A car horn sounded from the road. Keiko-san, who, as far as I could tell had been at the rear of the farmhouse preparing dinner, raced past me in a flash, reaching the road in record time. I put down the small axe blade I was sharpening and gave chase. Not fast enough, however, to prevent Keiko-san from hoisting up a large tray of freshly harvested vegetables, and loading it onto the back of the flatbed truck herself.
Keiko-san is, if I had to guess, in at least her 70s, if not her 80s. And like other older farmers I have encountered as a volunteer on the Japanese iteration of the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) program, she is almost unerringly genki (energetic/healthy).
Organic farmer, local community leader, international host, Keiko-san’s myriad undertakings would exhaust all but the most resolute of manual laborers. Yet Keiko-san manages to combine the rigors of running her rural Saitama-ken farmstead with a side career as a published author of works on sustainable farming techniques.
In so doing, Keiko-san both typifies, and is typical of, the hosts to be encountered on the WWOOF program. Many are what is euphemistically termed datsusara, or former salarymen who, sick of the lifestyle, escape to pastures new. In this case, to pastures organically maintained and often sustained via the use of traditional, centuries-old farming methods. Inhabiting themselves a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle far removed from the bustle and consumerism of urban life, such hosts take great pleasure in imparting their knowledge to their guests.
At heart, the guiding principle of the WWOOF program is to encourage international exchange by introducing overseas visitors to life in rural Japan. Therefore, once an initial fee of ￥5,500 JPY is paid, WWOOFers — as volunteers are known — are free to visit as many different farms, and for as long as they choose each time, for the next 18 months. In exchange for free room and board — plus innumerable invaluable insights into the farmer’s lifestyles — WWOOFers offer six hours of their time a day in labor, five or six days a week.
The work itself varies hugely. Of course, being farm-related, it can be either back-breakingly physical or stomach-churningly grisly, depending on the type of farm and the variety of organic cultivation it engages in.
Farm life itself also offers a plethora of experiences that travelers to Japan simply would not otherwise experience — due to time and financial constraints, or a simple lack of access, under any other circumstances.
I spent one incredible summer, for example, living in a hut on the edge of a lake, itself only 500 yards or so from northern Hokkaido’s Okhotsk Sea coast. My only job was to chop up bits of wood for ready use over the long, cold, and rapidly approaching winter. And I did that every morning. Then I spent my afternoons either skinny-dipping in the sea or relaxing in an al-fresco style “hot tub” made from a large, disused barrel by my ever-industrious datsusara hosts.
Every night I would join the family for dinner, the father and I bonding over a penchant for sake. When I accepted their offer to borrow a pushbike and cycle up the coast to a nearby national park — a national park inhabited by real-life and free-roaming bears, no less — the mother stuffed my rucksack with cakes and buns from the café they operated at a scenic spot along the beach. Their young son accompanied me some evenings as I walked the dog, and I would teach him little bits of English and act as goalkeeper as he practiced his football skills.
I feel that it is this human aspect that is the most vital part of the WWOOFing experience. As a volunteer, I have built bonfires, cut back a forest of bamboo, killed chickens. This was not obligatory, I can assure you. Still, I’ll save you the grisly details. I’ve harvested radishes, carrots, and potatoes, made delicious gyoza (fried dumplings) from scratch, and witnessed salmon leaping by the dozen up a hidden forest river. Yet it is probably the connections I made on each farm that I enjoyed the most.
Hosts on the WWOOF program are inherently open to sharing their lives with their volunteers. I suspect that some farms would struggle to survive, were it not for the exchange of labor facilitated by the program. It is possible, therefore, to genuinely feel oneself becoming a part of the family, to recognize the positive impact of one’s labor for the hosts.
For those interested in a genuine cultural exchange, one that allows visitors the chance to give a little back in the process of learning a few of Japan’s secrets, the WWOOF program offers a uniquely valuable opportunity.
(Follow this link to learn if you are interested in learning more or participating in the WWOOF program in Japan.)
Author: Will Fee