Archive for July, 2010


During Golden Week in May (one of the busiest travel times in Japan due to back-to-back-to-back national holidays), I decided to get my hands dirty with WWOOF. WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an international organization in which farmers exchange room and board for a WWOOFer’s help. I had heard about it in the States, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized Japan also has a WWOOF chapter. As you know, I recently planted Ben Jammin, so I figured I could learn a few farming tips to help him out. I used the website to peruse the host list and decided on a small organic vegetable farm in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. After contacting and receiving confirmation from the farmer, I journeyed by car, train (that went under the sea!), bus, and foot to the tiny farm town of Tetsuzan.

Driving to the train station (a pretty ordinary picture, though I thought it might look backwards to Americans - we drive on the left in Japan)

Train to the northern island Hokkaido. It went under the Tsugaru Strait, the longest underground train in the world!

Train station in Hakodate at dusk.

Lonely bus stop at tiny Tetsuzan Town.

The road I walked to Joan's (my WWOOF host's) home. Eerie.

Joan (pronounced YO-ON) is a Belgian farmer in his 50’s with calloused hands and a contagious laugh. His life story, even summarized, is an interesting one:

In his 20’s, he was a paratrooper captain in the Belgian military during the tension of the Cold War. After the military, he heard through an acquaintance of a spiritual leader living named Osho in India who was gaining popularity among Westerners. He decided to travel to Osho, and what was originally planned to be a month trip quickly turned into several years and Joan became a devout disciple. In the 80’s, he followed Osho to the U.S., and in the Oregon desert helped build from the ground up a community that eventually housed over 5,000 residents. For several years he worked and lived in the commune, but disputes over property rights with neighboring Oregoners led to the community’s demise. Osho’s health also quickly deteriorated, and at his death, Joan moved to Australia. There he worked for a year as a farmhand to two Italian brothers, living, as Joan described, “like ‘Walden’ – no electricty or running water, and bathing in the pond.” After his visa expired, he decided to settle down in the place for which he says he has always felt an attraction – Japan. He bought a plot of land in the rural north, singlehandedly built his own home and greenhouse, and went to work as an organic vegetable farmer. On paper, he is married, but only to a Japanese friend so that he could remain in the country. He lives with several cats and a dog, and frequently shares his home with WWOOFers that come to help.

I stayed with Joan for 5 days. It was tough work. Although it was well into spring, the weather up to that point had been in the 40s and rainy, making the fields too wet to begin planting. (On a side note, whenever Joan became worked up talking about the bad weather or giant agrobusinesses like Monsanto, his Belgian accent would become stronger, his voice rise an octave, and his face look like he had just chewed on a lemon) By the second day, the weather had improved enough that the fields were ready, so it was a mad rush to move the seedlings from his greenhouse out to be planted. A typical day went like this:

8 am: Breakfast. Joan calls himself a lazy farmer because his neighbors boast that they’re out in the fields by 4 am.
9 – 11 am: Watering and weeding in the greenhouse.
11 am: Break – apple and tea.
11 – 1 pm: Move fertilizer to the fields and mix with soil.
1 pm: Lunch.
2 – 5 pm: Move seedlings out to fields and begin planting.
5 pm: Break – snacks and tea.
5 – sundown (usually around 7 pm): More planting.

Joan's abode, buit by hand.

Joan's greenhouse, built by hand.

Leafy vegetable row in the greenhouse.

Strawberries in the greenhouse.

Seedlings ready to be planted.

Lattice built and green beans planted.

Action shot!

All day on hands and knees for these little guys. Joan gave me kneepads, but I was still sore.

Rows and rows of cabbage. I was REALLY sore after this.

Though the majority of my time was spent planting food, my WWOOFing experience could not be complete without mentioning eating it. Joan mentioned his culinary skills on the WWOOF website, and man, he wasn’t lying: A breakfast of hearty oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar packed full of energy needed for the day’s hard work; a lunch of enormous leafy green salads with homemade dressing and earthy rye bread; a melting pot of international cuisines for dinner that includes pumpkin-potato stew, tangy green curry, and several kinds of chopped vegetables each matched with its unique and perfect dressing. Words simply can’t do culinary justice, so here are a few pictures.

Joan preparing something delicious.



Finished all too soon.

Can't wait for tomorrow's breakfast.

Overall, it was a tough, educational, delicious experience. Did it teach me that broccoli should be planted in well-tilled, fertilized soil with it’s own plastic hoop covering, not stuck randomly in a front yard: Yes…oops! Did it give me a solid start to May Man Month: Yes! Did it convince me my life calling is farming? Not particularly. Did I feel a sense of satisfaction at the end of each day from working outside with my hands, making tangible progress, and living sustainably? Definitely.