On my recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to experience five different ryokans - traditional Japanese inns - and I can highly recommend the experience. It is completely different to staying in a hotel and you can get a great feel for the original style of Japanese home life.
This being Japan, etiquette is everything. The Japanese place great value in cleanliness, so when you arrive at your ryokan the first thing you will be asked to do is remove your shoes at the entrance. You are then provided with indoor slippers. All rooms have tatami mats which are cool in summer and warm in winter, and made from straw with bound edges. This is where the next stage of footwear good form comes in, because you must then remove your indoor slippers before walking on the tatami mats.
Depending on the property, your room will have a low table with legless chairs (zaisu). In some of the ryokans you will dine in the rooms at these tables and later futon mats and bedding will be placed for sleeping. In other ryokans you take your meals in a dining room. Yukata, which are a kimono-like Japanese style of dressing gown/robe, are provided for you to wear while you are staying in a ryokan.
Most ryokans have an onsen hot spring bath. As you'd imagine there is a protocol to adhere to before entering the onsen, whether private or public. Firstly, you undress and wash thoroughly in the shower area and you enter the onsen completely naked (men and women are segregated). You are provided with a small towel to casually hide your nether regions as you move from the shower room to the onsen and back, however you must keep your towel away from the water. Do not dunk your head under water. Another no-no is tattoos: if you are inclined to ink but only in possession of a small one, you can cover it/them with waterproof plasters, but if you make David Beckham look bare, then you will have to book a ryokan with a private onsen.
Again, an onsen is a wonderful experience and way to embrace Japanese life, and you quickly lose your inhibitions as you relax and soak up the natural compounds in the hot spring waters. Make sure you drink plenty of water after your onsen to rehydrate.
Staying at a Ryokan
You will be served a multi-course kaiseki dinner (usually included as part of the half board lodging in a ryokan) and traditional Japanese breakfast. If you have dietary restrictions be sure to make this known well in advance. While you are enjoying dinner, or afterwards, the Japanese staff will prepare your room and lay out your Japanese-style bedding.
As with any hotels, every ryokan is different and they range from modest to highly luxurious, where western beds and amenities are provided. Most ryokans offer private en suite bathrooms.
We recommend staying one to two nights in a ryokan if it is your first-time visiting Japan. Some people love it but even those who don't will feel it is worthwhile, just for the fascinating experience.