When I planned my trip to Japan, I hoped to see and do as much as possible. I filled my schedule with food and activities and foodie activities. But a girl’s gotta sleep sometime! And sleep I did. I stayed in fancy hotels (ooh la la!), pod hostels (bare bones, but nice), and a businessman’s hotel (sharing a shower with a spider was not my idea of a good time). But it looked like I might miss out on the opportunity to experience a traditional ryokan, a Japanese style inn. Thankfully, when the amazing tourism boards of Gunma Prefecture and Katashina Village were making my schedule, they offered me a few different options for where to stay in Katashina Village. Of course, I chose a ryokan, not entirely sure what it was, but excited to experience it in person.
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What is a ryokan?
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn, which is often family-run. Guests are encouraged to relax upon entry, leaving shoes at the door as guests slide into Japanese slippers. During your stay, enjoy opportunities get to know the owner and other guests, socializing in common areas or the dining room. Most ryokans include two meals with their nightly rate– dinner the evening of arrival and breakfast the next morning.
Where to stay in Katashina Village
Ryokan Umeya is a family-run traditional Japanese inn, in operation for 40 years. Four generations call Ryokan Umeya home, and they make it feel like home for their guests. Since my days were spent trying out all the adventure activities in Gunma, it was nice to spend my evenings relaxing at the ryokan. While there was a language barrier between myself and the ryokan owners, a translation device helped facilitate all conversation!
Some rooms at the ryokan are Japanese-style, with tatami mats lining the floor. However, I stayed in a Western-style room, with a fluffy, pillow top bed, ample air conditioning and a tea station. The closet was stocked with a yukata, a traditional summer-style kimono, which can be worn all around the ryokan.
Y’all, I’m pretty American. I didn’t realize just how American I am until I started traveling, but the truth consistently hits me in the face. Cheerleader. President of my sorority. Show choir. The whole nine yards.
I pride myself on attempting to follow cultural norms. Here in Japan, I learned chopstick etiquette. I present my business card with two hands and after trading cards, I hold the other card with two hands and spend time admiring it. But the Onsen culture was a little outside my comfort zone. You see, Onsens are enjoyed au naturel. And for this American, that’s quite different to my culture that’s an awkward mix of exposed and private all at the same time.
When I went to check out my hotel room at this traditional Japanese inn, I realized there was a very big thing missing. No tub. No shower. It’s a traditional ryokan in all senses of the word, with communal bathing options only.
My first Onsen experience was enjoyed alone… but man, oh, man, was it lovely. There’s a changing area where you leave your yukata and any belongings before entering the Onsen room, with only a small towel. Shower before entry, then bathe in the sulphur rich waters said to beautify the skin. This water is also said to help with fatigue, muscle soreness and recovery from a cold, among other things.
A bit like Rotorua, New Zealand (minus the clothes) in a stinky, but nice kind of way. Although it was one of my greatest fears before my trip to Japan, I’m glad I got to step out of my clothes and my comfort zone… and now I’m really missing the freedom the Onsen provides!
At Ryokan Umeya, food is prepared using local and seasonal ingredients and the presentation is phenomenal. Have you ever eaten food with gold flakes at a homestay?! I hadn’t until my time at this amazing ryokan in Katashina Village.
Breakfast and dinner were included in my stay, and all guests eat at the same time in the dining room. I tried traditional fare from the Gunma countryside, giant Kyoho grapes, and even got to taste bear. (Yes… bear. My host said it would be chewy, like gum. And he was right.)
The food was created with seasonal ingredients and the decorations were a nod to the seasons as well. I loved trying new foods and learning all about true Japanese flavors.
From the incredibly comfy beds to the beautifying Onsen to the plethora of delicious local food, my first stay at a traditional ryokan hopefully won’t be my last! If you want a truly local experience, I hope you’ll consider staying at Ryokan Umeya, too!
Note: Ryokan Umeya, Katashina Village and Gunma Prefecture hosted me for two nights. As always, all opinions are my own and I’ll never recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!