If you’re someone who’s developed a personal grooming routine, you probably know that the simple acts of washing, shaving, and dressing can really add up to an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. This daily sequence of ordered events can grow to feel like a personal ritual that creates a fresh mindset for the day (or night) ahead. It can be calming or energizing, reflective re-invigorating. It’s personal.
"A visit to a traditional ryokan is total immersion in traditional Japanese culture."
The traditional Japanese ryokan takes this idea of a formal sequence of personal gestures and elevates it to the realm of art. The first ryokans were built during the 17th century Edo period as simple country inns for travellers on long journeys. Today many of the country’s 18,000 ryokans still serve this function, but others aspire to something of a higher purpose; traditional or ‘heritage’ ryokans are veritable cultural institutions that enshrine an idealized, ritualized way of life. A visit to a traditional ryokan is total immersion in traditional Japanese culture.
Of course you’ll remove your shoes for the duration of your stay, and it’s considered bad manners to ask for them back until you plan to leave. You’re given slippers and a traditional blue and white yukata to wear. Many ryokans will only have public bathing areas, separated by gender, and some are fed by natural hot springs. Most also serve meals in the traditional kaiseki style, (a specific sequence of small, simple, seasonal dishes) served in ornamental gardens that are designed to promote calm, ordered reflection.
Rooms are furnished minimally, and are generally organized into a dining area, sleeping area, and private bath. There may also be an area reserved for meditation, decorated with objects with symbolic or spiritual significance. It’s important not to put your luggage there. In fact, it’s important to read up a little before visiting a ryokan – tourists are welcome, but expected to have good manners.
For some ryokan owners, the collective observance of tradition is even more important than the personal comfort of their guests.
The ryokan offers an authentic cultural experience available to travellers on all kinds of budgets – there’s an incredibly wide choice of both opulent heritage ryokans and streamlined contemporary ones designed for guests of more modest means. It’s essentially the very opposite of today’s 3-minute showers and 10-minute meals, and whether or not you’re the meditative type, the experience is guaranteed to promote clear mindfulness, deep relaxation, and a powerful sense of serenity.