Japan offers amazing experiences for first-time visitors, from trying different foods to visiting temples. Often, this includes learning new things and discovering traditions unfamiliar to us. If your family travel includes your first stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, then you will soon learn your hotel stay will also be about learning new traditions. Knowing what to expect before you go will help make your stay much smoother so you can spend time relaxing and getting to know the “real Japan.”
Shoes are typically off-limits. Shoes are seldom worn inside Japanese homes, and ryokans are no different. Many have you leave your shoes at the door and provide a pair of slippers to be worn throughout the hotel. Some ryokans adopted a more Westernized style, allowing you to wear your shoes in the common areas of the hotel. But, once in your room, you are expected to wear the slippers provided for you, especially when walking on the tatami mats.
It is also customary to wear traditional clothing within the ryokan. This refers to yukata, a traditional kimono used in Japanese homes for relaxation. While you can bring your own, the ryokan will provide you with freshly cleaned yukata you can wear around the hotel and to meals. If you don’t know how to properly wear a yukata, the staff will be happy to help.
Once in your room, you probably won’t find a bed. Your room in a ryokan will likely consist of a private suite with multiple rooms separated by paper screen doors. The main room is a combination of living and dining room, converted into a sleeping room at night by the hotel staff. I spent quite some time on my first visit to a ryokan trying to find the bed, wondering if I was in a puzzle room I couldn’t quite figure out. It turns out each room has a large closet where futon cushions and bedding are stored during the day.
Ryokans are traditionally built around natural hot springs, so your hotel will likely contain public baths you can enjoy during your stay (some even have thermal spring hot tubs in the rooms themselves). These public baths have their own guidelines, though, and it is important to follow them. For example, they are for soaking in hot water, not for cleaning, so be sure to clean yourself before getting in.
You will also find a level of customer service not typically found in any other accommodation. The staff wants customers to be happy and comfortable and will go to great lengths to provide you with a positive experience. That great service doesn’t mean you need to leave a tip at the end of your stay, however. Tipping is frowned upon throughout Japan, especially at the ryokans where a service charge is included in your bill.
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