If you go to Japan and stay in only Western-style hotel rooms, you will have a wonderful time. If you go to Japan and manage to stay even one night in a ryokan, then you will have an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns and differ from hotels in few key areas. First, your stay at a ryokan is self-contained. You are expected to arrive between 3pm and 5pm and stay in until you leave after breakfast the next morning. Second, meals are usually served to you either in your room or in a dining room and are included in the price of the room. Last, but not least, ryokans often feature natural hot spring baths. It is this feature that most intrigued us and ultimately led us to booking a room at the Tamanoyu Ryokan in Matsumoto.
When you arrive, the hosts will seat you in the lobby and serve you tea. While you are sipping and snacking, the staff will check you in. You will be given a choice of suppers and asked when you would like to eat your meals. Some inns serve you your meals in your room, but here there is a dining room where supper and breakfast are served.
After you have completed the check in process, you will be shown to your room. In a traditional Japanese room, the floor is covered with tatami mats, so you must remove your shoes. You will notice that your room has no bed. Instead, there is a low table with a tea set on it. Make yourself a cup and don’t worry about the bed. While you are eating supper this evening, the hosts will move the tables to the end of the room and roll out futon mattresses onto the floor. Feel free to unpack some of your luggage and change into the robe and pajamas provided to you. Since you are in for the night, you should probably check out the hot spring baths as soon as possible.
Hot spring baths are located all over Japan. They are indoors and out, in rural areas and dense urban cities, on top of mountains and near the sea, in hotels and inns and as freestanding bathhouses. In short, they are everywhere and are part of the culture. Like many things in Japanese culture, baths are steeped in tradition and have their own customs and etiquette. Though baths may differ in shape, size and location, the rules are the same. First, enter the bath area for your gender (they ARE separate, so you can stop worrying). You will enter a changing area with vanities and baskets to put your belongings in. Strip down and place your belongings into a basket, then walk into the bath area with only your towel. In the bath area, you will find the hot spring bath and washing stations along the wall. Go to one of the washing stations along the wall and soap up and shampoo with the products provided. Rinse off, and then walk to the bath. Your towel should NEVER touch the bath water, so rest it on your head or leave it on the tiles behind you. Soak for as long as you want or are able to (hot spring baths are hot). When you have had enough, head back to the washing station and soap, shampoo and rinse. After that, take a final dip in the bath if you like before drying off, then go back to the changing room to dress. Tamanoyu has both indoor and outdoor baths, and plenty of soaps, shampoos and other grooming items are provided.
When it is time for supper, make for the dining room. Actually, “dining room” makes it sound like those rooms where continental breakfasts are served. This room has the look of a restaurant, with semi-private booths, soft lighting and excellent waitstaff. Course after course of food will come your way and it is all delicious. Plan on at least 2 hours for your supper and don’t be afraid to try things you have not seen before – it is all part of the adventure. Breakfast is served in the same room, but it is a single course of Japanese food and Western-style food available as a buffet. When you check out the next morning, you will feel well-rested and glad you tried something new.
Tamanoyu Ryokan is located in Asama Onsen, just outside of Matsumoto. From the train station, it is a 10 minute taxi ride that costs 2000 yen. If you want to take the bus, walk across the street to the bus station (underneath the “Alpico” sign) and the agents will help you buy a ticket and tell you which bus to get on and when it leaves. The bus ride takes 20 minutes and costs 350 yen. When you get on the bus, tell the driver you want to get off at Asama Onsen. He will let you know when you get there. Tamanoyu Ryokan is right across the street to the east from the bus stop, but there are no signs in English.
Everyone should spend at least one night in a ryokan during their stay in Japan, and for a traditional Japanese lodging experience, Tamanoyu Ryokan can’t be beat.