Omotenashi: how I experienced the warm hospitality of Japan

10/31/2022 | By Waheeda Harris

I stood in front of the Tokyo Metro map, slowly following the twists and turns of the brightly-colored metro map lines. I knew where I was. I knew what station I wanted, but I wasn’t certain how to get there. Would I make the wrong decision? Would I be lost in Tokyo? A steady stream of transit passengers flowed around me, intent on their destinations while staring at their mobile phones. My indecision must have been apparent on my face as a young woman stopped in front of me. “Hello – do you need assistance?”.

Her kind voice and gentle smile made me smile. We exchanged hellos and laughter before she asked where I was from. We swapped info and when I told her what station I wanted to get to, she asked where I wanted to visit. This kind stranger took her time to explain which direction I needed to go, how long it would take and which ticket I needed. When I had purchased the ticket, she wished me a good day, quickly disappearing into the swirl of people to catch her next train.

Her kindness was my first example of omotenashi: Japanese hospitality. Omotenashi is the word “motenashi” (“to make welcome”), with the prefix “o” attached to the word, adding a nuance of politeness. It refers to the idea that every service is from the person’s heart, without any pretension or expectation, a tradition integral to Japanese life and ingrained in customer service.

Thousands of travelers have probably experienced similar situations while exploring Japan – that moment of indecision, on what train ticket to purchase, what to order at a café or which way to walk to the next attraction. And then a friendly face appears, through gestures or a short conversation, a helpful local with a genuine concern to make sure you’re on your way, that you’ve ordered the right item or reached your destination. It’s then that a realization blossoms in your brain that you’ve learned another facet of Japanese culture, a gracious act done for the sake of wanting to ensure someone’s day is made a little easier.

The idea of omotenashi goes beyond the idea that the customer is always right—it’s rooted in the belief there are no tasks or gestures that are unnecessary if the guest experience is enjoyable. For those dining at a Japanese restaurant, the welcoming cry of irasshaimase! upon entry is an example of making a guest feel the joy of being in that place at that moment—and want to stay and enjoy a meal.

My first evening meal in Japan, I was excited to try karaage, the Japanese fried chicken whose tasty reputation had been repeatedly bragged about by friends who had explored Japan. But that wasn’t all I was hoping to taste on my first night. I envisioned a plate of crispy tempura vegetables, a small bowl of miso soup and endless cups of green tea, all with the hope my hungry dinner companions would suggest something new for me to try, too (say yes to tamagoyaki, a Japanese omelet). What I didn’t anticipate was that my visit to the restroom would have its own ritual, and another memorable experience of omotenashi.

As my fellow diners were distracted by the steady stream of dishes being delivered to our table and the numerous conversations discussing what we had experienced and our plans for the next day, I didn’t want to disturb anyone as I got up to seek out the restroom. As I stepped out of our dining room and descended the small staircase, I noticed there were two sets of slippers placed beside the bottom stair, a pair on each side.

A restaurant employee noticed my moment of hesitation and gestured towards the slippers, pointing at my restaurant slippers and then at the small shelf. I slowly realized I needed to leave my restaurant slippers on the shelf and to use the new slippers to go to the restroom. I smiled, thinking how many times she had to do this same non-verbal conversation to explain, pointing at the slippers and then turning to point to the restroom sign. As I swapped slippers, she smiled as she led me to the restroom. Afterwards when I emerged, I saw her standing at a discrete distance. She had placed a small mat at the stairs for me to leave the restroom slippers and placed my dining slippers right beside it, making it easy to make the change before I ascended into the dining room to re-join my friends. As our feast of Japanese cuisine continued and stories were shared, I felt like I had a new insight into Japanese culture.

After dinner as we were strolling back to our hotel, I asked one of my colleagues if they had experienced the restroom ritual. She smiled and reflected on the kindness of the restaurant employee to show us how to use the slippers and make it easy for us to understand this essential part of Japanese culture. A moment that could have been embarrassing or even stressful was prevented because of the thoughtfulness of a restaurant employee.

A few days later I arrived in Otsu, the capital city of Shiga Prefecture, best known as home of Lake Biwa, part of the Biwako Quasi National Park, and the country’s largest freshwater body of water. I came to stay at an onsen hotel, as the water here has been revered by locals and visitors for centuries.

After several hours on the train, I was ready for some quiet time. I was sent swiftly to the elevator to head to my room. When I entered, I took off my shoes and put on my hotel slippers. But as I walked into the room, I was confused. Where was the bed? Was there a chair? Was there a glass or a mug for me to use? Momentarily distracted by the balcony and the pretty view of Lake Biwa, I heard a gentle knock at the hotel door.

One of the employees from reception greeted me again and welcomed me to Otsu. She informed me she wanted to explain the evening program. She let me know what time dinner would be served, and where I should meet my group. She then asked if she could introduce me to my room. I was relieved that she anticipated what I needed.

The friendly employee pointed at two small wooden boxes I hadn’t noticed. Inside I found a kettle, two cups, a teapot, a container of tea and packages of matcha cookies. She slid open a large storage section, the bottom laden with futons and duvets, a small low table and two floor pillows. She quickly set up the table with the tea items and floor pillows, and then laid out the futon in the middle of the floor, placing a duvet on top.

Tucked behind the bathroom door, she showed me a long jacket, pants and slippers for my use around the ryokan, a robe to use in my room and another pair of slippers (just in case). When I realized she had positioned both the table and the futon so I would have views of the popular lake, and that she was preparing water for tea, I found myself yet again impressed by the anticipation and understanding of my needs.

In less than 10 minutes she had answered all my unspoken questions, revealed the many benefits of my onsen hotel room, and put me at ease. I sipped my green tea, gazing at Lake Biwa and feeling grateful for another memorable moment of omotenashi, courtesy of an Otsu employee.

These moments kept occurring. A tap on my shoulder when I was admiring the plum blossoms revealed a local pointing out a spot and turning me so I could see a spectacular view of the flowering trees. A train employee who insured my group knew when our stop was imminent to help us disembark quickly to make our next connection. A shop owner in Tokyo who took the time to show me different sizes and colors of Japanese paper notebooks, so I could consider all the options (and yes, I bought several). A Kyoto chef and his staff, realizing it was a special dinner (my group’s last dinner together), sending us extra dishes to taste and then coming to take photos with us, sharing in our joy of being in Kyoto.

I didn’t go to Japan expecting these moments of kindness. Each encounter was an unexpected joy that allowed me to experience just a little bit more of Japan’s incredibly rich culture. As a traveler lacking Japanese language skills there is much that I missed, but each surprise connection with a stranger felt like a bridge of understanding. These moments of omotenashi were unexpected gifts that I will always treasure.

Domo Arigato Japan, I will always remember your Omotenashi.