For travelers who want more to their Japan experience than high-end eateries and Harajuku oddities, the ryokan has arisen as the choice for discerning travelers.
“A combination of unique opportunities such as private hot springs, Japanese cuisine, and cultural nuances from the architecture, materials, and design aesthetic create a cultural perspective vastly removed from any guests will find elsewhere,” says Sachiko Nakamichi, owner and Maitresse de Maison of the Beniya Mukayu – a luxury ryokan outside of Kanazawa “This is why ryokans are so special and have an allure for foreign travelers and Japanese alike.”
However, for Western travelers to truly enjoy their ryokan experience, there are a few pieces of advice of which guests should avail themselves before their stay.
ENJOY THE MINIMALISM
For travelers used to finery in 5-star hotels, the amenities of a ryokan can at first seem a trifle empty. There is very little furniture or art in rooms because the aesthetic of the carefully designed room and even the noises of the surrounding nature are the highlight.
“When ryokans strip away anything unnecessary this allows the guest to embrace time filled with freedom,” Sachiko Nakamichi tells Travelogues. “This is the concept we adhere to at Beniya Mukayu, allowing guests to enjoy their own time and explore the freedom they find themselves gifted with. […] This is a question of ryokans offering guests a perspective of freedom from routines and unconstrained from […] distractions.”
The genesis of the minimalist designs found in Japanese ryokans has an abiding history.
“The origin of Japanese minimalism culture is started with tea ceremonies back in the Muromachi-era,” says Hiroto Takegaki from Gora Kadan, a luxury ryokan in Hakone. “In our ryokan we respect those traditions and culture.”
DRESS THE PART
It is not the act of wearing that is important, but the embracing of new experiences.
The first requirements of a ryokan are sartorial: never wear shoes past the entry area. There is typically a small foyer where guests can remove shoes and replace them with slippers. Slippers in Japan should be worn with socks, often a simple white sock that tucks into the cleft of a traditional sandal.
“It is not the act of wearing that is important but the embracing of new experiences. Guests who do embrace these requirements find the experience to be uplifting and indeed rather fun,” Sachiko Nakamichi says. “Embracing sartorial requirements such as yukata and sandals during a stay in ryokans is a unique and cultural experience.”
The yukata is a light cotton robe provided for travelers while at ryokans, which guests can feel free to wear around the property and at meals. The left side of the yukata is wrapped over the right side and is secured with an obi, or sash.
After all, in a world of hot springs and baths, there is a certain practicality to the dress. “When guests have an onsen, [the yukata] is easy to take off and put on,” says Hiroto Takegaki from Gora Kadan.
KAISEKI IS SERIOUS
Kaiseki is delicate, intricate, and ranks as one of the most satisfying dining experiences in Japan. Served in small, careful dishes, kaiseki food at a ryokan is almost always local and extremely seasonal – sometimes varying week to week.
However, even for Japanophiles, kaiseki can be imposing. Often, eager travelers will be keen to have kaiseki every night of their travels, but guests should be warned that kaiseki is serious business, both in terms of the fare and the undertaking.
It’s not just the rare, seasonal, and often raw food that’s challenging; kaiseki can be 14 courses served over two hours. Doing that every evening would be extremely trying. The ingredients always vary but can involve flavors such as sea urchin, salmon roe, and snails.
At ryokans, dinner is usually early, between 18:00 and 19:00, and in many ryokans the large meal served in the guest’s room.
The most popular experience at almost every ryokan is the hot spring, or onsen. Often ryokans will have private baths, but for the most part the communal areas will be separated by sex.
Most onsens take their hot springs seriously and guests should do so as well: no splashing about or making too much noise. Guests should remember that the onsen is meant to be a calming – borderline pharmacological experience. The Beniya Mukayu ryokan, for example, has slightly alkaline spring water from Hakusan, meant to compliment everything from stiff joints to tough skin.
“Many come here for the onsen and each onsen has different health benefits; for example our onsen is categorized as weak alkaline which has benefits for fixing skin trouble,” says Hiroto Takegaki from Gora Kadan, adding that ryokans provide a level of personal service that hotel accommodations can not match. “In Gora Kadan we have respected this style since we opened.”
Guests should also be aware that they should shower before getting into the onsen and that people with long hair should put it in a bun and keep in out of the water if possible.
Embrace the Tatami
Along with the minimalism comes a few compromises in comfort – albeit minor ones. Ryokans require guests to sleep on a tatami mat on the floor or raised surface. While this method may not be as comfortable as sleeping in a Western-style bed, the experience of sleeping on a tatami mat in a Japanese ryokan is a unique charm to the setting.
“The guests sometimes do not enjoy sleeping on tatami as the experience of using futons is unfamiliar. Unlike the beds international guests use typically, sleeping on the floor is culturally vastly different and so can push one’s limits,” Sachiko Nakamichi tells Travelogues. “It is also the perception that futons do not provide adequate support during sleeping, and so convincing people [to change] can be a challenge for ryokan proprietors and guests alike.”
“Most guests are okay to sleep on the tatami floor,” Hiroto Takegaki tells Travelogues. “However some elder guests have issue with knees or back, so for those customers we will provide a portable western bed or will recommend the room with twin beds.”
Adding to the irregularity of the tatami mats are the other seating arrangements; ryokans will have a low table on the floor and chairs or mats that require travelers to sit on the floor.
“Guests who do embrace these requirements find the experience to be uplifting and indeed rather fun – instinctively against previously established behaviors and gives a sense of breaking down one’s own barriers, taking a risk,” says Sachiko Nakamichi.