WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and is a movement that was started in the UK in 1971 but has since expanded to provide opportunities for farming in over 100 countries. It is one of many organisations (also check out Workaway) which trade volunteered work for room and board, allowing travellers to gain a more in-depth experience of that place and its people. It is an activity with its own set of lingo: just as someone who joins twitter starts tweeting and becomes a tweeter, someone who joins WWOOF starts woofing and becomes a woofer. Though the percentage of Japanese farms that are organic is low, across Japan there is an active woofing network. With spring in full swing and summer just around the corner, woofing can be the perfect way to experience Japan’s great outdoors whilst lending a hand on an organic farm. Demand for volunteers is never higher than during the rice planting season in June and there are more than enough opportunities in sunny Kyushu.
Finding these opportunities is simple. The WWOOF Japan website is a place where hosts will post their vacancies and woofers can browse for their favourite. A one time sign-up fee of ¥5500 gives you full access to the website and allows you to communicate with hosts directly to organise your stay. After browsing for a couple of hours and chatting with my soon to be host, I had my trip organised and was ready to go. He told me in advance about his farm, his family, what I’d be expected to do and what I could expect in return. So far, so easy.
A week later and dressed in my most farm appropriate clothes, I hopped on a bus from Tenjin Bus Station and travelled the hour and a half down to Hita, Oita Prefecture, to spend a week on Renge Farm under the guidance of longtime organic farmer and WWOOF host, Hideki-san and his family. Just on the outskirts of Hita City, Renge farm has 20 fields, each around the 1 ton mark (1 ton = roughly 1 sq km) on which Hideki-san grows a variety of crops such as brown rice (玄米 – genmai), white rice (粳米 – uruchimai), carrots (人参 – ninjin), mushrooms (茸 / キノコ – take/kinoko), Japanese radish (大根 – daikon) and onions (玉ねぎ – tamanegi) to name but a few.
Activities during the day revolved around these crops and preparations for upcoming planting and harvesting seasons, so were extremely varied. One morning I’d be picking shiitake mushrooms in the cedar forests above Hita, the next using the farm’s tractor to plough fields in preparation for the upcoming rice planting season. Days were busy but not overly long, the standard woofer-host agreement is to work 5-6 hours per day. Despite these relatively short hours, the various bells of Japan suddenly began to make sense (and were even looked forward to) when their 5pm ringing signalled the end of the farming day.
Aside from farm work, I was also expected to help around the house, washing up after meals and generally keeping the place tidy. One night my fellow woofers and I were asked to cook some food from our home culture. Whilst I claim no Italian heritage, this allowed me to introduce a 100 year old to his first risotto – an experience in its own right – though his cries of oishii may have just been out of politeness. The farm also had a lovely black labrador with whom we were allowed to take long morning walks amongst the sakura trees.
Interview with a WWOOF Host – Hideki Isayama
When did you start as a WWOOF host?
About four or five years ago, my first woofer was a girl from China who had been studying in Beppu.
How many Woofers have you had stay with you?
Around 80 from as far a field as Argentina and Sweden.
How did you hear about WWOOF?
Through my Father. He’s 100 now, but five years ago he saw a program on it on TV and told me about it. My father loves farming too.
Why organic farming?
Because I believe it is healthier for humans and animals and better for the environment.
But what do you get in return for your efforts? The first is a fantastic cultural opportunity. For the short term resident of Japan (and even many long term residents) being invited into the home of a Japanese family is a rare opportunity. To stay with them for a week or more, rarer still. To suddenly find you have an 80 year old Japanese grandmother, who fusses over you every day after you get off the farm, unheard of. Out of the home, I was taken out for my first hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnic and to several onsen, taught how to make onigiri and shown around Hita, from its camera adorned yakuza house to its ancient Mameda Town.
Secondly, it can be a great way to practice or try out Japanese. Whilst most WWOOF hosts speak some English, you will find plenty of opportunity to speak Japanese and learn niche farming phrases such as sei-kou-u-doku (晴耕雨読 – せいこううどく) which translates roughly to ‘When sunny, farm. When rainy, read’. It can also be a great way to meet other travellers. Whilst there I worked alongside two other woofers, one from Singapore and one from Hong Kong, living in Fukuoka and Osaka respectively.
After a week on the farm, the prospect of returning to city life seemed unexciting. The week had been gloriously sunny and I was feeling fitter and healthier from my time outdoors, burning through six months of fanatic sushi eating faster than I had thought possible. Though I wasn’t sure when I had set out how I’d find life on the farm, it had been a fantastic experience, and one that I’m definitely keen to check out again whilst in Japan.
What to bring:
Woofing is an all weather sport, so clothes should be weather and farming appropriate. You’ll be in contact with a lot of mud and this has a habit of covering you head to toe. Outdoor footwear is useful, though if it’s getting serious, farms will often have a supply of rubber boots that you can borrow or show you a place where you can buy them (~¥1200). Hiking boots may also be appropriate. Check with your host before you go!
Interested in woofing in Japan? Then check out the WWOOF Japan website here. More opportunities provided by Workaway here.
Report by Oscar Boyd
Oscar is a student from London, UK. He is a keen hiker and aims to summit every mountain in Fukuoka visible from his bedroom window. If you have any suggestions contact him on Twitter @omhboyd