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Nagomi Visit – Interacting with Travelers from Around the World Though "At-Home Meals" –

Two of the Nagomi Visit operations team, Megumi Kusunoki (L) and Alisa Sanada (R)

Two of the Nagomi Visit operations team,
Megumi Kusunoki (L) and Alisa Sanada (R)

This month's Close Up introduces Nagomi Visit, a specified non-profit organization. Nagomi Visit is a group that organizes home visits whereby travelers to Japan are invited to share a normal meal in a Japanese household and engage in cultural exchange with their hosts for a period of two or three hours. By registering as a host, people can access the Nagomi Visit website and view home-visit requests from travelers worldwide, they can then easily invite a guest into their home. On this occasion, we spoke at length with Nagomi Visit Founder Megumi Kusunoki, and Chief Operating Officer Alisa Sanada, about home visits as a convenient means by which to experience international exchange.

Q.Please tell us what led to the establishment of Nagomi Visit?

Nagomi Visit Founder Ms. Kusunoki

Nagomi Visit Founder
Ms. Kusunoki

A.Ms. Kusunoki: Nagomi Visit commenced its activities in September, 2011. What led to our establishment were my own experiences. Some years ago, I was invited by an acquaintance in Denmark to stay at his home, and I ate meals with his family when they put me up. I was actually on my first European trip at the time, so everything I saw and spoke about was totally new and refreshing. Anyway, I had the simple thought that it would be great if everybody could experience something so exciting. For travelers, however, their only chance to visit normal households while traveling is having locally-based friends. Thus, in being born out of the idea of wanting to establish a system whereby travelers could visit normal households even if they didn't have locally-based friends, I started Nagomi Visit as an organization that manages a program of home visits.

Q.Why did you focus on the idea of "meeting locals for a real Japanese meal at home"?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: For both hosts and travelers, homestays that involve being put up overnight represent a rather high hurdle. However, if it is simply the case of entertaining somebody for two or three hours and enjoying a meal together, there is a certain sense that anybody can participate while feeling relaxed about matters. There was also another reason why we focused on meals. In Japan, there is the saying, "to eat rice out of the same pot." As this implies, if people eat meals together, they quickly become friends. I believe this is the quickest shortcut to reduce the sense of distance that can exist between people.

The Nagomi Visit logo featuring bowls and chopsticks (L), and their slogan (R). ©Nagomi Visit

The Nagomi Visit logo featuring bowls and chopsticks (L), and their slogan (R).
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And what sort of cuisine do your hosts prepare?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: We ask that our hosts prepare dishes that are eaten in the average Japanese home, food such as rice, miso soup and accompanying side dishes. The side dishes are also normal home-cooking such as meat and potato stews, mackerel cooked with miso, and rolled egg omelets. Moreover, many of our hosts like to prepare something with their guests. Savory pancakes, octopus dumplings, and hand-rolled sushi are also popular choices. Furthermore, during winter there are hotpots and oden (vegetables, fish dumplings and various other items stewed in a thin soy soup). Because each of these meals are family-oriented choices, they are very enjoyable when eaten in company. Thinking globally, Japanese cuisine such as sushi and ramen have proven very popular. However, I believe what our hosts serve to their guests gives the opportunity to teach people that Japanese food is more than just sushi and ramen.

Taking on the challenge of cooking octopus dumplings!  Preparing something together gives both guests and hosts a memorable experience. An Italian couple (L), and an American family (R). ©Nagomi Visit

Taking on the challenge of cooking octopus dumplings!
Preparing something together gives both guests and hosts a memorable experience.
An Italian couple (L), and an American family (R).
©Nagomi Visit

Nagomi Visit Chief Operating Officer Ms. Sanada.

Nagomi Visit
Chief Operating Officer
Ms. Sanada

A.Ms. Sanada: Among our guests, many have commented that their experiences have changed their perceptions of Japanese cuisine. Tofu is a good example. Overseas, tofu has the image of something healthy that can be used in place of meat when cooking, but there is also the image of it being not very tasty. However, some of our hosts have also been surprised when guests have described tofu as "truly delicate and delicious" as a result of being served it during their visits.

Q.And what about your guests? What types of people are common?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: Until now, we've had approximately 400 guests participate, with a wide range of ages, from people in their 20s through to those in their 70s. Among our guests, there are many couples in their 30s and 40s, and many families with small children. We have also seen parents and children, groups of friends, and people traveling alone. A common thread among all of them is that they found Nagomi Visit because they desired to search out a range of experiences that went beyond normal tourism.

A Belgian and Hungarian couple who met in Finland and live in the Netherlands. ©Nagomi Visit

A Belgian and Hungarian couple
who met in Finland and live in the Netherlands.
©Nagomi Visit

A mother from Canada accompanied by her 12 year old daughter. ©Nagomi Visit

A mother from Canada accompanied
by her 12 year old daughter.
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And what countries are strongly represented among your guests?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: At the moment we cater for persons who can speak English. Thus, we see many travelers from the United States, Australia, and Singapore. Following on from these countries, we also see participants from regions such as Europe, the Middle East, and South America, etc. Indeed, we have participants from many different countries. We have even received applications from foreign residents here in Japan. While on one hand there are foreign residents who want to experience life in a Japanese home for themselves, on the other there are also those who use the opportunity of their own family visiting Japan to participate together in our home visits program.

Nationalities of guests so far. ©Nagomi Visit

Nationalities of guests so far.
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And rather than just wanting to find out something about Japan, do you also see guests who want to convey something of their own culture?

An Israeli couple in Japan on their honeymoon who met while carrying out their military service.  Here they are pictured together with their host couple whose outlook was also broadened by the experience. ©Nagomi Visit

An Israeli couple in Japan on their honeymoon
who met while carrying out their military service.
Here they are pictured together with
their host couple whose outlook was
also broadened by the experience.
©Nagomi Visit

A.Ms. Kusunoki: There's the sense that many participating guests have proactive attitudes regarding (cultural) exchange. Our hosts teach their guests something of Japan, while some home visits also result from guests wanting to communicate something of their own country to Japanese hosts. There are examples whereby preconceived ideas and images of "people of certain nationalities" are overturned after actually speaking to somebody from that country. There are also probably situations whereby such preconceptions are reinforced. Among both guests and hosts, there seem to be a wide variety of discoveries resulting from interactions with one another.

Q.And what are the motivations for your hosts to register?

The son of a host family whose English academic results have improved since his family started participating. ©Nagomi Visit

The son of a host family whose
English academic results have improved
since his family started participating.
©Nagomi Visit

A.Ms. Kusunoki: The motivations of hosts vary greatly. Some people are interested in interactions with different cultures. Others have backgrounds as global backpackers and they empathize with our program. We also have people who want opportunities to speak the English they are learning. Others are looking to create an environment in which their children become interested in both English and other cultures. Still others want to participate if its means that their cooking hobbies can be put to good use in cultural exchange with others. We also have many hosts whose outlook is more relaxed and they are simply willing to give things a go.

Q.And what sorts of households are common among your hosts?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: In terms of age range, we have households from around their late 20s through to people in their 60s. The most common segments are couples in their 30s and 40s, as well as families with children. Additionally, we have some share-house residents and people who are living alone. We even have housewives who are alone midday weekdays because their husbands, children are outside the home. We also have some hosts who normally live alone, but on visit days they invite friends around so that meal preparations are a common effort, etc.
A.Ms. Sanada: In this day and age, it is no longer the case that a Japanese household is necessarily comprised of a father, a mother, and children. Because an objective of our program is to allow people to understand the "real" (contemporary) Japan, we are willing to register anybody as a host if they are the sort of person who would experience enjoyment from receiving home visits from travelers.

Breakdown of households registered as hosts. ©Nagomi Visit

Breakdown of households registered as hosts.
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And are there also people interested in hosting who are unable to overcome their anxieties?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: As a first step to becoming a host, our operations team conducts interviews with interested people using Skype. At such times, if we're asked various questions, we can respond by drawing on our own experiences, and on how other hosts have handled matters. I should also point out that we've uploaded FAQ regarding hosting to our website. We've also published interviews with experienced hosts. For those who are interested, I would recommend they access such resources. Furthermore, to convey the hosting experience as realistically as possible, we want to keep on uploading a wide range of photos and videos, etc.
A.Ms. Sanada: Our aim is for Nagomi Visit to become an organization whose services have an accessible visibility in the wider community. I would say to people interested in hosting that they shouldn't be overly concerned. Our operations team can be asked questions directly, we also have many people with hosting experience. Thus, I would ask that people give it a try.

Two guests from Singapore commented, "It was a valuable day in that we came into contact with real Japanese culture." ©Nagomi Visit

Two guests from Singapore commented,
"It was a valuable day in that we came
into contact with real Japanese culture."
©Nagomi Visit

Shopping at a local supermarket after a meal. Apparently grapefruit spoons are not sold in Europe. ©Nagomi Visit

Shopping at a local supermarket after a meal.
Apparently grapefruit spoons are not sold in Europe.
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And do you offer support to people who are "uncertain of their ability to communicate in English?"

A host couple who have hosted guests on five occasions.  "The more home visits we receive, the easier it becomes to get our thoughts across in English." ©Nagomi Visit

A host couple who have hosted guests on
five occasions. "The more home visits we receive,
the easier it becomes to get our thoughts
across in English."
©Nagomi Visit

A.Ms. Kusunoki: To hosts, we offer English translations that feature lists of ingredients and cuisine explanations. We also hand over a simple conversation guide that can help hosts break the ice with their guests. Actually, we have a lot of hosts who say, "my English ability is equivalent to that of somebody who graduated junior high school." However, it is still possible for them to say what they want even by linking single words together. Hosts can also use smartphones, they can look up words there and then, and they can even show pictures. Indeed, there are many people who come to realize that, "my English was more communicative than I thought."

Q.So it seems your hosts enjoy their interactions with their foreign guests?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: One hundred percent of our hosts say they enjoy the experience. As a result of receiving guests from a wide range of countries and various age groups, no matter how many times somebody hosts a visit, there is always something new to discover with each new visit. Moreover, it's more than just learning about other cultures. Many hosts feel they also rediscover what's good about Japan by listening to their guests. From families with children, we've been told that parents notice the moment in time when "children also become interested in other cultures." Indeed, for small children, to have contact with people for different countries via home visits from a young age helps develop an awareness that "people are people, regardless of how they look." An argument you often hear is developing global human resources, however, this means more than simply speaking English. What we want is to increase the number of people able to accept differences, but nevertheless able to effectively communicate with others. It is one idea that underpins our home visits program.

Although host family children are sometimes tense to begin with, they quickly become accustomed to guests and proactively seek to communicate in English. ©Nagomi Visit

Although host family children are sometimes tense to begin with,
they quickly become accustomed to guests and proactively seek to communicate in English.
©Nagomi Visit

Q.And how do you see Nagomi Visit developing in the future?

A.Ms. Kusunoki: Firstly, I want to increase the scale of our activities. Secondly, rather than having each new discovery born from every host-guest interaction simply remain with those people, I'd like to proactively transmit such information in order that others can read, hear, and enjoy these experiences as well. Furthermore, I also have the desire to see Nagomi Visit hosts worldwide. For example, people who've participated in the program as guests in Japan might become hosts in their home country, and it would be wonderful if our Japanese hosts could reverse their role when traveling overseas and become home-visit guests. Although I don't know when we might realize such a huge dream, nevertheless, I want it as an objective.
A.Ms. Sanada: Although it's a personal mission, I suppose my final objective is to help overturn pre-conceived notions regarding foreign people. There are a lot of foreign people living in Japan. I'd like to see bias and discrimination towards them eliminated. I look forward to the day when such people are simply viewed as normal folk "getting on with their lives." Moreover, there's a tendency to view Japan as a somewhat mysterious country when viewed from outside. Concerning visitors to Japan, I'd like them to appreciate the humanity of the country in that Japanese people lead lives that share similar concerns to their own.