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Photographer's Note

Time to write a bit more about traditional Japanese inns. I would like to dedicate this post to quite a few of my TE friends: Gert, as he asked about the rules for using soap in Japanese hot spring baths, Gyorgy, because he said he would like to see a photo of an onsen, Malgo, for how she was laughing at the Polish expression “etykieta kapciowa” I used to describe the “slipper rules”, our Japanese TE friend Takero and, of course, Craig, as, who knows, Japan may be the first destination he will travel to with his baby.

So… there are, broadly, two types of traditional Japanese guesthouses: ryokan and minshuku. Ryokan offer more luxury while minshuku are generally budget and therefore more basic (e.g. you may need to bring your own towels and yukata – a kimono to be warn after having taken a bath in an onsen). I found there are more similarities than differences though – both are very traditional and that means you will experience the real Japanese lifestyle and… will be expected to follow the rules - lots of them.

Shoes – you are expected to leave your shoes in the reception area. You will be wearing slippers provided by the hotel but… be careful, you are supposed to take them off before stepping onto the tatami (the mats that cover the floor of your room) and change into plastic or rubber toilet slippers (pictured) when entering shared WC/bathroom (and then make sure you leave the shared toilet slippers in a position that will allow the next user to step into them without having to bend down to turn them round; this requires you walk backwards when leaving the bathroom). If you have a private bathroom you are wearing only your socks on tatami mats so just walk into your toilet slippers that will be waiting for you by the bathroom door (inside the bathroom – they must NEVER touch the tatami!).

Bed – you may be surprised that when you enter your room the only pieces of furniture you will see will usually be a low table and chairs without legs. You will be sleeping on a futon which you will lay out each evening and put away in the morning. In a ryokan, this will be done for you by a chambermaid.

Bath – some traditional inns offer their own hot spring baths. The etiquette differs. In some, you are allowed to wear a swim suit, in some only a towel, in most… well… nothing. An onsen is, essentially, a pool or a big bath. Regardless of other rules, you are always supposed to have a shower/scrub before entering the bath. That’s when you can use soap. Afterwards you can walk into the pool. No swimming, no washing, no other vigorous activity. Just sit down and soak.

These three photos have all been taken in a guesthouse in the town of Yudanaka in Nagano region. As if I haven’t written enough, there is also a story and the story goes…

When I arrived at the minshuku I was shown into my room and told that the shared bathroom was located in the basement. In the evening, I followed the steps down to find it. The only door I could see was adorned with a blue flag with some kanji signs. I entered and yes, it was a bathroom, first a small changing room and then a big chamber with showers and a hot spring pool. I was a bit surprised to find a shared unisex bath in a hotel. The door leading from the corridor to the changing room didn’t have a lock. And indeed, as I was drying myself after the bath, wrapped in a big towel, a male guest opened the door, saw me, shouted “Sumimasen” (“sorry”), and left. It was all a bit strange…

The following morning I decided to take some photos of the onsen and went downstairs again. This time I walked a bit further along the dark corridor and, around the corner, found… another door… with a red flag. Then I realised that the signs on Japanese toilets’ doors are often colour-coded: blue for male, red for female facilities…

Worse still, it turned out that what, the previous evening, seemed to be large mirrors covering the walls of the male bath, were in fact huge glass windows on the EXTERIOR wall of the hotel (whereas in the female bath the windows faced an internal patio). The photo in the WS is the male bath. You can see for yourself.

Should I also admit it was my THIRD trip to Japan? Better not…

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Additional Photos by Kasia Nowak (kasianowak) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 1305 W: 6 N: 2362] (13657)
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