Omotenashi and the five senses- SMELL

Omotenashi and the five senses

Omotenashi
and the five senses

Words: Yoshiko Arakawa, Translation: Heather Glass

In this feature we introduce you to the many different ways in which omotenashi style hospitality is extended and the things in which it is given form, to appeal to the senses through the eyes, ears and palate of a guest. We trust we will help you to savour the best of Japan’s omotenashi culture, by alerting you to watch out for, listen out for and hone your sensitivity to these almost imperceptible ministrations.


Smell

Fragrance and omotenashi

The Kannon (Kwan Yin) Sutra mentions fragrance, highlighting the way in which scents have from ancient times had a position of importance in religious and cultural activities.

Beautiful scents and sounds were said to lead to paradise. Aromas that guide one to a state other than the everyday, perhaps play a part in linking the human sense of smell to spirituality.

Today we have the culture of scent – which, it may be said, holds special significance in Japan – of which the most typical expression of this form of sensual enjoyment is incense.

The aroma of incense is the very essence of a harmonious world. There are spicy ingredients, pungent to the nose, such as sandalwood, frankincense, the camphor-like borneol and cinnamon. There are woody scents that calm the emotions, and there are fragrances that provide a strong sense of refreshment. Each emits its own unique ‘note’. For that reason, if mixed in the wrong way, scents may war with each other, resulting in a disagreeable smell.

Historically, however, Japan has succeeded in cleverly combining several singular incense ingredients to create a harmoniously aromatic world of scent. In these invisible aromas we can sense the important place of harmony in the Japanese psyche. The history of incense blending is long, dating back to a time when the nobles of the Heian period – from the 8th to the 12th century – themselves mixed incense, and we are advised to this day that those scent blends were born of a transcendent aesthetic sensibility.

Omotenashi-smell

Fragrances were not smelt with the nose, but were put together in the brain; they were a product of creativity. The sensibility and aesthetic awareness cultivated in Japan evolved and was protected, simply because Japanese people lived in harmony with nature, learned from the providence of nature and experienced nature in their souls, and because in their hearts was the spirit of wa, loosely translated as ‘harmony’.

Incense has also been widely used in Japan in the hosting of guests. Putting out the flame on the tip of a stick of incense by fanning it with an open palm means the vapours are stabilised to just the proper degree and from the incense rises a white smoke that visually draws the observer in. Lighting some incense and placing it on a table imparts to guests in that space an exalted, tranquil moment in time. Guests on the receiving end of this aspect of omotenashi could dreamily gaze on the trembling smoke, or close their eyes, forget everything and relax, to become one with the fragrance.

The average person in their daily lives is busy, experiences unease and finds it difficult to relax.

In Japan, therefore, particularly when visited by a guest the host will seek to restore serenity by lighting incense and encouraging the visitor to gradually relax and be at ease. It is as if the host asks the smoke to extend a hand to the guest to guide them into a sacred space.


Omotenashi and the five senses- TASTE

Omotenashi and the five senses

Omotenashi
and the five senses

Words: Yoshiko Arakawa, Translation: Heather Glass

In this feature we introduce you to the many different ways in which omotenashi style hospitality is extended and the things in which it is given form, to appeal to the senses through the eyes, ears and palate of a guest. We trust we will help you to savour the best of Japan’s omotenashi culture, by alerting you to watch out for, listen out for and hone your sensitivity to these almost imperceptible ministrations.


Taste

Tea ceremony and omotenashi

omotenashi-taste

Just as in the West where guests are hosted with a cup of tea, in Japan there has been a culture of entertaining guests by enjoying green tea together. It was during the Kamakura period – from the 12th to the 14th century – that the custom of tea drinking as a tasteful pastime spread across Japan. Over time, and with the advent of the Muromachi period – from the 14th to the 16th century – the custom of chanoyu, or tea ceremony, emerged, in which a guest would be invited to enjoy whisked powdered tea, or matcha, and objects imported from China, or karamono, would be used as utensils and to decorate the zashiki drawing room. The famous tea master, Sen-no-rikyu, perfected the way of tea over 400 years ago in the Azuchi Momoyama period. The traditional culture of tea became an integral part of Japanese life and it has continued to bring spiritual richness and pleasure ever since.

The matcha used in tea ceremony is a type of green tea and is made by powdering the leaves of the tea plant. The carefully grown matcha is diligently whisked to a froth by the host in the tea ceremony room and while slightly bitter, it becomes a drink with a depth of flavour, in which umami and sweetness sit well together. Before drinking tea, guests at tea ceremonies are first served traditional sweets to enhance the flavour of the matcha.

After that, they enjoy the same drink, sometimes passing the tea bowl to share. The practice of everyone drinking a little matcha from a single bowl brings the guests in the room together in communion. Taking small sips and so tasting a little at a time means the aftertaste lingers long in the mouth, and tasting the rounded flavour of the tea as it gradually infuses the mouth is a delicate pleasure to be thoroughly enjoyed.

There are different schools of tea ceremony and the way in which each school makes tea is different. However, what we can say is that what is common to all schools of tea is that any host who entertains with matcha has a firm desire to do so competently and to have their guests enjoy the taste of the tea they imbibe. The true pleasure of the tea ceremony is that as a host hosts their guest and the guest drinks the tea with thanks, the communion between them deepens. In addition, when delicious green tea is tasted as part of a tea ceremony in a tea room, it is not just the sense of taste, but all of the five senses that are fully engaged. Completion is reached in awareness of the total experience, which incorporates being in concert with the seasons and time of year, the beauty of the host’s deportment and the modesty of their words, guests being considerate of each other and the taste and preference of the host apparent in their choice of utensils.
If you have the chance to take part in a tea ceremony, please embrace the experience of the coming together that this fleeting moment in time provides. Watching the flowing beauty of the carriage of the tea ceremony will, strangely, cause you to forget the passage of time. The feel of the tatami reed mats beneath the soles of your feet, the aroma of the tea, the heat conducted to your palms, the flavours and the encounters with others; the true pleasure of the tea ceremony is in fully tasting each of the moments described in the principle of ichi go ichi e (one occasion, one encounter). Please do have a drink of tea; it will transport you to a place of ease that is anything but humdrum.