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The Ryokan Collection
The 7 Mysteries of Japanese Ryokan
As we all know, “ryokan” is a traditional style of a Japanese hotel. A ryokan stay is a great opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. At some point, many people may have already experienced a real ryokan stay in Japan. In addition to cultural differences, many people probably had wondered about the unique cultures of Japanese ryokan when they visited, possibly with more than just one question. For example, “why there is a female manager, called okami in each ryokan?” or “why do we eat such a sumptuous full course meal in relaxing attire, yukata?”. From amateurs to ryokan experts, Japanese ryokan is still full of wonders. In this issue, we’ll reveal the details about Japanese ryokan, from a basic etiquette-error-in-waiting for foreign guests to a new cultural revelation.
 1  How old is the history of Japanese ryokan?
The oldest ryokan nestles in Yamanashi, with a history of roughly 1,300 years, were initially founded in 705 AD and made the world's oldest hotel. At this oldest ryokan in Japan, all 52 generations of decedents operated the ryokan and passed down their family business with hospitality to the next generation.

Back in the Nara Period (710-784), with transportation facilities and traffic networks still undeveloped, traveling was indeed challenging, for people had no choice but to sleep outside. Large numbers of travelers died of starvation by the roadside, and so Buddhist monks who could no longer turn a blind eye set up the free rest houses with the aim of assisting travelers. A high priest constructed roads and bridges in dangerous locations and opened nine free rest houses. In the following Heian Period (794-1191), pilgrimages to temples became popular among the imperial family and aristocrats, so temple buildings happened to be used as lodging houses. The accommodation facilities set up in the temple precincts were open to religious devotees and worshippers and later became to be called "shukubō," temple lodgings. It is said to be the origin of a Japanese ryokan.
 2  Is there any taboos in a Japanese-style room with tatami matting?
If you're traveling to Japan, it can be helpful to learn at least a few key points when it comes to Japanese etiquette and taboos, especially in a Japanese-style room. Cut to the chase, here are 4 of the most important things to remember.

In Japan, it's most common to remove one's shoes before entering a tatami room. Rooms with tatami matting abound in Japan, and you can expect to encounter tatami rooms at ryokans, temples, and traditional restaurants. Secondly, do not step on the doorsill. Stepping on the doorsill is recognized as disrespecting the territories of the owner and the house. It is considered rude that it is as bad as stepping on the owner's face. It may also potentially damage the structure. Thirdly, you cannot step on the tatami's edges. The tatami is used to represent the owner's status. Those with higher statuses would only use the finest materials such as silk, imprinted in emblems, while the commoners would use more simple materials. The materials on the edges would wear off faster than the rest of the tatami if people were constantly stepping on them. And lastly, you may not knock on the sliding door, fusuma, before entering. You'll always have to say "excuse me" before opening fusuma. After you opened the sliding door, you will greet the person on the other side of the door. Also, alcove, called tokonoma comes from where the high-status aristocracies sit, and it's a taboo to step in and put luggage there. And the seat nearest the alcove is the seat of honor, called kamiza.
 3  Why do we eat luxurious foods in yukata?
Most ryokan prepares with yukata as bedding. You can wear yukata anytime during your stay at a ryokan. Of course, you can wear it inside and can even go out to onsen town. Yukata is a kind of traditional Japanese Kimono and is said to be clothing for bathing in ancient. With that said, wearing yukata even during dinner is a traditional way of relaxing at a ryokan.
 4  What is the bathing protocols at a ryokan?
Japan is said to have more onsen (hot spring) than any country on earth. While travelers are welcome at most onsens, there is a strict etiquette to be observed. Failure to comply may cut short your visit or see you banned altogether. The onsen is a quiet, respectful, meditative place, and the sooner you shed any inhibitions, the better. Traditionally, Japanese men and women bathed together without clothes in olden times. Mostly, there are male and female onsens separated, but children are often allowed in both men's and women's onsens.

Overall, the onsen is a healing sanctuary for many Japanese. Rules may vary, but the following are often banned: shoes, cameras, phones, tattoos, horsing around, talking loudly, and drinking. As you may have already known, Tattoos are generally banned, but this rule is increasingly overlooked in tourist areas. First off, you are expected to wash thoroughly before entering an onsen. Most bathing stations provide shampoos and toiletries, or they are available in a vending machine. If you take a modesty towel into the onsen, it's considered rude to dip it in the water. Most bathers put it on their heads to cool down. The concept is to keep the water as pure as possible.
 5  What are we supposed to do in a public bath surrounded by strangers?
Traveling is about embracing new experiences. In speaking of which, it can mean leaving your clothes along with your comfort zone in a neat pile far behind especially in Japan. In addition to the health benefits, hot springs are a significantly pleasurable way to relax. They also offer health benefits and an insight into Japanese culture. So, just relax and enjoy onsens! No one intends to interfere with your privacy or stare at you.
 6  Is tipping required at a ryokan?
Tipping is not required or usually expected, but the tradition remains at traditional ryokans, which serve guests meals, sleep in guest rooms, and one room attendant looks after guests during their stay. However, there are other styles of ryokans, such as serving only breakfast or only at restaurants. Some ryokans do not include meals as well. It is a division of labor like Western hotels, and the rooms are comparable to Western hotels. While guests' privacy is maintained, this style of ryokans does not necessarily follow the Japanese tipping tradition. But tipping is considered a thoughtful course of action that could lead to an excellent motivation for the staff working at ryokans. For example, suppose you've had an exceptional stay with thoughtful and personalized service. In that case, it's customary to tip around JPY 3,000-10,000 upon arrival or departure depends on your satisfaction with your room attendant who acts as your butler during your stay.

It may be the best if you could tip from the gut: if it feels right to you, it probably is. It can hardly go wrong since tips aren't expected in the first place. But, if you tip at a ryokan, the best way to offer a tip is by slipping clean bills into an envelope and graciously handing the envelope to your recipient using both hands, so they will also receive it with both hands.
 7  What is “okami” anyway?
"Okami" not only bears the most significant responsibility for waiting on and taking care of guests but also acts as the chief service manager on behalf of the ryokan. Okami's role corresponds to that of a general manager in a Western hotel. In many cases, the okami is the owner of the ryokan or the owner's wife, which means that the okami, as the representative of the ryokan, attends to all external affairs such as business matters and cooperation with the local community.

So, why does it have to be a female manager? Among the numerous ryokans which have developed as family businesses, the okami has always supervised guest service in general and continues to play the central role. For this reason, many of the ryokans have been handed down through successive generations within the same family. The traditions of ryokans are often preserved by three generations together: the oo-okami (grand okami), the okami, and the waka-okami (young okami). In addition to the primary role of okami, okami also needs to pay attention to the seasonal arrangements, making flowers, and making tea (depending on the facility). Of course, there is nothing that men should not do, but in general, it is a job that requires consideration incredibly unique to women.
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