Meet the Watanabes- Our Experience Volunteering in Japan

My Travels
Volunteering in a Rice Paddy

We are halfway through 6 weeks in Japan!  Two of our weeks was spent volunteering in Japan with a small family of three in Kashiwabara, a town kind of close to Kyoto.  We found this opportunity via Helpx, a site that pairs volunteer workers with people who need help. It’s like Wwoofing, but not only on farms… you could volunteer abroad and in exchange receive free room and board as well as other perks like using their bikes and cultural exchange. It is what you make of it!

Our host family were Hideo, Yu and their wee one Tsumugi. The Watanabes live in a traditional Japanese house that Hideo grew up in and returned to with Yu after 10 years living in Tokyo. The front part of the house was a storefront selling traditional sliding Japanese doors, as his father was a carpenter.  Today, Yu opens an organic and fair trade shop on the weekends in that space. Conveniently enough, they can also squeeze their little electric car in to the front of the house for when it needs to be charged.

We would get up in the morning, make breakfast, play some games with Tsumugi and around 9 or so, we’d all pack into the car with the tools with our work gloves and rubber boots and head out to the rice paddies. They have 4 paddies, which would yield approximately 1 ton of rice, and feed them for at least one year. Their lifestyle is intentionally traditional: they choose to farm without machinery, and at home, they also tend to do things manually.  No fridge?! …Hard to wrap my head around at first!

Rice plants, as well as the cropped off/dried out plants from last year. They will stay there and decompose.
Working in a Rice Paddy
Doing things slowly and with the power of your hands seems to be their main ethos.  What I found to be most impressive was we were all learning as we went: one morning, Yu was measuring sticks of wood and by the time we had our break at noon, she had built a Tomboro, or a sort of rake to even out the mud. Another day, Hideo was hammering together a scale so that the rice would be more evenly planted.
For us, the volunteer abroad work itself was weeding and planting.  It was hard work, partially since we would be anywhere from ankle to shin deep in mud, and at the same time, shin to knee deep in water. Hard to get around before the Tomboro was built and things evened out a bit! It was also strenuous pulling the weeds out in the hot heat of Japan’s rainy season, but satisfying to work and volunteer abroad.
The work was balanced out in the evenings and on our days off: we might play some music, explore nearby cities on bike, or learn how to make japanese specialties like doburoku (the japanese farmhouse version of sake- rice wine), gyoza or tempura from scratch. They also took us to an awesome onsen – japanese bathhouse, and recommended the best sunset we’ve seen in Asia at Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan.
All in all, a great time. We just finished a bicycle trip on the Shimanami and we only have 3 weeks left abroad!  July 14, we head to Vancouver and will begin our road trip to the Yukon!
Lessons in fermenting rice for doburoku


Brad getting a good look at the leapfrogs enjoying the sunset on Lake Biwa.