Staying at a Japanese traditional inn is a quintessential part of exploring Japan. Ryokan have existed for centuries, beginning as humble rest-stops along the highway connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, to becoming some of the most elaborate, culturally-rich accommodations you could book today.
These Japanese traditional inns have long been lauded as some of the best experiences in Japan for many visitors. From the beautiful hospitality of the Ryokan staff (many of which are family who have owned a Ryokan for generations) to the intricate and elaborate Japanese kaiseki meals you’ll eat for dinner, there’s no experience quite like it.
As with anything so culturally rich, you probably can’t begin to fathom the centuries-old layers of history and etiquette involved. Below are five fairly surprising Ryokan facts that we think you’d enjoy knowing, especially if it’s your first time!
1. You can wear your yukata to sleep and explore the hotel grounds and surrounding village
A yukata is a traditional Japanese robe that’s provided to guests by all Ryokan Onsen accommodations. It’s made of light cotton material, and whilst it’s mostly popular in summer, it can be worn all year round.
When settling down in your room, your room attendant will likely explain how to don the yukata. Traditional yukata was dark navy in color but these days, they come in an array of bright and colorful patterns. One important aspect to remember is that the right-side folds over the left.
The yukata can be worn as pajamas, but many guests also wear them out for a stroll to explore the neighborhood. This is a fantastic opportunity to take some stunning photos in traditional Japanese garb, surrounded by historic buildings and nature.
2. People put towels on top of their heads whilst bathing in the Ryokan Onsen
Most Ryokan accommodations around Japan will have an Onsen bath available for all staying guests, with some also allowing day visitors to access it.
If it’s your first time, you may notice people resting in the Onsen with their towels resting on their heads. It may seem a little odd, however, there are several reasons for this!
Firstly, for hygiene reasons, every visitor is expected to wash down their body before entering the communal pool. You do so by stripping down and sitting on a small stool to wash your body with the towel provided. You will be expected to carry the towel with you, so bathers usually place it on the ground near the Onsen or, lo and behold, on their heads. One thing you must never do is let it touch the communal water!
Some people also believe that soaking the towel in cold water and resting it on their heads whilst bathing in a hot Onsen will prevent them from becoming dizzy from the hot water.
3. Tattoos have historically been banned in Ryokan Onsen, but these days, there are some that are open to guests
As most people would know, tattoos have long been a taboo part of Japanese socio-culture. Their association with gangs such as the Yakuza has led to the widely conceived notion that tattoos are a sign of crime and should be avoided. Ryokan Onsen baths, in particular, have been a part of Japanese culture that seemed inaccessible for people with tattoos.
These days, however, people with tattoos will find that many Ryokan Onsen have become more relaxed. There’s still a long way to go in terms of overall perception of tattoos, but many owners are much more welcoming these days. Some may request that you cover it up for the comfort of other guests, but it’s a small price to pay for the incredibly rich experience.
4. Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama is the real-life inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s award-winning Spirited Away animation
Everyone and anyone who has remote interest in fantastical, enchanting movies would have seen Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderfully crafted animation is about a young girl who enters into the world of Kami and meets a number of interesting and memorable characters along the way.
The Aburaya bathhouse scenes in particular would have stood out to many people for its meticulously crafted details and coloring. This bathhouse took inspiration from Dogo Onsen Honkan, a stunning traditional Japanese inn located in Matsuyama.
This Onsen Ryokan draws thousands of visitors every year, each wanting to witness the beauty that captured the attention of Hayao Miyazaki with their own eyes.
5. You don’t wear your shoes around a Ryokan. You wear their provided slippers
As part of Ryokan etiquette, outdoor shoes are never worn around indoors. Instead, when you check-in to a Ryokan, you will be asked to take off your shoes and put on the provided slippers instead.
The biggest reason for this is because cleanliness and hygiene are a huge part of the culture. Traditionally, meals are eaten whilst seated on the floor on a tatami mat, and having shoes close by the food is considered unhygienic. It also minimizes bringing in any germs from outside into the communal areas.
This is an extension of the Japanese etiquette of not wearing outside shoes inside the home. Many houses in Japan will have a genkan, or a welcome pit area where guests will take off their shoes before entering the home.
Were you aware of any of these Ryokan facts? We find it so amazing when we learn something new about another culture, especially one as intricate and culturally-rich as Japan. Ryokan experiences are one of the top-rated experiences when traveling there and we hope these facts help you in one way or another!
For more information about Japanese traditional inns, you can also read this: Complete Guide to Enjoy Ryokan in Japan.