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Couchsurfing, meet “platesurfing”

Families around the world increasingly are welcoming foreigners into their homes to share their cuisine and their culture. You could be one of them.

If you want to do more than just see the sights in a different part of the world, you’ve got to be able to connect in a meaningful way with the people who live there. In a lot of places, that’s not even easily said, much less done.

Take Japan. For more than half a century, it’s been a must-see for millions of travelers — and for almost as many good reasons.

But even half more than six decades of welcoming the world, Japan remains intimidating for travelers, especially Western ones.

Unless you’ve spent some time studying it, the Japanese language isn’t just a barrier. It’s a force field. If you were born into a tradition of Latin languages such as English, you can’t even read the signs, much less communicate with anybody.

You find yourself walking around in a daze, trapped in a kind of cultural bubble that automatically reduces you from traveler to sightseer status. Hop off the plane. Hop on the tour bus. Hop around Tokyo. Hop back on the plane.


So I was more than a little intrigued when the BBC did a feature on Nagomi Visit, an outfit that matches up tourists with Japanese families who invite them into their homes for lunch or dinner.

Nagomi Visit didn’t exactly invent this idea, but it’s one that definitely is catching on, and not just in Japan.

Sure, you can always meet friendly, outgoing locals in some public place for good food and great insight into local life, and there are plenty of Web sites to help you set that up.

It’s especially true in European and Asian cities, where the café, pub or resto doubles as a living room or den for a lot of locals.

But there’s no better way to break down barriers than to break bread with folks in their own homes. And it’s on the verge of becoming a trend in international travel, if it hasn’t already.

(For those of you wondering how you as a Black traveler might be received in a Japanese household, check out this young Black American traveler who actually did a Nagomi Visit.)

You’ll find full evidence of that on the IBIT Connections page. There you’ll find more than a dozen companies devoted to arranging what I call “social dining” for travelers in cities around the world, enough to organize them by region.

In some cases, you’re the honored guest at the family table. In others, you’re a participant in the kitchen, with your hosts giving you a hands-on introduction to the local cuisine.

All this probably was inevitable. Once couchsurfing became a mainstream concept in travel via outfits like Airbnb, it was just a matter of time before “platesurfing” followed.

The world’s traveling 20somethings are the ones pushing this near-trend. Already comfortable reaching out to others via social media, they now are using it to arrange social dining meetups when they travel, almost anywhere in the world.

They want to return home feeling they truly connected with the local culture, and it with them. It’s a way to find alternatives to the “canned,” institutional, one-size-fits-all tourist experience.

Some of these outfits provide their services for a nominal charge, as to the families. Others do it for free. With any of these entities, you need to check them out on TripAdvisor and elsewhere before signing up.

The payoff can be the travel experience of a lifetime — or several of them, all over the planet, each of them different, and each uniquely yours.

There’s a major fringe benefit to this kind of travel experience that begins even before you sit down at the table.

The short ride and/or walk into their neighborhood can be more than enough to transport you into a different world, one far removed from the commercial zones where you find most tourist hotels.

That slice of local life becomes the first course of what is likely to be one of the more memorable meals of your life.

You may have friends who traveled to Tokyo or Singapore or Paris or Buenos Aires, even had fantastic meals there — but not with the family that you met.

And definitely not in their home.

But now that I think about it, wouldn’t be even better to hear one of your best buds recounting their trip to Shanghai, and then say: “Oh, by the way, the Chens told me to say hi and ask when are you coming back.”

Instead of favorite places, you end up with favorite people. Everywhere.

IBIT Connections page
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