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.
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.
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.
Welcome to Omotenashi Gap. The idea behind this blog is simple—to describe cases of how miscommunication and cultural differences between hosts and guests can lead to poor customer experiences and lost profit.
What is an Omotenashi Gap?
During the bidding process for the Tokyo Olympics, many Japanese officials heavily stressed the high standard of Japanese hospitality, or omotenashi, by stating that the Japanese-way of treating guests has been ingrained since ancient times and is among the best in the world. If you lose your wallet, you’ll get it back. If you’re out to dinner and it starts raining, the restaurant will more likely than not have an umbrella for you. It is often described as the subjugation of self to the benefit of the guest. Giving, with all your heart, so that the guest is satisfied.
Omotenashi is treated with reverence in Japan, as an ironclad example of why Japanese do things better. However, there is one fatal flaw that causes problems for hosts providing customer service to non-Japanese: a mutual understanding of each other based in a highly homogenized culture. In short, customer service works well in Japan because both the host and guest have an ingrained sense of how the transaction is supposed to proceed. Both parties know what is expected of them, and both parties strive to fulfill their role. When overseas tourists come to Japan however, this mutual understanding breaks down and can cause problems.
To better understand what kind of omotenashi gaps exist, lets consider a stay at a traditional hot spring resort. From the moment the guest arrives, there are things a resort can do to create a welcoming and hospitable environment for both foreign and Japanese guests. Take, for example, the check-in process. In many Japanese ryokan guests are served sweets or tea in the lobby before being shown to their rooms. This courtesy, designed to help a weary tourist relaxing from their travels, may only annoy a foreign guest who is accustomed to checking in quickly, and who may want to quickly head out again after checking in to do some site seeing.
Ask, don’t assume.
In Japan, anticipating a guests needs before they ask for something is considered the epitome of good hospitality. For overseas guests however, it is this anticipation that most often trips up hosts. A host may assume things based on Japanese standards, and then unintentionally insult the guest. Conversely, the host may change his or her behavior based on the assumption, “All Americans like ___”, and in turn disappoint a foreigner who lives in Japan or one who was looking forward to doing things the Japanese way. The lesson then is to always ask what a guest wants first, rather then assume you know the answer.
How can we help?
Our team of writers and manga artists are going to offer tips for overcoming miscommunications between hosts and guests. Look for one to two new posts per week, accompanied by a short comic, explaining common faux pas and how to overcome them. It’s going to be an exciting journey!