Omotenashi - a tradition made famous by Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic 2020

What's omotenashi, anyway ?

Since Tokyo has been nominated to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, « omotenashi » has become the buzz word to epitomize Japan’s art of welcoming guests and attract tourists. But what does it exactly means, and how can we experience it truly ?

Omotenashi meaning cannot be encapsulated into one Occidental meaning. It appears in the 10th century literature of the Imperial Court as the manner you use to deal with events and facts of live; it describes an action. Starting from being a verb, Omotenashi has become the attitude with which you deal with events and facts of life. So in Japan’s antique world, Omotenashi is a subject too. Let’s jump a few centuries. Today, Omotenashi relates to the art of behaving respectfully in front on guests. A more narrow meanings points to serving delicacies to guests.

While behaving respectfully towards guests leaves much to interpretation and has been white-booked in many restaurants and hotels manuals, there is a way to discover a part of Omotenashi that cannot be declined into bullet points : attitude.

I was in Kusatsu Hot springs recently and spent a night at a Japanese traditional hotel, called « ryokan ». Kusatsu is a village in the mountain, in Gunma prefecture, 3 hours travel from Tokyo. Volcanic hot water is flowing everywhere in the city and directed into public baths open to everyone. It’s a wonderful place to spend some luxury time for yourself. Not very far from Tokyo, it is also an entire different world, preserved from urban life.

My ryokan was called Boun, made of two Chinese characters for wish and cloud. My totally personal interpretation of Boun is that you should entrust clouds with your wishes… There, I could experience Omotenashi as the manner and the attitude; as a verb and as a noun. Every staff welcomes you with simplicity, efficiency and warmth from the very moment you set foot in the ryokan. Your comfort and happiness becomes their responsibility and they are dedicated to make it happen seemingly without any effort. You feel you have come back home after a long journey. Omotenashi, the manner, the verb, is all about the guest, not about the staff’s manners. What about the attitude ? Well, after checking-out, a old and elegant lady is getting your shoes ready. The shoes had been stored in a warm room and the lady makes sure that they are well centered, tidy. Then, when you are ready to leave, she bows deeply in a sign of respect and wish you everything was up to your wishes. Who is this elegant lady? She is the owner of Boun hotel. I’m impressed. That’s what I call attitude.

What happens when you stay in a ryokan?

Ryokan is much more than a tatami room. When you take your shoes off to check-in, someone is taking care of your shoes to keep them warm (in Kusatsu, we are in the mountain, and it’s chilly). A lady, called nakai-san, will show you your tatami room and the location of the hot spring bath. The nakai-san will be in charge of your comfort during your stay. Her name comes from the samurai period, when she was an attendant of middle class. In a typical ryokan, your diner will be served in your room. Nakai-san will ask you what time you would like her to come and prepare the table for you. In the meanwhile, you are free to use the hotel facility as you wish, a small study, the hot springs of course, some massage services, should you need more than volcanic water to relax you, … So, diner takes place in your tatami-rom, with the guest of honor, you, in front of the kakemono, the small alcove with a flower arrangement and a painting. In front of it, but you are not facing it, you back is. The Nakai-san will bring you all the delicacies of a traditional Japanese diner. It starts with raw fish, goes on with many cooked vegetables in small portions, a sukiyaki pot, grilled fish, and it’s only over when you see rice with pickles. The trick is to b ready by not eating too much at lunch. When your diner is over, the nakai-san will come and clean the table and remove it to prepare your bed, the futon. She will not leave you without making sure that everything is all right for you, that you have everything you wish, and with the time of your breakfast tomorrow morning.

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