Ancient motenashi hospitality thrives today

Yasuhiko Mori

TOKYO (THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN) – Foreign nationals sometimes tell me how surprised they are by Japan’s motenashi hospitality. Shop staff are astonishingly polite in their interactions with customers, and if you go to someone’s home you’re given the royal treatment.

Where did this kind of motenashi (frequently stylised as omotenashi) originate?

Hojo Tokiyori, a regent for the Kamakura bakufu government in the 13th Century, disguised himself as a travelling monk and visited various parts of the country. On a very snowy night, he was given accommodation at the home of a poor samurai. When they ran out of firewood for the hearth, the samurai chopped up his prized potted trees for his guest. This is the plot of the noh play Hachinoki (The Potted Trees).

This kind of simple motenashi was refined through the art of the tea ceremony, which emerged in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Master Sen no Rikyu distilled the hospitality of tea into seven principles, the first of which is that tea should be produced at a temperature, and in a quantity, that is easy for one’s guests to drink.

An anecdote contained in a book from the Edo period (1603-1867) said that when military commander Ishida Mitsunari was a young, he lived in a temple and one day Toyotomi Hideyoshi visited. Hideyoshi said he was thirsty, so Mitsunari first made him a large serving of lukewarm tea and then filled a bowl about half full with slightly hot tea for his second serving. The third was just a small serving of very hot tea. Hideyoshi was impressed and took Mitsunari into his service.

Former head of the Urasenke tea ceremony school Sen Genshitsu (2nd L) entertains the President of Finland and his wife in Kyoto in March 2016, serving them light tea and Japanese sweets. PHOTO: YOMIURI SHIMBUN

According to Sen Genshitsu, the former head of the Urasenke tea ceremony school that carries on Rikyu’s legacy, the tea ceremony is not labourious at all. Foreign dignitaries often visit the Urasenke school in Kyoto.

“First, we have them pick up the bowl with both hands and examine the colour inside,” Genshitsu said. “When I tell them to do as they like after that, they all drink slowly, one mouthful at a time. I think they understand the act of savouring [the tea].”

At the same time, however, he said, “I don’t like it when people say ‘motenashi, motenashi’ all the time. We should not be stiff and formal, but discreetly offer the things we have. It doesn’t have to be a tangible thing. I think this means extending a hand to people in difficulty.”


Japanese dictionaries define motenashi as “providing things such as tea, sweets and other food and drink to guests”, but it is also a tradition to entertain one’s guests through play. In pictures from the beginning of early-modern history, invited guests are seen engaging in a number of forms of play. This was systematised by the pleasure quarters in the cities of Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto.

The Sumiya hospitality culture museum in Shimabara, Kyoto, was a banquet venue in the Edo period. Top-ranking geisha known as tayu entertained guests through such means as songs and dance, the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, and waka and haiku poetry.

Tayu memorised about 3,000 waka poems alone,” said Junko Saeki, a professor of the history of comparative culture at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Ryuho Sasaoka, the head of the Mishoryu Sasaoka school of ikebana flower arranging, said, “Whether guests are expected or not, we put flowers in the tokonoma alcove so they can come at any time. That is the hospitality of ikebana.”

Sasaoka will be one of the relay runners carrying the torch for the 2020 Games through Kyoto.

Western flower arrangements fills vases to the point of overflowing, but “a single flower on a branch is all right, too,” he said. “The spirit of hospitality will get through.”