What does “Omotenashi” mean to a boutique hotel in Kyoto, Japan?

My impression of Kyoto!

Today I have been invited to meet Keren Miers, the General Manager of the Noku Hotel, Kyoto. He is a seasoned international hotel manager who has long experience in Asia and Japan in particular. Keren is not only the G.M. of one of Kyoto’s top hotels, but also leads an active sporting life as successful Triathlon competitor.

G.M. Keren Miers. Also a Triathlon athlete.

The Noku is a stylish, polished, 81 room “boutique” hotel that caters to visitors to Japan, in a super location right next to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and very close to convenient subway transport stations.

The front of the Noku Hotel, Kyoto. Great location near the Imperial Palace Park and subway station.
Right next to the Imperial Palace and Park
Inside the Imperial Palace

Boutique hotels generally have the freedom to be designed in ways to represent their vision of the local culture and to manage themselves in the same way. But they also face the same challenges as other large hotels catering to inbound overseas visitors with their particular needs and varied cultural perspectives.

So what does Omotenashi mean in practice?

I’m obviously interested to learn from Keren what the famous Japanese “Omotenashi” customer service philosophy means in theory and in practice to a top manager in this kind of venue.

Q. Hello Keren. Thank you for the invitation. Please tell me about your professional experience here in Asia.

“Hello Paul. Welcome to Kyoto. And welcome to the Noku Hotel

I started my hospitality career in 1978 in Australia and moved to Saipan in 1997 which had a lot of Japanese visitors at the time.  In 2002 I undertook my first project in Japan, based in Tokyo, where I managed a portfolio of top quality serviced-apartments in 5 locations across the city. I finally came to Kyoto in 2017 when I was appointed General Manager of this interesting and exciting Noku Hotel.

In that time I have seen the inbound tourism industry to Japan grow from strength to strength from around 5 million annual visitors to over 30 million – and the excitement is building as we head into the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.”

Q. What about Omotenashi? Is it an important part of what you offer?

“Since the awarding of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “Omotenashi” has become a buzzword for the excellent customer service and hospitality visitors to Japan can expect.

Christel Takigawa introducing O-MO-TE-NA-SHI to the Olympics!

Before that, it was not actually a word that the Japanese government had tried to particularly promote. But now the word appears much more frequently in marketing literature across the hospitality and customer service world.

Q. But for people who have come across this word, Omotenashi has obviously come to mean great service in the Japanese style.

“Yes. But in my opinion, “Omotenashi” quality Customer Service can sometimes seem a little robotic to non-Japanese. That’s because the behaviours are based on exceptionally polite Japanese language conventions which has nuances that visitors to Japan obviously cannot understand.

But once you get past that, there is much more to it than just exceptional politeness and courtesy”.

Q. So how do you and your team deliver this Omotenashi spirit in practice to both your Japanese guests and your overseas visitors?

“Well, in the Noku Hotel we actually aim to take our own Omotenashi service spirit to a higher level. We do this by trying our best to make it personal and responsive as well as highly courteous and polite.

We deliberately give our staff permission to use their own initiative to offer higher levels of personal, intelligent, attentive service. We teach our teams to put themselves in the shoes of the guest at all times. Learning to think and feel as a guest would.

A good example would be recently, when one of our team was asked for a special kind of foam pillow by one of our guests and took it upon himself to go out and buy one immediately. In our service culture he didn’t need to ask permission to do that and his initiative was used as a learning example to other team members.”

Q. Do you need to train new staff on how to be polite and courteous?

“We never have to do that. These habits are established in Japanese society since childhood. Respect for elders, teachers, parents and guests.

What is also interesting is that we sometimes find new staff who have come from entirely different professional backgrounds and we never have to school them on any aspect of the courtesy and politeness expected in the hospitality industry.

Apart from some process training we only need to give them the confidence to deliver value-added hospitality by letting them know the things they can do for guests without asking for permission.

That way they are able to be more spontaneous and provide memorable experiences for our guests that go beyond any possible language barriers on either side.”

Q. I notice the aesthetic in the rooms is a mix of minimalist Japanese design and western convenience. And the rooms are very large compared with most hotels in Japan I have been used to staying in. Was that deliberate?

“Yes, Paul. That comes from the freedom we had as a boutique property at the initial project design phase. Each of the rooms has it’s own unique feeling and colour combinations with specially curated artwork.

Even though we are a Singaporean brand, we connect with and respect Kyoto culture.

We have tried to capture the essence of Japanese design while at the same time meeting the needs of our international visitors who expect much larger rooms than you generally find in Japan.”

Generously sized rooms

The challenge of Social Media

Q. What is your experience with Social Media these days?

“That’s a great question! Social Media is so important to guests now, as a way to find the best places to stay and as a way to provide feedback themselves.

I’m proud to say that we get overwhelmingly positive reviews on TripAdvisor and the Online Travel Agent booking sites. We are ranked in the top 25 of quality rankings for Kyoto’s hospitality providers on TripAdvisor. It’s one of my tasks to respond to guests who leave feedback, both positive and on rare occasion, negative. So I can make sure things are better for the next guests. I give them the courtesy of thanks, acknowledgement and apologies if anything has ever gone wrong.

Our team are regularly mentioned for the great customer service that they provide our guests.

Perhaps that courtesy on social media is also part of our Omotenashi!”

Thank you for your invitation and your hospitality today Keren.

The Noku Hotel “Omotenashi Team”

Conclusion

I found my visit with Keren Miers in the Noku Hotel very interesting. It seems to show that the western management approach of giving personal autonomy to team members can be successfully married to the Japanese tradition of heartfelt, polite “omotenashi” customer service, to deliver a higher level of enjoyable, memorable Customer eXperience.