How to Experience a Japanese Ryokan Onsen

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This guest post comes from Talek from Travels With Talek. If you have spent any time here, you know I love hot springs, so this post is close to my heart. I can’t wait to experience this Japanese tradition one day. 

You would think that soaking in a tub of hot water is not an overly complicated endeavor. Think again. In Japan, enjoying a ryokan onsen, a soak in a hot bath fed by thermal springs in a traditional inn, implies you will have to follow a set of guidelines that have been established for hundreds of years. It’s worth the effort. The experience is truly unique. 

Roten-buro outdoor onsen at Nakanoshima in Nachikatsuura, Wakayama

Roten-buro outdoor onsen at Nakanoshima in Nachikatsuura, Wakayama. This Wikimedia Commons image is freely available here under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

There are several types of traditional Japanese Inns with different offerings. A traditional ryokan is usually a Japanese style inn either in the countryside or in a city. Guests stay for one or more days enjoying the relaxing location and the delicious meals. The ryokan is likely to have an area for soaking, but the bath won’t be fed by thermal springs. A ryokan onsen, however, has everything a regular ryokan inn has, but the baths are fed by underground thermal waters. 

Soaking in an onsen is fun and relaxing. It can also be confusing to Westerners and other non-Japanese unfamiliar with the process.

Here are a few suggestions to help you navigate the complexities and maximize the experience.

How To Master Onsen Etiquette

how to visit a Japanese ryokan onsen hot spring tub

Larger ryokan onsen will have separate soaking areas for men and women. Smaller ones will have only one soaking area but with different hours for males and females. If the onsen is empty, ask to be allowed in regardless of the hours. They will comply.

You will enter a small bathing area with little stools and shower sprays before you even go into the onsen. Here is where you wash and rinse yourself. It is expected that you enter the onsen squeaky clean as the onsen is only meant for soaking. Whatever you do, don’t go into the onsen with soap and shampoo and start scrubbing.

Don’t splash about or try to do a couple of laps. If in doubt, just watch what others do. 

Feel free to bring a washcloth into the onsen with you. This is used to wipe your brow from the steam rising from the water. This washcloth can be carried about folded on your head. It cannot be left on the edge of the onsen or touch the water. 

Throughout the onsen experience you will be naked. That means totally naked, no bathing suit or underwear. Everyone in the onsen will be naked so you would stand out as a clueless gaijin (foreigner) if you were not naked. Everyone will just be enjoying a good soak, minding their own business and blissfully ignoring you. 

A few last guidelines: Don’t bring a camera with you into the onsen to take photos of the “interesting Japanese custom.” That will not go over well. Don’t try to socialize. This is not a time to make new friends.  

The Ryokan Rooms

Japanese ryokan room

The number one thing to remember in a ryokan is to always take off your shoes before entering. There are small areas at the entrance where slippers are provided. Take off your shoes, leave them there and put on slippers. This will be your footwear throughout your stay. 

It goes without saying that the rooms in a ryokan are decorated in the traditional Japanese style. This means your sleeping arrangements are on the floor. It’s actually quite comfortable with thick quilts laid out on straw mats called tatami. During the day, the bedding is stored out of the way. The pillows can take some getting used to. They can be harder than what you are accustomed to. Some pillows are like little beanbags. Still, you’re bound to get a good night sleep.  

You will be given a Japanese style robe called a yukata, which you can wear anywhere in the ryokan as well as in town. These are pretty and their main function is comfort. 

The KaisekiI Ryori – A Meal Like No Other

The KaisekiI Ryori – A Meal Like No Other with chopsticks and sushi

I’d have to say the absolute highlight of a ryokan experience is the meals. They are elaborate creations that border on performance art. These little works of art; multi-course, haute cuisine meals, are called kaiseki ryori. All ryokan provide them and they can involve over 20 dishes per meal. Each one of these creations must be presented artistically and served at precise temperatures in order to maximize the appeal and taste. Cooking styles and methods can take hours and the ingredients tend to be seasonal, probably shopped for the same day they are served.

Non-Japanese visitors are sometimes taken aback when advised that they must pay for a meal up front and forfeit the money if they miss dinner or come very late. The reason for this is that so much time and effort go into creating formal kaiseki ryori that the meal cannot be stored for later consumption. Also, additional staff is hired to prepare the meal and serve it graciously.

The ryokan experience is unique to Japan. It is an opportunity to expose yourself to an ancient culture and bask in its traditions. Enjoy it! 

meals at the ryokan onsen are served in a communal dining room

If you are in Japan, you might like these day hikes near Kyoto

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Travels with TalekTalek Nantes is an author, digital content creator, and founder of the travel blog, www.travelswithtalek.com. She is a passionate travel enthusiast and enjoys sharing her travel experiences with others. Talek’s personal and professional background have led her to travel to over 110 countries and her work has appeared in several travel publications. Talek lives in New York City with her husband. Find her on Facebook and Twitter

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