The Unspoken Code of Polite Behaviour


How to navigate Japan's Ryokan Collection like a nimble nomad


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The Unspoken Code of Polite Behaviour
Events & Culture February 25th, 2018

A ryokan is the closest thing to a time capsule. It is a singularly beautiful construct of existence from a foregone era.

You will live like they did in feudal Japan; served by kimono-clad staff, sleep in unfurled futons on tatami mats, and soak in cypress wooden baths. All these while the help prepares elaborate kaiseki for dinner.

The oldest hotel in the world is a ryokan – the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Yamanashi prefecture – run by the same family for over 1,300 years.

These minimalist taverns mushroomed in the 17th century to provide respite for weary warlords and merchants on ancient trade routes. Today, there are some 63,000 ryokans spread across Japan, all promising romantic and storied links with the past.

We’ve decided to illustrat this story with images from The Ryokan Collection, a group of 34 luxury boutique inns delivering highly personalised experience.

To truly optimise your stay at a ryokan, you’ll do well to observe the unspoken codes of behaviour. Unlike staying at an achingly cool hotspot like a W, for instance, the experience calls for references to centuries-old culture, and simple observation.

You are drawn into a controlled, hospitality experience that pays deep homage to history and servitude. This cultural immersion is the key to meaningful engagement with the experience.

Hiiragiya is in the heart of Kyoto, a city home to embroidery artisans and genteel geishas. In Japan’s smallest prefecture Kagawa, ryokan Kotohira Kadan has welcomed guest literary legend Ogai Mori, who published the iconic novel The Wild Goose at the turn of the 20th century. The story of unfulfilled love was later turned into the movie The Mistress (1953).

Given that a therapeutic soak is often part of the ryokan experience, Yagyu No Sho is found in the heart of hot spring resort town Shuzenji Onsen.

Ryokans come with a set of unspoken codes of behaviour, stemming from centuries of history. The cultural immersion makes it a more meaningful stay than a regular hotel.

Here is an insider’s guide to navigating ryokan etiquette like a seasoned traveller, blending in with the Japanese locals is very much part of the travel experience.

Left Is Always Right

Swaddle yourself in the yukata provided to look the part of a yesteryear guest. But unlike a bathrobe, there is a specific way to do this so you do not end up dressing like the dead: Wear the cotton robe with its left side over the right.

Singaporean Janice Tay, author of a guide to Japan’s old capital, Kyoto Unhurried (2006), explains the significance of the order.

Wearing the right side over left might have been a sign of high status in ancient Japan, but it is also how the dead are dressed for burial.

“Most people are right-handed. The fact that you could dress so inconveniently signalled that you were someone who didn’t need to do physical labour.”

Janice Tay, author of a guide to Japans old capital, Kyoto Unhurried (2006)

She came across a fascinating theory explaining how the movement of the right hand is restricted when wearing the yukata with the right flap over the left.

“Most people are right-handed. The fact that you could dress so inconveniently signalled that you were someone who didn’t need to do physical labour.”

“But when people died, they became ancestral spirits – a promotion in rank– so their corpses were dressed in a way that reflected their new status,” adds Tay, who was so in love with Japan that she has made Kyoto her home since 2006.

Although the rich adapted the common way of wearing the yukata, the right-over-left way of dressing remained for the dead. If all else fails, remember: left (side) is always (on the) right.

Slippers At The Loo… Don’t Go Anywhere Else

House rules apply from the moment you step into the inn. 

Shoes come off at the entrance area, and you slip into the indoor slippers set out for you to wear around the communal area.

“Remember to change the slippers at the door of the inn toilets for the toilet slippers – and don’t forget to change them back. What you find in the loo, stays in the loo. And don’t wear slippers of any kind on tatami flooring.”

“If you’re not used to it, the slipper rule is probably the hardest to remember,” says Tay, who also gives private tours of Kyoto, a cultural city dotted with ryokans.

Wondering why the need for two sets of slippers in the ryokan? The Japanese are a stickler for cleanliness, so it’s not surprising that this fastidiousness seeps into the ryokan culture as well.

Short Stays Are Best

If you want to travel like a local, travel light and leave your week’s worth of luggage in a locker or baggage deposit counter at a train station.

The Japanese usually stay for a night and tote only a hand-carry or cabin-sized luggage.

Associate Professor Chris McMorran, who spent 12 months working at ryokans in and around Kurokawa for his dissertation, says “On the rare occasion when we had tourists from France or Switzerland who wanted to stay two to three nights, my co-workers would ask me why the guests would want to stay for more than one night.”

He believes that the practice of staying for a night could have emerged from an Edo period regulation to prevent the feudal lords from gaining too much power. The central government required the feudal lords to live in the former capital city Edo (Tokyo) in alternate years. The need for travel to and from their domains required official rest stops along the way.

“They were only allowed to stay one night in the official accommodations. You couldn’t just relax for weeks at a time. You had to move on. That practice continues today and most Japanese only stay for one night at a ryokan before moving on,” adds Dr McMorran, who teaches at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Japanese Studies.

You are also unlikely to find a lift at a ryokan – which is another reason why you wouldn’t want to bring a large suitcase to the traditional inn.

Leave The Alcove Alone

If you really have to carry your whole house and kitchen sink, Dr McMorran has some advice: Don’t spread your items all over the room. This makes it easier for staff when they need to lay out the bedding at night.

But don’t think you are making it easier for the staff by transferring all your items onto the alcove, called the tokonoma.

Dr Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi, who teaches Global Japanese Studies at the Osaka University, says: “The tokonoma, you have to leave it as it is. It is a display space for art, a hanging painting or flower arrangement. The flowers used are a signifier of the season. For example, camellia signify winter because they bloom in the cold season.”

Don’t Forget To Tip — Yes, Tip

In Japan – arguably the world’s most polite country and where people take utmost pride in their work – tipping is often perceived to be frowned upon or insulting at worst.

But that is far from the truth.

Says Dr McMorran, “It is widely assumed incorrectly that it is rude to tip. There is no tipping in Japan at food and drink establishments or taxis. Tipping is not expected. It isn’t rude to tip, it’s just that no one does it.”

“In a ryokan, it is quite normal to tip, and Japanese guests frequently tip staff.

“It is widely assumed incorrectly that it is rude to tip. There is no tipping in Japan at food and drink establishments or taxis. Tipping is not expected. It isn’t rude to tip, it’s just that no one does it.”

Dr. Chris McMorran, who teaches at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Japanese Studies

You can either buy a small gift for the staff, such as confectionery, or leave money. But Dr McMorran says it’s politer to leave bills instead of coins and to wrap the money in a piece of tissue paper or place it in an envelope instead of leaving it out.

“If you leave cash on the table, they will think you forgot it and try to return it to you.”

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