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Sleeping in true cultural immersion

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This time last year I sailed a two-week cruise around the islands of Japan with our oldest son. I loved Japan and learning about the culture. Since I’m particularly into authentic experiences and cultural immersion, one of the highlights was staying in a ryokan before our cruise, and I’d like to share the concept of the ryokan…

How does a ryokan provide a better cultural experience than a hotel when visiting Japan?

Accommodations are always a significant consideration for a trip, as they can provide a base to tour from, amazing views, convenient access to key sights, a touch of indulgence while traveling, or just a good night’s sleep after a busy day.

However, in Japan, there is another option that provides full immersion in the culture. Staying in a ryokan provides a true traditional Japanese experience and one that is recommended for all travelers – at least once.

What is a ryokan?

A ryokan is a style of traditional Japanese accommodation. It is commonly translated as a Japanese inn, due to the cozy, welcoming atmosphere. Ryokans are often connected to hot springs resorts and are popular as a relaxing weekend getaway. They are an integral part of Japanese culture, and staying in a ryokan is a great way to experience this culture.

What are the cultural aspects of a ryokan?

Staying in a ryokan is a very traditional Japanese experience. The rooms, service, and overall atmosphere has very little Western influence. The rooms have tatami mat flooring, the beds are futons, and there are usually paper screen doors (shoji) to separate areas like the closet. Ryokan design is very much still imbued with the aesthetic appeal of old Japan. Ryokans are intended to be a relaxing experience, so there is a lot of effort to create calm and peaceful areas for guests to enjoy. These often include onsen or hot spring baths, spas, and Japanese-style gardens.

Another key aspect of staying at a ryokan is the food. Usually, dinner and breakfast will be provided to guests. The dinner is a selection of traditional Japanese cuisine, usually served as kaiseki ryori. Kaiseki ryori is a type of Japanese food that focuses on the freshest, best quality items and celebrates the flavor without over-seasoning or masking the taste. It is sometimes compared to haute cuisine in the level of preparation and attention to detail. Ryokans have the same attention to detail when it comes to the room, the experience, and the food.

So why should you visit a ryokan? When visiting Japan, most travelers are keen to see traditional temples, shrines, castles, and get a glimpse into the traditional Japanese culture. Staying at a ryokan offers more than just a glimpse; it is a full immersive experience. Most of the key elements of a ryokan can be experienced separately – there are day onsens, kaiseki ryori restaurants, tatami room exhibits, but staying at a ryokan brings all these elements together and allows you to live the traditional Japanese experience, rather than just observe.

What is involved in staying at a ryokan?

There are several aspects to keep in mind when staying at a ryokan. Firstly, the room. As mentioned, the beds will be futons, but unlike cheap American styles you may have experienced, these are exceptionally comfortable futons. It is very uncommon to have Western-style beds in a ryokan. The futons will be folded away in a closet during the day, and a staff member will bring them out and set them up at night. However, the bathroom and toilet areas are usually in the Western-style. It is also possible to have a Western-style sitting area in the room, consisting of a couch or chairs and a table. This isn’t considered an essential part of the room, so it may not be included. There will also be a closet in which to keep your luggage and hang your yukata. Most ryokans will provide a ‘towel set’ or ‘yukata set,’ including the standard bath towel hand towels supplied by hotels, along with a yukata. Yukatas are traditional Japanese loungewear and are a more casual, easier to wear version of kimono. It is common to wear the yukata at meals, to the bath, and anywhere around the ryokan. If you feel uncomfortable wearing the yukata, it is also acceptable to wear your own clothes – but it is so cool to immerse yourself into the experience by dressing the part!

Baths are an area of large variation when it comes to ryokans. The relaxation of a hot spring bath is an integral part of Japanese culture, but there is a range of ways this can be offered. It is common for there to be gender-separated indoor public baths. Some ryokan will also have outdoor baths to allow the guests to enjoy nature while relaxing in the onsen. Some may offer private baths which can be reserved. More high-end ryokan may also have a private bath for individual rooms.

Dinner is another prominent feature of staying at a ryokan with the kaiseki ryori meal. This is often served in the individual rooms, although it can sometimes be served in a communal dining area. The meal will be served at a low table while seated on the floor. Most ryokans also provide a Japanese-style breakfast. It is not common to request changes due to dietary requirements, so it is important to notify the ryokan ahead of arrival if this is necessary.

How is a luxury city ryokan different from a countryside ryokan?

In recent years there has been a large focus on luxury ryokans. While these still generally follow the traditional Japanese design, it is more likely that Western-style facilities will be available. This may include chairs and tables, beds, and an optional Western menu. Ryokans located in more countryside areas are often more traditional in terms of facilities with fewer additional features. They also tend to have a more authentic atmosphere and usually have kept the same ways of doing things for many years. The countryside location also allows for a quieter, more nature-inspired experience.

When visiting Japan, staying in a ryokan is a must-try. Whether it is a luxury ryokan or a countryside ryokan, the experience will be unlike any other. From the relaxing hot spring baths to the delicious multi-course kaiseki ryori, a ryokan stay is a true Japanese cultural experience and one to remember.