Making the Most of Your Homestay : Your Guide to Maximizing Your Experience in Japan

One of the best ways to experience a foreign country is by doing a homestay.  

One of the worst ways to experience a foreign country is by doing a homestay.  

Wait, which is it?  Well, both are true depending on the homestay program you select as well as how you approach the homestay experience.  Picking the wrong homestay program can set you up for immediate failure, but even the best homestay family can't make it a wonderful experience if you don't have the right expectations and the right attitude.

I did a homestay for seven weeks (YES, THAT LONG!), and while the overall experience was positive, I certainly made my fair share of mistakes both in how I interacted with my host family and how I responded to particular situations.  My aim here is to help you avoid those same mistakes so you can enjoy a fantastic homestay experience here in Japan.  

Without further ado...

Best Places to look for reliable homestay programs

Homestays are one of those things that are pretty difficult for the Japanese government to regulate, especially now that it is so easy to advertise on the internet.  That creates a lot of problems, of course, since the unofficial homestay programs (of which there are many) have no oversight and can leave you in a bad position.  That's not to say that all of them are horrible, but at the very least, finding a homestay program through random sites online will produce inconsistent results.

Instead, the best homestay programs are those that have government oversight.  The homestay coordinators will still almost always come from private companies or foundations, but will operate with government grants or subsidies and therefore have a great measure of accountability in providing quality homestay families, ensuring adequate standards of living, etc.

Personally, I think the best way to find a good homestay is to look for International Foundations or International Exchange Centers that are associated with Prefectural Governments.  For example, there is the Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange (which is where I did my homestay) and the Hokkaido International Foundation.  Every prefecture has one, so if you have a particular place you'd like to go, just visit the Prefectural website or search the web using the prefecture name and "International Foundation" and you're bound to find the appropriate site fairly quickly.

Be prepared to pay quite a bit for a quality homestay program.  Of course, they cover meals, accommodation, and usually a certain amount of classes or cultural experiences (if booking a homestay through and official organization).  You can also look for government grants or special programs by using places like the Japan Foundation or similar organizations

1) Be up front about your preferences

When you apply for a homestay program, the overseers SHOULD ask you to fill out some sort of questionnaire about lifestyle needs and preferences (if they don't, that is a red flag and you need to think quickly about finding another program).  This is super important.  The overseers (in most cases) will do their best to match you to an appropriate homestay family, but remember that the pool of families is not infinite, so they may not have a lot from which to choose.  Mistake number one you can make is not to be completely up front about all of your preferences.  Here are some examples of the questions they may ask and the pitfalls associated with each.

Are you able to live with a family that has pets?

If yes, be sure to indicate what types of pets are okay, how many, and if you have any specific pet allergies.  Don't just say, "Yes, I love cats," because you may end up in a house with a crazy cat person.

Do you smoke?  If yes, how much do you smoke a day?

Answer this based on your desire or need to smoke at your host family's residence.  They're not asking this for the social smokers or occasional cigar puffer--it's just so they can make sure the host family is prepared to accommodate your smoking habits.

Are you able to live with a smoker in the house?

If you're not a smoker and you're okay with a little smoke in the house, still proceed with caution on this.  If you say you're okay with a little smoke, you better be as okay living next to a chain smoker who is planning to hot box the living room every day.  I'm not saying that this is always the case, but it is best to go in expecting the worst.

Do you drink alcohol?

This is important not just for you, it may be important to the host family.  If you do not drink but you do not mind being around others who do, be sure to specify that.  If you want a dry household, be sure to specify that, too (this may not always be possible with a homestay though).

Do you prefer a family with children?

Beware of this one.  Children have their own needs and it can be difficult for some host parents to balance your needs with those of their own children.  I recommend only pursuing a host family with children for a home stay if you really enjoying being around kids and/or if you are independent enough to take care of yourself while your host parents are tending to their own obligations.

Medical Restrictions (stairs, etc.)

This is really important for those of you who are hearing or vision impaired, or those with back or leg issues.  Most Japanese homes are multi-storied with narrow corridors, and you can expect that either the futon or the bed you will be sleeping on will be a LOT firmer than what you may be used to back home.  Be sure in particular to list anything that would be relevant to mobility or daily comfort.

Dietary Restrictions or Preferences

This one is pretty self explanatory, but don't hesitate to put something on there.  One note: if you are allergic to seafood, be sure to note everything you are allergic to (especially since a lot of sauces and dressings include some sort of fish-based ingredient).  I once asked for no seafood at a restaurant here in Japan and they replied, "Is shrimp okay?"  

And be open about religious preferences.  The homestay coordinator may not be able to ensure all demands are met (especially for things like halal or kosher needs), but they should do their best.

Interests

Most good host families will try to take you on a few excursions.  Be specific about your interests so that you don't end up in classical music concerts when you really love martial arts, or at a baseball game when you'd rather be looking at modern art galleries.  It also will help pair you with a family with whom you'll be able to have easier, more interesting conversations (for both parties involved!).

2) Share your culture with your host family

Your host family should try to do their best to share the Japanese culture with you, but you should try to pass your culture on to them in kind.  Cultural exchange is the name of the game and it makes the whole experience much more fulfilling for all players involved.

The best way to initiate the cultural exchange is by bringing a small gift for you host family that represents a quintessential food or drink product from home.  
Consumables always make better gifts since one, the host family may not have room to store a gift they receive and two, they won't feel obligated to use or display a gift you give them while you are there!  

So here are some good gifts I've seen in the past:

- Box of locally produced chocolates (I have yet to find a Japanese family that did not like chocolate)
- A bottle of liquor or wine (local wines are almost always a hit)
- Cheeses (Japan is preparing to relax tariffs on cheese imports, but foreign cheeses are still expensive and difficult to find)
- Tins of cookies (regional-specialty cookies are a favorite choice for domestic travelers in Japan, so opening up the aperture to international varieties is a safe and welcome gift option).

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3) Be Prepared to find yourself outside your comfort zone

Without a doubt, you WILL find yourself outside of your comfort zone from time to time during a homestay--you are going to be in a foreign country and living in a stranger's house, after all.  If you go into the homestay with those expectations, it becomes easier to deal with them.  

Okay, so what sort of things might put you out of your comfort zone?  

- Well, how about if your host family wants to take you to an onsen or public bath?  It's one thing to be sharing a roof, but it may be too much for you to share the same bath tub.  
- How about new and unusual food?  You may enjoy seafood, but you may not be comfortable eating a whole fish (head still attached and all). 
- What if your host family wants to show you off to family and friends?  You may be introverted by nature, and this sort of exposure could prove discomforting.  
- What if your host family lives in the boonies and there is no public transportation readily available?  It may difficult to be entirely reliant upon your host family to be able to explore Japan outside of the house.

[By the way, those were all example from my own homestay group].

4) It's okay to make mistakes


This rule is most important when it comes to language.  You should push the envelope with your language capability with your host family.  More often than not, they'll be willing to correct your Japanese (unlike folks you'll run into when you're out and about), and a lot of them will have experience with folks new to the language and may have tips or tricks for helping you remember some of the more complex aspects of the language.

This rule also applies to cultural norms, however.  Your host family expects you to make mistakes, whether it's forgetting to take your shoes off, or forgetting to say "Itadakimasu" before starting your meal, or failing miserably at chopstick etiquette.  It happens, and the best place to learn is in the safe zone that is your host family's house.

5) Don't feel overly obligated to your host family

There are always stories about host families and home stay participants that hit it off and have become lifelong friends.  While that can be a great outcome, don't feel obligated to work toward creating that sort of bond.  Some host families won't feel obligated to go overboard either.  Instead, they're happy to remain passive, letting you dictate your level of interactions with them to whatever is most comfortable for you.

Others are VERY excited to have homestay participants and will use up every last free minute you have if you let them.  You should be respectful to your host family and take them up on their invitations that interest you, but you may have a host family that wants to do so much with you that it takes you away from what you would rather be doing with your limited time in Japan.  If that starts to happen, just explain politely that you have other plans.  If it persists, look to the next item below...

6) Be respectful but speak up if anything's bothering you

If your host family is doing something or failing to do something that bothers you, don't be afraid to let them know.  There is a way to be respectful when doing it.  Here's a good example of how not to do it: let the rage build up until you come home drunk from a karaoke drinking party and yell at your host mother, "DON'T EVER PUT MAYO ON MY FOOD AGAIN!"  [Yes, this was one of the horror stories from one of the homestays in my program].  Instead, just politely tell your host parents that you don't want to be a bother, but you really don't like mayonnaise (or whatever other thing is causing you discomfort).  99 times out of 100, your host family will understand.  In the odd case that they don't...

7) Reach out to the homestay coordinator if things are going really badly

Don't feel obligated to stay with your host family if things are really bad.  They are getting paid to take you in, and like any other business transaction, you should not put up with it if they are not living up to their end of the deal.  Of course, this should be a last resort.  Speak to your host family about any problems first.  If they are unable or unwilling to accommodate, go to the Homestay Program and request to be placed with another family. (Now here again is why it is important to use a homestay program with government oversight). If the program is unable or unwilling to accommodate, you can go to the prefectural or national level office overseeing the homestay program.  I promise you that if you do, the foundation will move mountains to make things right.  One of the members of my homestay group was rehomed fairly early in the program, saving him weeks of heartache.  You should feel free to take the same action, if necessary.
 

So there you have it...

...the ways you can maximize your homestay experience in Japan.  Every homestay is different, and for every horror story there are a hundred good stories.  Following these basic guidelines will help you make sure that yours is one of the good stories!

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Mike B