It has been seven years since I was last in Japan. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss it or think about it. So I’ve decided to write a post to reminisce over my fond memories. In this post I am going to share my personal experience of living with a Japanese host family. I highly recommend getting involved in an exchange programme or finding a host family during your stay, if you want to emerge yourself fully into Japanese culture.
As a 16-year-old, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a High School cultural exchange to Japan. I spent just over five months in Tokyo – which for anyone, especially a 16 year old girl was and still is amazing. Although I was in my fourth year of Japanese study I had learned more in these five months than any text book could have taught me. I was fully immerged in the culture and gained so many authentic experiences.
This trip was my first time travelling abroad for more than two weeks without some form of an adult holding my hand. I was not sure what to expect with life in a completely different culture. My idea of a typical Japanese house hold was a stereotype learned through mainly films of a detached family, where the male would hardly be home because of working long hours and the wife was to stay home, look after the children, clean and cook. Boy was I wrong.
I am very fortunate that from the moment I had arrived, I was accepted and welcomed into the Yora family. They consisted of a hard-working father (Otousan) who always made time for his family; a kind and loving mother (Okaasan) who is the world’s best cook as well as a local kindergarten teacher; two adult brothers who were busy sculpting their own lives; and a daughter (Saki) of my age who soon became my best friend and partner in crime.
Compared to my own room back home, my new room was small. Yet, it had everything I ever needed. I remember falling in love with the fluffy hello kitty rug and the matching sheets and pillows for my futon. It was such a cute room. It had a sliding door for a wall which connected to Okaasan and Otousans room. I also had a thing for their room. It was traditional, with the Tatami mats and another sliding door for a window. It had a low table which I had once used when entertaining both Saki and my friends.
I enjoyed spending time with Okaasan. She taught me a vast majority of my Japanese and a lot about Japan. Most nights we would venture down to the shops for the night’s dinner. Bless her for allowing me and not getting fed up with the constant “Kore wa nani? sore wa nani? – What’s this? What’s that?” When we arrived home, I would often ask to help prepare and cook dinner, which was almost always turned down in exchange for study. By the time I finished studying Okaasan would have already have whipped up an amazing three course meal – and to this day her home cooking is the best I have ever had (sorry mum). What’s more, every morning I would rise around 6am and she would have an amazing spread for breakfast laid out on the table, and our bentou-box lunches already packaged up. She seemed to always be cooking or cleaning, that I was stunned to learn she also had time work – I have no idea how she managed it.
Most dinners were spent in conversation about anything and everything Japanese, from the food on the table to the idols on T.V. My family took pride in introducing me to their culture, also were very eager to learn about life in New Zealand. I thoroughly enjoyed our cultural exchanges. One night, I had managed to get Okaasan to completely trust me in the kitchen and be in charge of dinner. I cooked a common pasta and potato bake from home – which they to my surprised enjoyed as the dish is very bland and boring to the dishes they were used to.
My family taught me about Japanese etiquette. As soon as we entered the house, we removed our shoes and left them at the door and replaced them with slippers. Although the custom is to encourage cleanliness, it is such a great feeling taking your shoes off after a long day at school (or work) and healing your feet with these comfortable contraptions. We even had separate slippers to wear inside the restroom. In fact, at school we had specific uniform shoes to wear to school, and we would again change then to indoor shoes once entering the building. What’s more is we yet again had two pair of shoes for p.e – one was for classes outdoors and the other was (yes, you guessed it) for inside the gymnasium.
One of the customs that I appreciate and would love to adopt in western culture is what you would say before and after a meal. “Itadakimasu” is used when you receive meal to show thanks/grace to whoever prepared it. “Goshisousama deshita” is used once finished your meal to once more show appreciation. And since we are on the topic of food, it is even a polite custom to slurp your noodles or soup. I was quite relieved with this news as it is very difficult to eat ramen or udon with chopsticks.
Every day was an adventure with my family. Whether it was simply playing cards, cooking, or talking we always had a blast. One of my most memorable outings was during a long weekend my family took me to a traditional Japanese inn high in the mountains. It was here that I had my first Onsen experience, which to be honest I’m guttered I had left it so late. For those who don’t know what an Onsen is, it is practically a large communal bath, or a heated pool where you swim naked. I was quite nervous about it, as most westerners probably are. But to my surprise it was quite a pleasant and relaxing experience. Often on the train, and even on the streets I stood out. I got stared at and gawked at countless number of times. People would often approach to practise their English, or sometimes to get a better look. So, you can probably see why I was dreading the whole Onsen experience. However, to my amazement no one looked at me or talked. Afterwards we dressed in a yukata and had an amazing banquet in our room with a low table and tatami mats. This was the first time I felt truly Japanese.
All in all, this was an amazing experience which I would not trade for anything. Seven years on and I still keep in contact with my Japanese family. I am hoping to visit again in 2020 and possibly cook them something a little bit better than a pasta bake.