My adventures in a Japanese Ryokan . . .
Traveling to Japan this summer? Prepare yourself for a unique country where modern bullet trains fuse with a 1500-year-old culture of traditional shrines and temples. But, no visit to Japan is complete without a stay in a traditional Japanese guest house called ryokans.
Recently, my family and I toured Japan for eleven days—for ten days we stayed in spacious, modern but soulless hotels—the Hyatt Regency in Tokyo and Kyoto, but the one night we spent at Arashiyama Benkei was the highlight of our trip. Here are five reasons why you must stay in a ryokan:
1. Ryokans are found all over the country, though they are typically located in scenic towns and areas where you can enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings of Japan. For our stay, we chose the Arashiyama Benkei—a hot spring inn in a tree filled area across the road from the Katsura river and a ten-minute walk from the historic bamboo forest.
2. Today there are 60,000 Ryokans ranging from small family-run inns to larger, luxurious ones. The buildings are often at least 100 years old and have the traditional Japanese architecture of wooden buildings, pointed roofs, bamboo, and greenery. Many have beautiful gardens. Ryokans have simple and serene guest rooms with sliding paper screen doors separating, sitting and sleeping areas, tatami (reed) mats, low tables and closets to hide the bedding. Linens cover the telephone and television so that they don't interfere with the soothing environment. Where else would you get the unique experience of sleeping on a futon on the floor or drinking traditional Japanese tea in a legless chair?
3. The level of hospitality at Ryokans is so high, and the staff is so eager to please, which is a fundamental aspect of human relations in Japan, that you are ensured that your stay will be a comfortable one. In our case, I had informed the staff at our ryokan that my daughter has a seafood allergy. She was instead given Wagyu beef for her entree and the rest of us were beseeching her for a taste of this delicacy! Also, you will be pleasantly surprised that none of the ryokan staff will accept tips. We tried to leave a tip and we were turned down!
4. In staying at a ryokan, guests are expected to follow certain customs during their stay, and the procedures are the same at all ryokans. Upon arrival, you trade in your shoes and 'regular' clothes for a yukata (kimono) and Japenese bamboo slippers (geta), both of which are supplied by the ryokan. Similarly, there is no other option but to eat the traditional food prepared in the kitchen for breakfast and dinner. A word of advice—don't stay in a ryokan if you don't like Japanese food!
While every ryokan is different, dinner usually features:
- Local vegetables, both grown and foraged
- The bounty of the sea, and often local rivers
- Local Meats
- The staples of Japanese food, such as miso soup and rice
- Drinks including local sake or shochu, beer, and tea. These beautiful feasts are an unforgettable culinary experience, and a great way to sample Japanese foods you may never get to experience again.
5. Hot springs are bubbling everywhere in Japan. In fact, Japanese people have been enjoying them for hundreds of years, not only for their proven health benefits but for socializing as well. The hot spring experience is best indulged in at ryokan—we reserved a 45-minute private session in our ryokan's spacious outdoor bath, and our happy chatter filled the starry night as the healing hot water bubbled and enveloped our bodies like a living blanket.
In a nutshell, while the minimalist ryokan experience may have some minor discomforts, the beauty and culture of these traditional wooden structures more than make up for it!