Ryokan and Minshuku: not just Japanese-style accommodation, but a cultural experience – a fascinating way to see some traditional Japanese culture and escape the bustle and noise of modern life.
A Ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travellers along Japan’s highways.
Ryokans are difficult to find in Tokyo and other large cities: they can be expensive compared to western-style hotels, because dinner is included, and Japanese people increasingly use hotels for urban tourism. Kyoto, a city many people visit for its Ryokans, is a notable exception.
Nonetheless, some major cities do have reasonably-priced Ryokans, with some costing as little as £40 a night. However, Ryokans are more typically located in scenic areas, such as in the mountains or by the sea.
The uncluttered, restful layout of a Japanese-style room in a traditional building, the fresh smell of the tatami mats on the floor, and the Japanese food served in your room make a stay at a Ryokan a memorable experience.
Staying at a Ryokan
Ryokan accommodation is usually on halfboard basis (i.e. includes breakfast and dinner), and for this reason is often more expensive than a moderate hotel would be. But even for one night, staying in a Ryokan is highly recommended to experience Japanese style and cuisine.
Make a reservation in Advance:
- It sets things off on a much better footing than if you just turn up on the doorstep.
- The staff will not speak much English – but some Ryokans are quite used to receiving foreign guests.
- Your room will be furnished in traditional style with tatami matting on the floor, and a low table in the middle of the room which is moved at night to make way for the futon mattress bed.
Observe the etiquette of shoes according to the cleanliness of the floor. On arrival in the vestibule, take your shoes off and change into the pair of indoor slippers provided. These are removed when entering a room where people sleep or sit on the floor – including your tatami-matted room (ie. on tatami mats: socks only). Toilets have their own pair of slippers or clogs. Appropriate footgear is strategically placed throughout the Ryokan for guests’ convenience.
On arrival, your room maid (“Nakai-san”) will show you to your room, and ask you to fill out a registration form (in Japanese, but quite simple: just write in English in what look like the right places and no-one will mind). She will also ask at what time you will want dinner (normally not after 7.30pm) and breakfast (normally not after 8am).
Many rooms have a view of a garden, and some rooms have wide wood-framed glass sliding doors instead of windows, allowing you to step out into the garden straight from your room. The wooden-floor space outside the tatami-matted room is called engawa (veranda-like porch). When stepping down from the engawa into the garden, you need to wear geta (Japanese wooden clogs) or similar which you will find provided.
A yukata (cotton robe) will be provided, which is acceptable attire in the public areas of the Ryokan too. Wear the left side over the right (only corpses wear right over left).
The bath (o-furo):
- Enjoying the Ryokan’s communal bath is not obligatory, but is a great way to relax before dinner.
- Wear your yukata and indoor slippers, and take your towel.
- There is a separate bath for men and women.
- The changing room has baskets for clothing and valuables.
- Along the walls of the bath hall and long benches and small tubs for water.
- Wash BEFORE entering the main bath: scoop water out of the main bath with a small tub, and make sure that all grime and soap are removed before getting into the main bath.
- The water is scaldingly hot, especially at the end where the water trickles in.
- After your bath, your dinner may already be laid out in your room.
- The meals served at Ryokan are of such variety and and quality that many of the dishes cannot be found in the average household any more.
- If only for the sake of experiencing something entirely different from Western-style cooking, every visitor to Japan should at least once try a true, Japanese-style Ryokan dinner.
- There will be many dishes to choose from, and of course, rice, which ends and completes the meal.
- The maid will ensure that all dishes are served at the right temperature (ie. hot dishes are served hot, and those which are cold are meant to be cold). Alcohol can be ordered, at an extra charge.
After dinner, perhaps while you are taking a stroll in the gardens, the maid will clear the dinner and table away and lay out your bedding: a mattress (shiki-buton), which goes directly on the tatami floor, and a quilt (kake-buton). If you are particularly tall, ask for two quilts. If the pillow provided is very hard (and the traditional ones often can be), use the square zabuton cushion you sat on for dinner, covered with a shirt or towel.
- About ten minutes before the time you asked for breakfast, the maid will knock at your door and enter to get the room ready.
- A Japanese breakfast typically includes white rice with a pickled plum (umeboshi: the sharp taste will wake you up), miso soup, fish, dried seaweed, and green tea.
- Guests are expected to leave by around 10am.
- The bill is normally settled with the maid, in your room.
- Tipping is not usual in Japan, but if the maid has been particularly kind and helpful, a small gift article typical of your country would be suitable.
- When you leave, the staff will often come to the entrance and see you off with a farewell bow.
Minshuku are family-style inns operated within private homes, much like a “bed & breakfast”.
These inns are usually found in coastal and mountainous areas, where travellers seek simple accommodation in a natural environment. Although some of the so-called Minshuku listed on the Japan National Tourist Office website are in Tokyo, in general these establishments are in the countryside, and enable visitors to see more of Japanese folk traditions.
Rooms may be small and basic, and there is no room service like that provided at a hotel or Ryokan – the housewife normally runs the Minshuku accommodation in addition to her other chores on the farm, etc. Expect to fold up your futon in the morning and put it away in the cupboard, just as a family member would.