What I learned from my time in Yonezawa, Japan

How homestay was the highlight of my cultural immersion

Jocelyn's homestay experience sticks out the most from her trip to Japan.
Credit: 
Supplied by Jocelyn Knibutat

This winter break, I had the chance to live out my lifelong dream of visiting Japan, thanks to the Kakehashi Project, a youth exchange program run by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), and the Asia Pacific Foundation. While the majority of my trip was spent exploring Tokyo, my rural homestay experience is what will always stand out in my memories.

While I was in Japan, I participated in a three-day, two-night homestay at a traditional Japanese home in Yamagata Prefecture’s Yonezawa (米沢). I was there with four other girls from all over Canada. We stayed at the home of a lovely elderly couple, who had a lot of experience with accommodating exchange students. After starting my trip in Tokyo, the contrast between the capital city and countryside was stark. When I was on the Shinkansen (新幹線)—the high-speed train—to Yonezawa, it was easy to see the transition from tall city buildings and bright advertisements to fields, mountains, and snow. 

Going into the homestay, I had concerns about the language barrier. I had officially been learning Japanese for a year and a half, which is to say I was limited to basic conversation. Fortunately, the girls I was on the trip with had been learning the language longer, and I was surprised to find that I understood more than I thought I would.

It also turned out the new things I was afraid of experiencing—new food, new accommodations, and new people—ended up being what made me feel the most immersed in Japanese culture.

My homestay parents took all four of us to our first experiences at an onsen (), a Japanese hot spring. Onsens are public bathing establishments where you can relax and soak in the hot water. I also went to an ashi-yu (足湯), where you could sit on the side of the street while soaking your feet in hot water. This was probably one of my favourite experiences in Yonezawa: it was a more informal version of the onsen, and very calming.

I also participated in something called a dondo-yaki (どんど焼き), which is where old lucky items, like charms and talismans, are burned in a bonfire. It’s considered the correct way to get rid of anything considered lucky, as opposed to disposing of the items in the trash, and it’s a way to begin the New Year with a fresh start.  

Learning about the city’s unique culture and history was also a highlight of my homestay. I went on volunteer-led tours on the Uesugi Shrine and Mausoleum, where volunteer guides told us about the land’s history. I also got to learn about Yonezawa by meeting with some of Yonezawa’s craftsmen, like sake brewers, those who weave and dye cloth, and otaka poppo (おたかぽっぽ) carvers. Otaka poppos are wooden carvings made only in Yonezawa, usually in the shape of a hawk. These carvings are used as children’s toys as well as good luck charms for families.

I’m very happy to say I got the chance to experience things most tourists wouldn’t, like authentic home-cooked Japanese food. Honestly, I probably can’t name half of the food, but it was all delicious. If you ever go there, I definitely recommend you complete the ABCs of Yonezawa, which covers the three foods the town is famous for: apples, beef, and carp. Having tasted all three, I can honestly say that after a month back in Canada, I’m still thinking about them, especially the apples, which were the size of an adult man’s hand. I didn’t realize how many Japanese foods would be impossible to find in Canada until I was home.

This was a trip of many firsts: my first visit to Japan, my first homestay, and my first exchange. After building up so many expectations about this trip, I was delighted that I enjoyed every bit of it. If you’re ever in Japan, I definitely recommend checking out Yonezawa. I know I’ll be going back someday.

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