One of the things Tony and I did in preparation for our RTW trip was to sign up for CouchSurfing. At the time, we didn’t know if we would actually ever use the service as we tend to like to do our own thing and weren’t sure how we felt about sleeping on a stranger’s couch, but we decided it wouldn’t hurt to set up a profile “just in case”. Our good friend Trisha has participated in CouchSurfing for a few years and met some really interesting people that way, so we figured that if our big trip was about expanding our horizons and trying new things, this might be a fun thing to try out. Plus, we knew we were planning to hit up some rather expensive places on this trip, and we wanted to keep an open-mind about ways to keep costs manageable.
Because we thought we would be more marketable to prospective hosts when were out in the world without a bed or a couch to call our own, we decided to fully embrace the CouchSurfing spirit and offered up our own couch in Nashville to any travelers who needed a place to spend a night or two before we moved. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we assumed this would be a good way to find out on our own turf whether CouchSurfing was something we were comfortable with. As it turns out, we had a great time hosting two separate travelers; we realized it was a great way to make new friends and make the world feel a little bit smaller. Feeling stuck in Nashville, it was fun to connect with people with a yen for travel and to hear about their own adventures. The entire experience made us all the more excited to try our hand at surfing on our own trip.
While in Japan, we had the opportunity to CouchSurf in two different cities, and I hardly think it is an exaggeration to say that these experiences resulted in some of the moments that Tony and I most treasure from our time in Japan. Despite having hosted twice before, we were unprepared for the outpouring of warmth and welcome we felt from our hosts. After some rocky moments in Japan where we had felt we were struggling to fully breach the country’s culture, customs and language, finding people who were so kind and open with us was exactly what we needed. Our hosts in Japan really went above and beyond to ensure that our visits to their homes were special and that we felt were among friends.
It’s hard to eloquently summarize all of the wonderful moments we shared in Japan, but below, I try to capture some of the truly sublime experiences Tony and I had during our first CouchSurfing experience in Furukawa.
We limited our time in Takayama to a single day because our host, Mika, lives in a nearby village of Furukawa. Although gaining popularity with Japanese tourists, Furukawa is largely under most foreign tourists’ radar. You won’t find it in any guidebooks and more’s the shame for it. If you’re looking for a quaint Japanese village, and a real slice of the countryside, you need look no further than Furukawa. It has all of the charm and many of the attractions of neighboring Takayama—it has a float museum, wooden handicraft shops, an annual drum festival, and sake breweries—but without any of the commercialized veneer, slight though it may be, that comes from being a hot tourist hub. This is Japan unvarnished, where people live their lives simply and honestly, without any concern for tourists and the extra yen they might bring in. This isn’t to say that the people are cold or disinterested; no, they treat you with a genuine warmth and kindness that is somewhat disarming, given that Japanese people are so often thought of as taciturn and reserved. And with stunning countryside surrounding it (Furukawa is a farming town, through and through), the place is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.
Mika picks us up at the train station and apologizes for running late. She has had an influx of guests and visitors, and while planning for the barbecue we will be attending that night time has gotten away from her. Because the barbecue is at a house that is nearly an hour’s walk away, she has borrowed a car from friends so that we can arrive in style and save our feet for the walk home. When we reach her home, we are introduced to several other guests, including a fellow surfer named Jay who hails from Frankfurt by way of Cardiff where he has been studying Japanese and Business for the past two years. He will be spending the next year in Kyoto where he will work to get his Japanese up to “native” standards. Mika confides that he already speaks perfect Japanese… hearing him speak, we do not find this hard to believe, but feel chagrinned at our own pitiful language skills. After all, not only can Jay chat away happily in Japanese, but he can also speak to us in English, and only a fraction of the time can we tell it is not his mother tongue. Although we were not expecting to be amongst a cavalcade of CouchSurfers, we quickly come to appreciate being part of a larger group and having the chance to meet Jay. He is open and friendly (no sour Kraut here! ), and we have many great conversations over the next two days. He also very kindly plays translator for us when our broken Japanese and extensive pantomiming can only get us so far.
We make our way to the barbecue, which is held in a traditional Japanese house that is 180 years old! In a country prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, wooden structures do not have the greatest longevity, so the fact that this house is still standing rather than having burned down like most of its kind is nothing short of remarkable. The atmosphere is lively, the company excessively congenial, and we are introduced to more people than we can possibly hope to keep track of.
But one person, we can never forget: Mika introduces us to Morimoto, an older fellow whose face breaks out into the biggest smile when he sees us. His English is limited, but his kindness and playful spirit easily break through any language barriers. I do not know why he takes such a shining to us, but we consider ourselves incredibly lucky. He and Tony get on like a house on fire (thankfully the only one of the evening!) and are soon joking around like long-lost friends. He teaches us the ins and outs of sake: we have only tried sake once before, so with each sip we are continually delighted to find it soft, smooth and mellow, not harsh and acidic as one whose experience has largely been limited to rice wine might expect. Mori Kachan (the name he requests that we call him, as he declares “Morimoto San” too stuffy and formal for friends such as we) rustles up some traditional cedar boxes, and we learn that the correct way to consume it thus is with a generous pinch of salt on the side. You lick the salt, then drink the sake. I call it Japanese tequila and this prompts a round of pleased laughter. I cannot say how much sake we drink because we are never given the chance to see the bottom of our little box, which we pass around amongst us like we’ve known each other forever.
All the while, food has been cooking away on little indoor grills and proves the rule that food that is fresh is always best. Everything is simply done, but packed with so much flavor. The edamame is amazingly nutty in a way we have never before tasted; picked from the fields that day, this is as good as it gets and we are forever ruined for the frozen kind we get back home which seems insipid and bland in comparison. We also gorge ourselves on the local specialty, Hida beef, which is rich and moreish. A girl named Michi teaches me how to use chopsticks in the Japanese way, and we pick up the glimmering pieces of beef, wrapping them in lettuce leaves and then popping the unctuous parcels into our mouths, juices dripping down our chins as we smile in satisfaction. Tony & I each chip in 500Y (about $6USD) for our share of the food at the end of the evening… it is one of our cheapest meals in Japan and yet we have glutted ourselves like kings.
At some point, a bottle of fiery Costa Rican hot sauce (complete with skull and cross bones) makes the rounds, which proves disastrous and hilarious. Despite the copious amounts of sake we’ve all had, I have the foresight to capture it all on film.
As the evening rolls to a close, Mori Kachan and his wife prepare to depart. He pulls us aside and asks us to come over for dinner the next evening. We are floored by his kindness; we are not experts when it comes to Japanese culture, but we know enough to know that it is a great honor to be invited to someone’s home. Mori Kachan cautions that it will only be a little meal, but we effusively accept his generous offer. Mika watches in astonishment and tells us how lucky we are: she has introduced Mori Kachan to various Surfers in the past but we are the first he has ever invited to his home. Our hearts, already so full, swell a little more at this unexpected kindness.
The party officially breaks up when fireworks put on by the town shatter across the inky black canvas of the sky. It is the second time I we have witnessed fireworks in Japan, and once again I am struck by the unrestrained joy they symbolize. Tonight is truly a night worthy of fireworks and celebration. This time, I manage to hold back my tears, but just barely.
Following the hour walk home, we are sleepy, sated, and far from sober. I hardly have the energy to roll out my futon, but somehow I manage and then literally roll myself into my fluffy nest of a bed. As I drift off to sleep, my final thoughts are that I can’t believe our good luck. It seems like every day Japan is determined to redefine exactly what a “best day” for us can entail.
The next day, brings a slothful morning as we laze about languorously. We finally gather ourselves to go on a tour of the town guided by Mika, who shares some of the town’s history with us. Although she has only recently moved to Furukawa (having spent most of her life living in Tokyo), she has obviously fully embraced her new home. Every person we meet is greeted with a hearty “konnichiwa”, and as we pass by a small shop owned by one of Mika’s friend, her friend runs out to press traditional Japanese sweets into our hands.
As we stroll through Furukawa’s little lanes, we stop for ice cream, made with some of the freshest milk that’s come straight from local cows. We also pop in at the café Mori Kachan’s wife runs and confirm our dinner plans for the evening. We try a popular summertime drink, which consists of a glass of farm-fresh milk filled with ice cubes made of coffee. I normally can’t stand either thing, but Tony and I sneakily try to each drink more than half.
On our way back to Mika’s home, we pop into two different sake breweries and try a wide sampling of their wares. Each one we try tastes so different from the last, but they are all delicious. One tastes a bit like champagne, while another has a clear plum essence. With each sample we are constantly surprised by how soft and flowery sake is. If we could buy a bottle of each to start our own private sake collection, we surely would. Instead we pick our favorite, which we will bring as a gift to dinner that evening.
After a delicious spaghetti lunch at home (cooked by Mika’s wonderful fiancé, Tatsuo), we take the train back to Takayama where friends of Mika & Tatsuo run a hostel. They are throwing a party to celebrate the one year anniversary of their hostel Hida-Takayama Guest House Tomaru and we have all been invited to be part of this happy occasion. I know I have said that I think Takayama is a great place to stay in a ryokan, but if that’s just too outside of your budget, this hostel would be an excellent alternative. The couple in charge were so kind and welcoming and put out an awesome party spread. The hostel itself had a warm atmosphere, the location was excellent (not 10 minutes from the train station) and even offered cheap bike rentals (at only 500Y/day, that’s a steal!). We got to mix and mingle with a variety of people, many who were locals who had come to celebrate with friends. The local newspaper even came out to document the festivities, and a few days later, Tony & Jay are featured in the lead photo for the story!
It almost feels like we have had enough fun and frivolity for the day, but we still have dinner with Mori Kachan and family! Their home is up in the hills and features a beautiful view of Furukawa. Our stomachs have shrunk considerably as we’ve been eating meager backpacker portions, so we think it is for the best that we have only been promised a “little dinner”. Instead, we are treated to another decadent feast featuring okonomiyaki, grilled squid & fish cakes, yakisoba, Hida beef, and of course, free-flowing sake. Needless to say, spirits are high and we feel so blessed to have met such beautiful people.
Never did we imagine that we would be invited into two homes during our time in Furukawa, but when we tell Mori Kachan that we will be traveling for a year and have no home of our own anymore, he smiles and says that we will always have a home because his home is now ours too. And as we laugh and drink late into the night, it doesn’t feel like we are fish out of water in a strange place far from home, but are instead exactly where we should be, with family we never knew we had. Before we leave for the evening, Mori Kachan gives us his address and asks us to please send him a Christmas card wherever we may be during the holidays, and maybe a birthday card too. His birthday is in October, which he is gleeful to discover is Tony’s birth month too.
I have tried my best to share the highlights of our time spent CouchSurfing in Furukawa, but at times it feels like words will forever fail to convey the memories we made and now carry in our hearts. I suppose what I really want to say is that our time in Furukawa proved to us that this year of travel does not necessarily require that we hop from place to place seeing all the famous sights we can, because for us it is more rewarding to make connections with people. Our time in Furukawa meant that we did not have the chance to visit Shirikawa-Go or stay in a ryokan, but when we look at everything we did get to experience, things that you will never find in the pages of a guidebook, it’s hard to feel like we missed out.
Before we left on our trip, Tony & I watched the film “A Map For Saturdays”, which is a bit of touchstone in the long-term travelers community. It documents one man, Brook, quitting his job so that he can travel the world for a year, and largely focuses on the backpacking community and the people he meets along the way. At the end of his trip, Brook talks about how it’s hard to believe his year in the world is over and that he’d love to go back to the places he has visited. Only he can’t, he says, because “the people are the places, and the people have moved on.” Sitting in our apartment in Nashville, Tony and I had little appreciation for this sentiment. We naively assumed that he could go back to Laos or Nepal and meet new people and have new adventures. After our time in Furukawa, we finally understand. If not for Mika, we never would have heard of Furukawa, never mind have considered visiting it. Now it’s a place we will forever think of with great fondness. Not because of its photogenic streets or lovely summer temperatures, not even because of its delightful artisanal sake. No, when we think of Furukawa, we will think of Mika, Tatsuo, Jay, Michi, Mori Kachan and his family, as well as all the other people we met who made Furukawa the place that was so special for us. In the end, that’s really the magic of CouchSurfing: you can travel around the globe to a place you’ve never been only to find yourself instantly part of a family. Sure you get a bed for free, but it’s really the rest of the stuff that makes it priceless.
Special thanks to Mika & Tatsuo for being such amazing hosts to two newbie CouchSurfers. A few weeks after we left, the two were married and will be having a huge wedding picnic in Furukawa sometime next May and have invited us back to celebrate with them. If Tony & I are still traveling and have the means to do so, we will most definitely be back!