WHILE WALKING THE CORRIDORS OF THE IMPERIAL HOTEL IN TOKYO you might see a member of staff deeply bowing to a closed door. He or she might have just brought a room service meal to a hotel guest and now, unseen by the guest, is expressing gratitude and respect. This is an example of “omotenashi” or the art of Japanese hospitality.
“Omotonashi is how deeply we appreciate and consider our guest; even when the guest cannot see our service, we pay attention to it,” explains Yukio Kanao who is the Managing Director of Imperial Hotel Ltd and General Manager of the group’s flagship Imperial Hotel, Tokyo.
From replacing the pink blossoms in the elevators several times a day to vacuuming in a particular way that avoids leaving any marks on the floor — by moving from the inner part of the room outwards to the entrance — or the doorman changing his white gloves every 30 minutes, “omotenashi” at the ImperialHotel is not about grand gestures but about anticipating needs and paying obsessive attention to any detail that could make a guest feel more welcome.
Founded in 1880 as Japan’s official guest house for the increasing number of foreign dignitaries visiting the country as it opened to the world during the Meiji era (1868‑1912), the Imperial Hotel is an institution in Tokyo that remains to this day a favourite with dignitaries and celebrities visiting the Japanese capital. The hotel was recently rated, for the second year in a row, as the best hotel in Japan for customer satisfaction by J.D. Power, a global marketing information services company.
Over the years, the hotel has initiated many new services and facilities that have since become the standard for omotenashi; these include all-inclusive Shinto or Christian wedding services and in-house laundry service. “Most hotels now outsources their laundry, but we are still doing everything in-house. That allows us to guarantee a one-hour turn around,” Kanao says.
Like many of his staff, Kanao has spent his entire career, 34 years, at the hotel. After completing a degree in business management, he spent his first year training in various entry-level functions, working as a bellboy, in housekeeping, as a waiter and as a kitchen dish washer, all of which has given him the opportunity to better understand the requirements to attend to all aspects of the guests’ needs throughout their stay.
To ensure the best level of omotenashi the hotel has nearly 2,000 employees for the 930 rooms. Looking ahead Kazuo says his biggest challenge will be to bring 21st-century technology to the hotel without compromising on traditions.
The staffs’ unseen attention to detail is far ranging. Phone operators at the hotel work with a small mirror in front of them so they can check that they answer with a genuine smile — “the guest cannot see the smile, but can hear it,” Kanao says. Housekeeping will keep the trash from guestrooms for one night after the guests depart, just in case they threw away something they might still need: “Nowadays everybody uses a mobile phone to take notes so we may have requests only two or three times a month, but 20 years ago, it was once or twice a week,” he notes.