Japan is a country full of rich culture and strong traditions. In knowing this, I wanted to factor into my journey a stay at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn. A Ryokan is the most authentic way to experience Japanese culture, and I decided to do so at Ryokan Biyu in Yamanouchi. Elegant, traditional, and well-located, I couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay for my first time in a Ryokan!
Upon entering, guests are asked to take off their shoes and to put on the slippers presented. In recent years, Japan has adopted some Western habits, and so some Ryokans allow you to walk through the main corridors with your shoes on. No matter what, however, you need to take off your shoes and slippers upon entering your room before stepping on the Tatami, as they would damage the mat.
The Tatami Style.
The traditional Japanese room, Washitsu, always has Tatami flooring. The Tatami, a Japanese woven floor mat made from the Igusa plant, quickly became one of my favorite aspects of Japan. The Washitsu room is used for multiple purposes during the day — from a lounging area to a work space to a dining room — and converted into a sleeping room at night upon the unfolding of a futon.
At Ryokan Biyu, the staff will set up your room for sleep while you eat dinner. Traditionally, the futon (thick mat) is laid on the tatami, wrapped in a sheet, and covered with a fluffy blanket. When you return, a cozy futon bed will be calling your name.
When you go to breakfast the next morning, the futon will be put away.
A good ryokan gives you a Yukata, a light cotton kimono, to wear around the premises. It is suggested that you embrace the Japanese culture and wear the yukata in the common areas, the dining room, and after using the onsen. Each room in Ryokan Biyu provides you with a yukata and tanzen (light jacket) for your use. Pardon my awkward mirror selfie…
Most Ryokan bookings include breakfast and dinner. A Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal, and Ryokan Biyu absolutely mastered their dishes. With about 12 different dishes, you’re bound to leave each meal filled and fulfilled. Joining a Kaiseki meal is a fantastic way to try many different Japanese dishes.
Recently rated one of 73 true onsens in Japan (when there are said to be over 20,000 in the country!), Ryokan Biyu’s onsens are not to be missed!
Coming from a Western society, public bathing may seem a bit odd, but it’s actually quite refreshing. Ryokan Biyu has two onsens on the ground floor (one for men, one for women), and two private onsens on the roof that can be used with a simple reservation!
I tried my hand at both, promising first to use the public onsen. Strip down, wash yourself, and hop on in!
Don’t worry, there are instructions on how to properly use the onsen in your room if it’s your first time! According to said pamphlet…
- Put hot water on your body to rinse before getting into the bath itself, since the hot water in the tub is shared among many people.
- Immerse yourself in the tub to warm your body. This will relax you both in mind and body.
- Soap yourself and rinse off completely outside of the bath.
- Get into the bath again to fully warm up.
- Wipe your body with a small towel.
The hot springs are hot, but feel oh so good! I didn’t find the bathing process awkward in the slightest, and found it instead to be quite a relaxing, liberating experience.
Before making your way down to your first breakfast, understand that traditional Japanese breakfasts are much different from a western breakfast. Fish and other savory dishes tend to replace the sweets that we are used to. After a brief change in mindset, the huge breakfasts offered at Ryokan Biyu became something I looked forward to each morning!
Ryokan Biyu is located about an hour from Nagano in the center of Yamanouchi. It is easily accessible by train from Tokyo (said from experience), and the perfect access point for Snow Monkey Park.
For those looking to enjoy some winter sports, Ryokan Biyu is only a short distance from the Shiga-Kogen Ski areas as well. There, you can find Japan’s highest and coldest ski lift!
Once on top of Mt. Yokote, you have two different options for food: Crumpet Café or the Bakery. If you’re craving a vanilla latte or a chai tea latte, be sure to head to Crumpet Café to warm up after a chilly ride up. If you’re wanting something a bit more unique, walk over to the Bakery where you can get their famed foot long hotdog.
For the adventurous or the inner-snow-bunnies, book a stay at the Yokote Summit Hut (within the Bakery) for beautiful stargazing and the utmost hospitality. You will find yourself surrounded by 360 degree views of the Northern Alps, and Mt. Fuji and Sado Island on a clear day. Supposedly the sunset is remarkable atop Mt. Yokote, but unfortunately it was too foggy for a sunset the evening I was up there.
Depending on the size of your group or the season in which you book, there’s a chance that you’ll be around for some of Ryokan Biyu’s incredible cultural events. Unbeknownst to me, my visit overlapped with the Adelaide Choir’s visit, and so Ryokan Biyu arranged for a Geisha Performance, a Shamisen Performance, and a Shishimai (Lion Dance) Performance.
The Geisha Performance is a very traditional dance performance.
Geishas are very well-educated and said to serve the people; so after her performance she went around serving each guest water or sake.
We witnessed a Shamisen Performance from both the Geisha and the Shishi as well. This instrument resembles a banjo and produces a beautiful, soothing sound.
A Shishi is a creature that looks like a lion, said to protect people from evil. If the Shishi (Lion) Head “bites you,” it’s said to be good luck.
I guess I’ll have good luck for a while…
I cannot stress enough just how incredible Masao and Yuki Saisu are. Full of smiles and grace, this husband and wife are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. They were always checking to make sure that their guests were happy, and gave great insight into Japanese cultures and customs.
I wish more than anything I could speak Japanese so that I could have conversed with Masao with more than smiles and laughter, but it says a lot about a person when you can get a feel for them without even being able to speak directly with them. Yuki, on the other hand, speaks perfect English and is an absolute doll. Both Masao and Yuki were a joy to be around and their enthusiasm for Yamanouchi are contagious! Plus, they wanted to pose like Charlie's Angels…
For sophistication of the finest, and hospitality like you’ve never seen, do yourself a favor and stay at Ryokan Biyu. You can book your traditional room at Ryokan Biyu here. I cannot wait to return sometime in the future! Perhaps they’ll convince me to hit the slopes for the first time…
Interested in Ryokan Biyu? Pin It Please!
**Special thanks to Ryokan Biyu and Japan Experience for sponsoring my journey. As always, all opinions are my own.