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.