Pampered in a ryokan: Japanese hospitality [plus tips & etiquette]

Article updated on May 12, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns. More than a place to sleep, they convey a lifestyle and tradition that is a must to experience for any traveller to Japan. In this article, read about a typical ryokan experience and learn about the etiquette to make your stay a success!

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Food in small Japanese ceramics on a wooden table with a teapot.

A typical ryokan experience in rural Hokkaido

Black bird singing in the dead of night… I hear the lyrics in my head merging with the sounds of the guitar I am strumming in the warm and homey lounge of the Nutapukaushipe Lodge. I am surrounded by wood carved furniture and musical instruments collected by the owner of the place who invited me to play.

Strong and serene, this man has built his ryokan for decades, from the sturdy wooden structure to the details of the interior decoration all made of noble materials. In our spacious Japanese room closed by a sliding door, a hollowed trunk serves as a lamp above the tatami mats conveying a very cosy feeling, also transmitted by the small attentions of the staff. Like in every ryokan, a freshly brewed tea in a traditional teapot with a few sweets welcomes us. In the evening, our futon mattress is laid out for us.

Located at the foot of the active Asahi-dake volcano, the waters of a natural hot spring fill a hand-made onsen and rotenburo over-looking the river. Not being able to withstand the temperature of the main bath, I am seated on volcanic stones in the slightly colder lower basin surrounded by a dense variety of plants and flowers. The wilderness of Hokkaido impersonates itself as a two-metre long green snake which decides to enjoy the warmth of the stones. I respectfully retreat and dress in the provided yukata (summer kimono), feeling completely clean and relaxed and ready for a delicious meal.

The owner’s wife is busy in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to the home-made and seasonal dinner, while he is delicately arranging six different dishes in various ceramic bowls at my table. When the small bowl of miso soup is served, it is time to start. In the kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) tradition, small and varied dishes were carefully crafted to enjoy the ingredients that are lightly seasoned. Particularly tasteful, most of them are home-grown or hand-picked in the mountains by the owner. The meal is a feast for the eyes and the palate, finishing on fresh fruits that are a luxury in Japan.

After a good night sleep, the traditional morning breakfast is composed of a miso soup, white rice, fresh fruits, pieces of pickled vegetables and a main dish of fish.

In a ryokan, a guest should feel welcomed, taken care of and relaxed.

This delicious and healthy food provides me with the energy I need to start my next adventure: the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, although I am a bit sad to leave such a beautiful and serene place.

Ryokan tips & etiquette

  • If ryokan exist in major cities, to enjoy the full experience, choose an onsen village or a rural area like Asahi-dake.
  • In these traditional ryokan, a stay includes the room as well as dinner and breakfast and prices are given per person per night.
  • Last-minute bookings are a no-go at ryokan: the room has to be prepared and the food elaborated. Upon check in, make sure to arrive at least an hour prior to dinner to give your host time to welcome you and to bath and get comfortable before the meal.
  • If it is not a set time, let your host know at what time you will be having your meals – typically between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. for dinner. Don’t be late: it is rude as the food must be served at the right temperature.
  • Do not wear your shoes inside a ryokan (there will be a place to store them), and wear provided geta (slippers) instead.
  • Do not let yourself in upon check in: you will be welcomed when you arrive at a ryokan.
  • A yukata (light kimono) is provided per guest and can be worn during meals, to go to the onsen or to bed. It is not meant to be taken home.

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Food in small Japanese ceramics on a wooden table with a teapot.

Travel tips:

  • Ryokan: Lodge Nutapukaushipe, Asahi-dake, Hokkaido (no website, +81 (0)167 972 150 (enough English is spoken to book a room)). Wireless.
  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!

For everything about Japan, click here!

For more delicious Japanese food, click on the images below:

Japanese food series: kaiseki. Haute cuisine small bites artfully prepared. Japanese food series: ramen noodles. Steamy bowls of freshly prepared ramen ready to eat. Japan food series: tonkatsu. Fried pork cutlets in curry sauce with green vegetables. Japan food series soba noodles displayed with their dippings. Japan food series, yakitori skewers. White text Japen food series about sushi with close-up of sushi. Japan food series. People buying bento lunch boxes. Pin this article of our Japan food series about Tempura for later! Yatai, Japan food series, food cart, ramen noodles in Fukuoka.! Japan food series, okonomiyaki, savory pancake, where to find them in Japan.

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