Earlier this month, Kazu Arii, a 23-year-old student from Sapporro, Japan crossed an ocean to connect with a portion of his heritage before returning home to pay respect to a long-standing tradition.
The young man in question is an avid outdoorsman and would-be farmer who is spending a month volunteering at the Sticks and Stones farm in Newtown, Connecticut.
He has one year left at Tsuru University in Hokkaido prefecture, where he majors in World Affairs, and then he will take an office job as is expected of him.
Kazu told me that the practice of farming is dying out in Japan. Most of the food is imported. But once he graduates from school he is going to do what he is supposed to do and take an office job. Not farm.
Talking with Kazu, I became a bit consumed thinking about what life would be like in Japan. Where traditions and expectations run a little contrary to the way things are done here in the US.
But really things are not always so simple here either.
Kazu is in Connecticut as part of a program called WWOOFing.
WWOOFing, you might ask, what is that?
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) connects people who want to travel the world (or near home) and volunteer on an organic farm with farmers who are willing to host them in exchange for free labor.
“WWOOFing” has become the word for the activity.
According to Annie Stiefel of Sticks and Stones farm, this is the second year they have hosted volunteers from around the world.
“These are very smart kids who see the writing on the wall,” she said. “It is better to be self-sufficient.”
And it has been “a great experience” for the farm – and the volunteers!
Kazu is finding himself sleeping in a structure that is mostly a wood frame and screens. He said he loves it because it is like sleeping outdoors where he would spend all his time if he could. And he gets to spend his days learning about moss.
His first contact with farming was from his English teacher in college. The teacher runs a farm and gave the class a lot of information about farming as well as the current state of farming in Japan and around the world.
According to Kazu, farming is not all that popular with young people in his country and the average age of farmers is rising.
“It is a very serious problem,” he said.
I guess this sentiment just echoes around the world!
The most commonly produced local food in Japan these days is rice and milk, according to Kazu.
But it was his English teacher’s own experiences of studying abroad for six years and accepting WWOOFers at his farm that led Kazu to try it himself. This is his second summer. Last year, he went to Oregon where he picked fruit and raised chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs.
This year, it was the art and emotion of growing moss that attracted him to Connecticut.
The practice of growing moss was once a significant part of his country’s culture and he wants to bond with that and maybe bring a bit of this heritage back with him.
“Moss used to be popular with a field of art in Japan more than 500 years ago,” he said. “I think Japanese forget the mind of Japan.”
When Kazu showed me around the farm, he pointed out a moss garden made by a WWOOFer who had been there before him. To Kazu, the meaning of what has come before matters.
“I wanted to make this WWOOFing [a] good opportunity to reconsider what is Japanese, and see the gardens with moss made from American feelings.”
From what I can tell, he has the clarity of purpose to make his own garden someday…
“My final goal is to start farming in Japan. I am planning to switch jobs after making enough money.”