Ryokan etiquette: What not to do when staying at a traditional Japanese inn

By Philip Kendall

Ryokan are traditional Japanese hotels whose roots can be traced back to the Edo Period (1603–1868). Although nowhere near as ubiquitous as they once were, there still exist thousands of such establishments, which are most often associated with relaxation, hot spas and, of course, good Japanese food and drink. Even those who would ordinarily choose a bed over a futon would be wise to experience staying at a ryokan at least once during a visit to Japan, but there are a number of dos and don’ts that visitors – both Japanese and otherwise – really ought to know before setting foot inside one.

Trip Advisor Japan has helpfully published a list of tips, designed to look like set of cards teaching the characters from the Japanese syllabary, which instructs visitors on the right way to enjoy a Japanese inn. Some are as obvious as telling guests not to take stuff home with them, but there are others that really ought to be given your full attention.

Staying in a ryokan (which, incidentally, is pronounced ryo-kan rather than rai-o-kan as Westerners unfamiliar with the Japanese language are wont to) is a lot of fun and can be tremendously relaxing, but there are a number of potential pitfalls to watch out for. Follow Trip Advisor Japan’s advice (and our additional explanations) here to ensure your visit to a traditional Japanese hotel is faux pas-free.

You know the drill: shoes off

It should come as no surprise to learn that a traditional Japanese hotel should stick to the age-old practice of removing one’s shoes when indoors. In the hotel reception you’ll find pairs of slippers. These are not optional, so be sure to remove your outdoor shoes and slip them on. They might not fit or be especially comfortable, but don’t worry about it; these are only for use when moving around the hotel and are to be removed when you’re in your room (don’t walk on the tatami wearing shoes of any kind), so rest assured that you won’t have to wear these often decidedly unfashionable-looking shoes for the entirety of your stay.

Free tea

Inside your room, you’ll find packets of tea, chawan teacups which look like tiny bowls, a little teapot and maybe some small snacks such as rice crackers to accompany them. These are completely free and will be kept stocked by the ryokan staff, so help yourself. There will usually be a small table with zabuton cushions and zaisu (which look like chairs without legs) to sit around and enjoy a relaxing cup of tea.

I am the calm little centre of the earth

As mentioned, ryokan are often considered places to unwind rather than somewhere to crash while sightseeing (though you can of course use them for that), so it’s best to think of them more like health spas than the Holiday Inn. Be extra quiet when outside your room, move around gently and don’t be “that guy” in the hallway talking loudly on his phone or shouting to his buddies. This of course goes for any decent hotel, but boisterous behavior is considered especially irksome at a ryokan.

Um, where’s my bed?

First-time visitors to ryokan may be confused when they enter their room and discover neither beds nor futons. Not to worry; the staff will come to your room (usually around dinner time) and lay the futons out for you. This may seem odd, almost servant-like even, but it means you’ll have much more space in your room during the day and is all part of the ryokan experience. Tipping is not required, and many ryokan staff will find the very idea of being offered money to do their job repugnant, so keep your yen in your pocket.


Pretty much every guest room in a ryokan will have an area called a tokonoma in it. This is purely for decorative purposes and will almost always include some form of scroll, artwork, ornate bonsai tree or flowers. It also looks like an ideal space to store a few suitcases, but is actually the worst possible place you could do so, so keep it clear at all times and soak up the Japanese ambience.

If it’s not nailed to the floor…

You’ll find your yukata – which guests wear when back for the evening or moving around the hotel, dining room included – in the cupboard of your room, neatly folded and complete with a small cotton belt to tie it. It may look a little flimsy, but as you may have guessed you’re only borrowing it while you’re there. When you’ve finished and are checking out, be sure to leave your yukata where you found it, no matter how attached to this piece of genuinely wonderful loungewear you become during your stay. This is probably obvious to most people, but since Trip Advisor went to the trouble of telling people not to pack their yukata in their suitcase (which should be kept off the tatami, by the way) we’re guessing some ryokan have had more than a few go missing.

Less is more

Speaking of yukata, be sure to keep it tightly closed. You’ll see a lot of Japanese folks walking around with theirs closed to the point that barely an inch of flesh below the neck is visible. It looks a bit odd, especially for somewhere you’re supposed to be relaxing, but this is actually the correct way to wear it, so keep that belt tight. (Oh and yes, you’re supposed to wear underpants beneath it!)

Last but not least, there’s the important matter of how to put on your yukata. As illustrated here, men should tie their belt at the usual hip height, women a little higher. Much more important than that, however, is that the left side should always be on top. Traditionally, corpses are dressed with their robes right-over-left, so it’s definitely not a look you’ll want to replicate.

With that little lot you should be more than ready to enjoy your visit, but if you’re still curious or worried about putting your foot in it, be sure to head over to Trip Advisor Japan for more ryokan etiquette tips.

Source/image: Trip Advisor Japan

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お心付け or tipping at a ryokan is appreciated by the 仲居さん. Some guests give food (饅頭 or 煎餅 or fruit local to their area) or drinks in lieu of cash. A 仲居さん told me there have been guests who've asked for a receipt after handing her some yen! During the bubble era, this 仲居さん and others told me tipping was in the 万円 and that was the norm but now they'll be lucky if they get a few thousand yen.

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A Ryokan sounds like exactly the kind of place I'd like to stay at: quiet, relaxing, elegant. I'll try and commit these tips to my long term memory so that I never forget them. I'd really rather not have to humbly apologize for making a fool of myself, common though that may be. Excellent article, and well worth knowing about.

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Don't think of this list when you see drunk men walking around with the top half of their yukata hanging totally open.

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Tipping is a bit more complicated - if you're for the first time, nope. If you're an accustomed guest, visiting there for decades, and basically being friends with the owner, a few 10.000 yen might mean you would like some special service (giving freehand to the owner, within the value of your "tip"). Most probably it would be a lavish party, with expensive drinks and a private shamisen/koto/dance show by a geisha...

A very old custom, almost gone in these days of consumerism.

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The nakaii-sans I spoke to (teenagers through women in their late 60's) in Yamanashi and Nagano have worked in ryokans all over Japan and the older ones say they've seen their pay dwindle. They act as bellhop, concierge, server, emcee and maid as they greet the guests and show them to their room and explain what's what (where the stairs are in case of a fire or earthquake or some other emergency, what time meals are, what local events are going on, etc.). Some ryokans have a policy that the nakaii-sans turn over any cash tips to the management. Some individuals tip because they recognize the nakaii-sans do a lot of work. The nakaii-sans I spoke to did not work in a classy establishment where geisha were provided. Some did have experience working for such places and they did earn big time paychecks and got bonuses from the ryokan. One girl told me she worked for a highly regarded place for a year to gain experience but resigned after a year so she could freelance. She became a nakaii-san for the sole purpose to earn travel money. She works 3-4 months then takes off 2-3 months to travel.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

where geisha were provided.

Gheishas are NEVER provided... mmmkay?! They are invited!!

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