A ryokan stay is drastically different compared to staying at a normal hotel. As it is a traditional Japanese experience, guests are expected to observe proper behavior and follow certain procedures and etiquette–but don’t worry! This only adds to the cultural immersion and relaxation that only a ryokan can provide. Some accommodations do not strictly observe these practices and would simply serve as a Japanese style bed and breakfast, but it is better to know as a courtesy to the host of the establishment.
Be time conscious
Punctuality is a relevant aspect of Japanese Culture and is considered a sign of respect. Guests are expected to arrive in time to check-in which is usually at 3 PM, or at least not later than dinner, which is usually around 6 PM. Some places will be more flexible with checking in but there are certain considerations that should be taken into account such as mealtimes or bathing schedules in communal baths. These time frames are the busiest since employees have to provide service to multiple guests at the same time.
Another thing to consider is dinnertime–a ryokan would typically serve a multi-course kaiseki dinner to the guests, where each dish is meticulously prepared and presented according to the dining pace of each guest.
If there are any delays before arrival at a ryokan, it’s best to notify the establishment in advance.
Shoes, Luggage, and Tatami Mats
Visitors arriving at a ryokan, usually at more traditional establishments, will be asked to remove their shoes at the foyer or “genkan”—a lower platform at the entrance of the establishment—before stepping up to the reception area. It’s also important to note that it’s considered bad manners to take shoes off with the back facing the inside of the ryokan. After taking off the footwear, it’s also polite to point the toes of the shoes towards the door. Staff would normally offer to store the footwear for the guests. More modern ryokans have adapted to accommodating foreign tourists and won’t ask the guests to remove their shoes until they arrive at the guest room. As with footwear, it’s also polite not to set heavy luggage on the tatami mats. While staff will usually offer to bring heavy luggage to the guest room, lighter luggage items still shouldn’t be set on the tatami mats.
Tatami is fragile and can be easily damaged, so footwear and luggage shouldn’t be set directly on them—only walk on the mats with bare feet or socks. In addition, it’s also polite not to step on the borders of the tatami.
Shoji and Sliding Doors
Both modern and traditional ryokan will have a lot of “paper” in their interiors, like shoji paper screen, fusuma sliding doors, wallpaper, and the like. Shoji screens and fusuma doors can be fragile and easily be soiled. It is better to use them gently and if there is any damage or stains, the staff should be notified.
Normally, the ryokan staff or room attendant will be the one opening and closing the sliding doors. But if it comes to doing it without assistance, it’s best to do it the way custom dictates.
First, kneel while sitting on the ankles in front of the sliding door. The nearest hand to the handle should be used to open the door a little bit and the other hand to slide it just in front of the body or enough to pass through.
There’s also a proper way to enter a room: do not step on the tatami mat edge! The threshold is said to be where the gods reside and will bring bad luck.
But before fully entering the room, the door should be closed first–the same way it was opened, just in reverse. Kneel, the closest hand pulls the edge towards the middle then the other hand to close the door completely.
Yukata and Yukata Care
Upon arriving at the ryokan, guests are usually provided with a yukata, which is a traditional Japanese sleeping robe or an informal kimono. A yukata may seem a little more complicated to put on in comparison to modern-day sleepwear but there will be room attendants or staff who can help with putting them on. There are usually two kinds of yukata worn around ryokans. There is the ryokan-style yukata which is more common, and the “color yukata” which will have more elaborate designs.
In the case when there would be no one to assist, it’s simple enough to learn.
For the ryokan yukata, the robes are layered on undergarments and wrapped around the body with the right side going towards the hip, and the left side always on the outer layer. The bottom of the yukata should be aligned. The sash that comes with the robe should be wrapped two or three times around the torso, with men’s sash at the hips while women’s around the waist. It should be finished off with a bow, either on the front or the back.
For “color yukata”, it starts out almost the same. Each collar should be pulled up to the front at about an arm’s length to adjust the length of the bottom. It should align just above the ankles. After this, the sides are wrapped around the body, the right collar always under. There will be a thinner cord to wrap and tie around the hips to keep the length and folds in place. A wider sash, “obi”, is then used over the cord.
The details don’t necessarily have to be memorized since help can always be requested, whether from the yukata rental or the ryokan that provided the garment. The important thing is to avoid any mishaps:
Do not wear the yukata with the right side crossing over the left. This is how the deceased are dressed.
Keep the yukata modest. The top should be closed tightly around the chest and neck.
Wrap the bottom properly especially in windy weather. The bottom should be secured to keep the wearer’s dignity intact. When in doubt, keep a hand on the yukata opening.
Depending on the local practice, guests are encouraged to wear the yukata during their stay–from visiting the hot spring baths, to touring the village and the premises, and even during mealtimes. While enjoying various activities around the area, it is good practice to take care of the item and avoid staining them. Proper conduct should also be observed to avoid damaging not only the garment but also the surroundings.
Onsens and Public Baths
Admission will vary according to the individual set of rules in each ryokan for people with tattoos. As a rule of thumb, tattoos or at least visible tattoos are generally not allowed in public baths, only in private baths, unless explicitly stated. Of course, it would be safer to ask establishments about this to avoid any miscommunication.
In traditional Japanese culture, swimwear is disregarded when entering an onsen as from the beginning of the practice, there just weren’t any. Everyone must bare-all when soaking in the waters, unless otherwise stated by the establishment. Onsen baths are generally well-hidden from the public eye but there are some that have their public baths exposed too much–these places will usually require swimwear or even provide them for guests. Besides the historical significance of going in naked into the hot springs, it is also the most hygienic practice to prevent any fibers or bacteria from contaminating the waters, especially when it comes to public baths where people would soak at the same time. In addition, towels and soaps should be kept outside of the bath.
In line with hygiene, it is also a good practice to lightly wash the body before getting in the onsen. One should never try to actually bathe or scrub in the waters. It’s cleaner for everyone involved to do the washing and scrubbing after getting out of the bath–specifically why there is always a designated space for showers in the facilities. In addition, it’s also polite to be mindful of others when taking a shower. As public baths will have multiple people using the facilities at the same time, being mindful will provide a more relaxing atmosphere for everyone involved.
For safety, glass items are not allowed in and around the baths and the locker rooms. Alcoholic beverages are also discouraged since the water at onsen baths reach at least 40℃. Inebriated guests are also prohibited from soaking in the baths for their own safety. This is because the combination of alcohol in the system and the heat from the onsen can cause the blood pressure to build and cause a strain on the heart, as well as opens up the possibility for cerebral anemia.
Another safety measure is to avoid running around the onsen baths and making sure to wipe one’s body after exiting the waters to keep from soaking the floors too much. It is considered polite and thoughtful to take these into account, as well as to not swim in the baths–no matter how tempting it is. Onsen baths are meant to be a place of relaxation for all guests and it is beneficial for everyone to consider other guests’ experience especially in public baths.
Kaiseki and Table Manners
Japanese table manners while dining on traditional Japanese cuisine has actually acquired a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status. All the details may take a little more time and effort to master but some learning some basics can help one appreciate the beauty of the practice.
As ryokans are known to serve their guests kaiseki dinners, it is polite to observe proper table manners. There are two types of ways that kaiseki can be served–banquet style kaiseki-ryori, or tea ceremony kaiseki-ryori or cha-kaiseki . Banquet kaiseki-ryori is the most common cuisine and consists of small dishes that are meant to be accompanied by alcohol and with rice and soup served last, whereas cha-kaiseki will have the rice and soup served first followed by usually three side dishes. Whichever type of kaiseki is served, it is important to handle the dishes and vessels with care.
When the kaiseki is first set up, the chopsticks can be found on the right edge of the tray. If the chopsticks are the kind that needs to be split, they should be held horizontally and split vertically so as to avoid any big movements that might disturb other people at the table.
When temporarily putting down chopsticks after using them, they should be placed with the tips overlapping the edge of the tray to avoid any mess–this is if there isn’t a chopstick rest available.
Picking food up using chopsticks is simple enough but if there are any drops while doing so, a kaishi tissue paper or a napkin should be used instead of the bare hand. Do not stab a chopstick into food, use them to move dishes closer, or hover them over the dishes–these are considered rude. In the case of unfinished dishes, gather the food aside on the plate. When offering food to a companion, make sure it is offered from the plate and before the dish has been touched. Passing from chopstick to chopstick should also be avoided as they resemble passing the ashes of the departed.
Lifting the hors d’oeuvres tray should be avoided as well, instead the bowls can be used to bring food closer and chopsticks to remove any food on skewers. For lidded vessels, it’s important to remember to let the droplets drip into the dish before raising or removing it completely to keep it clean while eating. Both hands should also be used to carefully turn over the lid and place it on the side.
It’s also mindful to remember that when the dishes are served separately, they should be consumed in the order that they were presented. Ryokan staff may introduce each dish and provide assistance as well.
A ryokan stay isn’t complete without waking up to have a traditional Japanese breakfast. Typically, breakfast is composed of miso soup, fish, rice, vegetables and tsukemono, which literally translates to “pickled things”, and is served the same way a kaiseki dinner is, and usually after a soak in the hot spring bath or after waking up.
Most importantly, gratefulness and appreciation should always be shown towards the staff. The people behind the scenes will surely feel fulfilled knowing that the hard work put into the dishes and service provided did not go unnoticed.
Another common element in Japanese inns are futon beds. These are made with fluffy and soft materials that are thick enough to fall asleep in when it is laid out on the floor. These are usually stored in the cabinet of the guest room until bedtime when staff would set them up. Sometimes they would already be laid out in a sleeping area.
It is important for guests to remember not to set up the futon by themselves or fold them up for storage in the cupboard after use—staff will still need to change the sheets for the next use, or the next guest.
Another thing to remember, ryokans and especially small, family-owned ryokans will have a lights-out curfew. Now, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone in the establishment should be tuckered out in bed. Simply, this is the time when loud noises should be avoided to help the other guests relax. In addition, the walls in traditional and most older structures are not sound-proofed, so any noise or boisterous behavior can easily disturb the people in the establishment.
After all, visiting a ryokan brings an expectation to have a peaceful time, the night included.
Tipping and Checking Out
Before checking out of the ryokan, it’s good practice to make sure everything is as it was in the beginning–no damage or unsightly stains. The used yukata is best folded and put neatly away on the futon beds if they are still laid out. The same courtesy should be observed from the beginning of the stay as well–do not drag luggage on the tatami mats and keep the shoes off until the foyer or “genkan”.
Tipping is not a cultural norm in Japan, and no one is expected to do so, even foreigners. It is unnecessary as the service charge is usually included in the bill. However, if it comes to that, there are some things to take note of when giving tips in the form of gifts or cash, also referred to as kokorozuke.
Directly handing cash to someone is considered rude. A better way to give is to place the amount in an envelope or wrap it in tissue and say ‘thank you’ or “kokorozuke desu” while offering it. The gift may be refused and that’s alright, as long as the staff knows their service is appreciated.
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