Organic Farming in Kyushu
Admittedly, farming is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but this country is famous for its culture of honoring traditions, and organic farming is no exception. I had the opportunity to visit Japan during the previous summer, and was excited to return and take a deep dive (literally knee deep), into a rural part of the country where I could really immerse myself in the culture. This was to be my first trip to the southern island of Kyushu, known across Japan for its striking natural beauty, subtropical climate, and incredible food. Once there, I was to spend 6 weeks with my Japanese host family, earning my keep, and learning as much as I could. I had no prior experience on a farm (aside from our urban garden), and spoke very minimal Japanese. It was an amazing, challenging, tasty, and enriching experience!
A WOOFER Out of Me
Part of what made this adventure possible was my enrollment in the WWOOFing network . WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an international organization that connects organic farmers with volunteer workers looking to gain experience, a place to stay, and some fabulous home-cooked meals. It supplies the kind of social media reference (much like AirBnB or Uber), that might offer would-be travelers the peace of mind needed to pack up their bags and head over to a foreign country, to live and work with complete strangers. However, those are just the logistical concerns. The greater purpose of the network is to provide for the integration of like-minded individuals who want to learn more about the environment, where our food comes from, and how this gets done in various parts of the world.
Hita, the “village of water”
I had the pleasure of staying in Hita, a small city located within Oita Prefecture. The prefecture itself is famous for its volcanic mountains and abundant hot springs (onsen). You can literally see the steam plumes rising up from the mountains scattered throughout the territory, and all the elevated terrain helps along the vast array of streams and rivers that soak the countless rice fields covering the land. The city of Hita, acclaimed for the purity of its water, is situated where two such rivers intersect. It was there that I was invited to stay with a rice farmer and his family (which included their elderly parents, and an energetic chocolate lab named Hana-chan).
As part of the WWOOFing agreement you are required to put in 6 to 8 hours of work a day, with 1-2 days off per week. Amongst my various daily duties, I planted rice, cut grass, tilled the soil (first time driving a tractor!), watered and pruned the crops, harvested beans, and walked the family dog. My long walks with Hana-chan really helped me to get to know the area, as we often explored Hita together, visiting many of the local parks and shrines. Of the various tasks, the toughest included spending many sun-soaked hours (the sun was quite fierce) pulling weeds out by their roots. Organic farming implies chemical-free, so much of the weeding is done manually. This doesn’t however mean that the labor is done exclusively by humans. One trick the farmers use is allowing certain snails and bugs to roam free on their land so that they eat the weeds and grasses that would otherwise compete with their rice.
On the human side of grass clearing, this involved me wandering the countryside with hand-held brush cutter powered by a motor that was strapped to my back. Trudging through the tall grass with a rotating power-saw at the end of a pole was yet another first time experience for yours truly, but by the end of my stay I was a pro! In fact, I actually enjoyed some of the harder physically labor (I even volunteered for it), as it felt satisfying at the end of the day and made those delicious meals all the more inviting. The lady of the house was a fabulous cook, and the food was genuinely nourishing and delightful. The harder work was in the repetitive tasks that involved a lot of bending, kneeling, and squatting. Something your body might not be all that accustomed to if you work in an office or sit at a computer for the better part of the day. Stretching helped, as did the evening soaks (Japanese baths are pretty awesome). I never slept so well! Indeed, I had a great time in Oita, and feel privileged to have had my first hands-on experience with organic farming in such a beautiful part of the world.
Kyushu truly is a special place, and I certainly hope to return one day! As per the rest of my trip, I’d love to go into more detail, but I’ll hold off as I want to keep this blog dedicated to the mission of sustainability rather than my trip specifically (although I do have a lot to share to that effect, as I went exploring at every opportunity). Ultimately, my time on the farm taught me a lot about sustainable living and I intend to write more about these methods and insights in future posts. For now, I simply wanted to share with you the reason for delayed absence, and my renewed commitment to sustainable practices. Should you want to learn more about my experience in Kyushu, please feel free to comment below and I’d be happy to share.