Sponsored by Saga Prefectural Tourism Federation
Green Tourism is a rising phenomenon in Japan. Where more than 10% of the country lives in the small prefectural city of Tokyo alone and millions of others live in predominantly populated cities, some citizens have never experienced life outside of the concrete jungles. In order to combat this problem and to share the pace of inaka (country) life with city-folks, many citizens in smaller farmland communities have teamed up to create Green Tourism. Even if you’re not from a city in Japan, or even if you do already live out in the countryside in this country or another, you’re still able to enjoy a homestay experience through Green Tourism. It’s a way for locals to connect with visitors who want to know what it’s like living off of fresh farmlands in the beautiful countryside of Japan. It’s also a great way to get outdoors and discover new passions or interests that you may have never known about before. Through my experience in Komanaki, Imari City in Saga Prefecture with the Nozaki family, I learned about old Japanese traditions and left with a sense that I have gained a new place I can call home.
Nozaki-san picked me up in his car at the local train station down the road from his home. Right off the bat when he introduced me to his wife back at the house, he insisted that I call her okaa-san, which means mother in Japanese. So as she served me my first of many delicious homemade treats, sweetened chestnuts, I thanked mother and preceded to call Nozaki-san, otoo-san, father, too.
The Nozakis live in a beautiful, old traditional style home that was once owned by Mrs. Nozaki’s parents. They renovated the home to add a new living room and kitchen. I stayed in a tatami room that was once the living room. In the corner is a beautiful shrine, ones found in many Shinto homes, dedicated to the Nozaki ancestors.
After settling in and playing with the couple’s Dachshund named Sally, Nozaki-san and I took a stroll around the family’s property. He has renovated the property to add many outdoor activities that city kids can enjoy, like a homemade zipline that sat high in the woods and a climbing wall that’s roughly 5 meters tall.
We walked up the hills to check out Nozaki-san’s self-made sumiyaki (charcoal) pit. This is living. He makes charcoal for a living which he sells to the town and cities nearby. The process of firing and drying charcoal takes about ten days, and it was astonishing to hear about and see the process taking place in front of me. Next to the charcoal pit is a forested area with logs stacked by each other. Here, I was given my first task as a guest: mushroom picking. He nailed these pieces of log with the bacteria to help shiitake mushrooms grow! This was my first time ever mushroom picking and it was quite a fun process, knowing that we would be eating these freshly picked shiitake mushrooms for dinner. After this task was completed, we then went back inside the house to prepare for dinner.
Taste a traditional home cooked Japanese meal
Japanese people are very humble, and Mrs. Nozaki’s humility is an understatement. She kept insisted that the dinner is simple and nothing extravagant, but this was by far the most delicious and extravagant meal I’ve ever experienced in someone’s home. My mouth is watering just thinking back on how incredible everything she prepared was.
She prepared everything from fresh vegetable tempura using vegetable cultivated right in the neighborhood, to nanbanzuke fish dish, an onion soup, other vegetable dishes, and so on. The meal was served in a special room in the house designed as an old traditional Japanese meal room. In the middle of the dining table is a charcoal firepit, with the charcoal made by Mr. Nozaki, where we grilled fresh vegetables, the shiitake mushrooms I picked, and the local delicacy, Imari beef.
We all sat together for dinner, though Nozaki-san said it’s not often that they sit and enjoy a meal with their homestay guests. Sometimes when they have large groups, they let the guests enjoy the meal on their own, but I personally appreciated and loved that I got to share this meal with the family. Start the meal by saying “Itadakimasu” which means “I give thanks for the meal,” and similar to a prayer before a meal. We drank local saké, laughed, and shared stories of diverse cultures and experiences for hours with Nozaki-san at one point bringing out cultural materials he has used for local festivals in the past.
The Nozakis showed me a great meal with Japanese omotenashi, to welcome guests with the greatest hospitality and to treat guests with authentic love and care. With my belly full, I took a long relaxing bath in their traditional Japanese ofuro. Sadly, it was too cold in January to enjoy the rotenburo outdoor bath that Nozaki-san also made himself from scratch (pictured below).
A typical Japanese breakfast includes fish and tofu
The morning started out with another elaborate meal. In Saga prefecture, yudofu is a unique tofu dish, where the tofu is softened using the mineral-rich onsen hot springs. It is a traditional breakfast dish that I got to enjoy, along with tidbits of the previous night’s leftovers and Japanese breakfast favorite, salmon.
Enjoy a stay in a beautiful, historical Japanese home
The Nozakis’ home is also very unique in its displays. Right when you enter the home, the front entrance is covered in decorations for the season’s theme. They try to mix it up a few times a year and the collections are incredible. They had a display of rabbits when I visited in January to mark the fall harvest from the year before. Come March, everything will be replaced with dozens of hina-dolls, a Japanese pair of dolls that marks the celebration of Girls Day in March.
Play outdoors on the zipline, climbing wall, and a rotenburo
We took another stroll around the property, playing with the Nozakis two goats, Koma-chan and Mari-chan. The mother daughter goat duo is named after the area, Koma from the name of the town Komanaki, and Mari from the region, Imari.
Nozaki-san told me more about his passion for green tourism. When he explained to me about his love for showing city folks the beauty and joy of living in rural parts of Japan, his face lights up. He wants to share his lifestyle with so many families and young people who were born years after the country’s modernization. In the summertime, he also takes guests out to fish in nearby ponds, play in the river, and even take out his canoe. His property reminded me of my home back in the farmlands of Oregon where my neighbors were goats and there is a river running through my parents’ property, too.
The core of Green Tourism: Footpath experience
His passion for nature has lead him to help create Imari’s Footpath experience where he and other volunteers take city folks on walking trails around the rural regions. Once every few months, they get a group of a few dozens people together to enjoy time out in the woods and to go on trails off the beaten path. It gives citizens a chance to interact with nature and learn about the lands from which our lives were born. Sadly, we didn’t have enough time (and due to terrible weather) to be able to enjoy a full two-hour long footpath trail together, but we visited one of his fellow Green Tourism host friends and enjoyed tea with her while overlooking the gorgeous view from her hilltop home.
A home stay experience where omotenashi is key
The Nozakis went out of their way and bent over backwards to welcome me, not as a guest, but seemingly like a daughter. They told me that I will always have a place to call home if and when I come back to visit, which I sure hope to do. Even now, we keep in touch and I’m sure the connection will stay. To stay at their home is not free, but the 6000yen price tag seems like absolutely nothing for all the work, love and passion they have put in to welcome guests from all over Japan, and hopefully from around the world in the future. It was truly a breathtaking and fun experience to be able to spend time with them, and I thank them for opening up their home to me.
What are the do’s and don’ts when staying at a Japanese homestay?
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you end up staying at or visiting a Japanese person’s home.
Do bring a gift. Japan is a massive gift-giving culture, so never show up empty handed. Some sweets or little artifact from your home country or town would be great, or even something you’ve picked up along the way if you have been traveling for a while.
Don’t give a gift that comes in a set of four, because the Japanese word for four is also the word for “death.” I sadly came empty handed because I gave the gift from Tokyo I had prepared for the family to the woman who gave me a ride to a far destination the morning before.
Do write a thank you letter. Since I couldn’t give them a gift in person, I wrote them a thank you letter when I arrived back home to Tokyo and included a little Tokyo sponge cake to go with it. This little gesture was much appreciated.
Don’t leave your bedding spread out. In America, guests are often asked to just toss the used sheets in the washing machine as a sign of thank you. In Japan, it’s best to fold everything up neatly in squares. That includes the futon mattress and all bedding.
Don’t unplug the bathwater. In Japan, everyone uses the same bathwater in one night. As a guest, you will most likely be the one given the fresh first go with the bath. Don’t unplug the drain after you’re done, because the host family will bathe in it after you. For this reason, also don’t use soap products inside the bathtub.
Don’t step on tatami floor with slippers. But do always wear slippers that are put out for you otherwise. Take off the regular slippers and use the bathroom slippers when going in the bathroom.
Do share your culture and stories. There might come a time when language barriers get in the way of fully understanding each other. But no one will turn away when you do your best to converse. Hand gestures and acting out stories go a long way in communication, and they can create even greater memories together.
Bonus: Pay a visit to the town of Imari!
The nearby city is also an exciting place to pay a visit. I wandered around the town and stumbled upon the volunteer tourism association of Imari. I was given a tour of the old guesthouse where the tour association now resides. Only a handful of the old original buildings in Imari still exist right by the riverbank. These guest homes were used to house merchants and guests who traveled from afar. They used to come to Imari to put in large orders of pottery ware to be made to their liking for their homes or ryokans. As these orders often took months to complete, guests lived in these homes provided for them.
After the tour of the old home, I sat and chatted with the volunteers who were all so welcoming and hospitable. I explained to them my own family’s roots in saga prefecture, and how I was in Kyushu for the first time in hopes of finding out more about my Japanese side of the family who came out of Saga prefecture, many generations ago. They told me all about their love for their city and how they hoped more visitors would come see the beauty in Saga, which right now is the running for one of “the most boring prefectures in Japan,” a sad and untrue title from my own experience! As I had to leave to catch my train to Nozaki-san’s town, they showered me with gifts for me and my family, and even for my 95-year old grandmother who’s husband, my grandfather, carried the name that once bore out of Saga. Coincidentally, they all also knew Nozaki-san who is close and very active with the volunteer group. This type of encounter, as they said and I’ve always believed myself, is what the Japanese people call “en,” or fate. There was a reason I stumbled into their community, and a great reason that I stayed and chatted with them for a long while. I hope that visitors can come to Saga to not only enjoy the astonishing and rich history and artifacts the prefecture holds, but to also interact with and to get to know the people of Saga, some of the most kind-hearted people I have met in Japan.
Imari Green Tourism: official website (only in Japanese)
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