For this last collection of posts on Japan I will back track to my arrival in Japan and experience studying Japanese for a month in Tokyo.
What do you do when you come home to your host family with filthy feet after a day of sightseeing in Kamakura, including a walk to the sea in dirty sand? Just the day before my host mother taught me the proper way to use the vestibule area. Your clean bare feet are never to touch the tiled vestibule floor and your dirty shoes are never to touch the inner faux wood floor. Now, my shoes are filthy, both inside and out.
The understanding host mother mimics that I should tip toe down the hall to the bathroom to wash my feet, which I do with zeal. Then she watches over me as I clean my shoes with the damp rag she has provided, ensuring that I have gotten every speck of sand out of the shoes. After a few tries she is finally satisfied that the shoes are clean enough.
This is only tad more anal than the other night at dinner when I was reminded several times that I hadn’t eaten all my rice. They mean every last grain, seriously? I have to admit the house is super clean. Not a speck of grit on the floors. A pleasure to walk in on bare foot, which I rarely do, nearly always wearing socks just in case I do pick up a bit of dirt and accidently transfer it to the clean sheets. All these precautions were outlined in the Homestay Guidebook I was sent the week before my trip to Japan.
One might wonder why a 50 something year old woman would ever want to subject herself to such rules. I’ve been wondering that myself these last 48 hours since I’ve arrived in Tokyo. In the past I’ve always believed that staying with a host family is a great way to get to know the culture and practice the language.
I’m studying Japanese for the next month in preparation for a three week trip with Don. My plan is to learn enough to make travel in the more remote regions a little easier. I’m beginning to wonder if that, too, may be unrealistic. I’ve been studying on my own for the last 5 months using the Genki series used by the language school Coto Language Academy, and by Pimsleur which I find is great for learning practical phrases. But, really, there is no substitute for meaningful conversation practice, using the language to solve real everyday problems. So that’s why I’m here in the small apartment of a middle aged Japanese couple fastidiously trying to keep my feet clean.
My room is small, tiny really, but clean and comfortable with a twin Western mattress and small writing desk. They also provide a computer, which I haven’t used as I brought my own laptop. The closet is big enough to accommodate the contents of a suitcase and a small shelving unit holds the rest of my belongings. In the shared bathroom I’m allowed space for my toothbrush and toothpaste next to the sink and shampoo and soap next to the bathtub.
Upon arrival, after 20 hours in transit with no sleep, I was greeted by this kind couple carrying a rules sheet written in both English and Japanese, I assume provided by the housing agency. We spend the first hour negotiating meal times, how late I can stay out and whether I get a key (I don’t). I guess there is always supposed to be someone here to let me in. That didn’t work so well for me in India where I ended up having to spend the night in a nearby hotel because I could wake the house boy who was passed out on the living room floor, but that is a different story. They’ve done this before so I imagine they have a system that works for them.
Also on the schedule is what time I can use the bathroom to wash. It’s not really a shower so to speak. You sit in the bathtub and sort of wash up with a hand held shower. (This turned out to be very wrong. See the following post.) Not the most convenient or pleasant way to bath for those used to a real shower. And by the way, the Homestay Guidebook specifies that you are required to bathe every day.
Meals and Conversation
On a brighter note, the meals have been quite good so far, prepared by the husband with more care than at most host family situations I’ve stayed in. The couple eats with me and tries to make simple conversation. My Japanese is quite basic so many questions are too complicated for me to answer with my limited vocabulary and grammar structures. Why do I want to go to the school by myself on a Saturday when the husband will go with me on Monday? I want to try to negotiate the train system myself on a day that is less crowded, and I’ll remember better if I figure out the way myself rather than following someone else. All of this is far too complicated to explain and I just leave the host father thinking I’m crazy or stubborn or something.
Looking back on the month with the Japanese couple I realize it was one of the most interesting cultural experiences I’ve had. While the restrictions, i.e. having to be home at a certain time and meals and bathing on a fixed schedule, can feel overwhelming, there is also a greater care taken concerning your wellbeing and comfort. For example, the host mother knew that I would be traveling after my stay with them and asked if wanted her to wash the remainder of my laundry the afternoon before I left. Normally she only did laundry in the morning.
The food continued to be the best I’ve ever had in a homestay situation, generally four- five dishes carefully prepared for both breakfast and dinner.
If I was home at lunch time on the weekends they invited me to lunch with them, which was not required according to my meal plan. If you like Japanese food it’s a great deal.
All in all, I would do it again; in fact I plan to. If you have a flexible attitude most living situation are tolerable for a month and it remains a great opportunity to practice the language and learn about the culture.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Tokyo, Japan page.