A Gaijin’s Guide to the Ryokan

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in Ishikawa, Travel Volunteer Journey | 7 Comments
A Gaijin’s Guide to the Ryokan

Staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – can be an intimidating experience for the first-timer. With that in mind, we present our handy cut-out-and keep to surviving enjoying your stay.

Step One: Take off your shoes. It’s preferable if you can do this by reversing neatly, thereby allowing a quick getaway when its time to leave. It might not be the most graceful way of entering a room, but those tatami mats you see ahead of you are expensive, fragile and difficult to clean. Don’t spend time pondering the benefits of carpets, just get on with it.

Step Two: On arriving to your room do not panic: no one has stolen the furniture. You can still see the flat-screen TV in the corner, right? Good. This is how ryokan rooms are supposed to be. It’s all to do with clarity of the mind, minimalism and Zen Buddhism. What do you mean you’d like a chair? The floor is a good 6-7% more comfortable than it looks – get down there.

Step Three: Need to go to the toilet? OK, you’ll need special footwear for that. If you’re in an upmarket ryokan like Araya Totoan, just totter across the tatami to the appropriate room, put your magic slippers on and do your business.

In a lower-end place? OK, head out the room, putting on your general slippers, go find the toilet, transfer into the toilet slippers, do you business, put your other slippers back on when you leave, walk back to the room, remove any and all footwear you still have on, get back inside and try not to relieve yourself again until you leave.

Step Four: If you’re in the likes of Araya Totoan, take a good long time to appreciate the artwork, the porcelain, the architecture and the consideration of the ambiance. If you’re in a budget ryokan… Maybe it’s best to see what’s on TV.

Step Five: It’s time to go take a bath: now you can unveil your nakedness to total strangers! While the upmarket ryokans will spare you this indignity with a private bath inside the rooms, budget places won’t even give you a shower. Ergo, you have to head to the public big bath even to have a wash. You shouldn’t attempt that in normal clothes, though – no, better to get changed. You’ll find a yukata (traditional robe) somewhere in the room, along with a kind of cape if it’s cold, and perhaps a pair of little socks that have the big toes cut out.

After 99 days, we’re still not exactly sure what’s the proper way to wear it all, though we’d guess folding the left lapel over the right one is correct. Anyway, once it’s all on, it’s time to go find the bath and… Get undressed again. Completely undressed, and put your clothes in a neat wee basket. From there, find yourself a little stool to sit on and wash yourself. Make sure you get any cosmetics off and give your hair a thorough scrubbing: you can’t go polluting the rich onsen water. Once all that’s done, wherever you’re staying you’re in for a steaming treat.

Step Six: It’s dinner time! This will either require that you go down to a room or as is the case in Araya Totoan, it’ll be served to you in your room. In any case, you’re bound to be in for a surprise. We’ve mentioned kaiseki dining plenty in the past, and it’s a real hotchpotch of dishes, but at the higher end ryokans, you’ll be blown away by the care and thought that has gone into each and every dish. Another thing that will also surprise you is that the butler/maid/waitress having to get on their knees to bow to you each time they go in and out of the room. Every time. Without fail.

Step Seven (optional): Repeat step five.

Step Eight: Let’s say you’ve gone out of the room for dinner, on your return you’ll discover that a team of industrious fairies have come and transformed your lounge into a bedroom. However, traditional futons might not quite be enough for your soft western back. If that’s the case, then check the cupboards – there are no rules that prevent you from stacking more and more futons on top of each other. At first, we found it took around five to get comfortable.

Step Nine: Remember, in spite of the quirks, to enjoy it – this is not a hotel after all. At the lowest end, staying in a ryokan can be as uncomfortable as camping, but spend a bit of money and you’ll have an unforgettable, distinctly Japanese experience.

Our time in Ishikawa prefecture was made possible by:

Our guide Kahori Shoji, who only came in to help the project at the last minute, but did so with tonnes of information printed out and ready to go. It made writing the blog much easier, as did her company and efficiency in getting us through a hectic schedule.

The Real Japan Ishikawa Project Committee for arranging that schedule, allowing to experience three parts of Japanese culture in just a few hours. It all took place in the same street: if we’d had more time we’d have spent the whole day browsing the traditional shops in the historic buildings – an amazing place.

The big, bold, beautiful Ae No Kaze with its stunning views across to the Japan Sea. The weather outside may have been frightful, but our enormous room with bay windows was indeed delightful. It also included an onsen, a traditional dinner and a rocking taiko show! Brilliant fun.

Nanao Araki who on the spur of the moment decided to wave the charge for our lacquer engraving/ruining. It’s that kind of ad hoc generosity that will stick with us long after the project has ended.

Araya Totoan, our final ever ryokan. We’ve had ups and downs with the traditional Japanese inns, but staying at somewhere so utterly sublime as this meant we’ll take away happy memories. Everything was as it should be and more – but perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. This is one of the oldest ryokans in the country, utilising one of its oldest onsen sources. The business has been in the Nagai family for an incredible 18 generations. We can say for certain that their ancestors must be very proud.

The Kanazawa New Grand Hotel who gave us a massive room in which to sort out the tonnes of souvenirs and gifts we’ve accumulated. The beds were ultra comfy and we’d have offered a kidney to have more than five hours in them… But we’re grateful for the time we did have: thank you!


  1. Eunice
    December 22, 2011

    Araya Totoan is pretty amazing!! :)

  2. Frank
    December 22, 2011

    Que super esta esta casa!! como quisiera una asi T_T
    Muy buen tema y descripciones, felicidades Travel Volunteer!!

  3. Hiro
    December 23, 2011

    “no one has stolen the furniture” Hahaha!!

  4. Jennifer
    December 24, 2011

    Hahaha so funny and informative! :)

  5. Fumina
    December 25, 2011

    This is funny and interesting blog!! I’m Japanese and I really appriciated your visiting our country and introducing our culture and safety to all over the world!! Thank you very much and hope you come back again!!

    January 6, 2012

    Dear Katy & Jamie

    I live in Ishikawa.
    Thankyou so much.

    You’re our family.

  7. Lillian
    February 4, 2012

    5 futon! The maids must have had a giggle. :)

    When we stayed at ryokan, we found that futon on top of real tatami were a lot more comfortable than expected. The tatami seems to add give and support, kind of like a box springs. So I did fine with just futon + tatami. But everybody/every body is different! (And both of us were too chicken to use the shared baths, so I clearly can’t comment. Heh.)