“Home staying is like a gamble. Sometimes you meet families with whom you get along with, sometimes you don’t.”
As our friend Timmy spoke these words, I admit I hardly gave it a thought. We were going to a homestay program in Rifu (organized by Rifu Town) and we were excited! Thoughts of our prospective host family hardly bothered me. This was one of the earliest trips I took with my husband Bikash after a visit to a Cat Island, and we were not really worried about “what if’s”.
Popular for its tasty and juicy nashi-pears, Rifu is a small yet beautiful town located in Miyagi Prefecture. It has various attractions including fruit-picking where the town’s specialty “Rifu Nashi” (pear) can be picked straight from their branches! It is also home to the Grande 21 stadium (utilized as one of the venues for the 2002 FIFA World Cup) and Kasenuma park – a scenic spot where visitors can enjoy nature with the change of every season.
It took us about a half hour to get to Rifu town from Sendai. About 20 international students participated in this program and we were all welcomed very warmly by the local residents. It was overwhelming to see them ready to welcome us in the town hall with each of our country flags in front of our seats.
It was then when we saw our host family for the first time. As soon as we introduced ourselves, the Chiba family – our host family – waved at us and even “Namasteyed” back to us.
After the welcoming ceremony, we were ushered to follow our host families. Bikash and I introduced ourselves again and soon we were being taken to a pear orchard in their car.
At first, the car smelled funny. Mama, our host mother casually told us about herself and the family. We quickly learned that they were the proud owners of two dogs – Harry and Monaka. “This explains the weird smell” I thought to myself.
After trying our luck peeling the pears (the one who made the longest peel won!), we finally went back to their home. By this time, we were quite comfortable with them. The youngest member of the family – their granddaughter two-year-old Minori chan – was the perfect ice breaker. Their house was a cozy one!
With my basic Japanese skills and Bikash’s novice Japanese level, we started communicating. Mama was the talkative one – asking questions, offering tea and sweets, walking back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room. We met the oldest member of the family too – Mama’s mother – Obaachan. Papa was quiet and reserved – a retired engineer who liked carpentry. His projects included making furniture and lighting arrangements. Mama proudly showed them off – they looked as if they had been made by an expert!
I must admit, at first, it felt different addressing someone whom you’ve just met as “Mama” and “Papa”. Even after this visit, I addressed her with her first name but she would always address herself as “Mama” instead of “Watashi” (“I” in Japanese), which I think is really cute!
We had a feast for dinner!! The hospitality of our host family was impeccable. Mama and her daughter kept on offering food – and we just couldn’t say no to the delicious meal.
More than the food, the kindness this family showered upon us without any prejudice and condition was absolutely heartwarming.
We parted the next day around midday after touring the large Stadium called Grande 21.
After our homestay, we kept in touch through email. In fact, it was the series of events after this, that really strengthened our bond!
In December, Rifu Town organized a Christmas Party for the International students and we met them again after four months. Minori-chan seemed to have grown taller and looked cute as usual. After the party, mama invited us back to her place – this time with Timmy and another friend too.
I had learned about the death of one of their dogs through an email. Monaka, the fluffy white dog was already sick and frail when we saw him in September. We were overwhelmed to see a small altar dedicated to Monaka in his remembrance.
Later, mama insisted on having dinner at their place and we were glad to comply. After all, who skips an opportunity to have an authentic traditional Japanese dinner?
We met again on Christmas Eve for dinner. It was nice of them to invite three foreigners to their family gathering. This time, we pitched in and took some food prepared by us. We played random games and “monopoly” with the family and other guests too.
I have heard many foreigners describe how “rigid” the Japanese are and how they can’t party – the Chiba family proved this theory wrong!! I have never met anyone as warm, caring, funny and carefree as mama and her family. In fact, she reminds me of Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter and papa is definitely like Mr. Weasley.
The last time we met was a month ago. The old grandmother sadly passed away too. It must have been devastating to suffer two deaths in such a short period of time for them. This time, in the altar, obachan’s radiant face was beaming back at us. After lighting the incense sticks and talking about her, we invited our host family over to our place. It was an impromptu decision and as papa parked the car outside our dormitory, Bikash was already rushing towards the room to give it a quick clean! We talked about random things over a cup of tea.
That day, we didn’t have to make dinner. Mama had packed us food since we did not stop at her place. Relishing sashimi and oden, we talked amongst ourselves about how nice and kind they were. Meeting them opened our eyes and cleared-up many generalizations about Japanese we had made with prejudiced minds. They were incredibly kind, easy to chat to without any formal necessities, knew how to have fun and so easy going. People like them restore some faith in humanity and are an inspiration. We agreed, we had won the gamble!!