Expat Life · Japan

Two Weeks with a Host Family in Japan

For those who don’t already know: I’ve moved to Japan! I have been here for about two months now, and I’ve started my new job and found an apartment, which I moved into about six weeks ago. (More on that in a later post.)

While I was looking for a place to live, I’d been staying with a host family. Actually, with Akira’s family: his aunt, uncle, and grandmother. It was a fantastic and novel experience for me, and I wanted to share it with you.

First of all: what’s the house like? For the most part, it is a fairly traditional Japanese house, along with a few updated elements.

When you first come in the front door (which is a slider, by the way, not hinged) there is an entry area called the genkan where you take off your shoes. There’s about a knee-high step up to the floors beyond this area, which are wooden, except for in the tatami rooms. There is no carpet, but there are some rugs. Slippers are worn all the time on the hardwood, but must not be worn on the tatami. This resulted in quite the lineup of slippers outside the tatami living room when all of us were in there together. I was given my very own pair of guest slippers (with Snoopy on them) when I arrived. Then, there is a separate pair of slippers that is worn only in the toilet room that never ventures outside it. Fortunately, I had experienced the slipper rules when I stayed over the weekend last fall, so I was quite accustomed to the on and off routine.

There are a few chairs at the kitchen table, but everywhere else, you sit on cushions on the floor, which, if you aren’t used to it, is quite a pain in the legs. And back. And rear. My first few days there especially, my legs went numb quickly and I had to stretch them out straight (which you normally wouldn’t do, etiquette-wise, though Akira’s family kept coaxing me to relax fully.) Rather than eating at the kitchen table, the family eats at the kotatsu (a low table with a heater to keep your legs and feet warm) in the living room. Akira’s grandma sleeps on a bed, but everyone else sleeps in Japanese-style futons–not the fold-out couch type, the mat on the floor type. My bed while staying there was also a futon. The windows there all have shoji screens. The doors are all sliding doors except for the toilet room—that’s the only hinged one.

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Akira’s grandma has what I like to call a super toilet. (One of the fancy upgrades.) When you open the door and step inside, the lid opens automatically. There is a panel on the wall where you can choose a big or small flush, bidet, or rear-end spray, and the temperature of the water that sprays. You can also control whether the lid and seat are up or down via this panel. There’s also a little sink in there. The shower and bath are in a completely separate room from the toilet. The bathing room has been remodeled and is pretty darn swanky. There is another panel on the wall in there that controls how full the bathtub gets and how warm the water is. It actually keeps the water at a certain temperature, so it never cools off. It also has a call button that connects to another speaker in the home, that way whoever’s in the bath can ask for help, or whoever’s outside the bath can check up on the bathing person without actually having to go in.

The living room contains several pictures of Akira’s family on mini vacations or day trips, the aforementioned kotatsu, a mini fridge for things like salad dressing and spare drinks, and a large flat-screen TV. There is also a mini Shinto shrine and a little Buddhist shrine dedicated to Akira’s grandfather, who has passed. Yes, two separate religions in one room. Buddhism and Shinto are tightly intertwined here in Japan, and most Japanese seem to freely accept and celebrate both, although I don’t know how many would actually claim to “believe” in either of these religions. At the room’s Buddhist shrine, you light candles and then incense from the candle flames, ring a small gong, and pray to/talk to Akira’s grandpa. While generally a solemn affair, sometimes family members will accidentally ring the gong too loudly and joke, “He’s awake now!” There are also little food offerings at this shrine which are changed out periodically.

Akira’s family also has a lovely garden. Some of the flowers, like the daffodils, were blooming during my stay. Others didn’t come along until it got a bit warmer. They’ve got an orange tree out there, too, and Akira’s uncle cuts oranges from it in half and sticks them on posts for birds to eat. The birds that come most often are a sort of brownish-gray color, and their call sounds to me something like a woman screaming on a rollercoaster. I woke up just about every morning to the sounds of these “rollercoaster birds” coming and going from the garden.

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As for the kitchen, the most notable difference from what I’m used to is the lack of oven. You read that right: there is no oven, and that is standard in a Japanese kitchen. There is a toaster oven, however, and a microwave, and a cooktop. Akira’s aunt prepared all of the meals, and each one was completely well-rounded nutrition-wise. Breakfast usually consisted of rice, salad, fruit, an egg, some small amount of meat, yogurt, and an array of drinks—usually orange juice, milk, green tea (or sometimes black tea for me) and water. Dinner consisted of various Japanese foods and changed nightly. Though I tried many times, I was never actually able to clean my own dishes. I once was able to carry them all the way to the kitchen before I got intercepted, but my hosts always insisted on cleaning my dishes for me.

So what did my daily routine look like while living with Akira’s family? First, I’d get up in the morning, wash my face, gargle, and eat breakfast. Akira always does this, though until living with his family, I never felt it necessary to follow suit. They asked without fail every morning if I had done it, though, so I added it to my morning routine. (It has quickly dropped off since moving into my place, admittedly.) Breakfast was also served right off the bat, which is lovely, except I am one of those people that needs to be awake for half an hour to an hour before I can even look at food favorably, so I learned quickly to stay in my room and read/check Facebook/send emails for a little bit before venturing out to join everyone else.

After breakfast, I’d watch TV and chat with Akira’s grandma until it was time to get ready for work. Though I could have walked or taken the bus, his family went far above and beyond the call of hosting duty and worked out a “Driving Toni to Work” schedule amongst themselves, so I always had a ride back and forth to my job. If I didn’t have work that day, I’d eventually put on some regular clothes and head out for a walk, for which I was always accompanied. The family fretted quite a bit when I expressed a desire to go out walking on my own, so they accompanied me each time.

After coming back from work, or towards the end of the day, I’d start the heater in the room where I was sleeping, so it’d be nice and toasty by the time I got out of the bath. See, Japanese houses don’t have central heating. Instead, certain rooms have air conditioner/heater units on the wall. Akira’s grandma had these aircon, as you’d say in Japanese, in several rooms, including the living room, a bedroom, and even the kitchen, but not all houses have that many. In fact, it’s not unusual for only one or two rooms of the house to actually be heated, hence the desire for a kotatsu during the cold months. Typically, insulation isn’t as thick in Japanese homes as it is in the states, so the unheated areas of the house (hallways and bathrooms come to mind) get quite cold or quite hot, depending on the season.

I took the first bath. In strictly traditional households, the first bath goes to the guest, then the head of the family (usually the oldest, or the husband in the case of an equal-aged married couple) and downward chronologically down to the youngest. Akira’s family just does whatever’s convenient that night, meaning sometimes his grandma takes the last bath. Bathing, by the way, is a bit different than we do it in the states. First, you have a little stool you sit on and thoroughly clean yourself with the showerhead and plenty of soap. Then, once you’re nice and squeaky, you get into the bathwater and soak. The bath is supposed to remain clean—only once everyone has had their turn to soak does the water get drained. You don’t fill the tub over and over for each person.

I never take baths normally, so at first I would just shower and be done. But after a few days I decided I quite liked being able to relax in the hot water for a little while, so I did that daily for the remainder of my time staying with them.

After bath was dinner, and then I’d sit around and chat with Akira’s aunt and uncle for a while before brushing my teeth and heading for bed, where I’d check social media again and then go to sleep.

I was so fortunate to be able spend the time I did with Akira’s family. They were so supportive and helpful, far beyond the minimum, even far beyond courteous. Truthfully, I’d only planned to stay with them for the length of a weekend, and then get a hotel room until I found an apartment, but they were just so wonderful that I ended up staying with them a whole two weeks instead. I was so comfortable there, or at least as comfortable as I could be in another person’s house where I barely speak the language and am not totally initiated into the customs. I really feel that I gained a second family here, and I am so grateful for their kindness. I could not have been a luckier girl.

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2 thoughts on “Two Weeks with a Host Family in Japan

  1. Oh my gosh!! What a great read! Not only educational, but reassuring to know you are being looked after and supported so well!! What an experience, Toni! Very happy for you!!

    Liked by 1 person

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