A ryokan is simply a traditional Japanese style accommodation. Ryokans were founded many centuries ago as a means to service travelers along the main highways throughout the country, and thus nowadays they are mainly found around the more regional parts of Japan, and generally cluster around rural hot spring towns.
Whilst many ryokans still uphold and retain many of the traditional aspects of a ryokan, others have taken the route of re-inventing themselves to become more stylish and modern, yet still adhering to the basics of a ryokan, such as keeping the tatami mat flooring and shoji sliding doors – both of which are staples of a ryokan.
In saying that, ryokans don’t all follow a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. In fact, they come in all different shapes, sizes, structures, and forms! Some are tiny establishments that may only offer four or so guest rooms at a time, whilst others may be part of global hotel chains that offer hundreds of different types of options from single-bed rooms to family rooms that can fit up to 6 people.
Some may be located in the thick of the main strip of small onsen towns, whilst others might be built right up on the side of a mountain which expansive views of the ocean.
It’s generally a rule of thumb that if you’re after a truly authentic experience where you can completely immerse yourself into the Japanese culture, it’s best if you completely remove yourself from the urban cities, take a few days to head out and rejuvenate in Japan’s beautiful countryside in a ryokan.
It’s also a general rule of thumb that you’d be expecting to pay at least 15,000 yen for a decent ryokan stay, but on average, they’re probably priced around the 25,000 yen mark; however, if we’re talking extremities, a stay at at ‘minshuku’ (very basic style ryokan) can cost around 6000-9000 yen, whilst an extraordinarily luxurious, 5-star ryokan can cost up to the 1,500,000 yen mark!
Ryokan Etiquette – Top 10 Rules
You can imagine that, with all the features and factors listed above, there will be some expectations that come with staying at a ryokan, and you’d be right. But whilst it may come across as quite rigid and possibly uncomfortable, following these rules are simple, and if all guests adhere to them, everyone will have a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable stay.
- Arriving At An Acceptable Time / Checking-In
- Taking Off Your Shoes And Luggage Etiquette
- Futon Bedding
- Wearing The Yukata
- Onsen Bathing
- Exploring the Neighbourhood
- Peace & Quiet
- Waking Up For Breakfast
- Checking Out
1. Arriving At An Acceptable Time / Checking-In
As with all accommodation establishments, ryokans will have a standard check-in time, which is usually around 3:00pm. Whilst most places will be a bit flexible with guests checking in, there are many facets of a ryokan that are time conscious, such as meal times or onsen bathing times, so take this into account and consider that the employees need to service multiple customers around these time frames.
One thing to take note of especially is dinner time, which usually occurs around 6:00pm. At ryokans, it is a tradition to serve a delicately prepared, intricately presented kaiseki, which is a multi-course meal. Chefs who have been in the profession for an extensive amount of time are hired to put these exquisite meals together, and, if we’re going to be honest, a painstaking amount of time goes into it.
You can also expect that the meal will be served to you in the comfort of your own home by a Nakai, your own personal attendant. It is a beautifully traditional affair, but you can imagine that having to serve a full ryokan can be quite a task, so it is much appreciated that you rock up and check in before dinnertime so that you can prepare yourself for it. The entire dining method is an experience in itself, and it’s one that you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss out on.
2. Taking Off Your Shoes And Luggage Etiquette
When you arrive at the ryokan, there may be some confusion as to whether or not you should take off your shoes. In most cases of traditional ryokans, especially the ones located in rural and countryside Japan, it’s better to be safe than sorry and take off your shoes.
However, in the more metropolitan areas, some ryokans have slightly adapted their customs to foreigners and sometimes don’t necessitate the removal of shoes, at least not in the entrance foyer anyway. In most cases, look around for some signage that may help, either in English or with pictures, and if all else fails, simply ask the attendant.
In most ryokans, it is frowned upon to roll your luggage throughout the establishment, especially in the guest rooms which will have delicate tatami mats on the floor. For the most part, room attendants will carry your luggage to your rooms to avoid making noise, and will lay your luggage in the designated storage space for you. When leaving, do not roll it across the mat.
3. Futon Bedding
Futon bedding is probably one of the most generic things that most visitors will associate with ryokan. Whilst the thought of replacing a bed with a soft mattress on the floor might make some people uneasy, rest-assured, these Japanese futons are a thing of magic. Super fluffy, super soft, thick enough for you to dream deeply and sleep-in, yet thin enough to be able to set up quickly and efficiently.
With the bedding situation in ryokans, the room attendants will set these up for you whilst you’re out, usually when you’re spending time at the onsen after checking in, exploring the town in your yukata, or simply taking a stroll in the garden. If you’re staying over a few nights, your futon bedding will be packed up and the room tidied whilst you’re out having breakfast, and set out once again after dinner.
Some places do not touch your futon bedding once you’ve laid it out the first time, however as they’re lightweight and easy to fold, you can easily pack this away yourself if necessary.
4. Wearing The Yukata
The yukata is a traditional Japanese kimono that is presented to guests at most ryokans. For the most part, it is acceptable and even encouraged for guests to don the yukata the moment they check-in and wear it everywhere, e.g. to and from the onsen baths, around the onsen village, even to have breakfast and dine in-room on their kaiseki dinner.
The yukata is an ancient custom, and thus there is a process in being able to put it on properly. In most cases, the room attendants will be able to show you how to put them on as they first introduce you to your room. Some attendants might even help you place it on before they leave.
An important thing to note when putting on your yukata is that the left side must always fold over the right side, otherwise if you place the right side over the left, you will look like how they dress their deceased.
When you’re ready to check out, remember to place your yukata back where you found it.
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5. Onsen Bathing
Most traditional ryokans will either have an onsite public onsen (hot spring bath) or an onsen facility nearby that will allow guests to soak in and relax as they please. Note here that the key word is soak. Onsen baths are not a place for one to clean themselves.
At all onsen baths, there will be a washing area before you can actually enter the hot spring. In this washing area, you can sit on the small stools and use the soap and shampoo to rinse (you don’t necessarily have to wash your hair).
When it’s time to get into the onsen, don’t put your towel in the water, either place it on your head or on the side of the bath. The onsen baths are not for horseplay or splashing; everyone submerged in the bath is generally very respectful of each other and soaking in calmness and serenity.
For people who have tattoos, we selected for you some onsen that are tattoo friendly in Tokyo and Osaka / Kyoto:
6. Exploring the Neighbourhood
A popular activity to do when staying at a ryokan is to dress up in the traditional robe and head outside to explore the streets, capture some unique photos, and generally unwind in the calming atmosphere and take in the beautiful sights. When dressed up in your beautiful yukata, you’ll feel like you’re ready to take on the world.
Rambunctious behavior is generally frowned upon in these settings. People usually keep to a respectful level of noise, are mindful of impeding on the personal spaces of those around them, and are conscious of the attractions and sights around the towns, never overstepping their boundaries and trespassing on places just to get ‘the perfect photo’.
When outside, take care to treat your yukata with respect. Try not to spill anything onto it or travel through parts of town that may cause damage to it, and keep it respectfully wrapped around you at all times – exposing skin is not part of wearing the yukata.
7. Peace & Quiet
As stated above, people generally head to these hot spring villages and resorts to unwind, rejuvenate, and forget about the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan areas. Crowds, parties, loud groups and loud chatter is the type of things that people are trying to get away from.
Thus, from the moment you check in to your ryokan, be aware that noise level is very important for all guests. The walls of these ryokans are generally quite thin (almost paper thin!) so even raised voices could be heard rooms over, so be mindful of that.
When entering and exiting your room, remember that sound carries so travel quietly. When returning to the ryokan after some exploring, remember not to loudly discuss your adventure on the way to your room, as this may disturb other guests. In onsen baths and during communal breakfasts, be mindful of other guests around you.
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Whilst there are no hard and set rules about bedtimes across ryokans, many accommodations will impose a ‘no-noise’ deadline where all guests are expected to significantly quieten down and even retire for the night. This can be expected to be around the 10:00pm mark.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be expected to go to sleep straight away; rather, for those who would like to make the most of their rejuvenating ryokan stay, this means that they can head to bed without worrying about anything disturbing them and mentally prepare for an early morning.
For others, this just means making sure they’re wary that others will be heading to bed at this time, and that they need to be careful about how much noise they make. Trips to and from the onsen are still acceptable after this time (if it’s open).
9. Waking Up For Breakfast
Most of the time, ryokan guests will wake up early enough for a quick bath in the onsen before heading to breakfast and then checking out.
For those staying over a few nights, they might sleep in a bit, head to breakfast, and then go for a soak afterwards; their morning routine will depend on the time that breakfast is served, which is usually between 7:00-9:00am, leaving time for guests to prepared to check out by 10:00am, which is the standard check-out time.
10. Checking Out
When checking out of a ryokan, it is customary to set things back where you found them, from your yukata to the green tea provided for the room. As for your futon, simply do a basic fold and leave it on the floor, as the room attendants will get to get to them soon after.
Someone may have already gotten to them whilst you’re at breakfast. As with checking-in, don’t roll your luggage across the tatami mat floor, as it is fragile and delicate.
Thank all the wonderful staff for your amazing stay, and start planning your next ryokan stay! Here are some of the areas where can you can find amazing and authentic Japanese traditional inns:
- Ryokan in Hakone
- Ryokan in Kyoto
- Mt Fuji Ryokan
- Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen
- Ryokan in Arima Onsen
- Ryokan in Kusatsu Onsen
- Ryokan in Beppu
And if you are looking for more info on how to behave in Japan, make sure to read these 20 rules: Japan Etiquette.