At first, ryokan may seem rigid and intimidating — involving a complex set of procedures, customs and etiquette. The reality is that first time visitors to Japan almost always enjoy the ryokan experience.
There are few things you need to know to make your ryokan stay a relaxing and enriching cultural experience.
1. Check InWhen you arrive at your ryokan staff will greet you. Take your shoes off and enter the lobby. Wear the slippers provided at the entrance. You can leave the shoes where you take them off. The staff will take care of them.
Top ryokan assign an attendant to you. This person will help you check in, bring your meals, make up your room and help you check out. Your attendant may not speak English (it's very likely). Nonetheless, communication is usually possible. Speak slowly. Use the power of body language.
You will most likely be led to a chair in the lobby or directly to your room for check in. There's usually no need to stand at the front desk.
You will be asked to fill out a guest card with basic information such as your name and address. They will ask to take a photocopy of your passport (as required by law). You will also be asked what time you're available for breakfast and dinner. In many cases there are just two slots to choose from (early and earlier).
Tipping isn't expected at ryokan. Service fees are included in your rate. However, some customers do occasionally tip attendants at top ryokan (around 1000 yen per guest). Tipping is always done at check in. It's a request for good service rather than a thank you. Your tip must be wrapped in paper or an envelope.
It should be mentioned that tipping isn't customary in Japan (tipping can even be rude). A ryokan is a rare place where it's acceptable (if done at check in).
2. MealsIt's recommended to arrive no later than 4 pm so that you have time to settle in before dinner. Dinner will be served in a restaurant or in your room. Your attendant will explain all this.
Your dinner will be scheduled for a particular time. If you're going to be late its best to inform your ryokan.
Most ryokan serve elaborate kaiseki meals. Such cuisine is expensive. It's the primary reason ryokan tend to be more pricy than hotels. At top ryokan, the kaiseki will be served in many small courses. Other ryokan will serve the meal several courses at a time — with each course in a separate plate, container or box.
Breakfast is usually a Japanese set breakfast with tea, 5-20 small dishes and rice.
3. BeddingYour room will have a table that's put away at night to make way for futon beds. At some ryokan, staff lay out your bedding (often while you're at dinner). At other ryokan, you must lay out your own bedding when you're done with the table and ready for bed.
4. ShoesYou will be given slippers at the entrance to the ryokan. These can be worn around the building. When you enter your room take off your slippers at the entrance.
The slippers are used to walk around the general areas of the hotel. When you enter a tatami room such as the onsen change room take them off.
Toilets will have special toilet slippers. It's important to remember to take these off before leaving the toilet.
Forgetting to remove toilet slippers is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen at a ryokan.
5. YukataBe sure to wear the yukata provided in your room. Wearing yukata adds to the ryokan experience.
Wear the yukata over your underwear. Be sure to tuck the right side of the yukata under the left side. In Japan, only the dead wear the right side on top.
Wrap your yukata tightly. Yukata shouldn't be allowed to hang loosely over the shoulders. Women sometimes leave a space at the back of the neck. Wrap the obi (belt) around your body and tie it (evenly) at the front. Slide the obi so that the tie is hanging over your right hip.
Women tie the obi at the waist. Men tie it a little lower around the hips. If the yukata (or obi) are different colors men usually wear the blue (or darker color). Women wear the red (or lighter color).
If it's cold you may choose to wear the outer robe (tanzen) of the yukata.
6. OnsenOnsen is one of the main attractions of a ryokan — be sure to check it out. Some ryokan have no bath or shower in the room (so you'll need to clean yourself in the common bath).
To ensure your onsen experience is enjoyable be sure to read up on onsen customs:
rules of onsen etiquette
embarrassing things that can happen at onsen
7. Check outBe sure to confirm your check out time. It's best to check out near this time. Check out is around 10 AM. This usually gives you just enough time to have a leisurely breakfast and get ready for your day.
Check out is similar to check in. You may be given tea. After paying your bill the staff will line up to say goodbye and thank you. They will bow. It's not necessary to bow in return. A "arigatou gozaimasu" or "thank you" will suffice.
As mentioned, it's not appropriate to tip at check out. It will just confuse everyone.