Only a few days into our time in Japan and Anthony and I threw ourselves in the deep end of cultural immersion with a two night stay at Ryokan Sanga in Kurokawa Onsen. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and they can be found all over Japan. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring resort. Put the two together and you’ve got a wonderful and unique experience you won’t soon forget. Your trip to Japan truly won’t be complete if this isn’t included in your itinerary. Here’s everything you need to know before you go.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A RYOKAN
A ryokan is in the traditional Japanese style which means tatami mat floors, sliding paper doors, and sleeping futons which are brought out in the evening and put away during the day. You are typically provided with a yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. This robe is worn for most of your stay– for bathing, for dining, and even for ryokan onsen hopping around town. This should always be worn left over right, as it is only worn right over left when dressing a body for a funeral.
Typically a traditional breakfast and dinner are included in the price of your stay. How elaborate they are will obviously depend on how nice the ryokan is.
This is a traditional Japanese breakfast (pictured above). Yes breakfast. Have you ever seen a breakfast this big?? When you are staying at a ryokan you will definitely not go hungry, and you will probably feel like they are fattening you for the cull, starting with your breakfast feast.
At Ryokan Sanga, all the food was amazingly and lovingly prepared and delicious, but the sheer quantity plus a few unfamiliar flavors and textures did make parts a bit challenging for Western palettes (don’t ask me about the fermented soy beans). A few cultural culinary challenges aside, all in all it was a truly wonderful and immersive experience.
The style of dinner traditionally served at a ryokan is called kaiseki ryori. This is a style of dining began as a simple meal served with tea ceremonies, but evolved into elaborate multi course haute cuisine highlighting subtle flavors and seasonal ingredients which was popular amongst the aristocracy.
These meals have a prescribed order to their dishes that highlight different traditional Japanese cooking methods. (There are many restaurants and ryokans specializing in this style of cuisine in Kyoto as well). Again, there may be some flavors, textures, or temperatures that are a challenge for a Western palette, but ultimately it will truly be a feast for both your eyes and mouth.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM AN ONSEN
An onsen is essentially a hot spring resort area where there are typically several ryokans taking advantage of the local resources, each having their own set of bathing pools and creating a sort of collective.
Bathing is a huge part of Japanese culture, and hot springs especially are thought to have healing properties. Typically a ryokan that is also in an onsen will offer both indoor and outdoor baths, separated into women’s only and mixed (which is primarily for men). There will also usually be private family baths (kashikiri) that you can reserve ahead of time (pictured below).
You are expected to bathe with soap using the hot spring water or shower head provided next to the pool before you get in. There was actually no shower or bath in our room, as we were expected to do all our bathing by or in the pools. There were some rooms that had their own private baths. People with long hair should wear it up as you are not meant to get your hair in the pool. No soap or bath products in the pools themselves. No bathing suits allowed either.
Visiting an onsen at a ryokan worked out well for me as I have tattoos, and at some of the bigger spas and resorts this would be a no no since tattoos have been traditionally associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) in the past. These rules are beginning to loosen up, but there are still many places where it’s upheld so if you do have tattoos do your research ahead of time. As a paying guest at a ryokan using their own pools, you are less likely to run into this problem.
As I mentioned above, it is typical to wear your yukata around town and go onsen hopping at the different ryokans, and the local collective will often offer day hopping passes. At Kurokowa Onsen, there was also some beautiful scenic hiking in the area which we were happy to take advantage of to work off some of those massive meals.
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.