Japanese people have many customs that may seem strange or unusual to Western visitors, many of which are easy to admire and enjoy. One of my favorites is the custom of welcome tea, still practiced by most ryokan (traditional inns) and temple lodgings, as well as traditional shops and businesses.*
Upon arriving at a traditional inn or temple, visitors will usually find a teapot, tea, and a small traditional sweet (often a sweet bun stuffed with an, a paste made from adzuki beans) waiting on the guest room table.
The origins of this custom date back centuries.
During much of Japanese history (and Western history too), traveling involved a great deal of effort and exertion. Guests would often arrive at the inn at mid-afternoon, after spending many hours on the road. As a sign of welcome and hospitality, the innkeeper would prepare hot tea and a small sweet snack to refresh the guest.
Welcome tea is generally served in the guest room so the guest can relax and enjoy the treat at leisure.
When checking into a ryokan or shukubo (temple lodging) it’s polite to take a few minutes to brew and enjoy the tea and accompanying sweets in your room. Most rooms in traditional inns and temples have a view of a garden or other outdoor scenery, making them lovely places to relax with a cup of tea.
(And yes, that is a TV remote on the table. Most ryokan and temples have TV sets in the guest rooms, for those who prefer technology over meditative silence. I have yet to turn one on, despite many ryokan and temple stays, so I can’t speak to what, if any, shows they actually receive.)
While Western travelers might not expect to find tea and cookies waiting in a hotel room at check in, the Japanese custom of welcome tea is easy to get used to . . . and welcome indeed after a morning on the road.
* A significant number of modern offices and businesses engage in this custom, too, and I’ll write a post in the weeks to come about the etiquette involved when encountering welcome tea in a business setting.