The hairs on the back of my neck shot up as the bullet train blew by and my heartbeat fluttered along with its pace. In a few moments, the next shinkansen would arrive to whisk us away at baffling speeds from the big-city chaos of Tokyo to the near-desolate onsen town of Izu City on the Izu Peninsula.
Modern and traditional, intense and serene, counter-culture and conservative, these dichotomies are what I find so intriguing about Japan, and our jaunt from Tokyo to Izu fit right in with this appeal.
As soon as we started planning our trip, I knew I wanted to escape to the countryside at some point and stay in a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan. There were times during the itinerary planning process when we almost decided to skip it in order to have more time in Kyoto. I’m so glad we made it happen!
We were completely charmed by Izu and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip to Japan. I’m going to dedicate an entire post to it, so stay tuned!
This is part 3 of my Japan series. Read more here:
What’s a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. An onsen is a natural mineral hot springs bath. An onsen ryokan is—yup, you guessed it—a ryokan with its own onsen.
Both ryokans and onsens can be found all over Japan, including the big cities. The onsen resort areas, though, are usually in the mountains or countryside, where Japanese city-dwellers love to escape for a little R&R.
Soaking in the super hot, mineral-rich water is steeped (see what I did there 😉 ) in Japanese tradition and culture. And while onsen may seem intimidating to you—after all, getting naked with strangers isn’t on everyone’s bucket list—it’s an authentic experience you should definitely try if you have the chance. If a public bath really isn’t your thing, or if you have tattoos, I’ll explain more about various options and levels of privacy below.
Booking your ryokan
Unless you can speak and read Japanese, use a hotel booking site like booking.com or agoda.com. We learned that ryokans usually charge per person and sometimes there’s confusion when booking through the inn directly. We booked our stay at Marukyu Ryokan through booking.com and had no issues.
Tip: If you travel to Izu, I highly recommend Marukyu Ryokan. The floors and bathrooms seemed a bit dated (and not in the traditional Japanese sense) but that was minor. The staff spoke very little English but were so incredibly friendly and accommodating. The food was stunning and delicious. We had a lovely view of a babbling creek under blooming cherry blossoms. And we had access to a private onsen. More on that below. (I’ve not been paid in any way for this article and the opinions are solely my own.)
What to expect
Even though I did a lot of research before our trip, and had been in Japan for a week already, I still felt a bit overwhelmed with the ryokan experience at first. There’s so much etiquette to learn! Don’t worry—you’ll get used to it quickly and be well on your blissful way.
I’m sure every place is a bit different, but here are a few tips on what to expect based on our experience.
What you’ll wear
As is expected all over Japan, you’ll take your shoes off and put on slippers for walking around inside the ryokan. Once inside your room, take off your slippers at the entrance. Never walk on the tatami mat with shoes or slippers.
Our ryokan supplied us with slippers, socks, and yukatas. The yukata is essentially a casual kimono. At first, I was confused about how to put it on and I may or may not have googled “how to put on a yukata.” Rest assured, it’s not that difficult. First, you cross your body from the right side, then cross over the top with the left side and use the obi (fabric sash) to wrap around your waist and hold everything together.
The yukata will essentially be your uniform for the entire time you’re staying at an onsen resort—even to walk around town!
What you’ll eat
Ryokans are known for their haute cuisine, so be prepared for a multi-course meal delicately crafted based on the season. If you’re a foodie and love Japanese food, this is not to be missed. I, however, am not, so while I did enjoy the breakfast, I opted out of dinner. Some ryokans include both breakfast and dinner in the rate, so be sure to check before you book.
How you’ll sleep
You might walk into your room and think they forgot the bed. They didn’t. During the day they’re just rolled up and stored away. In the evening, usually while you’re enjoying dinner, the futons are rolled out and made up for sleeping on the floor. I found it to be quite comfortable!
How to onsen
Visiting Japan you’ll soon realize that there is a manner, a procedure, and a right and wrong way of doing virtually anything. Onsen is no different.
Choose your onsen
There are many ways to experience onsen. Communal bathhouses, called sentō, are shared by locals on an everyday basis. Public foot baths can be found around town in which you simply dip your toes for a bit. At a ryokan, you might also have the option of a private onsen. Here are the options we had:
- Communal: shared, men and women separate
- Private: individual, enclosed onsen with a door you lock
- Reserved: private onsen you can book in advance, often used for families or groups
Birthday suits only, people. To the Japanese, bathing nude is a great way to relax, soak in the healthy minerals, and connect with each other. It’s totally normal, expected, and required to bath in the buff.
No tattoos allowed
If you have ink, you’ll most likely be turned away from a communal/public onsen. Sometimes covering up your tat with a band-aid will be fine, though. And some public onsens are tattoo-friendly these days, but always ask first. Supposedly, this goes back to wanting to prevent the yakuza (gangsters) from using the onsen. Regardless, the Japanese are very conservative and tattoos might very well offend someone.
I have a tattoo so I stuck to using the private onsen at our ryokan…not that I was complaining!
Follow the proper procedure:
1. Leave your large towel, clothes, slippers, etc in the changing area.
2. Take your small hand towel with you to the bath.
3. Use a bucket to get water from the bath and thoroughly cleanse yourself with soap, shampoo, etc while squatting down or sitting on a stool.
4. Get in the onsen. Do not let your small towel get in the water. Put it on your head or beside you outside of the bath.
5. Soak, relax, repeat.
6. Get out and use your small towel to sop up as much water as possible before heading back to the changing area to dry off with your large towel and get back in your yukata.
Staying at an onsen ryokan in the countryside was truly special and an experience I’ll never forget. Have you been to a ryokan or onsen or are you planning to go? Let me know in the comments.