Staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, is one of the quintessential cultural activities that everybody should enjoy in Japan. More than just a simple place to sleep, a stay in a ryokan is an experience unto itself. With particular room styles, dress codes and meal sets, it can be difficult to know what to expect from this type of specialty hotel. So, what do you need to know to stay in a ryokan? Here, I look at all the fun points (and even some strange food dishes) that make a ryokan stay a quintessential part of any Japanese holiday.
What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. The rooms have tatami mats (a woven rice straw material), sliding doors, and a low table to drink tea. There is no bed – the lounge room is converted when the table is taken away and replaced by a futon at night, which is unrolled for sleeping.
The inn itself features communal baths, and a kaiseki dining experience. In some cases, the food is served directly in the room. Yukatas are worn around the ryokan, and conversation with the owners is common. A stay in a ryokan is about tradition, atmosphere and service, not conveniences. You might get a TV and air conditioning in your room, but otherwise, expect a night of conversation over great food, Japanese hospitality, and relaxing bathing. In general, ryokans are higher-end forms of accomodation, and are often on the more expensive side of the spectrum.
The bedroom of a ryokan
A typical ryokan guest room is simple and sparse, but with several key features. The agari-kamachi is a small entrance antechamber, where guests enter, remove their shoes, and put on the slippers provided. Entering through the shoji (a sliding paper and wood-framed door), is the main bedroom.
In the bedroom is the tatami mat, with a low table and zabuton, small sitting cushions. Tea and a light snack, such as dried fish, is usually provided upon check-in. Elsewhere in the room is an ornamental alcove called a tokonoma, where flowers in a vase, and hanging fabric scrolls are usually on display. The bed is a futon, rolled up and placed inside an oshiire, a large closet. Many onsens have balconies, or an engawa, an enclosed glass sitting area, to take advantage of the beautiful river or countryside views that many onsens offer.
Dressed in our yukatas (a light, causal kimono), we left our room and walked over to the dining area. There were other diners around, but we couldn’t see them; every party had their own private sliding-door booths, just like we did.
The table was as low as the floor, and we sat cross-legged in front of it. A leg space was also available under the table. There was a menu on the table, and we studied it. There were a dozen different dishes, which was common for kaiseki dining. Our host began bringing dishes one by one, explaining what they were. We enjoyed round after round of incredible food – thin, oily slices of beef that sizzled on a tabletop grill and melted in our mouths; chilled tofu with vegetables and pickles; grilled fish and crispy chicken karaage (and abalone, of course!).
Abalone, a curious delicacy (that was still alive!!)
The dish that arrived on our table was met with confused feelings of fascination and disgust. It was still alive. It was an abalone, and we watched aghast at its preparation. A humungous sea snail in a half-shell, the size of my entire hand, was placed on a small grill, whilst a fiery hot barbeque bead flamed below.
With horror, we watched as we realised that this mollusc was being cooked alive, fixed to the shell but writhing, squirming and trying to save itself. It jerked and curled with surprising force as bubbles formed along its edges, and the meat began to change colour.
In five minutes, the creature was dead and still, and it was time to try this delicacy. We weren’t thrilled to eat it after the show we had just witnessed, but we couldn’t pass up the chance (and I must admit, it was quite tasty).
Onsen bathing in a ryokan
While we dined, staff were busy transforming our room by removing the coffee table, unrolling the futons on the tatami mats, and making the bed. When we arrived after eating, our room had transformed.
But, before turning in for the night, an onsen awaited us.
After dinner, it was time for the onsen, which many ryokans have built-in, especially in geothermal regions such as Izu or Beppu. The onsen is a small, steamy, geothermal-powered bath. As is commonly found, this ryokan had men and women’s onsen rooms. We stripped down and rinsed off using the showers beside the bath, before jumping in for the naked bathing experience.
As an added touch in our ryokan, there was an interior onsen, but also a smaller pool outdoors. It was walled off but open to a small garden and the stars above, and the pool steamed in the wintery air. Wonderful! I could finally bathe like a snow monkey!
Just like the dinner the night before, we were invited to a gourmet breakfast of many courses, including fish, agedashi tofu, rice and miso soup. Meanwhile, our room was being transformed back again!
We were in the tiny town of Izu. The Izu peninsula, about 100km south of Tokyo, is a relaxing getaway town for locals, known for its wonderful ryokans with views on the river.We visited on a wet and rainy weekend. During the day, we explored the streets, admiring hand-made pottery in gift shops, and taking pictures of the pretty red bridges the jumped over the small river passing through the town.
Bye bye Japan (for now)!
It was our last stop and we were going to miss Japan – smiling for purikura photos and ordering vending machine coffees, feeling the cold of the winter through the floorboards under our feet as we explored cavernous temples, ringing bells to keep bears away on rainy mountain hikes, munching on takoyaki as our shinkansen zoomed across the countryside.
But it wouldn’t be for long, as we were already full of ideas for our inevitable return trip!