The old traditions of Japanese hospitality are still very much alive today, whether in old-fashioned inns, modern luxury hotels or the homes of ordinary people. At the heart of those traditions lies the spirit of the Way of Tea.
Written by Torikai Shin-ichi Photos by Kono Toshihiko
Fresh green leaves in spring, cool summers, colorful autumns, silvery white winters. Ginzan Onsen is a quiet hot spring resort in Yamagata Prefecture, tucked away in the foothills of Mount Gassan.
"The natural surroundings here offer our guests the biggest welcome of all," says Jeanie Fuji, the landlady of a Japanese inn that has been in business for 350 years. She arrived 15 years ago from California as a bride.
Today, everyone would agree that her hospitality skills are top class, but when she began learning the welcoming arts of an o-kami (Japanese inn landlady), she found it very hard. "Sliding a fusuma door open and shut, greeting guests, bringing them meals on small o-zen tables... everything has to be done a certain way, following the old traditions. And I had to learn how to talk with the guests using polite, formal Japanese. I often wanted to give up and go home to the United States. But now I love my work here," she smiles.
The inn, called Fujiya, was completely reconstructed and opened its doors again in July 2006. The old large room once used for meals and entertainment has gone, the number of bedrooms has dropped from twelve to eight, and each bedroom is designed for two guests, rather than the larger groups of people who once stayed there. "We wanted to create as relaxing an atmosphere as possible for our guests." The interior is decorated with plenty of natural materials like bamboo, Japanese washi paper and stone, and the result certainly is relaxing.
"At a Japanese inn, the landlady always has to think of the needs of every guest. If it seems that they want something, she has to be ready to provide it on the spot. Of course, it's important not to overdo it. We have to find the right balance."
But that must be really difficult. "It is difficult, but that's why I find this work enjoyable. Everyday we meet different people, and each guest needs his or her own level of service. It's finding the right balance for each guest that makes my job worthwhile."
At Fujiya, hospitality is based on the old saying from the tea ceremony, ichigo ichie: treasure every encounter with another person, because it may never happen again.