Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The difference between a hotel and a ryokan, and how that relates to the tea ceremony concept of omotenashi


A word frequently used in tea ceremony circles is “omotenashi.” It denotes devoting oneself wholeheartedly to looking after one's guest. The word “settai” means “hospitality,” but “omotenashi” and “settai” are two quite different things, as we shall see.


As well as in tea ceremony, omotenashi is emphasized at traditional Japanese inns (ryokans). This means that the manner in which guests are received at lodgings differs in Japan and the West. We will now examine how the tea ceremony concept of omotenashi is embodied in the ryokan experience, making it different from staying at a Western-style hotel.




  The concept of omotenashi
In the business world, there is the saying “the customer is king.” This means that, as long as somebody pays, the customer should be offered the finest possible service. That is why customers will always receive a certain level of service at any shop they visit.


However, in tea ceremony, there is no notion of the customer as king. To offer attentive service on the basis that someone is like a “king” is to set up a hierarchy in which the other person (the guest or customer) is placed on a pedestal, while the host is in an inferior position.


However, in tea ceremony, the host and the guests are always on an equal footing. The guest must feel thankful when drinking tea given by his host. The bowl in which the tea is served must not be handled in an offhand way, and the guest must not impose his or her own wishes on the host. That is, there is no hierarchical relationship.


In services where there is a hierarchical relationship, a business can provide a certain level of standardized service even if it does not know the customer. The idea is to ask the customer “How can I help you?” and listen to what he or she wants. Then, the customer is served in a standardized way.


In tea ceremony, on the other hand, there is typically no exchange of words. Communication is performed in silence by thinking about what the guest desires. By knowing the other person well, one can speak with one’s heart, without saying a word.


In Kyoto you can find ryōtei (very formal traditional Japanese restaurants). These restaurants don't accept customers they don’t know. Of course, it is common for people to pick out a restaurant as they walk along the street, and go in for a meal. However, a ryōtei will not accept customers who walk in off the street like this. To dine at a ryōtei, you would need to be introduced by a regular customer.


That is not at all because they adopt an insular, arrogant attitude towards those with whom they are unfamiliar. Rather, it is because that type of restaurant bases its service on being familiar with each customer.


To provide high-quality service, the restaurant staff must know in advance a customer's occupation, interests, favorite drinks, and other details. By becoming familiar with the customer, the restaurant can serve food and drink according to his or her tastes without needing to ask. But this can't be done for someone who just walks in off the street.


The mission of a high-class ryōtei is to provide its customers with what they desire without having to ask. That is the reason why unfamiliar customers are refused.


  The difference between a ryokan and a hotel
At a Western hotel, the staff respond to the best of their ability to requests from a guest. So you could say they “respond to requests as quickly as possible” and “provide a standardized, courteous service.”


On the other hand, at a ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn), the hospitality is not provided in line with the guidelines of some manual. On the contrary, the host presents his or her own requests to the guest. You will hear the host say things like “I would like you to have look at this wonderful view from our inn” or “We have some fresh local fish that I'd like you taste.”


Because the ryokan host does not merely respond to requests, but instead offers his or her own opinions and suggestions, it is clear that the host relates to the guest on more or less equal terms. This kind of relationship, which is very different from the master-disciple relationship, is characteristic of the hospitality offered in traditional Japanese settings such as tea ceremony, the ryōtei, and the ryokan. This is the essence of omotenashi.


The tea ceremony is performed in silence. Similarly, at a high-class ryōtei, the food and drink the customer wants is served without any request being uttered. And at a ryokan, during the time the customer vacates his or her room to have dinner, the bedding is laid out in preparation for the night's sleep. In each case, things are done in accordance with the guest's wishes without a word being spoken.


There is a fundamental difference between Japan and the West when it comes to thinking about hospitality. The difference can be understood, as we have seen, by learning about traditions such as tea ceremony that have been passed down over many generations in Japan.

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