No Japan bucket list would be complete without a stay in a ryokan, so here is my guide to a Japanese ryokan experience.
What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. You may have seen them on tv or in books, they’re the ones with paper screens, low tables and futons instead of beds.
How do I choose which ryokan?
Ryokan aren’t cheap and the ones that are cheap are most probably not that authentic. We started by looking on Tripadvisor at some of the best ryokan in Kyoto but found many were fully booked for the time of year we were looking at (April – Cherry Blossom season). One of the most famous and historic ryokans is the Hiiragiya which was slightly out of our budget, so in the end we opted for Hiiragiya Bekkan (annex) an authentic but more wallet-friendly option.
Other things to note when choosing your ryokan, is whether it includes a private bathroom or any meals, as of course this will affect the price. Our room at the Hiiragiya Bekkan included a private toilet and sink but shared bathing facilities (more on that later) and it also included a kaiseki meal (Japanese haute cuisine) in the evening and breakfast the following day.
The initial experience
When we arrived at Hiiragiya Bekkan we were greeted by friendly and enthusiastic staff and as is custom in Japan, we were asked to remove our shoes at the door and wear the slippers provided.
We were shown to our room which overlooked a pretty Japanese garden and then we had to remove our slippers. I can’t quite remember how many different pairs of slippers we had, but if you’ve been to Japan you’ll know how much they love their slippers!
We were shortly served three different types of tea – matcha, sakura and Japanese. The Japanese tea was nice but the matcha and sakura are a bit of an acquired taste.
After tea we changed into the yukata (cotton robes) provided and spent some time relaxing and soaking up our surroundings!
Upon arrival at the ryokan we chose a time we would like to have dinner and promptly at this time we received a knock on the door from our maid (for lack of a better word) bringing us the first course of our meal.
Some ryokan have communal dining areas, but the other thing that attracted us to the Hiiragiya Bekkan was being able to dine in the privacy of our own room.
Dinner at the ryokan was a seasonal menu and brought to us course by course. I didn’t really know what much of it was so I took a photo of the menu. It started off ok and I enjoyed the first few courses but I’m so glad we had this meal as part of a ryokan experience rather than at a kaiseki restaurant as I really struggled with a few of the courses. Sadly the bamboo shoots and the deep-fried bean curd with sea urchin weren’t to my taste.
In Japan, bathtime is a bit of a ritual. So after dinner we were ushered off to the communal bathrooms. Similarly to pre-booking a dinner time slot, we also had a bathroom time slot too. A friendly old man had prepared our steaming hot bath for us and then gave us our privacy and left us to it. Basically in Japan, bathing etiquette dictates that you perch on a little stool and then soap and rinse yourself with a handheld shower before getting into the tub. The tubs are then for soaking once you are squeaky clean. Our tub was wooden and square, which was different but we had already had previous experience with onsen (hot springs) bathing which I will write about another time.
After our hot, relaxing baths we toddled off back to our room where our maid (who may or may not have been a ninja) had switched our room around from a dining room with low table to a bedroom with futons! The futons themselves were fairly comfortable, however the Japanese pillows, which I believe are filled with buckwheat, weren’t the most comfortable pillows I’ve ever slept on, but they certainly weren’t the worst!
In the morning
The morning routine was almost like a reverse of the night before. We awoke early and went for our shower/bath and while we were soaking ourselves, our room was being whipped up from a bedroom back into a dining room, ready for breakfast.
Breakfast included an assortment of Japanese nibbles, the fish was delicious, however I struggled to stomach the rest of it. As I’m not much of a breakfast person anyway (yeah yeah I know it’s the most important meal of the day!) and by this point in our trip I just fancied something quite boring like toast. I know. I am a terrible travel blogger for saying that.
We checked out fairly early as we were due to travel on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and upon check out we were presented with a gift – a neat box with chopsticks inside! Very sweet and thoughtful!
- Advance booking is recommended as the ryokans are quite small and have limited availability.
- In order to not have to worry about lugging our big suitcases with us for our one night stay in the ryokan we used a luggage forwarding service, quite a common thing to do in Japan and something that can be arranged at your hotel. We used this service a couple of times during our trip, so we had our luggage sent from our Kyoto hotel (where we stayed before our ryokan visit) to the hotel we would be staying at after departing the ryokan. Very efficient and helpful!
- Follow ryokan etiquette regarding the removal of shoes, showering before bathing etc. And be sure not to place anything in the sacred alcove (pictured below with the wall hanging and flower arrangement).