Those who know me know that I have spent an inordinate amount of my time volunteering through the WWOOF Japan program, which is a cheap and authentic way to travel in Japan. Here, I will explain what WWOOF is, overview my experience with it, and let you know why you need to give it a shot.
Depending on who you ask, WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” or “Willing Workers on Organic Farms.” Essentially, volunteers pay a small fee in order to work reduced hours on an organic farm. In exchange they receive a home stay, which generally includes all of the food they need, a bed, and an incomparable cultural experience. I have friends who have WWOOFed in Italy, France, America, Hawaii (still America but it feels different to me) and of course Japan. These people have have told me varied stories of their homestays, ranging from hippie to traditional, labor-intensive to nearly idle, extremely organic to fairly chemical, and amazingly fun to so awful that they left early (usually amazingly fun though).
I originally found the WWOOF Japan program online and decided to participate mainly based on the low cost of it. After graduating high school, I had already decided to take a year off before entering college, work for a while to save money, then use that money to travel in Japan for an extended period of time. I was 18 years old and had never experienced farm labor but I had studied Japanese since middle school and traveled in Japan for two weeks when I was 13. Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into, but thankfully it all worked out.
Out of the six months I traveled in Japan, four were spent WWOOFing at various farms and restaurants. I was able to travel from Tokyo to Ishikawa Prefecture in western Japan then all the way down to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, (other than Okinawa) while basically only spending money on night-bus transportation and any activities I planned for my days off. My farm hosts had me working with apples, rice, beans, strawberries, pears, pigs, chickens, goats, sugar cane, and potatoes. I also worked at one Spanish restaurant and sausage smokehouse where I stuffed and scrubbed sausages and even helped sell them at a market in Fukuoka City. Generally, work lasted about six hours a day six days a week, but it was hard to complain as I watched my host family members return from the fields at far later hours than myself. Still, as someone who had never worked on a farm before, I found the work difficult at times and I experienced loneliness due to the language barrier and lack of people near my age. Sometimes, there would be other volunteers at the farms from all over the world who I could hang out with. These were generally my favorite times.
Despite these difficulties, my experience with WWOOF Japan was not only fun but educational and likely made me grow as a person. For one thing, although I had worked at a bakery and a law firm in Seattle, I had no concept of what daily manual labor felt like prior to WWOOFing, and through this experience I gained both a new work ethic and an appreciation for those who spend their lives farming. As someone who grew up in the city, I was guilty of eating freely without ever considering where my food came from, and it felt good to work with crops I would actually end up eating myself. It didn’t hurt that the food was usually all-natural and tasted amazing. I also gained a new measure of independence while figuring out how to travel around Japan and also act like a respectful adult as a guest in strangers’ homes.
Aside from the personal growth I experienced, WWOOF offers numerous other benefits to exchange students and travelers in Japan. For travelers staying in youth hostels and students living in international dorms, WWOOF provides an opportunity to get away from a foreigner-heavy environment for a little while and experience true immersion into a rural Japanese lifestyle. You will improve your Japanese skills while speaking exclusively in Japanese, eat and help cook traditional Japanese food three times a day, and likely witness the loving interactions of a three or four-generation Japanese household. Although the urban sprawl of Tokyo is the most common image of Japan held by foreigners, you will find that those who have spent time in rural Japan do not feel this is a fair cultural representation at all.
I made numerous friends both Japanese and foreign through WWOOF and I feel privileged to have taken part in it. In fact, I have already gone back and volunteered at two host locations I visited three years ago during my current study abroad and I plan to return to one more. For those who are still skeptical about trying it out, consider going with a friend for only a short period of time. A year-long membership costs 6000 yen, and from that point you can discuss the duration of your stay online with host families who tend to be extremely open-minded. Why not try it for a week? Choose a beautiful place in Japan and there is likely to be a friendly host family there waiting for you!
Here is the website for WWOOF Japan:
Click the link to preview host profiles for free!