There’s no getting around it: One of the most reliable ways to generate international friendship and cultural understanding is through the stomach.
Diversity in dining is a reflection of an evolving society. Just think of a typical American culinary palette of the 1950s: Pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, spinach boiled to drab green mush, creamed corn. Your plate was all white and tan, with maybe a green highlight or two (it helped if you had an iceberg lettuce salad on the side). The one bright spot, color-wise might have been a jiggling red blob of Jell-O for dessert.
I’m oversimplifying, of course. Depending on where in the U.S. of A. you lived in during the decade when I was born, you would have grown up having Italian food, or Jewish food, or maybe Mexican or Americanized Chinese food. But Middle America — the land of Better Home and Gardens Cookbooks — was all about red meat and multiple kinds of carbs. Don’t get me wrong — I love white and tan food. Except for that over-cooked spinach, which is a crying shame, I love that typical ’50s meal, including the Jell-O.
But for 2013, I’m sure glad that Americans have a much wider appreciation for ethnic cuisine, from Italian and Mexican to Chinese, Korean and Thai.
I grew up eating Japanese food, naturally. My mom cooked Japanese food for herself even if she cooked spaghetti, or steak, for the rest of us. In fact, we had rice every night, even if we had pasta, mom made rice and I often had a serving on the side alongside my noodles. But mostly, my brothers and I grew up eating my mom’s home-cooked Japanese food. Whether it was basic like teriyaki chicken or grilled salmon, or fancy and more “ethnic” dishes like oden (a traditional winter stew) or chawan mushi (a hot savory egg custard), we knew we were always getting a true authentic taste of Japan, because that’s what my mom grew up with.
A lot of us love to travel to Japan so we can have authentic Japanese cooking. Eating in restaurants in Japan, whether expensive high-end eateries or funky hole-in-the-wall joints, can be a satisfying way to hook into Japanese culture. But imagine the awesome experience of having a home-cooked Japanese meal, in a Japanese home.
OK, so you don’t have relatives that you can mooch off, or friends who you can crash with who’ll cook for you.
No worries — there’s a brilliant service called Nagomi Visit International through which you can set up a home-cooked lunch or dinner during your travels in Japan, and make new friends while you’re at it.
Nagomi Visit was started in 2011 by Megumi Kusunoki, who has worked in a variety of positions promoting tourism in Japan. During a trip to Denmark she was invited to dinner with a Danish family. That experience opened her eyes to a richer level of cultural exchange than is possible over a restaurant meal. She got to know about her hosts’ lives and try different kinds of food than she would have otherwise. According to the website, “Nagomi” means “Japan” and “befriend,” and captures the sense of welcoming warmth Kusunoki felt in Denmark. Nagomi Visit is now a registered non-profit organization, working to build bridges between Japan and travelers from around the world.
Here’s how Nagomi Visit works:
At least two weeks in advance of your dinner, go to www.nagomivisit.com and choose a date, whether you want lunch or dinner, and the part of Japan you’ll be in during that date. You’ll pay 3,150 yen per adult, which right now is right at 100 yen per US dollar, so just around $31 per person — not bad for a special meal. Nagomi Visit gets part of that and your host gets part (it goes toward paying for the meal’s ingredients).
Most of the hosts live within walking distance of a train station, and you’ll receive instructions on how to get to the right station for either lunch or dinner. There, your host will be waiting for you with a “Nagomi Visit” sign, and will lead you to his/her/their home. In rural areas, they’ll pick you up at the station and drive you to their home, which might be a ways off.
Nagomi Visit has hosts around the country, although they’re more concentrated around the Kanto region around Tokyo where Nagomi Visit was founded. The hosts range from individuals to couples and families who want to meet new people and cook great meals.
The experience is what’s important: The conversation and the openness to trying new foods. You’re urged to try everything, and give yourself time to enjoy the meal, instead of rushing through your visit. As the website says, this isn’t meant to be like grabbing a bite at a restaurant.
All participants should be made aware of what a Nagomi Visit involves. It is a time for sharing and the host and guest relationship is not that of a restaurant where one is serving and the other is being served. The hosts are welcoming you to their home because they trust that you respect their property and space.
Anyone who’s interested in cooking Japanese food can pay a little extra and sign up for a Cooking Visit in Tokyo, where one of two instructors will meet you and walk you through cooking lunch.
Testimonials from travelers who’ve had a Nagomi Visit lunch or dinner show that participants have a great time, learn a lot about how regular Japanese people live, and create lasting friendships. Hosts also have said their stereotypes of foreigners have been overcome after meeting their guests and breaking bread with them. That’s a win-win if there ever was one.
It’s a brilliant idea, and I wish Nagomi Visit well.
I’m rooting for Nagomi Visit’s success for another reason besides the brilliance of the concept and the thoughtfulness of its execution. The non-profit was founded by Megumi Kusunoki, but its Chief Operating Officer is a young woman named Alisa Sanada, a Japanese American whom I’ve never met in person but whom I’ve known via emails and websites since the late 1990s.
When I first “met” Alisa, she was a teenager from Dallas, Texas, born to Japanese parents. We were both on a pioneering Japanese American listserv called Ties-Talk (now lamentably long-gone, but many of its lively discussions are archived on one member’s website). Alisa was a strong young voice, trying to figure out her identity as a JA.
She went on to college in the Northwest, and then traveled around the world, and settled in Japan. She worked in the corporate world in marketing, and as a translator and web localization consultant, and I thought it was cool when I learned she had teamed up with her friend Megumi on Nagomi Visit.
Back in the day, she ran a fine website she called Real Japan, where she posted her thoughts on Japanese culture and her place in it. She launched the site when she was just in high school, and it got her national recognition in newspapers and magazines such as Wired. It was her adolescent perspective on Japan, America, and the world.
Now, she says, Nagomi Visit is a natural extension of the same passion that went into Real Japan.
“Nagomi Visit is really important to me on a personal level,” she writes in an email. “I was looking back at some articles written about me and Real Japan, and the stuff I said back then during my teens rings true today with Nagomi Visit: ‘I want people to see the Japanese as human beings and not to see Japan as some exotic country. I want people to see the similarities more than the differences.
“‘Many Japanese people don’t realize how much Americans and other people around the globe want to know about their culture. People want to know more!’ (September 2000)
“Fast forward 13 years later, I think it also still rings true because there will always be ‘Japan-is-so-weird’ type stuff roaming around confusing people like the recent Freshness Liberation Burger Wrapper news.
“In a sense, I am doing the same thing with Nagomi Visit as I did with Real Japan. I am connecting people to the ‘Real Japan’ but instead of writing about Japan on the internet, I am helping people connect with the actual ‘source,’ the locals themselves. It’s great.”
I applaud Alisa for finding a perfect avenue for revealing the “Real Japan” to foreigners. Next time I head to Japan, I’m definitely going to book a “Nagomi Visit” meal or two!