The Omotenashi Edition

On Tokyo, hospitality, and a subtle surprise

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Jann Schwarz (JS) is a WITI contributor and bon vivant from the Engadin valley. He wrote an exceptional piece on bandanas, which, if you are a new subscriber, you should be sure to read pronto. -Colin (CJN)

The Omotenashi Edition

During a trip to Japan in November 2014, I was lucky enough to snag an affordable rate for an extended stay at the legendary Park Hyatt Tokyo, a WITI insider favorite and something of a modern classic in the contemporary luxury hotel space. Many a seasoned traveler considers it an ideal place to nurse a jet-lag hangover—what with the late-night jazz bar and the stunning penthouse pool. Just be sure to wear your mandatory swim cap at all times when taking an early morning dip, or the staff will remind you.

The trip also included a weekend excursion to Kyoto before returning for a second stay at the Park Hyatt. In my jet-lagged haze upon checkout at the end of the first stay, I forgot a jacket and a pair of shoes in my room before catching the bullet train to Kyoto. When I returned the following Monday, I was astonished to find them still untouched in that very same hotel room upon check-in. This seemed very strange. Had they not rented out this room to someone else? Had the Park Hyatt staff been uncharacteristically, unthinkably negligent in cleaning the place? How very odd.

As I sat down on my bed to ponder this, I was struck by a sudden, startling realization that made me jump and stand there upright, as if frozen, for a second, before rushing to the door to check the number of my room. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true. I was in a similar-sized room, but it was on a totally different floor. I exhaled sharply.

There was only one simple and devastatingly elegant explanation. The hotel staff had discovered my left-behind items, noted down their exact location in the room for “lost and found” purposes, and then realized upon checking their records that I was due to return in just a few days. Without even a mention they had simply put my stuff back into my new room, in exactly the same location, in the morning before I checked in. There is a name for this kind of magic—it’s called “Omotenashi”.

Why is this interesting?

Clearly pulling off a feat like this is only an option for world-class hotels, and yet there are probably well over a hundred places in the world that have the ability. But here is the truly exceptional part—there was no note. Any Western luxury hotel capable of this level of hospitality would have had a little elegant note on heavy stationary, savoring the moment in an understandably self-satisfied fashion. Something like “We noticed you left these items during your last stay, please allow us to reunite you with them. Sincerely, Your St Regis Butler.” Or they would have called and offered to FedEx the things to you—a nice gesture, but still distracting for the guest. Instead, the Park Hyatt crew chose to underplay it, because that makes it “Omotenashi”.

Omotenashi as a concept has been popularized recently in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to showcase this very Japanese version of hospitality. Like many things Japanese, it is not easily defined or translated, but it evolves around bringing your full, authentic self to serve a guest, and doing so in a humble, non-ostentatious way. It is about a lack of pretence, and showing no expectation of reciprocity. 

According to Michelin, “‘Omote’ means public face – an image you wish to present to outsiders. ‘Nashi’ means nothing. Combining them means ‘service from the bottom of the heart’ – honest, no hiding, no pretending.” It is about exerting maximum effort to seem effortless and completely unassuming—“less but better”, to quote Dieter Rams, who also said that “the best design is as little design as possible”, another apt quote for this concept. In essence, Omotenashi is the refreshing opposite of the showy, theatrical, performative luxury that is standard across much of Western luxury. 

Unlike the VIP perks of frequent traveler status that bring out the entitled jerk in many of us, Omotenashi is good for the soul. It nurtures our intrinsically motivated, non-maximizer self. It feels calming, soothing, reassuring, and it makes you feel present in the moment, mindful that we should all aspire to need less, not more. (JS

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Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Jann (JS)

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