When you stay in Japan, there are a variety of unique and different types of places to stay should you wish. From Tokyo’s capsule hotels to a manga inspired hotel, the options are endless. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to say there are two options to consider: a Western style hotel and a traditional Japanese style one.
What exactly is a Japanese styled inn?
A traditional Japanese inn is called a ryokan. It is a room that will have tatami, or bamboo lined floors, a low table and shoji screen (rice paper) closet. There are typically some pillows on the ground near the table to sit on as a small cushion against the tatami floor. There usually is no bathroom attached to this room. I’ll get there in a minute.
You may be wondering where the bed is; the answer is in the closet. A traditional Japanese bed consists of a futon and small rice filled rolled pillow. A futon is a cloth based padded foldable mattress with duvet cover. In order to avoid must or mold it’s kept in the sun and store away. The Japanese did not used soft pillows until a Western style bed was introduced. It was thought to be bad for one’s neck. The rice pillow encourages you to sleep on your back and goes under the base of the neck.
Yes, you are expected to floor on the floor. It’s cleaner than you would think. No shoes are allowed on tatami mats. Japanese people will keep any shoes worn outdoors outside their house or in their entry hallway. Slippers exclusively for indoor wear are expected to be used in a house. This is the case even in schools. As an international student, we had slippers for indoor use at home and school.
What about the low table? The expectation is to sit on your bottom or your knees if you are able to. Even when dining in a tatami room, most Japanese people are expected to sit on the cushions on their knees. As a foreigner, you are not held to the same standard. You will be just fine sitting on your bottom with legs crossed in front of you.
Restrooms and Bathing
The traditional Japanese inn will most likely have the restroom and bathing facilities down the hallway from your room in a communal area. It’s a little bit of a cultural shock to get used to, but it’s a common practice for Japanese and actually Asian cultures in general. Let’s start with the toilets.
Expect a mixture of Japanese and Western toilets. If it’s a Western toilet, you may even see something unique like a heated automatic toilet seat. Heated toilet seats are thought to make it more comfortable for you to sit on. Japanese toilets are high tech and in downtown Tokyo, there are even stores that solely sell toilets. If you encounter a traditional Japanese toilet, it’s going to be a hole in the ground with a flusher. You are expected to squat and do your business. Toilets will have stalls for you to use.
Bathing….well as I mentioned earlier, it’s probably going to be a communal setting. Some ryokans have shower curtains for you to use if you need the privacy. You will see a removable shower head that you can use to bathe yourself. If you see buckets with a hole on the top, you can expect to take one and sit on it to help scrub and bathe yourself. Hense the detachable shower head.
After you bathe and are fully washed, one of the best things about a ryokan is the hot tub or ofuro. The hot tub is a comfortable tub you are expected to use after you are cleaned to soak in and enjoy. Don’t enter it with a bathing suit; it’s extremely rude and a cultural faux pas. Don’t enter the tub soapy. Why? The water isn’t changed often. My host family in Japan explained that the guest is always allowed to use the tub first as a guest. Keep the water clean so others may enjoy it. It’s kept hot enough to kill germs and bacteria….in case you’re worried.
If your hotel has a hot springs, it’s called an onsen. It’s a natural spring that has some rich minerals and other goodies in the water for you to enjoy. If it’s an onsen, I would recommend you soak your feet first to see if he temperature is okay for you. It is uncontrollable as it’s natural and can take some time to adjust to. Sinks are normal.
From the few ryokan I’ve experienced, they typically don’t allow food in the room in case you drop anything on the tatami flooring. It can be harder to clean. There is usually a cafeteria or communal kitchen for you to use. It may vary from place to place.
You may find a light summer yukata kimono for use to use during your stay. Wear it and enjoy part of the experience of your trip to Japan. If you have a small alcove for a vase in your room, look at the flowers. They are most likely ikebana or specifically arranged flowers for you to enjoy. Lastly, be careful with any shoji or screen doors. They are very delicate and it’s easy to make a hole in them. Try to only touch the bamboo or wooden part of the door to open and slide it closed.
A ryokan is one of the most unique Japanese experiences you can have during your stay to Japan. Try it out. Step outside of your comfort zone. It’s worth doing at least once. Until next time, happy travels.