Foreign visitors get a taste of Japanese culture through home-cooked meals

By Haruka Masumizu

Nagomi Visit is a non-profit organization founded in 2011, whose central purpose is to promote cultural understanding through home cooking. The NPO arranges situations where people from all over the world can connect with Japanese host families and share their lives over lunch and dinner at home.

Nagomi Visit’s Chief Operating Officer Alisa Sanada is a Japanese-American, who was born and grew up in the U.S. Her unique background and identity led her to be part of the organization, she explained. “I want to bring different types of people together, making them realize that everyone has a different background. And in the end, I hope they will realize we are all the same humans.”

Sanada came to Japan 10 years ago on a study abroad program at Waseda University. During her one-year home-stay with a Japanese family, she developed her desire for the world to experience and get to know the real Japan, which spurred her to come back to Japan after graduation.

Sanada says that Nagomi Visit signifies a new type of travel. She often receives comments from visitors that they are tired of visiting temples and looking for something much deeper. Visiting Japanese people at home and sharing a meal with them is one of the best ways for visitors to experience daily life in Japan.

However, it is hard for a visitor from overseas to randomly meet Japanese people and say, “Hey, can I visit your home?” -- especially because of the language barrier. “We would like that to organically happen but it just doesn’t happen. So we arrange the situation as a program that goes beyond language barriers.”

A Japanese proverb says, “Onaji kama no meshi wo kuu” (Eating rice out of the same pot) can be a good way to psychologically connect people from different cultures. “The process of eating sort of naturally forces people to physically sit down and actually interact with each other,” Sanada said. In this sense, “the word ‘Nagomi’ defines what we really are. The simplest definition would be ‘Japan’ while it also means ‘to be friends.’”

Nagomi Visit not only provides tourists with a new way of travel but also provides the hosts with some advantages that cannot be normally experienced if they stay in Japan.

“We have been asked some funny questions by Japanese hosts, such as ‘Can foreigners sit at a kotatsu?’ or ‘Can they use chopsticks?’” said Sanada. “But after hosting several times, they start to see them as human beings and stop talking about stereotypes. They start to know ‘how to talk,’ so to speak.”

Another advantage for hosts is that they will get to know and appreciate their own culture as something interesting and special. “One host family said that their visitors asked them what is the red little thing on ‘ojizosan’and they couldn’t answer. Then they did their research and realized that they don’t know such little things about their own culture.,” said Sanada.

Also, Japanese people have again begun to realize that washoku is something special that they can be proud of after it was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in December. Although unfortunately little about this is known abroad, Sanada expects more Japanese people to get motivated to become hosts for Nagomi Visit.

“The definition of washoku for UNESCO would be slightly different from the definition of Nagomi Visit,” Sanada said. “It may include curry, ‘katsu,’ all kinds of washoku eaten normally in Japanese households and influenced by Western and Asian food.”

Washoku seems to be changing these days, but Sanada said Nagomi Visit will keep evolving based on the proverb, “Onaji kama no meshi wo kuu,” which never changes.

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Japanese people have again begun to realize that washoku is something special that they can be proud of

Whereas before they were uncertain as to whether or not it was special, which is why they don't have network TV shows of people cooking and eating it seven days a week.

Is it just me, or is this obsession with having non-Japanese agree that Japanese food is "unique" really rather desperate? It seems to smack of insecurity.

People tend to prepare and eat home-made food in most places, and it often tastes good regardless of whether or not it has UNESCO status.

8 ( +12 / -4 )

What a great idea.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Pretty cool idea.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Its always good to see more ways to promote cultural exchange. Yeah, it might be unintentional, but the "can you use chopsticks?" questions really enforces their lack of cultural awareness.

One time, my Chinese-Canadian friend was asked that question and he snapped back, "Get off your high horse, WE invented them son!"

4 ( +8 / -4 )

A cousin not too long ago did this same thing with a family home in Egypt.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Great idea. It doesn't get more grassroots than sharing food around the dinner table.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

And now, all you non-Japan resident commentators, start up your own business doing the same. I have the advantage of living with a Japanese family when I am in Japan. Truly, if you can do that in your own country, and advertise the fact in a sensitive way, you're a winner.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I don't see how this does not benefit all parties, and I think it particularly benefits the hosts if the traveller is somewhat worldly. Hosts that need to ask, "Can he/she/they/you use chopsticks?" really need to learn a little more about the world, and this helps them as much as a nice home-cooked meal can warm the body and heart of a foreign traveller. Grassroots exchange... that's where it's at.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Japanese people look genuinely surprised when they see me using chopsticks.

I stayed with a family in Nagoya for a short time in 2012 and they were very kind, allowing me to use the spare room. Only downside was no bed, just a duvet on top and bottom... did me back in. I've stayed with other Japanese people, but my Nagoya friends were a lovely family.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Is it really so bad for people to ask if you can use chopsticks? My mother was very glad to be asked on the occasions she visited Japan. She had difficulty using them, and was happy when offered a fork. (She was a bit mystified sometimes when offered a spoon.) She was also the type who had no concerns about asking Japanese visitors (usually my in-laws) whether they could use a knife and fork, and they didn't seem offended by the question.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Not sure why you would be offended in anyway if a Japanese person asks if you can use chopsticks? I can use them to pick food up and I don't any Asian people so not sure if I'm using the correctly. I wouldn't be offended if they asked me if I could use them or told me that I wasn't using it properly because it means they can show me how to use them.

I think this is a great idea, especially if the hosts know English as it will go some way to bringing down the barriers with one being language. If you know Japanese you could speak it and improve as well.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

nostromo "can you use chopsticks"

Yeah, that is rather the point. Cross-cultural understanding means, well, everyone overcoming the stereotypes they may have learned by getting to know the other country/people/ethnicity, etc, that much better.

Here, Japanese may learn that, OMG!, white people can use chop sticks. And an American, for example, may learn there is a lot more, a whole wonderfully lot more to Japanese food than sushi, ramen, and Yoshinoya.

Breaking bread is the best way build emotional bonds between peoples.

And that is why the Red Wedding was so horrible!!!! ;)

1 ( +3 / -2 )

"can you use chopsticks?"

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Strangerland, are you not applying your own stereotyping here?

I suppose so.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

What surprises me is the fact they've actually managed to find Japanese families willing to accept anyone at all in their home ! Maybe even more especially foreigners !

Although it's not mentioned, I imagine this is not a "free-of-charge" service and nationality doesn't really count if small "contributions" can "round-off" the month - Heck ! I'd do it myself but then again, we're only "half-Japanese" (me being the "gaijin") but this gaijin was using chopsticks since she was 6 years young (my parents loved Chinese food and I wanted to eat it the "correct" way).

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This cool. This way you get eat like the locals do at home. Where I live ,a mexian restaurant has buffet plus menu. On buffet it's food cooked like at home. I love it. There are some tours where you get to set with family and they even teach you about some of their cooking. Great Idea !!!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Arigato everyone for the thought provoking comments. We are loving every bit of it! If you ever have any questions about our program, please feel free to contact us anytime. We are genuinely interested in hearing from you all :) - Alisa Sanada, Nagomi Visit

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Adventure travel does this. It's a great to meet local people , see how they live and the average meal cooked. Here in Winter Park, Florida , a Mexican restaurant , "AMINGO"S" . They have a buffet plus menu. I usually do the buffet as it's like your eating home cooked food. It's also a great way to meet local people and know the culture of their country. great for Japan for joining in. Hopefully one day I can do or win a trip like this.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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