When we planned this year-long, sort-of-around-the-world voyage, we wanted a big part of that to be connecting with people and learning about farming. Months and months ago, we purchased a Japan Wwoofing membership, and if you aren’t familiar with Wwoofing yet- you should be! We get pretty amusing looks when we tell people we are “Wwoofing.” No, it has nothing to do with yappy dogs; just organic farming (although we have realized that in Japan, they tend to stretch that part to non-organic farms and even situations like the one we narrowly avoided in Sapporo where you teach kids english 8 hours a day (teach? No thanks. We’re retired) and change babies nappies (no thanks. We are not ready for that just yet).
Wwoofing stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms” and is an international organization that pairs up farmers needing workers and travellers looking to learn about farming while working a set number of hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food. I tried my hand at it on a goat farm in Romania years ago, and again in southern Spain and loved it. It’s an excellent way to travel very cheaply (and one of the reasons we think we can maybe do this trip with $10,000 of savings each).
It’s one thing to travel through a place and look at how pretty it is, and it’s another to actually live with local families and see how they live on a really intimate level. We were fortunate to have organized our first stay with the lovely Tsumuru family in Azumino city, just on the edge of the Japanese alps, although we didn’t get as much “farming” experience as “renovating a house” experience. Oh well. We did manage to avoid the typhoon and torrential rain fall for 5 days straight by staying inside for 4 of them anyway. (The fifth day we wished we had stayed longer with our host family, but no regerts.)
We had arranged to meet them on Sunday afternoon at the closest train station to the farm. It was raining hard that day as we headed down from our lakeside stay in the Nijiri highlands, and we were very excited to be dry and have a normal life for a couple of days. Takao and Hisami showed up in their little white pick-up after dropping off three Thai volunteers who had just stayed with them a week. They left on the train with their rolling luggage (oh, to be able to catch a train! To be able to have just one little suitcase! I keep feeling slightly jealous of the most mundane little things, you can’t imagine) looking happy, so we felt like everything was going to turn out just fine.
After driving a long way at top speeds (that’s another thing: cars can go so far and so fast! You forget when you’re on a bike everyday), we arrived at their little homestead and got our own room with a futon and blankets (we ended up doubling up all our bedding so it wasn’t as uncomfortable but I’m not sure if I’d ever get used to sleeping right on the floor like that – although I very much respect those who can!) Oh, did it ever feel good to be inside a house! The last time we had that luxury was in the hotel in Hakodate, nearly 2 weeks earlier.
The Tsumura family host about 30 Wwoofers (that’s what we are called) a year so they have a pretty tight schedule set up and our daily routine started at 7am with breakfast, a work shift from 8-12, lunch and a break until 2 and then another 2 hours of work until 4. We always had a little snack half way through the morning and afternoon which ranged from an amazing homemade apple cake to a healthy version of angel food cake to rice crackers. Always accompanied with cold tea.
I won’t go into the minutiae of what we did each day or anything, but on top of the renovating part (painting, staining, stripping glue from antique Japanese shodi wood frames) which occupied most of our time, Takao was good about letting us join him on the tasks he does every day. These included feeding the chickens kitchen scraps and collecting the eggs (about 15 each day!), driving out to feed the ducks who live in this marsh area and are bred as ducklings to eat the insects around the budding rice plants), and driving over to a winery to collect truck loads of fermented grape skins and flesh to fertilize his fields which are located all over the area. Man, does that guy ever work hard!
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The photos and videos can illuminate the most interesting things we got to experience on the farm, but the coolest part about the whole experience was seeing what it is like to live almost completely self-sufficiently within a community agriculture model. Each meal we were amazed to hear where each ingredient came from and just how many of them were either grown by him in his many fields or his neighbours. Rice, tofu, tomatoes, plums, peaches, seaweed, eggs, soybeans, duck fat and duck skin (which we slyly picked out of our soup), and many more things we had never tasted or seen before would decorate the table every evening and we were especially lucky because Takao’s wife, Sanami, was a professional chef and even teaches at a local cooking school! Needless to say, we ate very well during our stay.
It was interesting to see first-hand just how crucial it is to be part of a community sharing your produce if you want to have a range of foods at your disposal. Takao proved to us that it can be a lot of working living as a full-time farmer and it definitely isn’t always easy, but with ingenuity, planning and determination (Takao has only been living as a full-time farmer for 9 years and seems to know a lot, although he ensured us he is still always learning something), it can be a very rewarding lifestyle.
It was a great 4 day stay: we ate well, slept well (and enjoyed numerous naps during our work breaks), didn’t have to work too arduously and surprisingly, we didn’t really miss being on our bikes all that much! We had to push on though (even into the rain) and it was a pretty neat feeling being able to just bike away and hit the road. That rush of adrenaline and excitement that all travellers know well hit us, even through the rain and the surrounding mountains we had to get to the other side of. And the journey back on the road continued!
Musician, teacher, traveller. Currently on a year-long journey around the world. Bronwyn is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com.