of soil and soul

how wwoofing gave me a new life philosophy

Summer in Japan is a visceral experience. The air is always thick with an inundative, omnipresent humidity and cicadas chatter constantly in the background, their rhythmic song swelling in gentle crescendos and decrescendos. I remember noticing these details the first night I arrived in Hino, Japan.

This quiet suburban town, partitioned by the criss-crossing veins of the Tama river, had a certain special quality. I stepped out of Hino Station and felt as if I’d dissolved into one of Murakami’s mystically atmospheric novels. I turned to my friend Katie, our eyes glittering with neon signs and anticipation.

Months ago, Katie and I had made the impulsive decision to WWOOF in Japan. WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is an organization that connects enthusiastic volunteers with hosts from all across the world. It is an opportunity to devote yourself to environmentalism, interact personally with the people and cultural customs of a different country, and travel economically. There we were, two freshmen sitting in Andrews Commons, buying discount plane tickets and trusting that a stranger in Japan would take care of us.

Our host, Kazuko-san, did just that, acting as our pseudo-grandmother for those two weeks. Like my own a-ma, she was strict in some instances but lovingly considerate in others. Kazuko-san runs and owns Clare Home and Garden, an English tea house that offers organic home-cooked food. Every morning, after adjusting our apron and hair scarf, Katie and I would settle into the routine of things. Our duties included gardening, making bread from scratch, waitressing, cleaning, and walking the dog*.

Katie and I came to Japan expecting to perform intensive farming. But, instead, we found that WWOOFing actually encompasses a broad range of activities. We happened to end up in a situation not too dissimilar from Kiki in Miyazaki’s endearing film Kiki’s Delivery Service. We baked fresh bread, delivered bentos to Hiro-san (Kazuko-san’s husband) on the back of a bicycle, and had comical interactions with Ku-chan, who always wore the iconic red handkerchief around his neck.

It seemed as if we had stepped into some kind of alternate dimension—things were too precious and magical. Kazuko-san was often tough on us at work, but on the weekends she took us to her favorite ramen shop, brought us along for family trips, and relentlessly offered to buy us delicious snacks.

Kazuko-san spoke excellent English, as she spent her youth travelling the world with Hiro-san. Because of political instabilities in Japan at the time, the two had decided to expand their worldly perspective and enter the profession of international antiquing. After dinner, with empty plates still resting on the table, they would divulge fantastical stories about their adventures across seas.

Now, as settled grandparents, they let the world come to them. They’ve had roughly 500 WWOOFers to date, with volunteers lined up months in advance. WWOOFing is so special, because you have the opportunity to live the local lifestyle for awhile and engage in a dialogue of cultural exchange. I took Japanese for three years in high school, so it was interesting to explore the dynamics of foreign communication and understanding within the actual country. I appreciated being in this position of vulnerability, where English was not the dominant language. I learned more by talking with and working alongside Kazuko-san in my brief two-week stay than I had on lengthier travel experiences, often spent on generic and impersonal tours. I was blessed by Kazuko-san’s wisdom and kindness.

My experience with WWOOFing was ultimately an exercise in mindfulness. Originally, weeding was my most despised task at work. We had to crouch in the sweltering sun, enveloped in the moist embrace of Japanese humidity. Left at the mercy of insect swarms, we pulled at a seemingly endless forest of leafy green invaders. Each time Kazuko-san offered us the task, we would accept it grudgingly, but Kazuko-san was indifferent to our self-pity.

Two months later, I have come to appreciate that. Kazuko-san might not have intended it this way, but I now think of the weeding as a Mr. Miyagi-style methodology for instilling discipline and meditativeness.  By the end, Katie and I had come to enjoy this process, even love it. There is something appealing about the hypnotic rhythm that you enter once you are deep into it, something satisfying about removing the parasites by the roots to let the garden breath.

It was all relevant to me, standing at the brink of a new year at Brown. I thought about the deeply rooted insecurities that I had never dealt with, and the toxic parts of my life that were stifling my growth as an individual.

I distinctly remember a conversation we had with Kazuko-san, who was weeding alongside us. She said, “I like weeding, because I always wonder about the soil. Am I touching what used to be a dinosaur? You know, some people never see soil in the city. But that is where we all go, eventually.”

I was inspired by this concept of humble universality. Soil is something most of us don’t think about, and yet it is where we came from and where we will return to. It was grounding (no pun intended) to be able to touch a seemingly insignificant pile of dirt and feel a handful of history and existence. It put the things in my life—broken relationships, social anxieties, family tensions—into startling perspective. If I approached life like I approached weeding, maybe I would do just fine.

I tell myself now to take it slowly and intentionally. Weeding and purifying your life is a process. Some things have grown wild and stubborn, while others are just now taking root.

I used to stand up and look at the garden, from time to time, shocked at how many weeds still needed pulling. Kazuko-san would laugh and say that she just tries her best to chip away at it everyday. I tell myself now to stop standing up and sighing at the weeds around me; focus instead on what is present and in front of you, because that’s what matters.

*Correction: Ku-chan is a wobbly old banana labrador who knows Hino inside and out, and for every walk, he mapped out a predetermined path which we were not allowed to deviate from. Thus, it was he who walked us.