Traditionally the Japanese home wasn’t used for entertaining, except of close neighbours who have become friends, and out-of-town relatives (and these usually only at specific holiday times, such as Golden Week and O-Bon). But as houses and apartments gradually increase in size and Western habits creep in, there’s an increasing tendency for in-home get-togethers with friends. Some visitors to Japan are fortunate to experience stays in a private home, perhaps through an exchange program. In these cases it’s likely someone will have English skills and the parents have a positive and open-minded attitude to the outside world. The most common composition in a host family is mother, father and one or two children, and possibly a grandparent. In the converse, Japanese experiencing homestays overseas often find themselves in a less traditional family structure. As there are a few customs in Japan not commonly observed in other countries, prior knowledge of them might help a homestay get off to a good start:
Probably the best known of these is that shoes are not worn inside, but are taken off in the entrance (genkan) which is at the same level as the exterior of the dwelling, before stepping up and entering the main body of the home. Shoes should be placed in a neat pair, facing forward to the door, a task done by the mother of the home if not by the wearer. For this reason shoes without laces are popular in Japan, and people take care in wearing socks that are not obviously worn. Slip-on style slippers are always offered to guests when they enter the home, and the slippers found on the floor inside the toilet are worn only in that room.
Food is usually eaten with chopsticks, although visitors shouldn’t be shy about asking for a fork if necessary. Eating is prefaced by the exclamation itadakimasu, equivalent to giving thanks for what is about to be received. It’s OK to raise small bowls, such as of soup, to one’s mouth, and make some noise while eating, especially noodles. Many Japanese dishes require the adding of sauce, and visitors can expect to be shown which to use. Depending on the sauce and the food it is to accompany, it will be either placed in a separate small dish and dipped into, or poured over the food. The hosts will probably be concerned visitors can eat Japanese food, so for example there’s no need to hesitate in expressing a preference for toast, rather than miso soup, grilled fish and rice for breakfast, if that is the case. Most Japanese homes have a dining table and chairs, but evening meals might be taken at a low table in the room with tatami mat flooring, seated on the floor. Visitors will probably be asked if this kind of seating arrangement is comfortable for them. Upon finishing eating, visitors may like to express their appreciation of the meal by saying go-chiso-sama deshita.