Staying at a Japanese Ryokan and Onsen
From Nikko we caught a regional train north to the Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.
When we got off the train, the entire station was CLOSED. I mean there was not a single soul around. The strip mall it's located in was EMPTY, and most of the lights were off. The street was dark, and there wasn't a car to be seen, much less a taxi or bus, and definitely no Uber service. Uh...it was only 7 pm, not 1 am.
Upstairs in the strip mall there was one little office with one man who had stayed late waiting for someone. Adam showed him the printout of our reservation and it had the name of our Ryokan in Japanese, so the man called them, and they sent a car to get us. Sweet mercy that the man was there, because otherwise we would have been spending the night in an empty train station.
Why didn't we call them ourselves from our handy dandy cell phones? There was no cell phone service there.
TRAVEL TIP: I'm as appreciative of technology as the next girl, but it can fail. We always carry print outs of our reservations for hotels, restaurants, and any tours, excursions and tickets. Phone batteries die, cell service drops, and internet connections fail. Printouts are especially helpful in countries where you don't speak the language. If you are lost, you can show your paper to a local who can then point you in the right direction. Good old paper has saved the day many times. We did this more than once on this trip.
This is the lobby of the Ryokan. So gorgeous!
When you arrive at the Honke Bankyu, the Ryokan we stayed at, you have to turn over your shoes, and you receive a pair of sandals like this for the duration of your stay. You get your shoes back when you check out.
I'm in love with these stairs in all their wonky crookedness. The entire place is so beautiful.
Our beds were traditional futons, and they were unbelievably comfortable, cozy and warm. But once again, twin beds. I was worried I would be uncomfortable, but this is one of the best beds I've ever slept in.
When I first saw the bathroom I panicked because there was NO TOILET. WHERE IS THE TOILET? (But how cool is that bathtub?)
Some ryokans have communal bathrooms, like a dorm, but the Honke Bankyu is a fancy ryokan, and each room has its own bathroom. The toilet room was at the front of the suite in a separate little room. Many Japanese hotels are the same way, the toilet gets its own room, and it's not next to the shower room.
I was a very worried about being cold because Adam had stayed in a ryokan three years before during a business trip to Japan, and it had been very cold, uncomfortable and had a communal bathroom down an outside walkway. He was there in February. I hate being cold, and this was the hotel stay I was worried about. I sure didn't want to freeze going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Fortunately we chose our ryokan well, and we were very toasty and comfortable while the temperatures outside were below freezing.
These slippers are for use ONLY IN THE TOILET ROOM. If you come out of the bathroom with those on your feet, or if you wear your shoes in there and come out, they will look at you like Britney Spears when she went in that gas station restroom barefoot. To the Japanese, it's that nasty. Conveniently, a lot of toilet rooms have a small step up to leave, and that little lip always reminded me to remove the peepee slippers and step out in my socks to put on my regular slippers or my street shoes.
We enjoyed a Kaiseki (traditional Japanese feast) here the night before, which I'm sharing in a separate post. Here's a daytime view of the vine bridge we crossed to get to dinner.
The ryokan provides a yukata (traditional robe) for each guest to walk around in or go down to the mineral baths. The yukata is two kimono type robes layered over each other, and they are so comfortable. They also provide toe socks so you can wear your sandals more comfortably. Seriously, I cannot bring myself to force something between my toes when I'm wearing normal socks. It ruins regular socks! Can. Not. Do it.
I was dying over these floors.
In the morning there was a breakfast buffet, and our table was waiting for us. Everything here was personalized. When the man in the train station called the ryokan for us, he didn't even give our name, but they called us by name when they picked us up because we were the only guests who hadn't checked in. They knew we were missing. The service there is excellent.
Don't expect to find scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, muffins, bagels, or anything remotely American. You will find with fish, rice porridge, steamed eggs, marinated whole fish (surprisingly sweet), pickled vegetables, noodles and soups.
I just bit the head right off. Quite tasty.
A little ramen with fried tofu.
TRAVEL TIP: Research what types of foods are served in the country you are visiting BEFORE you go. Maybe find a local restaurant to try it out in your hometown. Adjust your expectations for your visit, and don't spend the trip trying to find American food, complaining about the local food, and offending the locals. It's just rude, and you can ruin your trip. I know a guy who hated his trip to Italy (I can't believe I just wrote that) because he wanted American spaghetti, and he obsessed about it the whole time, and it's the only thing he has to say about the trip. I have no words for that one, but Japanese food is very different than American food. Are these the things I would prefer to eat for breakfast? No. But we see it as part of the adventure and the experience, even when it is something really unappetizing like the octopus balls we ate in Osaka (I'll write about that later). We ate them, smiled politely and said thank you, and checked that off the list of things to try.
After breakfast we had reserved one of the private onsens, or mineral baths. At the public baths, it's men in one and women in another, but these are private and meant for 2. There is a shower station where you scrub down first. The onsen isn't for getting clean, it's for soaking in the hot mineral waters from the natural springs. You have to be clean BEFORE you get in, and that means NO SWIMSUIT, which is what can make the public ones awkward for foreigners. Cleanliness is really important in Japan.
Each bath is right on the river, though made with privacy in mind. It was a wonderful experience to sit and enjoy the beautiful scenery, the sound of the river, and the company (my husband is my favorite company). It was so relaxing and nice. If we hadn't been so exhausted from jet lag and full from the delicious dinner the night before, it would have been great to do this the night before as well.
After our bath we went back to the room to get dressed and pack. While Adam checked us out, I snapped a few pictures of the incredible lobby in the daytime.
These windows overlook the river.
They have a room displaying traditional samurai armor. I can't imagine having to fight wearing this heavy armor, but I suppose you just get stronger and adjust.
And a couple of exquisite kimonos.
The embroidery and detail are incredible.
This fire pit is lit at night and people sit around and drink and talk.
Just look at the circumference of this tree!
The whole area is unbelievable. I would love to come back here. You could easily spend a week in this area with all of the outdoor activities, and in the fall it's supposed to be spectacular. Look at that water!
There is a bus stop directly across the street from the Honke Bankyu to take you back to the train station. We were off to our next adventure, Magome and Tsumago. I would have loved to spend a few days here, but we wanted to see as much of Japan as we could.
TRAVEL TIP: Staying at a Ryokan is a unique experience that I HIGHLY recommend. Just remember that just like all hotels around the world, they vary in quality. Not all of them have an onsen (the mineral bath), for example. Look at your budget and look at the various Ryokans and the amenities they offer and decide what is best for you! Experiencing the local culture is very much part of the fun, and this is a great way to do it.
Have you stayed at a Ryokan? How did you like it?