Special Feature: Hints for Home-stay harmony

Three months into my Japanese sojourn, a family connection led to my boarding a bus to Sakaide in Shikoku to stay with a Japanese family I had met just once before. I’ve hosted and been hosted a fair bit, but as with everything, Japan’s a little different.  Right from my arrival when we went straight for an 11am udon lunch, where an Oba-chan proceeded to video me slurping noodles, to the 89 photos uploaded on Facebook within ten minutes of my boarding the bus home, I knew this was no ordinary home-stay. Read on for five hard-learned hints to negotiate the niceties of your own home-stays.

1) Take good shoes.
You will walk, and you will walk a lot. [Perhaps not the 1368 step hike we did to a local shrine, but close enough.]
Hosts want to show off their area and local pride is infectious; by the end of a two-day whistle stop tour you will find yourself enthusing about the place as if you have always lived there. Prepare for an intensive crash course in local history and agriculture – I recommend a quick Wikipedia on the way there so you can make suitably flattering and well informed comments. Finally, if you were told anything about the area on previous meetings, remember it: you will be tested. [I now know the four prefectures of Shikoku and their ancient names back to front after constant drilling – excellent pub quiz knowledge.]

2) Offer once…
…[or maybe twice] to pay.
It’s just like the dance at the end of an awkward date: they take out their wallet, you follow suit, they wave you away, you insist, they insist harder and graciously you accept. Put any independent/generous thoughts out of your mind now. You are the guest. [But be prepared to return the favour when they send a long lost relative to visit you in 10 years – this happened to us and she stayed 6 months!]

3) Go for it!
Whatever the suggestion, say yes. These are your guides, they know best. Try that unidentifiable fried food, learn to pray Shinto-style, climb all those steps, and yes, if they suggest you get naked together: do it! A traditional Japanese home is pretty cosy, with lots of people sharing a small bathroom – fine for day to day use, but all good hosts want to show their guests a good time… The seemingly innocent question, “Charlotte, have you been to an onsen yet?” quickly led to the suggestion that after our seven-course supper we should go to the local onsen en famille for a truly local experience; cue prudish British panic. Nudity doesn’t bother me, in fact I’m pretty blasé about it, and have happily been to public hamam baths in Morocco; but washing with people I have only just met and will have to sit opposite at breakfast is slightly different. Nevertheless, I gulped before nodding enthusiastically. And? Well, it was okay. I did come out looking like I’d had an allergic reaction (the curse of pale skin here is another story) but I could look my fellow bathers in the eye the next day and not even recall what they looked like starkers [possibly because there was just so much naked flesh it all rather blurred into one].

4) Can you drink?
A question asked rather a lot of foreigners in Japan. The awe inspired by a simple “yes” and demonstration of said ‘talent’ is enough to make any of our heads inflate just a little [Yes I can drink a pint and remain lucid: I am the man.]
However this curious question takes on a new purpose in the home-stay environment. Here, “can you drink?” actually means “drink now!” Learn from my mistake, and when asked “Can you drink sake/beer/wine/spirits?” Answer with care. The simple truth will result in a tray filled with each type of potent fluid for your delectation, whether you wanted it at midday or not.

5)Omiyage, omiyage, omiyage
The bane of many an ALT’s pre-JET packing is now wonderfully easy: every area has its own omiyage, and they are prettily wrapped for you. Take your local delicacy with you, and take extras just in case you are taken for tea at Grandma’s (excessive if she lives in the same building) or the family surprises you with a visit from that distant connection you share. After 10 years of no contact from my own six-month Japanese guest, she suddenly came back into my life bearing many gifts – the emergency omiyage saved the day.

Following these five short suggestions will guarantee you a second invite (or a drink from me if not). However if you do forget your walking boots or omiyage don’t panic, the Japanese are so incredibly hospitable that you will undoubtedly be presented with anarray of slightly-too-small shoes. Please take up any invitations to visit long lost relatives or distant family connections; it is absolutely the best way to see Japan from a truly local perspective.
And if ever in doubt: smile and bow, but do not, under any circumstances, expect a restful weekend.

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