RYOKAN (旅館 )

A typical ryokan is an Japanese-style inn. Like a Western-style inn, maintaining the special, atmosphere and appearance is more important than providing the latest modern conveniences. A ryokan is for travelers who wish to experience Japanese culture and enjoy the comforts of Japanese hospitality and service.

Ryokans have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. Some of the earliest ryokans were (and some still are) located on the Tokaido Highway which connected the capital city of Edo (current day Tokyo) and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. It was a very busy highway as samurai, traders, and others made their way between the two popular destinations in the country. Ryokans were built to welcome these weary travelers who needed to rest before continuing on their long journey. Some ryokans were very simple and offered extra rooms in their homes for travelers while others were more elaborate and served the higher ranks of the government. In any case the owners worked hard to make their guests feel as welcome as possible as they still do today.

A typical ryokan guest room contains:

a) the "agari-kamachi" (after opening the door guests step into this small area and take off their shoes)
b) "shoji" (sliding paper doors) which separates the agari-kamachi from the room
c) "tatami" mat flooring (reed floor matting)
d) low wooden tables
e) "zabuton" (sitting cushions)
f) futon (sleeping quilts)
g) a "tokonoma" (an ornamental alcove built into the wall used for placing flower vases and hanging scrolls)
h) an "oshiire" (a closet for futon sleeping quilts)
i) an "engawa" (a glass enclosed sitting area separated from the room by a shoji)

Many ryokans are composed of different buildings such as:
"Honkan" (original building)
"Shinkan" or "Bekkan" (secondary or annex buildings)

Staying at a typical ryokan is a traditional Japanese cultural experience, and it is not like staying at a Western-style hotel. For example ryokans do not have central heating and in the winter this means you will be staying in a room with a portable heater (kerosene, gas, electric). While your room may be heated, your private bathroom (if you have one) will probably not have a separate heater. In the summer time, your room may have an air conditioning unit but again your private bathroom (if you have one) will probably not have one. Many ryokan owners wish to preserve the traditional atmosphere of their ryokan, and this means maintaining old fashioned heating systems in order to preserve the traditional architecture, design, and atmosphere of the ryokan. If you prefer to sleep in a double room with twin queen-size beds and have: a full modern bathroom, carpeted rooms, perfect room temperature, insulated silence, the latest high tech gadgets, and every member of the staff speaking fluent English then a ryokan might not be for you. However, if you wish to see, taste, touch, and feel traditional Japanese culture then a night at a typical ryokan is just the thing for you. While most of the staff at ryokans speak very little English, this authenticity adds to the experience. Ryokans are only available in Japan and it is an experience not to be missed.

When you arrive at the ryokan, take off your shoes at the entrance and put on the slippers provided. The slippers are used for walking around inside the ryokan. Your shoes will be placed in the entrance when you want to go outside. If you want to take a short walk near the ryokan, you may also wear the ryokan's sandals or Geta (wooden clogs) provided.

After you check in, follow your hostess to your room. When you get to your room, take off your slippers before you walk on the Tatami (straw mats). Walk on the tatami with your socks or your bare feet, not your slippers.

Your room will have a Tokoma (an alcove built into the wall used for placing flower vases and hanging scrolls), a glass enclosed sitting area separated by a Shoji (sliding paper door), and several Zabuton (cushions) for sitting. Your hostess will show you where to place your luggage. If it rains at night, please be sure to close the outside glass window. Usually a maid will bring tea for you, and you can sit on the zabuton and relax and enjoy your tea.

During your stay, a Yukata (robe) is provided for you. You can wear the yukata in your room, around the ryokan, and if you like you can wear it when you take a short walk near the ryokan. If it is cold, a Tanzen (outer robe) will be provided. Wear the tanzen over the yukata.

Before dinner is a good time to take a bath. You may use the bath in your room or you may use the large public bath in the ryokan. When you arrive at the public bath, put all of your clothes into the baskets in the changing room. Take the small towel provided for you, and go into the bathing room. The large public bath you will see is only for soaking your body. Cleaning your body is done in the bathing area outside the public bath. There will be small plastic stools, soap, shampoo, and a mirror provided for the guests. When you have finished cleaning yourself and there is no soap left on your body, step into the public bath. If the public bath is unbearably hot, you can adjust the temperature a little by running a cold water into it.

In the evening, the maid will either serve your dinner in your room or you will eat in the dining room. When you have finished eating, the maid will clean your room and prepare the Futon (quilt bedding) for you to sleep on.

The okami not only bears the greatest responsibility for waiting on and taking care of guests but also acts as the chief service manager on behalf of the ryokan.
The okami's role corresponds to that of a general manager in a Western hotel. In many cases, the okami is the owner of the ryokan or the wife of the owner, which means that the okami, as the representative of the ryokan, attends to all external affairs such as business matters and cooperation with the local community.
Among the numerous ryokans which have developed as family businesses, the okami has constantly supervised guest service in general and continues to play the central role. For this reason, many of the ryokans have been handed down through successive generations within the same family. The traditions of ryokans are often preserved by three generations together, namely the oo-okami (grand okami), the okami, and the waka-okami (young okami).

In the majority of ryokans, the role of the okami is handed down from mother to daughter or to daughter-in-law. In either case, the younger generation studies under the older generation, and devotes herself to mastering the responsibilities and principles of the position of okami. The ryokan staff include all kinds of professionals offering service to guests. Having mastered the essence of the art of hospitality and backed by extensive experience, they dedicate themselves to making their guests' stay a pleasant one, in such a manner that the guests will long remember the services provided. Communicating with these ryokan members, who do their utmost to please guests, will greatly enhance the impression of your travels.

The room maid, who also serves as an attendant, is in charge of several guest-rooms and offers a multitude of services to the guests relaxing in their rooms. There is very little difference between a room maid and an attendant, and in rather small ryokans, this room maid is often in charge of general services for guests, from receiving the guests to seeing them off upon their departure. Attendants and room maids who are dressed in kimono are called "Nakai-san" by the guests, and are renowned for their meticulous attention that only women can provide.