My First Time at A Ryokan (Hakone, Japan 2011)

By Donnie | Articles

What is a Ryokan (りょかん or 旅館)?

To put it simply, a ryokan is a traditional-style, Japanese inn or hotel.

If you checked out the posts I did on the first Japanese hotels I ever stayed in…THIS WAS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! I was blown away at just how different a more upscale ryokan is from your run-of-the-mill hotel. Now that’s not to take anything away from the staff at those hotels; I really think they did their best to be friendly and courteous. Regardless of how the hotel looks, I truly appreciate their attempts.

At the ryokan, though…SWEET JESUS CRUNCH* they went out of their way to take care of their patrons.
*An old expression, from my early teaching days here in Japan, used to show surprise.

When I arrived, there was an all-female staff wearing traditional kimonos (or were they yukatas? I always get the two confused) waiting outside to greet me. The ryokan’s main plaza was a tasteful melange of greenery, wood, and stone. It had a very traditional Japanese feel to it. Snugly tucked away in the backstreets of Hakone…this place was a hidden gem. I just stood there taking it all in. “I wonder if the staff thought I was crazy, or slow, for standing in the center of their plaza with my mouth agape for so long.”

Ichiitei ryokan, Hakone, Japan.

The plaza

Another look at the main plaza.

A slender woman in a light-colored kimono carried every single one of my bags, which I knew were just a bit too heavy. I felt bad letting the lady carry them, I and tried to do it myself, but she insisted. She showed me to my room and a cool yukata (ゆかた) that I could change into. This room was exactly what you might imagine an old-style, Japanese room would look like, save a few modern items (alarm clock, television, hair-dryer, etc.).

I don't remember her name, but this was the staff member that looked after me.

This yukata (ゆかた) was freakin sweet and super comfortable. I wish they would have let me take it home.

I really like how the sliding doors in my room, gave an illusion of quaint simplicity. Opening these doors revealed a much more spacious, secret rooms: the bathroom/tub, the bedroom, and living room area. The wood and the tatami instantly made me feel comfortable, relaxed. While I was changing the same staff member who carried my things brought a tray with a light Japanese snack. There was chawanmushi and matcha (green tea) served with a powdered, chewy, lightly sweet confection (I’m not exactly sure what the name was, but I took a photo).

The sliding, wooden doors made my room seem simple and clean.

Opening the different sliding doors was like magic...revealing everything that was hidden.

A glimpse at the living room area and bedroom. I love the peek-a-boo effect of sliding doors!

A matcha, chawanmushi, and confection snack upon arriving.

The toilet. In many Japanese living spaces, the toilet is separate from the shower and tub. I can see the logic. Doing your business in the same room where you're supposed to get clean seems a bit contradictory.

The bathroom.

The dining area.

Another look at the living room/dining area

More of the living room area

The bedroom. The beds were harder than I was expecting. Had I done the old bed dive, I probably would've broken several bones.

A second glance at the bedroom and the Japanese-style closets.

The staff let me know that the ryokan’s bath facilities were open, and that the other ryokan guests hadn’t yet arrived, so I had free reign of the onsen-style (onsen, or , is the Japanese word for spa) bath. This was actually my first time in an onsen-style bath (おんせん or 温泉). But I guess I can’t truly call it an onsen per se. The large bath at a ryokan is known as a daiyokujoo (大浴場 or だいよくじょう). An onsen is bigger and usually has a lot more people. So you’re in a bath house, naked, with a lot of other Japanese guys 🙁 . But Japan does have mixed onsens (kon-yoku-こんよくor 混浴) where men and women bathe in the same rooms, too 😀 . Does it make me a pervert because I REALLY want to go to one of those? Hmm…

Onsens are considered to be a big part of Japanese culture and a the ultimate in relaxation. I can’t say I enjoy being naked in front of large groups of people I don’t know, but at the ryokan, I was in there by myself and it was INCREDIBLE! I can see definitely see the appeal.

The bathing area.

The bathing area, an onsen-style bath that was partially outdoors. If an ever fortunate enough to have my dream house...I would definitely have one of these rooms. The wooden box there helps to complete fresh, piping hot water in the basin.

FOOD AT THE RYOKAN

I really felt like I had a chance to experience Japanese culture at it’s finest and the food was no exception. This was a Japanese traditional meal to the nth power. Pretty cool.

Have You Ever Heard of Kaisekiryori (かいせきりょうり or 懐石料理)?

Kaisekiryori is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal. Being that I was staying at a ryokan, the meals were kaisekiryori-style. These traditional meals are often served at tea ceremonies too, and I think these traditional meals may have a very long history behind them.

Dinner at the ryokan was quite traditional and with some of the foods I was eating, I had no idea what they were. Some foods were quite simple, but the presentation was about as intricate as it gets. I wasn’t aware of how many courses were coming, so when I got the first course, I thought “Man, if this is it, I’m going to need to go to the convenience store to get more food.” Let’s just say I didn’t have to. I can’t remember exactly, but I think is was something like 8 or 9 courses to this meal. After a point I stopped taking pictures, because I had to focus on eating. I can’t say that I liked every single item on the menu, but the vast majority of it was pretty good.

Let the gluttony begin! This was the start of a feast, traditional Japanese style.

Sometimes it's the little things. Check out the salt on the fish's tail and the salt naruto (なると or 鳴戸)-whirlpool. NEAT-O!.

Like a wantan soup. Pretty darn tasty.

Breakfast wasn’t presented in courses, but it was my favorite of the meals. Dinner, breakfast, the result was the same…I WAS COMPLETELY STUFFED!!

A pretty big breakfast at the ryokan. I couldn't fit the large, steaming bowl of white rice into the photo

Using the ever-important chopstick etiqutte...well, maybe.

In the end I didn’t stay at the ryokan very long, but it is something I will definitely do again. The next time I go I will try to give myself at least three to four days.

So, if you have the chance to go to a good ryokan, by all means, DO NOT HESITATE…TAKE IT! You’ll be glad you did.

The cool ladies at Ichiitei. THANK YOU!!

To the staff members of the Ichiitei ryokan, I want to thank you for an awesome experience…you guys…er gals…are the best!!

Donald Ash

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  • Nice photos! The food looks great!Man I gotta do some traveling around again one of these days

  • Donald Ash

    Thanks Loco. I wanna do some more traveling myself, but I gotta keep that budget in mind.

  • Ceci

    That looks fabulous! I know what you mean about staying somewhere that pampers you. I haven’t managed to experience that in my life yet, but I have managed to go to a restaurant before that was truly “fancy”. It was *way* beyond my means, but the lab PI was paying since we were out of town for a convention. I was gobsmacked at the difference between the service there and the typical sit-down restaurant. The folks who worked here had really honed their craft. The food, the ambiance and the service were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

    I think everyone should find a way at some point in their life to visit a place like this. It can make you appreciate just how lovely life can be and how service can be an exquisite craft full of unexpected artistry.

    • Donald Ash

      I agree totally agree, Ceci. Going to one of these places gives you a whole different insight on things. While I don’t necessarily have the funds to do things like this very often, it’s about as cool of an experience it you can get. Right?! I couldn’t have said it better. At the ryokan services was like a fine art form, it’s what these women do as their livelihood they live and breathe customer service every single day. It’s quite cool!

  • LOVELY post donald. but how about address, and price??!?! 🙂

    most ryokan i stayed at were like 20-40,000yen a night!

    minshuku, casual japanese inn…is way cheaper and more like japanese B&B&D (bed and break and dinner)

    btw, u been to shikinejima? great holiday on the cheap

    like okinawa for people who are poor. heh heh. great for families b/c camping keeps costs way down.

    cheers,
    vivian

    • Donald Ash

      Thanks Vivian! If I knew either of those pieces of info, I’d definitely share them 🙂 Yeah, not cheap. NO!!! I haven’t been to Shikinejima. I’ve heard about it. One of these days, I’ll get a chance.

  • Nanami

    @________________________@ I wanna go to!

  • Jon

    かっこいい!

    Visiting a ryokan is part of my bucket list.

    • Donald Ash

      ありがとう、ジョンさん
      You have to do it one of these days. You’ll love it!

  • Jay

    Good work Donald, nice blog. Im going to some hot springs today so im pretty excited

Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

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