My homestay experiences in Vietnam and New Zealand so far has been more than awesome~ This article would be on my homestay experience in a traditional Japanese temple in Japan! After travelling for some time, I realised the best way I enjoy travelling is to fully immerse myself in authentic local culture. I love to understand a country and its culture from the people I meet and the experiences I gained. That’s exactly how homestays appeal to me so much, and also one of the reasons why I was so excited when Airbnb came up too. Read on to find out more about my homestay experience in a traditional Japanese temple!

1. Family-run Buddhist Japanese temple (お寺)

My first homestay experience in Japan was just amazing. I thought I’ve watched enough Japanese animations to know how a traditional Japanese house look like. However, when my host family drove up the pathway to their house, they stopped the car outside a Buddhist temple. I knew then this experience would be very different from what I imagined it to be.

I was in a state of culture shock then when I realised the place I was going to spend the night at was a traditional Japanese home connected to a Buddhist temple. A temple is a place that I would think only monks or visitors who opts for a religious stay would stay at. I couldn’t understand how a typical family could live in and maintain a Buddhist temple for their day-to-day.

I was so thankful when my host family patiently explained that this was a family-run temple that passes on from generation to generation. When I was there, our host father was the one running the temple after taking over from his father. His four sons would each would take turns to assist in maintaining the temple too. I was surprised that our host father also held a normal full-time job outside the temple. I found this shared responsibility of the temple to be a really sweet connection for the family living there!

2. Ringing the Bell that tells Time (梵鐘 – “Bonsho”)

I’m sure you must be familiar with bells that tells time. It could be the church bells, or even the well-renowned chimes of the Big Ben. Have you thought about ringing one before though?

I had my first ever experience of ringing a Japanese traditional bell because of this homestay in a temple. Can you sense my excitement in the picture above? (ok, maybe not.) As part of running this Japanese temple, they also ring this bell daily. This bell serves to tell the time to the neighbouring houses at six in the morning and evening everyday. I asked a stupid question then on whether they ever forgot to ring the bell or missed the timing before. However, they confidently told me they never did and I was honestly impressed. It just shoes that level of commitment and teamwork the family has in maintaining this temple.

Our host father invited us to ring the bell with them on one of the nights we were there. I was SO excited I couldn’t even remember what happened exactly. That picture above is probably the only concrete memory I have of that moment. I felt just like an excited kid taking that roller coaster I queued two hours for. So much excitement!!

3. Shared Family Traditional Bath (お風呂 – “Ofuro”)

I was introduced to another Japanese culture during my homestay experience in a Japanese temple. If you’re not aware, Japan has a really rich bathing history and culture. Bathing is seen as a daily cleansing ritual in Japan, or even a social space. Within a home’s private ofuro, family members can bathe together and talk about their day in a relaxing environment.

Being winter then, it was even more indulging to relax in a warm ofuro at the end the day. The family invited us to use the ofuro and initially I thought it was just to take a normal shower. I had this second culture shock then when I went in the toilet to see that our host mum actually meant for us to use the ofuro which they share with the family. I was feeling so honoured at one point because of how much she treated me like family even though it was my first time there. On a second note, I couldn’t get used to it. I felt like I was infringing their privacy by using a family bath. Hence, I ended up not using it out of respect to their family, in my own way.

I absolutely enjoyed the traditional shower I took beside the ofuro though. It was a mix of traditional wooden bath and some high-tech shower that had an in-built heater. It kept me so warm I couldn’t bear to leave the shower in the midst of that cold winter!

4. Three Generation Family Dinner

In a Japanese family, it is quite the norm for the mum to prepare the meal for the family. Especially because we were guests, she did not allow us to help her out even when we offered to. Just like any Asian family, we also all sat together around the table before digging into the food. Sitting around the same table as their three-generation family made me feel very included into their family that night, and it was such a memorable dinner. As it was winter then, I especially liked the part when they just slid open the door and took some naturally chilled beer that was sitting on their balcony. It’s something that I can never relate to from sunny Singapore.

That night, their family also invited two other friends of theirs to hang out at their place after dinner. Although there was a slight language barrier because of my pathetic Japanese, it was fun hanging out together as they shared their impressions of Singapore with us. One of the most memorable one was the Merlion. In Japan, because of how the Merlion is known to be squirting water from its mouth, Japanese actually uses it to depict someone who starts puking after drinking too much. Now I cannot unsee this joke anymore HAHA!

5. Cafe-hopping

There was an afternoon when our host mum brought us out on a cafe date with one of her friends too. I remembered her telling me that she was very happy then because it made her feel like she’s going on a cafe hop with two daughters. As she has four sons herself, hanging out at a cafe with her children and enjoying some tea and cake together did not seem like a possiblility. Hence, she was so excited when we got to go to the cafe together for a chill afternoon.

It felt really nice too seeing how happy she was from us just spending time with her. It made me realise that sometimes all our parents need is really just some time together. You don’t need to plan a special event for that family time. It can be as simple as accompanying them for a meal, a simple chat, or even just sitting together watching a movie. It’s all about companionship I guess!

6. Relationship more than the Language

We kept in touch since the first time I did the homestay through the Kizuna Project run by the Japanese government with the objective of promoting other countries’ understanding with regards to Japan’s revival efforts in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. About five years later, I had the opportunity to head back down for another homestay, but this time on my own accord on a personal trip. What really warmed my heart was the host family’s hospitality towards my friend and I even then. They happily agreed to host us for as long as we wanted to, and took all the effort to make sure we had a comfortable stay!

Our host grandfather, who was in his nineties, actually told our host mum that he remembered me from the first time I visited them. Although I’ve never had much interactions with him with the slight language barrier and except only during meal times, I was very touched that he remembered me from such a brief moment in his life. Because of that, he gifted me with a book he’s written on his biography and the temple’s history. It helped me realise that people actually connect through the heart and their interactions, and not so much of the language ultimately. This will be a memory that I’ll hold dear to me for the rest of my life. Hopefully, this will also be one of the reasons why you’ll never stop travelling and exploring too!

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