Many first-time and repeat visitors to Japan have a list of must-see and do activities, and understandably so. But whether or not you’ve already observed the foot traffic at Shibuya Crossing, meditated at a Zen temple, or picnicked under the cherry blossoms, one thing should absolutely top your list: staying at a ryokan.
Ryokan (the word is both singular and plural) are Japanese-style traditional inns, known predominantly for their tatami (straw mat) floors and paper sliding doors, called fusuma. A part of Japanese culture since the start of the Nara period in the early 8th century, a ryokan is one of the most authentic kinds of accommodation you can find anywhere in the world today.
It’s not just architecture and decor that makes ryokan quintessentially Japanese—the amenities, cuisine, fashion, and extreme hospitality, called omotenashi, provide an experience unlike any you’d find at a hotel, no matter how luxurious.
Here at Journy, we've planned custom itineraries for thousands of Japan travelers—so we know a thing or two about cultural etiquette, dining, onsens, and more...essentially everything you'd need to know before embarking on this quintessential Japanese experience for yourself.
Experiencing Omotenashi: Arriving At The Ryokan
From the moment you step foot inside a ryokan, it’s made clear that the staff is there to serve you. Not in the way you’d think a butler or personal assistant might, but rather a gracious family member who’s thrilled to welcome you into their home, and happy to go out of their way to make you comfortable—almost like it’s their life calling. This might seem over-the-top to some Westerners, but in Japan, it’s simply omotenashi. You won’t come away feeling spoiled so much as amazed by and grateful for the warmth, dedication, and attention to detail that the Japanese possess.
Upon arrival, prepare to be greeted by several people, likely including the okami, the person in charge; depending on the ryokan’s size, this might be the owner or the general manager. Prepare also for regular greetings, and, if you wish, polite conversation throughout your stay.
During your initial greeting (or potentially even before), you’ll be expected to take off your shoes. Bid them farewell for now, because you likely won’t see or need them for the rest of your stay, unless you’ll be leaving the onsen resort town. Rather than wear the shoes that touched the ground outside (a huge no-no in Japan), you’ll be given a pair of slippers (often a rubber sandal-type shoe) to wear around the ryokan inside.
The slippers have been previously used by others and are sometimes communal. If that seems unappealing, simply be sure to wear socks. The pairing of socks and sandals may be an unpopular trend in the West, but it’s quite common in Japan. Traditionally, the Japanese will wear toe socks, called tabi, at the ryokan; a new, complimentary pair may be provided in your room for you to wear and keep.
Traditional Comfort: Inside The Guest Room
Ryokan guest rooms are spacious and low to the ground. Rather than the elevated couches, tables, and chairs you’re likely accustomed to in the West, your room will be outfitted with floor cushions and/or legless chairs. Because it’s traditional to spend more time sitting low than standing up, the interior of the room is designed to be best viewed from ground level. To get a good sense for what the room looks like (or to take pictures), be sure to kneel down or sit.
Again, your shoes (the provided slippers!) should be immediately taken off upon entering. There will likely be a small foyer just inside the doorway for you to leave them, or you may leave them just outside. Depending on the size and layout of your room, you may be provided with another pair of slippers to wear inside the room. It’s also perfectly acceptable to walk around your room barefoot or in your socks. Slippers should never be worn on tatami mats—if you do wear a pair inside the room, stick to using them on hard floors only.
There will also be yet another pair of slippers by the toilet. Toilets are usually in a separate room from the rest of the private bathroom amenities, like the sink and shower, and require their own designated pair of shoes. Before using the toilet, slip off the slippers you were wearing, leave them outside the door, and put on the bathroom slippers. It may seem a bit silly to put on a new pair of slippers for the one-to-two steps it takes to get to the toilet, but this is common practice throughout the country and a true example of Japan’s specific sense of cleanliness.
The toilet itself is a marvel: many ryokan toilets can feel like high-end robots. Expect not only a standard bidet, but specific bidets for every part of the body you might imagine could benefit from a post-bathroom washing. The seats are often heated, self-flushing and cleaning, and may even play music or lovely nature sounds while you “take care of business.” There will be a panel of buttons to press to utilize the different features, labeled in Japanese with some picture graphics. Be ready to press a few of the buttons as you figure out which activate which features.
When it comes to sleeping in a traditional ryokan, you will likely be provided with Japanese futon-style bedding on the tatami mat floor. It may be set up already when you arrive, or housekeeping will come by in the afternoon or evening to lay it out for you. The futon bedding consists of thick, plush, padded blankets to lay on, and is far more comfortable than laying in a sleeping bag on the floor ever was. That said, it’s certainly not the bed you may be used to back home. Luckily, more and more ryokan across Japan—especially in the luxury sector—provide room options with Western-style beds, in case you find sleeping on the floor unappealing. Just let your personal trip designer know if this is something you'd prefer, and s/he can arrange accordingly!
Onsen Town Fashion: What To Wear
In addition to the indoor slippers and tabi socks, ryokan guests are provided with the most important piece of Japanese resort town fashion: a yukata. A lightweight, cotton kimono, the yukata is to be worn around the ryokan—especially to the onsen and to dinner—and around town by men and women alike. It consists of an open robe (no buttons or fastens) and sash, called an obi, to tie at your hips or waist. Your ryokan may offer one standard sized yukata, or a few options in slightly different sizes. The size differences mostly have to do with length; ideally, your yukata should hit just above your ankles. (If it’s too long, use the obi to fold over some of the fabric.) Depending on your body type, it’s likely that any yukata will feel oversized compared to typical Western clothing.
Though you should certainly dress to your comfort level, it’s standard to wear only undergarments underneath your yukata, even when in the ryokan’s public spaces. It’s important that when putting on your yukata, you fold the right side of the robe under the left side; the reverse is done only for burial when someone passes away. Like a standard hotel’s bathrobe, the yukata is to be used during your time in the ryokan, and then left. If you’d like to bring it home with you, you can inquire with the staff about purchasing one.
Your ryokan may also provide a jacket to be worn over your yukata, and/or traditional Japanese pajamas for you to wear during your stay. You may sleep in your yukata.
If you’d like to explore the area outside and around your ryokan, you will likely also be provided with an outdoor pair of shoes. Called geta, the standard shoes look like wooden flip-flop clogs, and you can wear them with the tabi socks. Men’s geta are traditionally square, while women’s are traditionally rounded.
(Although it’s important to note that many Japanese have smaller stature than Westerners; as a female of typically “average” height and shoe-size, I often can only fit into men’s geta—this is okay. I also hit my head on a couple doorframes when exploring shops outside of the ryokan, so make sure to pay attention.)
Local Cuisine: Dining At The Ryokan
More closely related to a Western bed and breakfast than a traditional hotel, ryokan are known for their excellent dining. Your ryokan may allow you to purchase different dining packages (à la carte, breakfast included, or breakfast and dinner included), or have one standard practice. Regardless, many ryokan guests enjoy their meals at the property, rather than leaving to go out to eat.
You’ll likely have the option of eating in an on-site dining room or being served directly in your room. The cuisine will be very traditional and local to the specific region you’re staying in; don’t expect sushi or ramen so much as kaiseki-style fresh meats and fish, and, of course, plenty of rice.
If your ryokan has a teppanyaki restaurant, dining at least once at the grill is an absolute must. (Note: we typically see this billed as “hibachi” style in the West, but that is actually the name of a type of grill used. Teppanyaki is the name of the style of food, and a more accurate description.) It’s very fun to watch, and the food is fresh with a capital F. Warning: if you order certain seafoods (some shellfish or mollusks), it may be cooked live in front of you. The Japanese do this to showcase the freshness (it’s quite literally sea-to-table!), but it can be a jarring thing to see if you’re not expecting it, or even if you are.
If you travel with Journy, we'll handle all reservations for you. After all, food and beverage experiences are where we shine. With an exclusive network of local Japanese chefs, sommeliers, and experts to source all the latest and greatest recommendations from, we ensure you don't miss out on a thing.
Relaxing In The Onsen: Hot Spring Baths
Perhaps the biggest draw of staying at a ryokan might be an on-site or nearby onsen. Onsens are public (think: similar to the pools and jacuzzis in a spa) or private (think: a plunge/soaking pool or tub in your room) open-air baths, heated to deliciously high temperatures by nearby natural hot springs. Ryokan and onsens go hand-in-hand, and the majority of ryokan are built next to or nearby local hot springs.
If there is an onsen outdoor bath on-site at your Japanese ryokan, use of it will be included in your stay. Depending on the property, it may be reserved exclusively for guests, or day passes may be available for others to purchase. The public baths will be divided by gender. While in many spas around the world, you may be allowed to dress/undress to your comfort level (e.g., given the option to wear a bathing suit), in Japan, you are expected and required to disrobe completely before using the public baths. Wearing a bathing suit is actually considered unsanitary! Don’t worry—everyone is required to shower before getting into the baths.
One particular thing to make note of is that persons with tattoos may not be allowed in the public baths. There is a high stigma against tattoos in Japan; historically, the only people to have them were gang (yakuza) members. More contemporary onsens may allow you to use the public baths if you have a tattoo, but they may “warn” the guests already inside, so they are not surprised or offended to see you there. If you have tattoos and are planning to stay at a more traditional property, or want to avoid the awkwardness, look for ryokan with private onsens, so you can enjoy the hot springs on your own terms. This is also a good option if you’re not comfortable being nude in front of others.
Where To Stay: Choosing Your Ryokan
While it’s certainly possible to find and book a ryokan near a popular destination like Tokyo, there’s a good chance it’ll be overpriced and less authentic. For most, a ryokan is not simply an accommodation to stay in at a destination, it is the destination itself. The best ones can be found in more rural parts of Japan, surrounded by gorgeous nature. You won’t need more than a day or two to properly experience all a ryokan has to offer, so plan to spend that time specifically in an onsen town.
The Setouchi region of Japan (a four-hour train ride or 90-minute flight from Tokyo, three-hour drive from Kyoto, and two-hour drive from Osaka) has an excellent selection of luxury ryokans and onsens, including Ōtani Sansō and Bettei Otozure Ryokan in Nagato, Yamaguchi.
In Matsuyama, Ehime, be sure to visit Dōgo Onsen, one of the oldest and most famous onsens in all of Japan and beloved by Japanese royalty. While it is currently undergoing renovations, it’s still open, and there is also a new annex facility around the corner to help accommodate the large number of visitors. There is no ryokan on-site, but plenty nearby.
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Hayakawa, Yamanashi and Hōshi Ryokan in Komatsu, Ishikawa are the two oldest hotels in the entire world. In addition to a lovely stay, bragging rights are certainly guaranteed.
And if you're looking for a hideout amongst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Hoshinoya is for you.
Regardless of where you stay, the best ryokans will book out well in advance. Turn to Journy for help locking down a reservation at your ideal guesthouse in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Hokkaido, Kanazawa, and beyond—complete with the best kaiseki dinners, private gardens, and, if you're lucky, a view of Mt. Fuji to boot.