At a Japanese ryokan (Shutterstock)
List Words : Ben Lerwill | 05 January 2019

5 things you need to know before staying in a Japanese ryokan

The etiquette of staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese guesthouse –can be perplexing for first-timers. Learn the dos and don'ts with this this handy guide

1: Don't turn up early unannounced

An outdoor onsen at a ryokan (Shutterstock)

An outdoor onsen at a ryokan (Shutterstock)

Check-in is usually between 3pm and 6pm. If you’re due to arrive earlier than this, it’s best to let the ryokan know in advance, largely because of the time that the evening meals are served.

2: Do take your shoes off

At all except the most modern ryokans, you’ll be expected to take off your shoes on arrival. You’ll usually be given a pair of slippers to wear, which should themselves be removed before walking on the tatami (green rice straw) matting of your room. Socks are fine. Expect a minimalist approach to décor and a sheeted futon to sleep on, which will often be laid out while you’re having dinner. Many ryokans now have TVs and WiFi.

Traditional slippers outside a ryokan (Shutterstock)

Traditional slippers outside a ryokan (Shutterstock)

3: Don't wrap your yukata the wrong way

A communal onsen at a ryokan (Shutterstock)

A communal onsen at a ryokan (Shutterstock)

Some ryokans have shared onsen (hot thermal baths), others have private in-room onsen. It’s normal to take a soak shortly after arrival – you may have to wait until a designated time if you’re using a shared onsen. If you’re in any doubt about protocol, ask. At most places you’ll be given a yukata (cotton kimono) to change into. These can be worn during evening meals, when walking around the ryokan and even in bed. Wrap the left side of the garment over the right – the other way is used to dress bodies for funerals.

4: Do be aware of the eating etiquette

Evening meals are often served at 6pm or 7pm. At some ryokans the meal will be communal, at others it will be served in your room. Dinners tend to be included in the price and are often kaiseki style – elaborate, multi-course meals.

A typical dinner served in a ryokan (Dreamstime)

A typical dinner served in a ryokan (Dreamstime)

5: Don't be too shy to ask questions

A luxurious ryokan room (Dreamstime)

A luxurious ryokan room (Dreamstime)

The doors to the ryokan are usually locked fairly early, so if you do need to go out again in the evening for any reason, check before doing so. Breakfast is normally served at around 8am and traditionally involves fish, pickled vegetables and rice. Should this be unappealing, it’s usually possible to get a simple Western-style alternative. Likewise, if there’s anything you’re uncertain or anxious about at any stage of a ryokan stay, don’t be shy to address questions to your hosts.