“No problem, no problem” said my friend Daiki, as he brought me yet another drink from the bar “this is Japan. I have to be omotenashi!”
In short, omotenashi means”hospitality”, although the meaning is probably more nuanced. I only heard it for the first time yesterday, but apparently it has received a lot of attention after Christel Takigawa used it in her presentation during the Olympic Bid in 2013. It is a well known quality of the Japanese service industry – whether you’re staying at a high class hotel or buying a burger from McDonald’s, you can usually expect a degree of professionalism and politeness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
Basic research on the word surfaced a lot of discussion about the meaning behind it – with some saying that this particular concept of hospitality is less about giving the customer exactly what they want and more about doing things “by the book”. I’ve certainly had that experience myself at times – asking for something slightly out of the ordinary (ie. “can I have this burger with extra pickles?” or “could I get a salad instead of rice?”) can often lead to a sharp inhale of air through the teeth followed by “chotto…gomenasai…” (as in “sorrrrrrry, but noooo”).
My experience on this trip though has convinced me that when it comes to personal relationships, omoterashi is in fact genuine. The basic idea behind WWOOF is that in return for volunteer labor you get a place to stay and food to eat, but every host here has gone far beyond this basic agreement – the have taken me along on their day trips, paid for my admission to hot springs, thrown parties in my honor and generally have made me feel like the center of attention.
Even more incredible have been all the other people I met here who have done the same. Several times I have met people who proceeded to invite me out to dinner and pay for all the food and drinks. People have introduced me to friends in other cities who immediately offered to put me up for free.
If you’re coming to Japan and you don’t know anyone here, I highly highly recommend doing something like WWOOF (or maybe couchsurfing) so you can experience this first hand.