Basic Rules you need to know before staying in a Traditional Japanese Ryokan

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“Let’s go to a Japanese Ryokan with an Onsen!”, sounded cool and I hadn’t been to Japan in a while, but I didn’t have even an idea of what a Japanese Ryokan or an onsen was. It turned out to be a traditional Japanese hotel complete with traditional onsen baths. I thought I would share my experience to help anyone learn some basic customs to know before going to one of these unique places.
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The Japanese are extremely polite and helpful people with some deep rooted traditions. I don’t think that I there is hospitality quite like it in any country i’ve visited, from the food stalls in the underground to the high end stores everyone was happy to help, happy to serve. This is one of the reasons for me why a trip to Japan is so enjoyable, the people make it an extremely memorable trip. There was no exception at the Yagyu-no-sho a traditional Ryokan where we stayed on my recent visit to Japan. Located 2 hours south of Tokyo in Shuzenji. We drove down after a late lunch in Tokyo and arrived just as the sun was going down. Warmly welcomed by the staff who met us at the car as we pulled in front of the hotel, they carried our cases to our rooms. They have to place your suitcase in your room on special thick mats as the floor of the rooms are covered in traditional Japanese tatami mats. This ensures your suitcase doesn’t dent or damage the mats. When you enter the hotel you are asked to remove your shoes, they keep them for you for the duration of your visit by the entrance, you are then provided slippers to wear the whole time you are in the hotel. However take the slippers off when you enter your room as no shoes are allowed on tatami mats, don’t worry there are socks provided to wear in your room and slippers in the toilet to save you from freezing feet on the cold tiles.
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Our room was extremely spacious, we took one of the suites called Ume-no-O which including a little reading room which looked onto a small garden and a bigger room. Including a tiny bonus room which looked like a traditional dressing room to get ready in all with traditional paper sliding doors.
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One thing that I noticed when I entered the room was a lack of beds, hmm… Was I expected to sleep on the tatami mats as I have seen in those Japanese movies?!?! I needn’t have worried, a lady appeared and asked us which room we would like our beds set up, phew. The bedding is stored in the wardrobed in the room and traditionally everyone sleeps in the same room. Be aware that Ryokan staff ask to enter your room to provide services such as preparing your bed after dinner, put away your bed in the morning and setting up your table and serving you dinner and breakfast in your room as traditionally rooms are multi-purpose.
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You are also provided with a Yukata which is a casual kimono worn at home for relaxing or outfits. It is not to be mistaken as a dressing down as they do not provide much heat but traditionally a short Yukata can be slept in. Don’t worry you can opt to sleep in your own PJs. To make the Yukata warmer you can wear a coat on top, we were provided with 2 long Yukata and a short one on our arrival which is to be worn the majority of the time while in the Ryokan. It helps with the relaxation and getting in and out of the baths without having to change the whole time. It was still quite cold while we were there and I found wearing a vest and some undergarments helped with that while I was having dinner and just hanging out in the hotel. But to be honest while getting in and out of the onsen baths they are really useful and they have the most beautiful patterns on them. Perfect to be pictured out in the beautiful Japanese gardens surrounding our rooms.
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Meals are served in your room or in a dining room if your room is not big enough, staff come and set your table for breakfast and dinner. I have had Japanese food several times however the experience at the Ryokan was unlike any I have had. Sitting on the floor in our yukata and being served little course by little course was a truly great experience.
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Wagyu’s evening meal is a feast for the eyes and they value seasonal fresh ingredients, everything is served to you by staff and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy.
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Some of the dishes were not completely to our taste, although surprisingly enough and thankfully after eating several courses over a couple of hours you do feel rather full.
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Highlight dishes for me included the fresh sashimi we got every night, the tempura beef and the cook your own beef on a hot stone including some vegetables. Which surprisingly provided a very smokey taste on the food.
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If you don’t wish to be served a Japanese breakfast in the morning which is traditionally pickled vegetables, fish with some miso soup, see whether the hotel provides a western version. Yagyu-no-sho were very accommodating and gave us one with bacon, eggs, complete with ketchup, salad with the most addictive sesame dressing, fluffy bread and coffee. It is a nice break from Japanese cuisine, I never thought that I would think that.
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I was a little nervous before going into the onsen, I had thoughts that I would have to walk around in front of a lot of people naked staring at me. Even though I don’t think that I have the worst body in the world I was a little reluctant to show it off in front of to a bunch of strangers. To test the water we splashed out for a private outdoor onsen bath which was attached to our suite overlooking a beautiful Japanese garden setting.
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Before you go into these baths there are etiquette you have to be aware of: Do not wear any clothes in the baths such as underwear, bathing suits or towels, you are to be completely naked. Using the washbowl in the bathing area or shower rinse your body well before entering the onsen bath, ensure you well rinsed and clean before going into the bath to be respectful to others. Go into the tub slowly and warm up your body, enjoy the warm water and the scenery around you. Get out of the bathtub and wash your body well with soap and shampoo, make sure to rinse these off fully then go back into the bathtub for another soak and warm up your body and further relax. When you are finished then simply wipe the water off your skin and get back into your yukata. Onsen water includes loads of minerals such as iron, sulphur, and metabolic acid which reacts differently to the material which the onsen bath itself is made out of, different chemical reactions occur within different baths and believed to have different healing powers. The Japanese believe that a good soak in proper onsen heals aches, pains and diseases and often visit onsen to treat illnesses such as diabetes so much so that there is Onsen therapy which is a comprehensive bathing treatment conducted to maintain health and prevent illness.
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I don’t know whether all of the above is true, but my first visit to a Japanese Onsen was relaxing, memorable and I spent as much time as possible in that onsen water. The whole experience made me feel a little bit of a fish out of water, I would return for a couple of days without a hesitation. Personally I found that the onsen water had done wonders for my hair and skin, and overall I felt healthier and revitalised. I wonder whether it is the whole traditional Japanese way of living, the diet, constant onsen bathing or simply the fact that you are in an extremely relaxing surrounding, but I wish I could harness some of it and take it home with me.
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I hope that after reading this it has tempted you to go to Japan and visit a ryokan and an onsen. At least you have a brief little outline on the proper way to do things while you’re there, otherwise just ask when you get there the people are so nice and will help. I’m already thinking when I go back maybe I can pluck up the courage to go in the large communal bath. Don’t worry there are single sex ones if you are not brave enough and modern ones now where you can wear your bathing suit. No matter what you’ll come back in one – zen of a good mood.
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For more information about Yagyu-no-sho please visit their website, we stayed in the villa suites with beautiful outdoor private baths. But there are other options, just check out their website for more details.