Preparing My Journey
Hello, I’m Dan. This summer I am going to Japan to join the farming world of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and decided to share my story here on JALUP.
I have been planning this trip for quite some time now, and as I sit writing this in a Taiwanese transit hotel, it feels all too real. I have been studying Japanese for approximately 6 months, and this experience is set to be a powerful force in my studies and in my life. I will be in Japan for 2 months, beginning tomorrow, and ending the Friday before I go back to school. I am not going to be studying in the traditional sense, instead I will be doing some JALUP-style immersion!
I found out about the fantastic organization called WWOOF Japan that will get you in touch with host families who run farms and other sustainable businesses. They let you stay with them, eat their food, and experience their lifestyle firsthand. All you have to pay for is a small membership fee with WWOOF Japan and transportation. I will be staying with a host family in a beautiful town in Hokkaido called Biei.
I’m particularly interested in how well I am able to communicate. By far, my greatest strength with Japanese is reading. Every day, I read some form of Japanese, usually manga, sometimes short stories. (Check out Rikai-sama for online reading- it is a useful pop-up dictionary that has the ability to switch between English and Japanese definitions.) I also listen to Japanese speech in the form of recorded radio, TV shows, and podcasts, although my immersion environment really could be better. However, I won’t have to worry about that soon, because I won’t be able to escape immersion!
Arrival and Natural Learning
My experience with WWOOF has lead me to believe that Japan is the ultimate training grounds for immersion method learners. Here, you will face situations everyday that test your abilities. I came here with almost no experience speaking real Japanese. I only really covered reading, listening, and studying with the help of Anki. Now I am able to hold a conversation with any Japanese speaker I run into with little anxiety. After only 9 months of studying, I think things have worked out really well!
Confidence in immersion
My time here has given me a lot of confidence and proved to me that the immersion method of language learning really works. By being in an environment where you have no choice but to use the language to communicate, you inevitably become much better at expressing yourself with it. It is a very interesting feeling to watch this thing you have spent countless hours working on as an abstract project suddenly transform into a real, tangible language that you have to use to be able to survive. Come here expecting to fight a lot of battles; you will be tired, and sometimes it will be really difficult, but in the end you will gain so many levels that you can’t even remember being as weak as you were at the beginning.
Day by day, you watch your Japanese become more and more functional and enjoyable. When I got to Japan, I was probably only approaching level 20; I can now comfortably say that I’ve reached level 35.
Once you have all your basic vocabulary (greetings, common nouns, grammatical words/particles) and kanji down, I suggest coming to Japan as soon as you can and for as long as possible. Getting a part time job in japan is one of the best ways to level up, and WWOOF guarantees you a full-time position for as long as you’d like.
Importance of the host family
I feel extraordinarily lucky to have ended up with the host family that I picked. They are genuinely kind people who quickly treated me as if I was part of the family. It was really sad to leave for Tokyo and have to say goodbye to the life I had become so accustomed to. The mother even said that she felt like she was saying goodbye to her son who was going off traveling; it was all incredibly touching.
I feel certain that I will come back to their place again and stay friends with them for the rest of my life if I can. Their host number is h12364 and their website is here. Check out the mom’s blog here. She writes about various aspects of life at their place and about the WWOOFers who come and visit.
Freedom, Fun, and Friends
They gave us (the WWOOFers) a lot of freedom and the work was reasonable and enjoyable. Every morning and evening we all sat around a table with the whole family, grandparents and all, to eat our meals. Casual Japanese conversation is one of the best ways to improve your skills. When you are talking to a friend, it is difficult not to say what is on your mind, so you have to find creative ways of expressing yourself and getting them to understand you.
The scenery in Biei is unparalleled. I can say without a doubt that it is the most beautiful place I have ever been to. Every day, you can look off into the distance and see fields to the horizon, dotted with forests and surrounded by a ring of mountains. If my family would come with me, I would move to that town without a single regret. Japanese summers are always humid and hot, but in Biei it is comfortably cool everyday.
During the summer they constantly have new visitors and customers coming by, and I met a lot of interesting people from all over the world. It is exciting and challenging to speak to people from other countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia with Japanese as the only shared language.
As of a few days ago, I am now living in a suburb of Tokyo. I was lucky to meet a family who regularly hosts foreign students in their house, so they agreed to let me do a homestay with them.
I met them at the place I was staying at in Biei by chance. They were one of the customers and a friend of the family. I am glad that I started my journey somewhere peaceful like Biei before jumping into the madness which is Tokyo during the summer, because I had time to build all of my basic Japanese communication skills. If I had come to Tokyo first, I think this experience would have been a lot more hectic. WWOOF is a really great way to get access to Japan’s peaceful countryside that so many foreign visitors miss out on.
Advice for those who visit Japan to learn without attending classes
- Do some research into where you will be going and what you might want to do in the area. Pack wisely; don’t be like me and pack a bag with little other than T-shirts and shorts when you want to go hiking in Hokkaido.
- Study a lot before you leave, but while you’re here don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish your Anki cards and they start to pile up. When you’re in Japan, you can learn a lot more by hanging out with your new friends than you will by reviewing your flashcards.
- Make a list of the new words that you learn. While you’re here, reading the list is a good way to remind yourelf of them; when you get back, find example sentences for them.
- Make use of organizations like WWOOF Japan and Couch Surfing to find free places to stay. Don’t be shy when you meet new people. Remember, I’m now able to do a home stay in Tokyo all because I was friendly with someone I met at the inn I worked at in Hokkaido. The more people you become open with, the more you will become familiar with countless quirks of Japanese culture that you would never read about in a book or see on TV.
- Don’t bring too many reading materials, because in all likelihood you will pick up countless pamphlets, manga, and other books that you probably won’t even have time to read while you’re here. When you’re in Japan, especially for a short amount of time, the highest priority should be meeting Japanese people and speaking Japanese in as many new situations as possible.
- I found that using Skype to make phone calls and send text messages is a fairly affordable way to take care of communication, assuming that the place you are going to has an internet connection you can use and you have a computer.
- It is important to be familiar with all of the most common kanji before you come to Japan. Once you can recognize them, it becomes much easier to grasp the meaning of the informational signs and posted rules which are abundant here.
What are you waiting for?
You should all be applying for the WWOOF program . . . right now!