What it’s Like to Stay in a Traditional Japanese Inn
Do I have to sleep on the floor? Is there only one bathtub for all the guests? What’s with all the different slippers? These were just some of the questions I had about staying in Japanese ryokan before a recent trip. Minshuku are similar accommodations, offering tatami mat rooms with futons, but these traditional inns are often family-run with simple amenities, like shared toilets and bathing areas. It turns out that staying in Japanese-style lodging unveiled the delightful hospitality of my hosts, introduced me to all kinds of new foods, and offered more luxury than I expected.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan but feel intimidated about choosing this type of lodging, here are some basics that will set your mind at ease.
The Ins and Outs of Slippers
First things first. When you arrive, take off your shoes and leave them at the entryway. Your host will give you slippers to wear during your stay. They might also have some wooden clogs, called geta, that you can borrow if you want to take a stroll outside.
There are separate slippers kept in the toilet room. Simply step out of your house slippers and into the toilet slippers as you enter the water closet, leaving them behind when you’re finished. The toilets themselves are high-tech numbers, with seat warmers, bidet-like washing functions, and air dryers. Even in the most remote areas, I was surprised to find such fancy facilities. At first, I stared at all the buttons, wondering which one was the flusher. (Hint: it’s a manual lever often on the side.)
Bath Time Etiquette
Bathing is an important ritual in Japan. Whether it’s a quick dip at a community foot bath, or a leisurely soak in a cypress wood tub, this immersive experience is about more than just getting clean. Enjoying a daily bath during my hiking trip felt relaxing and decadent. Often, the first question my hosts asked was if I wanted a bath before dinner. Some inns have designated bath times, so be sure to ask when you arrive.
The first step is to change into the provided yukata robe. Take the small towel from your room with you. Some inns have multiple tubs, separated by gender. Look for the characters for man （男）and woman （奴）on the curtains (sometimes they’re color-coded, blue for men and pink for women). At one inn with a single tub, I locked the door and hung out the “occupied” sign while I bathed.
Take off your slippers before stepping up into the changing room and find a locker or basket for your clothes and undress; swimsuits aren’t allowed in public baths.
You’ll see small stools, basins, and hand-held showers. Have a seat and wash yourself with the soap and shampoo provided. Make sure to rinse completely – this isn’t a bubble bath. Slip into the tub carefully; it might be hotter than you expect. When you’re finished, don’t drain the tub! The next bather will use the same water. Use your small towel to dry off. It’s common for Japanese bathers to place this towel on their heads during the soak, keeping it handy and dry.
Even the smallest inns had hair dryers, mirrors, and lotions. One had a face cream so soothing I bought a jar at the desk. Spend a few moments pampering before slipping into your yukata, which can be worn around the hotel, and even outside.
Dining Like an Emperor
Dinner and breakfast are usually included, with set meals served at a reserved time. After a long day of hiking, it was a relief not to have to find a restaurant or worry about what to order. Dinners consisted of 10 or 12 small dishes, all elegantly presented. I appreciated the variety in these small bites, which featured fish, tofu, beef, and pickled vegetables. Seasonal dishes with locally produced ingredients play a key role.
In some cases, the food was already on the table; at other inns it was served after we arrived. Soba noodles, rice, and miso soup were always available. One place had a printed menu, giving the details of our meal. At another, the innkeeper explained the main course. Many dishes remained a mystery. Grab your chopsticks, your sense of adventure, and dig in! If you don’t care for something, offer it to your traveling companion. The innkeepers were so gracious, bowing and smiling repeatedly. I tried to honor them by cleaning my plate, knowing the care they put into our meals.
Breakfast followed a similar but more modest pattern: small dishes of smoked fish, a piece of omelet or scrambled egg, some pickles, fruit, and soba noodles.
Sleeping on a Futon
The rooms were elegant yet simple, and much more spacious than my cramped Tokyo hotel. Don’t forget to take off your slippers before stepping into the room. The tatami mat floor, made from rice straw or woven grass, can be easily damaged.
Futons are either set out in the room or made up while you dine. Fluffy, colorful comforters top the futon, making for warm, cozy sleeping. The pillows, stuffed with buckwheat, are quite firm, but conform to the shape of your head once you settle in.
You’ll also find a seating area (often on the floor), kettle of hot water, and tea.
The Language of Hospitality
My hosts were so gracious and welcoming that their hospitality bridged any language gap. They spoke a little English, and combined with my pantomiming, we got along fine. I learned a few basic Japanese phrases before the trip, and my efforts were met with much appreciation.
Staying in traditional inns gave me a glimpse into Japanese hospitality and culture I wouldn’t have found staying in a Western hotel. If you’re in Japan, step outside your comfort zone and into a ryokan or minshuku. Just don’t forget to leave your shoes at the door.
Kirsten Harrington has been a freelance food and travel writer for over 12 years, chronicling adventures in the US and China. Her work has appeared in WhereTraveler, The Seattle Times, Edible Orlando, The Beijinger and numerous other publications. When she’s not writing, you can find her scoping out new adventures, hiking or enjoying a meal with her family. Follow Kirsten on her blog.