Finding More to Japan’s Host Culture
As kids, Mum would tell us, “Don’t talk to strangers.” But living in Tokyo for a month, I thought I’d be spontaneous, so I searched online and found a bunch of strangers to go and stay with.
I know it sounds kind of shady, but those strangers were actually a host family.
To get placed with a host family, you first submit your profile to an online platform (I used Nagomi Visit) to allow prospective locals to read about you. They can then request to meet you if they like what they see.
Sense a bit of familiarity there? That’s what I thought.
Arriving at the train station, I was engulfed by a swarm of people trying to get home after another routine day at work. In a corner stood a bespectacled lady clad in a grey sweater and jeans. She wore a benevolent smile as she looked around the office crowd.
Could that be her?
I wondered how someone was supposed to find a stranger in a sea of strangers. Then she held up a sign that read, ‘Welcome home, Faith!’ That would be Yasuko, my host mother.
We made our way towards a dull crimson hatchback parked by the station’s exit. The car, although semi-dilapidated on the outside, was well kept and worked well to its primary functions. We rattled off in the automobile to their house — or so I hoped.
Yasuko’s partner, Makoto, drove. Throughout the journey, I did not dare to move and kept looking at the road ahead to see where we were going, just in case I had to make a run for it later on. Stealing a few glances at Makoto, I noticed deep-set worry lines etched across his forehead. It seemed as if he disliked me already. He frowned and concentrated on the road ahead, not saying a single word throughout the drive.
Not going to lie, the thought that they were later going to sell me to a sugar daddy crossed my mind, and as we turned into a smaller road that was darker than the previous, I wondered if perhaps my biggest fear was coming true.
Then we stopped outside a sturdy two-story residence in Asakadai. With its exterior decorated tastefully, the house was well appointed and had family photos filling up the walls. I was ushered to the dinner table, which was filled with a spread of local delicacies. We sat together, almost able to pass off as a family of three, and ate the food that Makoto cooked — chankonabe (a stew eaten by sumo wrestlers) and temaki (sushi hand rolls). He loves cooking, so I discovered.
Throughout dinner, we talked about our lives, and it almost seemed that I had known the couple for a long time. We conversed in Yasuko’s limited English and some of the basic Japanese I’d picked up to get by.
Talk slower, not louder. Speak clearly, not rudely.
Yasuko and Makoto taught me many things that night, and very quickly, they became my fake family. When we were unsure of what to say, we just smiled awkwardly and enjoyed the meal, soaking up the rare company that we had with one another.
In my limited experience, I’d come to realise that Japanese society can be filled with isolation, particularly in Tokyo. Individuals hide their feelings of alienation and loneliness behind a façade of busy work life. Much of the population is single, with elderly parents and no families of their own. Many ramen and sushi shops cater only to individual diners.
That night, from the elderly couple across from me, I found out that hosting visitors at their house has been a way for them to break out of this cycle, to meet people and share their culture and joy of cooking with others. Post-retirement, Yasuko volunteers as a guide at Ueno park, while Makoto takes care of the nitty-gritties in an elementary school and grows fruits and vegetables in a small plot of farmland.
As it turned out, Makoto was not as well-versed in English as his wife, which was the reason he hardly spoke. Not because he didn’t like me. A man of few words, Makoto loves to drink, pairing a can of beer or glass of sake with his meal.
It’s no secret that Japan is home to an ageing population, with 28.1 per cent of its residents above 65 years old. There are many couples like Yasuko and Makoto, but I doubt they’re all as lucky to already be retired. Yasuko and Makoto live a comfortable life, keep themselves healthy and cook for random guests who visit their home.
Dare I say that what people want from a trip has evolved in the past decade. Travelling used to be about visiting scenic or touristy destinations, and taking the best pictures. Now, it’s more about living like a local, getting an authentic experience and meeting new people from across the world. Through my trip to Tokyo, my visit to Yasuko and Makoto has been the most memorable thus far.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I mumbled sheepishly, knowing I had probably stressed the wrong syllable — again. With a reluctant heart, it was time to bid goodbye as I left Yasuko and Makoto’s humble home in Asakadai and headed back into the reality of bustling yet alienating Tokyo.
Hopefully, I’ll survive telling my mum about my next escapade, too.
Cover by Joey Huang; inset via the author