“This powers everything up,” explains Tanya leaning over the forbidding Japanese toilet. “This switch here is for warming up the seat in winter. You control the temperature with these buttons. That switch lets off a jet of water. You control the flow from here and the pressure from there. This switch with the woman’s face is not for you. It makes the toilet function like a bidet.” She stops to check whether I’ve cottoned on. When she’s happy I have, she continues: “And this is the timer — in case you want to save electricity and start the warm-up at 8am, say. Simple really!”
I’m in Tokyo with Tanya and her husband Toshiro, whom I met through Homestay.com, a website connecting travellers across the globe with families that have a spare room to rent. In my case, it was more like a spare wing, for ‘T and T’, as I ended up calling them, are a well-off couple who like to welcome tourists now the kids have fled the nest. I was expecting a rabbit hutch and got a large room instead, with a double bed, sofa, shell chair, coffee table, built-in wardrobe, fridge, microwave and air con. Our living room had designer Italian furniture, the dining room a crystal chandelier of cathedral proportions, while the bathroom was furnished with Murano glass. It also included one of those high-tech toilets full of lights and buttons. One of the delights of living with a Japanese family is that they’re there to explain how to use that perplexing piece of porcelain.
Toshiro is a successful Tokyoite entrepreneur and, although Tanya comes from Khabarovsk in Siberia, she’s totally acclimatised after many years in Japan. She shows me where to leave my shoes upon entering, gives me a rundown of the neighbourhood and explains the ritual of the Japanese bath, where you shower before you climb into the bathtub. But what I find most remarkable is that she leaves the house door open. Not on the latch — wide open. When I ask her about it, she shrugs. “There’s no crime in Japan,” she says, and that’s that.
I’d often heard it said that Japan is like another planet and that you have to live there to grasp it. I’d also been warned about the ‘sensory overload’ it unleashes upon a new arrival. Even so, nothing can really prepare you for the onslaught. Tokyo streets are full of automatic announcements, voiced in a girlish inflection so uniform I wonder whether a single actress has her work cut out for a lifetime. ATMs thank you profusely and express the hope you’ll return to the same obliging hole-in-the-wall for your future withdrawals. Even ambulances alternate their piercing sirens with loudhailers roaring ‘out of the way’ in a male, Japanese, full-throated baritone.
If the noise doesn’t overwhelm you, the colours will. While we’re all used to neon signs at night, the Japanese seem to want to replicate the effect during the day. Garish adverts in blue, green, red and orange compete for your attention, the design philosophy seemingly being ‘be brighter than your neighbour’.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in the big city. My jet lag works to my advantage and I’m usually up early every morning to plan the day’s sightseeing, with ‘T and T’ offering both advice and a lift to the nearest subway station. On Sunday, having ascertained my interests, they drive me to Toyota City on the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, where I find myself in petrolhead heaven among classic cars, safety simulators, virtual test drives, monster SUVs and the latest aerodynamic models with hydrogen fuel cells. Afterwards, they cook me a sumptuous supper on their terrace, where the only noise is the odd barking dog and the lighting is moody and subdued, courtesy of a pair of floor lamps. Admittedly, the food and the outing are paid extras, not included in the homestay rate, but both gestures are nevertheless welcome.
At the end of my stay, I thank ‘T and T’ for my sanity. In a city like Tokyo, it’s great to have a steady frame of reference amid the flash and the flicker, the hiss and the hum.
Miyako’s Kyoto apartment is more in tune with my expectations of a Japanese home: compact, with sliding fusuma screens and futons on tatami mats, yet bouncing with gadgets. Apart from the monstrous TV looming at the edge of the kitchen-diner, there’s a small oven-grill, a microwave, a fryer, a massive washing machine and a leviathan of a fridge-freezer. And somehow the toilet here is even smarter: upon flushing, water automatically flows onto an attached basin so we can wash our hands.
Here, my height is to my disadvantage: just like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, I can’t extend the shower to above my head and every time I stand up from my futon I bang my head on the paper-lantern lampshade.
Miyako likes to introduce her guests to Japanese culture, so she takes out her calligraphy pack. We’re about to practice shodō, the Way of Writing. As she stabilises her diaphanous washi papers with a bunchin lead weight, it occurs to me this is an act unchanged in a over a thousand years.
Faced with the blank sheet, you’re allowed one stroke and you must be bold, quick and unthinking, if you’re going to get the complex curves correct. Miyako wets the suzuri inkstone calligraphy board and spends several minutes rubbing the sumi ink stick (a solid mixture of soot and glue) on the surface. She brings four fudé bamboo brushes for different strokes; we use the big, fluffy one made out of badger’s hair. We’ll first write down my name in easy katakana, although this syllabary is frowned upon in shodō. It’s going to be six letters, ‘ma-ra-su-ro-na-su’, so she folds the paper to form six equal squares. She draws the letters with downward strokes, moving from left to right and then puts another washi paper on top so that I can duplicate the characters below. She explains that the strokes have a natural sequence: you can’t start with a vertical instead of a horizontal or change the direction. I try my Zen best and treat the writing like a dance. Miyako is pleased — “Good, very good,” she says. “You’re very good at calligraphy” — and stamps the result with her personal red seal.
We move on to squiggly hiragana and I’m all at sea. Miyako tries to suppress her merriment, but she persists and patiently explains the stroke sequences. Then on to my first name, John, much easier with three letters: ‘dzi-yo-n’. I compose with ‘my eyes open and yet closed’ and Miyako becomes effusive about my hiragana ‘n’, in particular its lower curve. She shows my effort to her husband, who’s been watching baseball on TV all this time. He looks at my ‘n’, bows appreciatively and smiles. We’re all happy, although I’m not sure why. “You are a good pupil,” Miyako says. I look at my ‘n’. I can’t see what the fuss is about, but she’s over the moon. “You are a good teacher,” I reply.
Next day, Miyako takes me to Imamiya Shrine in the north of Kyoto. A far cry from the centre of the city, with its dozen or so UNESCO World Heritage Sites and swarms of sightseers, Imamiya is largely deserted. Miyako escorts me in, goes through the ceremonial Shinto ablutions and leads me to a covered chapel, in the middle of which there’s a stone.
“This is the Omokaru-Ishi,” she tells me. “The heavy-light stone. You make a wish, rub the stone three times clockwise and lift it. Then you do it again: make a wish, rub it three times, lift it. If it appears lighter the second time, your wish will come true.”
She goes through the ritual herself, and then lets me repeat it.
“Hey, that’s funny.”
Miyako picks up on my vibe. “Did the stone appear lighter the second time?” she asks.
“I think it did.”
“Then your wish will come true,” she says and beams.
Would I recommend a homestay? On the downside: well, most families live in suburbia and you could face long commutes on buses as well as on the subway, so the transport-phobic should take heed. To my surprise, though, I found Japanese buses very easy to use. They arrive on time, they’re frequent, stops are hard to miss with their glowing digital displays, plus, of course, those constant announcements. On the upside there’s the low price, the congeniality of the hosts and the reassurance of staying with a friendly, helpful family. But the biggest plus point of all is they can provide an intimate, revelatory look at a different culture and a means of touching the soul of another country.
It’s said that when we first experience a society we tend to concentrate on differences, while a second glance reveals the similarities. I’ll go further. A more in-depth look also finds differences, but on an individual level, for of course, whatever our culture, we’re all unique. Homestays allow you to meet individuals and do away with stereotypes.
I lost my way several times in Tokyo. It’s easy to follow a single ‘way out’ sign, but harder when there are 15 separate ones competing for your attention in massive corridors heaving with people. It was on one such occasion an elderly man in a suit asked me in perfect English if I was lost.
“I’m afraid so,” I replied.
“Which way to the Ginza Line towards Shibuya?” My companion took me to the right platform, boarded the train with me and started recounting his life.
“You’re from London? I bought an apartment in France. Toulouse. My wife and I go live there every two months. I enjoy the food but mostly I enjoy the wine. I was a workaholic and now I’m an alcoholic,” he says and giggles at his own joke. “I’m retired and now for me it’s Sunday every day. I love doing nothing and finding out about Europe. This summer we drove all over Scotland. Next year it’ll be Spain. Europe is beautiful. Beautiful but strange.”
“I could say the same about Japan,” I reply. And we both nod in agreement; two strangers on a train.
How to do it
Japan Airlines flies daily from London to Tokyo Haneda Airport from £649; check the website for special offers. Its Japan Explorer Pass, which can be bought online if you live outside Japan, lets you book up to six internal flights for around £80 per leg.
The Japan National Tourism Organization has maps, brochures and suggestions for your trip — it’ll even pay the postage.
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)