Steve from Australia travelled around Japan for the first time in August and stayed in 3 different homestays. He learned about their unique culture first hand by living with his hosts and also made sure to see some of the sights. Steve fell in love with Japan, and will soon be planning a trip back. Keep reading for some fascinating stories from his time in Japan.
Steve, with mates, ham it up in Kyoto.
Japan was a revelation to me. Countless travellers have observed that it is a beautiful and fascinating country but being Australian I thought that Japan was "close" (12 hours in a plane being comparatively close for we Antipodean types) and that therefore I could leave it low on my bucket list and prioritise Europe and the Americas.
Big mistake. Japan was an overlooked jewel in my very backyard.
Tokyo's Takeshita Street. A wild kaleidoscope of trendy shops, freaky fooderies and utter weirdness. I dare you NOT to buy a 2-foot mound of lurid pink-and-yellow cotton-candy from a salesgirl dressed as a squid.
Earlier this year, almost on a whim, I visited Japan for the first time and spent four weeks in some of the more popular locations on the main island of Honshu - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima - plus a few less obvious spots.
Beyond some basic geographic and historical knowledge I was so ignorant of the people and the culture that I arrived armed only with an open mind, an open heart and about fifty laboriously-learned words of Japanese.
Just incidentally, I find that this is a good frame of mind to be in when travelling. There is a type of mental depression called the "Paris Syndrome" where tourists are so hyped-up and expectant prior to their first visit that Paris inevitably disappoints. Ironically I love Paris and have never experienced full-blown Paris Syndrome but have felt something akin to it many times in other places.
French cooking class with Homestay Host Kathy (centre) and friends in Osaka
But back to Japan....
When I travel I alternate between hotels and homestays; guided tours and DIY travel. All have their benefits and drawbacks. The frankly unexpected beauty of homestay, I discovered, is that you learn so much more about a country and its people if you live with, and as, one of them - and this is not something you can replicate on a guided tour.
So alternating between hotels (including some of the famous 'capsule' hotels - worth trying!) and three Homestay families, I opened my eyes to the beauty of Japan's culture, her heritage, nature and people. Especially the people.
Roof top view of a crossroads near the more famous but less photogenic (I think) Shibuya crossing in Tokyo's Ginza district.
Seasoned travellers will have heard of the friendliness of the Irish, Spanish and Canadian peoples (I will vouch for these) but for me, as I am somewhat reserved by nature, I felt totally at home with my new Japanese friends. This is a generalisation of course, but in my experience they are polite, neat, kind, helpful and eager to please. They are extremely sensitive about good manners and deportment but they will never make you feel uncomfortable. I was always amused to ride trains and buses and note how no one talks or even makes eye contact out of good manners and respect for personal space. They even pretend to sleep. Some actually do, as the Japanese seem to have punishing routines and long work days. I swear that on one train trip, two women who had been sitting silently side-by-side for three stations each suddenly realised that the other was a close friend. Their hand-over-mouth, muted but joyous reunion celebrations only added to my happiness for them. It was such a nice moment, I wish I had taken a photo.
A Chinese Homestay buddy slinks up the Gion in Kyoto wearing a beautiful Yukata costume. Anyone can hire an outfit and be Japanese for the day. I did it twice!
Speaking of manners, here is some gratuitous advice in case you ever find your way to Japan. Like the French, the Japanese are always polite in their transactions and so learning to say "please" and "thank you" will pay big dividends. (Onegaishimasu and Arigato. Well worth learning.)
In a word, I loved everything in Japan. Even the constant 38c degree heat and 100% humidity of the Japanese summer. Five minutes after you set off for the day's exploring you are completely sodden with perspiration and it no longer bothers you. Everyone carries a fan and uses it shamelessly. And you begin to understand why almost every street (no exaggeration) has reliable vending machines stocked with the most interesting and cheap drinks. From delicious iced coffees and teas to weird fruit-flavoured sodas to cans of something alarmingly labelled "Sweat". This fortunately tastes better than it sounds.
Casual dinner with Saburo, Noriko and Shiryu - my very dear Hiroshima Homestay family
The food is fantastic. Endless varieties of simply "oishi" (delicious) rice and noodle dishes, sushi and sashimi or takoyaki (battered octopus savoury snacks) to cook-it-yourself sukiyaki (like Chinese hotpot) restaurants, there is something for the most jaded palate. Their beer is fabulous, the melon-bread unbeatable and their ice cream is other-worldy! I had no idea that dairy products were so good in Japan. I had heard that Asian cultures tended to be lactose-intolerant, but evidently not. Ice cream and milk drinks are popular and much-consumed. Yet another myth laid to rest.
Lake Yunoko near Nikko. Just stunning.
Both the countryside and cultural heritage are beautiful and even moving - each city seems to be ringed by verdant hills and winding streams. Some spots, like Nikko, are famous for outdoor activities with gorgeous mountain hiking trails, Onsen (thermal bathing pools) and religious shrines. These shrines are virtually everywhere. It is jokingly said that travel in Europe is a matter of zipping between cities to see ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral) but in Japan it is ABS. These ubiquitous Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples are elaborate and often ancient. Indeed they are the Cathedrals of Asia and some are unforgettable. The huge complex in Nara, for example, boasting the biggest statue of Buddha in the world (though not actually of Buddha, I subsequently learned), is breathtaking. It is not as big as NASA's Vertical Assembly Building or St Peter's Basilica but it is still massive and the scale of the 1000-odd year old wooden structure is not lost on gawping visitors. Or the not-to-be missed temples on the Island of Miyajima (near Hiroshima) that seem to float on sea at high tide. Wondrous!
Nearly every Japanese business sports a pottery door guard. They can be owls, foxes, waving Lucky Cats or this raccoon-style fellow. Every aspect of him is significant, from his big belly and all-seeing eyes to his floppy hat and enormous testicles (here obscured for decency).
The cities are huge, packed with buildings and people but somehow they do not have that "overcrowded" feeling. Possibly this is due to that ingrained Japanese respect for personal space and good manners - no one ever bumped into me, unlike the hammering one gets in the pedestrian rugby scrums in some European railway stations. Sure, some spots are famously packed with warm bodies - like the Takeshita Street shopping area in Tokyo or the Shinkansen eki (Bullet train stations) at peak hour. The buildings can be huge (the Tokyo Skytree is 140 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower's 308 metres) but in general the buildings are sprawling and modest. But incredibly clean. No rubbish, no litter. How do they do it? I am seriously perplexed, for there are almost no rubbish bins on the streets, supposedly as a national response to a terrorist bombing decades ago that used garbage bins as blast points.
Some European visitors jump at the chance to don Cosplay gear in public. It's everywhere and the locals do not raise an eyebrow no matter how outrageous the attire.
And yet, for all its steel, neon and modernity, Japan is overwhelmingly cute, or 'Kawaii'. Everywhere you look there are cute toys, signs and manga drawings of Pokemon and cheerfully coloured, stylised characters with wide, shining, un-Japanese eyes. Even roadwork warning signs are cartoon-cute or display outline drawings of bowing workers apologetically acknowledging any inconvenience. Then there are the tame deer of Nara and Miyajima; gorgeous, disney-like animals which actually bow in gratitude if you feed them with the nutritious deer snacks thoughtfully sold for a coupe of Yen. Sometimes Japan feels like a massive, incredibly cute and endearing theme park.
Everyone bows to everyone. It is very polite and touchingly kawaii. Watching businessmen in immaculate suits exchanging endless deep bows after an evening on the sake is a charming sight. But it quickly becomes a habit and I miss it. Even two months later I cannot resist a polite nod to the cashier when I go shopping. Somehow, bowing and being respectful to others now just feels "right". I suspect that it is part of the reason that Japan has such a low crime rate and evident urban harmony. Its all about respect for others.
Japan's revered Sumo wrestlers promote sun safety. Japan endures the extremities of weather - stiflingly hot and shockingly cold. But you get used to it.
I cannot pick a favourite spot or attraction. Each city has its unmatchable appeal. From dressing in a traditional Yukata (which I had previously and incorrectly thought was a Kimono) and languidly strolling the streets of Kyoto with similarly attired companions; to weeping a silent tear at the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Memorial; to riding the cable car to the mountain-top sculptured gardens near Kobe - I loved it all.
But I miss my new Japanese Homestay friends the most. They made me feel so welcome and cared for. Perhaps I was lucky - it ultimately comes down to a fortuitous meshing of personalities - but I had a perfect experience with all my homestay families. They were unfailingly considerate; happy if you spent time with them and helpful if you headed off on your own, I could not have wished for a better outcome. They are rightfully proud of their country and want you to enjoy yourself there. I am in constant touch with one lovely family and have promised to revisit them soon - and I am about to honour that promise!
Travel buddies from different Homestay say NiHau to the friendly deer.
In November I will again visit Japan - all four main islands plus Okinawa - (and briefly Taiwan and Korea) and have already booked with some new Homestay familes for my Asian Winter adventure.
I am fighting hard to stay frosty and suppress any expectations - but I am losing the battle. Japan is one of the most pleasant, safe and interesting countries I have visited. Can you blame me for being a little excited about going back?
Sayonara! Safe and happy travels to you all, wherever you are heading.