Friday, February 9, 2018

WWOOFing in Hokkaido on a Horse Ranch

Before embarking on a two months trip across Japan, I never realised how many things I have taken for granted. Warm water readily available, easy access to shops and even the simple phone connection. Because all of these were unavailable at the horse ranch in Hokkaido where I spent three weeks working as part of the WWOOF programme.

Flying into Hokkaido
WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farm where travellers help out a farm, cafe, restaurant or in my case, a horse ranch in exchange for accommodation and food. Big shoutout to my friend Chee Ching who gave me the idea of participating in this programme. On top of that, before signing up for WWOOF, I also found out I had gotten into the Nagoya Women’s Marathon 2018 so my two months adventure was planned out with some running training in mind.
Watchu looking at? 


For the first part of my trip, I picked Hokkaido to coincide with the Sapporo Snow Illumination Festival and found a WWOOF host in the mountainous area of Hidaka. Not to be confused with the Hidaka closer to the seacoast. For three weeks, I was staying on a horse ranch called as Arabian Horse Plantation with the friendly elderly couple who owns and runs it - Inoue-san and Kiyoshi-san (host h14347)

My hosts, Inoue-san (left) and Kiyoshi-san
Arriving at Arabian Horse Plantation
It was a long journey by plane, train and bus (van) to get the Hidaka itself but with clear directions from Inoue-san, I made it to the secluded ski resort town with no issue. Inoue-san herself was waiting to pick me up at the bus stop with a fellow WWOOFer from Thailand, Z’mile. Thank goodness for Z’mile who could speak English and Japanese and became the unofficial translator between myself and the Japanese couple. Having been there a week before me, she showed me what a WWOOFer was to do around the ranch and what our schedule was like.
With Z'mile from Thailand
The horse ranch was located five minutes from the town and was in a hilly mountain land, most of which is owned by Kiyoshi-san. The couple owns about 30 Arabian bred-horses originating from America and France. Their main livelihood comes from horse riding sessions, breeding and raising champion horses and selling the horses to interested buyers. In the winter, every inch of Hokkaido is caked in snow and Hidaka is no different with a winter wonderland greeting me everyday.
Sunset view almost everyday
The Ranch Life
WWOOFers are given their own cabin separated from the host house with a room each to ourselves since there were only two of us. Our only source of heat was the wood-burning stove in the living room with a kettle and pot of water atop it to supply us with hot water. The water at the ranch is sourced from the mountain itself, freshly dripped from our taps and completely safe for drinking. It was also of course, freezing cold. Hence why we relied so heavily on the stove for heat and warm water.
WWOOFer's cabin
The stove is fed by wood that we have to collect daily from the piles of prepared wood stacks outside the hosts’ house. By the end of my three weeks at the ranch, I could get a fire started in five minutes. The first week took me half an hour.
My room where it's freezing every morning
To have our own rooms was a blessing even though we had to share the blanket warming device between the two of us in the first week. After Z’mile left, I mostly used the blanket warmer to warm my clothes in the morning. Just to get dressed in the mornings was a challenge due to the cold.

Blanket warmer which I used as my clothes warmer too. 
A Day in a WWOOFer's Life
WWOOFers are given one day of rest, usually the day that they arrive on and are expected to work about five - six hours a day a week. However, it wasn’t continuous six hours of work straight. My mornings usually starts at 6am which included half an hour of me mentally prepping myself to brave the cold. By 645am, I would be at the ranch working which mainly consisting of shoveling poo, feeding the horses and giving them water.

Our hard work in the morning.
Breakfast was usually at 9am at Inoue-san’s house where she always prepared the most scrumptious of breakfasts.
Followed by breakfast
After breakfast, I got about a hour’s rest before heading up to the ranch again to feed the horses and water them if needed. Most of the heavy lifting were done in the morning so this part and evening shift only took up about an hour each. Lunch was at 1230pm and by Japanese traditions, was usually the lightest meal of the day.
Sometimes we have western meals
I usually spent the afternoon chilling in my cabin, watching videos or well, blogging. Sometimes, I would tag along with Inoue-san on her errands which includes an hour’s drive just to post something or to the grocery shop because Hidaka doesn’t have that many facilities. On two separate occasions, I got to go to Furano. The first time was for cheese shopping with Z’mile and the second was to follow a Chinese tourist and act as the in-between for her and Kiyoshi-san while three of her friends did horseback riding. We ended up spending a good time of that trip hunting for wine.
Well-balanced meal

The third shift of work would often start at 330pm or 4pm and end at 5pm after which, it was dinner time followed by bath time. Dinner and bath time was easily my favourite time of the day to look forward because being able to soak in the hot tub after working in the cold weather was just heavenly.

Work Work Work
Work was physical with a lot of lifting and shoving of hay and grass to feed the horse, scooping up poo and wheeling it into a pile. Fortunately for me, doing bootcamp regularly prior to WWOOFing helped me cope with the workload. My activity watch tracked an average of 8-11km walked everyday.

Feed the horses with hay with a side of cat
During my first week there, we had to bag five 505kg bags of soybeans into smaller sandbags for easier storage and for when Inoue-san and Kiyoshi-san had to feed the horses. By some miracle, we actually managed to finish it in four days. Inoue-san was surprisingly strong for someone her size and age. 
Soybean packing
One of the perks of working on the ranch was that it was a surefire way to keep warm especially in the mornings except on three days when the temperatures dropped to -17 degrees Celsius. My toes and fingers lost all feelings on those mornings.

Run free then come back for food ya!
On some days, they would let out the horses to run around the ranch to stretch their legs and what a sight it was to watch. At the risk of getting bumped into, farted at and stomped on. The hard work came after to chase them back into their respective stables and enclosures.
Baby horse do do do do ~~~~
Some of them like old lady Diva gets more leeway from her owners due to her being with them for the longest of time. 
Diva posing for the camera 
By the middle of my second week, I had gotten so familiar with the routine that my hosts even left me to feed the horses on days when they had errands to run in town. It was kind of theraputic listening to the quiet munching of the horses as their three barn cats ran up and down, demanding for attention. On some of the evenings, I would help them take their three Shiba Inus for walks.
Hi human. Walk me now. 
Sometimes I would help Inoue-san with taking phone calls with English-speaking customers and also helping her draft out emails in English to customers and potential WWOOFers.

In My Free Time
Arabian Horse Plantation was a five minutes drive from the town but the ranch being on the top of a hill, walking or even running there was just crazy. So on my day off on Saturdays, I would go out for my long runs ranging from two to three hours as part of my marathon training and discovered a whole new level of running difficulty. In between work and meals, I would try to get in short runs but those are rare as Inoue’s meals are just too delicious to be left unfinished.

Face-palmed angel
Despite the hard work everyday, WWOOFing at Arabian Horse Plantation did bring about some memorable experiences. As mentioned, I got to go to Furano twice, saw wild deers along the highway, went to an onsen twice, went sledding, made a snow angel, played with fireworks, learnt how to make mochi, glimpsed the lunar eclipse and the blood moon, and learnt how to ride a horse.

Fireworks (sort of) 
Learning how to ride a horse when I could only guess half of Inoue-san’s instructions was nerve-wrecking the first time. I kept expecting the horse to go berserk and throw me off when we plow through the snowy trails.
Please don't throw me off, Sunshine.
But by some miracle, I survived with a greater appreciation for Inoue-san’s ability to train horses for a living. In fact I enjoyed the experience so much I went again the next day and this time Inoue-san let me led the ride.

Why WWOOF?
When I joined WWOOF, I wondered what madness made me leave my cushy day job and comfortable lifestyle but I see it now. It wasn’t madness but the desire to see and be more. Admittedly, it did get too quiet sometimes and I did wish for company after Z'mile left. But being a person comfortable with her own company made the three weeks on the ranch enjoyable as it was just me, my thoughts and my laptop for entertainment.
Hosts' house
To anyone wondering if they should join WWOOF, I say go for it. Not only do you get to travel to Japan cheaply, but you will also see a side of it that many tourists do not. The side that only comes with staying with the locals, working like them and living like them.

Do it for the passion
If you don’t mind the hard work and being away from the bustle and hustle of the usual tourist spots, then join WWOOF and be rewarded with so much more than a budget holiday, a roof over your head, damn delicious food every meal and views that make waking up every morning worth it. Anticipate new skills, a lifetime worth of memories, new friendships and a greater appreciation for the finer things in life.

For more info on WWOOF Japan, go to wwoofjapan.com.

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