One of the many things to take advantage of with education abroad is the option of doing a homestay. Though I did Semester at Sea and was not in a single location for an extended period of time, I took advantage of a homestay option while I was in Japan and it was one of the best decisions I made. There is no better way to learn about the culture of the country you are in than to learn it directly from the people themselves. I had the opportunity to stay with a Japanese host “mom” and “dad” for a day where I was introduced to Japanese home life, as well as had the opportunity to eat a home cooked meal and learn how to properly wear a kimono.
Most Japanese people living near the major cities of Yokohama and Tokyo live in apartment buildings. My host family lived about 40 minutes outside of Yokohama in a small, but charming apartment that overlooked the city. You could even see Mt. Fuji and the city of Yokohama in the distance off of their back porch!
One of the first things I noticed when I entered the home was a world map. At first glance you might just see a typical map, but look closely and you will realize that it is not the typical map we are used to seeing. This map is centered on Japan. When I first saw the map I thought to myself, “this is so weird,” but I then had the realization that to the Japanese it is not weird. To the Japanese, a map centered on the United States would be weird. It is all about perspective and seeing things from the perspective of the country you are in is part of taking full advantage of your education abroad experience.
I was joined on the homestay by four Semester at Sea friends and we were treated to a delicious meal at a traditional Japanese kotatsu, a low wooden table covered by a heavy blanket that is heated underneath. Kotatsu’s are found almost exclusively in Japan, but I say the United States could DEFINITELY benefit from these warm tables. I didn’t want to pull my feet out from the toasty blanket!
Our meal was homemade sushi and tempura, and it was to die for. Good thing I taught myself how to use chopsticks before I went to Asia!
After our delicious meal, my Japanese “mom” made us all traditional green tea from scratch. As she passed the tea around, she taught us the correct way to hold the teacup and how to spin the cup a certain way once we receive it from the server. The tea was definitely interesting, but I am glad that I tried it!
Our host “mom” was currently in school taking kimono lessons in how to properly wear them, and position them on others, so my friends and I had the rare opportunity to be her models for the day and wear her beautiful kimonos. Mine is the one on the far right. The art of wearing a kimono is quite intricate and it took her nearly 30 minutes to correctly put the kimono on me. From rules about what can and cannot be touching skin, to exact measurements of how far apart the pieces of cloth can be, I did not realize how much goes into the wearing of the traditional Japanese garb.
The average height of Japanese women is 5ft 2in. Let’s just say that being 6ft tall, I stood out from the crowd. My Japanese “mom” not only had to find me the longest kimono possible, but she also had to be creative in how to approach putting it on me given my height. She ended up having to tap my shoulder to signal me to squat down in order for her to be able to reach my shoulders. It turned out to be quite entertaining for all watching. We had some good laughs because though we could not communicate in the “normal” sense, we both knew exactly what the other was thinking—she is so tall!/she is so short!
The final product was gorgeous. I felt so unbelievably lucky to be wearing a traditional kimono while spending the day with a wonderful family. This photo is of the Komori family and myself, and is one that I will cherish forever. Though I was only a part of their family for a day, they will be family for life.
Not only did I get to learn how to wear a kimono correctly, but I also got the chance to play the traditional Japanese musical instrument known as the Koto. It is played by plucking the strings with complicated picks while pressing own on cords like a guitar. Let’s just say that I found out I am not the next Koto playing prodigy….
I leave you with this image of the Komori family apartment gate because to me it represents how much pride the Japanese have in their family names as well as their homes. I will be forever grateful that the Komori family opened their doors to me, because I learned so much about Japanese culture from them. They allowed me to live the daily home life of the Japanese for a day and the experience I had is priceless. If you have the opportunity of doing a homestay while abroad, I say go for it. Take the chance to be a part of a family outside of your own. Take a chance to see the culture of home life. Take the chance and you might just find a wonderful cultural experience that you will never forget.
Photos and post by Courtney Smith
Courtney is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying Psychology. She is a Junior at Transylvania University, and she participated in a Semester at Sea Program.