If you're planning out your Japanese trip then naturally, one of the biggest things to consider is where you're going to stay. You might be researching hotels or AirBnB locations, but one style of accommodation that you may not have considered if you've never been to Japan before are ryokans. Ryokans are traditional Japanese style inns, and they've been around since the 8th Century - with that kind of track record you know they're good. Here are five reasons why staying at a ryokan makes for a great addition to your Japan vacation plans.
You'll experience that incredible Japanese hospitality
There's a specific word in Japanese that loosely translates into English as "hospitality" - omotenashi. It's more than just hospitality though. You'll experience it if you walk into a store at a mall in Japan, and you'll be greeted with an enthusiastic "irasshaimase!" by the staff there (meaning welcome to the store, or come on in). You'll feel it when you buy something somewhere and the store assistant will wrap it with so much precision and care that you'll think that $30 item you just purchased is secretly the equivalent of $3000. And you'll most certainly notice it if you stay at a ryokan. At a ryokan you'll often find someone who will take your bags to your room for you while you're checking in. You're usually provided with a cup of tea and some kind of sweet while they run over the room arrangements and meal situation with you. And if your room booking comes with meals, you'll see how much care is put into what you're served with all the beautiful details and thoughtful explanations. In short, you'll feel like a VIP every step of the way.
You get to pick a yukata to wear
Worried that you didn't pack enough outfit changes in your suitcase or backpack? Well, if you've got a ryokan stay booked, it's very likely that they will have a choice of yukata for you to wear. Essentially, a yukata is a summer-weight kimono made of cotton, and you'll see them in all manner of colors and patterns. Don't worry if you're staying at a ryokan in the winter months and you're concerned that a lightweight cotton outfit is going to leave you cold - the ryokan will also give you an outer garment to put over the top of it at that time of the year.
You can wear the yukata to your meals, to the bathing facilities, and even when you're just lounging about in your room. They're comfortable, practical and versatile - plus, it's fun to get some pictures from your time in Japan in some traditional clothing, and this is a great way to do that. Just as a side note - it's not compulsory to wear them everywhere, so if you're headed to breakfast and you'd be more comfortable wearing regular clothes that's just fine, too!
You'll be served some amazing food - including lots of regional specialties!
Most ryokans that you choose from will have options for either full board or half board - that's where you get all or some of your meals included in the cost of the accommodation. The dinners are usually served kaiseki style - think a multi course meal, all plated on gorgeous dishware, with beautiful seasonal touches like flowers or leaves adorning your food. The picture I took below is from a ryokan stay I took last fall - that Japanese maple leaf and flower placed on top of one of the courses shows just how aesthetically pleasing these dishes at ryokans can be.
Another one of my favorite reasons to stay at a ryokan is that you get regional specialties galore at these places. Staying somewhere that is renowned for their amazing beef? It's likely that your meals will consist of many tasty beef options. Perhaps you're staying somewhere coastal, so you might be treated to some incredibly fresh seafood. Whatever the case may be, your food is prepared and presented beautifully and will give you a glimpse into some of the area's best cuisine.
Because there are so many different courses, it is likely that some things served up might be outside your comfort zone, or things you wouldn't typically eat - I say give them a try (even if it's just a nibble!) because you might be pleasantly surprised. * Just a quick side note on the food: if you do have a food allergy or intolerance, let the ryokan know when you book (on many booking sites there is a "special requests" web form). They may even ask you at check in about your meals and if there are any specific things that you dislike or are allergic to. They are in the hospitality industry, and want you to have a great time - so for the most part, they should be able to cater to those requirements.
Onsen - say no more!
A popular addition to many travelers must-do lists when visiting Japan is to head to an onsen. Well, at ryokans you're in luck, with many of them having onsen facilities available. At a minimum most of them will at least have a public bath house, but a lot of ryokan are located in spots that have hot springs in the area (and therefore onsen) - it's one of the benefits of Japan being such a volcanically active country.
One of my favorite things to do when I'm researching ryokan myself is to check and see if they have a private, in-room bath available. The picture below is from a ryokan stay near Mt. Fuji that I visited earlier this year. The room had a private balcony onsen which was incredibly relaxing - and you can't beat that view! It's also great to have an in-room private bath if you're a little shy about the idea of getting your clothes off in front of a group of strangers in the public baths (but rest assured - no one is gawking at you, they're all just there to bathe and relax).
You can try sleeping on tatami floors with futon bedding
For another unique cultural experience, I think the futons on tatami flooring sleeping arrangement is a lot of fun. Some ryokan will offer a choice of western bedding too (although they might be a bit more firm than what you're used to back home) but I think if you're up for it, try the futons - you might find them surprisingly to your liking! One of the most convenient parts about futon bedding is that during the day, they're packed away in one of the room's closets - so that you have the full space of the room available to you. Usually when you're at dinner (if you've got meals included with your stay) the staff will come and set up your beds so that when you're back in your room you can relax.
Hopefully on your travels to Japan you'll be able to enjoy a ryokan stay for at least one night - you're bound to have a great experience!
Enjoy Japan, and Safe Travels!
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