Why Japanese Hospitality Is Different: The Secrets of Omotenashi

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In 2020, Japan will host the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics and preparations are in full swing to make sure the country is ready to welcome guests from all over the world.

Christel Takigawa, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Ambassador presented an inspiring speech to the International Olympic Committee emphasizing the importance of ‘Omotenashi’ – the Japanese way of receiving guests.

What is Omotenashi?

You’ve probably heard about Japan’s superior customer service, even if you haven’t visited the country yet – and it’s true. No matter where you travel within Japan, the people are polite, your surroundings are clean, and, as a customer, you often feel like the most important person in the building.

Omotenashi is Japanese hospitality at its finest. ‘Omote’ means public face (the image you wish to present to outsiders) and ‘nashi’ means nothing. Together, it combines to service that comes from the bottom of the heart – honest, no hiding, no pretending. The origin of this spirit lies in the Japanese tea ceremony, where the tea master faces the audience and makes tea right in front of them, open and clear.

The true meaning of omotenashi goes a lot deeper than just proving outstanding hospitality. Instead, it’s about entertaining guests wholeheartedly. It can be hard to describe in English, because it is something you have to experience in Japan for yourself. The concept goes beyond ‘the customer is always right’, instead it is more an understanding that there are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience for a guest.

The Evolution of Omotenashi

While in theory omotenashi sounds like the perfect way to treat guests and visitors to your country, over the years the attitudes and demographics of customers in Japan has changed.

People have become more fond of their personal space and often want to just be left alone and undisturbed. Some of the ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) stopped lining up at the entrance to greet guests because they found out, from a survey, that it made their guests feel uncomfortable. They also stopped going into the rooms as often as they used to do when guests were dining to give them more privacy.

While I also appreciate my space and prefer to be left alone when dining or shopping, I did find the hospitality in Japan comforting rather than pushy. I’ve been in many shops in Europe where staff either follows you around everywhere you go (probably just to check if you don’t steal anything), or is nowhere to be found, I find myself feeling nervous, then angry, then resolving to leave and never return.

In Japan, however, I am welcomed into a shop without the expectation of me saying anything in return, I don’t have to worry about staff finishing their gossip about the weekend before helping me out, I don’t have to wait on waiters before finally being able to place my order or settle the bill… and then I’m not even expected to leave a tip!

Immersive Experiences Around Japan

While traveling around Japan, you will notice elements of omotenashi everywhere. You’re being welcomed into shops, train staff bows at you and taxi drivers will still hold your door open.

If you’re looking for unique Japanese experiences where you’ll definitely get a taste of the omotenashi culture, then I would recommend the following activities:

– Attend a tea ceremony
– Take a Japanese cooking class
– Dress up in a yukata (Summer kimono) or dress up as maiko (apprentice Geisha)
– Go on a samurai / ninja tour
– Try zen meditation at a temple, or do a pilgrimage
– Take an ikebana class and discover the art of flower arrangement

In a world where seem to move further and further away from each other and quality customer service is often hard to come across, adding a bit of omotenashi seems like a good way to restore the balance!