Program offers would-be farmers, city slickers a taste of country life

by Daisuke Kusama

Kyodo News

UTSUNOMIYA, Tochigi Pref. — Growing numbers of people are staying in farmhouses under WWOOF, a system that provides accommodation and meals in return for help harvesting crops and daily chores.

The system brings together people wishing to learn about agriculture with farm households battling labor shortages, as well as foreigners who are there just to learn about Japanese culture.

“It required a lot of strength to harvest vegetables and to weed, but it was pleasant,” said 30-year-old chef Tomoko Takahashi from Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. She stayed in the home of Noriko Kawai, 59, in Nasukarasuyama in the prefecture, to work in a watermelon field for three weeks in July.

WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, originated in Britain in 1971. WWOOF currently has secretariats in about 40 countries, including Japan. Under the system, labor is exchanged for accommodation and meals, and no money changes hands.

Takahashi, who specializes in French cuisine, wanted to learn about agriculture to open a restaurant using self-grown vegetables after hearing about a spate of food-poisoning incidents.

Kawai grows wheat, root vegetables and cabbages on her approximately 7-hectare organic farm.

“It’s very helpful if they come in the busy period from summer to fall, even if for a short time. There are many repeat visitors who are familiar with the work,” Kawai said.

Kiyoko Hoshino, a representative of the WWOOF Japan secretariat in Sapporo, said some people just do it for fun.

“In addition to those wishing to engage in agriculture, there are people who regard going and staying in farmhouses as a new travel and leisure activity, and the number of registrants is increasing,” Hoshino said.

People register their names and addresses on WWOOF Japan’s home page and pay an annual fee of ¥5,500.

The Web site provides information on about 360 farmhouses across the country, excluding Shiga and Tottori prefectures, and registrants contact the owners on when to stay.

There are around 3,000 people registered in Japan and half of them are foreigners, chiefly Europeans and North Americans. Many of the foreigners are tourists wishing to learn about Japanese culture.

Luke Stevens, 26, a former U.S. Marine, has stayed in farmhouses in Nagano and Tochigi prefectures since coming to Japan in June.

He said he is getting a deeper understanding of Japanese people through the WWOOF than he can get by simply reading magazines about favorite tourist spots.

“Many people are sick and tired of living in urban areas and WWOOF is on hand to help such people,” Hoshino of WWOOF Japan said.