A View of the Ryokan
Traditional Japanese inns, or ryokans, originated in the Edo period (1603-1868), but are still alive and well today in the island nation, allowing modern day travelers to experience centuries-old customs, like sleeping on a futon on the floor of a tatami (straw mat) guestroom, changing into a typical Yukata robe while enjoying fresh matcha tea upon arrival, and soaking in the luxury of an ancient onsen (hot springs) after an authentic Japanese dinner.
Japanophiles are extremely well versed in the distinct accommodation style, but a ryokan can throw any first-timer for a loop. Like most things in traditional Japanese culture, a ryokan can seem rigid and intimidating at first, with an ancient procedure of etiquette and punctuality, but these inns boast an age-old reputation for comfort and relaxation that's easy to warm up to. However, knowing just a few things before arriving at a ryokan will help quell any anxieties or uncertainties.
Getting into the Ryokan
On arrival at the ryokan, visitors should not expect to head straight to their room and throw their bags down. Guests are greeted with a traditional welcome tea ceremony, customarily led by the owner or manager of the inn. After a nice cup of matcha (a frothy green tea) and maybe a small homemade confection, uniformed hosts guide guests to their rooms, showing them into a pair of traditional wooden sandals, or geta, at the room's threshold (no shoes are allowed inside the tatami-mat floor) and then dressing guests in a Japanese Yukata, a less formal, kimono-like robe. When guests are wrapped in the comfortable cotton robe, some will notice there isn't a bed in the room. Don't worry, it will be here soon.
A Traditional Dinner Ryokan Style
Dinner is held at a predetermined hour and is served in traditional kaiseki ryori style, which consists of more than a dozen small courses and elaborate local specialties, ranging from freshly caught crab from the nearby Sea of Japan, to tempura-fried tofu and sweet plum wine. During the dinner service, ryokan staff slip into guests' rooms to set up a plush futon bed in the middle of the sparse tatami-mat floor.
More Traditional Ryokan Experience
But before bed, don't forget to experience another ryokan trademark"”onsite hot springs, or onsen, revered sources of rejuvenation and relaxation that have been enjoyed by the Japanese for centuries. The natural geothermal baths can be open-aired in the scenic outdoors, segmented into separate indoor pools and tubs or a combination of the two. Each ryokan and onsen is different, but, for the most part, the baths are gender specific and bathing suits are not allowed. Visitors are also required to rinse and wash their body at a small shower station before entering the onsen. It might seem unnatural to disrobe in front of a room full of strangers as you wash your body before entering for a meditative soak in the springs, but the inherent discretion of fellow bathers create an inviting, comfortable atmosphere. After your first dip, you won't give it a second thought.
There are thousands of ryokan throughout Japan, but the western Hokuriku region, famous for its committed legacy of traditional culture, is the perfect place to visit a ryokan for the first time. Discover a modern interpretation, like the five-star luxury boutique, Hoshinoya Kyoto, which imbues the traditional spirit of a ryokan without skimping on the luxury trappings of Western resorts. Or experience Ishikawa Prefecture's Hoshi Ryokan"”the world's oldest operating hotel and ryokan, according to the Guinness World Book of Records. After an astounding 1,300 years of business, passed down through 46 generations of family, it's safe to say they know what they're doing.
Ramona Flume is an Austin-based travel writer and photographer, whose work has been featured in several print and online publications, including Budget Travel, The Guardian and Jetsetter.com.