Staying in a Japanese-style hotel, or ryokan, is a unique and fun experience. If you want to try staying in a ryokan, I recommend Ryokan Biyu no Yado in Nagano. The perfect blend of Japanese hospitality, five-star accommodation, English-speaking staff, and access to various activities make it a wonderful stay. The okami, the female manager (usually dressed in a kimono), speaks English well as she was a flight attendant in the US for many years and there is a New Zealander on staff; so you never have to feel lost or unsure of what to do in the ryokan.
When you first arrive at the ryokan, you are immediately welcomed with genuine interest in your comfort and well-being. At check-in, you do not receive your room keys, but it is already on a table in your room. When you enter your room, remember to take off your shoes before you step onto the tatami mat areas. Don’t worry, there is a pamphlet on the table that tells you all the “how to’s” of staying in a ryokan.
The first business of staying in a ryokan is to get comfortable. In the room, you are given a set of yukata (Japanese bathrobes) and slippers to wear around the ryokan, including at dinner and in the lounge areas. If you are unsure of how to wear the yukata, just ask, as the staff are very friendly and helpful. Also, if you walk around and your yukata seems amiss, one of the staff members will give you gentle guidance on being more socially appropriate. For women, ask about kimono dressing as they do offer kimonos and an instructional session on how to put on a kimono. You can then wear the kimono around the ryokan and at dinner.
You must try the mineral onsen that is filled from a natural hot spring. The communal bath and onsen, separate for males and females, is on the basement level. You can leave your room key at the front desk for safekeeping or it is quite safe in the basket in the cubicle for storing your clothes and things. And yes, this is a birthday suit activity. However, once you see the Japanese comfortable in all shapes and sizes and at all ages and that no one is looking at you, you can let down your guard and self-consciousness and just enjoy the experience. If you still feel modest, you can use your small washcloth to cover up. In the communal bath area, there are little stools you can sit on, and shampoo, conditioner, and soap are provided for you. You wash and clean yourself before you step into the onsen. Then pure warmth and relaxation as you sit and enjoy the onsen, especially wonderful after spending the day skiing or chasing snow monkeys in the cold. There is an outdoor onsen, but you have to brave the few minutes naked in the cold to get to the onsen. Be careful to watch out for slippery ice on the ground, since you might want to run because it is cold. When you are well relaxed and clean, you can dress, blow dry your hair, and try the various lotions put out for you. If you want to return to use the communal bath and onsen again the next day, make sure you check that you are entering the correct section because the bathing areas switch sometime during the night. Also if you are adventurous enough, there is an outdoor onsen on the rooftop that is open to both sexes in the evening hours.
Dinner is also an adventure. I recommend ordering the set menu so that you can try the various Japanese dishes. Some of the dishes might seem strange to a Western visitor, but it does not hurt to try something once. One of the more enjoyable aspects of dinner is being able to pluck your own mushrooms off a stump and grill them on a candle grill right on your table. If that isn’t cool enough, if you live in Japan, you can take the stump home and try to grow more mushrooms. After dinner on special nights, you might be lucky to catch an audience-interactive show with a taiko drum demonstration and lion dance.
For the eco-conscious traveler, the Ryokan Biyu no Yado offers a special benefit. The ryokan harnesses the heat and energy from the natural hot spring to heat the hotel and rooms. So, you can fall asleep guilt-free if you want to crank up the heat in your room.
You may never want to leave Ryokan Biyu no Yado, but when you do, staff members stand outside the ryokan and wave goodbye until you are out of sight. You may never feel this special again!