Living in a Traditional Japanese Home is very Interesting…

We’ve been Air BnB-ing around Japan now for 5 weeks, but our place in Nara easily wins first prize in the interesting lodging category. It’s a traditional home, lived in for over 40 years by the current owners, Tadahiro and his wife.

Tadahiro’s English is creative, his wife is even less fluent – but language aside – this stay clearly ranks as one of my most extraordinary adventures.

As always – I used my check-list – but even so – things are never quite what they seem in the pictures. But first steps first – Finding Tadahiro’s home was easy – he picked us up at the tiny train station just 200 meters away – and insisted on driving us to his house. This is not the center of Nara – but then Nara is relatively small – and our location turned out to be absolutely perfect.

As a traditional home, you enter thru a tiny garden space (barely room for the empty tulip planters Tadahiro was working on) going directly into the entrance hall where you take off your shoes and put on slippers. There is only room in the entrance hall for one person at a time – and no where to sit – which caused the Intrepid Traveler a bit of trouble. She much prefers to sit down to take off her lace up sneakers. I went with easy to remove sandals- so for me – not a problem.

Once properly slippered – you are in the kitchen. Shoji screens on our left blocked access to the living space of our hosts – but they kept that door firmly closed most days. I admit to getting a peak in – and like the rest of this tiny house – it was cluttered with the remains of living in a place for over 40 years. Even Japanese accumulate stuff after a while – and there were at least two formal Kimono hanging up on a wall. Plus a lot of intermingled other clutter. But that’s their space!

The layout is typical of older style homes in the Nara region – kitchens were fire hazards – and as such were separated from the main house, and well used. This kitchen was no exception – not the designer granite kitchens of the west – this was a functional space with teeny appliances and virtually no space!

How tiny? The refrigerator (packed full, full, full) was in the entrance hall – as was the toaster oven placed awkwardly on a stool. The stove top had only 3 burners, and there was no oven. And no dishwasher. And no storage space. Everything was on display – all the family’s assorted and well used dishware next to the sink, and food stuff stored on shelves above the wooden dining table on the other wall. Crowded, tiny, clean but not new. Well used is the best description.

To deal with the lack of refrigerator space, our hosts were using a stack of strafoam ice boxes as spare fridges – those were kept in what they refered to as the fire escape – a 2nd set of stairs that lead upstairs. We never used that staircase, and in fact was told it was off limits. But several days later one of the other guests used it to carry up their suitcases. So maybe my lack of Japanese led to confusion on this point.

Our hosts (who admitted to being in our age bracket of 70+ (I’m guessing more like 80+)) have turned the upper floor of their rather large, but very traditional home into a interconnected series of 5 rooms separated only by sliding shoji screens. There are 4 obvious bedrooms, one common space with a sink and a table and a kettle for making hot water – and a toilet room. The bathroom (which has a bath and a shower – no toilet) is down stairs off the kitchen.

We were shown to our ‘room’ – a large tatami mat area with one window, one bed, one futon on the floor, and a lovely library space that provided just a bit of storage – first and only storage space we’ve seen in all the places we’ve stayedI We even had two hanging racks, and at least one shelf that we could use for our stuff. Unfortunately, the rest of the space was filled with Tadahiro’s father’s books – so it was a bit dusty. And there were stacks of scrolls as well. As I mentioned – clutter happens after 40+ years.. as I well know.

We snuck a peek into the other rooms. The largest room had a lovely space with two western chairs and it overlooked the traditional interior garden. That room was used mostly by family groups, and was priced a bit higher than our space. Adjoining the larger room was a smaller room with a window towards the street. Because the two rooms were only divided by shoji screens – if both spaces were ‘rented’, the guests in the smaller part of the larger room had to enter thru another set of screens. We decided that this must have been awkward, and of course anything said in either room was clearly audible everywhere on the upper level.

The 4th room almost appeared to be a later add-on. It adjoined the fire escape staircase and was an odd shape with many windows. We thought this was the prettiest room – but it offered only futons for sleeping, and while we were in Nara – was mainly rented to single men traveling on their own. We liked this room because it was closest to the toilet – but nothing was really that far – so despite our concerns, we never had an issue.

As mentioned, there was the fire escape (off limits?) staircase – and then the proper wooden staircase to this upper level. The proper staircase was very steep – and led down onto the glassed in narrow porch that overlooked the garden. From there you could turn right into the kitchen, or if you turned left – you were in the private quarters of our hosts. We always turned right of course.

Our hosts couldn’t carry our tiny carry-ons up the stairs, and neither could we – so we were instructed to take what we wanted out of our bags and leave them in a space beside the staircase. There are lots of nooks and crannies in the home – this was one of them! But we don’t have much – so it was easy to get ourselves organized, even without our suitcases in our quite comfy space. Our window overlooked the street outside – which turned out to be a bit noisy at night, even with the windows shut. I’m going to guess that there was absolutely no insulation in the home at all – and the shoji windows were single pane glass.

We were actually glad that it was warm (hot even) during our stay in Nara – the AC worked a treat. Each sleeping space had it’s own AC unit – and we turned on them all at one point to cool down the common room. It went well over 95 degrees for 3 days running. It was hot. But the AC definitely did the trick. We were extremely comfortable.

One of the reasons that Tadahiro’s home is so frequently booked is the quality of the breakfast they provide. Meat, Eggs, Home-made omelet, Bread slices, Jam, Ginger, Salad, and noodles (twice more like Italian spaghetti with meat sauce, once more Japanese style) – it was easily the nicest breakfast we were offered outside of the huge buffet at the APA hotel our first morning in Japan.

Since the kitchen is tiny, and the table in the kitchen could only seat 4 – we ate breakfast in shifts when the rooms were all occupied. And during our 5 nights in Nara – guests came and went with alarming frequency. Many folks only stay one night in Nara – they come, see the Deer Park and the Big Buddha and go. We’d barely have time to say hi before they would be gone. The most interesting of our fellow travellers arrived the day before we left unfortunately – but more on them later.

The ‘bath’ room – which contained the only shower – was located off the kitchen – so getting a shower in the morning was a bit awkward. You needed to time your bathing to avoid cooking time in the very narrow, very small kitchen. It actually ended up sounding worse than it was – you just waited your turn – and everyone got the shower they needed!.

As previously mentioned, privacy, in the North American context of that term, is seriously lacking. Yes you can ‘shut’ your shoji screens – but everything you do is clearly audible to all other guests.

This isn’t a bad thing if everyone is being polite, but the first night our fellow travellers were a family – husband, wife, and 6 year old daughter who apparently were having issues. Frequently it definitely sounded like they were fighting. Our host came up stairs to tell them to quiet down – and after that things were fine.

Speaking of our hosts – they are amazing. The breakfast they fixed us each morning has been lovely – although I find the wife’s habit of covering the plates with plastic wrap, and then serving the food (I’m guessing it saves on washing up) very strange. But she was consistent – there was always plastic wrap protecting the dishes from the food. And anything fried had a piece of foil decoratively placed under it – purpose unknown.

Tadahiro absolutely loves to explain how you should do things in their city – and we’ve been happy to follow most of his advice. While his English is limited – he clearly strives to be completely clear. Important note here – don’t disagree with him. Just nod politely and agree to do as he suggests. He justifiably feels that he’s lived here long enough to know what’s what. I checked out his suggestions with the wonderful local tourist offices – and not surprisingly – got different and sometimes better advice. We learned to pick and choose which advice to follow quite carefully.

We also had another issue. Despite the description in Air BnB that implies guests can use the kitchen, it’s clearly their kitchen – and while they said it was ok if we used it, when we tried to cook our dinner the first night, Tadahiro decided we weren’t doing it quite right. He pushed the Intrepid Traveler out of the way – and cooked our dinner for us. Since then, we’ve been very careful to only buy things that don’t need cooking. It’s easier.

Despite advertising that suggested they had a clothes washer – when we asked to do laundry, they directed us down the street to a coil operated laundry. It worked just fine. Next door is an Onsen – a public bath – but I think we’ll skip it this time.

But quibbles aside – my futon is comfy, and Jill has a bed – which makes her happy. We have a bit more storage kind of space here which is nice. Once we realized that the kitchen was off limits in fact, if not in principle, we shopped accordingly and had lovely dinners upstairs in the common space.

We are walking distance from some of the most interesting sites in Nara – yet clearly off the well beaten, overly touristy, path. There’s a bus stop nearby, and a huge grocery store. There’s even two places to pick up my morning Latte’s for just 150 Yen.

There was one couple in particular, that we totally enjoyed sharing the space with. They arrived the day before we left – but they were charming. The wife is Chinese, the husband American, and they are living in China. We spent a lovely evening laughing and chatting over wine (ours) and beer (theirs). I was truly sorry we were checking out in the morning. They were very interesting – and I wish them luck and health in their lives. They will need it. By all accounts, life in China is not particularly easy these days!

This blog has gone on long enough – we loved Nara – heat wave and all – and are heading to Narita in the morning. Right now it’s bedtime – tomorrow is another very hot day to look forward to enjoying.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

2 thoughts on “Living in a Traditional Japanese Home is very Interesting…

  1. Aha, now I am anonymously famous on the Canadian internet. So how do I politely ask to borrow your photos of the Nara Palace site for my own writeup. On the day that we did our tour, we could look into the building with the new construction, but there was no demonstration happening.
    I’ve enjoyed reading your travelogue. You’ve given me yet one more reason for not going to Texas.

    • I’d love to share my photos. It was such a lovely opportunity to see the inside of the construction tent.. (not sure calling that huge building a tent is correct. Anyway- use the contact me link on my word press site – and I’ll send you my email. Then you can send me YOUR email. – and I’ll send you the pictures. Leslie

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