This is the first of a series of posts about my WWOOFing experience in March this year! This post will be a general overview of where I was and what I did. The next post, I’m going to talk more about what I learnt. The third post, I’m going to make you all jealous with my onsen pics. Good plan? Okay. Let’s go.
From March 19th -29th, I voluntarily left my nice, comfortable apartment with its nice warm kotatsu, bed with actual beds and my heater and set out into the unknown, ie. a farm in Oita prefecture. Well, slightly unknown — I have been to Oita several times before, and I have lived on farms or adjacent to farms for much of my childhood. But this was a Japanese farm and I was taking part in WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) so everything was different.
There were several specific things I wanted to do with this trip. I’m contemplating a major lifestyle change, and I wanted to find out beforehand if I could deal with the hard work that comes with farming. I also wanted to know if I would find it interesting in practice. In particular, I wanted to learn about rice farming. I also wanted to see if I would be able to balance writing and farm work. With this in mind, I joined WWOOF Japan, and looked for a host that grew rice on Kyushu (I’d made plans to travel during spring vacation with a friend so needed to be free from the 29th and in Kyushu). As luck would have it, my first choice of hosts accepted me!
I travelled to Oita by local train. I really like slow trains — I love looking out the window and seeing what’s going on. It also gives you a sense of where you’re going that you don’t get with planes, bullet trains or highways. Most of the journey was along the coast, so I caught some amazing views. Unfortunately, my camera missed them all. Towards the end of my journey, we wound up going through forest and rivers.
My host-mother met me at the station in a car. Within minutes we’d left the small town behind and were climbing through mountains. This was a surprise to me! The weather in my town was so nice the day of my departure that I actually removed my winter jacket and scarf from my luggage. I regretted that decision a lot — especially as we continued to climb!
The house was amazing. I first stepped into a dark room with a dirt floor. A fire burned in an open pit, full of ash, and a pot on a metal frame was set over it. That pit was the original fireplace dating from when the house was first built in the Edo-period (230 years ago), and that fire was going the majority of my stay. The smoke stained the ceiling and upper walls black, and gave the room (and surrounding rooms) a smoky smell that I stopped noticing the longer I stayed. In the back was a dividing wall that was left open, with a second ‘oven’ which probably dated from the Showa era and was used to steam rice. There was a step up into the main house which doubled as a seat, and where the electric rice cooker was kept.
Taking off our shoes, we climbed into the house — either the current kitchen, probably built in the 1970s, or the living room, with the kotatsu, a heated table of which I am a big fan. Most modern kotatsu have the heating grill attached to the table. This kotatsu was old school, and the heating grill was on the ground, which had been dug out so we could actually put our feet down.
Beyond the living room were two large tatami rooms. The first had three tables and a stack of cushions. My hosts run a farm-restaurant and an actual restaurant in addition to their farm, so we had groups visiting to eat lunch and this room was where they were served. A group of older Japanese tourists stepped inside and exclaimed ‘how nostalgic!’ The thatched roof was destroyed in a typhoon and replaced with tiles, but the original lighting hooks and beams remain. The house was built from pine, cedar, bamboo and cherry wood.
There was a small shrine in the kitchen and another in what I’m going to call the ‘dining room’, but the focal point of the second large tatami room was a huge buddhist altar. There were black and white portraits around the altar of people I assumed to be family members. The three tables had magazines in which my host family or their restaurant or farm appeared, and a photo album detailing the activities of the year, and another chronicling their son’s wedding ceremony which was celebrated at the house.
Separated from the two large tatami rooms by screen doors was a corridor which opened onto bedrooms. For the first 8 days, I had a room of my own. The final 2 days, I shared with other female WWOOFers. The rooms were tatami, and we each had a futon with two duvets, a blanket and a sheet. The pillows were the small, traditional, filled with beans kind. Not my favourite, but I can sleep on them!
Actually, sleeping was not something I had a problem with. I slept more this trip than I have in a long time, mostly because I was doing much more physical work than I usually do! I had some health issues — a bad headache day 2, and tonsillitis days 9-10, but I powered through and really enjoyed the work. What surprised me was the variety and how happy being outside made me. Unfortunately, late March turned out to be very uneventful in terms of actual rice growing. My jobs mainly included gathering twigs and branches left behind in the rice field (some trees had been cleared recently) and tidying up in preparation for planting, pasting pieces of newspaper together to make some kind of cover for rice seedlings, raking leaves and later spreading them over a field as compost, and helping translate and serve an American tour group. I also helped clean and do dishes for other groups of guests who dined at the farm house, chased an escaping goat, searched the forest for camellia blossoms to be fried in tempura, fed and watered the chickens and ducks every day and gathered eggs.
Interacting with the animals turned out to be my favourite part of the experience, although my host-mom’s amazing cooking and the overall experience were close behind. I forget how used I am to having animals around — my Japanese apartment has a strict no pets policy. The two goats were my favourite, even if the white escape artist goat did have me very worried when I was put in charge of getting her back in the stables and had no idea how. I literally had to grab the goat by her horns — a totally new experience! (and possibly not one I would recommend except these goats were obviously hand-reared and used to people).
30 seconds after this photo was taken, that white goat on the right was out of her stall and making her way up the driveway.
Amazing experience! I felt out of my depth a lot of the time, but never overwhelmingly so. I met some incredibly cool people and animals and learnt a lot. Not necessarily the things that I thought I’d be learning, but more on that next post.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a specific question about my WWOOFing trip, let me know so that I can answer it in my next update.