Staying at a Japanese Ryokan & Onsen
If you're going to Japan...try to book at least one night of your stay at a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. Usually they have spa services and an onsen (more on that later) included as well. You'll wear your robe and dine in your room while experiencing the incredible Japanese hospitality.
While planning my trip, I decided that I needed to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the cities and escape into the Japanese Alps for my stay at a ryokan. I wasn't yet convinced to try the onsen though... During my research I discovered that the onsen is a public hot spring bath, segregated by gender, because you're going to be nude. I'm pretty modest, and the idea of being nude in a hot tub full of strangers didn't automatically appeal. But I wanted the ryokan experience.
I chose to go to the town of Takayama, which from Kyoto was 3 1/2 hours on a train. We switched trains at Nagoya for the wide view window train. The ride up the mountains was stunning and the large windows helped everyone easily enjoy the scenery.
Upon arrival in Takayama, it was a short walk to the Ryokan Tanabe (http://www.tanabe-ryokan.jp/english/) where I had booked a yubokuan room (complete with floor mats and low profile furniture. We were greeted by the friendly staff who immediately took our luggage as we checked in and had our yukatas (a light kimono style robe) picked out for us. We chose the dinner and breakfast options, so there was some discussion on the times for our meals and then instructions were given regarding the onsen.
We were ushered to our room and instructed to change into our robes. Dinner would be served shortly. Our room attendants were very polite and attentive. While the food (aside from the Hida beef) was not my style. It's so gorgeously presented and an experience to watch how detailed they are about exactly how the dishes are laid out...that you should probably try it, at least once.
After dinner, I was persuaded to try the onsen. I nervously made my way to the women's section and entered into a changing room. Here I was to entirely disrobe and place my belongings in basket. A small hand towel, roughly the size of a handkerchief is provided for modesty. But the towel is not allowed in the water. You can keep it at the ledge or place it on your head.
And then...naked as the day I was born, I marched into the pool area. But before I could enter the hot bath, I needed to shower myself... in front of the other patrons. Fortunately, it was just a mother and a few young girls with her. But I was still rather uncomfortable. I sat myself down on the shower stool rinsed myself off and used the soap provided. After lathering up and rinsing off again, I made a beeline for the opposite end of the pool from the other family, trying to cover myself up as much as I could with my miniscule hand towel and arms.
I'll admit, it did feel really nice soaking away in the warm water...despite feeling way too exposed. This is not something I could do with friends or family...I'm just too bashful. I didn't stay long, because the water was warm. Some places will instruct you not to shower after your onsen because the minerals need to absorb. I didn't follow that advice and showered.
I returned to our room and my travel buddy returned shortly after. While we were away, our room attendant, hid the dinner table somewhere and set out our futons on the floor for sleeping. I thought they were comfortable and slept well.
In the morning, we laughed that despite the weirdness of our onsen experiences...we felt refreshed and our sore feet and tired muscles felt brand new and ready to go for another week.
Our room attendant arrived promptly to put away our futons and return the table to its position. Breakfast was served...and well, it was interesting. But beautiful.
We had a mid-morning train to Tokyo planned, so we stored our luggage at the ryokan and set out to see the town of Takayama (and pick up a couple donuts at the Family Mart). Across the river, the main streets were definitely photogenic as they all had the traditional storefronts.
While a bit out of the way, I enjoyed seeing a more rural side of Japan. It gave us a break from heavy site-seeing and the crowds of other tourists. Try to get away for at least a day on your travels in Japan...like I said, it was rejuvenating.
*sorry, not sorry for the lack of pictures of the interior of the Ryokan Tanabe. What happens in the ryokan, stays in the ryokan. And had cameras actually been allowed in the onsen...I don't think I would have taken them anyway. Scandalous!