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Home Away From Home
LIVING LIKE A LOCAL IN TOKYO means knowing where your gas meter is. And more importantly, what one looks like.
It's the middle of a cold late Autumn night and there is neither heating nor hot water in your house - or rather the temporary abode assigned to you by Airbnb Tokyo as part of an "immersive" travel experience.
It's become such a travel buzzword - live like a local. Forget the rosy, manufactured experiences created by five-star hotels and tourist traps. Go where the locals go. Do what they do. Live like they live. Yes, that includes using your iPhone flashlight to hunt down said gas meter, and follow the long list of instructions provided by the accommodation's host to reset it.
Be careful what you wish for if you drink the Kool-Aid of this home-away-from-home lifestyle concept. If you're a complete Airbnb greenhorn, it quickly sinks in that living like a local means being in your own home, just in a different country. Where everything is strictly DIY.
That means, no one is there to welcome you or carry your luggage into your room. You get an address, instructions on how to get your key or pin code and you're on your own in this skinny, four-storey house in a very nice upper-class Tokyo neighbourhood called Shirokanedai. The house is old but well-kept if well-worn, whose Japanese owner lives in London and leaves it in the care of his very nice British expat friend who acts as your "host" and is a bicycle ride away in case you need help.
But helpful does not equal 24-hour hotel maintenance services, which is why you and your appointed housemate are fumbling outside looking for something that looks amenable to resetting. Suffice to say that by the end of the first night, you are a qualified electrician staying in a nice warm, toasty house.
Taken in the right spirit, all this does add up to a unique living experience once you get the hang of it. Sure, you need to pick up after yourself and there are nooks and crannies in the house you don't want to look too closely at, but there's nothing like the simple joys of schlepping to the local supermarket - with real everyday essentials, not the pretty packaged stuff at Mitsukoshi - where you can discover a totally different world of Kellogg's breakfast cereals and more instant noodles than Family Mart.
It's a long walk to the nearest metro (and a longer ride to town) but it's a walk past the homes of upper-crust Tokyo-ites with their BMWs and Lexus SUVs parked in spacious (for Tokyo) driveways. Shirokanedai is an elegant suburb you're not likely to find on your own, and the wide main streets lined with trees, shops and restaurants give off a contemporary American vibe.
In the name of creating personalised itineraries, you have to give it to the Airbnb team to curate a host of different activities that give you a little glimpse of local culture. If you had the wherewithal to organise them yourself you could, but the ease of browsing an app and clicking on an activity that's reasonably priced between US$40 and US$80 makes it a no-brainer.
That the hosts of such sessions are local and aren't totally geared to tourists means there's nothing trite or staged about them. For an intense workshop on sake and sochu, you get to meet Christopher Pellegrini - a part-time actor from the US who came to Japan some years ago and ended up staying to become the world's only dual-certified sochu expert. Fluent in both Japanese and sake knowledge, he takes you through your paces in the best way ever, by letting you loose in HAVESPI in Shinjuku - a cool, multi-level bar and seafood restaurant with different levels dedicated to different types of alcohol and cuisine.
Easy-going and super knowledgeable, Mr Pellegrini goes with the flow and it becomes more like a night out with someone who can order the best drinks and tell you everything you want to know about them.
By the same token, you can work up a sweat beating your own Japanese Taiko drum with Junko, a compact-sized but very strong professional Taiko drummer who's won awards and runs her own drumming school near the famous Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. There's time to take a quick browse through the souvenir sections and nibble on a giant melon pan (a melon-shaped crispy-edged bun) before heading to Junko's traditional, sound-proofed studio.
Maria Tanikawa is another local you get to meet if you want to get in touch with your inner artist (even when you find out there's no one there). A professional artist who's exhibited in both Japan and the US, she specialises in traditional Nihonga painting which dates back to the Meiji period more than 1,000 years ago. She has a studio in Omotesando offering painting classes to locals but linked up with Airbnb to offer fun one-off sessions where you learn how to mix pigments and create your own souvenir artwork. Nihonga is a forgiving medium - seen from a far enough distance, any painting looks decent.
One thing about Airbnb is that it understands that old habits die hard, and there remain those who don't give a takoyaki about gas meters and self-service. That's why it hooks up with small luxury properties like the brand new Byakudan Ryokan in Hakone, which sets aside a room a day for its customers. It fits the cliche you never get tired of, from the mist-covered forests of Hakone Izu that surround the contemporary structure - an artful composition of wood, stone and glass - to the private hot spring baths in each beautifully appointed room. You don't want to leave, but both locals and tourists have to, so it's back to Shirokanedai you go.
While it isn't a bed of roses, neither is life and the trip ends on a real note - where you've made new friends and enjoyed a wider experience. You discover just how cosmopolitan Tokyo is with so many different nationalities settling there without having to master Japanese. You discover little eateries like a Parisian creperie run by a cranky old Frenchman turning out really good buckwheat galettes (La Bretagne in Omotesando). Or the hidden gem Nakameguro Kunsei, a restaurant tucked in an apartment building which serves smoked food - from smoked potato salad to eggs and steaks in charming rustic surroundings in a local hipster neighbourhood.
And finally, if anyone has a gas meter that needs resetting, you know who to call.
The writer was a guest of Airbnb Tokyo