A new year has begun! A new semester is beginning, and summer is now a little closer to us. Well, unless you’re in Australia/The Upside-Down, then winter is coming. Say hi to Barb for us! Poor Barb.
With a new start here, you may be pondering a big change: a semester or summer studying abroad in Japan, perhaps? Ah, yes, an excellent choice. Might I suggest the bonus feature of such a venture and point out the homestay option? A little nervous to try it, you say? Don’t be! You should be nervous for things like America’s future or that you’ll accidentally click on the video of that starving polar bear that’s circulating the internet you’ve successfully avoided so far, but never to try a homestay in Japan.
If you do take the plunge (sorry, too soon after a bleak polar bear reference?), I’d love to offer you some tips on how to make the best of your immersion in Japanese home life. You may wonder why it might be important for you to have tips for something like this. What’s there to be advised on? I’m a human being who knows how to live in a house and not be a monster, you might think.
But as someone who has experienced homestays, allow me to bestow upon you some thoughts to mull over in that non-monstrous head of yours. Food for thought, if you will, that I wish I’d had before going into my homestay family’s house.
From one non-monster to another, here are some little nuggets of wisdom I’d like to share about homestay in Japan.
1. Know Your Household Etiquette
To take some of the potential anxiety you may have from going into a vague circumstance with humans you don’t know (or was that just me who felt that?), empower yourself with at least the basic knowledge of how to approach certain situations or moments in a typical Japanese household.
Knowing what to do as you enter or leave the home, what to say, when you should say it- these are all very easy, standard things to learn and they’re things that will let you feel like a real member of the house.
Below are some basic things to keep in mind when living in a Japanese home.
• Take your shoes off in the genkan (the small area just inside the front door) and slip into your house slippers when stepping up and into the rest of the house. Don’t forget, there will be separate slippers for the bathroom, as well (so many slippers! Cinderella’s dream life, truly).
• Ask about the bath routine. Typically, bathing is done in the evening after everyone’s home from school or work. As the guest, you’ll more than likely be given the coveted first slot for the bathroom, which I advise accepting graciously (there is very little point in trying to divert your host parents from doing everything they can do make you feel welcome- it’s not going to happen).
• Speaking of baths, brush up on your Japanese bathing knowledge! But of course, feel free to ask your family for a refresher if you’re unsure. Remember that, typically, you’ll sit on a little stool outside of the heated bath, do all of your washing there, rinse off, and then step inside of the bath for a nice soak. Trust me, the bath is worth sitting on that not-so-comfortable stool.
• Know your set phrases. Even if you’re just at a 101 level, if you’ve ever watched anime, Japanese films, or dramas, you likely have not escaped hearing Itte kimasu! or Tadaima! over and over again. Do your best to use the below commonly-used phrases. Small things like this really help integrate yourself into daily life in a Japanese household.
- Itte kimasu! 行ってきます！”I’m leaving/I’m off!”
- Itterasshai!いってらっしゃい！(Repsonse to ittekimasu) “Off you go/See you later!”
- Tadaima! ただいま！”I’m home!”
- Okaeri-nasaiお帰りなさい “Welcome home.”
- Ohayou-gozaimasu“ おはようございます Good morning.”
- Oyasumi-nasaiおやすみなさい“Good night.”
- Itadakimasu! (said before eating a meal)いただきます！ “Let’s eat!/We receive this meal.”
- Kanpai! (said before drinks) かんぱい！“ Cheers!”
- Gochisousamadeshita! (said after a meal) ごちそうさまでした！ “Thank you for the food!”
One last note for etiquette: keep a clean space. If you have a futon for a bed, make sure you fold it up and put the bedding away every morning. If you have a western style bed, well, I think you know the drill. UNLESS YOU’RE A MONSTER.
2. Speak Japanese!
I know it can be nerve-wracking to tackle if you’re still at a lower level of Japanese, but this is the absolute best time to improve yourself. You’re in a very lucky circumstance in which you’re forced to communicate with limited Japanese, which makes you get creative and stretch your thinking cap a little further. It’s like being in Japanese class, but you’re in your pj’s, dinner is provided, and a cool host dad lets you share a cold glass of Sapporo and warm, salted edamame with him after dinner.
The program you do your homestay through should set you up with a family that can speak at least a little English if your Japanese is only at the very basic level, so don’t fret too much. But if you can, do your best to not rely on that. Allow yourself to be immersed in this lifestyle that you’ll get to be a part of for a short time. Be Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai! Just, you know, don’t actually be Tom Cruise, because Scientology is creepy and thinking about it makes me break out into a sweat.
Your host family is not going to judge you and will be happy to help you learn new phrases and tidbits about Japanese culture. Also, you can share with them how to say certain things in English, if they’re interested, or fun facts about your own life and culture.
Relax! When you’re here, you’re family (thanks, Olive Garden).
3. Let Your Homestay Family Get to Know You
I don’t know about you, but inviting someone into my home to live with me for a set amount of time is tantamount to chopping a limb off, and the limb’s name is “Privacy and Free Time.” If you’re going into someone’s house to stay, it’s only polite to let them get to know who they’re taking in.
There’s no need to put on a song and dance every day- just be yourself (unless you’re a Scientologist- is it possible to have a clinical fear of Scientologists? Scientologiphobia? I’m sweating).
A great way to set the tone is to come bearing gifts. I suggest bringing a few small gifts from your hometown or home state. Local treats, drinks, books on the state where you grew up that have gorgeous photographs- this is a really great way to let your family get a feel of where you come from.
Another way to let your family know you is to not shut yourself up in your room for too long. Of course, you’ll need time to yourself, but some of my best memories of my homestay came from popping downstairs in the evening.
I’d sit with my host dad in the living room, while the host mom puttered in the kitchen, and we’d watch soccer together (something I was never remotely interested in back home). But I’d ask questions about the game, he’d ask what I thought about sports, and so on and so on.
It wasn’t anything explosive- just very casual, relaxed conversation that allowed us to build a certain comfort level that only comes with time.
Don’t pressure yourself to feel you need to constantly be tied to your host family’s hips. But also, don’t miss out on letting them get to know you. And you, in turn, them.
4. Soak it Up
If you’re going to school during your homestay and have been studying all week, the last thing you may want to do on the weekend is wake up at 8am to have breakfast and go on an outing with your host parents.
I know, I know. I, too, was once 20 years old and used to prize sleep above all things in life. Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple in Kyoto) is great and all, but so is my pillow. So, I get it.
But the homestay experience is going to be something you’ll likely treasure for the rest of your life, and the things that will stick out the most will be little trips your family was kind enough to take you on, so get your lazy bum out of bed and join the world! Grab some coffee or green tea and hit the road. You can sleep when you’re back in your home country.
Even if the trip is to somewhere you’re not particularly interested in, see it as an opportunity to get to know your family. I lived with host parents for two summers while studying abroad (I love you, Yasuko and Hiroshi!), and loved our little drives we would take from their small town and down into Kyoto.
Once, I thought they were taking me to a sofa store, but I’d misunderstood. My host dad was just trying to tell me in English that Kyoto might seem “so far.” And thus, the sofa incident was born and all laughed like lunatics for five minutes straight. Language jokes!
The most important piece of advice is to enjoy your time with your host family. Whether it’s just for a week or it’s for a few months, it will go fast. You’ll be glad you forewent extra z’s to make some more memories with them. It’s a time in your life you’ll never forget, so make sure to enjoy it!
5. Show Your Thanks
At the end of it all, make sure to show your gratitude to your host family for letting you stay with them. It doesn’t need to be an extravagant gesture- a thoughtful, hand-written note will always do.
And don’t forget to keep in touch! Luckily, it’s easier to do that now more than ever. So now your host parents can see your weird, artsy Instagram stories and Snapchats and question everything they ever thought they knew about you. Thanks, technology!
If you’re currently doing a homestay, let us know how it’s going in the comments below! Or, if you’ve ever experienced one yourself, feel free to share what it was like for you.