Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) started as Working Weekends on Organic Farms in England in 1971. Since then, it has grown to at least 99 countries around the globe, however only 50 actually have registered, national databases. WWOOFing brings together both hosts and volunteers who have at least one thing in common: the desire to farm in a sustainable, organic manner.
This is how it works (although it may differ from country to country): You sign up on the corresponding WWOOF organization in the country of which you either live in and are traveling to. Organizations may require a nominal registration fee (completely worth it in my opinion). If you have a farm and would like volunteers to help you on your farm, you set up a profile designating exactly what it is that you farm and where you are located. If you are looking to volunteer, you can peruse the various host listings and see who is looking for help at specific times of the year and in which part of the country the host is located.
I had originally planned to volunteer all across Japan, working my way up from Okinawa all the way to Hokkiado, the northern most island of Japan. Unfortunately, the earthquake and the subsequent, horrific tsunami that devastated the nation altered my plans. I would have loved to help in the aftermath clean-up directive, but I was a little afraid of turning green. However, I was able to volunteer for one WWOOFing experience in Yomitan, Okinawa. This is where I spent two of the best weeks of my entire life.
After my brief stay in Naha, I made my way up to Yomitan, which is a small village about an hour away from Naha. The bus ride had me a tad bit nervous because I couldn’t understand the Japanese announcements very well. I had to rely on reading the names of the stops. And while this may sound easy, let me inform you that the stops are not written in the Latin alphabet. All stops are displayed only in Japanese Kanji (Chinese Characters adapted into the Japanese language).
Luckily, I was able to identify my correct stop and I quickly said arigato gozaimashta (polite form of thank you) to the bus driver and jumped off the bus. My host, Ryo, picked me up from the bus stop. Ryo is a wonderful man in his mid 30s. He lives alone with his father. Ryo speaks the most English out of the two, however it still wasn’t much. I had learned a bit of Japanese prior to my stay, but would soon learn it was not nearly enough for anything besides basic communication. Still, Ryo and his father were wonderful hosts.
When we arrived at Ryo’s house, I was shown to a simple, but adequate little room next to the kitchen. Many WWOOFing hosts have multiple WWOOFing volunteers working at one time, however Ryo’s farm was quite small so I was the only one who would be staying with them. Ryo showed me around the Yomitan area a little after I got settled in.
Yomitan is a quiet and beautiful little village, situated right next to the coast.
My daily routine would be the same each day. I woke up around 7am every morning. I usually ate breakfast (which consisted of homemade bread, toasted and slathered with peanut butter, and a few cups of Japanese green tea) with Ryo and his father. Then we would generally relax a little and often catch up on the latest episode of a quick 15-minute Japanese drama entitled Teppan. I didn’t understand any of it, but it was quite entertaining anyway. Finally, we’d get started working around 9am.
Ryo has a few farms in different areas around Yomitan. He cultivates various fruits and veggies such as mangoes, bananas, potatoes, eggplant, and even cacti. Unfortunately, it was not the right season for the mangoes, but I did have fresh papaya quite a few times. I helped Ryo out with everything from fertilizing crops and clearing weeds to harvesting potatoes. His mulch that he used to fertilize the crops was a mixture of tree leaves and what I can only imagine was the fecal matter of chickens (they had a large chicken coop behind the house). It seemed quite rotten, but I guess it would be labeled organic since it was all collected from his farm and no pesticides or other chemicals were used.
Around noon everyday, we would wander back to Ryo’s house where either Ryo or his father would cook lunch. Lunch and dinner were generally various vegetable dishes all placed in the center of the table for you to help yourself. The only dish that was solely for your enjoyment was a bowl of rice. Most meals didn’t consist of much, if any, meat. All this being said, I had some of the best food I have ever eaten in my life at their house. The vegetables were always fresh and delicious. In fact the few times we had Bento (Japanese style lunchboxes) or some other food that hadn’t been prepared at home, I had a hard time eating it because it just didn’t taste as fresh and as light as all the food they had prepared in their kitchen.
I worked an average four or five hours a day and was given the rest of the time to myself. It was wonderful. I spent the time reading and reflecting on what a unique experience I was having. On days when it was raining or when there was no work to be done, often Ryo’s father would take me around to different places in the village to meet some of the locals or relax at an Onsen (a Japanese sauna).
The second Sunday of my stay there would bring one of the wilder and more memorable events of my trip. A few days before I was asked if I eat miyagi, or goat. While I can’t ever remember eating goat before, I said sure, why not? I was rushed out of the house early on Sunday. Ryo’s father doesn’t speak much more than ten words of English, so I had to rely on mostly hand gestures to explain what we were going to do.
We arrived at a piece of land with a beautiful view of the ocean and surrounding areas. There I was informed that the goat was in the stable and I finally learned that they were going to kill the live goat and barbecue it up right there in front of me. Now I’m not any kind of animal activist and I eat pretty much any meat that you put in front of me. However, I cringed at the thought of watching my dinner actually getting gutted right before my eyes. Still, I had gathered that this was an important ritual of some kind for Ryo’s Father and all of his friends. It seemed to be an organization of some kind. For most of the BBQ, there were only men present.
I’ll try not to get to graphic for anyone who has a weak stomach. They tied up the goat and slit its throat so that all of the blood would drain. They then proceeded to use a flame thrower (seriously) to burn off all of the fur before they started to dice it up. The first part of the goat up for grabs was what they called ‘sashimi’. I’ve had plenty of sashimi in America, Korea, and now Japan. Goat sashimi has never been on the menu. All in all, it wasn’t bad. A little chewy for my tastes, but it had a good flavor. They barbecued the ribs, which were delicious. A stew was also made from various left over parts of the goat.
I tried most everything they offered me, all the while dousing my taste buds with as many beers as they had in the cooler. There was, however, one thing I refused to try. I was presented with a bowl of something that looked vaguely familiar. After a search through the Japanese-English dictionary from the locals, I was affirmed in my suspicions. They were trying to get me to eat the brains of the goat. I have become a fairly adventurous eater during all of my travels, but this was just a bit too far. I politely declined.
I never got the full explanation of that day’s events, but it was an interesting experience that I’m sure 99% of the visitors to Japan never get to experience. I was extremely glad that I was invited to take part in whatever it was.
After about two and a half weeks, I decided it was time to move, mostly because I was trying to arrive in the Kyoto area around April 1st to see the Sakura (cherry blossoms). So I thanked my host many times and made my way back to Naha. Although this would be my only WWOOFing experience during my stay in Japan, I highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Japan or to any other countries where the WWOOF organization is present. I was able to see a side of Japan most people will never experience, something that will stand out from all of the other far off places I have visited.
Next time on This Is My Travel Blog: Island Hopping My Way up to the Mainland