“You want to sleep on a stranger’s couch rather than stay at a nice, comfortable hotel? Why would you do that? And aren’t you scared?”

- most people’s reaction when they first hear about Couchsurfing

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a hospitality network conceived to create a global community of travelers. Launched in 2004, it counts about 12 million members in 2016, all looking for a couch to sleep on and/or offering one to strangers. Except that Couchsurfing does not call them strangers, but “friends you haven’t met yet”. So, how can you meet these Japanese friends you haven’t met yet?

How it works

Joining Couchsurfing is free. After registering, members can create a personal profile. It is recommended to give as much information about yourself as possible to find a host with similar interests and preferences. Once the profile has been completed, travelers can search for hosts in the cities they want to visit and send out requests, specifying the dates of their visit and telling the host why they want to meet them. The possible host can then either accept the request or choose not to host the surfer.

Common lengths of stay are 1-5 nights, and it is common courtesy to bring a gift from your home country to thank the host for their hospitality, especially in a country with an advanced gift-giving culture like Japan. If you cannot carry several bottles of wine with you from your home in Italy for all your hosts, bringing an omiyage from the last Japanese city or prefecture you visited can be a nice alternative gesture.

When choosing a host, surfers should look for compatibility instead of simply picking the host living closest to the major sites they intend to visit. Hosts living in much-frequented tourist areas such as central Kyoto or downtown Tokyo are likely to receive more requests than they can accommodate. As Couchsurfing is about making connections and engaging in cultural exchange, look for people you would like to meet and spend time with.

Couchsurfing offers opportunities to meet people beyond hosting and surfing. Some locals who are unable to host surfers at home love to show travelers around their hometown. Many major cities have regular meetings such as language exchanges, always welcoming travelers to join for the evening. There are weekly Friday meetups in Tokyo, international friends meetups in Kyoto, and seasonal events for summer festivals, etc.

Members can create events, inviting other travelers and locals from the area to join them on a hike to Mount Fuji or for a night of karaoke. The mobile Hangout app allows even more immediate meetups, and groups such as “Japan Outdoors” let you connect with like-minded travelers.

Safety precautions

Couchsurfing employs a reference system, allowing both the host and surfer to leave feedback on each other’s profile pages after a visit. Surfers are highly encouraged to review references carefully before choosing to stay at someone’s home and leave a reference reflecting their own experience. For new surfers without any references, it might be difficult to find a host. As it is also possible to leave a reference for people you meet at events, attending a few Couchsurfing events near your hometown can be a good way to experience some Couchsurfing spirit before your journey with the added bonus of collecting some references along the way. Couchsurfing also has a fee-based system in place that lets member get verified, improving a surfer’s prospects to find hosts. Despite these measures, it is important to clearly state boundaries, trust one’s instincts and take standard safety precautions.

What Couchsurfing is not

Couchsurfing is about exchange. It is not supposed to simply provide travelers with free accommodation where they drop off their luggage and take a shower before heading out to do their own thing, same as they would have done had they stayed at a hotel. Although this differs from host to host, most people offer their couch, bed, futon, or air mattress to strangers because they believe them to be friends they haven’t met yet. Taking advantage of their hospitality by treating them like a hostel goes against Couchsurfing’s main objective. As does using the network as a dating website. Mutual respect when staying at someone’s home should be a given. Always try to clarify as much as possible before visiting a host: How much time do they want and can afford to spend with you? Can you stay at their home during the day after they leave for work? What are the do’s and don’ts? Early and open communication helps to reduce the risk of disappointment on both sides.

The experience

So far, I have had the pleasure of staying with six different hosts in Japan, three of which have since become long-term friends. The experiences I shared with them have been invaluable - memories I could never have made had I stayed at a hotel instead. I learned how to make Japanese pickles at a cafe in Nara, where the absence of a shower let to my first Japanese bathhouse experience. I sang Happy Birthday in German at a restaurant so tiny that it could barely fit 8 people, doubling as the living room for several young men recently forced to live on their own. I danced to the music of Grease at a Rockabilly whiskey bar in Hikone before watching the sunrise over Lake Biwa. And I met people I am happy and grateful not to call strangers any longer.

While Couchsurfing itself is not a non-profit organisation, no money is exchanged between hosts and surfers. By staying with locals instead of at hotels, Couchsurfing hopes to promote cultural exchange. Sharing moments of each other’s lives creates meaningful human connection in the true sense of hospitality.

And if you feel like giving back, maybe consider offering your couch to a surfer - from Japan or anywhere else in the world.