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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Gwen Baines: volunteering in rural Japan

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    30 Sep

    This summer, I spent a month volunteering in rural Japan as part of the WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) scheme, living and working on two different farms, each for a period of two weeks.

    The first project I visited was a family-run farm, café and guesthouse situated on the outskirts of Furano in central Hokkaido (the most northerly of Japan’s four main islands). As a female volunteer, I was mainly given indoor tasks – such as cleaning the café, washing the dishes, doing the laundry and looking after the family’s two small boys – instead of the farm work entrusted to the male volunteers. While the attitude behind this division was frustrating, I did enjoy the work itself. It gave me an insight into how a small business of this kind operates, as well as huge admiration for people like my host parents, who manage to juggle the demands of family life and the pressure of maintaining a business while I was just struggling not to drop the plates!

    It wasn’t all hard work, though – in my spare time, I had the chance to visit an onsen (hot spring) and go hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park. I was also able to witness a local festival, the Heso Hokkai Matsuri or ‘Bellybutton Festival’, which takes its name from Furano’s position as the ‘navel of Hokkaido’. It was great fun experiencing this weird but wonderful facet of Japanese culture; the festival was only one of many surprises in store for me during my month-long stay.

    At the end of July, I swapped the fields of Furano for the forests of Aomori Prefecture, and my work in the café for the much more physical tasks of digging, weeding and planting. I was joined at this second project by a friend from my Japanese course; given the isolation of the farm where we were working (we estimated that it was about three hours’ walk from the nearest shop) it was a relief to have some company. Our working days were pretty varied – one day we would be weeding the flower beds, the next planting carrots or digging up potatoes – and it was immensely rewarding to see the progress we made transforming previously overgrown, unusable land into freshly dug plots. Knowing that we were making a real difference to the farm was a great source of encouragement, and helped us navigate the challenges we faced, from the sweltering heat to the difficulty of communicating with our elderly host.

    A highlight of our stay in Aomori was our trip to the prefectural capital of Aomori City to catch one of Japan’s biggest festivals, Nebuta Matsuri. During the day, we watched huge, intricately detailed floats being paraded through the streets of the city to the accompaniment of music and dancing; in the evening, we watched the fireworks, a Japanese summer festival staple.

    My stay in Japan was intended as an opportunity for me to develop my Japanese language skills; I certainly managed that, although the new vocabulary I picked up (from kusatori, ‘weeding’, to kama, ‘sickle’) has a definite agricultural flavour. However, it also allowed me to challenge myself by seeking out new experiences, of which there were plenty, from my first time in an onsen to my first time trying okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes). Deliberately putting myself out of my comfort zone meant that the trip was, at times, difficult, even frightening. Completing both my placements despite this gave me a real sense of accomplishment and made my stay an invaluable and unforgettable experience.