I have stayed with a host family in Japan twice. My first homestay in Japan was for 6 weeks in Tokyo, the first time I ever came here. The second time was for 3 months in Kyoto. While the first time was an overall pleasant experience my second time was one of the best 3 months I have ever had.
So, what was different between the first and second time? There were actually a lot of factors that influenced my experiences. In this post, I will share those factors with you to ensure you will have an authentic and unique homestay in Japan or anywhere else in the world.
The first thing, that is kind of obvious but I will mention it anyways is to stay with a local. If you are planning on doing a homestay in Japan stay with a Japanese person. Best of all stay with a Japanese who has been living in the city you want to visit for a long time. These people can not only teach you about the culture but they usually are very knowledgeable about their city. So, they will have tips where to eat, what to see and maybe even have connections to get you into unique experiences you otherwise would never have.
How can you find a local host? There are different options. For both my stays in Japan I found my host families via the language school I attended. This is a common option at many language schools and even universities. The downside is that you will be matched and have no say in who you stay with.
If you want to have full control and want to decide who you live with there are a couple of websites, you might want to have a look at.
I love Couchsurfing. It is a hospitality network with an official motto of furthering international understanding and making the world a better place. Who wouldn’t want to get behind that? You can look for hosts who will offer you a place to sleep for free. Usually, hosts will accept guests (called surfers) for only a short time. Nothing for a monthlong homestay, but a sure way to get your feet wet. If you want to learn more about Couchsurfing and how it works or about my experiences as a host or guest, click on the respective links.
Airbnb can be a great place to find a homestay. You will pay a little bit to your host and you can choose a home that you might feel comfortable with. Make sure to set your filter to “shared room” or “own room” to find lodgings in someone’s home. Have a good long look at the reviews to find out if you and the listing owner (your future host) have matching expectations. For some more information on Airbnb click here. If you want to get a detailed description on how to find local hosts using Airbnb follow this link.
The website homestay.com is the website to look at if you want to find a “real” homestay. I haven’t used it yet myself but had a look around and there are many lovely homes to stay at. Most people on Homestay really seem to be looking for people who will stay for a longer amount of time and to build a relationship with. A great way to get to know your destination from the eyes of the locals.
You can have a great time and learn a lot in one evening of fun with your local host. But to build a relationship, learn about hopes and dreams and the typical daily life of people you need to stay longer than that.
I would recommend doing homestays as long as possible if you are really interested in learning about life in another country. My first homestay of 6 weeks gave me an understanding how Japanese people live their lives. The children go to school. Dad goes to work and comes home late. Mom cooks delicious dinners and everyone’s eats together at night and shares about their day. On weekends the whole family goes to the beach, inviting along a couple of friends. You will only get to know those routines if you become part of the routine.
During my first homestay in Japan, I was a beginner level Japanese learner. My host family members didn’t speak any English and therefore communication proved very difficult. I was on a level where I could say “hello”, “thank you” and “I am going to my room”. So, we didn’t really talk very much. Even though they really made an effort, inviting me to watch a movie with them (with English subtitles) or going to the beach with me I felt a bit isolated and as if there was an invisible wall between us. It is important to move past this wall for a real connection and a great experience.
For those of you who fear they might struggle with communication I have put together a guide with useful tips and communication tools that you can use during a homestay.
One way to get to know a culture and to also make a connection with your host family is to eat or even cook together. You can learn a lot about a culture through their food, and especially through the food that is served at home and not a restaurant. Both homestays in Japan were including breakfast and dinner and in both families, I got delicious food. Breakfast was bread and salad and egg, the Japanese answer to western style breakfast. Surprisingly in both families (and many other families all over Japan) a traditional Japanese breakfast with rice, miso soup, and fish is not so common anymore. Probably because it takes much more time to prepare it, and people are busy.
Cooking food of the country tells you even more. The ingredients that are used and the prices of the ingredients can tell you a lot about a country. In Japan, at least for dinner rice was the one constant ingredient. Together with the rice, the other dishes varied, but a lot of fish and vegetables are put on the table.
Eating local food is only one way to emerge yourself in the local culture. As you will have heard before “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, that has never been truer than while doing a global homestay. For me, in Japan, it was mainly the little things: Taking off my shoes at the entrance or taking a bath in the same bath water as my host.
The only thing I can tell you is to be open to the things that you are told and follow the rules and customs of your hosts. But if something really makes you uncomfortable for any reason communicate your discomfort. Cultures are different, and while it is your responsibility as a guest to adapt as best as you can, it is also your responsibility to take care of yourself while in an unknown environment.
I had the most amazing cultural experiences while I stayed with my host Michiko in Kyoto. She and also her son took the time to take me with them to their weekly activities. Whether that was a traditional dance lesson, a Japanese poetry performance, a theater performance at a shrine or the opportunity to learn to play the Shamisen, a kind of Japanese guitar. The son of my host took me to a lot of temples and shrines, as he was very interested in Kyoto’s history and also to a proper Sushi restaurant in Osaka, which was the best Sushi I have ever had.
When I was asked if I wanted to come along I always said yes. And them more they saw that I enjoyed what they showed me, the more they made an effort to show me more of the things they loved.
By eating, and cooking together and following along on their activities you show interest in your hosts’ life. Make sure to be interested in other aspects as well. For example, their story, their passions, their family, and values. That way you create a real connection with them and learn so much about the people of a country.
If you came here for concrete contact information on how to find a homestay in Japan, you can have a look at the two language schools I attended. They both offer homestays and have schools all over Japan. I prefer ARC academy over the Kudan Institut because I feel like I learned more Japanese there, but the teachers in both schools were very nice, the classes were small and international and it was easy to make friends in both.
None of the experiences in this post are in any way sponsored and have all been payed for by myself. The opinions stated are all my own and have not been influenced in any way.
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