WWOOFing in Japan was one of the best things I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. For those unfamiliar with the experience, WWOOF is an international organisation which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It is a magnificent organisation which began in the south-west of England and has spread its net across the world. The basic premise is that people can join the WWOOF branch in a particular country and find suitable hosts by trawling through the numerous profiles. Hosts put information on their profiles which includes expected hours of work and the number of WWOOFers they take. It is a money-free exchange. Board, lodgings and skills are all wrapped up into the bargain for the WWOOFer and free labour is the other end of the deal.
After a stint teaching English in South Korea in the rather harsh school system there, we wanted to do something more holistic with a clear focus on enhancing our skills ahead of time on our land. I was desperate to experience Japan and Dan came up with the pure genius idea of WWOOFing there. We arranged two hosts across six weeks and turned up at the most minuscule bus station you can imagine in the dead of a freezing night, in what turned out to be a mountainous, volcanic area after only emailing our host Shu. Needless to say we we hoped and prayed that he would be there to pick us up! Of course he was, but we did hold our breath whilst we got off the bus.
Our first hosts live in Kumamoto prefecture in a very rural, volcanic part of Japan (we could see, hear and feel the local Aso volcano!). They have five children, who were all under the age of 11 at the time. They used to work in Tokyo but decided to leave life there and took up a very alternative style of life in the mountains. Shu and his wife Ai started from scratch clearing forest, building a small cabin, then a workshop and then a beautiful log house. It’s absolutely stunning.
The way they manage their family reflects their way of life; the kids are very good at entertaining themselves without a screen in sight! Just books and free play. They also have jobs around the house such as doing their own clothes-washing in buckets. Shu gets the kids working with power tools and driving excavators very young (7 years old), and as a result their ability to assess risk is phenomenal. For example, a 4 year old on a step ladder next to a log stove hanging up washing doesn’t raise any eyebrows (at least, not theirs!). They also start learning their knife skills aged two so they can help with cooking. The children were so in to cooking that they really helped us out when it came to learning traditional Japanese dishes. Sushi being one of these…
Whilst we stayed with Shu and Ai we learned and did oodles of things. To start with, we installed two solar water heaters for the bath/private onsen, and built a green roof for the chicken coup, then we moved on to wood in all its variations; chopping wood, moving enormous logs, chainsawing, splitting and stacking, cutting planks, sealing and planing. Occasionally we were also commandeered into helping their neighbours recapture their escapee goats!
They have an amazing compost toilet, which uses about 4 litres of water a day for 10 people. As a self-built toilet, it was very much the inspiration for our subsequent composting loo at Les Vignes Basses.
On our days off we were relieved to be able to wake up later than 6am – the normal breakfast time. The day was spent cycling around the local area and looking at volcanoes. It was a very quiet area, no shops or towns to speak of.
There was an enormous amount of etiquette to learn culturally; constant sitting on the wooden floor – it shows how soft Western backsides are!! Also, food-wise, Japan is immense anyway but I think Ai and Shu were beyond outstanding in the cooking department. Everyday was something different; curry doughnuts, sushi, okonomiyaki, miso soup, divine Italian dishes, moochi, matcha tea, dried persimmons, the list was endless.
At the very end of our stay we transformed the cut wooden planks into shiny, lovely specimens of wood ready to be used to make some beautiful furniture. Ironically, Shu wanted to use them to create a sofa within the house, primarily to make the Western WWOOFers more comfortable by not having to sit on the floor!
After three amazing weeks with the Hiyashi family, we had four days of down time which we spent in the infamous spa town of Beppu. Onsen’s galore were to be found in Beppu and we happened to time our visit right by being there for National Onsen Day – all spas half price! Happy days 🙂
We also met our good friend Nils at our hostel in Beppu, whom we’ve kept in touch with ever since and who has been a core member of Team Strawbale at Les Vignes Basses.
Four fabulous onsen-filled days were followed up with our next WWOOFing spell in Buzen, to the north of Kyushu. This time we were staying with a lovely family of three; Saho, Hiro and Sohei. They run a small organic farm, providing all of their own food and selling anything extra for income. Such luscious days were spent in their emerald valley flanked on either side with steep forested mountains.
Adjoining their fields is a local shrine which had been placed right on top of a spring, which the locals drove to to fill up their drinking water containers. Legend has it that the water is sacred and full of health-giving properties. Needless to say we filled up our water bottles there all day everyday too! And it did taste super refreshing 🙂
Their situation was telling of the social issues facing Japan. In the Buzen valley, there were three children; Sohei, who was two at the time and twelve-year-old twins. Next in age were Saho and Hiro, followed by the four female neighbours surrounding them, all of whom were in their 90s and had outlived their husbands (and gave us lovely food-based presents 🙂 ). It was a difficulty for Saho who wanted interaction for her son but couldn’t find any young children closer than 40 minutes drive away. With such an ageing population it means that soon enough their valley, and hundreds more like it in rural Japan will be virtually empty. Hiro and Saho did mention that they had recently noticed a general migration towards the rural western areas of Japan and away from the Fukushima area in the east.
During our stay with the lovely trio we spent days chewing the fat and putting the world to rites whilst weeding, harvesting, cooking, sifting sesame seeds, walking dogs, making bean trellis’, and attending cherry blossom parties. One of the biggest festivals in Japan is the cherry blossom spring festival. Once the blossoms have all come out a nationwide party ensues underneath them, involving gorgeous food, company and of course, sake. We were invited to a party with the family further along the valley with the local volunteer fire service. Happily, we were the main talking point and photo opportunity at the party, where everyone was very interested in our lives and where we were heading to.
The days with this family were blissful and very relaxing after a heavy-duty WWOOF experience in Takamori. Both stays were amazing in completely different ways however they both shared the intense learning aspect and offered real insight into Japanese lifestyle and culture. We are aware that perhaps we saw a more alternative side of Japan, but in terms of festivals, food and etiquette we really felt exposed to the inner workings.
We were completely welcomed into not only the lives of our WWOOF hosts but also their friends and local acquaintances. One day, during our first stay we chopped six chords of wood for a local family, who functioned within a ‘gift economy’. Shu would do favours for anyone who asked, particularly related to woodwork, and magically other ‘gifts’ would arrive on his doorstep. After chopping the copious amounts of wood for a lovely family of professional organic farmers we were invited to their house for lunch, where we met all five generations who lived together. Two days later, six boxes of organic food turned up on the doorstep, enough to feed Shu and Ai’s tribe for two weeks.
WWOOFing was a fantastic way to dip into other ways of life and experience travel of a different kind; delving headlong into learning about the work, lifestyles and culture of a country through living with real locals.