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I have everything you need for a good night’s rest. There’s somewhere to sleep, a clean comfortable bathroom, an evening meal, and a cooked breakfast.
Yet… there’s something a bit different here to all the other places I have recently stayed on my travels through Japan.
This is not your usual tourist accommodation. You see, I’m here in the home of a local Japanese family, out in a quiet rural part of the country.
While the mother cooks dinner in the kitchen and the father makes the table, I unpack some of my things onto the tatami mat floor of the room where I will sleep. I’m settling in for the night.
My hosts are the Kadota family, with father Tadao and mother Mieko. Their children moved out a while ago and now have families of their own. So, for tonight, it’s just the three of us. Oh, and their adorable Shiba Inu dog.
So, how did I come to end up here?
Well, it’s not quite as random as it may seem.
Tadao and Mieko Kadota are part of a community organisation called ‘Kicchomu san‘ that runs a homestay program in the small town of Nozu in the Oita prefecture of Japan’s southern Kyushu island.
They, along with about 30 other families, open up their homes to visitors who would like to experience a bit of rural Japanese life.
It’s an opportunity to meet local people, see how they live, and learn a bit more about the rural communities that are often overlooked by tourists who focus on just the big cities. Oh, and try some home-cooked food.
It’s the food that will come to be the highlight of my stay here with the Kadota family. On their listing on the organisation’s website, they describe themselves as, “English loving dad and cooking loving mom”. While I certainly appreciate the English skills of Mr Kadota, I appreciate the cooking skills of Mrs Kadota even more!
I arrive in the early evening, after being picked up from Usuki train station by an Austrian who now lives in Oita and works with the ‘Kicchomu san’ organisation. He drives me into the countryside to the town of Nozu and it’s a good opportunity for tourists to be able to ask all the questions they have in English before arriving at the house.
As it turns out, Mr Kadota does speak quite good English – at least, enough for us to have basic conversations. (It’s certainly much better than my high school Japanese.)
I don’t think any foreign guests who want to take part in the homestay program should expect fluent English speakers – that’s quite rare in rural Japan. But having to find ways to communicate with each other is one of the things that makes this experience so special.
Mrs Kadota uses her cooking to communicate. She’s working away in the kitchen when I arrive and it seems like she’s putting together quite a feast. When we sit down to eat, I am amazed at what she’s serving.
In traditional Japanese style, there are at least half a dozen small bowls and plates with different dishes. There are dishes with tofu, berries, fish, chicken, rice, and noodles. Plus quite a few vegetables that I don’t recognise but am told come from the garden.
We sit on cushions on the floor around the low table and eat together, asking questions about our respective countries and cultures, sharing stories about our lives and way of life.
I come to realise that this is one of the main reasons why the Kadotas like to host foreign visitors in their home. Sure, it’s a little bit of extra income for them, but it’s mainly about being able to spend their evenings learning about the world through the various nationalities who pass through and share a home-cooked meal.
For the international travellers like me, there’s lots to learn – from more than just the conversations. The experience itself is an insight into a part of Japan that most tourists who stay only at hotels would never have.
For instance, when it’s time for sleep, we set up my bed together. My room has sliding paper doors for walls. The floor is made of tatami mats. My bed is a futon with two large quilts over the top.
You don’t find this in hotels. The closest you get is the sleeping arrangements in ryokan, or traditional inns, but even then you don’t take part in setting it up yourself.
There’s also the bathroom – so different from Western design and, although slightly confusing, it’s another way to experience local culture.
There’s no stand up shower like you might have at home. Instead, there’s a small bath with a shower head nearby. In most Japanese families, the bath is filled in the evenings and each member of the family soaks in the same hot water. They wash themselves thoroughly before they get in so the water doesn’t get dirty.
In my case, I choose to wash in the morning and just use the shower head without the full bath of water. It is a little strange – but I embrace the different culture and know that it’s part of this rewarding situation.
Unfortunately, I need to leave soon after breakfast to continue my exploration of the Oita region. If you are interested to know what else there is to do here, I have a whole lot of suggestions.
But, if you have a bit more time, you can also take the opportunity of a homestay to experience some other parts of rural life. The families will be happy to show you their farms and you could even join in some harvesting if it’s the right time of the year.
You are more than welcome to help with the shopping or the cooking, if that’s the kind of thing that interests you. And there are other activities – particularly art and craft – that can be arranged in advance.
It’s so easy on a trip to Japan to get caught up in the usual sightseeing, because there is so much to see. People always say they want to experience local culture and it’s possible to do that in Japan without much effort because almost everything seems so different to where we come from.
But an opportunity like a homestay in Oita – well, this really is a true local experience. There aren’t many things that will give you this kind of local insight and it’s so easy to organise.
This is authentic Japan like so few tourists are able to see for themselves. I would highly recommend taking up to the opportunity to do it yourself.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Oita but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.