I lived in San Diego, a beautiful, tourist-attraction-filled city, for four years. Someone from my family on the East Coast visited at least once a year, and everything about their visits was easy.
It was easy to drive to the zoo or the beach. It was easy to find a nice place to eat. No one needed help reading the menu or figuring out how to ride mass transit or get over jetlag. When we were out of new places to visit, or they came for a second time, everyone was happy spending the day at the beach or, when my parents visited, the Hotel Del pool. Once I took my older sister to the movies. Once I took my younger sister to the DMV (Kate, I’m still very sorry). They were seeing a new place, but it always felt like the purpose of the visit was to spend time together — not “do San Diego.”
Having visitors in Japan is very different. Possibly, it makes me romanticize how easy those San Diego visits really were. The biggest difference is that the goal for our guests has changed. They aren’t just here to hang out and catch up. For the most part, our visitors arrive saying they’re looking forward to spending time with us…but by the way, this is the only time they’ll ever see Japan, possibly Asia, so make it awesome.
For an expat host, having visitors can be really stressful, or really fun. Here’s how I’ve tried to make these visits the best experience possible for all involved.
Be a good host.
Have a clean place for your guests to stay. They opted not to go to a hotel so you don’t need to act like one, but before they arrive it’s a good idea to have sheets, towels, and a wifi password handy.
My husband and I have a “tourist folder” where we keep maps to our favorite places, day-trip itineraries, suggestions for walking tours, and rechargeable train and subway cards. We also have a pay-as-you-go cell phone. All this we show our guests as soon as they arrive, so if they feel like being independent, they have everything they need.
When I pick someone up from the airport, I always bring a little welcome bag with a bottle of water, deodorant wipes, gum, ibuprofen, and beer or wine. None of this is hard, and it makes a weary traveler feel so much better.
Make a list of things to see in your area.
Even if no one ever needs to use it, it’s nice to not have to list off local sites on the fly. When we spent two nights in London, our friend Keith gave us a map, a cell phone, a suggested itinerary, and said “see you for dinner.”
It was perfect. We didn’t get lost. We didn’t miss any big tourist sites, but we made all the detours we wanted. We gave our hosts a break for a few hours and we appreciated them picking a restaurant for dinner. I want to be able to do that for our guests.
Realize a list might not be enough for all potential visitors.
Get an idea of what kind of tour guide they’re looking for early. A simple email: “Hey, make a list of things you want to see and do while you’re here…” starts that ball rolling. Encourage them to do some of the googling.
Unless you want to be, you’re not solely responsible for making sure your sister / cousin / whoever has the best possible trip to Asia because it’s the only time they’ll be going. However, you kind of need to set that expectation during the planning stages.
Don’t pressure your guests too far out of their comfort zone.
Not everyone who visits you travels like you. If your parents don’t want to climb the steps of the thousand torii gates in Kyoto, or they don’t want to try eating horse sashimi, that’s okay. If you’re trying to be local and awesome during your time overseas, more power to you, but don’t try too hard to have your guests do the same.
Do nudge your guests out of their comfort zone.
My sister visited me this spring and there’s not a lot that scares her, but we still did a few things she might not have done without someone who knows the area. We spent a day in the rain in Kamakura, almost quitting a few times because we were so soaked. But we pushed each other and she got to see the Daibutsu and I got to eat hato sabure cookies and it was totally worth it.
I also took her to restaurants where we ate fish bones, got completely lost in a Tokyo subway station, and rode a pirate ship. It was a great visit.
Set boundaries, but be flexible.
I work from home. I have to let guests know I’m going to work sometimes while they’re here and give them places to see in the neighborhood. But I also try to move my commitments to before or after a visit so I can spend time with them.
My husband’s parents were here recently and I spent a few half days working inside while they took long walks, went to the beach, and found a Starbucks, happily. If you can’t take time off from work, help your guests figure out what to do during the day, but don’t beat yourself up. If you stayed with them in the States they probably would assume you could entertain yourself for a few hours, right?
Cook something at home.
Traveling overseas can be expensive for your guests, and eating out all the time with them might start getting expensive for you. Stay home and show off the new recipes you’ve learned. My husband and I like to have little temaki zushi parties where we cover the table with sashimi, vegetables, egg omelet, and whatever we have in the fridge. Then everyone rolls their own sushi. It’s delicious and low pressure.
Pick something you haven’t done yet and experience it together.
We went to a tea ceremony class with my parents and took a boat tour of Tokyo with my in-laws. Both things were new to us and made us feel like we weren’t strictly tour guides.
If you live somewhere English is not widely spoken, send guests a phrasebook.
Or, direct them to a good online resource where they can learn “hello,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” before they arrive.
Remember: Attitude is everything.
Your routine is messed up. Your bathroom is being shared. You have no alone time. But someone went to a lot of trouble to come see you, took time off from work, and paid good money for a flight.
See what I did there? Change your perspective about the trip. Your mother-in-law keeps refolding the towels you just folded? Your dad can’t remember a single word in the local language, not even “hello”? You can refold those towels when she leaves, and lucky for your dad, you can say “hello” all day long.