Omotenashi and the five senses- SIGHT

Omotenashi and the five senses

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.


Japanese gardens and omotenashi

Among several traditional cultural forms, the sensitivity and feelings of the Japanese are skilfully expressed visually, and wonderfully presented to guests, in the world of the Japanese garden.

There is no single form of Japanese arden, but a variety of styles and types according to era. Large-scale gardens emerged in the Heian period, using lakes, trees and stones to achieve the palacestyle characteristic of the architecture of the era, while towards the end of the Heian period, the jodo style of garden emerged to express gokuraku jodo, or the Buddhist paradise, and is best represented by Byodoin Temple in Kyoto. In the samurai era karesansui dry landscape gardens were made in the style typified by the stone garden of Ryoanji Temple.


Each are Japanese gardens in different styles, but there is a common principle in their creation. The positioning of rocks, trees and water is not simply for beauty, but expresses the Japanese spiritual world. Ryoanji Temple typifies the karesansui style. The garden is an extremely simple space, with a scattering of 15 stones across a surface of plain white gravel in a narrow area only 25 metres wide and ten metres deep, but it unmistakably preserves its historical context, when Zen Buddhism was at its zenith. Where there is no water or lake, nor even trees, the spiritual world of the Japanese and their sense of the cosmos is skilfully expressed by the clever use of stones as the gardener’s material.

Expressed through the magical positioning of rocks, there are mountains and water flowing where in reality there can be none.

The subtle, profound and tranquil erspective on the world expressed in the Zen garden never fails to captivate the hearts of people from across and beyond Japan, even today. The technique used is called mitate, or likening something to something else by drawing a metaphorical comparison. It draws on the imagination of the recipient by expressing something that is not actually there, and in creating such a garden, what is therefore top of mind in planning every element is that viewer is moved by what they see.

The garden uses a total of 15 stones, but a unique feature of its design is that no matter the angle from which it is viewed, there is always one stone that is hidden and cannot be seen. In the Orient, the number 15 is a number that expresses perfection.

In other words, the design of the garden is expressing a state of imperfection and therefore holds within it a hidden message.

The viewer is being invited to take the opportunity to look deep within themselves and seek out that within that is lacking.

By seeming to draw an extension line to the imagination of the viewer, the creation of a Japanese garden is therefore indivisible from the principle of omotenashi, which is founded in a unique aesthetic and the
perspective of the spectator’s feelings. The visiting guest is quietly hosted therein.