With over 3,000 natural hot spring resorts, or onsens in Japan, a trip to the Land of Rising Sun would not be complete without a visit to one of these hugely popular onsens. While there are numerous hot spring baths spread across the country where you can enjoy for a day trip, I highly recommend you to stay in at least one onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn with hot spring) for a superb experience. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Thus for a truly local onsen experience, you should follow what the Japanese do when they check into an onsen ryokan. This article will provide you with a detailed guide on how to enjoy your 2 days 1 night onsen ryokan stay just like a local.
Day 1: Upon arrival at the ryokan
The official check-in time for onsen ryokans in Japan is around 3pm. Upon arrival at the traditional Japanese-style inn for your wonderful retreat, the friendly reception staff would ask for your choice of dinner, so that they can make the necessary preparations in order to serve you a hearty meal around 7pm.
Explore the ryokan surroundings and town
After settling in your room, it would be a waste to just laze in your room and do nothing! While it may be hard to get yourself out of the cosy traditional room, do make the effort to explore the ryokan compounds and the surrounding onsen town. A charming world out there is waiting for you to discover. Walk around the traditional Japanese garden in the ryokan for some fresh air and beautiful seasonal views. Head out to the streets in the relaxing onsen town to shop for local crafts and souvenirs to bring home for your family and friends. Immerse yourself in the retro atmosphere in these hot spring towns as you stroll along the street!
Time for a good bath in the ryokan’s onsen!
In the evening, around 6pm, return to your ryokan for your very first onsen bath. Bet this is the moment you have been waiting for! After all, your primary reason for booking an overnight onsen ryokan stay is none other than enjoying a relaxing bath in the natural hot spring waters. Change into the onsen yukata (a kimono-style bathrobe) that is available in your room, and bring along a set of towels, usually found in your room, to use at the public onsen. If you can’t find the towels in your room, they will be available at the onsen area.
Remember it is traditional Japanese culture to disrobe completely when you get in the bath. If you feel shy about going naked in front of everyone (of the same gender) in the bath, you may use the small towel to cover your sensitive body parts before entering the bathtub. Before entering the bath, sit on the stool in the washing area beside the bath and wash yourself with soap. Do not put the towel in the water when you get into the bath. The towel should either be used to bundle your long hair up your head or placed by the side of the bath. Running, washing or swimming in the bath is also prohibited so you should just stay in the bath for a relaxing soak.
For first timers, avoid soaking in the bath for too long as your body may not be used to the high water temperature yet. Stand up slowly as you prepare to leave the bath to avoid the fainting spell. Wipe yourself as dry as possible before returning to the changing room to change back into your yukata. Do note that it is recommended not to rinse yourself again so that you can enjoy fully the benefits of the minerals in the water. However, if you have sensitive skin, it may be better to rinse the water off before you wipe yourself dry. Don’t forget never to wash or rinse yourself in the bath so as not to contaminate the spring water.
Savour the tantalising flavours of traditional kaiseki cuisine
By now, your stomach should be growling after the invigorating soak in the bath. Tuck into a scrumptious dinner typically of traditional kaiseki cuisine, which means a multi-course Japanese dinner. Known for its meticulous preparation and beautiful presentation, besides being able to savour the meal made from fresh local ingredients, it would be a visual feast for your eyes as well. Depending on the ryokan you are staying at, you may be able to dine in the comfort of your room.
Burn some calories after dinner with a game of table tennis
Given that the dinner is a sumptuous spread of many dishes, it is common to feel so full and satisfied after the meal. Since it is not advisable to return to the onsen on a full stomach, take the opportunity to burn some calories off with a game of table tennis. This is a common game that the locals love to engage in after dinner at the ryokan. Try playing a game or two with your travel mates to sweat it out. Who knows, you may grow to love the simple game and even become addicted to it!
Relax and unwind with a second onsen bath
I suppose you have more or less burnt off some calories from the fun table tennis game and not feeling as full now. That means you are now ready to soak in the bath for a second time! Most onsen ryokans have at least two different public baths, so you may visit the other one for a different experience this round. Or you may wish to book a private onsen bath with the ryokan. The same bathing etiquette mentioned earlier applies to your second bath, do take note and enjoy your therapeutic soak!
Bond with your travel mates over games or drinks
If you are still feeling energetic after the second onsen bath, have fun playing a game of table tennis again with your friends. Otherwise, you can bond over a fun card game together in the room, or head to the izakaya in the ryokan, where you can chill over some Japanese sake or beer with finger food. After that, return to your cosy tatami-style room for a well-deserved night of good rest.
Day 2: Wake up to a refreshing bath in the onsen
The following morning, locals will go to the onsen for a relaxing bath before breakfast. This is especially so if it is an open-air onsen, or an indoor onsen with a huge window facing the direction of the East, because it would be a great opportunity to catch the beautiful sunrise. To the Japanese, being able to catch the sunrise is a big wow thing that is worth waking up early for. Just the thought of being able to enjoy the medicinal benefits of the soak and watch an alluring sunrise should be a reason big enough to pull yourself off the bed!
Take your time to enjoy the healthy traditional breakfast
In most onsen ryokans, breakfast is also included in the stay. As breakfast is the most important meal of the day, rest assured you will be served a delicious and nutritious set meal to kickstart your day. Depending on the local seasonal ingredients available in the onsen town, you may find various types of seafood sashimi, fish or tofu which are protein-rich for your set meal. Take your time to chew and savour every bit of the bountiful meal before you prepare to leave for the next destination.
Last-minute souvenir shopping
Before checking out of the onsen ryokan, you can do some last-minute shopping in the ryokan’s souvenir shop. Such shops are usually found in large ryokans, or you can head to your favourite shop in the onsen town where you can enjoy a lovely stroll after check-in at the ryokan. Grab an omiyage or souvenir, such as local handicrafts or food specialties, exquisitely wrapped in boxes for your loved ones back home. You can also buy some for yourself so as to remember this special local experience in Japan. Please check out around 10am, the official check-out time for ryokans in Japan.
An authentic local experience that is hard to forget
While an onsen bath is one of the must-do activities for many holiday-makers in Japan, not everyone will take note and follow what the locals do when staying in an onsen ryokan. For a more meaningful and memorable stay, follow the above guide for a truly local experience in the onsen ryokan. It is also a form of respect for others when you abide by the bathing etiquette when relaxing in the onsens. Create fond lasting holiday memories by practising the local culture. Have an awesome vacation!
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