Want to experience Japan beyond the tourist trail? Instead of heading to the nearest backpacker hostel in Tokyo, why not sign up for a Japan homestay program? First off, what’s a homestay? In general, it’s a cultural exchange between you and your host family in a foreign country. The host usually provides a place to stay and meals in exchange for a homestay program fee. Homestays in Japan can be as short as a weekend or as long as a year. If you get a really good one, it can become a memorable home away from home experience.
Homestays in Japan come with tons of benefits. Forget what you think you know about Japan from anime or manga. Through a Japan homestay experience, you’ll get to meet Japanese people on their turf, learn proper Japanese, and see what’s it like to live in Japan IRL. Staying with a Japanese host family can also be more affordable than shelling out the big bucks for a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or swish boutique hotel.You’ll also get a chance to try authentic Japanese food (beyond sushi and ramen) and explore local hangouts in your host family’s neck of the woods.
Types of Japan homestay programs
Now, you may be thinking, “What homestay Japan options do I have?” Don’t worry, we’ve got you with the four most popular Japan homestay program options.
1. Language learning (YOU’RE learning Japanese)
One popular Japan homestay program is where you get to learn the language in a very immersive environment. In simpler language, your Japanese host family will try to teach you as much Japanese as they can in a more natural setting. This is also the best opportunity to listen to natural conversation spoken by native speakers and practice your Japanese speaking skills too. You’ll be amazed at the nurances you learn in this setting rather than in a stuffy classroom.
2. Au pair (THEY’RE learning English from you)
Another great homestay Japan experience is au pairing for a Japanese host family. In this scenario, you get room and board in exchange for teaching the kids and sometimes adults real English in an informal setting. Usually, families will ask whether you have any child care experience. In general, au pairing is gaining ground in Japan as a way for Japanese families to experience a different culture and learn English through foreign guests. However, now is not the time to pull out that PowerPoint lesson. Instead, be sure to think of novel and exciting ways to teach English to your au pair family.
3. Study abroad / volunteer abroad / intern abroad (in conjunction with any of these types of programs)
If you really want to up the ante on your study/volunteer/intern abroad experience in Japan, forget about staying in residence halls and apartment buildings with other gaijin (foreigners). Sign up for homestay Japan for a completely different perspective on how people actually live in Japan. This option may also help you save money in the long run. Bonus: if getting fluent in Japanese is your main goal during your time abroad in Japan, you should be googling how to get a Japanese host family pronto!
Even if you can’t find a homestay Japan program you like, there is another option out there. Why not organize a homestay with a Japanese family independently? Maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows a family in Japan who will love to have you. In this situation, you get to cut out the middleman and probably save a few bucks. However, this option may also mean you have to do more running around and of course, you and your host family need to agree on a set of ground rules beforehand to ensure that the experience isn’t a complete fail.
How to integrate quickly during homestays in Japan
If you’re already researched how to get a Japanese host family, the next step is to get some solid homestay in Japan advice. Keep it 100 with these tips and your homestay Japan experience is bound to be far from basic.
Tip #1: Learn about Japanese customs and culture before you get there.
If you want to avoid making a totally awkward first impression, research Japanese culture before you get there. That way, you won’t forget to bow when you first meet your host family, you’ll remember to take off your dirty outside shoes in the genkan (traditional entry area), and slip on indoor slippers before entering the main house. You’ll also avoid looking like an idiot abroad walking out of the toilet with the communal toilet slippers still on!
Tip #2: Don’t forget to bring omiyage!
It’s a major no-no if you decide to show up at your Japanese family's house with your hands empty. In fact, it’s a Japanese custom to bring a small gift, also known as omiyage, whenever you visit someone’s house for the first time. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant but it could be something interesting from your home country. For instance, if you hail from Canada, maple sugar candies will do nicely. Make sure that you’re able to package and gift-wrap your present nicely so that it doesn’t turn into a broken/goopy mess on the flight over there!
Tip #3: Find out what’s okay and not okay.
Another way you can avoid looking like a complete buffoon is to ask for a list of rules your host family may have. Each Japanese family will be different. For instance, is it okay to sleep late? Do you need to switch off the lights after leaving a room? You should definitely take notes (that means writing them down/recording them somehow) when the family gives instructions about how to use those fancy schmancy Japanese appliances like the toilet, the bathtub, the washing machine, the air/con remote, even the microwave so you don’t wreck anything while you’re there.
Tip #4: Let them know about your special requirements.
It goes without saying that if you have any food allergies, medical conditions, or other special requirements, you should let your host family know asap. For instance, it’ll be in totally poor taste if you refuse to eat what your okasan (homestay mom) places in front of you at the dinner table because you forgot to tell her you’re allergic to shrimp/you’re a vegan/vegetarian/you don’t eat gluten etc. Save yourself and your host family serious embarrassment by letting them know these things in advance.
Tip #5: Learn some basic Japanese before you touch down.
To avoid looking like a deer in headlights, you should get some basic Japanese under your belt. Learn how to address your host family properly: otosan (father), okasan (mother), onesan (older sister), onisan (older brother), ototo (younger brother) and imoto (younger sister). Also, although Google Translate does come in handy in Japan, here are some useful phrases you should know:
- Konnichiwa - Hello!
- Yoroshiku onegai shimasu! - Nice to meet you!
- Tadaima! - I’m back!
- Okaeri nasai! - Welcome home!
- Arigato gozaimasu- Thank you!
- Ohayo gozaimasu - Good morning
- Oyasuminasai - Good night
- Sumimasen- Excuse me/sorry
- Gomen nasai- I’m sorry
- Dozo - After you/go ahead
- Hai- yes
- Iie- no
Tip #6: Use proper chopstick etiquette.
When it comes to chopsticks, there a lot of rules the Japanese follow. Here a just a few important ones you should know about. First, never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice or other food. That’s only done at funerals. Second, don’t pass food to another person with your chopsticks as this is how a cremated person’s bones are handled at funerals. Third, never lick, point, or wave your chopsticks around to make a point. Fourth, if you’re eating from a shared bowl, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to pick up food. Using the part you’ve been slurping on is just gross.
Tip #7: Act like part of the family.
A Japan homestay experience is totally different to staying in a hotel. First, act like you belong. Be respectful to your homestay family. If you’re going to miss dinner, let them know. Smile and offer to help out with daily chores like washing the dishes. Put away your blankets and air out your futon every morning so your okasan doesn’t have to. Pick up your dirty laundry off the floor. Don’t just stay in your room all the time. Be flexible and and never pass up any opportunity they offer you to experience Japan and its culture.
Quotes from travelers who’ve lived with Japanese families
Want some real homestay in Japan advice? Read and learn from those who’ve experienced it themselves.
“When you are staying with a host family, one of their most difficult tasks is to make sure you're well fed. Japan is a place where children are taught from an early age to eat everything and not eating something is highly frowned upon. Your host family will try to accommodate you but as a guest, you also must take into consideration how your dieting habits will affect them. Many Japanese people don't even know what vegetarianism is, let alone how to cook for it or how to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet without meat.” - Josephine, USA
“During my program, I stayed at three homestays. The first one I had some problems because there were miscommunications due to my Japanese and I wasn't used to a different family. I used to just stay in my room a lot so for those homestaying, I'd say try to be open and communicate as much as possible with your family.” - Raymond, New Zealand
“In my experience, the best thing you can do to make your homestay a success is to say ‘yes’- i.e. get involved and be proactive about embracing new experiences. Even small things like helping cook a meal or grocery shopping in your home country are opportunities to learn a new aspect of Japanese culture and language...Conversely, try and limit your web and social media use if possible. Not only will focusing on your social media connections with friends from home hamper your ability to immerse yourself in your new language and culture, it will amplify culture shock and loneliness.”- Cassandra, USA
“For advice, I would say be open with your host family about your interest in Japan, even if it is just anime or video games. It can still be a cool experience for both of you. Who knows - there might be some hidden gem near their house both of you never knew about. Do some research on the area. Respect your host family's rules and be open with them about things that make you feel uncomfortable before coming here. Buy a gift to give to your host family before you come to Japan. Anything that they can't buy in Japan is usually good. Get ready to be stared at a lot if you are not Asian. Take lots of pictures and I don't think I need to tell anyone to have fun because it will be.”- Tyler, USA
“If you want a less serious and more specific tip - make sure to lock the bathroom door when you use it. In Japan, they keep the doors to their bathrooms closed at all times so when they want to use it, they just open the door without knocking...Not only have I been walked in on while using the bathroom in Japan while I was on a homestay but I've also been walked in on by one of our Japanese guests that we hosted at my home in America too.”- Emilie, USA
Next steps to getting a Japanese host family of your own
Ready to jump into the floating world of homestays in Japan? Here are some resources to help you find the one that suits you best!
- Get customized program recommendations from our OnlineAdvisor
- First ever homestay? Essential reading: Breaking the ice: How to make the most of your homestay abroad.
- While you’re at it, here’s another great read: Living with strangers; homestays 101.
- Stumped about what to bring? Read more about Presents for your presence: giving your host family the perfect gift.
- And finally, explore travel homestay programs in Japan.
With all this great homestay in Japan advice under your belt, you’ll be well on your way to making the right choice.
Enjoy your Japanese life!
At the end of your homestay, don’t forget to show your appreciation. A simple thank you and a small gift will go very far with your Japanese host family. Also, when you get back to the comfort of your own home and family, don’t lose touch! Who knows - maybe you’ll be visiting your Japanese family again before you can sputter out sayonara!