Homestays are the best way to experience Japan. From eating delicious home-made food, to playing with genki grandchildren, time spent with a Japanese family is sure to be unforgettable.
I spent the last weekend visiting my homestay family in central Hyogo. During my stay, I, along with another visitor visited Takeda-Jo, a historical castle in the mountains, and Amanohashidate, a sandbar in Northern Kyoto Prefecture, said to be one of the three most scenic spots in all of Japan.
My homestay mom, who I just call, “okaasan” (mother) because I forgot her name during my initial visit, is a very active grandmother. She trekked up a mountain, prepared meals, and even drove me an extra 30 minutes to the station to avoid taking a slower train. Her dining room walls are scattered with photos of previous foreigners who’ve stayed at her house. She truly loves sharing Japan with visitors. Between running a three generation household, volunteering at various town activities and hosting countless guests, I don’t think she sleeps. Even though she speaks little English, and my Japanese is not even considered beginner, we are able to understand each other through the help of a translator. It also helps when her daughter is nearby, as she is fluent in English.
Day 1: Takeda Castle
I arrived Saturday afternoon to a delicious spread on the table. After chowing down, we made our way to Takeda castle. All that remains at this site are extensive castle walls lining the peak of the mountain. It’s hard to comprehend how much labor and time was needed to carry the massive stones up such a steep slope. Founded in 1441 by, Ohtagaki Mitsukage, Takeda Castle eventually fell siege to Hideyoshi in 1577.
Known as the Machu Picchu of Japan, it’s impressive how untouched the area feels today. There are no vending machines, roped-off cliffs, or touristy junk. It’s very much in its natural state, minus the original castle perched behind the walls. It was particularly scenic as the sun set beyond the neighboring mountains. Long dramatic shadows amidst scattered trees and ancient walls added to the beauty.
After the short twenty minute hike back to the parking lot, we made our way to a nearby onsen before calling it a night. Or I thought. Around 11 PM my homestay mom called her friend down the street to see if she wanted to join us to eat melon. There was no answer so along with her other guest, we walked down the street her friend’s house, but there were no lights on. We then proceeded to stroll around farmers roads through rice fields for the next twenty minutes.
Day 2: Amanohashidate
I was awoken early in the morning by a surprise attack from the youngest grandson. After tossing him over my shoulder into a pile of futons and blankets a few times, I was finally able to escape his lethal five-year old fighting skills and eat some breakfast before leaving for Amanohashidate.
A rainy mini van ride filled with kids crawling over seats made for an entertaining time. I guess in Japan kids don’t need to wear seat belts in the back of a car. Or maybe my homestay family just gave up on getting the kids to buckle up. By noon we made it to our destination. My homestay mom brought about fifteen umbrellas for the ten of us…she must know of my umbrella history and how I went through three during five weeks while studying in Kyoto. Each kid was issued a bright yellow umbrella, and the two five year-olds disappeared completely under there’s; it looked like the umbrella was walking itself.
We walked though a very wet Kono Shrine on our way to the cable car. If you’re looking for a truly authentic Japanese experience, then I don’t know what beats being packed like sardines in public transportation. Luckily, I secured a seat. But this meant sitting with my knees crunched up against the seat directly facing towards me, with a few butts and hips squished into my shoulder and the side of my face. If I needed any reminder that I was in Japan, this was it.
The view from the top of the mountain was worth excruciating cramped cable car ride. A two mile long sandbar filled with thousands of pine trees connects the opposing sides of Miyazu Bay. It should be noted that the name, “Amanohashidate” translates to, “bridge in the heaven.” Thus, it is common for a visitor to view the sand bar with his/her back towards the bay. From here, you bend over and stick your head between your legs. This way, the sea will appear as clouds and the sand bar a bridge to heaven. I tried it, and got really dizzy, so I only saw stars.
After the cable car ride down the mountain, we took refuge from the rain inside our cars. I was surprised to see that my homestay mom packed a big picnic for all of us. When did she make all this food? She never ceases to amaze.
Next, we drove further north to view some historical boat houses, called “funaya” in, Ine. There are about 230 of these houses packed along the bay at the base of the mountains. Japan really knows how to make use of their land. These houses were the first chosen by the government as, “Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings.” Such a long title.
During the car ride home, all the kids fell asleep and were carried from the car to inside the house. It reminded me of all the times when I was young and pretended to be asleep just so I could be carried, much to the chagrin of my older sister who had outgrown such the luxury. I digress…
On the train ride home I could’t help but be filled with gratitude for my home stay family’s hospitality. I thought back to how nervous I was when I got off the train to meet them for the first time. I’m glad I was adventurous enough to sign up for that first homestay back in October, as some of my best memories in Japan are with this family.