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Ryokan Etiquette – What To Expect At A Ryokan Stay


by Mariya Tankersley



When it comes to experiencing the rich cultural traditions and warm hospitality of Japan, a stay at a ryokan is a must. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that offers a unique glimpse into the country’s customs and way of life. It is a place where you can immerse yourself in the harmonious blend of old-world charm and modern comforts.


From the moment you step foot inside a ryokan, you are transported to a world of tranquility and elegance. The attention to detail in every aspect of your stay, from the decor to the service, is impeccable. But to truly make the most of your ryokan experience, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the etiquettes and practices that are customary in this traditional setting.


This article serves as a guide to help you navigate the dos and don’ts of staying at a ryokan. Whether you are planning your first ryokan stay or simply want to brush up on your knowledge, read on to discover the fascinating world of ryokan etiquette.


What is a Ryokan?

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that offers a unique and immersive experience for visitors. These establishments have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, providing a retreat for travelers seeking respite and relaxation.


What sets ryokans apart from modern hotels is their commitment to preserving traditional Japanese customs and aesthetics. From the architecture to the furnishings, every aspect of a ryokan is designed to create a serene and harmonious atmosphere.


Ryokans typically feature tatami-matted rooms, where guests sleep on futon mattresses laid out on the floor. The minimalistic decor, characterized by sliding paper doors and natural materials, helps create a sense of tranquility and simplicity.


One of the defining features of a ryokan stay is the unparalleled level of service and hospitality. Ryokan staff excel in providing personalized attention to every guest, ensuring their needs are met with utmost care and respect. From the moment you arrive until the time of departure, you can expect impeccable service that exemplifies the spirit of omotenashi, the Japanese concept of wholehearted hospitality.


While ryokans have evolved to incorporate modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and air conditioning, their core essence remains firmly rooted in tradition. Staying at a ryokan gives you the opportunity to experience the timeless elegance of Japanese culture.


Today, ryokans can be found throughout Japan, from bustling cities to remote countryside locations. Each ryokan offers its own unique charm and character, providing guests with a diverse range of experiences. Whether you choose to stay in a traditional ryokan or a more contemporary one, you are sure to be captivated by the magic and allure of these extraordinary establishments.


Traditional Japanese Practices

Staying at a ryokan allows you to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese practices that have been passed down through generations. These practices not only add to the unique charm of a ryokan stay but also showcase the rich cultural heritage of Japan.


One of the most prominent practices is the removal of shoes upon entering the ryokan. In Japan, it is customary to leave your shoes at the entrance and wear slippers or walk barefoot inside the premises. This helps maintain cleanliness and shows respect for the space.


Another important tradition is the act of bowing. Bowing is a common form of greeting and showing respect in Japanese culture. When interacting with the ryokan staff, it is polite to bow as a sign of gratitude and appreciation.


Japanese tea ceremonies, known as “chado” or “sado,” are integral to the ryokan experience. These ceremonies involve the preparation and serving of matcha, a powdered green tea, in a ceremonial manner. Guests can participate in the tea ceremony to learn about Japan’s tea culture and enjoy a moment of tranquility.


Engaging in hot spring bathing, or “onsen,” is another customary practice at a ryokan. Onsens are natural hot springs that are renowned for their therapeutic properties. Before entering an onsen, guests are expected to wash and cleanse themselves thoroughly in the bathing area.


It’s important to be familiar with proper etiquette when bathing in an onsen. This includes not wearing swimsuits, keeping the noise level low, and refraining from using towels or clothes in the water. Onsen etiquette is followed to maintain cleanliness and respect for others in the bathing area.


Mealtime at a ryokan provides an opportunity to experience the artistry of Japanese cuisine. Traditional kaiseki meals, consisting of multiple courses of exquisitely prepared dishes, are served in the comfort of your own room. It is customary to express appreciation for the meal (“gochisosama deshita”) at the end of the meal.


These traditional Japanese practices are not only a reflection of Japanese culture but also serve to create a serene and respectful atmosphere within the ryokan. By embracing these customs, you can fully immerse yourself in the essence of Japanese hospitality and ensure a memorable ryokan experience.


Arrival and Check-In

Upon arriving at a ryokan, you will be greeted by the staff who will guide you through the check-in process. It is important to be aware of the following etiquettes and practices to ensure a smooth and respectful arrival.


When entering the ryokan, you will be asked to remove your shoes at the entrance. Slippers will be provided for you to wear inside the building. Make sure to place your shoes neatly in the designated area and avoid stepping on the tatami mats with your outdoor shoes.


After entering the ryokan, you will be guided to the reception area. Here, you will be required to provide your reservation details and any necessary identification. It is advisable to have your passport or ID readily available for verification.


During the check-in process, it is customary to fill out a registration form with your personal details. This form helps the ryokan staff ensure an optimal level of service tailored to your needs and preferences.


Once the check-in formalities are complete, a staff member will escort you to your room. Take this opportunity to ask any questions or seek clarification on any particular guidelines or rules you may need to be aware of during your stay.


As a gesture of respect, it is customary to bow and express appreciation to the staff for their assistance. A simple “Arigato gozaimasu” (Thank you very much) is a polite way to show gratitude.


The check-in process sets the tone for your ryokan stay, so it is important to be mindful of the cultural customs and etiquettes. By following these guidelines, you can ensure a seamless and respectful arrival experience at the ryokan.


Room Etiquette

Once you are settled into your room at a ryokan, there are certain etiquettes to keep in mind to ensure a comfortable and respectful stay.


First and foremost, it is important to treat the room with care and respect. Remember that the tatami mats are delicate and should not be stepped on with shoes or dirty feet. Make sure to remove your slippers before stepping onto the tatami floor and be mindful of any objects or furniture that may cause damage.


In a traditional ryokan, sleeping arrangements usually involve futon mattresses that are laid out on the floor in the evening. It is customary to assist the ryokan staff in preparing your bed by folding the futon during the day. This will give you ample space to relax and enjoy the room during the daytime.


Ryokan rooms often offer a low table with cushions, known as a “kotatsu.” This table is typically used for enjoying tea, snacks, or meals. When using the kotatsu, it is important to sit in a proper position, with your feet tucked underneath you and not stretched out towards the table.


Another key aspect of room etiquette is maintaining cleanliness. Ryokans provide you with a room that is thoughtfully prepared and immaculately clean upon your arrival. It is encouraged to keep the room tidy by placing used towels and amenities in the designated area and disposing of any trash properly.


Privacy is highly respected in a ryokan, and it is customary for staff members to avoid entering your room unless requested or for necessary services. However, it is always advisable to communicate with the staff if you have any specific needs or requests during your stay.


By observing these room etiquettes, you contribute to a harmonious atmosphere within the ryokan and show appreciation for the meticulous effort put into creating a comfortable and inviting space for your stay.


Yukata (Traditional Japanese Robe)

One of the quintessential elements of a ryokan stay is the opportunity to dress in a yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. Yukata are lightweight and comfortable garments typically made from cotton or linen, perfect for lounging and leisurely exploring the ryokan.


Upon arrival at the ryokan, you will often find a yukata laid out in your room for you to wear during your stay. The yukata is typically accompanied by a wide, sash-like belt called an obi, which is used to secure and accentuate the robe.


Putting on a yukata is a simple process, although there are a few key steps to follow. Start by putting on the yukata by wrapping the right side over the left side. The reverse, with the left side over the right, is reserved for dressing the deceased and should be avoided. Next, tie the obi around your waist, making sure to adjust it to your desired comfort level.


Yukata are often decorated with vibrant patterns and designs, reflecting the changing seasons or traditional motifs. When wearing a yukata, it is customary to choose accessories that complement the robe, such as a decorative obi belt, geta (wooden sandals), and a small purse or bag.


Wearing a yukata allows you to fully embrace the traditional Japanese atmosphere of the ryokan. It is common to see guests strolling through the hallways or gardens of the inn wearing their yukata, creating a picturesque scene of elegance and charm.


It is important to remember that the yukata is not meant to be worn in public areas outside of the ryokan. When venturing outside your room, be sure to change back into your regular attire to show respect to the local customs and culture.


By wearing a yukata during your ryokan stay, you not only immerse yourself in traditional Japanese fashion but also add to the overall ambiance of the experience. So, embrace the comfort and style of the yukata as you indulge in the tranquil charm of the ryokan.


Onsen (Hot Springs) Etiquette

One of the highlights of a ryokan experience is the opportunity to indulge in the healing waters of an onsen, or hot spring. Onsens are not only a place of relaxation but also hold deep cultural significance in Japan. To ensure a respectful and enjoyable onsen experience, it is important to observe certain etiquettes.


Before entering the onsen, it is customary to wash and cleanse your body thoroughly. Most ryokans provide bathing areas equipped with showers, stools, and buckets for this purpose. Take your time to cleanse your body, ensuring it is free from any sweat, dirt, or cosmetics.


When entering the onsen, it is essential to follow the gender separation rules. Onsens have separate areas for men and women, and it is important to respect and adhere to these designated spaces. You may find some ryokans that offer private or mixed-gender baths, but these are less common.


Once inside the onsen, it is important to be mindful of others and maintain a sense of tranquility and relaxation. Keep the noise level to a minimum and avoid engaging in loud conversations or disruptive behavior.


As you soak in the hot spring, remember not to use any towels or clothing in the water. Placing a towel on your head or hanging it on the side of the bath is acceptable, but it should not be submerged in the water.


It is important to note that tattoos are traditionally associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia) in Japan, and some onsens may have policies against allowing guests with visible tattoos. However, there are an increasing number of ryokans and onsens that are becoming more accepting of tattoos. It is always best to check with the ryokan in advance regarding their policies on tattooed guests.


After enjoying the rejuvenating onsen, make sure to rinse your body thoroughly before leaving the bathing area. Use the shower facilities provided to remove any remaining traces of onsen water.


Respect for others and the preservation of cleanliness are central to onsen etiquette. By observing these guidelines, you can fully immerse yourself in the healing waters of the onsen while respecting the customs and traditions of this cherished Japanese practice.


Meal Etiquette

Meals at a ryokan are an integral part of the immersive experience, as they showcase the artistry and culinary delights of Japanese cuisine. To fully appreciate the dining experience and show respect for the traditions surrounding food in Japan, it is important to observe certain meal etiquettes.


When it comes to seating arrangements, ryokans typically offer meals served in the comfort of your own room. The low table, known as a “chabudai,” is set with cushions for you to sit on. It is customary to sit on the floor with your legs folded or crossed, known as “seiza” or “agura” style, while enjoying your meal.


Before the meal begins, it is customary to say “itadakimasu” to express gratitude for the food. After the meal, saying “gochisosama deshita” is a way to express appreciation for the meal and acknowledge the efforts put into its preparation.


Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on freshness and presentation. It is considered impolite to waste food, so it is advisable to take only what you can eat and not overload your plate. Take your time to savor each dish and enjoy the intricate flavors and textures.


When using chopsticks, it is important to use them properly and avoid pointing or waving them around. It is considered polite to hold the chopsticks towards the end, keeping your grip relaxed rather than tense. Cross them on the chopstick rest or place them parallel to your plate when not in use.


If you are unsure about how to eat a particular dish or use any utensils provided, don’t hesitate to ask the ryokan staff for guidance. They will be more than happy to assist you and ensure that you have a pleasant dining experience.


Throughout the meal, maintaining a calm and respectful ambiance is important. Engaging in loud conversations or disruptive behavior is discouraged. Instead, focus on enjoying the flavors of each dish and savoring the overall dining experience.


By observing these meal etiquettes, you can fully appreciate the culinary artistry of Japanese cuisine while showing respect for the traditions surrounding food in Japan.


Tatami Floor Etiquette

One of the distinctive features of a ryokan is the use of tatami mats, traditional straw mats that cover the floors. Tatami adds a sense of elegance and authenticity to the ryokan experience. To maintain the integrity of the tatami and ensure a respectful stay, it is important to observe certain etiquettes when walking or sitting on the tatami floor.


When walking on the tatami, it is customary to do so in bare feet or socks. Shoes should be left at the entrance or in the designated shoe area. This helps keep the tatami clean and prevents damage to the delicate straw surface.


When moving around the ryokan, it is important to avoid stepping directly on the tatami with outdoor shoes or slippers. Use the provided slippers for walking on the wooden or tiled areas and remove them before stepping onto the tatami.


When sitting on the tatami, it is customary to avoid pointing your feet directly towards others as it is considered impolite. Instead, sit cross-legged or in a seiza position with your feet tucked underneath you.


When interacting with others on the tatami, it is customary to bow as a sign of respect. This can be a subtle nod of the head or a deeper bow depending on the occasion.


It is important to be mindful of any objects or furniture on the tatami and avoid placing heavy or sharp objects that may cause damage. Also, avoid dragging furniture across the tatami as it can leave marks or damage the mats.


Another aspect of tatami floor etiquette is to be mindful of noise levels. Tatami floors are designed to provide cushioning and absorb sound. It is considered polite to keep noise to a minimum, especially during quiet hours or when moving around in the early morning or late evening.


By observing these tatami floor etiquettes, you contribute to maintaining the cleanliness and integrity of the tatami mats, while showing respect for the traditions and customs of the ryokan.


Other Etiquette Guidelines

While staying at a ryokan, there are several additional etiquette guidelines to keep in mind to ensure a respectful and harmonious experience.


Respect for others and the surroundings is of utmost importance. Keep noise to a minimum, especially during nighttime hours, to avoid disturbing other guests. This includes refraining from talking loudly or making excessive noise in the hallways and common areas.


As a general rule, it is considered impolite to wear outdoor clothing or shoes in the common areas of the ryokan. Make sure to change into the provided yukata or appropriate indoor attire when outside your room.


If you have specific dietary restrictions or allergies, it is advisable to inform the ryokan staff in advance. This will enable them to accommodate your needs and ensure you can enjoy your meals without any concerns.


Tipping is not customary in Japan, including at ryokans. The service charge is typically included in the overall cost of your stay, and leaving a tip may be seen as awkward or confusing. Instead, expressing sincere gratitude through words or a bow is more appreciated.


When leaving the ryokan for excursions or sightseeing, it is customary to inform the staff of your plans so they can assist you with any necessary arrangements or provide helpful information. Additionally, it is polite to inform them if you will be returning late in the evening to ensure a smooth check-in process.


Respecting the ryokan’s rules and regulations is essential. These may include guidelines regarding curfews, smoking areas, or the use of certain facilities. Familiarize yourself with any specific instructions provided by the ryokan and comply with them accordingly.


If you are unsure about any specific etiquettes or customs during your stay, do not hesitate to ask the ryokan staff for guidance. They are there to assist you and ensure that you have a memorable and enjoyable experience.


By observing these etiquette guidelines, you can fully embrace the cultural traditions of a ryokan stay while showing respect for the ryokan staff, fellow guests, and the serene environment of the inn.


Check-Out and Departure

As your ryokan stay comes to an end, it is important to follow proper check-out and departure procedures to ensure a smooth and respectful farewell.


Prior to check-out, make sure to settle any outstanding payments or additional charges. Confirm the total amount due with the ryokan staff and arrange for any necessary payment methods, such as cash or credit card.


When leaving the ryokan, it is customary to express gratitude to the staff for their attentive service. A simple bow and a heartfelt “Arigato gozaimashita” (Thank you very much) will convey your appreciation for their efforts in ensuring a memorable stay.


Before departing, ensure that you have returned any borrowed items, such as yukata, slippers, or towels. The staff will provide instructions on where to leave these items. Leaving them neatly in the designated area helps streamline their inventory process and maintain the ryokan’s efficiency.


If you have any luggage or belongings that require storage, inquire with the ryokan staff about luggage storage services. They will be able to assist you with keeping your items secure until you are ready to depart.


Before leaving your room, take a final look around to ensure that you have not left any personal belongings behind. It is considered polite to leave the room in the same condition as it was when you arrived, so make sure to tidy up and dispose of any trash properly.


As you depart from the ryokan, it is customary to once again bow and offer a brief farewell to the staff. This gesture showcases your appreciation for their hospitality and completes your ryokan experience on a respectful note.


As you venture out into your next destination, carry with you the cherished memories and cultural experiences gained from your ryokan stay. The unique blend of traditional charm, exceptional service, and tranquil ambiance offered by ryokans ensures an unforgettable journey into the heart of Japan.



A ryokan stay is a truly immersive and memorable experience that allows you to step into the rich tapestry of Japanese culture and hospitality. From the moment you arrive until the time of your departure, embracing the etiquettes and traditions of a ryokan enhances your understanding and appreciation of Japanese customs.


By familiarizing yourself with the various aspects of ryokan etiquette, you can navigate your stay with confidence, respect, and mindfulness. Whether it’s the proper way to enter the ryokan and remove your shoes, the intricacies of wearing a yukata, or the tranquility surrounding onsen and mealtime, these etiquettes add depth and authenticity to your experience.


At the heart of ryokan etiquette is the spirit of mindfulness and consideration for others. From observing quiet hours and maintaining cleanliness to showing gratitude and respect to the staff, these practices ensure a harmonious and enjoyable environment for all guests.


The sheer beauty and elegance of ryokans, combined with their impeccable service, create an atmosphere that fosters relaxation, rejuvenation, and a deep connection with Japanese culture. It is through embracing the customs and traditions that you can fully immerse yourself in the essence of a ryokan stay.


So, whether you’re planning your first ryokan adventure or returning for another enchanting experience, remember to embrace the etiquettes that make a ryokan stay so special. Allow yourself to be transported into a world of tranquility, cultural richness, and warm hospitality.


By appreciating and respecting the customs and traditions, you not only enhance your own experience but also contribute to the preservation of Japan’s unique heritage. Embrace the rhythm of a ryokan, savor the flavors of the cuisine, wander the tatami-covered halls, and soak in the healing waters of the onsen. Let the ryokan become your sanctuary, transporting you to a place where time slows down, and the beauty of Japan envelops you.


Embark on a ryokan journey, and you may find yourself forever captivated by the magic and allure of this truly remarkable Japanese tradition.