Ryokans with Kids

In some ways, bringing kids into a traditional Japanese inn (a ryokan) is similar to giving your five year old some matches and gasoline with the expectation that no fires will break out.

That said, ryokans are one of the tactile things—things you can use, touch, feel—that remain of classical Japan. A lot of the old stuff is locked behind glass, or fenced off, or just plain hidden. It would be a shame to bypass this chance just ‘cause you have the kids with you. We also have at the bottom of this page some info on locating an inn, as well as a way to make reservations on-line.

So, the word here is be informed, know the territory, know your kids and make a good decision.

Ryokan 101 begins at the door, or, more likely, the genkan or entranceway. This is a gray area between street and inn where one removes ones shoes, sets down parcels and, if you are lucky, are welcomed by the owners of the inn. Failure to get shoes off at this point starts to make the rest of the trip look bleak.

A small digression about footwear. You never, ever wear shoes inside a traditional inn. You often must/should wear slippers the inn provides when walking inside around the inn. You however must take off the regular slippers at the toilet or bathroom door, slip on the special toilet only slippers inside, then reverse the process upon coming out.

Anyway, once inside, be advised that in your room some of the walls will be sliding screens made of paper. Remember the game “rock-scissors-paper”? Most things, including kids, tear holes in the screens. Repairs are made by a traditional screen fixer guy and if that sounds expensive, it usually is. Careful.

The floor in most/all of your room will be tatami, woven mats. Never wear slippers on the mats. Don't spill stuff on the mats, especially liquids, ‘cause they are very hard to clean and will likely need to be replaced, of course by the traditional mat guy and if that sounds expensive, it usually is. Careful.

Two meals, breakfast and dinner, are often included in the price of your room. Just to keep things interesting, some inns will bring in low tables and serve you in the room. Near the paper screens. On the woven mats. An artfully-dropped bowl of soup can require both the traditional screen guy's and the traditional mat guy's help. And, as you guessed, if that sounds expensive, it usually is. Careful.

The Bath

Almost no inn offers individual toilets in the room; you will almost always share.

Bathing is a big part of the ryokan experience. Unless you are in a really expensive inn, you will either take turns one-byone with the single bath available, or use baths separated by sex communually (the bath, not the sex, is communal for those of you with a better sense of grammar but naughtier mind than me).

One washes with soap outside the bath. Soap in the bath is the Japanese equivilant of mud on the dining room table. You will usually find a small bucket and a hot water tap. The drill is wet down by pouring buckets of hot water over yourself, soap up, then rinse off until not a bubble of soap is left on you. You then enter the bath for a long, relaxing soak.

Most Japanese families will bathe together, at least while the kids are in elementary school. Mom will feel comfortable bringing a male child into the bath, either with just her or into a communal women's bath up to around school age (sort of… it depends). If you are taking turns at a smaller inn with only one bath, your inn-mates (get it?) might get grumpy if your four family members go one at a time.

Understand that everyone bathing that night will share the same water, hence the need for ultimate scrubbing and cleaning before the soak.

Other Things

  • The bath water can be very, very hot, as can the tap water one washes with. Test it carefully for your kids. If the water is very hot but tolerable, it will stay tolerable longer if you sit very still. I think what happens is that your body heat actually cools the water it is in contact with, creating a little zone of slightly cooler water.
  • The floors can be very slippery, especially if lots of people are washing soap off themselves at once.
  • The bath and toilet are always in separate rooms, with separate slipper changes. If you think folks would be upset about soap in the bath, how about something more, um, fragrant? Go first, then the bath is a good rule. Also, if you're naked in the tub, imagine what would be involved when the young one says “Number 1 potty Mommy!”
  • In a larger men's facility, some folks will shave. There may be razors left about.

More Info

Try the Japanese Inn Group to locate the right ryokan. The Kyoto area is covered under the Kinki Region. Write for their booklet to Hiraiwa Ryokan, 314, Hayao-cho, Kaminoguchi-agaru, Ninomiyacho-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600, Japan or to the Tokyo office at Sawanoya Ryokan, 2-3-11, Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110, Japan. One reader also said they had a good experience with Japanese Guest Houses.

If you are interested in staying at a traditional Japanese inn, you can now make on-line reservations through the Japanese National Tourism Organization.

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