I recently traveled to Japan where I immersed myself (literally!) in two age-old Japanese traditions: staying in a ryokan and bathing in an onsen.
The ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and staying in one is truly a worthwhile experience, rich in culture and comfort. The onsen is their traditional hot spring bath, a word used to describe any public bathing facility. A visit to the onsen is an important part of Japanese life, a common weekend pursuit, a truly relaxing and therapeutic experience.
Ryokans are popular places to stay outside of Tokyo, such as the district of Kyoto and the area surrounding Mt. Fuji. I highly recommend staying in one, as it gives you an authentic taste of Japanese etiquette. The fine details of every day life are governed by age-old tradition; and how you live is the way the Japanese have done it for centuries.
To begin with, the ryokan structure is made of light materials, and you enter through sliding doors. The rooms have no beds; instead, visitors sleep on a tatami mat, which is traditionally made from rice straw.
Remember—shoes off at all times when at the ryokan! There are also different slippers for the bedroom and the bathroom, and you must not interchange them.
And you must wear a yukata, an informal robe, which all guests wear around the hotel premises.
When you arrive, sweets and hot tea await you. And when the weather is cold, the floors are heated. These practices were very interesting to me.
Many ryokans have an onsen. Using one was a delightful experience—as foreign as it gets from our own Filipino culture. Although we have our own version of the hot spring baths in places like Los Baños, Laguna, it is once again the little details that enrich the onsen experience. For starters, it takes courage to bathe there, as you must be completely naked! (Don’t worry; facilities are gender separated).
Here’s how it works:
- Take a quick shower. Sit on a wooden stool and don’t wet your hair. Instead, wrap your hair in a damp towel.
- Submerge yourself in the indoor onsen for 15-20 minutes.
- Return to your shower, for a total cleaning, including your hair.
- Dry up and put on the robe.
- Proceed to outdoor onsen.
- Disrobe—then, walk fast to the onsen through the cold wind!
- Soak in the second onsen, and relax for 20 minutes.
- After your bath, don’t rinse. Pat dry so as to keep the minerals from the water on your skin.
Bathing in the onsen was a wonderful treat, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. You feel one with nature, thanks to its unique setting. The best part is when the cold mountain air mixes with the steam from the hot bath, enters your nostrils and goes into your lungs. It is unlike any other feeling, truly refreshing. You can be sure of a very good sleep after your bath.
A Culture of Excellence
The ryokan and onsen show us the excellence that is woven tightly into Japanese culture—something still evident in their modern day practices. Japan is so organized, and probably the cleanest country in the world. They think of everything. Even the smallest of rooms will be so functional that it is not a discomfort to stay there. There are, of course, the legendary public toilets: spic and span, with options for cleaning and flushing. There are even manufactured ambient sound effects to mask embarrassing sounds!
The Japanese people are helpful and honest. Someone in our group left an iPhone in a restaurant. The restaurant staff recovered the phone and mailed it back to the owner via the tour guide. Lest you think this was an isolated case—this happened three times to different people in our group! And each time, the Japanese peoples’ honesty prevailed.
Before we end, indulge me for a few seconds as I gush about their food. Shabu-shabu is so delicious there, especially during cold weather, which we experienced during our trip. And sushi is freshest during the cold season
Take a look at some of my food snapshots—delicious!:
In closing, I hope this entry entices you to visit Japan, as it is truly a wonderful place to experience. Age-old tradition, world class relaxation, a culture of excellence, delicious cuisine, and honest people—what more could you ask for in a country? We hope you have as wonderful an experience as I did, when you go for your visit!
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