Updated November 10, 2019
Visit a Japanese onsen ryokan, an inn with thermal baths, and you’ll see there is a very specific set of guidelines for enjoying your stay there. Not only do you not want to look clueless as you go about the inn, but you also want to maximize your visit. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that generally offers breakfast and dinner. Most also have onsen or hot baths. Some have traditional onsen which are those fed by natural hot springs.
The Japanese onsen ryokan Experience
These guidelines were created after hearing stories from the various ryokan onsen staff sharing episodes of cultural confusion experienced by their non-Japanese guests.
Follow these guidelines to make sure you do yourself proud in this environment.
1. Always take off your shoes before entering. Wearing your shoes is not an option, nor is it OK to wear shoes sometimes or in certain parts of the ryokan. Upon entering the ryokan remove your shoes and put on the provided slippers. Go to your room with your slippers, but remove them when you enter your room. In your room, you can be barefoot or in your stocking feet.
2. Don’t be surprised if your pillow looks and feels like a mini bean bag. They’re supposed to be that way. Pillows will generally be harder than what you are used to in the west. Don’t ask for different or fluffier pillows. Just roll with it.
3. Understand that the sleeping arrangements are on the floor. You will be provided with very comfortable futons which are laid out on the tatami mats at night and stored away during the day. Don’t ask for the “western room.” The whole point of a ryokan onsen is the traditional Japanese experience.
4. Wear your yukata or Japanese robe which will be provided. These are comfortable and beautiful. You are free to wear them at all times in the ryokan although is not mandatory. You can wear your western clothes too, just don’t wear both at once, like your yukata as a top accompanied by pants. I mean, you CAN, but you’ll look silly.
5. A highlight of a ryokan onsen experience is the meal. A multi-course Japanese style haute cuisine dinner is called a kaiseki ryori. A good ryokan will aim to emulate this traditional kaiseki ryori which can involve as many as 20 dishes. The ingredients will tend to be seasonal. Cooking methods and preparation will take hours. The different dishes must be presented in a certain way and served at precise temperatures for optimal visual appeal and taste. For this reason, the ryokan asks that you arrive for dinner at very specific times and many will ask that you pay for the meal upfront. If you are late for the meal or miss it, they can’t really pack it into plastic containers for later use. It’s pretty much ruined. Generally, the ryokan will provide both breakfast and dinner with both meals involve all the multi-course, elaborate drama. These delicious meals are served by gracious and attentive staff either in your room or in a public dining area. This is truly a unique and delightful experience.
6. Bathing and soaking in an onsen is relaxing and fun. It also seems to be the situation that causes the most confusion with non-Japanese. The first rule is don’t mistake the koi pond for the onsen or public bath. If you see a pretty pond with vegetation and large fish, don’t step inside, it is not the onsen. The ladies at one of the ryokan I visited asked me to include this warning. The fact that they made this request at all conjures up all sorts of situations. I prefer to think they were joking.
The Correct Way to Enjoy an onsen ryokan
- Many ryokan onsen offer both public and private baths. Some just have public baths with separate bathing times for men and women. If a different time is more convenient for you and they are not busy, they will change the bath times to accommodate.
- You go into a small bathing room first where you wash and rinse yourself before you go into the onsen. Generally, they have little stools where you sit and soap up, and shower hoses where you rinse. The onsen is not meant for bathing, only for relaxing and soaking. So, don’t get in with a bar of soap and shampoo and start scrubbing. You should be squeaky clean before you get into the onsen.
- Do not swim or splash. Again, it’s just for soaking.
- Throughout this process, you should be naked. Don’t show up in a bathing suit or in your underwear. Everyone else is naked, so you would really stand out. Bathers are going about their business, and nobody is paying attention to you. Do likewise.
- It is acceptable to bring a washcloth into the onsen to wipe your brow from the heat. However, the cloth must never touch the water or be left on the edge of the bath. Instead, you should carry it folded on your head.
- This is not a time for socializing. People expect quiet in an onsen and to be left to their own thoughts. Don’t turn to a fellow bather and start discussing the weather or how much you enjoy Japanese food. Just pretend that others are not even there.
- Uh…don’t bring a camera in with you and start snapping photos…for obvious reasons.
- If you have tattoos you may be asked to cover them up with tape provided by the onsen. In Japan, tattoos are associated with criminal gangs.
Most of all, enjoy yourself and take it all in. Absorb this beautiful culture, food and atmosphere. A traditional Japanese ryokan onsen experience will stay with you for a long time.
Here is a website that specializes in the Japanese ryokan onsen experience and can help you arrange your stay.
Want to know more about Japan, its culture and etiquette? Check out these guides: Etiquette Guide to Japan, Japan, A Guide to Traditions, Japan Etiquette, and A Quick Guide to Japanese Business Etiquette.
Do you think you would enjoy the ryokan onsen experience?
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