When I travel to Japan, I always prefer staying in a traditional Japanese inn, referred to as a ryokan. I love the simplicity, the sparse furnishings, the open spaces and the meticulously designed outdoor gardens. As someone who loves walking around indoors in bare feet and prefers sleeping on a futon set on the floor, I didn't have too much trouble adapting to ryokan life. But, many travelers will want to know that etiquette issues abound.
Here are a few of the most noteworthy ones I came away with:
1. When you enter the ryokan, you trade your street shoes for slippers that are worn most everywhere inside, with some exceptions.
2. Before you enter any room that has a straw or tatami mat, make sure you only step with your bare feet or socks. You should remove your slippers at the door threshold.
3. Once in your room, you'll change into a yukata or light cotton robe. Though it might seem odd by Western standards, it's perfectly normal to walk around the ryokan in the yukata. What's key, however, is how you tie it: it's wrapped left over right. To the dismay of my guide, I repeatedly tied mine incorrectly, right over left, -- the way it's done only on corpses.
4. Special slippers -- like the bright red ones I found in many of the ryokans I visited -- are only worn in the bathroom (toilet). Unlike what I accidentally did, never wear these slippers anywhere else in the ryokan nor should your regular slippers in the bathroom.
5. Expect to sleep on a futon on the floor and snuggle into a comfy comforter or quilt. But don't be surprised that your pillow, rather than cushy down, will be hard because it's filled with buckwheat or another grain or husk.
6. The ofuro or traditional bath -- I often found the ryokan only offered a sex-separate public bath -- is a nice respite before dinner. Here's how the ritual works: before entering the bath, soap up first while seated on a mini-stool and pour water over your head with a large bucket or use the shower head. Then, after making sure you have rinsed off every bit of soup, you step into the hot water. (I prefer lukewarm water and found these temperatures scalding. So step in carefully.) 7. When dining at the ryokan, don't leave your chopsticks standing up in a rice bowl. This is something that's only done at a funeral. And always fill the glass of those you dine with (before they ask).