Country Holidays picks the finest ryokans where you will experience authentic traditional Japanese culture and customs and indulge in traditionalold-fashion Japanese hospitality and service at its legendary best.
By understanding some of the customs and practices of a ryokan, you will be assured of a memorable experience and be able to enjoy the most of your stay.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn and has been an icon of Japanese culture for centuries. Here guests will experience Japanese traditional home life.
The earliest ryokans were built along the Tokai Highway for travelers journeying between the capital city of Tokyo and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. The simplest ryokans were actually homes offering extra rooms for travelers. Others were more sophisticated, offering little luxuries and exquisiteelaborate cuisine.
Today, there are around 63,000 ryokans in Japan, of which 1,800 are high quality establishments belonging to the Japan Association. Many are located close to hot springs (onsen).
Check in and Check out
・Check-in time is usually from 3:00pm. We always encourage our clients to check-in before 5:30pm as the ryokan may not be able to serve dinner after 7:00pm. The reason is the ryokans serve fresh, seasonal food and as a result, dinner is served as soon as it is cooked and no later. If the dinner is already prepared but sits there for several hours there is a good chance it will be spoiled. If you check-in early, you may leave your luggage at the ryokan and go sightseeing before returning for dinner.
・Check-out time is usually before 10:00-11:00am
・The reception at a ryokan usually closes early. Be sure to confirm both the check-in and check-out times.
・Expect to be welcomed by the proprietress and maids at the entrance. In some ryokans, the entire staff will turn out to greet you
Entering the Ryokan
Guests are expected to take off their shoes and change into the slippers or Geta (wooden clogs) provided before entering a ryokan.
・Usually there is a footstool and you can put one foot on it while removing the other shoe before entering the hallway
・Slip into the slippers (or wooden clogs) provided
・Your shoes will be placed at the entrance and if you want to take a short walk near the ryokan, you may also wear the slippers provided.
・You should only walk around in slippers in a ryokan except when you enter your room. You must only walk on the room tiled by tatami (reed matting) with your socks or bare feet.
In the Lobby
・You will be shown into the lobby and offered a beverage such as green tea to relax and sooth your senses
・Matcha (powdered green tea) is usually served in a tea bowl
・This form of tea is stronger than the normal green tea and is served in a bigger bowl
・You should hold the tea bowl with both hands
・Expect to be greeted with a few welcoming words from the proprietress again
・Most ryokans have few, if any, English-speaking staff
・When making a reservation, specify all your requirements in the reservation form
A typical ryokan room is patterned on rooms in classical Japanese houses and contains:
・shoji (sliding paper doors) which separates the agari-kamachi from the room
・tatami mat flooring (reed floor matting)
・low wooden tables
・zabuton (sitting cushions)
・futon (sleeping quilts)
・a tokonoma (an ornamental alcove built into the wall used for placing flower vases and hanging scrolls)
・oshiire (a closet for futon sleeping quilts)
・a glass enclosed sitting area separated from the room by a shoji
In the Room
・Remove your slippers before entering the tatami-floored room
・You will be provided with a yukata (kimono-like robe) which you can wear in your room, around the ryokan, or when you take a short walk near the ryokan or in the hot spring area. If it is cold, a tanzen (outer robe) will be provided.
・There is usually an ornamental recess/alcove (tokonoma) in the room which is raised one step above the tatami floor
・This is an auspicious place adorned by a hanging scroll, a vase, or flower arrangement. It is taboo to place your luggage, handbag or anything there
・If it rains, please be sure to close the outside glass window
・Your maid will prepare your futon (sleeping quilts) every night and put it away in the morning.
・First a mattress is laid on the floor, and it is usually a few inches thick and just soft enough.
・If it is not soft enough, ask the maid to double them up --- each room usually has enough bedding for six or eight people.
・Then there is a quilt, wrapped in a sheet, then you, then another quilt, wrapped in a sheet or a duvet, all together comprising a "futon".
・Apart from the pillows, which are both small and hard, it is a very comfortable and relaxing bed.
Meals are usually Japanese style full-course menu although Western-style meals (Breakfast only) can be served upon request. However, it is best to send in requests early, preferably when confirming your booking. (please note that Halal is uncommon in Japan, and we usually use seafood and vegetarian meals instead)
In keeping with the spirit of Japanese hospitality, courses are brought in fresh and at their best, just as they would be at home.
Dinner is served between 6 pm and 7 pm and breakfast between 7am and 8:30am, served either in your room or in the private dining room.
For dinner, guests are usually served traditionally prescribed kaiseki, or tea-ceremony, style. This is usually an 8 to 13-course dinner consisting of a wide variety of small dishes with local specialties of Sashimi (raw fish and shellfish), Nabemono (meat, vegetables, fish boiled in a pot), tempura (deep fried fish and vegetables), grilled fish, boiled vegetables and meats, vegetables hors d'oeuvres, soy-bean paste soup, and rice.
You will usually be provided with chopsticks although you may request for Western tableware.
Beverages (except Japanese Tea) and additional courses are generally available at extra charge.
When breakfast is ready, you are normally notified by telephone or Nakai. A typical Japanese-style breakfast served in a ryokan consists of steamed rice, miso (bean paste) soup, grilled fish, fried eggs, nori (dried seaweed) and Japanese style pickles.
The Japanese consider a long hot bath to wash away the day's weariness a major ryokan attraction and you should also find time to indulge in it. Your room may be provided with a private bath or you may choose to use the communal bath. Men and women bath separately.
・Do not use soaps in the bath tub. The tub of water is for everyone.
・Place your clothing in the basket and clean yourself with the soap. Use a washbowl to scoop hot water out of the tub to rinse yourself with.
・After washing off the soap, step into the bath tub. The water temperature should be between 38°C and 42°C, and the water should be deep enough that an adult can sit submerged up to the neck.
・Get out of the bath, sit down (on the low stool provided or on your knee(s) -- not, in other words, with your bottom directly on the floor), and wash yourself thoroughly. You can wash your hair now, too. Use the shower or water from the bath to clean any remaining soap or shampoo from the floor.
・At spas, natural hot springs supply hot water for indoor and sometimes for outdoor open-air baths.
Besides offering relaxation and calming views of the gardens, the blue sky or the stars above during the evening, the onsen (Hot springs) are places to meet new friends, swap gossip and jokes, and practice your newfound Japanese skills and to soak your aches and pains away of your daily life.
For the independent traveler or businessman they are worth visiting not just to get clean but to see the Japanese at their best and what is most natural to them is as intimidating as it might be for the first time for you. You might even find yourself contemplating your own bathing rituals once you discover the physical and spiritual regeneration from sitting in an onsen. All of your worries will only become part of the past.
It's customary to tip around JPY 3,000-10,000 upon arrival or departure depends on your satisfaction with your room attendant who acts as your butler during your stay.
How To Dress For The Nordic Winter
You are going on a trip to the Nordic countries. You have the itinerary all planned out, the transportation and accommodation covered. The last question which is all essential and cannot be neglected is “how do I dress for the Nordic winter?”
The landscape may be marvelous and the winter activities plentiful, however if you are not dressed for the occasion you might be too busy keeping warm in the icy winter and skip that exhilarating dog sled run or a night out watching the Aurora Borealis dance across the sky.
We caught up with Sam, an expert from Campers’ Corner. Below are her recommendations.
1. If someone is traveling to the Nordic countries for winter, how would you recommend the person to dress?
We recommend a layering system that includes a base layer, a mid-layer and an outer layer. Layering not only keeps you warm but also regulates heat to let you feel more comfortable.
Base Layer – It should be made of moisture wicking fabrics, usually polyester or Merino wool. These fabrics will facilitate the movement of moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry and therefore warm.
Mid-layer – This is your warm layer. This can be a fleece or an insulated jacket.
Outer layer – This will be your weatherproof layer, a piece that is both waterproof and windproof.
2. Is there a difference in dressing for temperatures at -10°C versus -30°C?
The layering methodology does not change. But at -30°C, you may need a warmer base layer, and a fleece together with an insulated jacket/down jacket and an outer layer that accommodates the extra layers. So essentially you are likely to put on additional pieces for both the base layer and mid layer.
3. Is thicker better true in terms of dressing?
Thicker is likely to be warmer but not necessarily better. When dressing for the cold, other than keeping warm, one must also take into consideration heat regulation. If you are overheated, you will start perspiring and the moisture on your skin will give you the perception of coldness. That is the main difference between a well-made layer versus a less well-made layer. The well-made layer regulates heat better, which is commonly referred to as being breathable. Besides having the problem of heat regulation, having layers that are too thick, will also make one look and feel clumsy.
4. Is there a difference in dressing for stationery winter activities (e.g. ice-fishing) and active winter activities (e.g. dog-sledding)?
The explanation is similar to why football players can wear just shorts and tee in the cold and football fans have to wear big down jackets. When we are doing something active, our body is generating heat and the heat is captured by the clothing thus keeping us warm. Hence, we would probably need to wear less, if we are doing more strenuous activity. But once we stop the activity, we need to layer up again as our body has stopped generating heat. Similarly, towards the end of our activities when we feel tired, our body will produces less heat hence we need to layer up again.
Polyester and wool are popular for base layers. Polyester and down are suitable for warm mid-layers. And waterproof breathable membranes like GoreTex are a must for outer layers. Cotton should be avoided.
6. What sort of footwear do you recommend for a Nordic winter trip?
Winter boots are best because of their warm linings and waterproofing. Alternatives are waterproof boots with merino wool socks.
7. When using moisturisers in such weather, is there a difference between water-based and oil-based moisturisers?
Usually, oil-based moisturisers are better for cold dry climate. However, the suitability of either water-based or oil-based moisturisers will depend on your skin type and its sensitivity to the different based moisturisers.
8. Are there body parts that are frequently neglected but just as important? (Eg: eye/ear/neck)
People tend to forget that all exposed skin needs to be covered in cold weather. That means the head, neck, ears, hands and feet and even the face if it is exceptionally cold.
9. When should we wear snowshoes? Can it be worn during winter activities or sightseeing in town?
You only need to wear snowshoes if you are walking over deep snow. The snow shoes distribute your weight over a bigger area so you won't sink into the snow. In the town, if it is icy, you can use crampons built for shoes or boots.
10. Some lodges in the Nordic countries provide some equipment and gear, on top of them, is it advisable to prepare more? If yes, what is necessary?
The equipment the lodges provide is for the extreme cold outside. These are activity specific gear which is unlikely to be used outside of these conditions. As activity specific gear is provided, it is unlikely that the lodges will expect you to prepare more for the activities. However, it is advisable that you prepare your own clothing to keep yourself warm before, during and after the activities. You can also consider having a ski goggle to protect and prevent your face and eyes from drying up in the cold winds.
11. Do you have any insider tips you would like to add?
Bring a thermos with your favourite hot drink or a couple of heating pads just in case.
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