Traveling to Japan is truly like stepping back in time with the traditions, history and majestic culture that fills the air, and staying in a ryokan really does offer the sense of time travel that many foreigners seek while traveling in Japan.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn that are locally run. Travelers are welcomed in with a warm sense of hospitality and a large appetite. Like any culture, Japan comes with rules and guidelines that are unfamiliar to many foreigners, specifically in ryokans. In today’s blog we will outline many of the rules that are not so obvious to the typical traveler.
First, shoes are strictly forbidden inside of the ryokan. Tatami mats are fragile, and shoes can easily damage them so it’s important to remove your shoes when you enter. This rule is easy to observe, as there are typically obvious places where your shoes are kept near the front door, as well as slippers that are waiting for you to wear as you enter.
These slippers are given upon entrance into the ryokan and are appropriate to wear on the wooden floors as you walk around. However, they should be removed when entering any room with tatami mat floors. When entering a bathroom you must take off your slippers and slide into the bathroom slippers that are often near the toilet or inside the stall. Once you are finished, you must again slide out of the bathroom slippers (leaving them where you found them) and back into the house slippers. Confusing, I know. It is very important not to wear the bathroom slippers anywhere else in the ryokan.
Dinner is typically served at a specific time. It has been lovingly prepared and is ready to be eaten as soon as you sit, so don’t be late. At least ten little dishes are sitting in front of you, each with something small yet tasty inside. 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. This is taboo, as it is what the Japanese do during funerals.
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. Upon entering the bath area remove your slippers. 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.
All ryokans will have a yukata for you in your room. These are like Japanese style robes that can be worn at all times inside (and oftentimes even outside) of the ryokan. You can change into the yukata to be more comfortable during dinner and walking around the ryokan. It is certainly not required that you wear your yukata, but since you are in Japan….why not?
There are many other fun quirks and small customs that you will come across in a ryokan, but the above are just to give you a basic understanding of what to expect. As housing foreigners has become more and more common in Japan, the ryokan staff have become understanding and forgiving of those who are not as familiar with the traditions and expectations. Staying in a ryokan is quite a unique experience, and one that many are eager to try. So come to Japan and experience lovely hospitality and delicious food while enjoying the pleasures of staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan.