Once in a Lifetime: My Homestay Experience in Japan

Photo: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) on Flickr

Once in a Lifetime: My Homestay Experience in Japan

Shabrina Alyani

Every meeting is a unique experience, for not every meeting you get in life is repeated.

When I heard from my university that there was an opportunity to join a weekend homestay with a Japanese family, I immediately applied without a second thought.

Homestay program is a program where foreigners can be a part of a local family in Japan. It is one of a great way to experience the life of a Japanese family, to see the everyday life from a local’s point of view. The program lasts for certain periods of time depending on the organization that arranges it.

It was autumn when the program I had applied for started and I met my host family for the first time. Truth to be told, I was a little bit nervous that I wasn’t someone that they expected. On the day that every international students and host family gathered, I silently sat on the chair; waiting for either me or my host family to recognize each other first. Each students and host family had already been given a paper of information about profile, hobby, reason to join the program, and message to student/host family.

My homestay mother and I had contacted each other before via email. When I met her, she was just as friendly as she seemed in email. At first, my homestay sister, Amane, looked very shy and refused to speak much. But, I was touched when she showed me a drawing that she made by herself as a greeting for me. It was very sweet. Actually, every host family brought something to greet international student who would stay with them.


What a pretty greeting drawing from my host family!


Each person with his/her host family introduced themselves in front of the class.

My host family lived in Tokyo. Their apartment happened to be only few stations away from my university. We walked passing the bridge as I looked at all the dried cherry blossom trees along the Meguro River and said, “Isn’t this place beautiful in spring! I’ve seen the picture before.” In which my host mother replied, “Yes! It’s very beautiful in spring. Many people often do hanami here.” I was thrilled to spend two days/one night near a place that I’d seen and admired before coming to Japan. I believed I would have a memorable time with them and boy was I right!

Eating (or Even Making!) Local Home-cooked Food

My family and I made norimaki together. Norimaki is a type of round-rolled sushi that has various fillings inside. My host mother had mixed the rice with vinegar, sugar, and salt. Amane-chan and I worked together to roll the norimaki. I didn’t remember the name of all the fillings, but they were some kind of fermented vegetables, crab stick, and dried fish. It was very delicious. After my homestay program finished, I was longing for my homestay family’s norimaki, but the one that I bought in convenience store didn’t have the same taste!

The next day, my host mother’s mother who lived two rooms away from their apartment room made tempura and soba for us. Amane-chan and I waited in the garden as she showed me the plants there; the flowers that were blooming and the plants that had good smell. It was a sunny day and the smell of fresh lemongrass was very pleasing. Not long after that, the dish was ready and very delicious, as expected from a grandmother’s cooking.


My host family and I were making norimaki together. It was really delicious.

Experience Japanese Hospitality and Custom


The night when I stayed, we had a gathering with other families in the club that arrange this homestay family. There was a lot of food (of course!) and kawaii (cute) Japanese children. They were very cheerful and loud. My friend and I found it very cute when all the little boys were very shy at the beginning. At first, we were taking photos with the little girls, while the little boys were too shy to approach. They always hid behind their mother’s legs. But in the end they were all just kids—they scream, run, tag, and play all the time!


My host family and my friend's host family.

In that gathering, there was a game where we made a circle, held hands of people beside us, and practice other language through singing! It just happened that the gathering in that area only had two Indonesian students (me and my friend) so we taught them a little about how to greet and count numbers in our language. It was heart warming to see them being enthusiastic and passionate about learning other culture. Many of them didn’t speak English, but they were open-minded and willing to learn, which was something that I admired.

When my host family and I went back to the apartment, the moon was full, white, and bright. My host mother started to talk about tsukimi, a Japanese tradition of moon-viewing in autumn. They ate dango as they looked at the moon. Dango is usually skewered but tsukimi dango is plain white and bigger, and stacked on a tray. Their shape looked similar to the moon they were viewing at. Amane-chan said she wanted to view the moon that night, so my host mother asked me if it was okay to go to the apartment rooftop first, in which I excitedly replied, “Yes, sure! I want to do tsukimi.” My host mother nodded, “Yes, but sorry we don’t have dango!”


Moon-viewing on the apartment rooftop.

Experience Traditional Japanese Art

Living with a Japanese family usually gave you a chance to experience the traditional art of Japanese. The Obaachan (grandmother) in my host family was a shodō teacher and she was willing to teach me how to do this art of Japanese writing! We had to make the ink first by brushing the inkstick on the inkstone that had been added with water. It was my first time writing calligraphy. First, she let me started with my name, written in romaji, katakana, and hiragana. But then she asked me if there was a word that I wanted to write, and I remembered the word ‘Ichigo Ichie.’ It means 'a one chance in a lifetime’, meaning that we have to treasure every meeting that we encounter, because the same meeting can never happen again. Even if we meet the same person, we will be in different circumstances. So every meeting is a unique experience.

Grandmother and my host mother seemed surprised that I knew such a word, but I knew it from a drama that I watched and because I was interested in the phrase, I read more about it.


Grandmother taught me how to do shodō (Japanese calligraphy).

Experience the Daily Life of Japanese People

In Japanese anime, the daily life of a character included sleeping on futons and having an ofuro at night. So in my head, this practice seemed very ‘Japanese-style’. After I experienced it by myself, I understood why this became a daily activity. After a long day, soaking our body in hot water was very comfortable that I end up spending a longer time than I anticipated. Then, covering up ourselves in a thick, warm, soft futon was so comfortable that it only took me less than one minute to fall asleep.


Getting futons ready to lay on. Photo by Meredith P. on Flickr

After All, Meeting People from Another Country is Always a Lifetime Experience

It was already a blessing to meet my host family. They were treating me very kindly and I would forever be grateful and remember them! I had a chance to meet another family and spend a lovely day with them. We went to an ikebana exhibition. Ikebana is the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Most arrangements were big and took a room to exhibit. I thought ikebana was always a small arrangement of flowers in a vase, but it also included flowers, tree branches, fruit, and leaves. I really enjoyed the day. My host mother bought me a set of postcards and a lovely green flower in the souvenir shop of ikebana exhibition. The other family, Yuki-kun and his mother, bought me a beautiful pink kaleidoscope keychain.

It was only two days but I was feeling sad when we said goodbye at the station. I went back to dormitory bringing a lot of gifts; tenugui, my Japanese calligraphy papers, ikebana exhibition souvenirs; but most important of all, I came home bringing a lot of memories.


I met other family from my host family’s friend and we had a good time together before I returned home.