There’s something different about hospitality in Japan, and it’s called omotenashi. From her travels in Japan, Maiko Kyogoku, the restaurateur behind NYC's Bessou, peels back the layers of what makes Japanese hospitality so wonderful—and shares ways to bring it home.
“On Michelin's website, they describe it as such: ‘Omotenashi is Japanese hospitality. Omote means public face, an image you wish to present to outsiders. Nashi means nothing,” she continues. “Combining the two means every service is from the bottom of the heart. Honest. No hiding. No pretending. It’s all about taking pride in anticipating and fulfilling people's needs in advance."
You can sense that quality at her restaurant. Warm sake quickly fills your cup when it’s running low. Kyogoku herself will come to the table to make sure your noodles don’t get soggy in your simmering hot pot. She seems to embody the very word, omotenashi.
Indeed, after traveling up and down Japan last month, she's purposefully instilled Bessou with that Japanese sensibility. Here, she details three ways to bring that omotenashi magic home, inspired by three surprising moments where she experienced it herself.
1. Strike up conversation, and listen closely. “Native to Kyoto, the obanzaiya is very different from the izakaya. While izakayas are more like Japanese pubs, obanzaiya are intimate places run by one or two people with a limited assortment of offerings. It’s very much like walking into someone’s kitchen and sitting at the counter with them. One obanzaiya in Kyoto completely charmed me during my trip. It had no formal menu, so when we sat down, the host just asked us how hungry we were and if there was anything we couldn’t eat. She then set to work, presenting five or so snack-size dishes. As our conversation progressed, she took clues from things I mentioned—‘I love anything vinegary,’ ‘I'm craving something braised’—and she offered dishes based on my preferences. It was the ultimate display of omotenashi. Everything, from the food to the room, was filled with so much love and warmth. We walked into this obanzaiya by accident—the host said that’s how most people find her—but it was one of the most serendipitous encounters I had on the trip.”
2. Share willingly and generously. “This somen-making family in Handa—particularly, the mother-daughter duo—left a deep impression on me. They have been making this very thin, white wheat noodle together for almost 40 years at Kitamuro Hakusen, working 14 hour days, 6 days a week. The mother got into it through her husband. At first, he wasn’t interested in taking over the family somen factory until she started working there and convinced him to keep the business alive. (Now, she’s the president and runs the day-to-day operations!) When they found out that I owned a restaurant, they gifted me a case of a noodle prototype they’ve been working on, spaghetti somen, as well as a case of tea to take home. It was too heavy to carry along with me during the rest of my travels, so my friends at indigo dye company Buaisou offered to ship them to me. It’s on its way as we speak!”
3. Go the extra mile. “During my first night at the Ohanabo inn in Kyoto, my friend and I went to the front desk and asked for directions to the Kiyamachi district of Kyoto. ‘Don't worry, I'll take you!’ said the innkeeper, who appeared from behind the curtain, with a smile from ear to ear. In the car, she learned that we were on a food trip, aka essentially eating our way through Japan. ‘Oh!’ she said with delight. On our last night, she stopped us on our way back to our hotel room and said, ‘I know that you are on a food trip and I didn't want you to leave without trying some of the most famous cakes in the city! They're my favorite.’ She then presented us with a box with two precious desserts. It was the perfect sweet ending to our time in Kyoto.”