Sunday, November 21, 2021

Welcome Tea and Cakes: Japan's Omotenashi Spirit

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Omotenashi lies at the core of Japanese culture. Although the word is usually translated into English as "hospitality," like many Japanese words, the true meaning is much deeper and more complex. It involves anticipating a guest's every need (or in some cases, desire) and meeting it at precisely the moment the need would arise--and, equally importantly, to do so expecting nothing in return.

The concept is often linked to the origins and development of the tea ceremony, in part because of the great lengths tea masters went (and go, to this day) to make the experience a perfect moment in time for attending guests.

One place omotenashi is almost always seen in modern Japan is the "welcome tea" provided to guests upon check-in at a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn) or shukubo (temple lodging).

Tea and a traditional Manju (steamed bun filled with bean paste)

Tea is customarily served in the guest room--again, by tradition, since guests arriving at a ryokan typically would have been traveling all day, or at least for several hours, and would want to rest and refresh themselves upon arrival.

Welcome tea at Nishimuraya Honkan, a ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen

Welcome tea is also usually accompanied by a small, sweet treat--usually a local specialty of the region. In  Hiroshima Prefecture, you might receive momiji manju--a sweet cake, similar to a pancake, shaped like a maple leaf and filled with sweet bean paste. In Kyoto, it could be crispy, cinnamon Yatsuhashi cookies. Regardless of region, the treat is usually small--a bite or two at most--and something that complements the delicate taste of the local tea.

Welcome tea at a temple on the 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku

As you can see in the picture above, and others throughout the post, the tea is usually "DIY"--a thermos or pot of hot water is set in the room (or brought within minutes of your arrival), along with a canister of loose leaf tea (or, sometimes, tea bags) and a cup, so the guest can prepare a fresh, hot cup of tea.

Welcome tea at Sanraku-so, a shukubo in Tottori Prefecture

Welcome tea waiting after a long day's hike on the Nakasendo

Modern ryokan (especially the high end ones) occasionally riff on the welcome theme, especially in the heat and humidity of summer. For example, Kai resorts offer "welcome kakigori" (Japanese shaved ice) with local toppings. You can have tea too...either hot or iced.

Strawberry-matcha (green tea) "welcome kakigori" at Kai Nikko

Since kakigori doesn't travel well, the Kai resorts serve the summer treat in the lobby lounges rather than the guest rooms.

Mixed Berry Kakigori at Kai Kinugawa, Kinugawa Onsen

That said, the vast majority of ryokan still stick with the basics: a local sweet and a cup of hot green tea in summer, and a sweet and a cup of hojicha (roasted green tea) in the winter months.

Green tea and a local cookie - the original, and still the best.

While some ryokan buy mass-produced sweets, many still acquire their welcome treats from local purveyors of wagashi--traditional Japanese sweets.

Green tea and bean paste-filled crispy monaka in Yuasa, Wakayama Prefecture

Whether or not I've spent the day traveling by foot over mountain roads (which actually does happen to be my state when checking into a ryokan about 25% of the time) a cookie and a cup of tea is always a delightful check-in treat.

Pear Gaufrette and sencha at Sanraku-so in Tottori Prefecture

All too often, the modern world pushes us to move faster, sleep less, and endure more stress. We're frequently overworked, under-rested, and less relaxed than is good for us. All of which tends to make the sight of a low wooden table bearing a welcome tea and cake--and the implied invitation to set down your cares and sit for a moment, sip your tea, and breathe--an exceptionally welcome sight indeed.



  1. The elegance of it all bowls me over, Susan! Thank you for these moments of peace and harmony!

  2. From time to time, Susan, I find hotels in various parts of the western world offering a treat of sorts to arriving guests, but it's far from common place and more often than not depends upon your "frequent guest" status