You don’t have to understand Japanese to understand omotenashi. The meaning becomes apparent soon enough on a trip to Japan. It’s Japanese hospitality. “Omote” means “public face,” the false front you display for the public. “Nashi” means “nothing.” Taken together, it means having no public face, as in, no fakery, no guile, no false humility. Instead, it is politeness and hospitality from the heart. It’s a core part of Japanese culture. It’s a core part of what makes travelling to Japan so special.
It’s Sunday, October 16, 2022. I’m in the 16th floor lobby of Mesm Tokyo Autograph Collection, a new luxury property in Minato City, Tokyo. The Hamarikyu Gardens and Tsukiji Outer Market lie just below. I’m here at the invitation of the Japan National Tourism Organization, which has invited Canadian travel professionals to return to the nation after it has dropped its visa restrictions.
The director and regional manager of Mesm are both here to greet my travel group. They’re both here to make a good impression, but there’s nothing false about their delight at our presence. We are ushered up to the property’s premium lounge around 30 stories high. We enjoy views of the Tokyo SkyTree in the distance and the still waters of the Sumida River reflecting the city lights. I ask the director whether he’s excited to have foreigners return to the country. There’s a pause. He smiles and takes a deep breath. He nods, vigorously, and looks me in the eye: “Very much so.”
There’s a pop! and I turn and champagne is being poured. We head to the edge of the terrace and I steal a glance over the balcony, into the waters, all those stories below. Everyone grabs a glass and we toast the journey ahead. Our hosts are delighted. Their smiles are larger than ours. They’re glad we’re here. They truly are.
This is omotenashi.
It’s Wednesday, October 19, 2022. I’m in the lobby of a stunning ryokan, Azumi Setoda, in the municipality of Setoda on the island of Ikuchi in the Seto Inland Sea. I’ve just spent the previous day cycling the Shimanami Kaido, which takes cyclists from Shikoku to Honshu. The views are spectacular, the towering white suspension bridges cutting across the sunny sky and blue waters, the islands dotted with shrines and citrus groves and small towns full of some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in all of Japan. This is the only part of Japan that grows citrus so drinks and fruits and sweets are offered everywhere you go.
It’s just after dawn and I have half an hour before breakfast. I want to explore. I consider going down Shiomachi, the pedestrian shopping arcade, but instead head up the hillside to watch the morning light on the Inland Sea. I stop above a family garden, ready to take some pictures over the rooftops.
I hear the creak of a door and spot an older woman shuffling along behind me. She smiles and wishes me ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) and I return the greeting. I turn to take a photo, but feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn back and she holds one of the green lemons from a nearby tree. “Lemon.” She moves closer. “For you.” I’m a little stunned in the morning light. I shoot her a puzzled “really?” in English and she nods and gives me the lemon. I take it and bow and thank her and she smiles and continues up the hill to her next stop.
Later, I have another hour to myself before we continue north to Onomichi. Others are walking to an eastern temple, but I want to climb the hill to reach the pagoda that overlooks Setoda. It’s a bit of a maze up the hill, so I retrace my steps back to the garden from earlier. And there she is again. She spots me and her eyes light up and she comes forward. “Koko ni kite.” She wants me to come, so I do, and she leads me up a wide staircase to a temple.
She wants me to see the garden. She doesn’t speak more English than a “yes” or “please,” but I understand what she means. She reminds me to remove my boots and welcomes me inside the drawing room and through the sliding doors into the traditional garden. The garden is past its bloom, but it’s still lovely, and I can imagine the glory of the colours in spring. As if reading my mind, she rushes back inside and returns with a framed picture, one of the garden in spring, the cherry tree in full bloom. I tell her it’s beautiful and take some photos and eventually I head back into the courtyard. I ask her if I can take her picture and she blushes and straightens her apron and poses in front of the temple doors. I take a photo; it’s not my best, but it captures her smile. I thank her again and bow deeply and turn to go, but she rushes up to me, producing a phone in hand. I pose next to her and smile. She gets her own keepsake, a photo to remember our small encounter, just as I do. I bow and thank her again and she waves and we part, but we won’t forget this moment.
This is omotenashi.
It’s Friday, October 21, 2022. I’m back in Tokyo, gazing out upon the Imperial Palace Gardens from the balcony of my room at the Palace Hotel Tokyo. My official duties are over and I have a few hours before I need to connect to Narita International Airport. I want to grab some ramen, and I know exactly where to go.
During the pandemic, I had reviewed the documentary Come Back Anytime about the ramen chef, Masamoto Ueda, and his restaurant, Bizentei, in Chiyoda in Tokyo. So after grabbing a Yomiuri Giants ball cap at the Tokyo Dome, I ride the train two stops west. Bizentei is only a few minutes from the station so I head south and then east and after a few streets, I spot the dark drapes and the sandwich board out front. The movie poster confirms that this is the place.
I go inside and there he is: Sensei Masamoto Ueda, in his blue working clothes with a handkerchief tied around his neck. He’s manning the massive bowl of broth in the kitchen and his regulars sit along the bar happily feasting on ramen. He seems to have been expecting me. My scant understanding of Japanese eludes me at the moment and I summon a feeble “Konnichiwa” as I enter and sit at the seat furthest from the door. Sensei laughs and answers with one of the English phrases he knows, “Very good.” The other patrons laugh in response. I smile and bow and take my seat. I order shoyu ramen, the house specialty. He nods and goes to work. I tell him I’ve seen the movie, Come Back Anytime, and he’s amazed and looks at me, and then asks, “Toronto?” Yes, I tell him, I’m from Toronto.
Soon enough, he places the bowl before me, the broth a rich caramel colour from the soy sauce, steam coming off the bowl, the noodles awaiting me alongside the boiled egg and pork chashu. I mutter itadakimasu and dig in. It’s everything I can hope for, remarkably light considering the rich flavour of the sauce, salty, but not overwhelmingly so, soft noodles with a touch of firmness, and very, very hot broth. I finish the bowl in mere minutes.
Mrs. Ueda appears and asks me whether it was good and I tell her oishii, delicious. I pay her and I’m ready to go, but I want to mark the occasion. I ask sensei if I can take his picture. He nods, and then stands up straight and beckons me behind the bar into the kitchen. I hesitate, but he enthusiastically waves me over and tells another patron to take the photo. I hand my phone over and step behind the bar and the rest of the patrons’ eyes are on me now. They know this isn’t what I expected. I’m thrilled and Sensei puts his arm around me and I smile and they snap the photo. I bow deeply and thank him and he laughs it off, as if it’s just another part of welcoming me to Bizentei.
I get up to go and thank him again for the wonderful meal and he smiles and nods and the other patrons bid me farewell. He tells me to come back anytime. I step out into the Tokyo street, basking in the light of day and the contentment. My stomach is full, as is my heart.
This is omotenashi.
This article was originally published in Vol. 30 of Globetrotting Magazine.
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