Homestay, Japanese style

 ... a once in a lifetime experience

by Bernadette Mahoney

Chapter One of Two ...

Our trip came about as the result of a telephone conversation I had with my friend Beth. She was telling me about her trip to Ireland with a group called The Friendship Force and she mentioned that the group was going to Japan the next year but her friend couldn't go so she didn't think she would go.

"I'll go with you." I said, and I did.

The Friendship Force is a non-profit group founded in 1977 that is active in more than 50 countries, promoting friendship and goodwill through an extensive program of homestay exchanges. "A World of Friends is a World of Peace". I joined The Friendship Force of Pioneer Valley in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Beth lives and we went to all the meetings regarding the trip.

On arriving at Osaka, we faced a world of bright billboards and flashing signs -- this was our introduction to Japan.

Our destination was Gifu which is the ceramic capital of Japan. To help The Friendship Force of Gifu match us up with a host family, we were asked to write a letter stating what we wanted from our trip. I said I wanted to learn about Japanese culture and I would like to meet some Japanese children. Beth was away at that time and never did write a letter.

I left Boston at 8:00 a m. on Thursday, June 25, 1987. I met the Springfield group in San Francisco and, after 26 hours, we arrived at Osaka Airport in Japan on Friday, June 26. I was weary but the moment I stepped outside and saw the brightly colored billboards and the whole Japanese scene, I was wide awake.

The bus that was waiting for us was no ordinary bus. It had a mini conference area in the back with not only a table and seating but also a crystal chandelier overhead. It was a three hour drive to the central meeting place where all the Japanese hosts were waiting. We got there at 9:15 p.m. Japanese time. The coordinator of The Friendship Force of Gifu introduced Beth and me to our host Shegeyuki because he does not speak English. He welcomed us warmly and gave us a piece of paper with the names of his family: Yoko (mother/wife), Sumako (grandmother/mother), Yukari-17 and Mame-15 (daughters).

Our host and his family have lived in this beautiful house for over a hundred years.

We drove by rice fields on the way to his house and, as he turned into the driveway, he flashed his headlights and floodlights went on illuminating the whole front yard. The house is a beautiful l00 year old Japanese house. Yoko and Sumako came out to greet us. There was much excitement and then Beth backed up into the foyer and Shegeyuki stopped talking and looked at her. She jumped down off the step as though she had landed on hot coals. There was nothing wrong. Shegeyuki just reminded her she had her shoes on. Neither of us had noticed the rack where you are supposed to leave your shoes before entering the house. We took off our shoes and went inside. We liked them all immediately and felt very welcome.

We had refreshments and struggled with the language for a while. Between us we had five dictionaries and used one word at a time. When Shegeyuki said "show" we didn't know exactly what he meant. Finally, I said "toilette?" and there were smiles all around and, lo and behold, just inside the door there were a pair of red slippers with "toilette" printed on them. The bathroom floor was tiled with a drain in the middle, a hand-held shower and a hot tub with a heavy slate cover made of some material that kept the water HOT. The cover rolled out of the way when you wanted to use the tub.

These ceramics were so beautiful, I thought the flowers were real.

The first floor of the house was a lovely traditional Japanese home with painted sliding panels separating the rooms. Our bedroom was adjacent to the living room with painted parchment sliding panels separating the two rooms and sliding panels separating our room from a porch on the front of the house. It was hot there in June and in the daytime if all the panels were opened, a beautiful breeze circulated through the house. We slept on futons on the floor as was the custom. The upstairs was modernized with a modern bathroom and toilet.

We were up at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, had a big breakfast of soup, rice, scrambled eggs, sliced meat, potato salad, Japanese tea and coffee and then went to Shegeyuki's office. We picked up his secretary Aiko and two young women Miyo and Haru who turned out to be our translators. We stopped for coffee to become acquainted. They were delightful and we enjoyed being able to communicate with Miyo and Haru. Miyo teaches Aiko's son English at her home and her friend Haru teaches children English through play.

Our first excursion during our week-long visit was to this ancient place of Japanese culture.

We all went to see the Nagoya Castle. It was a beautiful castle erected in l52l completed in l6l2. Because of the military and munitions that were located there, it was the target of an air raid in May l945 that reduced all but a few turrets and buildings to ashes. It was rebuilt in l959. We had lunch and then went to see Tagata Shrine (a fertility shine) before we went home.
It seems that Nagoya's location made it the meeting point of culture of Japan's east and west since the Jomon Period (8000-200BC) with many historic relics and spots reminiscent of ancient days. It is also the most modernistically planned city. The region is known for festivals.

Beth joined the family for a photo after dinner.

When we got home Yoko's sister Kayoko and her husband had come to dinner. They were very nice and obviously pleased and excited to meet us but language was definitely a barrier. However, we still had a good time. There was much laughing over our struggle to understand one another.

Before Beth and I left our bedroom on Sunday morning, Sumako came in and opened a chest that contained a personal family shrine to Buddha. It was breathtaking. She knelt on a pillow in front of it and Beth and I got the prayer pillows she had given us when we arrived and knelt in back of her. She very reverently showed us the things inside. It was an emotional experience.

After breakfast, I asked and received permission to take pictures inside the house. I took a picture of some flowers and a figurine and discovered they were ceramic. When I showed them to Shegeyuki, he took Beth and me to a small building on their property to see a workshop where Yoko not only made them but, also, it looked like she held classes.

After we took some pictures, Yoko and Yukari joined Shegeyuki, Beth and me and we headed for town. Shegeyuki stopped and picked up some roses. He gave Beth and me a bunch and indicated that we were to give them to someone. When we arrived at a Wedding Palace, I believe we gave the roses to the father of the bride to give to the bride and groom who were getting ready for their wedding. Eventually, the bride and groom were ready and we had our picture taken with them.

The Wedding Palace seemed to have everything you could possibly want for a wedding and, while we were waiting for the bride and groom, Beth and I tried on beautiful kimonos. I was surprised how heavy the kimono was.

We stopped at Yoko's sister Kayoko's house which is more typical of the Japanese houses of today. It is compact but comfortable and cozy looking. Kayoko played a Japanese instrument for us and we all had fun trying to learn how to play it.

It was a two hour drive to Toki where The Friendship Force of Japan had a party for The Friendship Force of the Pioneer Valley. The Mayor and others spoke and there was singing, dancing and a magnificant feast. It was wonderful.

To learn more about this non-profit organization, click on: http.//  

To be continued ...

September 6, 2002

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