Privacy vs. Omotenashi

Privacy vs. Omotenashi

If you’re the owner of a Japanese inn, how do you express hospitality from even before your guests arrive? For many traditional inns, the answer lies in a welcome signboard. Having the customer’s name displayed out front, letting them know they’re welcome and in the right place, is a long-held tradition. That said, in this privacy-minded age, is it the right one to use? Let’s explore this issue and what it means for overseas guests.

Like for Japanese guests, views on privacy overseas vary person-to-person, although it can generally be said that people from Europe take a stronger view on the subject then those from America. For some, a welcome signboard with their name on it is a standout service and a unique experience, while others might feel a little creeped out. Therefore, the best way to handle this is to, first of all, is to inform the guests that you do this so that there are no unpleasant surprises. A simple notice on the booking page or hotel website in English is often enough.

Even better then informing though, is asking. Taking the time to ask your incoming guests, at the time of their booking, “May we display your name on our welcome signboard?”, shows that you’re both hospitable and mindful of their privacy preferences. It’s a win-win situation.

What are other privacy issues related to a guest’s name? Again, it might be wise to ask a guest if it is alright to use their name to identify their table or room. Some guests may be uncomfortable with others in the hotel knowing their names, so using the room number or room name when indicating table or room assignments is an appropriate substitute. Finally, some privacy minded guests may wonder how you will use their information in the future. For example, how long will you keep their information? Will you use their information to send them mail? Will you sell the information to others? Formulating a privacy policy in Japanese, and then having it translated into English for use in the guest rooms, might not be a bad idea.

In summary, showing your guests that you are mindful of their privacy is a far better way to show hospitality than to write their names out front.

Japanese breakfasts: a stumbling point to good hospitality?

Japanese breakfasts: a stumbling point to good hospitality?

How do you balance an international guest’s desire for an authentic experience with their in-born tastes and preferences? The key to a truly exceptional omotenashi experience rests in finding this balance. Let’s begin with the pitfalls found in a typical ryokan breakfast. In general, the following two patterns can be found in ryokans in Japan.

Pattern 1: Serve the same food to all guests

This pattern, arguably easier for hotel owners, has guests receive the same food regardless of their nationality or background. Everyone gets rice, miso soup, grilled fish, and natto, regardless of their personal preferences. On the one hand, international guests get an authentic experience, and may be able to try foods that they can’t get in their home countries. On the other hand, a Japanese breakfast may not suit many palettes. This means that beyond there being a lot of wasted natto left over at the end of the morning, many guests will return to their home countries with stories about how horrible tasting the breakfasts were.

Pattern 2: Serve a western-style breakfast to international guests

It is often said that international tourists dislike dishes like natto or dried fish, and would prefer something closer to their native fare. For this reason, some hotels provide an option for a western breakfast, or even substitute it automatically for their overseas guests. Many may say, this is the best of omotenashi, anticipating what guests want and providing it for them without them asking. There are two potential problems with this though. First, it denies international guests an authentic ryokan experience. By giving them food they might find in their home countries, they lose out on something quintessentially Japanese. Second, a western-style breakfast is bound to disappoint. Just as Japanese tourists often complain about the terrible quality of Japanese food overseas, many international tourists complain about the low quality of western-style breakfasts—from the way the eggs are cooked to the bread that is served with them.

Is there a better way?

An easy solution, for both foreign and Japanese guests, is to ask. A simple ordering slip, similar to what is available in sushi restaurants, would give guests the opportunity to select the food they like from what’s available. Guests can therefore say yes to the grilled fish or no to the natto. This could be given at check-in, or when they come into the breakfast room at the start of every day. For hotels that change their menus on a frequent or daily basis, even basic descriptions, such as “seasonal grilled fish” or “assorted in-season pickled vegetables” would be enough. The trick is to give guests an authentic experience, without making them feel guilty for leaving half the food leftover on the table. After breakfast is over, you may want to know what the guests loved, and what they would rather do without. This would help you plan your menus better, and also help you decide how much to order or cook.