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July 2004
Issue 050

Special 50th Issue!


The Good Life
Organic Farming in Japan

For an alternative vacation that does the planet some good while giving you a unique experience, for a break with fresh air, exercise and free grub, just WWOOF.

The first WWOOF organization began in England in the 1970s, and has since spread to more than forty countries throughout the world. The letters WWOOF were originally an acronym for ‘Weekend Workers On Organic Farms’. More recently this has been adapted to ‘Willing’ or ‘Worldwide’ Workers as lifestyles and circumstances changed.

WWOOF Japan’s policy is this — “for visitors to Japan to get below the veneer of tourism and for the Japanese to break away from their daily grind to have genuine and new experiences”.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at a WWOOF host establishment in Hyogo prefecture. Earth Farm is an organic farm dedicated to building a self-sufficient and independent farming village. Set deep in the wooded hills near Wakayama, Earth Farm is run by Omori Masaya and his six children aged between 14 and 25. At the time I visited (early spring) a goat, three rabbits, five ducks, two cats, two dogs and over a hundred chickens also lived there.
At present, the Japanese sector of WWOOF has over seventy host establishments. While a large percentage of these describe themselves as organic farms, businesses, communities and families have also become hosts, offering a greater diversity of experience.

The WWOOF Japan handbook includes restaurants, small hotels/inns, cafes, a souvenir shop, an English school, an outdoor sports center, organic food shops, holistic medicine clinics, a campsite, cooking schools and environmental education centers; scattered from one end of Japan to the other. While many hosts are located in isolated rural areas, others are less than two hours from main cities.

Earth Farm is spread over twenty acres and consists of rice paddies, vegetable plots, animal pens, and patches of flowers, strawberries and herbs. Set amongst this are a large main house, a house for WWOOFers and trainees, a bread house, a bath house, a charcoal shed, and a mini-library. A clear stream runs through the property and the farm is surrounded by native forest, which in spring was lush, green and fragrant.

The days begin early, when the sun comes up and the roosters start to crow. Breakfast is served a little later, after the animals have been catered for with handfuls of grain and large tubs of weeds and grasses, and consists of hearty chunks of homemade bread, with eggs, soup, or peanut butter.

In contrast to the smoggy humidity of the city, the air is noticeably sharp and fresh. The only sounds are the voices of the workers, the quacks, clucks, barks and bleats of the animals, the splash and burble of the stream and the wind whispering through the bamboo
and fir trees.

While the farm does have electricity and running water, there is no flush toilet and no hot water. The family uses a goemonburo bathtub — a deep metal tub similar to a cauldron, used in nearly every Japanese household up to the 1960s, but now nearly obsolete. Bath time is in the evening, and preparations for this begin late afternoon with the lighting and tending to of a small fire underneath the tub. The water takes several hours to heat but lasts all evening. After a long days work, covered from head to toe with a grimy layer of dust, dirt and sweat, a bath feels like a reward, and the stingingly hot water provides sweet relief for aching muscles.

The main sources of commercial income for the farm come from growing rice and vegetables and selling eggs, bread and charcoal,
but during my stay I was amazed to discover just how much the farm produces and utilizes. Bugs from the plants are fed to the chickens and ducks. Animal manure is used to fertilize the soil. Weeds are collected for the goat. Bamboo shoots, fern fronds and wild mushrooms are collected from the forest to sell to visitors and use in meals. The family also makes honey, udon and soba noodles, tofu, and woodcrafts.

Joining WWOOF is simple. 4,000 yen covers a whole year of membership, the same price as a night in youth hostel, and less than half the price of a night in ryokan. The invaluable members reference handbook includes detailed descriptions of each host establishment, organized by region. Each host’s page has full contact details, information about the people involved, some content on their values/motivations, what guests will be expected to do, how long they can stay, information on the surrounding area, and whether English is okay or if Japanese is necessary.

Once decided on a host establishment, it is as easy as contacting them, arranging transport, and packing some work clothes and old shoes. The host will provide free meals and accommodation in exchange for a days work (usually 4-6 hours), as well as the opportunity to share their daily life, enjoy the rewards of varied and often hard work, and learn from an alternative lifestyle. Depending
on the host, WWOOFers can stay for a few days up to a year.

The organic farms are each unique in vision and scope, and produce a vast array of goods — vegetables, flowers, meat and poultry, honey, bread, soba and udon noodles, rice, tea, tofu, herbal medicines, jam, eggs, dairy products, fertilizer and charcoal to name
a few. Some farms are small and intended for self-sufficiency while others are much larger, and aim to be more commercial. What all WWOOF hosts have in common is an interest in sharing their lifestyle with others. They provide new opportunities and entirely different experiences to those with an interest in alternative methods, or who simply wish to escape a crowded and increasingly developed Japan, in exchange for a honest day’s work in the fresh air.

During my stay I had what I imagine are some rare and special opportunities for foreigners and even many Japanese. One was the chance to prepare rice seeds for planting. Earth Farm produces four kinds of organic rice, including a mochi rice and a sake rice. A careful mix of earth, sand and burnt rice husks was sifted into trays, carefully leveled, and sprinkled with water. The trays were labeled by type before being sprinkled with dry rice seed. Then came the painstaking task of making sure each grain of rice had its own space to grow without touching any others. The final steps were covering the seed with a thin layer of soil and another sprinkling of water. This all took many hours of patience and care but it was peaceful and fascinating work, an opportunity to be directly involved in something so central to Japanese culture and tradition.

The work I was involved in was varied, interesting, sometimes dirty, sometimes physically tough, and seemingly endless. There was always something to do. A large part of one day on the farm was spent making compost. First came the pleasant part — heading to the shade of the surrounding hills to collect dry leaves from the forest floor. Then, however, armed with shovels, pitchforks, and thick gloves, I and the other workers were given the unsavory job of cleaning out the recently vacated pigsty. Layers of the leaves were interspersed with the manure and finally sealed with black plastic sheets and left to ferment. Being a hot day the smell was disgusting. Carrying a load of muck on the end of a shovel is no easy task and it wasn’t long before our shoes were caked and our clothes streaked brown and green. It did help me remember that once you accept that staying clean is impossible, it’s a lot easier to relax and get on with things, even enjoy getting dirty.

With the hard work come the rewards. Sitting down to satisfying home cooked meals in which all ingredients come from right outside and are totally free of chemicals. Knowing that the tiny seeds I planted in spring will, by summer, be full-grown plants bearing rice and all kinds of vegetables. Looking after content, healthy animals. Experiencing Japanese home and family life. Really utilizing what the land can provide. The chance to work outdoors in Japan, with clean air and the sun on my face. WWOOFing in Japan is an opportunity I am really grateful to have experienced.

Text & Photos: Josie Steenhart

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Five Top Spots To Go WWOOFing

Abuta-gun, Hokkaido
Work in a small hotel, built from natural materials, that serves organic food. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains. In the winter the host provides workers with free ski lift passes at the nearby ski resort, and in summer you can experience outdoor sports and hiking in the mountains.

Akan-gun, Hokkaido
The host is a slow-food restaurant and farm-inn, built on a hill overlooking the Akan peaks. The sky is very clear so there is a magnificent night view. The area is a habitat for Japanese cranes and is close to Akan National Park. There are many onsen in the area. It is cool in the summer but gets up to one meter of snow in the winter.

Chiba-ken
A small but lively farm specializing in growing traditional Japanese rice and vegetables. It is close to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by forest. Stay in an old Japanese farmhouse and enjoy surfing at the beach that is fifteen minutes away. The hosts are also happy to teach you photography or macrobiotic cooking.

Nagano-ken
Stay at a peaceful farm at the foot of Mushikura Mountain, with clean air and water. The rice paddies here were selected as one of the hundred most beautiful in Japan. The area retains the atmosphere of an old Japanese village. You can see the Japanese Alps and enjoy bird watching and bush walking in your free time.

Kagoshima-ken, Kyushu
This area is famous for pottery making, and there are often rainbows. There are many hot springs and the famous Fukiagehama surf beach is a short distance away. The teahouse is in the hills in a small village surrounded by nature. On a fine day you can see Sakurajima, and at night there are many stars.