Whenever you’re staying in Japanese-style accommodation, you’ll be expected to check in early – between 3pm and 6pm – and to follow local custom from the moment you arrive.
Just inside the front door, there’s usually a row of slippers for you to change into, but remember to slip them off when walking on the tatami. The bedding is stored behind sliding doors in your room during the day and only laid out in the evening. In top-class ryokan this is done for you, but elsewhere be prepared to tackle your own. There’ll be a mattress (which goes straight on the tatami) with a sheet to put over it, a soft quilt to sleep under and a pillow stuffed with rice husks.
Most places provide a yukata, a loose cotton robe tied with a belt, and a short jacket (tanzen) in cold weather. The yukata can be worn in bed, during meals, when going to the bathroom and even outside – in resort areas many Japanese holidaymakers take an evening stroll in their yukata and wooden sandals (geta; also supplied by the ryokan). Wrap the left side of the yukata over the right; the opposite is used to dress the dead.
The traditional Japanese bath (furo) has its own set of rules (see Arts and crafts). It’s customary to bathe in the evenings. In ryokan there are usually separate bathrooms for men (男) and women (女), but elsewhere there will either be designated times for males and females, or you’ll simply have to wait until it’s vacant – it’s perfectly acceptable for couples and families to bathe together, though there’s not usually a lot of space.
Evening meals tend to be early, at 6pm or 7pm. Smarter ryokan generally serve meals in your room, while communal dining is the norm in cheaper places. At night the doors are locked pretty early, so check before going out – they may let you have a key.