For visitors to Japan, a ride on the subway or the high-speed shinkansen can take you to almost any corner of the country. But those who want to learn about the daily lives of the Japanese rather than look at temples may find it difficult to gain access to the sanctuary of a Japanese home.
Enter Nagomi Visit, a nonprofit matchmaking service targeted at tourists or foreigners living in Japan who want to visit a Japanese family for some home-cooked fare. Co-founder Megumi Kusunoki had traveled to Denmark and was impressed by the warm welcome from a local family who invited her into their home. She wanted to share this experience with visitors in Japan, a country where people don’t customarily invite complete strangers into their home, and so she set up the business with former colleague Alisa Sanada.
The kanji character for nagomi is another reading for wa, a Chinese character that not only means Japan but also “to befriend”: a goal that the organization has in mind.
“It’s an opportunity for people to realize that everyone is the same and that everyone has the same problems,” says Sanada. “Our initial goal is for people to connect on that basic human level. And that goes for both sides: for the guests and the hosts, too.”
The key to bringing people together is through a good home-cooked meal. Nagomi Visit propagates the Japanese saying “onaji kama no meshi wo kū,” or “eating rice out of the same pot.”
The home visits also serve as a way to educate people about Japanese cuisine. The organization asks host families to serve Japanese food, if possible, and home-cooking visits are conducted on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays for those who want to try their hand at making a kyaraben — a boxed lunch designed to look like a character — or a simple Japanese meal made up of three dishes.
“We want it to be an opportunity for people to realize that there is more than sushi and tempura, or whatever they think Japanese food is wherever they come from,” says Sanada.
It is turning out to be a large operation. Kusunoki and Sanada started off with a simple website and three of their close friends as hosts. As of September 2013, they had served over 500 guests from 37 countries. The organization now has over 100 hosts living all over Japan — from big cities to rural areas — and Kusunoki and Sanada hope to expand into Hokkaido. Meals are charged at ¥3,150 per guest, with under-5s eating free.
“First we were concerned about whether or not we would actually find hosts who would welcome people to their homes. It’s not part of the culture,” says Sanada. “After a while we realized that there were a lot of people who have experienced the same thing when they were abroad; people would help them with their travels. So it’s kind of like a pay-it-forward kind of thing.”
For sisters Naoko Kubo and Miwa Ando, who have traveled throughout the world together but never had the opportunity to enter the home of a local, that feeling of wanting to give travelers a taste of home cooking led them to volunteer to have visitors Amy Pun, Yang Du and Justin Mencel from Australia over.
“I do a bit of traveling myself, and one thing I realized is that I ate out a lot,” says Kubo. “When I was there I wondered what the country’s home cooking was and what everyone eats on a daily basis.”
The hosts start off the meal with a bowl of thick onion soup and a plate of scrambled eggs and fresh tomatoes. The main course is shōgayaki — slices of pork in a ginger-based sauce — on a bed of shredded cabbage and egg salad, and heaping bowls of rice.
Kubo and Ando also serve a Japanese staple side dish that becomes a favorite with the guests: daikon and tako nimono, which comprises a thick slice of Japanese radish simmered with octopus rings. For dessert the guests enjoy slices of cheesecake with hot green tea.
“We thought this would be a nice way to mix up our trip,” says Mencel, a medical student from Adelaide, Australia, visiting Japan for a skiing trip.
“We wanted to see more of a local cultural experience, rather than just dining out every night,” adds Mencel’s classmate Pun.
Though she says that she regrets being unable to communicate with her guests in English, Kubo says that she would be open to hosting dinners for more visitors in future.
“It was more fun than I thought, and very relaxing. I think it’ll be fun to do another one,” she says.
“I think that Japanese people need to have more international exchanges,” says Ando. “People here shouldn’t be too afraid of the language barrier, and I hope that they will be able to meet more people from overseas.”
A stranger’s kitchen
Often travelers see only the surface of the culture of the country they visit. Tadaku is a service that pairs tourists and locals together for a culinary journey that starts at the supermarket and moves to the home of the host, where guests can roll up their sleeves and help put together a traditional meal. It all ends at the sink, where you scrub the dishes together. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous — and tight on cash — you can sign up for a shared session to bring down the cost of dinner and share your meal with like-minded travelers. Hosts are currently in Tokyo only (plus overseas); prices vary. www.tadaku.com