A Japanese Ryokan Experience

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.

Japanese Ryokan Experience

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.

Hiiragiya Bekkan Japanese Ryokan in Kyoto
Outside Hiiragiya Bekkan

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.

Japanese garden view at our ryokan
Japanese garden surrounding our room

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!

Matcha and sakura teas
Matcha and sakura teas
Japanese tea served at a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn)
Japanese tea

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!

Wearing yukata (cotton robes) at a ryokan
Looking dashing in our yukata

Kaiseki dinner

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.

The April menu at Hiiragiya Bekkan
Menu

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.

Slideshow below.

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Bathtime

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!

Room at the ryokan set up for bedtime
All set for bed!

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!

Japanese breakfast at a ryokan
The bit that looks like a nice apricot yogurt is actually raw egg >_<

Top tips

  • 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).

Inside a Japanese ryokan

If you enjoyed this then you might like 10 foods to try in Japan or some of my other Japan adventures!

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Our Japanese Ryokan Experience in Kyoto - what to expect.

10 foods to try in Japan

Those who have never visited Japan may be under the illusion that Japanese cuisine is all about sushi and raw fish (sashimi) but there’s so much more to be had and for those afraid of trying new things you may be pleasantly surprised.

So let me whet your appetite and take you on a culinary tour of Tokyo and beyond – presenting my top 10 foods to try in Japan …

1. Ramen

vegetable-ramen

meat-ramen

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish and is cheap, tasty and filling. It consists of thick noodles swimming in broth and then garnished with an assortment of toppings such as vegetables and/or meat. We had ramen a couple of times during our stay – a perfect dish for any budget-conscious traveller.

 

2. Okonomiyaki

nishiki-warai-okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a cross between a pancake and an omelette and consists of flour, eggs, cabbage and your choice of toppings, such as pork, shrimp, mayonnaise and fish flakes. The name ‘okonomiyaki’ pretty much means ‘grilled as you like’ so there are many variants to be tried and some okonomiyaki restaurants are even grill-it-yourself where you are given a bowl of raw ingredients to cook on a hotplate! We dined at an okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto called Nishiki Warai, where the tables have hot plates on them but the dishes are brought ready cooked to your table and are just placed on your hotplate for warming. Yum!

 

3. Conveyor belt sushi

musashi-sushi-1

musashi-sushi-2

Of course, it’s not all sushi but you can’t have a list of Japanese foods without including sushi on there somewhere! We dined at two different branches of Musashi Sushi while we were in Kyoto and we were pleasantly surprised. If you’ve ever been to a branch of Yo Sushi in the UK then you will love Musashi Sushi – it’s much cheaper! Every dish is less than £1 GBP (around 130-140 yen) so you’re alot more inclined to be adventurous with your food choices. I tried unagi (eel) as well, just because of that Friends episode. It wasn’t too bad actually!

 

4. Bento

japanese-lunch
A restaurant bento lunch
japanese-bento-lunch-box
A prettily packaged take-out bento box

Sushi doesn’t just come on conveyor belts here! A popular Japanese lunch is a bento box – a box containing a selection of lunchtime goodies such as rice, pickled vegetables, fish or meat. These can be purchased as take-out boxes from convenience stores or train stations, served as a bento box tray in a restaurant, or even made at home. Some Japanese homemakers even go that extra mile by making Kyaraben (character bento) where the food is arranged to look like characters, animals, people etc. Very kawaii!

 

5. Katsu Curry

katsu-curry

Chicken Katsu curry or Tonkatsu (pork) curry were my husband’s absolute favourite dishes during our trip to Japan, so of course my list had to have them. The curry consists of meat that is dipped into egg and then rolled in panko breadcrumbs before being fried. There are many varieties but pork is the most common. We ended up eating twice at the Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, once in Tokyo and then again in Kyoto because it was cheap and my hubby enjoyed it that much!

 

6. Kaiseki

kaiseki-appetiser
Appetiser
kaiseki-fish-course
Sashimi course

Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal which is beautifully created and often very expensive. Now, I’m not normally one for fine dining but we got to experience a Kaiseki meal during our stay at a ryokan in Kyoto as it was included in the price of the room. Our dinner was served to us in our private room, course by course (of which there were about 8). It was fantastic to experience something so traditional and lavish but I will confess that I didn’t like everything I was given, so I was glad that I was trying Kaiseki as part of the whole ryokan experience as opposed to going specifically to a Kaiseki restaurant. Stay tuned for a future post about my ryokan experience!

 

7. Ice Cream

with-my-green-tea-ice-cream
Sampling green tea ice cream in Kyoto

So you can have ice cream anywhere, sure, but can you have Purple Sweet Potato ice cream anywhere? No! And you know what, it’s actually quite nice! We went into a little shop in Asakusa and ordered a couple of what we thought were berry ice creams. After we ordered as I was gazing around I noticed that everything else in the shop was potato-based. Oh dear. But fortunately I was pleasantly surprised by the taste – not too dissimilar to vanilla. We also tried sakura and green tea flavours too – delish!

 

8. Kit Kats, Pockys and Tokyo Banana

giant-rainbow-pocky

tokyo-banana

I mentioned all the crazy Japanese Kit Kat flavours before, but let’s not also forget the assortment of Pocky (biscuit sticks covered in flavoured coatings) you can buy. Rainbow Pocky has 7 different flavours including orange, strawberry and chocolate. I also saw some Tokyo Banana cakes at the airport and thought the packaging looked fun – hey who doesn’t love a giraffe print banana?!

 

9. Harajuku crepes

angel-heart-marion-crepes
I will spare you the photo of me stuffing crepe in my face!

santa-monica-crepes

If you’re in Harajuku then be sure to take a walk down Takeshita Dori and stop at one of the little crepe kiosks. There are loads of flavours to choose from – savoury as well as sweet. Both times I have eaten Harajuku crepes I’ve opted for sweet. The sweet crepes are filled with ice cream, fruits and lots of sugary yumminess – and some crepes even have whole slices of cheesecake inside!

 

10. Novelty/themed food

alice-in-wonderland-desserts
Alice in Wonderland desserts
panda-rice-meal-from-ueno-zoo
Panda rice lunch at Ueno Zoo
lotteria-fries-and-chocolate-dip
Lotteria fries with chocolate dip

The Japanese love anything novelty and anything themed, much like myself. Whether it’s one of Tokyo’s many themed restaurants, like the Alice in Wonderland restaurants or even some seasonal novelty fast food, you’re sure to find something random. Even at Ueno Zoo my lunch had a panda face in it, although in hindsight I probably chose the children’s menu. During our stay, McDonalds were selling burgers with pink buns (because it was cherry blossom season) which my husband tried and didn’t rate very much. Lotteria were offering fries with chocolate dip which I tried and I actually quite liked – fries? good! chocolate? good! And I think if we ever make it to Japan for a third time I’d like to try some more novelty nibbles.

Have you ever been to Japan? What Japanese food would you recommend?

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A Glimpse of a Geisha – Weekly Photo Challenge: Ephemeral

Emphemeral:
adjective
1. Lasting for a very short time

geisha-by-quirkylittleplanet

We took an after dinner evening stroll through the Pontocho district of Kyoto in the secret hope of spying a geisha, never expecting to see one. But as we walked down this narrow street we saw a figure dart out of one of the buildings – our attention was drawn to the jingle bell sound she made as she walked. This maiko (apprentice geisha) was hurrying to her next appointment and as quickly as she appeared… she disappeared.

Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge.

Kit Kat Krazy

aka Things I did buy in Japan.

aka Vacation Shopping Insanity – Japan edition.

You may or may not know this, but the Japanese love Kit Kats! Why? I hear you ask. Well, the reason for this is because the name is similar to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu” which roughly translates as “surely win”, or in other words “good luck”, hence why students are often bought Kit Kats before their exams. So Kit Kats are basically a good luck charm. They even have a crazy amount of Kit Kat flavours in Japan, which vary region to region. You name it, they probably have it.

So when I found out that the world’s first ever Kit Kat boutique was opening in Japan shortly before I was due to travel there, I was very excited. And I wasn’t the only one, I’d read a couple of articles about it and there was much hype and anticipation about this chocolate paradise.

But, I’m not going to sugar-coat this (or chocolate-coat this, if you will). The world’s first ever Kit Kat boutique was a big fat disappointment! Firstly, it’s not a shop. It is a section of a department store and a very small L-shaped section at that. Secondly, they did not have the massive array of flavours I was expecting, there were literally 3 or 4 flavours to choose from. and that. was. it.

kit-kat-chocolatory-tokyo

Even though it was quite expensive, we still made a purchase – one solitary box of Sakura green tea flavour.

chocolatory-kitkat-special

Sure, the packaging is pretty and it did taste quite nice but I’m not sure it was worth it. Although they did have a really cool chandelier.

kit-kat-chandelier

After the visit to the Kit Kat Chocolatory it became my mission to track down these mysterious and exotic Kit Kat flavours, I made a point of looking whenever we popped into a 7-11 or a Family Mart but I could find nothing but the original milk chocolate flavour.

After consulting the internet and keeping my beady eyes open, I did eventually manage to find the following flavours (although I hasten to add that I didn’t purchase ALL of these) – green tea (minus the sakura), cinnamon, rum & raisin, strawberry cheesecake, strawberry (minus the cheesecake), purple sweet potato, red bean, apple, chili, orange & lemon and wasabi.

Some of these were bought in random gift shops dotted around Tokyo and Kyoto but I will let you in on a little secret… the best place in Tokyo to buy Kit Kats is a little shop under Tokyo train station. Unfortunately I don’t know the name of this store but it was on a corner in the basement of Tokyo station near Yaesu Central Gate. And it looked like this –

tokyo-station-kitkats

I was an actual kid in a candy store. I probably would’ve got swept away with emotion and bought a box of each flavour but fortunately I had my husband there to calm me down. We still ended up buying about 4 boxes though, which came to about 20 quid (£20 on chocolate!!! Ack! See? Vacation Shopping Insanity!). I will also like to state that we didn’t keep all 4 boxes for ourselves, some were gifts.

The remaining Kit Kat purchases we made were, as I said above, at random shops we found on our travels but Narita airport was also a good place to find some interesting flavours – that’s where we bought the Hokkaido Red Bean flavour amongst others. The shop is easy to find, it’s pretty much the only shop you can use up all your yen coins in without breaking into a note.

So which Kit Kats did I actually try? Well here they are…

japanese-kitkats

Cinnamon, Green Tea, Rum & Raisin, Strawberry Cheesecake, Hokkaido Red Bean, Sakura Green Tea, Purple Sweet Potato, Strawberry and Shinshu Apple. Yes, we bought quite a lot but these were gifts for family and work colleagues too.

Surprises? The bars are more like “fun-sized” bars, a lot smaller than we’re used to but you get several in a box. Purple Sweet Potato is quite nice, just sweet really and Green Tea just tastes like white chocolate.

The strawberry ones went down a storm at work, the other flavours taste pretty much how you would expect them to. And Hokkaido Red Bean? I didn’t mind it, I can’t really describe it, I found this ok-ish but my husband thought this particular flavour was foul!

Have you tried any random Kit Kat flavours? What were they and what did you think of them?

Odd things I didn’t buy in Japan

I love Japan. I love it because it is so unlike anywhere else I have been. I love it because the people are courteous and the streets are clean but most of all I love its weirdness. I love the kooky oddball side of Japan… it appeals to the kooky oddball within me.

If you read my post about the gift shop in Las Vegas, then you’ll know I’m prone to holiday shopping insanity (or vacation shopping insanity, if you prefer). But this post is actually going to feature things that I didn’t buy, but felt compelled to take a picture of anyway!

japanese-wrinkle-smoother

japanese-beauty-products

So I spotted these bizarre little gadgets – ‘Wrinkle Smoother’ and ‘Happy Face Trainer’ (what I can only presume to be the cure for ‘Bitchy Resting Face’) at Tokyu Hands, Ikebukuro. I was going to say, I’m not sure why they used such an obviously young and cheerful looking person on the packaging but then I thought perhaps this lady is actually about 95 and these products actually work?!

cat-paw-massager

If all that smiling has taken it out of you, then perhaps you could do with a little massage “To the place which got tired”. These strange plastic cat paws actually vibrate when pressed against your skin. I don’t really know what the health benefits are and I also don’t know why they were on sale in a toy shop along with…

smorkin-labbit

Smorkin Labbit. Bondage Labbit and Sexy Time. Yes, they were with the collectable vinyl toys but also, they were for sale in a shop called Kiddyland (which is in Harajuku if you are interested!).

samurai-umbrellas

At home in the UK, most arcade machines contain things such as cuddly toys which you can win by inserting roughly half a weeks wage into one of these crappy grabber machines. In Japan, however, the prize is much cooler – umbrellas that look like samurai swords! I actually would have quite liked one of these, I could have gone all Uma Thurman in Kill Bill every time it rained, but I’d never have got it in my over-stuffed suitcase or on the plane back home.

Last of all, one of the funniest things I saw was this toy in a 100 yen store.

japanese-knife-toy

“Give someone a great surprise”. Interesting choice of words there… I wonder what the Japanese bits say?

I have much more Japan-related quirkiness to bestow upon this blog and more Japan full stop, it is such a fascinating country after all.