Taking a bath with strangers and sleeping on the floor. All you need to know about staying in a Tokyo ryokan
There are certain things your guidebook will tell you to do while you're in Japan and staying in a ryokan will most likely be one of them.
Ryokans, in case you are new to the term, are traditional Japanese hotels and unless you've stayed in one before you probably won’t have experienced anything similar. So, to ease you in gently, here is my brief guide to staying in a Tokyo ryokan.
For me, there is nothing better after a hard day's sightseeing than being able to go back to a quiet place to relax and recuperate. Ryokans exist exactly for this purpose – they’re friendly, comfortable and, unless you’re unfortunate enough to be in a room next door to thirty-five elementary school kids on a school trip from Nagano, generally pretty quiet.
Ryokan Tsutaya, in a quiet area in the north of Tokyo, fits that bill perfectly. It’s close enough to the centre to provide easy access to the main sights in the city, but also quiet enough to make it feel like you’re getting away from it all. The accommodation itself is basic, but then that’s the style. For your 6,825 yen (per person per night) you get a tatami mat room, a futon on the floor (which, trust me, will be far more comfortable than it looks) and a container of hot water for making green tea when you arrive. You will also be provided with a robe and belt (yukata and obi, respectively), a towel, toiletries and a small TV. When I arrived I took my shoes off - as is mandatory in ryokans - and was directed to a shoe locker with name already above it. My name was also above the door to my room - a nice touch, which I can't ever remember happening in any other hotel I've frequented.
You also get the potentially moderately embarrassing 'opportunity' to get naked and bathe with complete strangers. Ryokan Tsutaya, like most ryokans in Japan, has a communal bath (o-furo, in Japanese) for you to use. Now, I know, there are plenty of people who would rather insert pins in their retinas than share someone else’s bathwater, but for me the bath is one of the highlights of any stay in a ryokan. The baths, particularly the communal ones, are usually steaming hot and perfect for plunging into after a long day pounding the streets. I guarantee you won't regret it. Besides, you’re in Japan - where communal bathing is a bit of a sport - you owe it to yourself to try this at least once and see what all the fuss is about.
Taking the plunge
If you do fancy this option, just put on your robe (the nakedness takes place inside the bathroom, of course…), take your small towel (which will be provided for you in your room) and then just get stuck in.
Once you get to the bathing area you need to wash yourself thoroughly in the showers (soap and shampoo provided) before you get in the main bath itself, as getting in the bath dirty is something of a no-no. If you want to know how thoroughly you should be washing, just take a glance at the sweaty man next to you and wash as fastidiously as you hope he is washing, and you won’t go far wrong. Make sure you also wash off the suds too, as soap in the bath tub is not the done thing either.
But if you really don’t fancy this option, ryokans will sometimes provide private baths for you to use. At Ryokan Tsutaya there are two smaller baths - a family bath and a personal bath, with locks on the doors and signs you can put out the front to make sure you won’t be disturbed. But, like I said, I would recommend the communal bath – at Ryokan Tsutaya it’s spotless and the hot, steaming water was the perfect tonic after a long day. And chances are if the ryokan is quiet you’ll be on your own anyway (I went in the morning before I checked out and had it completely to myself).
What to do and how to get there
I didn't eat while I was there, but the food did look great, and you can order dinner and breakfast for an extra charge (3,675 yen for dinner, 1,575 yen for breakfast). The only drawback, although this didn’t bother me too much, is that it's a ten minute walk from the metro station (Hongo Sanchome on the Marunouchi / Oedo lines). If you have lots of luggage, or a strong aversion to a brisk walk, a taxi from outside the station might set you back 2,000 yen or so.
All in all it’s a great place to stay if you want to take it easy and get your first taste of a ryokan, but with the added bonus of being close enough to the main sights of the city. Shinjuku and Ginza are just a short metro ride away (if feel the need to so some serious shopping) and if you feel the need for some culture, Asakusa, with its famous Senso-ji temple is also close by.
The surrounding area is quiet and calm, a rarity for such a central location. Ueno park is a ten minute walk away and provides good opportunities for walking, especially during spring when it's an excellent place for cherry blossom viewing. The road from the station has a decent selection of eateries - including a couple of Indian restaurants, a jazz bar and a couple of cafes if you're in need of a bit of caffeine - but all on a much more laid back scale than the bright lights of Tokyo just minutes away.
The following website contains information on many other ryokans in Tokyo and Japan in general. Hopefully you should find something to suit your taste and/or budget here: