Ryokan Etiquette – Customs & Culture in Traditional Japan   Recently updated !


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A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style accommodation, found throughout the country, especially near hot spring (onsen) areas.   Ryokans are, though, more than just a place to sleep. A ryokan stay is an opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle.    This is a completely different experience from staying in a hotel and a superb cultural experience different to anything you might have undertaken before.   Staying in a Japanese ryokan can be one of the highlights of your trip to Japan.

It’s nothing to be nervous about though, there are just a few simple rules to follow and you’ll have a great stay.  Ryokan etiquette for staying in traditional Japanese ryokans is simple – you’ll find all the details here in our Ryokan Guide.  Find out what you can expect at a ryokan stay, from the rooms to cuisine, communal onsens and how to wear your ryokan robe, the yukata.

What is a Ryokan Experience?

Ryokans date back to the Edo period, 1603 – 1838, and were developed to serve the market of Japanese travellers journeying between Tokyo and Kyoto.  These travellers journeyed primarily on the Nakasendo Trail between the post towns of the period.  You may have walked part of tis trail if you’ve enjoyed the Magome-Tsumago day hike.

A stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan was spent bathing and soothing away the aches of the trail.  Guests enjoyed tea ceremonies and elaborate evening-long dining experience.

What does Ryokan mean?

Ryokan means “Inn”.  Ryokan in Japanese is written as 旅館.  

What is a Ryokan in Japan?

The word translates as Inn, but the these are so much more than just a place to sleep.  Ryokan accommodation in Japan provides you with the ability to experience much more of Japanese culture, even if you do not speak the language.  Japanese ryokan etiquette indicates that here you relax, chill out and leave behind the 21st century, although many have wifi and flat screen TV’s in their rooms!

Ryokans in Japan Today

Today you’ll find more than 80,000 ryokans throughout Japan.  Those that you’ll find in smaller towns and villages will be prettier and more traditional than those in modern cities.  The older ones will usually be in buildings that are at least 100 years old and that still have traditional low wooden buildings.  Smaller ryokans will be family owned and run.

The oldest and most prestigious Ryokan in Japan is the Hoshi Ryokan, near Komatsu on the west of the country in Ishikawa.  The Hoshi Ryokan Hotel Japan has been operated by 46 generations of the same family and was established in 718.   If you reall want a bucket list place to stay with a history, then this is it!  > book your stay in a Ryokan at the oldest Ryokan in Japan!

You’ll find tatami reed mat flooring, Japanese style bathing, sliding paper walls, traditional local cuisine and low tables.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide kaiseki ryoiri set up

Unique Ryokan Experiences

A great part of your ryokan experience should be the respite you get from the modern world, although many ryokans now provide wifi and have flat screen TV’s attached to a wall.  Try and select a traditional ryokan, and fall back centuries and leave the modern world behind for a few hours.



Booking.com

 

You’ll also find the best part of a ryokan experience is that of Japanese hospitality.  Known as omotenashi, this, in ryokans is unique.  It’s this part of the Japanese cultural experience that makes a visit to a Ryokan truly unique.

Selecting the Right Ryokan for your Stay

With more than 80,000 ryokans in Japan, you’ll be sure that there is one to suit you.  While they are mainly found in the spa or onsen towns or in isolated areas you can also find them in cities.  We loved the ryokan we stayed at in Kinosaki Onsen town.  If you are looking for where to stay in Kinosaki onsen town we highly recommend it.

In order to find the right ryokan, you’ll need to consider the following questions.  Or, if you don’t have much time between reading this and travelling to Japan, what is available.

Where in Japan do you want to go?

You no doubt have a route in mind for your trip through Japan.  For most people staying at a ryokan is a bucket list item.  You’re more than likely not going to be staying in a ryokan for every night of your stay.  If you are, congratulations, will you adopt us, please?  Or at least take us along with you?




There are more than 80,000 ryokans in Japan, there is o shortage of ryokan accommodation in Japan.  You will have no problems in finding one that suits your requirements and your route.  You will, however, have to pre-book your stay at a Ryokan. Culturally this is a requirement in Japan, plus when you’re staying in a ryokan food is made specifically for you, so pre-booking is required in order to ensure that you are catered for.



Booking.com

How many nights do you want to stay?

You may be travelling some distance to stay at a particular ryokan and while you’re there you will want to have the full ryokan experience, it is, after all, what you are paying for.  You usually cannot arrive before 3 or 4 pm. Dinner is served at a set time each night.  Breakfast will be served, usually at a flexible time, but you will be expected to check out usually by 10 am.  If this feels rushed to you, then book a second or third night in your ryokan and enjoy the experience.

When do you want to visit?

The peak tourist season in Japan is March to April and October to November.  You will need to pre-book your ryokan accommodation to ensure availability.  Ryokan stays are much revered amongst the domestic Japanese tourist, so it is not just out of the country visitors that you are competing with.  Try avoiding weekends for your ryokan booking.

In high tourist areas, you may find that the most popular ryokans are booked out for months on end.  So start your research and book early.  (Here are some tips on how to plan and research a trip).  When planning your visit to Japan you may want to take the Japanese holidays into account, when travel and ryokans will be especially busy and more expensive.

Peak Ryokan Season

  • Late December to Early January
  • Golden Week – April 29 – May 5
  • Festival of the Dead (Obon) – held in the middle of August

School Trip Season

You will also find that school trip season is busier and more expensive.  This is when thousands of school children go sightseeing to understand their cultural heritage.  You’ll find this school trip season is both Spring and Autumn and tourist locations such as Nara and Kyoto will be fully booked.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide paper doors

Japanese Public Holidays

While we know it may be impossible for you to avoid travelling during Japanese public holidays, they’re worth reviewing before you attempt to book your ryokan.

  • January 1 – New Years Day
  • January 15 – The Coming of Age Day
  • February 11 – The National Foundation Day
  • March 21 – the Vernal Equinox
  • April 29 – Green Day
  • May 3 The Constitution Memorial Day
  • May 5 – Children’s Day
  • July 20 – Maritime Day
  • September 15 – The Respect for the Aged Day
  • September 23 – the Fall Equinox Day
  • 2nd Monday in October – Health Sports Day
  • November 3 – Culture Day
  • November 23 – Labour Day
  • December 23 – The Emperor’s Birthday

You may also find that ryokans are booked around the peak of the Japanese Cherry Blossom season.

How many in your group?

Groups of 2, 3 or 4 are easier to accommodate in Ryokans.  Single travellers are less popular in ryokans, so you may find a single supplement applied.  Larger groups might find it more difficult to find accommodation in the same ryokan.  If you’re a larger group, you might consider going somewhere like Kinoskai Onsen town, where you’ll find several superb ryokans.



What is your budget?

The minimum that you’re likely to pay for two people in a ryokan with the full dinner and breakfast experience is around US$175 per Ryokan room. You are likely to pay a lot more than this.  The price will depend on the location, the star category and the ryokan meal options.  Is it worth staying in a ryokan?  We travel on a budget, but we splurged on ryokans – because we wanted to experience the full Japanese cultural experience.  I say absolutely, yes.

What dining experience do you want in a ryokan?

A stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan includes both dinner and breakfast in your price.   The higher end ryokans include a traditional multi-course dinner called Kaiseki and breakfast, both of which are served in your traditional Japanese room.  We loved our Ryokan Kaiseki Ryori experiences in Japan – you can read about this and what else to eat in our Guide to Japanese Food. 

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide dinner

How to Book your Stay at a Ryokan

Pre-booking is a requirement both culturally in Japan and for your host to prepare for your arrival, especially if you are partaking of the dining options available.    Pre-booking a ryokan stay is simple.  You can do this online easily, be sure to follow the instructions for check-in and departure times.  Booking.com allows you to read all of this information in English.



Booking.com

Be sure to note if you have any special dietary requirements on your booking.  If you do not, then staff will assume that you will eat everything that they normally provide.   Menus will usually feature specialities and seasonal specialities.  Be very careful about mentioning any food allergies – wheat, seafood, soy and egg are used extensively in Japanese cuisine.    Vegetarians and vegans should make specific requests to see if the ryokan can cater for their requirements.

The following ryokans provide vegetarian and vegan options and are highly recommended.

Ryokans for Vegetarians & Vegan Ryokans

  1.  Vegetarian Ryokan Hakone – Fukumiro – review ryokan availability
  2.  Vegetarian Ryokan Koyacho -The Eko-in  – check availability and book a ryokan room
  3.  Vegetarian Ryokan Nakanojo – Shima Onsen Kasiwaya  – find a room
  4.  Vegetarian Ryokan Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo – book your vegetarian ryokan now.

The Key Elements of Ryokan Etiquette

There are a number of expected behaviours when you stay in a ryokan.  It starts with your arrival, so we’ve approached this article from the beginning of your stay.  We cover your arrival, check in and what usually happens next.  What to wear at a ryokan, what to do with your shoes, what to put on your feet and when and how to eat, sleep and bathe during your stay.  We hope you enjoy!

Arriving at a Ryokan

Please do not arrive before your scheduled time.   Equally, you should not be late.  Punctuality is highly regarded in Japan.    Usual arrival times are between 2 pm and 4 pm. Many ryokans, especially small family run ones will specify an arrival time.

When you do arrive, wait to be invited in.  Ryokan staff are used to dealing with western tourists, but you should be aware of a number of cultural sensitivities.

  • You should remove your shoes as you step up into the traditional foyer (genkan). There will likely be a small step up to the reception area. Do not step on this step in your shoes.  Your host may remove your shoes and store them until you leave.
  • Some more modern ryokans do not require that your shoes be removed until you reach your room. Regardless you should NEVER wear any type of footwear on tatami matting.
  • Put on a pair of slippers, which will be provided, before you go inside. If these are indoor slippers, then they will be on the higher level, waiting for you.
  • You may also find geta (wooden clogs) for outdoor use, especially if you are staying in a hot springs area- they’re easy to spot.
  • If you carry your own suitcase, then carry, do not roll them in your room, as the floors may be made of tatami. Your host will generally be watching out for this and will guide you, even if it is not in English.
  • Any slippers you are wearing should be left outside your room if you have a traditional Japanese room with tatami matting. You should only walk on tatami mat flooring in bare feet or with socks on.

Checking in at a Ryokan

Your check-in will usually include confirming

  1. Dinner arrangements – if you are having dinner, the time of this. Dinner is usually served between 6 pm and 7 pm in a ryokan.
  2. Breakfast arrangements – again confirming the time of breakfast.
  3. If there is a choice of foodstuffs it will be discussed with you at this point. If you have any food allergies, please be sure to reaffirm what they are, preferably with a Japanese translation.
  4. Payment details if you have not paid in advance
  5. Check out times
  6. If you are staying in a hot springs area where public onsens are available, then your host will also explain how hot spring passes work.

You shouldn’t be too worried if you don’t take all of this in.  Japanese hosts are most gracious and have experience of western visitors unused to this cultural experience.  Simply ask again if you don’t recall the information.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide tea on arrival

Check in at a ryokan usually includes the serving of tea and sweets.  This may be in the foyer area or in your room.   This differs between ryokans, so simply follow the lead of your host.




 

From Check in at the Ryokan to Your Room

After you check in at your ryokan, your host will lead you to your room.  Any slippers that you have donned should be discarded and left outside the room.  Only walk on tatami flooring with bare feet or with socks on.

What to Expect in a Ryokan

Staying at traditional ryokans in Japan is somewhat different from staying at a hotel.  If you have opted for a Japanese room then you’ll notice differences in the room from a traditional hotel room.  Bathing facilities are also different, as are dining facilities.

Traditional Ryokan Rooms

Many ryokans offer a Japanese or Western-style room.   You will be required to remove slippers before entering a Japanese style room.

The floor in your room will be covered with tatami (reed) mats.  Expect also paper interior walls and sliding doors on closets.   These walls and doors are extremely fragile, be very careful with them.

 

The room, when you arrive will be set up for day use.  There will be no sign of any bedding, usually just a low table with a tea set, a flask of hot water, tea and sweets.   You will also likely have a “zaisu” – a chair with no legs.  If there are no zaisu, then there will be zabutons – cushions for resting on at the low table.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide zaisu

A traditional Japanese ryokan room also has an alcove called a tokonoma or a tokoma.  You’ll find a hanging scroll in here decorated with calligraphy or a painting.  This area might look like storage space, but it’s not.  Put your bags in the closet, where the floor will not be covered in tatami matting.

the alcove stay in a ryokan etiquette guide

Bedding in a Traditional Japanese Ryokan Room

The bedding for your room in a traditional Japanese Ryokan is a futon. It will be stored with duvets in a closet inside the room.  A maid will visit your room and set it out for nighttime after you have had dinner.

A Japanese futon mattress is much thicker than those you may have slept on in the west.   We found ours extremely comfortable and very relaxing.    A thick duvet and pillow will also be laid out.  If you feel the cold, you can always ask for extra blankets.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide futons and duvet

You may also be provided with pyjamas.  These may likely take the form of a thin, plain white yukata or a wrap around shirt and trousers.  Be aware that they’re usually sized to the Japanese body!  If you wear your yukata to an onsen and return wearing it, your ryokan staff will likely also provide you with a sleep yukata.

A maid will also put the bedding away in the morning in order that you have breakfast.  If you are breakfasting in your room, then this usually happens when you go to use the communal bath.  You don’t have to notify anyone, it just all happens magically.

Ryokan Clothing – the Yukata and Yukata Etiquette

The uninitated may call the ryokan clothes you receive when you arrive in a ryokan kimono, but these items of clothing that you’ll get are call yukata.  In traditional ryokan etiquette, yukata wearing is common place.  You will receive a traditional yukata to wear during your stay at the ryokan.

The rather plain yukata is made of cotton and designed to be worn either over your underwear or with no underwear.  You usually wear this in your room, around the ryokan and if you’re staying in an onsen town, you wear it while walking around the onsen town.



You may also be provided with an outer robe or coat if the weather is cold and you wish to venture outside.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide yukata

 

Yukata Etiquette

 

The traditional Japanese sleeping robe, the yukata can look complicated to put on, so here’s a short guide.

Yukata – how to wear

The right panel of the yukata should be crossed over your chest first, followed by the left.  Think LEFT ON TOP.  Doing this the opposite way round means you’re following funeral rites!   There’s also a belt to hold it all together.   It’s quite simple to follow, but if you want a more descriptive way of how to wear yukatas, then this site has a great short overview.

Although we were initially concerned, my ryokan yukata was comfortable to sleep in and I only had mild anxiety while walking around the onsen town of Kinosaki in it (although our visit to Kinosaki Onsen town coincided with a typhoon which was likely the cause of most of the anxiety!)

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide wearing a yukata

Do you wear yukata to dinner?

You do not have to wear the yukata during your stay at the ryokan, but it does add significantly to the experience.

Do you wear underwear with the yukata?

It is up to you if you wear underwear.  Yukata wearing does add, for me, significantly to the ryokan experience, as does attempting to walk in the geta (wooden clogs).

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide geto

Toilets and Restrooms at Ryokans

If you have opted for a traditional Japanese room then there is unlikely to be an ensuite restroom/toilet.  If you do have an ensuite toilet it will be outside the room, but close by.  Many mid-range ryokans have shared toilets and wash basins.

There will usually be a separate pair of slippers to use in the toilets.  This will all be made clear by your host.  Leave your ryokan slippers outside the restroom and switch to the restroom slippers that you’ll find just outside the doorway.  Don’t forget to switch back – this is most common western tourist faux pas in Japan!

Bathing Facilities at Ryokans

Traditional ryokans follow Japanese bathing customs and have an onsen or hot spring bathing pools.  Japanese onsen etiquette is simple.  A Japanese bath or onsen is a place to soak, not to clean.  Each onsen has a washing area before you enter the onsen.  Japanese bath etiquette is that they are are usually communal and gender segregated.   Although you should be aware of the signage, these will usually alternate.  One day the men’s onsen will be for men, the next for women.

Ryokan Bath Etiquette

It is traditional ryokan onsen etiquette to bathe before dinner, sometimes after dinner and before breakfast.

Alternating Onsens in Ryokans.

The onsens alternate between usage for genders in ryokans because the layout and design of the two onsens are usually different.  The alternating is to enable both genders to experience both onsens.  Make sure you watch the signs when you bathe the next morning to ensure that they have or haven’t changed!

The communal baths are identified by the curtains that hang outside the doors to the changing room.   Usually, it’s a blue curtain for men and red for women.

Private Onsens in Ryokans

If you have opted for the luxury end of the market, then you may have a private onsen.  This may be inside or outside the ryokan.

If you’re looking for luxury and don’t have much time – try the Hoshinoya Ryokan in Tokyo – you can find a room here.  Or head to the Fuji Hoshinoya Ryokan – a luxury ryokan in the Fuji 5 lakes area.

Private Bathing Times Ryokan Onsens

It may be possible to book private usage of the shared onsens.  Please check with your ryokan host.

Japanese Public Bath Etiquette – Using the Communal Onsen in a Ryokan

It is usual to take a Japanese style bath before dinner when staying in an onsen.  When you arrive at the bath, first check that the male/female bath has not changed!

  1. Leave your cameras and phones in your room – this is a public space and photography is strictly forbidden!
  2. Put all your clothes (or yukata if you have changed into it) into the baskets and lockers (if available) provided. Now you’re naked, take a moment to get over the nervousness and realize that this is completely normal!
  3. If you have tattoos then you must cover them up when using the onsen. This is because in Japan tattoos were historically associated with crime.  If you are unsure about your tattoo, then ask your host.
  4. Take the small towel provided and go into the bathing area just outside the public bath.
  5. Sit on one of the small plastic stools, soap, shampoo and rinse. There is no need to wash your hair if you intend to keep it out of the water.  Toiletries and mirrors are usually provided here.
  6. When you are fully rinsed head into the public bath for a soak. Don’t take your towel into the bath.  Leave it on the side or put it on your head.
  7. Don’t put your head under the water in the bath.
  8. Don’t use soap or shampoo in the bath. This is just for soaking.
  9. No swimming, diving or larking around. Chill out and relax.
  10. You can shower again before redressing if you want. Hairdryers are also usually provided if your hair is wet.

Traditional Dinner in a Ryokan – Kaiseki Ryori

Dinner in a ryokan is served either in a dining room or your room.  It is usual to be served between 6 pm and 7 pm.   It is traditional to wear your yukata to dinner.   Alcohol is not usually included in the cost of your stay and your ryokan meals, but do enjoy a glass or two of Japanese beer or Sake with your meal and complete the experience.

Kaiseki ryori stay in a ryokan etiquette guide

Ryokan Dinner Etiquette –  Kaiseki Etiquette

When you stay in a traditional ryokan dinner is served in your room.  You kneel on the tatami floor, or use the low level seats to eat your dinner at the low tables.  Staff will bring you your dinner at the prescribed time that you have agreed with them.

Traditional dinners in Ryokans are called the “Kaiseki Ryôri,”.  This is a meal consisting of many small dishes that are specialities of the region with specific seasonal ingredients.  The presentation is elaborate and there is little more than a taste of each dish, but you should be full by the end of the meal.  If you’re unsure as to how to eat any part of it simply ask the serving staff – they probably get the same questions each week!



The Ryokan food looks as good as it tastes.  Each course is served on beautiful ceramics and laid out exquisitely.   This isn’t like the public bath, and cameras are definitely allowed!

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide dinner

At the majority of ryokans, there isn’t a menu to choose from.  The chef simply decides what to provide based on seasonally available produce.

When we stayed in Kinosaki Onsen, we specifically selected our Ryokan because of their reputation for dinners.  Check out the Ryokan Shinoonmeso in Kinosaki Onsen Town, for prices and availability.  

Japanese Kaiseki Ryori (Traditional Japanese Dinner)https://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/shinonomeso.html?aid=921868&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1we

  • The term “kaiseki” translates as “hot stone in a kimono fold”. It stems from the belief that priests would put hot stones wrapped in towels close to their stomachs to stave off hunger pangs during their prayers.
  • You can expect anywhere from 6 to 15 dishes in a Kaiseki Ryori. You can expect the following types of dishes, all of which will depend on seasonal availability and variations.
  • Appetizers
  • Sashimi – thinly sliced raw fish with wasabi and soy
  • Soup – usually a clear broth with vegetables, tofu and perhaps seafood.
  • Cooked Vegetables & Meat or Seafood – a soy, sake and sugar broth surrounds the vegetables and meat or seafood.
  • Vegetable or seafood tempura – light batter gives the vegetables or seafood a crunchy texture.
  • Japanese pickles – bite-sized pieces of vegetables and fish. The acid in the vinegar cooks the food slightly.
  • Grilled dish – this may be fish on the coast or beef inland – you are provided with the means to grill this to your satisfaction.
  • A steamed dish – its most popular to serve a savoury egg custard with broth, seafood, chicken, or vegetables.  You eat this with a spoon.  As a Westerner, you’ll likely think this is more a dessert item.

Traditional Japanese dinner etiquette indicates that at the end of the meal, you’ll be served rice, miso soup and pickles.  These are Japanese staples and are served at the end of most meals.    There is rarely a dessert, other than perhaps ice cream or sorbet to cleanse the palate.

If you’re eating in the dining room, then the maid will take the opportunity to make your room ready for night-time by laying our your futon and duvet.

 

If you’re staying in an onsen town, then you should take a walk after dinner, perhaps visit the public onsens and enjoy the air.  Most people tend to go to bed early when staying at a ryokan.

 

Breakfast in a Ryokan

You’ll want to go the whole way and have a traditional Japanese breakfast if you’re staying in a ryokan.   A traditional ryokan breakfast is rice, miso soup, grilled fish and tsukemono (Japanese pickles.  There will also likely be tofu and nori (dried seaweed).    Depending on where your ryokan stay is, there may also be local delicacies.

stay in a ryokan etiquette guide breakfast

There is also, of course, tea, and if you ask for it, coffee too.   It might be the only truly traditional Japanese breakfast that you have, so give it a go.

Ryokan Tipping Etiquette

Tipping at ryokans (and indeed tipping in Japan as a whole) is not the cultural norm, and it is very definitely not expected (we were chased out of a restaurant once after leaving money on the table.  Our waiter returned it to us and would not accept it for this exceptional service!  It is no different in a ryokan.

If you truly feel that you want to tip, then be sure to place the cash in an envelope and hand it to the

Staying in a ryokan in Japan is a unique experience and one you shouldn’t rush, or feel nervous about.  Your hosts will be very gracious and will advise on all manner of customs and the etiquette of your stay.  We suggest, you embrace the full experience, don the yukata, use the getos and enjoy the onsen experience to its full!

Did you stay in a Ryokan yet?  Let us know where you stayed and what your recommendations are!

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About Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter is an avid reader, writer and traveller. She loves hiking, sailing, skiing and exploring the world through food. She left a successful career in IT security and compliance in both the UK and US to travel the world with husband and partner in adventure, Nigel.

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