This is the follow-up post to my first WWOOFing report and I have very mixed feelings about writing it. Many people in Kumamoto-prefecture and Oita-prefecture have lost their homes in last week’s earthquakes. One hundred thousand people have been evacuated, and there are food and water shortages in the effected areas. Although I know now that my host family is unharmed, the days of waiting and worrying had an impact and it’s really hard to go back to the mindset in which I wrote my last post, knowing that too many people are not okay. I do not want to come across as dismissive of the very real hardships and losses the people of Kyushu are going through in writing this post.
At the same time, talking to my students about my homestay experience, waiting to hear from my host family and my relief at their message has added a personal dimension to the disaster for them, and made me even more aware of how lucky I am to have had such an amazing experience. I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, while also directing attention to Kumamoto Quake Info: Where to Go and How to Help by the Japan Times.
You do not know what you do not know. My WWOOFing experience really proved this! While I went in with the goal of finding out whether or not I was really interested in and physically able to pursue a farming lifestyle, my WWOOFing experience turned out to mirror my writing journey in a really unexpected way. I was also able to experience Japan in a totally new way. In my eleven years in this country, WWOOFing is one of the best things I have done here!
Farming. The biggest thing was the physical aspect of it. My current job has me either inside at a desk or at the front of a classroom. It’s not a physically demanding job (except for my 5-6 class days — those are a challenge!). My first day on the farm, I cleared wood from a field intended to be planted with rice. The wood was leftover from some trees that had been felled. They ranged from twigs and small branches to branches that I needed both hands and serious oomph to shift. The field was muddy and became even muddier as we worked. I became tired pretty quickly, that was no surprise. What was a surprise was that I was able to keep going. Day two, when I was achey on top of tired, was more of a challenge — especially when I developed a headache in the afternoon. But I didn’t want my host family to think I was slacking off, so I pushed through — and my headache disappeared and I finished my work day feeling good. Turns out that I really enjoy being outside.
I was really worried whether or not I’d be able to keep this up, but I was able to get up and get started regardless of how cold it was (very) or what the weather was doing, all of which make me very hopeful that this is something I can make work for me. My host family balanced out the days that we did really hard physical work with a longer lunch break (host-dad and O-san, the male Japanese WWOOFer, napped right there at the kotatsu, while I went and lay down in my room). I was even able to write, making diary entries about my experiences and working on a story in my down time. I have to admit, being too tired to write was a big concern, but as it happened, the biggest obstacle to me writing was the cold! I was still waking up early in the morning during my usual writing time, but it was too cold to want to sit up and get to work. I was too nervous to ask my host-mother if I could use the heater in my room for the first couple of days, and when she said yes, discovered that I had no idea how to use it. I finally had the courage to tell her I thought it was broken only a day before I changed rooms, but she switched it out with one that did work and I got some glorious words in at last!
Since it was a quiet time of year farming wise, I didn’t get to experience any of the planting/harvesting side of things. I’ve actually planted rice with my students before, but was still disappointed as it was the rice and vegetable farming aspects that had attracted me to this particular host. Instead, I discovered that the animals were the highlight of my WWOOFing stay. I made giving the chickens their water ‘my job’ while I was there and whenever I had the chance, helped feed the ducks and search for eggs. The goats … At first, I was intimidated by them. They have massive horns, and look like sheep but aren’t sheep. Intimidating. Getting asked to put the escape-artist white goat back in her stall was one of those thrown in at the deep end experiences. I had no idea how to do it, but in the end had to abandon fear and just do my best. It … sort of worked? I got her back in her stall — for about 30 seconds before she escaped again. I couldn’t find the rope my host-mother mentioned, so I ended up attaching her to the dog’s zipline. Not knowing how to explain it, I took a photo and found my host-father to show him what the situation is. “Is this okay?” I asked him. He laughed and said, “No, but close enough. She’ll be fine until I go back to the house.” After that introduction, I stopped by the goats to say hi whenever I passed. I am not able to keep pets in my apartment here, so I forget how much I enjoy having animals around. I was planning on keeping any but now I think I may have to.
WWOOFing was also really educational in terms of self-knowledge. When I arrived, I wondered what the hell I was doing. I was the only non-Japanese person and everyone had been at the farm long enough to know what they were doing and have the routine down pat. I latched on to a A-san, a female WWOOFer who had arrived a week before I did and had dated an Australian guy. Her English and my Japanese combined enabled me to get the gist of what I should be doing, and I pretty much copied her for my first couple of days until I began getting tasks of my own. I was really lucky. O-san had been working on this farm for 3 months, and was so familiar with the routine that I assumed he was a family member until the last couple of days when I realised he was a WWOOFer, but A-san was new enough that she could guess what I was wondering and taught me what she’d learnt. It wasn’t until the last three days of my trip, when A-san moved on to her next WWOOFing host, and we got two new arrivals, a man from Korea and a woman from France, neither of whom spoke Japanese, that I realised how much I’d learnt. Teaching K-san and V-san the daily routine, where dishes were kept, how to turn on the heaters and where and how to use the washing machine, all brought home to me just how much I’d accomplished while feeling like I was completely lost and not accomplishing anything.
And this is where the similarity to writing comes in. I have a tendency to jump into things without quite knowing what I am doing. I am a learning by doing person, and a side-effect is that I often feel like I am in over my head — especially when I compare myself to people around me. This sort of comparison is natural, but not really helpful. Instead, finding people like A-san who are just a little further down the path than you and willing to help is the best way to learn.
I also have the tendency to be quiet and shy in real life, and this doesn’t lean well to learning. I was really curious about the history of the house I was staying in. When was it built and why? How had the family managed to keep it all these years? But I assumed that it would be too hard to ask these sorts of questions or wouldn’t understand the answers if I did. Instead, we get a visit from an American tour group and their English speaking guide, a cousin of my host-father. She greeted me cheerfully — “You’ll be able to tell us all about the house.” I shared what I’d figured out through observing, but she quickly surpassed what I knew and even contradicted a couple of my assumptions. Turns out that the rice we were drying and bagging wasn’t intended to be sold as rice but would be used to make rice wine! The American tourists were only there for three hours, but the amount of questions they asked of me and the guide, and that I asked my host-mother on their behalf, meant that they left with a lot more knowledge than I had my three days prior to their arrival! I’ve really got to get better at expressing my curiosity!
The hardest part of WWOOFing was waiting. A lot of the time, particularly just after breakfast, was spent waiting to find out what we were going to do. My host-father disappeared after breakfast to check on things around the farm and make his plans for the day, but until he returned we were at a loose end. O-san had his routine and I tagged along with him until host-father returned, but I have discovered that I do not like uncertainty in my daily routine. I much prefer being able to make my own schedule, or at the very least, having a schedule so that I know what is coming and can organise myself accordingly.
Finally, one of the most initially challenging parts became one of the most enjoyable: family life. We started off every day with a shared meal and ended it with another. The soap opera of the day played on the TV in the corner. Everyone was silent during the weather updates. No one was in a hurry to clear away dishes and finish the meal. It was companionable and cozy. My first day, overwhelmed by all the Japanese, I felt the meals drag by. Day 3, relaxing in my room after dinner, I felt lonely and brought my kindle to read at the kotatsu while the others watched TV. As someone who has lived in Japan a long time, I sometimes find the insistence on group activities excessive and am very happy going off and doing my own thing. Feeling out of my depth, however, I really appreciated being able to be part of shared life despite the fact that my Japanese felt really inadequate. I felt like I experienced an aspect of Japanese culture I’d seen before but not really understood.
Also, the food. My host-mother’s cooking was amazing! The best tempura I have ever had!
A month and two days on from leaving on my big WWOOFing adventure, I have absolutely no regrets — unless not doing something like this ages ago counts. I would never have imagined I would get so much out of my ten days on the farm — but thats the thing. It’s what I didn’t know.