Omotenashi: How the Japanese Remind Us We Deserve to Be Happy Cover

Omotenashi: How the Japanese Remind Us We Deserve to Be Happy

On our last night in Tokyo, we missed the korot stop. It was nearly 8 PM, and we knew this was our last chance. “Dude! We have to turn around!” My friend and I got off at the next stop along the red Marunouchi metro line that connects Shinjuku and Tokyo Station, then hopped right back in to go the other direction.

I can’t recall whether it was Ginza, Kasumigaseki, or Shinjuku-sanchome station, but I still remember exactly what the tiny stall selling little pieces of heaven looked like. It was a 10-foot-long aluminum box with two glass displays, their bottom half straight, the upper half curved — the kind you typically see in bakeries and cake shops. “Thank god!” The single-pull metal shutter was still open.

The two ladies behind the counter were already packing up to go home, but when they saw us running towards them yelling, “Korot! Korot!” they stopped in their tracks. A korot, by the way, is a crêpe filled with whipped cream, wrapped tightly like a little pillow, at the center of which may sit a piece of banana with some chocolate sauce, a strawberry, or any other delicious filling you can imagine. It’s the closest you’ll ever come to biting into a cloud, and if you do, you too will gladly get lost in the giant spider web that is the Tokyo subway for a chance at one more taste.

Smiling as always-friendly as most Japanese service staff tend to do, the women wanted to take our order, but they didn’t understand English, and we didn’t speak Japanese. Down to our last 1,000 yen, we pointed at the kinds of korot we wanted, and they filled a little plastic bag with the five pieces we could afford.

“Do you take euros?” we asked, waving a blue 20 € bill in front of their faces as if it was worth anything more than the paper it was printed on, here, 9,300 kilometers away from home. And then, after shaking their heads and looking incredulously at the strange note, the two korot salesladies did something amazing: They filled our little plastic bag to the brim with leftover korots, and despite our pleading, they wouldn’t take a dime.

Somehow, they sensed how important those fluffy delicacies were to us, and they decided we weren’t going to leave with any less than we could carry — even if we didn’t have the means to pay for them. While my friend and I were rather speechless on the way back to our hotel — and not just because we had our mouths full of korots — the Japanese have a word for this kind of event: “Omotenashi.” 

There’s no direct translation for “omotenashi,” but the folks at Japan Intercultural suggest “wholehearted hospitality” as a close guess. The phrase is composed of several Japanese characters, from “achieving” and “bringing” — for successfully delivering something — to “no fronts” — for doing so in an authentic, genuine way. The word has connotations of “integrity,” “commitment,” and “delight,” but it also contains elements of “entertainment,” “service,” and “attention to detail.”

Omotenashi goes back almost 500 years to Sen no Rikyū, Japan’s consummate and original tea master, who first elevated the tea ceremony to an art form and spiritual experience. He did so by reclaiming it from the rich and famous, who had made drinking tea — and the locations in which it happened — a status-laden and highly publicized affair. Rikyū designed tea houses so small everyone had to humbly bow to enter them, and he tucked them away in hidden gardens as opposed to displaying them on the town square. People should gather in quiet, respect, and, above all, nature, he believed. Most notably, however, Rikyū emphasized the process of serving tea to a guest over the tools used to provide it. “Forget expensive cups and beautiful teapots,” he argued. “Take great care in boiling the water, measuring the powder, and steeping the tea instead.” As long as you, the host, make your guests feel welcome, valued, and delighted, a worn out bamboo spoon will do as well as the finest silver.

In modern Japan, omotenashi has become synonymous with world-class customer service — not least because TV presenter Christel Takigawa made the word the focal point of her speech to the Olympic Committee in 2013, winning Tokyo the bid for the 2020 Olympics. Its foundational principles of humility, mindfulness, and simplicity, however, still apply. So whereas today, as a tourist in Japan, you’re most likely to experience omotenashi as a tiny pack of ice to go with your meal from the refrigerated section, an extra paper cover to protect your new book, or a plastic raincoat for your shopping bag, it is still not about any of these things.

To understand the heart of omotenashi, we need to travel back those 9,300 kilometers, to “the service-desert of Germany,” as many of my countrymen and -women like to call it. In the land where “Help! A customer!” seems to be the motto of most retail staff, baffling service scenarios are never in short supply. From cashiers who’ll gladly make you wait for five minutes until another store worker collects the previous shopper’s unpaid grocery-mess (happened to me two days ago) to telecom contractors who roll their eyes as soon as they enter your door and make zero effort to set up your internet before telling you you’ll need another appointment, which’ll cost 70 euros (happened to me yesterday), Germany is often, sadly, a good place to experience everything omotenashi is not.

Out of all the stories I could tell, perhaps this one may best make the point: While still in college, some friends and I went to lunch at an Italian place. One friend chose the pasta of the day, I picked the pizza, a calzone. The pasta came with parmesan, the pizza with spicy oil. Happy that we both got extra toppings, we swapped them, my friend adding oil to his pasta, me garnishing my calzone with some cheese. As soon as the waitress saw this, she came to our table, nabbed the cheese out of my hand, and barked: “Cheese costs extra!” Imagine how you’d feel in that moment, and you’ve just learned a great deal about “no-motenashi” — a word that doesn’t exist but would translate to “wholehearted hostility” if it did. The waitress, too, rolled her eyes by the way — when she realized there wouldn’t be a tip.

This likely wouldn’t have happened in Japan, and there are many ways one could “omotenashi” this situation, from simply letting us have our condiments, to kindly offering to take them off our full hands and tables, to serving them in little, dosed packages that make them easier to add to the food, all while protecting a restaurant’s thin margins. The lesson is that omotenashi can be as much about the things you don’t do as about the things you do. Where you can’t wow your customers, you can still help them — sometimes by doing nothing at all — and thus might wow them all the same, just like those two korot salesladies did for me and my friend many years ago.

What I find most compelling about omotenashi, however, is that if you’ve ever been yelled at by someone other than your waiter, it’s easy to see how the concept expands well beyond retail shops and restaurants. If you’re hosting a B2B meeting between competing manufacturers, it can’t hurt to stack the conference room with both parties’ favorite drinks, and if you’re planning your wedding, placing an old photo of you with each guest on their plate might make it a cherished night for them even if their toddler ends up destroying their dress.

As it turns out, “wholehearted hospitality” is something you can extend to everyone you meet, not just the folks you hope will pay your bills — and that’s because omotenashi is about the connection between you and other people. It’s more than an act of duty, a service performed in hopes of remuneration. Done right and seen through to its end, omotenashi is a way of life.

Many Japanese people live and breathe this philosophy, and if you’ve ever managed to make someone jump with joy, you know it’s impossible to disconnect the act from the emotion: The essence of omotenashi is the feeling — the feeling you get when a cab door opens automatically for you, when you first touch the hot towel presented to you at a restaurant, or when you realize your slippers have been turned around so you may comfortably get into them on your way out. The actions you might take to trigger this feeling — handing out a free cookie, making a phone call, going the extra mile — merely show what you believe, which is that everyone deserves to be happy, to have a good day, to feel like life is rolling out the red carpet for them just this once.

It’s the feeling that “someone cares, and out of all the people in the world, they chose to care about me” — the kind of feeling that leaves you in awe standing in the middle of a crowded subway, holding a plastic bag full of cream-filled crêpes, wondering what you did that could possibly warrant this kindhearted treatment; the kind of feeling that ensures you’ll remember this day for the rest of your life. That’s omotenashi, and that is why, ten years later, I can still recall my last night in Tokyo like it was yesterday.