On our trip to Nagano over the winter, we decided to stay in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, for our lodging. We stayed at Matsuya Ryokan in Nagano, a mere minute walk from the huge Zenkoji Temple and a 20-minute walk from Nagano station. I had been told it would be a very unique experience, so I was very excited to experience this unique experience of traveling in Japan.
Be prepared to sleep on the floor but don’t worry about being too uncomfortable. You will get futon mattresses to sleep on, blankets, and pillows that the staff will put together and break down for you each day. That’s one of the magical things about ryokan: When you leave the room, the staff sneaks in and cleans everything up for you. It was really quite amazing! Ours had a nice table with tea, snacks, and hot water in a thermos. Whenever we left, we’d return to see new cups, restocked loose-leaf tea, and a full thermos of water waiting for us. We had wonderful natural lighting from our windows, clean yukata in the closet waiting for us to lounge in, and even a small notebook filled with useful travel info about the surrounding sites, such as Zenkoji Temple and the Snow Monkey Park.
At most Ryokan, you can choose to have dinners provided, dinner and breakfast provided, or neither. Some places will allow you to take your meals inside your room and others will require that you dine in a small dining hall or dining room. Our ryokan had the dining hall option which wasn’t as potentially awkward as you’d think. We had our own table and there was only one other table in the room. One night, it was a Japanese family, and the other night it was an Australian family.
The meals are made in the traditional washoku style (rice with many smaller side dishes, seasonal ingredients). We had quite the variety, too: Salmon, white fish, tempura vegetables and shrimp, pickled vegetables, soba, fried eggs, miso soup, veggies in black sesame sauce, and so much more. The first night and morning we were famished and ate everything we were served. Come the second night and morning, however, and it was a struggle to eat everything. The smallness of each dish is deceiving and you don’t realize that you have to eat 10-14 dishes of that size to complete the meal. I’d say you can get by with just ordering the dinners at your ryokan when you book.
I had a blast at our ryokan. The staff were very friendly and patient with my broken Japanese and many on staff knew enough English to make all the planning and hospitality smooth. The older man and woman there were especially friendly; the older woman gave me and my wife hard candy whenever we left and the older gentleman was always there to greet us upon our return and complain about the cold with us. The location was superb, something I can’t quite wrap my head around even now. Their public bath was nice and clean, albeit a bit small. My experience here was so positive that I’m afraid I won’t be able to top it! If you have the option to try a ryokan, even if just for a night, I would highly recommend you do. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever tried before.