20 Jun 23

What to expect in a traditional Japanese ryokan

Sam McCrow Japan

Ryokans offer one of the best ways to experience the culture and traditions of real Japan. The older and more traditional accommodations are family-run Japanese inns and are tied intrinsically with the culture’s deep respect for omotenashi (hospitality). They typically have around 5 rooms for guests. Many ryokans have a long line of family history and undoubtedly would have fascinating stories to tell of past travellers – if only the walls and big wooden beams could talk!

There are also some larger, newer and somewhat more modern ryokans, usually still family owned and operated, and some of which may look more like a hotel from the outside. Once inside, they will also typically feature tatami mat flooring, have shoji sliding doors, futon beds and multi-course kaiseki meals. Yukata robes are also provided for your stay. 

With our Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo Way walks you will have the wonderful experience of staying in ryokans. Here’s everything you need to know.

Origins

The first ryokan, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan (in the Alps between Nagano and Shizuoka), was founded in 705 A.D. It is considered the oldest hotel in the world.  Ryokans flourished during the Edo period (1603–1868) as trade increased between the capital city Edo (now Tokyo) and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Today, there are more than 50,000 ryokans in Japan.

Architecture

Ryokans come in many sizes and styles. Built using natural materials like wood, bamboo, and tatami mats, they often blend into their surroundings. The interiors tend to be minimalist in design and many will have a Zen garden, promoting  a sense of tranquillity. Many of the older ryokans may have a narrow staircase to the higher floor/s so limiting the size and weight of your luggage is advisable. Often you may be required to carry your own luggage to/from your room. 

Tatami mat rooms

A defining feature of ryokans is the traditional tatami mat rooms. These rooms are adorned with woven straw mats and minimalist decor. As you enter a ryokan you will find a place to store your outdoor shoes in exchange for some slippers for inside. You will then be required to remove your slippers before stepping onto the tatami flooring and further embracing the Japanese tradition with floor seating, low tables and cushions used for dining and relaxation.

In the evening, futon mattresses (large singles) may be laid out for you before bedtime while you are at dinner, creating a cosy sleeping space. Or at some ryokans, you may be left to lay them out yourself. Soft duvets are provided along with pillows (which are often quite hard, so you may like to bring some kind of soft travel pillow). Sleeping on a futon can be a new and different experience for those accustomed to traditional Western-style beds. 

Culinary artistry

In ryokans, elaborate multi-course meals known as kaiseki are often included, showcasing the culinary artistry of professional chefs. Each meticulously prepared dish is a work of art, combining seasonal ingredients and flavours. Kaiseki traces its roots back to the traditional tea ceremonies of the 16th century, where light meals were served to complement the tea-drinking experience. Over time, it evolved into a sophisticated dining tradition.

Kaiseki is a meticulously planned progression of courses, each offering a distinct flavour, presentation, and cooking technique. The number of courses can vary, typically ranging from 6 to 15. The meal starts with a series of appetizers known as sakizuke, followed by a soup course called suimono. The main courses, mukozuke and yakimono, showcase seafood and grilled dishes, respectively. The meal culminates with a rice or noodle dish called shokuji and ends with a refreshing dessert, mizumono.

The meals you are served along your Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way journey are truly one of the highlights you’ll experience. It’s a good idea to learn the correct etiquette for using chopsticks, which you can read about here.

Yukuta and obi

During your stay, you will have the opportunity to wear a yukata, a traditional, lightweight and comfortable kimono-style robe usually made of cotton. Yukatas are vibrant and colourful. The patterns often include motifs of nature, such as flowers, plants and animals, reflecting Japan’s deep reverence for its natural surroundings.

Yukatas are provided by most accommodations you will stay at through your walk. On arrival you will be given your yukata set, which includes an obi (belt), a jacket and sometimes socks. Yukatas function both as a bathrobe and loungewear and can be worn to dinner, breakfast and around town. You can read here to learn the correct way to dress in a yukata. Wearing a yukata at a ryokan is more than just donning a comfortable garment; it demonstrates respect for the ryokan’s customs and rituals connecting you with centuries of tradition. 

Onsen

A number of the ryokans you’ll stay at during your walk will have a natural hot spring for bathing. Onsens have long been an integral part of Japanese culture and the ryokans in which you stay will have a separate bathing area for men and women, or they may be between scheduled times. 

Formed by volcanic activity, Japan boasts a multitude of these geo-thermally heated mineral-rich baths, renowned for their therapeutic properties. Onsen not only offer relaxation but are also believed to cure ailments and rejuvenate the body and mind. While the thought of baring all in a communal bathing space may initially evoke feelings of unease or awkwardness, it’s advisable to throw caution to the wind as you may discover it’s a highlight of your experience. Following a good day’s hike, onsen really do work wonders in aiding recovery.

Before entering the actual hot spring, you need to follow the ‘pre-bathing ritual’. This includes thoroughly washing and rinsing your body while sitting on a stool. You are also provided with a small towel. This towel can be used for modesty when moving between bathing areas. Tattoos are often not allowed due to their historical association with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicates, however, you will be fine along the Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way unless you have particularly large or somewhat ‘angry’ looking tattoos. (Please discuss this with one of our Japan consultants if this applies to you.)

Minshuku

Minshuku are similar to ryokans but more like a bed and breakfast. They are usually only found in small villages and rural areas where hotels and ryokans are not needed. They are generally a family home and may have just 2 or 3 rooms available for guests. Like ryokans, they provide a very traditional experience and an opportunity to connect with some hospitable locals.

Samantha McCrow

Written By

Samantha McCrow

Sam is an seasoned hiker and travel writer with 20+ years experience as a content and marketing specialist. She started out as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks and now regularly shares stories and insights about the world's most iconic and rewarding hiking trails.

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