Skip to main content

Farming Holiday: WWOOFing in Japan




As a recent vacation approached we found ourselves at a loss for what to do. Too short for a meaningful trip home but too long for milling about Tokyo, we searched for ideas. Even though we've been here almost a year, there is still so much of Japan that we want to explore and experience. How to choose? Finally, we found an answer - WWOOF!

WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an international organization that connects large and small organic farmers with volunteer workers. In exchange for helping on the farm, WWOOFers (as the volunteer workers are commonly called) get food, accommodation, and information about farming and organic lifestyles. This simple idea - connecting those who want to learn with those who need a little help and are willing to share what they know - quite literally opens the door of a home allowing the traveler to experience their country of choice in a more intimate way than is normally possible.

It is also incredibly affordable. The membership fee to WWOOF Japan and our travel expenses were pretty much it. (I did take along some of the yuzu marmalade I'd made as a gift, a practice I highly recommend. Gift-giving is by no means required, but it's a thoughtful gesture from a stranger entering a new house to live for a week or more.) The affordability of WWOOFing paired with the opportunity for a unique travel experience have led it to buck the trend of sliding interest and membership during this economic downturn. Some even theorize that the current economic crisis is helping fuel WWOOF's increasing numbers of both volunteer workers and farmers.

The Farm
We wanted to head south to be just a little bit warmer, and because we'd already seen some of the North on our way to Hokkaido this summer. We were pleasantly surprised to see a number of WWOOF hosts seeking WWOOFers in January, a month we initially thought would be challenging for finding a place. We spotted one on Shikouku, and made contact. Ikumi Tomato Farm is literally a five minute walk from Ikumi Surfing Beach. Yuzu and ponkan orchards line the roads and the steep hillsides behind the farm, and roadside stalls were full to overflowing with bags and crates of fruit. Green leaves and warmer temperatures greeted us when we got off the bus to meet Tomoya-san, the farmer and our host for the next six days.


A former advertising and marketing salaryman in Tokyo, he became dissatisfied with his work. A year's sabbatical biking in New Zealand took him by and to a number of farms.There he found a new face of farming - passionate craftsmen and women who found in their daily work a way of life requiring intellect, creativity, and tenacity - strikingly different from the stereotypical image of farmers he'd previously carried. And, despite the hard labor and long hours, they were happy. After a year of intensive agricultural study in Kochi, Tomoya-san rented the greenhouses and farmhouse with garden nearby. He's been courting the tomato ever since.

The Work

Beautiful, slightly chilly, blue sky days outside instantly became heat-saturated summer afternoons inside the four greenhouses full of strong, healthy, and blooming tomato plants. We worked about six hours each day removing spent blossoms from new fruit, sweeping and tidying the black plastic mulch, and trimming leaves. Sometimes we could even hear the ocean waves pounding the beach. The occasional buzz of the Japanese bees Tomoya-san keeps in the greenhouse for pollinating were the only other sounds.


We also did other chores - digging a new compost pit; trimming the hedge at the back of the greenhouses; and some household tidying - that seemed a little "off message" initially. Yet, these tasks - running a household, maintaining a property, and implementing organic practices for the home garden - are all part and parcel of farming, too. Tomoya-san readily shared his knowledge of farming with us (as well as his amazing cooking), so if a little vacuuming made it possible for him to focus on the plants then so be it.

Farm geek that I am, I thought it a more than fair exchange. I found it utterly fascinating to work in the greenhouses and talk with Tomoya-san about his farm. I learned so much, and despite peppering him with questions each night about everything from organic farming to why he chose the tomato (he wants to show people what a really good tomato can taste like) to Japanese agriculture (he's concerned about the aging population and lack of organic farmers) to music (he loves Latin music but also has almost the entire collection of Earth, Wind and Fire) to food (he often uses anise in his miso to liven up the flavor) he offered to have us back again.

We also plan to WWOOF again elsewhere. A chance to spend meaningful time in a new and beautiful place while helping produce food that's healthy for everyone in just about every way seems like a no-brainer to us. WWOOFing offers a world of possibilities for the traveler looking for a deeper and different kind of experience, and we're hooked.

Comments

Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Popular posts from this blog

Finding Heirloom Seeds in Japan

Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans. Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties. Heirloom and F1 Varieties In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1. In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time unti

Kamakura Farmers Market: Giant Buddhas and Good Vegetables

Kamakura Farmers Market entrance A little more than an hour train ride south of Tokyo sits Kamakura. Like Kyoto and Nara, Kamakura is a former capital full to the brim with temples, shrines, and a bounty of historical sites lining its winding streets. Nestled in a cozy bay with beaches and a giant Buddha tucked amongst the rest, it's a city that invites multiple visits if not at least one. And those seeking a farmers market well-stocked with traditional vegetables, skilled growers ready to share recipes and chat about their wares, along with some nifty prepared foods to rejuvenate themselves after so many temples surely won't be disappointed, either. Kamakura Farmers Market - right side full of signs Started nearly twenty years ago, the Kamakura Farmers Market or Kamakurasui Nyogyou Rensokubaijo, runs seven days a week nearly year-round. A ten-minute walk from the station, the market is located in what at first glance looks like nothing so much as a run-down w

Satoimo: One of Japan's Favorite Slimy Things

Satoimo in all their hairy glory. This post first appeared in slightly different form on Garden to Table as part of the 2012  Blogathon . The website has since moved on to the ether, but the post is still a good one. After all, people here are still eating satoimo on a daily basis, and many others are just seeing these little potato-like objects for the first time. Enjoy! Satoimo is one of Japan's odder vegetables. Under it's rough, slightly furry skin is white flesh that is a little bit slimy even raw, and with a gentle nutty flavor.* Baked, grilled, steamed with dashi, or deep-fried satoimo stands well on its own or paired up with other vegetables and meats in a wide variety of soups and stews . (The leaves are also edible.) Satoimo stores well, and like any root crop worth the effort, stocks are just running low on this household favorite as the farmers in my area of Tokyo get ready to put a new crop in the ground in May. I cannot say I was a fan of this l