Translated by Greg
Nakai - Japanese Encyclopedia
Written by ニコ
At many ryokan and restaurants, wait staff wearing kimonos embody the spirit of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality. Today we'll introduce you to nakai and explain their job responsibilities and where you can encounter them during your visit here.
What Is a Nakai?
Have you ever seen kimono-clad staff serving a meal, seeing customers off and performing countless other duties at a ryokan (traditional inn) or a Japanese-style restaurant? The word nakai refers to staff at ryokan and traditional Japanese restaurants who take a leading role in welcoming, serving and attending to the needs of their guests.
While the majority of people engaged in this occupation are women, there are also men who serve as nakai. While on duty this is a job that requires a warm smile and consideration and thoughtfulness towards guests, and behind the scenes it requires physical stamina and the ability to deal with time constraints and pressure.
The Job of a Nakai
The job of a nakai is an important one and embodies the spirit of omotenashi (hospitality), a quality of the Japanese culture which has been drawing attention from all around the qorld. A nakai's level of service and attention directly influences a customer's degree of satisfaction, so at a top class ryokan or restaurant, the skills of an expert nakai are highly sought after. Now let's look at a nakai's typical work day at a ryokan.
Breakfast service signals the start of a nakai's work day. Nowadays most nakai live off the premises and commute to work everyday, though there are some who do live in-house. After the breakfast service is complete and everything has been tidied up, the nakai then graciously see off guests who have checked out from the ryokan.
Next, the rooms are cleaned, and then after taking a short break, it's time to greet the evening's incoming guests. In preparation for this, they must get the rooms ready and prepare a welcome service consisting of green tea and sweets. When the new guests arrive, the nakai greet them with smiles at the ryokan's entrance, then escort them to their rooms where they'll be served green tea and snacks and receive information on the ryokan, local sightseeing spots and other places. After dinner preparations are complete, it's time to set the dining table and get room service ready.
At ryokans, many guests prefer to have dinner in the privacy of their own room. The food preparation is carefully timed to coincide with each customer's eating pace, sometimes requiring dinner service to be sped up or slowed down accordingly. After the dinner service is complete and everything is cleaned up, it's then time to prepare the guest rooms for the evening. Waiting for just the right moment, usually while the guests are either in the onsen (hot spring) or out for a walk, the nakai will deftly slip into the guest rooms and promptly lay down the futons (Japanese-style beds) and get everything ready to ensure guests have a relaxing evening, spelling the end to a long day for the nakai.
In many instances several rooms must be looked after all at once and large groups accommodated. In addition, they must work hand-in-hand with the other ryokan staff to ensure that service runs smoothly and on time, so an abundance of energy and physical stamina is critical.
Nakai serve as support staff for the okami (woman in charge of the ryokan), and it's because of their polite, courteous and efficient service that guests can enjoy their meals and the onsen as they relax and unwind here.
If You Would Like to Meet a Nakai!
If you'd like to experience superb omotenashi firsthand, then we heartily recommend staying at a Japanese-style ryokan rather than a typical hotel. If you make a special trip to a famous hot spring area, there's bound to be some attractive ryokans nearby. When coming from the Tokyo area, places like Kanagawa prefecture's Hakone Onsen area or Tochigi prefecture's Kinugawa Onsen area are convenient options, located just 90 minutes - 2 hours away by train. So why not spend some relaxing leisure time at an onsen with its beautiful surrounding scenery and the gracious services of a nakai?
If you'd like to meet a nakai but don't have an opportunity to stay at a ryokan, then having a meal at a slightly more sophisticated Japanese-style restaurant is a good alternative. But no need to worry. It's not necessary to go to an expensively out of reach kind of high-class establishment either. If you go to the top floor of a department store and casually enter a Japanese restaurant, there will often be nakai dressed in kimono who will politely attend to your dining needs.
Being able to experience excellent service that always places the guest first, is the inherent spirit of omotenashi, and something that's available wherever you visit in Japan. So be on the lookout for nakai throughout your stay here, and fully enjoy their high level of personal service!