By Robert Brower
For me, life in Japan wasn’t at all what I had expected. Actually it was my goal to come here with as few expectations as possible, but visions of my new life in Japan had nonetheless found their way into my head long before I ever arrived. The problem with expectation is that it often doesn’t match reality. I came to Hiroshima in August 2003 to teach English at a high school in a small city suburb. I waited for the Japanese people to invite me out – to show me the sights, introduce me to their culture, and to teach me their language. I waited and I got increasingly confused and frustrated. Eventually I came to realize that if I wanted to meet interesting Japanese people, have memorable Japanese experiences and connect on the level that I hoped for, I would have to be more pro-active in my efforts.
It was around that time that I learned about an organization called Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF is a global project dedicated to helping those interested in working on organic farms. On their webpage, www.wwoof.org, there is a list of participating countries. Once you pay a membership fee for a specific country’s organization, you are granted access to a list of all of the farms in the country who accept WWOOF members. Since each organization is separate, using your Japan membership in New Zealand, for example, is not viable. In order to WWOOF in New Zealand you would have to obtain a new membership. WWOOFing is a great way to travel cheaply and a way to immerse yourself in a culture that sightseeing alone will not allow you to experience.
So let me break it down for you: instead of travelling to other Asian countries, instead of surfing in Okinawa or boarding in Hokkaido, you can use your holidays to work right here in little rural towns throughout Japan – and you can even NOT get paid for it! This is the point where you might exclaim “That sounds awesome! How do I sign up?” But wait, there’s more! You also get to pay a WWOOF Japan membership fee of 4000 yen! This WWOOF thing sounds too good to be true – I know.
The reality is there’s a lot more to it than that. Now that we’ve gotten the minor negatives out of the way, here are a few far more weighty reasons why WWOOF might be a good idea for you. Upon becoming a member of WWOOF Japan at wwoofjapan.org you gain access to a list of all the hosts in Japan. The list is organized by location so you can perform a search based on where you want to go and then read about each host to get a vibe for what kind of people they are and what kind of work they do. There are also testimonials (both good and bad) on the website to help you decide where to go and how long to stay. Most hosts will accept ‘WWOOFers’ for as little as a weekend and as long as three months. Usually if you request to stay longer than two weeks, the host will suggest that you try it out and if, at the end of this trial period, you and they are both happy, you can then extend your stay. As a WWOOFer, you can work in an inn or pension, help at a restaurant or shop, work for a massage/holistic medicine retreat or, of course, farm. Farming, which makes up the majority of the WWOOFing opportunities, includes work on fruit farms, vegetable farms, livestock farms and various combinations of the three. The work you do can involve anything from shovelling snow to planting spinach, making charcoal to packaging grapes, or even taking the dog for a walk. In return for your hard work, you get all meals, a room, and occasionally other benefits too.
During my one year membership I visited three places and each was a unique experience. I started in Hokkaido over winter break at the Friendship Inn. Yes, you can WWOOF year-round. I went to a nice European-style pension about a 5 minute walk from Niseko Hirafu, the largest ski resort in Hokkaido. All the guests at the pension were skiers and most were Japanese. I served breakfast and dinner, cleaned rooms and had 7-8 hours free every afternoon. They gave me a free lift-pass and I snowboarded 6 of the 10 days I was there. There was nothing specifically organic or farm related about this place. The work was also not great: cleaning rooms, shovelling snow and serving meals. But the food was excellent (the best I’ve eaten in Japan), I was able to practice lots of Japanese with the guests and the family, the people were very cool and the over-all experience was positive.
The following summer I worked on two different farms. One was the Sakamoto Farm here in Hongo, Hiroshima-ken. This was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Japan. I felt at home from the moment I walked in the door. We worked together on the farm, we ate together in their family kitchen and they did their best to give me many different experiences, even introducing me to some other cool people in the surrounding area. Even though the husband speaks English, Korean and Chinese, they were happy to let me practice Japanese for most of the time I was there. We worked with all sorts of vegetables doing everything from prepping the fields, to planting, pruning, and picking. I learned so much about organic fertilizers and farming in general that it’s hard to believe I was only there for two weeks. They also had about 500 chickens, some ducks and two donkeys. I even got to drive the tractor – I tilled a whole field (after the first few minutes, not as fun as it sounds) and drove it home in the evening (way more fun than it sounds!) The Sakamotos accept WWOOFers all the time and you can come for only a weekend if that’s all the time you have.
There was one WWOOF experience that was less than what I’d hoped for. Down on Kyushu I stayed about two weeks on the Nakamura farm. They were very nice people but we just didn’t do a good enough job of communicating what each of us was after. I picked some fruit but mostly I worked in their shop (selling fruit and vegetables from the neighborhood). I met some interesting people but I was hoping to do more actual farming. I strongly suggest that anyone who might be interested in doing WWOOF ask a lot of questions concerning the work that the host does and what work WWOOFers themselves have a chance to do at that time of year. It is also important to clarify how much work you’ll be doing. Nobody wants to come across as a picky and lazy foreigner so be polite and considerate, but be sure that you have a good understanding of the details. It can also help to motivate the host to utilize you if you are genuinely interested in what they’re doing.
I approached WWOOF like a homestay program. I lived with Japanese families and experienced life from their perspective. I learned a lot about farming and got to do some good work. Simultaneously I learned a lot about Japanese people and Japanese culture. I met some warm and caring people who were interested in me and where I come from. We talked, joked, ate, and relaxed together. Every place I went the people were welcoming and generous, kind and considerate. They gave me opportunities to see and experience a Japan that I hadn’t yet had the chance to see. WWOOFing is the perfect holiday for anyone who wants to see rural Japan at its most bare and very best. If you are willing to put in the hard work, I highly recommend that you give it a go. It’s rewarding, cheap, original and educational. What more can one ask for from a holiday?