For a medium-to-long-term stay in Tokyo, you’ve got two main options: a homestay or a share house. Each offer very different experiences, which one you choose depending on what you’re looking to get out of your time in the city, as well as what kind of person you are. Find below a brief guide to each, including the various pros and cons, to help you decide.
A homestay, for those unaware, involves staying with a host family or individual, who have kindly agreed to welcome a stray foreigner into their home. Homestays can be both short and long term, with some arrangements lasting a week, others a year or more.
- Cost. That’s right, one of the biggest arguments in favor of a homestay is that, typically, they will save you some cold hard cash. Although many homestays will work out at more expensive in terms of rent per month than a cheap hostel or share house, they are normally all-inclusive, meaning you’ll have home cooked meals provided and laundry taken care of—expenses that soon add up. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however, so make sure you crunch the numbers before signing up.
- Cultural immersion. Host families aren’t in the pay of the tourist board, so don’t automatically expect them to be experts on the Nara period or Mishima novels. It’s an insight into the quotidian details of everyday life they can provide—the little things that help to paint a more rounded picture of the country as a whole.
- Language learning. If learning the language is your number one goal, a homestay is perfect. Hosts may or may not speak English, but either way, you’re going to wind up soaking up far more Japanese than if you were surrounded by fellow travelers.
- Unpredictability. A quick Google search can throw up a lot of homestay testimonies, many good, many not so good. You can never be fully sure who your hosts are, what they’re like or their motives for having you stay with them. Potentially, you could end up in a situation you really don’t want to be in.
- Rules. Unlike staying at a hostel or share house, the homestay experience inevitably comes with an obligation towards your hosts. You will be expected to play by their rules, whether this means being home by a certain time, carrying out some chores or acting as a live-in English tutor. A homestay is a two-way street, after all. If you’re in Japan to escape the mild tyranny of family life, then perhaps this isn’t the option for you.
- Isolation. In somewhere like a hostel, you’re surrounded by people like you; people to explore the city with, to talk to and to share your experiences with. This can be a big comfort to some people. During a homestay, chances are you’re going to be out in the suburbs somewhere, with no one to talk to but your hosts and the attendants at Family Mart. Obviously, you can go out and meet people, but the situation makes it all the more difficult.
If a homestay appeals, it’s pretty easy to arrange. There are a variety of companies who specialize in it, who will hook you up with a host family, arrange the details and act as a point of contact should you (or your host) have any problems. Though I’ve personally never used their services, from what I can tell, Home Stay in Japan seem like the most reputable, though, as said, there are quite a few options.
A share house: a house you share with other people. Generally, these people will be fellow foreigners, though not necessarily. They vary in size, from tiny apartments to huge hotel-like places, and can be found all over the city.
- Cost. Yes, I’m aware I’m repeating myself, but it’s worth noting that share houses are far more inexpensive than your own apartment or a hotel, and could even work out cheaper than a homestay. There are bargains to be had, especially if you’re willing to live out in the boondocks.
- Company. Share houses put you in close quarters with a lot of other people, meaning you won’t have to work too hard to get to know a few people. We can’t guarantee you’ll like them all, however.
- Freedom. Stay out all night, eat nothing but instant ramen, neglect your personal hygiene—share houses are a judgement free zone.
- Lack of privacy. Yes, you could say the same for a homestay, but this complaint crops up time and time again with ex-house sharers. Paper thin walls, communal everything, constant noise—if these things don’t bother you, lucky you.
- Glorified vacation. You planned to finally nail kanji and spend your evenings watching Ozu and Kurosawa movies, instead, you’re ranking your favorite convenience stores while waiting for the first train home, for the third time that week. Communal living can be dangerous.
There are loads of companies who will set you up in a share house, the two biggest being Sakura House and Oakhouse. The process is pretty painless and quick, meaning you can be ready to go in no time at all.
Neither option appeal to you? See How to Rent an Apartment in Tokyo: A Cheapo’s Guide.
There are certain times in the year that can make your visit to Tokyo less than idea.