What should I wear?
You’ll find a yukata neatly folded in your room. This is not simply a dressing gown – it’s a casual kimono set with a gown, a belt and an outer jacket. It’s normal to wear the yukata to dinner and to the communal baths.
When putting on a yukata, make sure you belt the cloth left side over right. The other way round symbolises death in Buddhism so may cause offence.
Some ryokans will also provide geta – wooden sandals that you can wear along with the yukata if you’re going outside.
What should I know about taking an onsen bath?
You’ll have to get naked like everyone else. Once you’re over any initial awkwardness, it’s fine and no one will pay you any attention. Most baths are segregated for men and women.
But, to avoid embarrassment, know the onsen etiquette before you go in:
- Take a shower next to the baths before you get in the water.
- Use a small piece of muslin cloth to wash yourself. You’ll see people wearing this on their heads while bathing. Wringing out this cloth in the water is a big no-no.
- Never use soap or shampoo in the baths to avoid contamination.
- Don’t put your head under water.
- Don’t swim or dive – this is a place for calm and quiet reflection.
What can I expect to eat and drink?
In more expensive ryokans, the evening meal will be kaiseki-ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) and will probably be served in your room.
Dinner starts in the early evening, at around 6–7pm. Course after course appears, served on gorgeous ceramics and lacquerware. Each dish is a work of art featuring seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, garnished with flowers and with a balance of tastes, textures and colours.
There may be a miso soup followed by a selection of boiled, simmered and grilled dishes. These could include nabemono hot pot (in which you cook small pieces of meat, fish or vegetables in the broth), delicate sushi, sashimi or mukouzuke (raw fish) – all washed down with warm sake. Rice is served last, signifying the end of the main meal.
Breakfast may be Japanese – including miso, egg, grilled fish, tofu and nori (dried seaweed) – but Western-style breakfasts are usually available too.
How can I find a ryokan?
There are around 80,000 ryokans in Japan. The most historic is Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in central Japan, which was established in 705 AD. Many historic ryokans are also in Kyoto and Nara, the ancient capital cities.
There are hot spring resorts all over the country, too – from Beppu in the far southwest to Noboribetsu in the far northwest and everywhere in between.
In Tokyo and Kyoto, you can find budget ryokans, but these may not offer the typical experience. In Tokyo, most are in as Asakusa, while in Kyoto they are clustered around in the Higashiyama District.
A room with dinner and breakfast generally costs around 15,000–30,000 yen per person, per night. You can book via reservation websites, such as Japanican.com or Japanguesthouses.com.
For more information about ryokans, visit Japanguide.com or check The Rough Guide to Japan. Header image: Carol Lin/Flickr.