We’ve always known that we would WWOOF Japan (World-Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms…a.k.a. Travelers willing to work four-to-six hours per day in exchange for room and board), for a variety of reasons. Aside from the free room and board in an expensive country, WWOOFing is a wonderful way to gain access into a culture that would otherwise prove elusive to the average traveler. Ever since watching “The Last Samurai” I knew we had to visit the mountains of Japan, so we searched for WWOOF Japan hosts in the northernmost section of Honshu island and found the amazing Shiratori family farm at the foot of Mount Iwaki. All we knew when we signed up was “Help needed with vegetables, chickens and Gerta the cow. No experience required.” We were two city kids walking into a tilled field of the unknown…here is how we fared.
Shiratori Farm, run by Kat-san (wearing the white hat in the above photo) grows vegetables for 40 local families and each week bundles up his ripest selection for home delivery. Carrots, beets, bok choy, leeks, spinach, daikon, cabbage, lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, soy beans, and more were growing bountifully in his front yard. Kana-san, in the yellow pants, had been working on the farm for over a month when we arrived so she showed us the ropes when it came to cleaning and divvying up veggies.
Our first morning was a delivery day so we got right to work pulling leeks and cutting spinach. The ground was freezing, the leeks were slippery, and the dirt was, well really dirty, but it felt so good to get in touch with the earth.
One of our favorite things about our farm-stay was the amazingly fresh food. Kat-san’s wife would whip up the most scrumptious vegetarian Japanese food with whatever goodies we brought in that morning. No cereal for breakfast in this house—miso soup, stir-fry, and tofu were generally on tap after the sunrise shift. It was strange at first, but so much heartier and healthier than Coco Krispies!
After breakfast, it was time to tend to the chickens by feeding them, changing their water, and most importantly…collecting the eggs laid overnight. Ironically, I’m wearing my Hoboken volleyball shirt emblazon with our team name “When I Say Chicken” (long story). Here’s to you WISC!
It was so amazing to be at the Shiratori farm during fall harvest. The red and yellow foliage made being outdoors each day that much more spectacular.
Harvest time also meant that we got to see the vegetables in their finest hour. Massive, ripe, and ready to eat, cabbages like this just make you want to dive right in with a fork and knife.
It doesn’t get any more local (30 meters from farm to table) or organic (no fertilizer or pesticides of any kind). While every meal centered around vegetables, they all managed to have their own flavors and flair. Japanese food is one of the finest cuisines in the world and to have the freshest ingredients home-cooked by a Japanese mama was about as good as it gets.
Our main task of the week was prepping soybeans for next year’s planting season. This is a kind hysterical process that involves you beating branches like a heavy metal drummer until the beans go flying in every direction, followed by a pod-by-pod search for stray beans. We thrashed, de-shelled, and sifted for hours as we talked everything from Japanese history to American music with our new friend Kana.
The season’s first snow storm was brewing (the mountains were already snow-capped) which meant that winter preparations had to be made, and fast. Snow would crush Kat-san’s homespun greenhouses and the crops within them so he asked us to harvest and cut down the hundreds of tomato plants within. With a sickle in hand, this is me showing my fiercest farmer face. Instead of letting all the unripe tomatoes go to waste we taught the family how to cook fried green tomatoes and they were a huge hit!
Kat-san was very generous with his WWOOFers leisure time—giving a tea break in the mid-morning and long lunch break for walks. Each afternoon we would wander the nearby forests, mountains, streams and orchards. Walking the faint trails behind their house, I happened upon a small eddy collecting yellow pine needles and waited to watch them slip away into the stream.
On our last full day on the farm we set out for a long walk to the nearby Mt. Iwaki and stumbled upon this local Shinto shrine on the way. Red Torii gates are always the tell tale sign that it’s a shrine—a place of worship for earthly matters (prayers for fortune,health, fertility, etc.) This shrine was surrounded by horse statues (a symbol of a messenger to the gods) swaddled in silk, ribbons, and laden with gifts of apples and candles.
Beyond the shrine was the trailhead to Mount Iwaki. We had been farming with the majestic mountain as our backdrop all week. It was time we paid this snow-capped beauty a visit.
There are a variety of ways for travelers to form a deeper connection with local people and their daily lives, but WWOOFing is easily one of the most rewarding and gratifying of the lot, especially for someone who loves to getting their hands a little dirty in the process.
For a live look at the Shiratori farm, watch this video of us at work.
Want to see what was in our backpack (aside from our trusty Lonely Planet) for our Japan trip, and our entire 9 months through Asia? See our full RTW Packing List (with links and descriptions of why we brought each item)