Solo Travel Options: WWOOFing in Japan
We are pleased to introduce you to Sean, a regular guy living and working in London. When he found that he was spending most of his spare time shopping for and reading travel publications and planning his next trip, Sean knew it was time to start writing about it. You can follow his travels on his blog, Gozimba.com, on facebook at Gozimba Travel or on twitter: @GozimbaTravel.
Japan has always held a deep fascination for me – particularly old rural Japan. As part of an extended journey through the south, I had my heart set on finding a home stay that would bring me genuine immersion into local village life. After much searching, I came across a volunteer network called WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It brings together farming families who are looking for help, and volunteers who get food, a roof for the night, and an opportunity to experience daily family life in exchange for their labour. It looked like an ideal option.
Yoshi-san and Miyako-san – my host family for the week – run an organic farm in the coastal village of Uchinoura, on the south island of Kyushu. Their home is set in a dramatic location in the middle of a wide valley floor, with forested hills behind and a sweeping arc of black sand fronting the vast ocean. We were a couple of miles inland, but you could taste the salty sea breeze as it blew up the valley. Aside from a handful of houses dotted around us, we were completely alone among the acres of fallow rice fields. This is proper traveling, I thought rather smugly. Not a single tourist in sight.
It had been a long journey from Tokyo that day, and by early evening I was ready for a hearty meal. Inside the small wooden house, the three of us sat cross-legged around the low table on the tatami straw floor. As well as piping hot white rice and warming miso soup, Miyako-san had prepared a delicious looking plate of tofu mixed with spiced minced beef. With the TV muttering away in the background, we happily chatted the night away like long-lost family friends. The conversation flowed surprisingly easily, despite my broken Japanese. That night, I collapsed on the futon mattress in the adjacent room and slept like a baby.
Waking up to a different world
The next morning, I woke to sun streaming through the shuttered windows. After a quick bowl of steaming hot ramen noodles, and a mugful of green tea, we jumped into their minivan and headed inland. We joined a group of other farmers, some of whom looked well into their 80s, with hunched backs and weathered faces. They all gleamed when they saw the new face, and I went around saying hello and introducing myself. Equipped with a scythe, I went to work hacking some weeded vegetation that had grown out of hand on the plots.
The work was relatively tiring, and I began to build up a sweat despite the cool morning air. I enjoyed spending time chatting with Yoshi-san and Miyako-san, and to my delight, I could feel my Japanese getting better with each passing hour. The rest of the week followed a fairly similar routine, but I was more than happy breathing in the fresh air and taking in the vast landscapes around us. I felt a million miles away from my hectic life back in London.
Time for some delicious sushi!
As my time in Uchinoura was coming to an end, I was finally able to try some delicious local sashimi. That morning, I awoke to music ringing out of Miyako-san’s mobile. Yoshi-san, who was also a part-time fisherman, was calling ahead to let us know of their huge morning catch. We rushed to the local port, where a large group of men dressed to their chests in bright blue waterproofs were hauling out fish after fish – each one about 20kg – from the bowels of the rocking boat. With the excitement, everyone was in high spirits, joking around in the sun, as opportunistic herons lined up, waiting to pick up any scraps. Later that morning, Miyako-san prepared the freshest sashimi I have every tasted. I picked up the tuna sashimi slices delicately with my chopsticks, lightly dressed them with soy, and then placed them on my tongue. It was the tenderest piece of fish I’ve ever eaten, and it came with a glorious pure and cooling taste of the sea.
It was, of course, the spectac-ular setting as well as the freshness of the catch that made it what it was. It was a perfect end to an incredible week. Despite travelling extensively through Japan, my time in Uchinoura ranks amongst my fondest memories. It gave me a unique insight into a region completely off the tourist map. I can’t recommend home staying in Japan highly enough – and with the WWOOF program you get to experience all of this without spending a single penny. It really is a no brainer.
WWOOFing is truly a great option for solo travelers. Living with a host family provides you with genuine immersion into local life – bringing you companionship, and helping to avoid the loneliness that some people feel when travelling alone for long periods. Outside working hours, you are free to do as you please – allowing lots of opportunities for exploring and “me time” as well. If you are looking to learn a language, this is also a fantastic option, and I think the most cost effective way you’ll ever find to do it. You will remember your experiences forever. Give it a go – there really is nothing to lose and everything to gain!