A world of serenity and ceremony awaits in Japan
Some Japanese words don’t have a direct translation in English, but when they’re defined, they reveal so much about Japan’s culture and what makes it so exceptional. Anyone visiting the country is sure to feel and enjoy ‘omotenashi’ during their trip – although, of course, they’ll never find the word for it.
Omotenashi refers to the uniquely Japanese mindset around hospitality which focuses wholeheartedly on the care of guests. It’s an ambient value in Japanese culture which, although it goes unspoken, travellers experience everywhere from the places they stay to where they choose to eat and visit. Here are some of the best ways to experience omotenashi in Japan and how it will make your time in the country feel extra special.
Ryokan (traditional inns) are located all over Japan, from high-end boutique establishments in the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto to mountain resorts and onsen ryokan in the hills of Nagano. A stay in a ryokan is a quintessential Japanese way of experiencing local culture at its most charming and hospitable. Whether your chosen ryokan is at the budget or luxury end of the scale, one thing you can always count on is that omotenashi will be at the cornerstone of this overnight experience.
With a history dating back thousands of years, ryokan were traditionally established to offer weary travellers a place to rest overnight. Unlike modern hotels, ryokan still adhere to traditional customs and etiquettes around accommodation in Japan. With their characteristic homely environment and personal approach, a ryokan stay will typically feature tatami flooring, futon bedding, onsen (sometimes outdoor), yukata robes, in-house kaiseki (multi-course) dinners, and a traditional Japanese breakfast.
Kaiseki dining; an artful culinary tradition
Put simply, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal comprising a sequence of pre-determined small dishes. A kaiseki meal is specially curated by chefs to take you on a culinary journey and indulge your senses while showing respect for local and seasonal ingredients.
Kaiseki dining experiences in Japan vary depending on the produce of the surrounding region and the time of year you visit, but the harmony of flavours and texture and the artistic presentation of colours connects them all. A feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds, every aspect of a kaiseki meal is carefully considered including the tableware each course is served on.
While many ryokan offer kaiseki meals as part of your stay, you’ll find restaurants serving kaiseki cuisine all over Japan ranging from small establishments in quiet urban neighbourhoods to the Michelin-starred. Suzunari in the Arakicho area of Tokyo or Kyoto’s Izusen restaurant offer a great introduction to kaiseki at a reasonable price point. For a more luxurious experience, Tokyo’s Yukimura restaurant, Kashiwaya and Taian in Osaka, and Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto are just a few of the many kaiseki dining establishments you’ll find all over Japan.
A tea ceremony sees the simple task of preparing tea for a guest transform into an artful performance that has been admired and appreciated by recipients for centuries. A perfect example of how omotenashi is woven into everyday aspects of life, the tea ceremony is said to have its roots in Zen Buddhism incorporating the principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity.
Taking place in a purpose-built tea house featuring a tatami-mat floor and hearth, tea ceremonies always follow a precise procedure. While guests are seated, the kimono-wearing tea master prepares the tea in a kettle over a charcoal fire before the brew is poured into a bowl and handed to guests. Small, sweet cakes or light meals are sometimes served while the tea master prepares a second bowl of tea for guests.
Experiencing a tea ceremony is a must for any visitor to Japan, and there are several places you can find one, making it easy to add to your itinerary. Temples, traditional Japanese gardens, cultural facilities, and hotels often have tea houses where visitors can experience a tea ceremony, while the teahouses of Uji in eastern Kyoto are especially well-known for their tea ceremonies.
The practise of Zen meditation is said to help reduce stress and anxiety along with several other health benefits. With its physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing benefits, it’s probably not surprising that Zen meditation has become an important part of the hospitality experience for visitors to retreats and Buddhist temples across the country.
At a typical zazen meditative session held at a Buddhist temple or meditation retreat, you can expect to learn the basics of meditation and how to incorporate Zen into everyday life. In a tranquil setting – often surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens which you can later explore – you’ll be guided through the practice of zazen, leaving you feeling refreshed and fulfilled. Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura are some of the most popular places in Japan to find Zen temples offering meditation lessons while Sendai and Otsuki offer a more off-the-beaten-path and local way to experience the practise.
Travelling by train
Travelling by train is a fast and efficient way to move around in Japan with the principles of omotenashi underpinning every aspect of your journey. The cleanliness of carriages and train stations, the courteous and organised onboarding process, and the frequency and timeliness of services are all examples of how omotenashi is woven into Japan’s robust train network. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself travelling onboard one of JR-East’s GranClass services, you’ll be treated to freshly prepared light meals, a selection of beverages and even a pair of comfy slippers at your seat.
For more information on travel to Japan, visit www.japan.travel/en/au/