After a day packed with sightseeing, miles of walking, and chilling winds, most travelers would look forward to returning to a comfortable, plush hotel bed. Many Semester at Sea students traveling through Japan, however, instead returned from their long days to something else entirely: mats on the floor.
Hoping to make the most out of their five days in the country, these students opted for a more cultural lodging experience in a ryokan— traditional Japanese inns that date back as far as the 17th century. In addition to sleeping on tatami mats, guests also can enjoy communal baths, wear Japanese robes, and partake in other elements of Japanese culture.
“You get the full experience of a Japanese homestay,” student Sabrina Smith said. “It’s so much more authentic than staying in a regular hotel.”
Smith spent the night in a ryokan in Koyto, as they weren’t readily available in the larger cities in Japan that she visited, such as Tokyo and Osaka. This is largely because they are more expensive and travelers prefer hotels, but they are still popular in other smaller cities and scenic areas. Kyoto, close to the mountains and more culturally oriented than bigger cities, offers an especially abundant number of ryokan, and many students took the opportunity to stay in one there.
Smith and her friends stayed at a ryokan called Motonago, which is just outside of the center of the city in a district called Gion. Aside from her group, two other groups of Semester at Sea students stayed there as well.
In keeping with Japanese customs, guests at the hotel are required to take off their shoes upon entering, trading them for traditional-style slippers. However, the pair of slippers that guests receive at the entrance of the hotel can only be worn as far as the guests’ room, where they must be taken off again before entering. A different pair of slippers must be worn in the bathrooms.
“I definitely wasn’t used to it, but it was interesting,” student Henley Shull, who also stayed at Motonago, said. “Especially that you couldn’t wear them from room to room.”
Shull tried to be very careful about wearing the correct pair of shoes at all times, as she wanted to show her respect for the custom, she said.
In addition to providing guests with the traditional slippers, they also gave them robes to wear around the ryokan. The robes could be worn to the “communal” bath, which is offered to all guests. While students were nervous about the idea of a public bath, they discovered that they could reserve their own time slot.
“It turned out we could actually use the bath privately,” Shull said. “It was super relaxing. It was like being in a hot tub without the bubbles.”
All guests are also given the option to enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast, which both Shull and Smith signed up for. The staff prepared and set out meal in the customary manner, and they were served typical Japanese breakfast foods. But some of the array of options that were offered, including raw salmon, dried small fish (with eyes intact), and plain dry seaweed were not what they were expecting.
“I ended up just eating rice and drinking a lot of green tea,” Smith said. “I couldn’t really stomach the fish that early in the morning.”
She tried a little bit of everything, but was very glad that it is not customary in Japan to finish everything on your plate, she sad.
Aside from the breakfast, though, both students said that they enjoyed every other aspect of their ryokan stay, even sleeping on mats on the floor. “They were more comfortable that I ever thought they’d be,” Shull said. “It was the best night of sleep I got in my whole time in Japan.”