Top 8 tips for an ultimate ryokan experience in springtime Kyoto

KYOTO, Japan - Sakura is one of the most highly anticipated seasons amongst Singaporean travellers as it signals the arrival of spring.

In Kyoto, which is home to many famous cherry blossom viewing locations, cherry blossoms usually bloom in the last week of March and the first two weeks of April, according to Lonely Planet.

What better way to simultaneously experience the spectacular season and Japanese culture than to live within the comforts of a ryokan? Originated from the Edo period, these traditional Japanese inns provide travellers with the unique opportunity to experience the Japanese way of life, including bathing in onsens, sleeping in tatami rooms with futons, and eating kaiseiki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) meals.

Onsens are traditionally used as public bathing places built around the hot springs, and travellers can soak in naturally hot water from geothermally-heated springs, which are believed to have healing elements derived from its mineral content.

Ryokans also are equipped with futons placed on tatami flooring, a type of mat made from bamboo. After a relaxing dip in the onsen, one is promised a good night's rest on these Japanese-style padded mattresses. Ryokans pride in serving a variety of traditional Japanese delicacies, composed of many small dishes, often prepared with local and seasonal ingredients that can be enjoyed in the comforts in your room or dining venues.

Submerse yourself in the Japanese atmosphere and aesthetics with a stay in the ryokan. As this exotic experience may be unsettling for first-timers, here are eight tips from Hotels.com to ensure your first ryokan experience goes smoothly without a hitch.

1. Take off your shoes when entering a ryokan and put on the slippers prepared for you. Wear the geta wooden sandals provided for you when you take a walk outdoors.

2. Wear your yukata (Japanese kimono) with the left side over the right side, as the other way is for corpses. The yukata can be worn during your whole stay - to the bath, during meals or when relaxing.

3. Take a shower before entering the onsen. The bathing areas are equipped with amenities. Swimsuits are not allowed and small towels will be provided. Note that the onsens are separated for both genders, so be careful not to entire the wrong side. Generally, men's baths are indicated in blue and women's baths in red.

4. Do not make loud noises in public or onsens as the atmosphere is meant for relaxation and quiet conversations.

5. Be prepared for a typical Japanese breakfast of rice, fish, miso soup and vegetables. As breakfast is served in the same way as dinner, so don't expect a continental buffet spread as it is quite rare for ryokans to offer toast and coffee.

6. You might have to lay out your own bedding as each room will have a table that will be put away to make way for futon beds at night. At some ryokans, staff lay out your bedding while you are at dinner but you might have to put away the tables on your own.

7. Tipping is not expected at a ryokan. Service fees are included in your rate but customers do tip service staff at check-in as a request for good service rather than a thank-you.

8. Thank the service staff at check-out. Upon check-out the staff will typically line up to bow and say goodbye. It is not necessary to bow in return, as a "thank you" will suffice.

If the concept of boarding at ryokans are foreign to you and you don't know where to start, Hotels.com recommends some places to stay based on your interests.

For the sightseers: An urban yet tranquil experience

Nishiyama Ryokan (4.5 Stars)

Throughout the cherry blossom season, guests from the Nishiyama Ryokan can soak up the sights and sounds of Kyoto by the waterfall. Located within the central area of the city and at the city's major sightseeing points, the ryokan offers convenient access to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Subway station.

Rooms start from *$191 per night on Hotels.com.

For the traditional trail blazers: Private baths and mountainous views

Gion Hatanaka (4 Stars)

Situated on the Eastern Mountain overlooking the heart of Kyoto, Gion Hatanaka is within walking distance of the famed Yasaka Shrine, Kodaiji Temple and Nijo Castle. This ryokan offers a relaxing aromatic Japanese bath, alongside delectable local cuisine that should not be missed.

Rooms start from *$267 per night.

For the nature enthusiast: Witness the change of seasons

Japanese Inn Yoshimizu (3 Stars)

The best way to observe seasonal changes in the wake of spring is to spend a few nights in ryokans. The Japanese Inn Yoshimizu is tucked within the high hills of Maruyama Park, surrounded by bamboo groves and cherry blossoms, located close to essential tourist sites such as the Chion-in Temple, Gion Corner and the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Rooms start from *$93 per night.

Other recommended Kyota ryokans:

Seikoro Ryokan (4 Stars)

Located in Higashiyama area, Seikoro Ryokan is close to many cultural sights including Shoseien Garden, Sanjusangendo Temple and Higashi Honganji Temple. Rooms start from *$330 per night.

Oyado Ishicho (4 Stars)

Located in Nakagyo Ward area, Oyado Ishicho is a family-friendly ryokan close to Kyoto Holy Annunciation Cathedral, Kyoto Kaikan and Hosomi Art Museum. Rooms start from *$189 per night.

Gion Maifukan (4 Stars)

Located in Higashiyama area, Gion Maifukan is close to Hokan-ji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple and Gion Corner. Rooms start from *$137 per night.

Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo (3.5 Stars)

Located in Higashiyama area, Kyoto Garden Ryokan Yachiyo is close to Kyoto Municipal Zoo, Heian Shrine and Kiyomizu Temple. Rooms start from *$116 per night.

Kyoto Watazen Ryokan (3 Stars)

Located in Nakagyo Ward area, Kyoto Watazen Ryokan is close to Rokakkudo Temple, Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace. Rooms start from *$93 per night on Hotels.com.

Hotel Sugicho (3 Stars)

Located in Nakagyo area, Hotel Sugicho is close to Kyoto Holy Annunciation Cathedral, Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace. Rooms start from *$45 per night.

Ryokan Yamazaki (3 Stars)

Located in Ukyo Ward area, Ryokan Yamazaki is close to Ninnaji Temple, Ryoanji Temple, Daikakuji Temple as well as Kyoto Studio Park. Rooms start from *$44 per night.

* All prices are correct as of Jan 17, 2014 and could be subject to change.

ngkaren@sph.com.sg

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