Home Sweet Homestay Home.
This past weekend, my boyfriend and I ventured out to Nagano to visit my host family from my college summer program. That summer, I joined a group of students I knew nothing about and studied a traditional art-form long forgotten by most: ningyou joruri (known as “Bunraku” in Osaka). Though we traveled a bit at first to accumulate knowledge of the art, we eventually settled into the quiet mountain city of Iida. To call Iida a city is to paint it with a bland brush. Iida, though a city, is closer to a collection of small towns that span out through the mountain valleys, past a large river, and into the nooks of hillsides. It has the beauty of a natural landscape, the convenience of a small city, and the boredom of a small town. I love Iida.
Stronger than my love for Iida is that for my host family. Every year since that summer, I have loyally visited them and they have lovingly housed me for however long I could manage to stay. In the last two years, it has mostly been for short weekend visits and back to work by Monday morning. I have also attended every Puppet Festa, a famous puppet festival held in Iida with international participants, since that summer, when my study group performed what we learned all summer at the Festa. Even when there is no large event and activities to do, visiting my family is a welcome and heart-warming experience. This time, we barely had plans apart from meals and apple picking, yet I didn’t find myself bored. I often fidget without plans, but learning to relax this weekend was a much needed respite from the hustle of my life in Tokyo. The best company makes any weekend a golden one.
Upon our arrival, we went to a local restaurant for sandwiches and something sweet. Stuffed, we headed home to unpack and unwind. That afternoon was spent helping Takako-chan, my host parents’ granddaughter, study for her English exam on the following Monday. We must have spent about three hours helping her with worksheets, yet it was entertaining and went by quickly. She is a fireball of energy, sarcasm and love; I have never met a young Japanese girl quite like Takako-chan, and I would never want her to become reserved like one. Next up, more food – fruit and coffee. And soon after a wonderful dinner of homemade curry and katsu, accompanied with my host mother’s “inaka” cooking of little dishes and pickled vegetables. She excuses herself often that she cannot provide more, yet it’s my favorite food and she always prepares the items I love in preparation for my stay. I love her.
We ended the first day, tired from a 4.5 hour bus ride, at an onsen which overlooks the Iida valley. If it weren’t for the rain, we would have seen tons of stars across the sky. Luckily, we went again on Saturday night to a clear and beautiful starry night sky. Takako-chan insisted we visit the “misto” or mist sauna section, though I was perfectly content in the outdoor bath. She began the countdown. So I returned the timer once she got her way and we were in the mist. It’s too much for me 😛 It was still a fun experience to share with her and my host mother.
Saturday morning started with a cold morning 7.5k run. I was happy that I somehow managed to get out of bed, considering how comfortable and warm the bedding at my host family’s is. I began with my route from years ago and expanded from there – back then I could barely run more than 20 minutes, let alone 45. I returned to a nice, light breakfast of eggs, assorted side dishes,wine cooked apples, and oyaki (buckwheat-made mini toasted buns filled with mushroom, veggies, or sweet red bean). By 10:45, we were off to our grand adventure: apple picking. My host mother had called her farm-owning acquaintance a while back while awaiting our weekend reunion. The place was clearly popular on this cold but beautifully sunny Saturday morning. License plates boasted locations as far as hours of driving away. The lot was so full that the people behind us couldn’t get in. Baskets and peeling knives in hand, we entered the fenced off orchard area, found a spot between trees in the sunlight (warmth!), and claimed it with a sitting mat. Let the picking begin!
Our first few apples were purely for photographic purposes. Takako-chan raced to peel hers, whining when my host mother peeled many effortlessly in the interim. Haha. Eventually we were ready and my host father insisted on pictures of us eating and enjoying the apples. Fine, fine, the enjoyment requires no energy whatsoever. We spent the next hour alternating between picking and peeling apples, taking pictures, and munching on our harvest. I mostly took over the peeling and let the kids play. I do love feeding people. By the time we left after noon, we were stuffed and our hands were pretty sticky. I felt like a child again. No day is complete at my host family’s without proper meals, however, so we headed to a quick customizable udon place for lunch. Takako-chan wouldn’t have any other way.
The second we got home, I was so stuffed (to the point of stomach pains) that I passed out for half an hour in the warmth of my futon and comforter. We meant to visit the shop where I interned during my summer study, so we had no choice but to conquer the chill and walk over to the station front area. But before we got a chance to slip out the door, Takako-chan demanded coffee time – as if we could eat any more! But of course we stayed a little for a warm cup of coffee and small chat. Finally, an afternoon walk!
Apparently, there’s a kind of scavenger hunt in different areas of Japan that anyone can take part in. Objective: locate object, record that you got it, and hide it somewhere new so that future generations can do the same. My boyfriend was interested in finding one, so we took a detour from our shop visit to find said scavenger hunt item. Unfortunately, without a proper GPS, we weren’t able to find it. In retrospect, though, I’m still glad we tried: we got to wander through little streets to the library and discover parts of the old castle I didn’t know had existed there. That’s a successful discovery all on its own!
We didn’t make it to the shop until about 4:30 due to another (intended) detour: Iida sweets! Filled with a fruit based filling (blueberry, strawberry, apple, or seasonal flavors like walnut), these elegant sweets are covered in a thin layer of white chocolate, which breaks at the slightest touch. Easy to share? Definitely not. Good, more for me! (Haha only kidding, we managed to share one somehow in the shop and saved a box for sharing with my host family later).
The second we stepped into the shop where I had assisted, we were greeted by Nabe-chan (store keeper) and Tada-san (the owner) and their smiling surprise. It is the same every time I visit – the surprise, the laughter, the catching up and funny comments from Nabe-chan, and the indulgence of gifts on both sides. This time I left the shop with many gifts – for friends, Christmas in England, and my brother’s upcoming birthday. Success. It was nice catching up, though they were busy during the holiday weekend and had to finish shipments and tending to the store. Our last stop after saying our goodbyes was the supermarket for a stash of oyaki. Mmm oyaki oyaki oyaki. I made a chant of it.
Back home, Takako-chan was awaiting our arrival so that we could squeeze in a kaiten-sushi dinner before her cram school that evening. Her attempts at convincing her grandmother that it was okay to skip were turned down time and time again. We barely had a moment to settle in, as Takako-chan pushed for us to go to dinner right away. Okay! I was still quite full from lunch but the idea of sushi was a welcome one. Unfortunately, it was also a good idea for many families, so we had to wait an hour, even though it was only 6pm. Takako-chan didn’t have the time, so we took her to McDonald’s for a quite bite before her mother came to take her to study. We remained, consuming our pre-dinner cafe lattes. And off to sushi!
Yum. My homestay father kept pointing out different sushi types as if I’d never seen them before. I’ve been here for a combined almost three years now and I’m a massive sushi fan, so I would think that yes, I’ve probably seen or tried it before. And yes, I know what dorayaki is. And manjyu. Thank you, father. I got a little irritated by that, I guess mostly because it bothers me when people think I’m unobservant or just don’t know things. Meh. I tried to manage my politeness, though, because being a lady comes first and foremost 🙂 Post-dinner, we returned to the onsen. Ah, relaxing. Back home, we stayed up for a while in the kitchen, sharing beer and wine, snacks and good company. I love my host family. ❤
Sunday morning, we somehow crawled out of warmth, again, for a 10k run. It was never the intention to run so long, but we just kept going because it felt nice. I usually say to myself, okay, I’ll run til that sign, but this time I kept pushing the landmarks further and further back until we’d passed the three places at which we had eaten the day before. The uphill portion on the return was a bit painful (my foot has been acting up for over a month) but the overall run was wonderful. Not bad for 10:15 on a Sunday morning. Back in warmth, we scarfed down great side dishes, oyaki, and fruit. Then it was time to get ready and relax a bit before lunch and returning to Tokyo. We ended up watching pair figure skating on TV for some time – I love the gracefulness of the sport and the incredible coordination it requires. We had a quick sekigohan (rice with sweet red beans) lunch, made especially for me because my host mother is so sweet. I dropped in at the shop quickly because I’d forgotten to give them chocolate Santas as mini Christmas gifts the day before. Bye, Nabe-chan! A few minutes later, we were on the bus and Tokyo-bound as my host family, Takako-chan and her mother all waved to us. Bye, mata ne!
The bus ride there was quick, the return was not. As a headache developed, I napped a bit before mastering my mathematical skills.
4.5 hours + 2.25 hours of delay === delirious boredom
This formula has many unstated outcomes, not limited to: ceaseless laughter, tomato-popping fun, mutilation of gingerbread cookies, snacking, iPhone photos, and general mental degeneration. We had a fun time somehow, though our bus pulled in just after 9:30 and we were hungry and tired on the two trains home.
Weekend in Nagano? A perfect Tokyo escape. We came back refreshed and happy. And armed with apples. Let the culinary ventures begin!