My trip to Japan has been unique in so many ways. But without a shade of a doubt, the most remarkable feature has been getting to know local people of the most diverse backgrounds, all with one thing in common: their kindness and their eagerness to share their time with me.
Consequently, this post is for my hosts. For the first time I used Couchsurfing quite regularly throughout Japan. I was a bit nervous as I had had only limited experience with it, but I couldn't be any happier with how everything went. Yes, I saved a good amount of money - although Couchsurfing is free of charge, it's not completely free as this article explains beautifully - but much more importantly, I made friends in Japan as they shared with me their life journeys, often to my amazement!
Tokyo was my port of call and my city of departure too, so I had my initial and my final - for now - Couchsurfing experience.
My first host was Yuta, a 21-year-old economics student who is about to graduate from university. Already at the stage of looking for his first job, he lives in a residential suburb of Tokyo that was very authentic and friendly, Tokorozawa (所沢市), about 1h away from the city centre by train. He hosted me for 3 nights.
Whilst he was quite busy with job hunting, he always found time to spend with me, and we had very interesting chats about university and work life in Japan, about his travels and our goals in life. As you will see described later in the blog, we did quite a few things together!
Yuta was a kind and sweet soul and he soothed any fears I might've had about using Couchsurfing. It was a great first experience!
Finally, at the end of the trip, I stayed at the house of Yoshinori.
Wow, what a man! He really is an interesting character. Now in his late fifties, Yoshi used to be a mechanical engineer in his early career, working for technological companies. Eventually he changed his focus to product design sales, which he loved, but eventually entered a dark period of depression and decided to make bold changes in his life: he left his job and concluded that he preferred to do things he truly enjoyed, and that with the money he had saved up to then and the income his wife brought in as a nursery teacher it was enough, so he became a full-time househusband. Well done Yoshi, breaking stereotypes!
Not only he is groundbreaking, he has achieved many amazing things in life:
But one of the achievements he's most proud of - and understandably! - is having been selected to be a porter of the Olympic torch in Brazil for the Rio games of 2016. He's got the following picture printed in large scale and displayed at the best-looking spot of his house.
He greeted me joyfully in his amazing high-rise apartment overseeing Tokyo Skytree in Edogawa (江戸川区), and he prepared yummy dinner for the two of us. Although I asked how I could help, he didn't let me do anything and instead I observed as he cooked and chatted with him with very good jazz on the background.
He had a spare traditional tatami room that was part of the living room, but you could close the paper doors to make it a private space at night time, and there was a futon for me to sleep, so it couldn't get more authentic! It was a bit too firm for my taste, but I got used to it by the second night :)
Despite rising up earlier than the first morning birds, Yoshi would always kindly prepare breakfast for me regardless of what time I got up. On my second morning, he prepared something very authentically Japanese for me to taste: natto (納豆). These are soybeans that are fermented with bacteria, just like yogurt, giving them quite a strong smell and a slimy texture that gets slimier and slimier the more you stir them.
Honestly, it looks disgusting. But Yoshi told me it's extremely healthy for your guts, and who knows when I will come back to Japan, so I thought 'f**k it!' and I dared to try some beans during our last meal together. Yoshi couldn't hold his laughter at my grimaces!
My time with Yoshi was so significant. He has such a strong set of values and he does his best to live by them. He is particularly appalled by the hoarding of wealth in just a few hands and he's a firm believer of sharing and goodwill as a means to disempower the evils of capitalism. so Couchsurfing is yet one more way in which he follows his values.
He's had tens, if not hundreds of guests since he started hosting and, in a very Japanese methodical way, he keeps a wee journal with an entry for each person who's stayed at his home, full of handwritten notes jot down as he gets to know the people better in person. What a great memory he's building!
We had the most amazing chats about the meaning of life and the virtues and problems in Japanese society. His positivism and getting to know about some of his amazing guests prior to me inspired me to do something with an impact in my life, for me and for others.
The experience in Nikko was slightly different, as it wasn't Couchsurfing but AirBNB. Still, it was a very authentic homestay and I felt like part of the family with them, so they deserve a section in this entry!
I spent the afternoon sightseeing in the temples of Nikko and I got to Imaichi Station, the closest to this AirBNB, without having checked properly the location of the homestay. As I discovered, Japan is different even for giving their addresses. Unlike most of the world, instead of going smaller to bigger, they go bigger to smaller - i.e. the prefecture and the city go first, and the house number at the end. If that wasn't confusing enough, they designate addresses by blocks, each of which has a number, and then each household within that block has another sub-number. This results in most streets having no names at all!
Guess what? I got lost. Terribly lost! My phone was useless without Wi-Fi, the area in Google Maps being nothing more than a blurry stain, not even helpful as a compass. I walked and walked with my heavy backpacks asking people in the street with my rudimentary Japanese, but because I had the address written down in Latin alphabet, most of the people couldn't even read it!
As the sun set, I started to get nervous about finding the place so I entered a ryokan (旅館), a traditional Japanese hotel, to ask for help. A very kind lady came out and tried with her phone to find the address. Despite her almost nonexistent English, I managed to explain to her that I come from Barcelona, that I was travelling around Japan on my own for almost a month and that it was my first time doing it alone. She was so amazed! Eventually we found the address, and she sent her son to walk me to the place. I thanked her profusely and, as we left, I reflected on the kindness of Japanese people: I asked for help in a hotel to find an AirBNB, the evil competence, and still they assisted me!
We finally reached the house and the guy said goodbye. I rang the bell and I heard dogs barking. A lady came to greet me and ushered me in. I got the sleepers on and she invited me to enter the living room. There were two excited puppies and a gentleman sitting on the floor playing with them. His name is Takahiro and hers is Atuko, and they are the Fukaya family. And surprise! They speak pretty much no English!
Turns out the girl who manages the AirBNB ad is their daughter who lives in Australia, and it's in her former bedroom that I slept in! The Fukaya family treated me like a son from minute one. I asked about a restaurant nearby for dinner, and Atuko-san kindly walked me to a nearby ramen place. Although she had already eaten, she patiently sat with me, translated the menu with the use of her phone, and looked and smiled at me as I wolfed down some delicious ramen with pork cutlet, having a rudimentary conversation using the automatic translator of her phone. It was great!
The next day in the morning they treated me to a nice breakfast in their living room, a super traditional tatami room with one of those low-rise heated tables that I have seen in the movies. It was so cold in Nikko that I didn‘t want to leave that table! Moreover, they had a lot of beautiful kimonos hung in the walls, great to look at as I enjoyed my morning coffee.
They offered to drive me to distant Oku Nikko (奥日光) after breakfast, where I planned to spend my day, and they also drove me to the station on my last day as it was rainy. Truly hospitable people! I couldn't have had a more amusing accommodation in Nikko.
Near Kamakura, in neighbouring Zushi (逗子市), I stayed at the house of Yoshiko.
She is a professional jazz musician and piano teacher. More special even, she's a single mother of Lily, a wild and amazing 5-year-old little girl who would steal my heart by the end of my stay.
Her apartment was very small and really messy, but the right kind of messy; the mess that only a hyperactive child can create. They also had a cat, Cocoa (ココア) which they had adopted only a few weeks earlier. She had set up a futon in the piano room, which turned out to be very comfortable. I arrived at nighttime after sightseeing in Kamakura, so shortly after introducing each other Yoshiko fed me some dinner she had prepared for her and Lily earlier, which I enjoyed while we got to know each other.
At the outset Lily was quite shy, hiding behind her mother's legs and blatantly ignoring my friendly yet rudimentary attempts to speak with her using the few Japanese phrases I had learnt. Within half an hour, however, she and I were playing with her Lego, Lily talking to me in Japanese as if I understood her, as comfortable as if she had known me forever. We even looked at one of her children books and she taught me the name of some animals in Japanese, as I pointed at them and I asked how they were called.
The funniest part took place after dinner. Yoshiko went to give Lily a bath before bed but, a while later, she stormed into the living room stark naked and started dancing deliberately showing me her butt!
She reminded me so much of my idea of the naughty Japanese kids that I got from watching Shin-chan that I couldn't help bursting in laughter. But the more I laughed, the more I encouraged little wild Lily to perform her butt-dance. Yoshiko was apologising profusely for Lily's behaviour, ashamed as she was at the awkward situation, but I dismissed her apologies saying I found it so funny. I even considered recording Lily's skilful performance, but that would've been borderline child pornography, so instead I link a simile of Shin-chan's buri buri dance which should give you an approximate idea of what she did, except that she did it completely naked!
We also went for dinner together, Lily included, on my second night along with another Couchsurfer who had also offered to host me, Nicolas, a Mauritian who had lived in Australia for a long time and was now doing post-doc work in biology in Kamakura with a scholarship from the Japanese government.
Unfortunately we didn't take a picture together - we should've done so!
After dinner Yoshiko and Lily went back home, so Nicolas and I went to explore the nightlife in Zushi. We ended up in a random Japanese izakaya (居酒屋) where we drank jar after jar of Japanese sake (rice wine) and umeshu (plum wine), along with some edamame (salty steamed green soy beans) to pretend we weren't drunkards. We had a great time together, drinking, laughing and talking about life and relationships. I felt bad we couldn't spend more time together!
When I had to say farewell to Yoshiko and Lily after two nights with them, Lily held to my leg as if saying that she didn't want me to leave. I was heartbroken! But my trip had to continue, so I set out feeling blissful that I was so lucky to meet these kind souls along my journey.
I spent three nights in Kyoto and I was meant to stay at my Couchsurfing host for all of them. Unfortunately he had some commitments and could only offer to host me the last night. I took it as an opportunity to experience a capsule hotel for the first two nights, which turned out to be very cheap and surprisingly comfortable!
My host in Kyoto was Makoto. He's only 22 and he looks even younger. He's a university student living on his own in a tiny studio at Saiin, the west side of Kyoto.
He loves motorcycles and he spent a working holiday in Australia, so that's how he became aware of Couchsurfing and decided to host people to maintain his hard-earned English fluency. We met near the train station closest to his place and after setting up the sofa-bed where I'd sleep we went for dinner together to a very local izakaya, where we had very nice and cheap food!
Unfortunately I only spent a night at his place so we didn't have time to get to know each other in depth, but he was a very fun guy and very mindful and attentive.
In Hiroshima - well, actually in Fukuyama, but within reasonable travel distance from Hiroshima - I was lucky to be hosted by Gisella (50) and her family.
Gisella's story is also very interesting. She's half Japanese half Peruvian, and she spent most of her life in Lima, Peru. She married Marco, fully Peruvian, and more than 20 years ago they decided to move to Japan taking advantage of the good diplomatic relations between both countries - Peru has a very large Japanese community and working visas are reciprocally facilitated.
They worked in several jobs, but eventually they opened up a Peruvian restaurant in Western Japan which was their life for many years. However, confronted with the need of undertaking an expensive refurbishment of the premises, Gisella decided to shut down the business and instead she now sometimes cooks to order from her own home.
I arrived at their closest train station Higashi-Onomichi already at nighttime and they came with a large car (almost a minibus!), honking and waving eagerly at me. It was Gisella, her husband Marco, her youngest daughter Sauri and Sauri‘s Japanese boyfriend Kotaro from Osaka. We greeted each other à la espagnole and they took me for dinner at a local restaurant. We had a splendid night together, and as I learnt about their life story I was particularly amazed by Sauri: despite looking 100% latina, she was born in Japan and had never seen her homeland Peru, so her manners and even her accent when speaking Spanish were super Japanese! Kotaro was a very sweet boy, always very helpful and mindful of others, and he clearly adored Sauri.
I spent two nights at Gisella's family home, in an additional bed in the living room. In the morning I would be awaken by the clinking of pans and pots and the hearty smell of Hispanic food, and Gisella wouldn't let me go on with my day without feeding me some of her tasty food for breakfast.
Gisella offered me to stay for as long as I wanted, which I really appreciated, but sadly I had to continue with my trip. I was really stunned by their generosity and warmth with a complete stranger, and made me more optimistic about the future of the human race!
So to all of my hosts, all of you, どうもありがとうございます。I leave Japan a better person because I've been blessed with your disinterested kindness and I will fondly treasure the memories I have of the time we spent together.