NAGANO, Japan -- When we arrived in Hakuba Village here, we were greeted with a paradox: A very cold weather – 2°C at that – and a warm welcome from the Hakuba people.
When I received our official itinerary and list of activities for the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (Jenesys) 2018 – Media Industry, the homestay experience program was the part I am most excited about.
The homestay program despite its short duration - nearly three days only – is designed to give delegates immersion experience with an ordinary Japanese family’s ways of living thereby learning first-hand Japan’s culture and traditions.
The Philippines’ delegation, composed of 15 young communicators, was divided into four groups. Cedrix, Brylle, and I were assigned to the Shimokawa family. And it was a beautiful experience.
Meeting the Shimokawas
The Shimokawas are nothing but a kind and loving host family for us. They own and operate a lodging business as a major source of income and a small farm nearby.
Otosan Nobutoshi, 71, fetched us from Kamishiro station. When we got in their pension house with over 20 rooms, Okasan Chieko, 68, welcomed us with a hot tea and led us to our room – a traditional Japanese one. There were no other guests during our stay but they are expecting some when the snow comes as many tourists – local and foreign- visit Hakuba for ski and other winter activities.
After settling our things, we joined them in the kitchen preparing for dinner. We offered help but they’re hesitant at first, maybe because they’re too hospitable and they don’t want us to be bothered. But we insisted politely, and so they gladly allowed us to help them.
Otosan prepared Oden while Okasan did the Tempura and, yes, authentic Japanese food tastes heavenly.
Dinner was served at 7:31 p.m., just a minute late from the scheduled 7:30 p.m. eat. For us, it was nothing and normal, but Okasan approached us with a worried face. She grabbed her tablet, used Google translate app, spoke in Nihongo, and showed us the translation.
The translation said: We are very sorry to keep you waiting.
Reading that touched my heart and underlines how important time is for them, something Filipinos should reflect and learn on.
Over dinner we discussed various topics with the heater beside keeping us warm and we taught each other some Japanese and Filipino phrases vice versa. Okasan was usually the talkative one while Otosan, for most of the times, silent and just listening, but I can see through his eyes that he was enjoying the conversation.
I asked them about what they know about the Philippines and they answered – bananas.
“I love Philippine bananas, it is delicious,” Okasan shared. Philippines -considered one of the biggest producers of bananas globally- exports bananas to various countries including Japan.
We ended the night with Okasan teaching us the basics of Ikebana. And we promised we’ll cook for next dinner a famous Filipino dish – Pork Adobo.
The picturesque Hakuba
The next day (November 30), Otosan showed us around the beautiful village of Hakuba with the northern alps of Japan in the background. It first gained global attention when the Winter Olympics was hosted here in 1998.
I really appreciate Otosan’s effort to tour and drive us around considering his age but surprisingly he’s more than active, he even braved first the multiple steps going towards the famous Hakuba Ski Jumping Stadium.
He also showed us other spots like the Snow Harp Cross Country Course, one of Hakuba’s Olympic venues; Matsukawa River Bridge (Hakuba Big Bridge); a park which Otosan considers as his hideout place, and Aeon Big Shopping Mall where we bought some ingredients for Adobo. I observed in the shopping mall, people are bringing their own tote bag to get rid from plastics.
As promised, we cooked them with two Filipino dishes: Spicy Pork Adobo and Tortang Talong (Eggplant) and happily they loved it. Okasan even asked about the recipes.
Before we call it a day, Otosan brought us to Mimizuko no Yu, an onsen or public bath house in Hakuba. When in Japan, to fully experience their culture, onsen is definitely a must-try. Otosan shared that there are six onsens in Hakuba and he usually goes for onsen two to three times weekly.
We learned that the Shimokawas started accepting homestay program in 2013 and we are their first batch of Filipino guests. We hope we made a good impression.
Our homestay experience might be short but we already had our kind of infinity with my co-delegates and our host families. I remember shedding tears while watching them perform the Sukiyaki song and bidding goodbyes to the Shimokawas. Otosan and Okasan will be back to their normal routines again, waiting for yearend to reunite with their children who are now working in different cities of Japan. But I know The Almighty will bless this kind and beautiful couple.
Our Japan International Cooperation Center (Jice) coordinator Junko Ito once shared while we were on the bus heading home to Hakuba Village from a city tour, that there is one cultural concept which Japanese strongly believe: Ichi-go ichi-e. It means “one chance in a lifetime” which suggests we should “treasure every encounter, for it will never recur.”
Indeed, this is a once in a lifetime experience and I’m forever grateful for this grand opportunity.
When I first announced that I’m going to Japan for a media exchange program, many people I know shared they consider Japan as their dream country to live and experience and now I know why.