Japan with Henry: Embracing Culture Shock

japan airbnb

A couple weeks ago Henry and I took a 10 day trip to Japan to visit my parents who are doing some attorney work over there in Tokyo for our church. They’re only living there for another 6 months so we wanted to plan a trip to visit them while we could. Originally Jared and Edie were coming with us but work got so busy for Jared he felt like he couldn’t leave and so we came up with a plan to have him and Edie stay here and use our nanny and Jared’s mom to help with Edie during the day. That whole situation was pretty stressful and sad to not have them with us, but we made it work. I was excited to experience Japan with Henry. He’s at an age where he’s really interested in other cultures and open to different experiences. I wanted him to get of sense of what life would be like if he were a 7 yr old living in Japan and have some serious culture shock.

airbnb tokyo

My parents live in a tiny Tokyo apartment and when we originally were going to travel as a family of four, it was going to feel too crowded there (especially with Jared needing to work a lot at night during USA hours). Hotels in Tokyo are crazy expensive, even tinier than my parents apartment, and often very westernized. I really wanted to experience Japan the way a local family would experience it, at least as much as we could as foreign tourists. The more culture shock the better! I worked with my friends at Airbnb to reserve two different apartments in my parents neighborhood for us to stay. I wanted to get an idea of what it would be like to live as a family in a Tokyo apartment, and not just a visiting tourist in a huge hotel. Oh, and I was reeeaaally interested in the robot toilets.  More about our stay in the two Tokyo apartments and other culture shock experiences (and stay tuned for our full Japan itinerary next week!)…

japan airbnb

I was nervous about booking an Airbnb for international travel mostly because of the language barrier. I downloaded the Airbnb app and the whole process was surprisingly easy. I think there must be a translate function within the app because language wasn’t an issue at all in terms of working out the details and arrangements. For both of the locations we stayed in I asked our host about favorite places to eat and see in the neighborhood and we got some great recommendations. One host was very hands on and met us there, walked us around the place, showed me how to work everything before she left. The other host was very hands off but put all the necessary information in a pdf including photos of favorite places to go and how to get in, how to work the robot toilet, etc. Both extremely helpful methods of making us feel at home.

It was so much nicer than staying in a hotel and the prices are a lot more reasonable as well. Have you ever stayed in an Airbnb or rented a home internationally for a short stay?

There were a few things that were surprising about Tokyo apartmetns. First off, I think I figured out the secret to small space living there: Mats (or futons) are pulled out to sleep on each night, and sometimes the whole family sleeps in the same room even. Then the mats are folded up and hung outside during the day. That saves a huge amount of space. The mats were surprisingly comfortable unless you are a side sleeper which was a bit of an adjustment for me.

japan airbnb

Okay now let’s talk about bathrooms for a minute. The Japanese have figured it out! The ofuro tubs that many have in their homes are tall and deep so you can actually comfortable sit and soak (I can never sit comfortably in our tub at home). The toilets have all kind of buttons and remote options like small flush, big flush, built in bidets, remote opening and closing of the lid (Henry loved all this stuff!). Oh, and the bathroom is all a shower. You don’t shower standing in the tub, you shower on the tile floor and then it drains from there. I totally did that wrong at first.

Usually though, I went to the public bathhouse! My parents had a bathhouse across the street from them which was very convenient and definitely an awesome culture shock experience. Nothing like soaking in steaming water with old, naked Japanese women! They were super helpful the first time and showed me exactly what to do: wash off and clean first, squatting on these little seats lined up in a row with buckets and soap. After dipping in the practically boiling water, I got dressed and sat under those old school beauty shop hair blowers until I was sufficiently frizzed out. I loved it!

japan airbnb

We also took public transportation everywhere which made it very economical and interesting. It helped a lot that my dad spoke Japanese because it definitely made it easier to navigate the subway and buses in Tokyo (it’s not easy even as someone who is comfortable with the New York subways!).  Such a great place to people watch too! Things that surprised us on the subway:  it’s very quiet (you have to whisper practically), there’s cell phone service so everyone is on their smart phones texting and what not, kids ride the subway alone to school, it’s crazy crowded during rush hour, most women wear nylons with their dresses (hardly any women in jeans), you don’t have to worry about pickpockets, and so many sick masks!

japan airbnb

Food was a fun culture shock as well. We eat a lot of asian in our household and Henry loves asian food, but this was a whole other level of Japanese (no ice cream in the mochi and no sushi rolls!). We tried to eat at lots of small restaurants and had a few traditional Japanese meals like miso and sashimi (raw fish) for breakfast. Henry didn’t eat too much of the traditional meals (like the dinner above) but he still listed the experiences as some of his favorite things that we did. I think it must be that it was all so interesting to him to see things presented and served so differently. Things that surprised me about eating at traditional Japanese restaurants: sitting on the floor without shoes while eating takes getting used to, not having napkins, a lot of smoking in restaurants, tiny water cups, rice given as a course later in the meal, and most ‘sweets’ were green tea or red bean paste flavored. Henry grew very fond of the convenience store snack, onigiri, which is a rice patty covered with seaweed and cooked fish in the middle. I was ready for American food by the time we came home but Henry could eat Japanese food forever it seems.

I loved having all the culture shock experiences in Japan and especially staying in real Japanese apartments while in Tokyo. We’d definitely do it again when traveling abroad. Stay tuned next week for the breakdown of our 10 day itinerary and more photos.

Thanks to Airbnb for putting us up in Tokyo and sponsoring this post


Loved reading this. I am highly impressed that your son was able to handle such a change so well, I think even at my age it would stun me for a few days. Cant wait to read more 🙂

Would you mind sharing the 2 airbnbs you rented??? I’m a big fan of airbnb and Japan is on our list of places to visit in the near future.

So fun reading about your experience! I’m from Canada but living in Beijing right now. I hope to visit Japan next year!

Beautiful photographs! Have you ever been to Kabuki Springs, in Japantown? They don’t have the deep tubs, like in Japan, but they have hot and cool tubs and saunas – super relaxing!
I stayed in an Airbnb studio in Amsterdam, and it was just perfect.
Can’t wait to see more of your trip!

Love to hear you’ve had a great experience in an Airbnb in another country too! I’ve been meaning to go to those kabuki baths here in Japantown– they sound amazing!!

Great details, Liz. Love hearing about your trip. And Henry is a great traveler!

Very cool – thanks for sharing! I find the Japanese culture very interesting and would love to visit the country someday. I can’t wait to read more about your trip!

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