Through the glass doors of the spartan arrivals hall in the airport on Miyako Island, I caught a glimpse of a slightly frail looking man who I figured was the guy I had exchanged a few basic emails with to arrange my trip.
From his blue cowboy shirt and the bandanna around his long sun-bleached hair, he could only be described as a Japanese Willie Nelson. And yes indeed, this was my host: Take-san.
I had arrived on one of Japan’s most southerly, subtropical islands with little information, merely on a whim and promise that a man with a farm would shelter me for three weeks.
This was the start of my first wwoof experience. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (why it’s not WWOOOF I’ll never understand — on-ism, perhaps?). Anyhow, it’s a loose international network of organic farmers who are willing to provide board and lodging in exchange for four to five hours’ work each day.
The organization was set up in 1971 by a London office worker named Sue Coppard who had become frustrated she could not escape the stresses of the city for the tranquility of rural life that she had grown up accustomed to as a child.
WWOOF quickly grew in popularity among organic farmers who needed help and city dwellers wanting a breath of fresh air. The organization now exists in more than 20 countries from Kazhakstan to Costa Rica — and, of course, in Japan.
For an annual fee of ¥5,500, which is payable online, prospective wwoofers can take their pick from any any of the farmers worldwide, including more than 400 hosts in Japan. Each has a small blurb on the WWOOF website and it’s all really rather akin to online dating — but for volunteers who want a taste of farming.
There are hosts covering practically every orifice of the archipelago; from the livestock-rich farms on the cold tips of Hokkaido to the lush sugar farms of Ishigaki Island south of Okinawa. However, unlike in other countries the emphasis on organic is quite elusive as relatively few farms have jumped on the organic bandwagon here. Instead, the focus is on the spirit of cultural immersion.
The day-to-day jobs given to you as a wwoofer will hinge entirely on where you choose to go to, your host, and your physical ability. However, the overall quality of your experience really depends on your ability to share some chemistry with those with whom you spend your wwoofing time.
During my own experience this was easy to achieve, as Take-san’s lively wit quickly became apparent despite there being a bit of a language barrier between us.
I arrived in the early darkness of evening in those latitudes, and over dinner met two fellow wwoofers Take-san was hosting. There was long-term wwoofer Yoshimitsu, who had become Take-san’s right-hand man, and there was Shiroi from Hokkaido who was taking a break from her masters degree in “raspberry studies.”
That evening Take-san told us he is mildly afflicted with Minamata disease, which takes its name from Minamata Bay in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyushu. In the 1950s, methyl-mercury in a chemical factory’s effluent was found to have poisoned people who had eaten shellfish from those waters. The disease causes neurological dysfunction, ranging from numbness through speech and hearing damage to insanity, paralysis and death.
This, it turned out, was one of the reasons Take-san invited wwoofers to stay with him, as his disease often resulted in uncontrollable hand-shaking, making it difficult for him to drive or cook.
It was not until the following morning, though, that I realized I wouldn’t be working on an organic farm at all. Instead, I’d be cleaning the nearby picture-perfect Yoshino Beach. The work was quite varied, with some days spent collecting large pieces of driftwood and copious quantities of plastic bottles for a few hours, while on others I might accompany Take-san to the local cattle auction or go on day trips with him to see other parts of the island.
As easygoing as he was, though, our host did insist that our free time should be consumed with “Miyako-only activities” — which could include fishing, snorkeling or making coral jewelry for any willing passers-by who’d sit at our camp and have a cup of coffee. Tough, that free time was.
Take-san — I dare say — is a rarity among the wwoofing community, as he made no money from cleaning up the beach he had fallen in love with 10 years before as a visitor to the island.
Indeed, so besotted was he back then that he upped sticks from his life as a lawyer in Tokyo to move to Miyako Island and set up a small shop overlooking the beach. However, the local authorities denied him permission to do that because he was not a Miyako-born resident. Undeterred, and hell-bent on living his dream, he built a small shack by the beach and has been cleaning the white strand with his itinerant army of foreign and Japanese wwoofers for many years now.
Speaking to other wwoofers, it seems that though the work they’d been called on to do varied from helping on a farm to working in a bakery or even helping put together a music festival, their acceptance into the host family’s home was always very similar.
One wwoofer, Eitan, told me how he’d arrived at his first host’s place in Bungo Nakamura on Kyushu just three days after landing in Japan. He got there in the pouring rain and soon learned he was the host’s first-ever non-Japanese wwoofer. “Let’s just say that when I stepped into the house drenched and with my shoes still on, the chap wasn’t best pleased,” he said.
But it seems Eitan gradually proved his worth harvesting rice, as he told how “I knew he had warmed to me as the number of beers he gave me at dinner began to increase.” Eitan said he embraced the work but what he most enjoyed was the evening meal times and the family trips to a karaoke parlor in the evening.
“I had heard about wwoofing through a friend and it was the only way I could afford to explore Japan while I was still a student,” Eitan said. “But it was more than that really; I wanted to get to know Japan from beyond the simple perspective of a tourist.”
Cost is one of wwoofing’s prime pluses, since, for the price of my flight ticket to Miyako Island, and a meager amount of spending money, I managed to escape Tokyo for three weeks — and that in a country where the tourism industry largely caters to short breaks with shinkansen fares that are out of many people’s range.
Nonetheless, wwoofing should be seen as more than just a cheap holiday: it is about experiencing a different way of life — whether that be rural living, learning a more self-sufficient lifestyle or experiencing traditional Japanese family life. But it has to be said that wwoofing isn’t for everyone, as there are a number of potential pitfalls.
First, you need to be flexible and make arrangements well in advance in order to get the host you want. Typically you will need more than a week to make your trip worthwhile for both yourself and the host, so that you have enough time to get into the swing of the work involved.
Second, you need to consider what kind of activities you would like to be doing and what time of year you will be going. If you want to experience rice harvests go in September, but to help with lambing then planning your trip for June is likely a bit late.
Third, and maybe most important, is the potential language barrier. Not every farmer on the wwoofing website accepts foreigners, either on the grounds of language or fears of cultural misunderstanding. Don’t be put off though, as there are plenty who do — just be careful and keep a dictionary to hand.
Finally, don’t embark on your first wwoofing expecting 5-star accommodation. Usually sleeping arrangements in Japan are nothing more than a simple futon laid on a tatami mat. Also, try and pitch in with family activities such as cooking dinner or cleaning the house, because expecting to get waited on hand and foot might see your trip end sooner than expected.
But such obvious caveats as these apart, wwoofing gives those seeking to venture off the typical tourist trail an authentic and unforgettable slice of rural Japan.
So, get wwoofin’ !
Getting there: There are daily flights from several mainland cities. I flew from Tokyo-Haneda with Skymark Airlines via Naha on Okinawa. Cost was around ¥20,000 each way. A registration fee of ¥5,500 entitles you to unlimited wwoof volunteering in Japan for one year. For more information and to become a wwoofer, visit www.wwoofjapan.com.