hot baths. We felt that the location offered a great combination of sightseeing and an off-the-tourist-path journey.
Seryo, a traditional ryokan located in the Ohara region, an hour north of Kyoto.
A view of the ryokan’s garden.
The orderly entrance of the ryokan.
If your travel schedule doesn’t allow you to venture away to the country for a day or two, a stay in a city ryokan is still very much worth it. City ryokans feel like peaceful enclaves that make you forget all about the hustle and bustle of the city. Don’t know where to start looking? Kyoto is renowned for its kaiseiki cuisine and gorgeous historic architecture, two qualities that make it the perfect place to enjoy a ryokan experience.
Ryokans vary from modest to luxurious. Some include dinner and breakfast with the stay, others give you the flexibility to eat elsewhere. Some require a two-night-stay minimum, while others don’t have such restrictions. Before choosing a ryokan, you should evaluate your budget and priorities (décor, comfort level, food, hot springs, etc.) There are options for all budgets and interests, but you can easily splurge on a ryokan stay. High-end all-inclusive options can easily cost upwards of $500 per person for one night, which is very pricey, but considering the quality and intricacy of the food served, the extremely attentive level of service offered, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience it provides, it might very well be one of the best investments of your trip.
My pre-trip research revealed that you can get an outstanding experience for about $180-250 per person per night, one that will provide exceptional comfort, food, facilities, and surroundings. Ryokans with higher rates add luxury amenities (in-room hot baths, suites, etc.), exceptional scenery (historic sites, sprawling views, etc.), or a celebrity chef-driven kitchen to the mix.
The serene sitting area of our guestroom at Seryo ryokan.
The best view I’ve ever had from any hotel room I’ve ever stayed at. This gorgeous pond was litterally a step down from our room. I still dream about it.
What to Expect at a Ryokan
Atmosphere: The atmosphere at a ryokan is one that encourages reflection and relaxation. Don’t come in a party state-of-mind! You should keep voice levels low at all times. Out of respect for other guests, you should be particularly mindful when outside your room, and it goes without saying that you shouldn’t talk on your cell phone in public spaces (you should, in fact, turn the thing off for the duration of your stay). Think of a ryokan like a health spa or retreat.
Check-In/Check-Out Times: The check-in and check-out times at a ryokan are similar to a hotel’s (check-in around 3pm, checkout around 11am). There is so much to explore and appreciate when staying at a ryokan (enjoying the manicured gardens, savoring the carefully prepared meals, taking one or several baths, and having a quiet tea in your own room) that it might be a good idea to plan to stay for two nights. We only stayed for one night at Seryo, and I wish we had booked two. It felt like we blinked and it was over. I would have loved to have more time to enjoy the premises and its relaxing atmosphere. Since you probably won’t get to go back to a ryokan anytime soon, carefully consider whether you can spare the time and money to stay for two nights.
Room: Don’t look for beds when you first enter your ryokan room because there are none (yet!). Most ryokan rooms are set up as minimalist tearooms during the day. Enjoy the extra space, and don’t worry: the ryokan staff will set up your beds while you are out for dinner. Speaking of beds, note that most ryokans will have you sleep on the floor—on super comfortable futon mattresses, that is. I can assure you that most travelers sleep extremely well on the kind of plush Japanese futons that are installed in ryokans, but those with limited mobility should enquire for accommodations offering Western-style beds.
A minimalist guestroom during the day.
Comfy futons set up for the night.
Dress Code: Upon arrival, you will be asked to remove your shoes and trade them for slippers to wear around the property. You can wear slippers with or without socks, but note that you must take the slippers off before stepping on tatami mats (i.e., in your room or in the dining room). Separate “toilet slippers” are provided to wear in the bathroom. In your room, you will be provided with a yukata—a lightweight cotton kimono—which you can wear anywhere around the ryokan (including in the dining room). Just make sure that you put it on the right way! Some ryokans provide instructions, but you can also see this guide if you want to be prepared.
Shoes remain off at all times inside a ryokan. At Seryo ryokan, guests simply leave them at the front door.
About Hot Spring Baths (Onsen)
Baths filled with natural hot spring water are a major ryokan draw. The benefits of bathing in hot spring water are said to be numerous, from stimulating circulation to healing injuries (if the water contains certain minerals). Onsen are everywhere in Japan, so Japanese people have been enthusiastic hot spring bathers for hundreds of years. The etiquette regarding bathing in an onsen can surprise or even baffle Western visitors. In short:
- Wash yourself before entering the hot spring baths. The baths are shared, so they need to remain clean! The onsen changing room always features a showering area with soap and shampoo. Make sure that you rinse yourself thoroughly and completely after using soap and shampoo.
- Know that you will bathe in the nude, and there’s a good chance you’ll do so with strangers. Bathing suits are forbidden. You can use a towel to cover yourself until you reach the bath, but you cannot dip towels into the baths. This is usually the thing that makes Westerners most uncomfortable, but rest assured that nobody will stare at you. If you are not at ease with the idea of skinny-dipping with strangers, look for a ryokan that also has private hot spring baths.
- Enquire about the ryokan’s tattoo policy. In Japan, tattoos are often still associated with organized crime, so visitors with tattoos can be banned from using shared baths. It may seem discriminatory, but better be informed than sorry.
- Be aware that hot spring baths are very hot. I thought I loved hot baths, but onsen water is really hot. The water can naturally reach 100ºC (211ºF), so you should only dip for short periods of time. I could not stand remaining more than a couple minutes in at a time! If you have any health issue or condition that could make it dangerous to bathe in such hot waters, by all means, stay out of the onsen!
- Act like a civilized person. Don’t bathe drunk. Don’t take pictures. Don’t scream or run around the baths. In other words, don’t be the obnoxious visitor that gives tourists a bad name.
The outside hot spring bath (on the women’s side) at Seryo ryokan.
The women’s bathroom at Seryo ryokan. Before entering a hot spring bath, guests are expected to sit on a stool, wash their bodies and hair with the products provided, then thoroughly rinse themselves using the shower head and the tub.
For more information about onsen and how to bathe in Japanese hot springs, see the following articles:
- Tips on Enjoying Japan’s Hot Springs
- Healing waters: The Japanese Onsen Experience
- Improve and Maintain Health with Onsen
About the Food Served at a Ryokan
Ryokans traditionally serve kaiseiki, a multi-course dinner that can include up to 15 dishes. The chef of a ryokan takes pride in serving seasonal, local foods, so the menu changes many times throughout the year. The plating is amazingly intricate: kaiseiki is in fact considered an art form that aims at creating the perfect balance of taste, texture, appearance, and color. Dishes are presented on plates that are carefully selected to enhance the appearance and seasonality of the food. Each course truly looks like a work of art!
A preview of a fall kaiseiki dinner at Seryo ryokan.
Now is not the time to wrinkle your nose if you don’t recognize what’s on your plate or if you can’t quite understand the server’s description of the dish. This happened to us repeatedly: at first, we made the server repeat herself, but then we realized that we just had never heard of most of the ingredients, so how could we memorize or understand what was told to us? I wish I had asked for a written menu (there usually isn’t one since it changes so often), but at least I have pictures to remember the experience. Come with an open mind, and let the creative and wonderful combinations of textures, flavors, and colors overwhelm your senses.
Some ryokans serve meals right in your guestroom, making for a uniquely private experience. Others have a dining room, where you will go to have dinner and breakfast. If meals are served in a dining room, it usually is done in one sitting, so make sure that you are on time. By on time, I mean early. At Seryo, dinner was served at 6pm. We were heading out at 5:58pm when the phone rang: it was the manager advising that they were waiting for us. Never did we understand how much the Japanese appreciate precision and punctuality more than at that moment! We ran to the dining room to discover all the other patrons (the vast majority of whom were Japanese) were already seated with their first course served.
Although the number of dishes included in a kaiseiki may seem intimidating, the portions are very small. Service is efficient—speedy, even; an empty plate never remains more than a minute in front of you, and the next course arrives while you take a sip of tea. Many dishes can be served at once; if so, the server explains the order in which you should eat them. Drinks (besides tea) are not included with the meal, but you can order them for an extra fee. If you want something to drink, be prepared to order it as soon as you sit down for dinner because service won’t wait for you to ponder whether you should have a beer or a carafe of sake.
For a detailed description of dishes typically included in a kaiseiki meal, see this guide.
Seryo ryokan’s outside terrace, where dinner can be served if the weather is right.
Breakfast is a spread of traditional Japanese morning treats. Don’t expect croissants and jam: the Japanese like their mornings savory. The meal typically includes rice, miso soup, pickles, fish, seasonal vegetables, and tea. At Seryo, because we were in the Kyoto region—the Japanese capital of tofu—we were also served deliciously silken tofu served in a clear dashi broth, slowly heated on a burner set right on our table. It was a real treat, but I admit I that ordered an extra coffee—I needed something more familiar to enjoy this breakfast that was so dramatically different from my usual peanut butter and jelly toast. Like dinner, breakfast time is set in advance, and you should make sure you’re on time (or a few minutes early). For a more detailed explanation of dishes that are typically included in a ryokan breakfast, see this guide. (Note that some ryokans do offer Western-style breakfasts; inquire before booking if this is one of your requirements.)
A typical ryokan breakfast spread.
When in Kyoto, have yummy silken tofu!
If you’re lucky enough to travel to Japan, I think you should make room in your schedule to book a stay at a ryokan. It’s a unique way to experience traditional Japanese rituals, enjoy the quiet beauty of Japanese architecture, and immerse yourself in everything that makes the Japanese culture so rich and unique. I dream of the day I get to go back—until then, I’ll keep on looking at my pictures and try to evoke some of the serenity I found at Seryo right here at home.
- Seryo: The Ohara, Kyoto ryokan were we stayed in Japan
- Ryokan Collection: This site showcasing the cream of the crop. It’s the Relais & Châteaux of ryokans.
- Japanese Guest Houses: An independent booking site that also provide lots of information about the ryokan etiquette, hot springs, and Japan tourism.
- Japan Ryokan & Hotel Association: This site provides very detailed information about ryokans: what to do and how to behave, the food you will be served and how to eat it, the benefits of hot spring baths, the role of each person working in a ryokan, etc. Their four-language PDF guide to staying at a ryokan (complete with illustrations and diagrams) is especially useful.