The Spirit of Omotenashi (お持て成し)

Kamakura Daibutsu
Kamakura Daibutsu

There are a million and one things I love about Japan–I could go on forever about the convenience stores and the food and the festivals and the food and the history and the food. Did I mention the food?

But if you ask anyone, no matter how long they’ve been here for, two weeks or two years, they will pretty much all agree that the Japanese people themselves are a jewel.

Now I’m not saying everything about everyone is all sunshine and daisies, I’ve had problems here and so has most everyone I know.  However in my experience the number of kind things people have done for me, with absolutely no prompting, far outnumbers anything unpleasant!

This past weekend on my trip into Kamakura the idea of omotenashi, or the spirit of hospitality, was pounded into my head with clouds and rainbows. Slightly smothering, but oh, so welcome.

I had stayed in a hostel in Tokyo overnight so I could get an early start and there I met Sarah (yes, another one!) from New Zealand–fresh off the plane for a winter working on the ski slopes of central Japan. I love meeting people you can talk to like you’ve known them forever and I got to explore with her on her first full day in Japan! It brought me back to how I felt when I saw everything for the first time. That “holy cow! I’m in Japan!” feeling, and I sincerely thank her for that.

Sarah and I tasting murasaki-imo (purple sweet potato) ice cream! Delicious!

We had trouble finding the right train but when we finally got off at Kamakura Station no sooner had we put our stuff in lockers than these two little old ladies started shoving these papers at us and talking faster than I could ever hope to comprehend!

Turns out they were from a small Buddhist temple up the way and were trying to invite people (particularly foreigners) to come and see how they worshiped. Sarah and I hadn’t yet come up with a silent means of communication so it took a lot of frantic and curious looks to end up just going with them. We had no plan, they were so old and tiny. What could it hurt?

Absolutely nothing is the answer and I got one of my favorite memories of Japan out of it! On the walk they were excited that I could speak some Japanese (their English didn’t exist outside of “where you from?”) and we were joined halfway there by a cheerful, little old man.

Approaching their temple!
The street to their temple (the white building) in a residential area

The first thing we did upon arriving at the temple was to be given gifts of beautiful o-hashi (chopsticks), English information pamphlets, and loads of snacks and tea. Even I didn’t need food after that and yet still stuff was materializing in front of me.

The service itself saw us sitting in the front row with our helpers, a book of chants written in romaji in front of us, and being shown how to hold the prayer beads. The rhythm of the chants and wafts of smokey incense was very tranquil and you do feel yourself emptying your mind and falling into a meditative state quickly.

Maybe two-thirds of the way through our helpers got us up and we went to the altar and the leader of the service for him to bless us, pray for the strength and happiness of our families and loved ones, and we’re pretty sure something in there got us adopted into the Buddhist temple because on our way out–after some more chanting– the other worshipers there that day applauded, welcomed, congratulated, and thanked us.  You’re welcome?

The whole service felt very soothing and welcoming, the sanctuary (is that what it’s called in Buddhism?) was beautiful, and I left wanting to learn more about their practices and traditions, which I suppose was probably the whole point! I’m so thankful they approached us in that train station.

If it hadn’t been such a beautiful day, after more snacks, basically becoming adopted grandchildren (we got hugs! Do you know how rare that is in Japan?!), pictures, and an invitation to someday visit the main temple near Mt. Fuji together, they would have driven us to wherever we wanted to go next. They were the sweetest people! But we had decided to walk the trail to Koutoku-in (home of the daibutsu, the giant Buddha) and it was nearby so they settled on walking us halfway and giving us a lot of instructions. And more hugs!

Such sweet people! <3
Such sweet people! ❤ Also, I’m a giant.

If that wasn’t enough omotenashi for you, hold onto your hats!

Even with all those directions to the trail head, we still wound up lost (hello, it’s me) and while looking at a map of a park, an older gentleman (73 years-old, though I never in a million years would’ve guessed that) asked us if we needed help in English!

Sarah and our friendly neighborhood guide!
Sarah and our friendly neighborhood guide

When we told him we were looking for the trail for the daibutsu he took us on his daily walk through the park, being our personal tour guide for all the cool little shrines and other sights in there. He bought us grilled konnyaku at a booth (truly disgusting stuff, but it was so nice of him) after pointing out the view of a snow-capped Mt. Fuji through the trees, and we wound all the way to the trail head where he anxiously gave us directions down the path that had no branches or intersections of any sort. Basically, a path even couldn’t get lost on.

Getting our bearings... Kinda.
Getting our bearings… Kinda.

Score two for omotenashi!

The rest of the day was a blur of fun conversations, quirky shopkeepers, fellow autumn beach-goers, direction-pointers, joke-tellers, and one man in Kotoku-in (高徳院) who came up to talk to me for a little bit and gave us each a handwritten letter pasted on old magazine ads to make them stiffer and more durable. He and his wife are both 74, enjoy gardening and are retirees. They have been studying English for 5 years and it was his dream to receive a letter in English from someone so it had his address and a few things about his family on the back.

In any other country I would say that’s a dangerous thing to do. But here in Japan I’m less worried about him and got my family in California to all send him letters too!

Beautiful, chilly autumn beach day

I’ll stop rambling on about the countless examples of pure human goodness we encountered that day but just know that my faith in humanity had never before reached such high levels! I suppose the main idea I’ll leave you with today is to be kind to people, it goes a long way. Every act of kindness or meanness towards someone can have a major impact on their day or their life. So tell me, what kind of impact do you want to make?

I've got a whole Buddha in my hand!
Obligatory, cheesy tourist photo with the daibutsu

3 thoughts on “The Spirit of Omotenashi (お持て成し)

  1. Hey, Kendra.

    I just started reading your blog on Japan. And I have to say, I couldn’t agree more about omotenashi. I’m currently an Honors student in English Linguistics (can you imagine, I started out in Corporate Communications, Journalism, and Publis Relations with English as a choice module and Psychology as an extra subject, and now I’m doing research on the mora, Japanese phonology, and teaching English in Japan instead… How life takes you for rides…). I plan to emigrate to Japan permanently in just under a year. I hope to be an ALT for several years (around 5) before completing my post-graduate Masters and Doctors research and settling in as a lecturor at a university there.

    In prep for this move, I decided to head over to Japan for a quick visit, partially to scope out cities to which I might want to move, and to get a general feel for the country and the people. (You should know more than anyone else that an entire library of books and material on a country and a people can’t substitute for even a day’s practical, hands-on experience.) So I made a quick 10 day trip to the country. And my goodness, have I fallen head-over-heals for the place and the people.

    Never in my entire life have I come across such a friendly and helpful people. Our plane landed in Osaka International on the 8th of December last year at around 18h00. That time of the year being winter, it was dark before we got off the plane. We had to catch the train from the airport to Umeda Station. There we had to purchase tickets to run on the Midosuji-line to Daikokucho Station, from which it was just a short walk to Weekly Green in Namba, where we would be staying for our first three evenings. Simple, really, in theory.

    We didn’t get lost mind you (I didn’t, at least, my Aunt was lost the whole way through and just followed behind me while she tried to find a sign that had a name that looked familiar). We were a little confused at how to use the ticket machines, though.

    Japanese saints to the rescue!!!

    We had barely realised we were struggling ourselves when two people were already offering to help. They couldn’t speak much English, and what little they could was barely understandable. Again, my aunt was far worse off than me. She’s of the previous generation, and whilst her English is pretty good, it is pretty strongly accented – and so is her hearing – so listening with an ear geared towards one accent for words spoken in a completely different – and pretty heavy – accent wasn’t happening. The two tried their best to figure out what we were saying, and I listened carefully to their words. At this point I didn’t want to speak to them in Japanese. I hardly know much more than a few of the phrases and some loose vocabulary, and I would be even more lost if they were to assume I knew a good amount of Japanese and switched over.

    The couple eventually had to leave (eventually being about 40 seconds later) to catch one of those on-time trains (god I love how Japanese transportation just works, in South Africa you’re lucky if the 9h00 train arrives before midnight). We tried again on the machine, but less than 20 seconds after the couple left, a second couple offered to help. With them we managed to get the tickets bought, but they had to go the opposite direction we were, and were clearly in much of a hurry. At this point no less than the fifth person to offer help in less than 5 minutes showed up.

    He was a gentle, elderly man, quite unnaturally tall for a Japanese. His English was still quite accented but much more understandable and fluent than the four we’d had before him. Not only did he point us in the right direction, but even rode with us all the way to Daikokucho station. He wanted to walk us to our hotel, but we insisted we were fine. I’ve never come across such helpfulness in my entire life. Not just the hospitality of the people who offered to help, but the shere speed with which they noticed our predicament and did so, and the amount of people who were – dare I say – eager to aid us.

    Luckily I’d convinced my aunt to purchase some souvenirs on the airport on our way out of South Africa. We had bought a pair of engraved shooter glasses; one had the national flag on it, and the other an elephant. We gave him the elephant.

    I have several other stories, the story about the women who, just a day later, got our other shooter glass, is a particularly good one, but this post is almost longer than your blog, so I’d best cut it short here.

    Suffice it to say that indeed Japan’s omotenashi is incredible. The land is incredibly beautiful, the country is unbelievable, and the people truly are treasures beyond compare. I am completely in love with the country, and can’t wait to move there.

    Kind Regards / Vriendelike Groete
    Gideon Theo Roos
    Editor Volarenovels and Liberspark


    1. Wow, sounds like you have everything planned out! I’m so glad you fell in love with Japan, it’s a truly wonderful place. It also sounds like you came across some really great people, thank you for sharing your story. I love hearing about other’s experiences in Japan, as every one is different and fascinating. Bringing small trinkets from home as potential gifts is something I wouldn’t think about for just a short trip abroad but I love the idea. I’ll have to try to incorporate that into my trips more, thanks for the inspiration and I hope your time in Japan is everything you hope for!


      1. Chalk it up ro my obsession for knowledge, but I spent upwards of a hundred hours binge-watching and -reading stuff on Japan and its culture, aspecially where tourists are concerned. I read that they’re pretty big on the gift giving, so I thought it a good idea to give a small gift or two as thank you, something tangible to show my gratitude. I also felt it a way to share a bit of my home country. Why just go someplace and bring bits of that culture back, when tou can also take some of yours with you and leave some of it behind there?


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