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 Japans 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
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
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
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
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 hosts 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
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 days 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
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 wasnt 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, its 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.