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While all, or at least most, of the International brands of hotels claim to offer unique experiences, one has to be honest and say that at most of these hotels once you close the curtain in your room you could be anywhere, in any city, anywhere in the world.
Japan's Ryokan however are one of the few types of accommodation that really does offer you something unique, something that no matter what you do, makes sure you know you are in Japan, and in an entirely different culture. In fact, this is what makes Ryokan's so very special, as they not only offer travellers a comfortable place to stay but also a very good look at Japanese Culture and to some extent Japanese Daily life.
Ryokan's can be found all over Japan, and most are small offering only a few rooms that generally face on to a nice Japanese style garden. There are over 70,000 Ryokan in Japan, but only around 1,600 are members of the Japan Ryokan Association. There are a few extremely exclusive Ryokan's in Japan but generally most of the quality Ryokan's will charge somewhere between 12/20,000 Yen per person per night which should include two meals.
Ryokan's are not quite as simple as a regular hotel, they do have rules and regulations that need to be respected. For this reason Ryokan's are better suited to those that understand a little and respect Japanese culture, or those wanting to learn, rather than perhaps a business traveller on a very tight schedule.
At a Ryokan guests are obliged to remove their shoes at the entrance, just as they would be at any type of Japanese home. Slippers are worn inside, except on the tatami matting, so bring thick socks if the weather is cold.
A room in a Ryokan is usually a single large, undivided room floored with traditional tatami, with the only piece of furniture being a single low table. Doors are shoji (sliding screens), and decoration will usually be one or two simple ink brush drawings or scrolls. Seating in the room is on cushions, called zabuton, arranged around the low table.
Guests sleep on futon (Japanese style bedding) laid out in the evening by maids after the evening meal. It ordinarily consists of a mattress, sheets, thick coverlet, and extra blankets if needed.
The typical lounging wear of a Ryokan is a blue and white-patterned yukata (cotton robe) which is also provided. In cold weather it is supplemented by a tanzen gown which is worn over the yukata.
The toilet may pose the largest problem for some travellers as they are not normally a fancy new high-tech Japanese toilet but a traditional squat style. If you feel uncomfortable with this, it may be worth contacting a few of the higher quality Ryokan's to see if they have a more modern variety of toilet available for guests.
Bathing in Japan is a ritual with a lot of traditions. Most Ryokan will have a separate sex communal bath. Before going into the communal bath, you disrobe in a small room, then drape a small towel over your midriff. This towel is also used for scrubbing and drying. To take a bath, first sit on a low stool in front of the shower heads, shower yourself while seated on the stool, never standing up, soap and rinse off thoroughly. Only once you have completed washing in this way are you ready, and acceptable, to get into the bath for a good soak. This is exactly how the Japanese bathe at home, showering and washing first before using the bathtub as a means of a relaxing soak.