Sunday, January 2, 2011

Couchsurfing in Japan

After a week of traveling in Japan, I'm home and ready to start my last month at Songpa SLP. This trip to Japan was rather special for me, as it was my first time traveling alone. I wasn't sure how it was all going to go, but it all came together in the end. I finally got to try CouchSurfing from the traveler's end of the spectrum. Since starting to host couchsurfers in September, I've really gotten a whole new travel bug to get out and meet people and see new places.

The lovely thing about couchsurfing is that you can meet the locals, or at least the local expats. They can take you to the good restaurants, treat you to some home cooking and introduce you to some cultural aspects that you would have completely overlooked as a tourist passing through for a few days or weeks. And, while I don't believe couchsurfing is about saving money, it is definitely one highlight of it. Especially in a country like Japan where the worst hostel will put you back around $30 per night per person. That adds up quickly on one's budget.

The first place I stayed was with a woman from Osaka living in a small one room apartment. It reminded me of Korea in many ways (except for the lack of floor heating). On the first night she took me out for some drinks and yakidori (grilled chicken). It was a great meal, but it also was a bit of a sticker shock when I realized that between the two of us we owed 6,000 yen (83,000 won) for not all that much food. So, again, one needs to watch the wallet when eating in Japan. But, I try to enjoy as well. It's about balance. Maybe learn to sacrifice on lunch and splurge on dinner.... or something to that effect.

Both mornings I stayed with her, we ate a breakfast of tea, rice (slightly different from the Korean variety... much drier, eaten with chopsticks and often eaten just plain) and natto. And oh I love natto... one of the world's most amazing foods (and too expensive in Korea!) I brought home 10 boxes of it back to Seoul.

The downside to couchsurfing sometimes is that you often need to leave when the host leaves the house. In my case, about 8 am. So, I had all day to explore Osaka.... but on a day when most museums were closed (Monday + New Year's holiday) so there wasn't much left to do. I started my day with Osaka Castle and then later I met my friend Asami from my Korean class to explore some other areas and get dinner. At least I had some company for some of the day!

Tuesday it was on to Kyoto. I carried my backpack all day until I met my host, but it was worth it, because she brought me to her traditional style, 100 year old home in downtown Kyoto. It's hard to find old homes in Japan since so many were destroyed in the war, not to mention that I'm sure many others have been demolished in order to make way for modernity much like other countries in the world. Our first night, she brought me to the Gion district, famous for Geishas (but we didn't catch any walking around),  to eat some dinner in one affordable restaurant she knows of. Again, nothing like hanging around the locals to find the good places. On Wednesday night, she cooked me a feast for dinner (see above) full of all sorts of treats.

Her cat seemed to take a liking to me and slept with me both nights.

Finally, on to Kobe. I met my friend from college, Nori, at the subway station and he took me for the grand tour of Kobe.

We finished the day with a grand meal of Kobe beef with his friend and friend's mom. They all wanted to get a chance to practice English with a native speaker. In Korea, this would bother me a lot since I need all the Korean practice I can get... but here, where my Japanese is limited to about 10-15 words (on a good day) I welcomed all the English I could get.

Here is Nori's house. It survived the earthquake, unlike many other homes in Kobe. It was a full fledged house, something that I've yet to experience in Seoul (maybe only in the suburbs). They gave me my own bedroom and filled me up with a grand breakfast in the morning.

I was actually supposed to stay here for two nights, but because of the holiday they couldn't host me for the last night, so they surprised me with a hotel for my last night. It wasn't quite like staying in someone's home, but I must say it was my best night's sleep on my week long trip.

I hope you all make a couchsurfing account now that you've read this (if you haven't already) and take full advantage of this website to meet new friends in your hometown and when you're traveling. If you don't know what couchsurfing is, it is basically a site to bring together people from all around the world who can offer a free "couch", meaning a place to sleep, or some guide service with people who are traveling around the world. Staying at a hotel, or even a hostel, doesn't give you the same cultural experience as staying in someone's home or going out with the locals. Whether you're young, old, single,  a couple, have a family or whatever, there's sure to be someone on this website for you to meet and share cultures with.

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