Upon first arriving into Japan for the first time, I was completely shocked at what I discovered. I landed in Okinawa, a tropical island that marks the southernmost part of the country and was greeted at the airport with open arms and of course, a small gift. For the Okinawans this was a flowery shirt, called a “kariyushi” resembling our Hawaiian version and meaning harmony or happiness.
I knew right away that Okinawa was not going to be the stereotypical Japan that most tourists equate the entire country to, with bullet trains and skyscrapers. It was a softer, more relaxed side of the country. It was Japanese island life, full of lush beauty and hospitable people. I knew from the moment I was given that kariyushi shirt that my expectations about the entire country were going to shift as I traveled. What I didn’t know… is that I would discover a cultural richness unlike anywhere else I had seen in the world, where traditions and people groups varied from south to north in such a relatively small land area. For the next three weeks of that trip, Japan’s culture came alive for me as I transversed the country with locals helping me to carve the way.
It was Japan’s people who truly touched me. I assumed the hospitality that I received on Okinawa was attributed to their island way of life… I was incredibly wrong. As I journeyed from the southern islands to Kyushu, then to Mainland Japan and up to Hokkaido in the north – the Japanese hospitality continued with grace and elegance like I had never seen before (even though I had studied Hospitality Management in college).
The Japanese people have a special, subtle quality that is strikingly apparent upon first meeting, but unable to be fully understood until truly engaging in their history and deeply rooted traditions.
Although the country has been open to the world for centuries and is now technologically advanced, its cultural aspects have remained strong because of its past closure to the outside, during the rule of the shoguns.
And unlike the rest of Asia, Japan is surprisingly sophisticated. They bring a certain seriousness to the simplest of tasks whether it is noodle making, pottery design, tea ceremony or running an inn. Their trades are passed down from generation to generation and revered; the process never altered for the sake of convenience. This same ideal holds true for their social rules of interaction. They continue to carry out a graceful hospitality, and are truly masters of it. The Japanese word for this is “omotenashi.” This word means to be of service without expectation of any returning favor and to serve while anticipating needs.
The best example I can give of this is to describe a stay at a Japanese inn (or ryokan) to you.
My First Stay at a Ryokan
You pull into the drive way. The centuries-old building is perfectly maintained and each tree outside is meticulously pruned. You enter into the door way and immediately the “okami-san” (or lady of the inn) shuffles her feet ever so slightly in her silk kimono toward you. She smiles as she earnestly approaches but does not yet say a word, for yelling across the room would not be polite… I have never seen such a hurried lady look so graceful. She arrives to us and bows her head, saying a few soft words as a greeting. Her kimono is a muted color, marking that she is a respected elder. Yet, its design is still stunning. Her whole ensemble is perfectly put together, with not one stray hair out of line, which is a true wonder since she runs the entire inn as a general manager of sorts.
She takes a pair of slippers and sets them at the threshold where the stone floor ends and the respected tatami mat begins. Then you slip into them leaving your shoes at the door. She bows to great you once more. The lobby is stunning because of its simplicity. The design is natural with minimal embellishments. Yet, you notice artisan details like a stone walkway running through the center of the tatami mat floor that has been carved to look like a running stream of water. Out the window is a courtyard Zen garden with mindfully placed stones and bonsai, arranged in a simplistic and peaceful design.
You are escorted to your room, where minimalism continues to showcase their attention to smaller details.
You slip into a robe called a “yukata” and soon are preparing for dinner, served traditionally in your room. Ladies dressed in kimonos gracefully enter with the first dish. A small plate with a carefully crafted, small bite in the center. Its details are extraordinary, and you don’t even feel like you can touch it.
The multi-course dinner, known as “kaiseki” continues in this fashion with small dishes, one after another being presented, each one just as exquisite as the last. The ladies who serve are warm but unobtrusive. It is if they are not there, just quietly observing the perfect timing to enter and exit so that you are the main attraction of the meal and your conversation is of utmost importance.
After your stay, you leave the inn with a memorable act from the okami-san. As you depart, you notice that she not only escorts you to your car to bid you farewell, she continues deeply bowed as you drive away. Never standing back up to walk inside until your car is out of site. Her commitment to hospitality is truly remarkable.
An Okami-san’s passion toward her trade, is actually mirrored across the country in different forms.
I could go on and on about other examples, but to get to the true heart of it you will have to travel to Japan to experience it yourself. You will also need to meet locals from south to north, and learn about their traditions to truly start to understand the concepts behind their subtle actions.
Introducing the Japan Global Series – The Art of Detail
Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing further insights on the country through this Global Series on Japan. I will also talking about some of the top things to do that are lesser-known to the average traveler, so that you are more capable of fully immersing in the culture and making a true connection with the country when you have the opportunity to visit.
And even if you are not able to journey to Japan – I hope that through this series, you will learn to appreciate Japanese omotenashi as much as I do.
Let’s get started! Come back next week for our first feature article on Japan. We will be exploring the most meaningful trek in the country…it beats hiking Mount Fuji!
Feature Photo Credit: Dave & Les Jacobs/ Blend Images/ Thinkstock