Our first night in Kyoto we stayed at a regular hotel, but the second night, we stayed at a traditional Japanese ryokan. Our ryokan was called Hiiragaya Ryokan and it was awesome. I thought I’d share more information on my experience a a ryokan, in case you ever find yourself in Japan and are interested in giving it a shot!
Here is what you can expect.
(Read about Hiiragaya Ryokan in this TIME article.)
What is a ryokan?
A “ryokan” is a type of traditional Japanese-style inn that features flooring made from tatami straw mats. Many ryokan are located outside of the major cities, making them good places to relax and enjoy nature. Also, many ryokan feature natural hot spring baths, known as “onsen.”
We also experienced an “onsen” later in our trip with Dustin’s brother and family in a town called Yugawaura. However, this post is primarily is about our experience at Hiiragaya Ryokan in Kyoto, with a bit of information from the onsen mixed in.
Ryokans are at least 100 years old and have the traditional Japanese architecture of wooden buildings, pointed roofs, bamboo, and greenery. Usually they have simple and serene guest rooms with sliding paper screen doors separating sitting and sleeping areas, tatami mats, low tables, and closets to hide the bedding.
How’s the service?
Exceptional. Beyond….The service given to guests at ryokan is based on what the Japanese proudly call omotenashi: compassionate, heartfelt hospitality.
What to do when you arrive at a ryokan:
Before entering a ryokan, you must remove your shoes. You will be given slippers to wear during your stay. There are often separate toilet slippers as well- here is a picture of our toilet slippers from Hiiragaya Ryokan in Kyoto .
Yet when you are in your room on the tatami mats, you must remove your slippers and enter just in your socks.
While staying at ryokan, you typically wear a yukata. The quality and complexity of the yukata will vary based the ryokan. The one I wore at Hiiragaya Ryokan in Kyoto was a bit more complicated to get on (first picture) whereas the one I wore at the onsen in Yugawaura was simpler (second picture), though you can’t really tell from the pictures.
(By the way, when staying at a ryokan, you’ll have a room maid or “nakai-san” who is there to help you the whole time.)
I liked my yukata and we ended up purchasing a few of them as souvenirs from the department store Takashimaya in Kyoto.
Japanese “onsens” or baths:
Our ryokan in Kyoto wasn’t part of a larger onsen (like the one we stayed at later in the trip with Dustin’s brother and family), but it still had traditional Japanese baths.
In a traditional Japanese bath, you shower first so you are clean before entering the bath. This isn’t like the suggested “please shower before entering the pool” at American pools. This is strictly enforced- SHOWER FIRST! After all, a Japanese bath is for relaxing, not for getting clean. You must wash and scrub your body outside of the bath. When you first enter the room, there will be a small stool and low showers for you to use to clean yourself. Then, you enter the bath completely naked…with other people.
Most onsens will have separate baths for men and women. Sometimes the baths will switch throughout the day (women in one in the morning, men in the afternoon, etc.) You cannot wear a swimsuit in the bath. You are completely naked. Yes, that meant I was completely naked with my sister-in-law when we went to the onsen together. It wasn’t actually that awkward. I fully embraced the traditional Japanese onsen!
Most onsens also have a private bath for reservation as well. Hiiragaya Ryokan in Kyoto had a private bath in our room, as well as a larger private bath that we reserved. The same was true for our onsen in Yugawaura.
Most onsens are heated by underground hot springs, with water that is full of minerals that are great for your skin.
Guest rooms at a ryokan:
Pretty much every guest room in a ryokan will have an area called a “tokonoma” in the room. This is purely for decorative purposes and will almost always include some form of artwork, ornate bonsai tree or flowers. It also looks like an ideal space to store a suitcases, but is actually the worst possible place you could do so. Keep it clear at all times.
Language…Language can be a challenge when staying at a ryokan as most of the people there will not speak English. Dustin’s brother helps us select a ryokan that was foreigner friendly, but our assistant’s English was limited. We used a lot of hand guestures to communicate!
Don’t stay at a ryokan if you don’t like Japanese food; there is no other option. A breakfast could be sashimi, grilled mackerel, dried fish, grated radish, eggplant, dried seaweed, tofu, miso soup and rice.
A night at ryokan will also include a “kaiseki” dinner. This a traditional, multi-course dinner usually beginning with appetizers, followed by sashimi, clear soup, raw fish, grilled fish, steamed vegetables, a salad, rice miso soup, Japanese pickles and a desert at the end. A kaiseki is usually locally sourced, including dishes that are only lightly cooked to retain their color and flavor.
Your meals are served on tables on the tatami mats.
After the meals, the tables are removed and futon beds are set up for sleeping.
Now, these aren’t your college futons…these are incredibly comfortable. I think I slept for 9 hours straight and it was a very deep sleep!
Staying at a ryokan was definitely a unique experience. The room rates are a bit higher than a regular hotel, but the personalized service, atmosphere and included meals are truly an experience to remember.
I walked away thinking that the Japanese really know how to relax.
If you have any questions about staying at a ryokan or going to an onsen, please let me know!