Couchsurfing Japan - What First-Time Surfers Should Know

10:00 PM

"I'm not trying to romanticise solo traveling because it's not just rainbow and butterflies. It's taking your first flight alone, it's feeling the anxiety and excitement when you land on unfamiliar territory, it's getting lost while lugging heavy baggage, it's meeting people who live lives so different from your own and struggling to manage your finances as you contemplate between having a good dinner out or eating bread from the convenience store for the 4th time in a row. That, to me, is what entices me so much about traveling. The beauty is found in the moments that are uncertain, but overcome. And in your own terms too, which makes you feel empowered in some ways."

I wrote that back in 2016 when I went on my first solo trip and I still find it relatable in many ways. You can read the full post here.
Fast forward a couple of years later, here I am, to another solo venture. What a timely intervention, because I was already starting to feel a little cooped up with work, school and everything else that was going on in my personal life.



It's my forth time to Japan, but my first time backpacking, couchsurfing and travelling alone in the land of the rising sun. Japan just isn't the same when you're there alone. It could be a boon or a bane, depending on your personality and travelling preferences. For someone like me who appreciates my own solitude in moderate amounts, it was just what I needed.

By covering what couchsurfing is about and what is to be expected in this post, I hope that my personal experiences with the platform is helpful to other like-minded travellers in some way or another!
The doubts and questions I came across while planning my couchsurfs and itinerary, I tried to address them in this post.


What is Couchsurfing?

It's a platform that supports and connects the travel community. Through this platform, you can either host people from other countries in your home, or stay with a local during your overseas venture. It primarily serves budget backpackers and travellers who are looking to save on accommodation costs and meet people while they travel. You don't pay for your stay, and neither do you charge your guest if you're hosting. It's a travel community that's helping one another out while providing hospitality and exchanging cultures.
Now, the app can also be used by travellers who are only looking to attend or organise gatherings, meetups and events.

Couchsurfing is not as big of a thing in Singapore as it is in Europe. But it slowly gaining more popularity, seeing that there are more Singaporeans on the platform now than 4 years ago.


Why Couchsurfing?

I knew about couchsurfing since 2015 when a friend introduced it to me for my solo trip to New Zealand. But back then, I wasn't able to find any hosts since the places I visited were sparsely populated.
I did, however, couchsurf while I was in Seoul and Taiwan last year. It was a month-long trip, and I wanted to cut costs on accommodation in any way that I could so CS (a.k.a couchsurfing, I will use both terms interchangeably) came into the picture. That being said, I have always enjoyed interacting with locals/travellers. Back when I stayed at Airbnbs or in dormitories, I found the exchanges with my host and those in my dorm gratifying.

Now I can do that, but without having to fork out a cent? Since I'm *usually* a budget traveller, CS practically solves all my accommodation spending woes.

I found my first host in Nara, near the deer park

Occasionally, I also use CS to see other fellow travellers who are in the same area as I am that would like to hang out.


The Pros and Cons of Couchsurfing

So let's just get to it. In the most brief and blunt way possible, there are some plus and minuses to couchsurfing. Just some pointers to consider if you plan to do so.

Pros:
1. Interactions and experiences that only a local/someone who has been living there can provide.
2. Culture exchanges and storytelling with other like-minded individuals.
3. You save money on accommodation. You're staying at someone's home at no extra fee. 
Cons:
1. You don't really get to be picky about your accommodation situation, or its facilities.
2. It's a shared living space with someone you just met.
3. You follow your host's house rules (e.g. clean up after yourself, don't mess up their home or meet curfews)


Yes, it's great that you get to stay at someone's home - without paying at that. But hosts allow you to stay in their homes because they want to get to know a traveller like you or about the country you're from. They hope that by offering their homes, your time in their country (or wherever it is that you're at) will be a pleasant one. It's really just hospitality at its purest, since they're not taking money from you.

If you love culture exchanges or meeting a local, I feel like you should have a go at couchsurfing. But if you're someone who's looking for something luxurious or is particularly picky about where you're staying, then probably not.

The way I see it, if the idea of staying in a dormitory with shared common spaces is okay with you, then couchsurfing will probably be something up your alley too.



Say you're not comfortable with staying in someone else's home because of reasons like how it might be awkward or restrictive, you can still use CS to attend gatherings, events and meet other travellers. In fact, I think a lot of the users on CS are doing that.
I attended a bar crawl organised on CS during one of the Fridays with my host, and I met quite a few travellers who were staying in their own hostels and such. I also met foreign students who were having internships in Tokyo, and locals who just wanted to hang after work.

So you can use the app just to meet people. But for the rest of this post, I'm just going to focus on the "surfing" aspect.


Host Interactions

Of course, it differs from person to person since no two hosts are the same. Typically, you can find everything you need to know about your host from their profile - from the places they have traveled to their interests and references by other hosts/surfers. Usually, their profiles will state the maximum number of surfers they are willing to accept, as well as their preferred gender and day to host. Most of them are working/schooling, so not all hosts will be free to explore or guide you around.

From my personal experience, all of the hosts that I stayed with generally left me up to my own devices. If they were available, they would let me know and we would then make plans to visit places or have a meal together.

I stayed with 4 different hosts over the span of 14 days. Despite their work/academic schedules, most of them took some time off so we could hang out. I went on a short hike with my first host, visited a museum and then bar crawling with the second, and sang at a Japanese karaoke with my last host in Tokyo. I also had a few meals in between with them. I didn't get to spend much time with my third host because she worked till late, but we always had a good chat over snacks/bentos at night in her home. :)



If you're someone who loves culture exchanges and talking about travel, you'd enjoy interactions with your hosts! I am hardly a talkative person. In fact, I consider myself to be (quite) introverted and awkward in social settings. But I found the interactions with my hosts to be the highlight of my trip. Were there awkward moments? Yes of course, but neither of us harped on it. You do get more comfortable with your host overtime.

My hosts were close to my age, so there were so many things in common we could talk about aside from travel.
I learnt a bit of Japanese, taught Chinese, shared travel stories, talked about photography, fangirled over anime, exchanged shopping sites, discussed the differences in education system and even dating culture. One even asked me about the merger/separation of Singapore and Malaysia LOL. Thank god I paid *enough* attention in social studies class!!



In summary, out of the 14 days, I spent most afternoons myself and nights with my host's company. If you're planning a solo trip, I'm sure you'd want some time to be alone for a bit. I felt like CS was quite a good balance of both.


Rooming Situations

It's always a good idea to read through your host's profile thoroughly to familiarise yourself with their house rules and what they can and cannot offer you. With my 4 hosts, 2 of them offered me a room of my own, while I shared a room with the other two since they were living in a studio apartment.

I appreciate having a room to myself, but in the cases where I shared a room with my host was fine too. I'm not a picky person when it comes to my sleeping spaces, especially when I'm travelling on a budget or couchsurfing in this case. The only time I would kick up a fuss on accommodation is if I paid an undeserving price for it, or if it's really dirty.

Technically, as the name "couchsurfing" suggests, you're crashing on people's couch while you travel. In Japan, most hosts would have at least a futon for you. All hosts will put up the rooming situation on their profiles, some would even provide pictures so you can know what to expect.



Because I am a lone female travelling, I felt more comfortable staying with female hosts, especially in same-room situations. Although personally, I would be okay with male hosts as long as they have a detailed profile and credible references (or reviews). References are everything.

So know your preferences, and find one that suits you. It makes everything easier for your host too. I'd say that most hosts have been where you are, travelling and such, so they are quite easygoing.

Since you're living in someone else's home, there might also be some house rules to follow. My hosts were pretty chill, and didn't restrict me to a curfew or anything like that. That being said, I didn't stay out late past the last train (except for one night with my host). If you're a surfer that likes party, then it would be ideal to find a host that could accommodate that.

One of my hosts didn't have spare keys to offer so she required me to leave whenever she did, and I could only return to her home after she had. So yeah, just some house rules depending on your host!

In your couch requests, you could also check with your hosts if you're allowed to do your laundry if you're planning to do so.

All in all, I had very comfortable stays at all of my hosts homes!!


Couch Rejections

Although I managed to find 4 hosts without too much difficulty (I think it has to do with the fact that I was there off season), I also had hosts who rejected my requests.

If you're totally new to the platform with no references, then the percentage of rejections will be higher. But everyone starts somewhere.
Ideally, you should have a detailed profile, upload more profile pictures and have friends leave references for you (not a must). Your host would want to know who they are inviting into their own homes after all.

Out of the 10 requests I sent, 4 were rejected and 2 received no response. That's pretty common.



But most who rejected me were nice about it. One who was unable to host me knew that I was a photographer, so he invited me to his company's photo studio. In his profile, he mentioned that he's a photographer who has been in the advertising business for 40 over years, hence why I wanted to meet him. I wasn't going to say no to the photo studio!!

When I went to his company's office building (he works at one of the big departmental stores in Tokyo), I had the privilege to go through stacks of film archives that go way back to 1970s. I really have so much respect for his work and how he shared with me that nothing in those archives were photoshopped. And you know, despite the language barrier (we are not fluent in each other's languages) and the age gap of 40 years, we found common ground in our profession and had a great time just talking about photography.
Well, definitely not the kind of experience I could have gotten even if I paid for it. This was definitely one of my trip's highlights.

So yes, while rejections are all the norm, you could still always ask to meet if you're really interested in your host! Not every rejection is a wasted effort on your part.


Returning The Favour

The active users on CS are often both hosts and surfers. They would offer up their homes to travellers while they're in their hometown, and go surfing while they travel. It's quite a common practice for a host to surf at the home of someone they've hosted before and vice versa. It's like an exchange of hospitality.

That being said, not everyone who surfs, hosts. Though I have already surfed a few times, I still have not hosted anyone in my home. That's mainly because I'm still living together with my parents, and the lack of room space just makes it a little restrictive.
If you're in a similar situation like mine, that's fine. Not all hosts are expecting you to host them in return, though it may affect your couch requests a little. My hosts are generally aware of my circumstances, and yet don't mind it.

However, I do make it a point to bring my hosts around for a good time if they ever come to Singapore. While I cannot offer a space, I would definitely treat them to some local cuisine! It's really about what you can offer to make your host/another traveller feel more welcome in your country.

Couchsurfing is more than a platform to find a roof over your head while you're abroad. It is a travel community, and you'll be surprised at the hospitality and friendship you encounter while in a foreign country.
I'm still keeping in contact with some of the travellers/hosts over social media platforms and Whatsapp, and I'm looking forward to the day they do visit Singapore.


Is It Safe?

Yes, of course. The question that makes or breaks travel plans.

The truth is yes and no.

There have been a few reported couchsurfing nightmares, sadly. Cases where hosts are using the platform as means for hookups, or surfers staying there for weeks without any intention to leave. Like every other online platform, there are bound to be individuals who misuse the services with no good intentions.

So play it safe. Make sure your host's profile is detailed with pictures and references. I always read the references before making my decisions. I had offers where the host had no references, a brief profile and only one photo. I tend to ignore those.



And there you have it. Whatever I can think to cover about couchsurfing. With random pictures from my mobile haha. I'll probably share the ones from my camera later cause I haven't got around to editing them yet. :')

If you have any other questions related to couchsurfing or travelling Japan alone, you could drop me an email at mirabelle.koh@gmail.com.
If it's your first time travelling alone, you can also read an old post where I covered my first solo travel experience here. Hopefully, it helps!

I always say that travelling has helped me gain new eyes. It's like: what I know about Singapore is not what foreigners know or think about Singapore, and it is interesting to hear different perspectives.

So just a little fun fact I discovered during my trip: the top two Singaporean delicacies that most foreigners want to try are... Laksa and Chili Crab. Lolol.
I mean I know chili crab is good but I just didn't expect it to top two? During conversations with the locals or other travellers, the local fare in Singapore always comes up and both of those dishes will be mentioned without fail. There is also the assumption that Singaporeans have chili crab frequently.
I guess that's just like the old me, assuming that all Japanese eat sushi/sashimi.

Okay that's just a little tidbit I thought to share cause I found it amusing haha.


This post actually took me six hours to come up with, so I hope that it at least helped a soul. Sometimes I wonder why I'm putting in sooo much effort into all these travel writing...

Passion I guess. That's the only reason that justifies spending half my day on this post when I can be working on freelance works that actually pays. Sigh.

You Might Also Like

0 Comments