I knew Japan was a country that still held on to many of its traditions, despite its rapid growth as a very modern nation. It’s one of the reasons I have always wanted to come here – to seek out pockets of the old, ‘real’ Japan. Experiencing a stay in a Ryokan – a traditional Japanese style house or ‘inn’ whose concept dates back to the Edo period from the early 1600’s to the late 1800’s – came under that aspiration.
Thanks to the lovely folks at Hostelworld, who understand my culture vulture ways, I got the opportunity to stay in Homikan for six days – said to be one of the oldest Ryokan in the whole of Japan. I couldn’t have asked for a more traditional introduction.
Inside a Ryokan
With three houses to choose from, Homeikan feels worlds away from the bright lights and bustle of Tokyo, tucked away in a quiet, local area close by to the well-known area of Uneo. I tried out two of the houses – Honken and Daimachi Bekkan – and both rooms were like living in an immaculate micro-apartment complete with TV, fridge, telephone, a seating area with a tea set, and a futon style bed (which is laid out for you in the early evening or whenever you request it).
Basic, yet beautiful, the rooms here typically consist of traditional Japanese wooden décor with sliding doors, a tatami-matted floor, a table and floor level chair or cushion and a space for your futon. In the Ryokan, bathing areas are communal (male and female separate) and consist of a handful of showers – to be taken while seated on the plastic stool provided – and a hot bathing pool to soak your aching limbs after sightseeing or a night out (these baths stay hot up to around 3am!).
Customs and Traditions of Staying in a Ryokan
The Japanese are polite, attentive and extremely welcoming and you will certainly feel that in a place like this. When I arrived, I was asked to remove my shoes and shown the slippers I would wear inside the house. You must leave these outside of your room and the bathroom before entering, as well as when you use the toilet (you have to use ANOTHER pair of slippers in there!).
I was immediately asked if I would like my futon putting out (my tiredness from a hellish travel journey being very obvious) and a hot water flask quickly arrived for my tea. A beautiful round wooden box sat neatly on the table containing a traditional tea set of small cups and plates, a teapot, fresh tea leaves and a Japanese biscuit – all of which were refreshed daily. When eating and drinking you sit on the floor, with the cushion provided; you may otherwise have a floor level wooden chair. This space also doubled as my ‘office’ and was more comfortable than it first looked.
EVERYTHING felt very Japanese, but a few things took a bit of getting used to – mainly showering whilst sitting down on a tiny plastic stool and remembering to take off my slippers before entering my room – at first I would be found dashing out of the room immediately, worried that I would cause offence.
But one of the things I loved the most? Getting to wear a ‘yukata’ – which we know better by the generic name of kimono. It’s custom to wear this in the Ryokan when you are lounging indoors, especially after coming back for the day and after bathing. In fact, when you arrive it is likely that you will be asked if you want to bathe and to change into your yukata. I couldn’t wait! The staff also love to treat you to a photo shoot after teaching you how to wear and tie it properly.
Price vs. Experience
Japan is a pricey country to travel in, compared to the rest of Asia, and Ryokan are known to be expensive compared to other standard forms of accommodation here. However, experiencing time-honoured traditions will certainly outweigh the cost of approximately $40 a night, and it’s a great introduction to the cultural customs of Japanese living.
A stay at Ryokan should definitely be on your list – even if only for one night. You actually feel as though you are ‘living’ in Japan, returning to a relaxing home after a busy day out in the fast-paced incredible city of Tokyo…