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Ryokan: A Traditional Japanese Experience

June 6th, 2009

ryokan-japanIn Japan’s Edo period, travelers couldn’t reserve a room in an inn with a private bath. They stayed in a ryokan. From the early part of the 17th century, the ryokan has graciously served the sleepy, hungry wayfarer. In the early days, the patrons slept side by side on matted floors. The baths, too, were communal and there was little privacy. But even then, the innkeepers took good care of their guest’s needs. Japanese ryokan tradition offered and still offers the guest a warm welcome and excellent service.

Today there are over 50,000 ryokans in Japan. The traditional guest house has not disappeared. The ryokan innkeepers of Japan are adamant about preserving the tradition.

Most ryokans offer private accommodation. As a guest, you can enter your quarters through an anti-room where you slip out of your shoes. A paper screen, known as shoji, divides the rooms. You will find a sleek minimalist room design with only the bare essentials necessary to your comfort. In most ryokans today, all the rooms have a small alcove built into one wall and it’s usually decorated with a traditionally styled flower arrangement. The floors are covered with tatami, which is a reed mat. There will be a low table surrounded by cushions and a futon with quilts for sleeping. You may have towels for your bath and a robe to put on after bathing.

It is possible to reserve a room with private bathing facilities, but to experience the true Japanese ryokan tradition, many westerners choose the communal baths. Japan is a country blessed with numerous hot springs and many ryokans have been built to take advantage of these bubbling waters. If the traveler chooses the communal bath, he or she must expect to bathe in the nude. Men and women usually have separate bathing times. Swimsuits are not worn.

Most meals are served in a communal dining room, but some ryokans will offer meals in the rooms. Guests will be offered a huge array of traditional foods and foods specific to the area of the country where they are staying. You may even be lucky enough to stay in a ryokan that offers the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for its guests.

There is very little English spoken in these inns. There is no thermostat for central heating or air conditioning. Heating and air conditioning units are only brought into the rooms when necessary.

Fees include a meal upon evening arrival (usually between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) and breakfast between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Departure times are usually by 10:00 a.m. According to the Japan Ryokan Association, fees begin at approximately $40 US and can go up to several hundred US dollars, depending on day of week and the type of accommodation the guest requires.

For most westerners, your stay in a ryokan is a cultural experience. It’s like going back in time and to another world. All your senses will be affected.


Lorraine (Rain) Syratt is a writer with interests in travel, history and gardening. She is presently working on two historical novels set in 17th and 18th century England. She was an editor for a small press publisher and has been published in Canadian Living Magazine.


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