Ryokans, Onsens & Japanese Cuisine

Some of the best experiences we had in Japan were during our stays in ryokans, or traditional Japanese inns. Staying in ryokans was the best way to get a peek into home life for real Japanese families. Because they serve dinner and breakfast complimentary in nearly all ryokans, staying in ryokans also allowed us to eat traditional Japanese food without having to think about what to order. In nearly all ryokans there are onsens or hot spring public baths. Most ryokans do not have private bathing, but instead have public bath houses for men and women to use throughout their stay at the inn.

This ryokan in Tsumago had a quaint feel to it, and sat alongside a river. 

In all homes, Japanese take their shoes off and wear slippers inside. This was not Paul's favorite thing but there was no getting around it. 

The interiors of all the ryokans were nicely and simply decorated. All the walls were made from a paper-like material and thus were very thin. Let's just say there isn't a lot of privacy where sound is concerned.

Traditional Japanese stone gardens were found in nearly all the ryokans

Tatami mats were used exclusively in the ryokan rooms. Tatami mats are made from rice straw and have a cloth border. The flooring is quite soft as it is also your sleeping surface. In the picture above Paul is standing in our room for two. The table to the left was originally in the center of the room, but when bedding is being prepared the table is pushed to the side. The picture below is a room prepared for sleeping. 

When you first arrive at your ryokan you are taken to your room and instructed to drink tea and have your tea pastry. Then you are meant to review the pamphlet with information regarding the ryokan. This is extremely important to read through as important information like curfew times and onsen opening hours are discussed. Many ryokans close at 10pm and do not allow noise passed a certain hour.

Click on each of the image above to get a closer look. The (mis)translations are hilarious, but the message was still properly conveyed in most cases.

Your dinner is served in your room at the small floor table. The food is AMAZING and makes all the discomfort of the ryokan experience bearable. They serve a ton of food, and nearly every single bit of it is incredible. Before they leave you in your room to feast, they explain what each of the items is and which food products it contains. When you are finished you they come and clear it away.  

The Japanese are famous for their food presentation - each item of food is placed on its own dish and all are distinct from the others. They make a real point to make each dish appear special. 

After every meal, we looked like this. 

Breakfast is usually served in a common dining space where you are served rice, sashimi, miso soup, shrimp and other foods that we don't typically think of as being "breakfast" foods.

The breakfasts, we have to admit, were not our favorite part of Japan. Too weird, too early in the day.

Did I mention that bathing in the onsens require that you strip down buck naked in front of everyone and bath in all your naked-ness together in the same tub? The tubs are (usually) segregated by gender. Bathing in an onsen every night is a nice treat - the experience is similar to stepping into a very large hot tub - but the semi-public nudity adds an extra flare. In the above picture I am sitting in the only private bath we had during the entire trip. We stayed in a Western influenced ryokan during one of our stays and some of their rooms had private showers, which was a nice option if you were feeling a bit bashful.

Before bathing in the common tub you must shower yourself (as I'm demonstrating above). This is also where you would apply shampoo, conditioner, and where you would shave. 

After going for a dip in the onsen you put on one of the robes provided and wear it from the public bath house back to your room.

We wouldn't be doing Japan justice if we did not talk about the fabulous toilets that they had! Nearly all the toilets were super high tech and provided way more versatility than your regular bidet. At times it was quite difficult to figure out just how to flush the toilet.