Wednesday, March 7, 2018

WWOOFing at Umikaze Horse Farm, Okinawa

I have always wanted to visit Okinawa, having seen photos of sunny beaches, pristine blue water and so naturally beautiful everything. If anything, Okinawa reminded me of home, Malaysia. After three weeks in cold Hokkaido and Tokyo in winter, I was ready for some warmth at my next WWOOF-ing job in Nanjo, Okinawa and boy, did I get loads of that.

You can read all about my first WWOOF-ing experience in Hokkaido here.

Once again, I picked a horse farm to WWOOF, this time for only two weeks as I needed to rest up for my marathon in March. The horse farm was Umikaze Horse Farm, located between Yonabaru and Chinen, along the road that leads to Nirai Kanai Bridge. From Naha, I boarded Bus #39 to Oyakebaru bus stop where one of my host, Hime-san was waiting to pick me up. As we approached the farm, I caught my first glimpse of the seven Yonaguni horses simply glazing about in their field and also glimpsed a magnificent view of the sea and town from the farm. These were two sights I never got sick of looking at throughout my time there. 


Meet the Fam Bam
Meeting the rest of the farm staff over lunch at the farm was at first overwhelming but big boss and owner, Masateru-kun was quick to put me at ease. Everyone there felt like a tightly-knitted family with a sense of familiarity that comes from working together and loving what they do. Upon meeting them, especially Shu and Chika, they invited this non-Japanese speaking Malaysian girl into that little family with little hesitation.


Shu had just joined as a permanent staff, originating from Taiwan who has also WWOOF-ed at Inoue-san in Hokkaido (haha, small world). Chika was a bubbly local girl from the island of Yonaguni where the farm horses originated from. These two quickly became my sifu/guru/senpais/teachers and friends for the next two weeks. 


I also met Mari-san who ran the daily ground work of the farm from looking after the horses to prepping the transport trucks to leading the kindergarten trips to instructing and guiding guests on rides. In short, she was the farm's version of Wonder Woman.

Getting Settled in 
The house where I was staying at should be on Airbnb and was a ten minutes drive away or a 15 minutes bike ride away from the farm. Dubbed the trailer house, it was exactly just that from the outside but on the inside, it was surprisingly spacious and well-furnished with two beds, a pull out sofa, kitchen, shower, washing machine and toilet.

Occasionally they would bring the horses over to let them wander about in the backyard which was great because I got to wake up to the sights and sounds of horses in the garden.

Dirt and Grit
After a week of wandering around Sapporo and Tokyo, I was eager to feel some dirt between my fingers and the sun on my skin. Work kicked off immediately as soon I got settled in and the first few days was filled with so many things to learn and do. Our basic daily routine would start with us taking turns to cooking breakfast and clean the common area and the toilet at the farm. After a usually hearty breakfast, we would run through the planned activities for the day if it was a packed day to ensure everyone knew what they were doing. My job was usually to shadow someone and help them where needed.

The horses had to be groomed twice a day, at the start and end of work. It involved brushing their coats which can be hard if they have been rolling around in the mud, cleaning out their hooves and wiping their faces after they have eaten. I grew to enjoy this chore once I got to know the horses and their unique personalities such as which ones were the bitey ones and which were the docile ones. I found grooming kind of therapeutic and fun. Except when the horses decided to nip my butt and arms just for kicks.

At least twice a week, we had to bring the horses over various primary/junior school and kindergartens around the island for the children to ride and play with the horses. During these sessions, the lead instructor from the farm usually Mari-san would introduce the children to the horses and guide them through a series of body exercises to help with their balance and any fear of the horses during the ride. My role varied from mimicking the exercises for the children to follow, supporting them on the ride and sometimes, giving out instructions. In English. At the children's request.

Now, all my friends know that I work with animals better than children and had they seen me there and then, they would be on the floor, rolling about in laughter at me. But I just adored the Japanese children! They were so well-behaved, adventurous and willing to try new things. As soon as they knew I spoke English, the primary school kids kept requesting for the instructions to be given in English. Shu in turn, gave her instruction in Chinese at their request as well.

Another aspect of my job there was to follow the riders and the staff on their short rides and pick up after them if the horses pooped. Most of the time, the horses don't usually poo but when they do, it was like a lucky draw celebration followed by a hilarious scramble for the scooper and bucket or bag to pick up after them. By the second week, I was their self-proclaimed Professional Poo Collector.

On Saturdays, parents and the children would come to the farm for riding lessons. Former students would come back to volunteer and help out as well and while tiring, these sessions were fun. For the one of the session, the children played a fun obstacle course game mixed with Rock Paper Scissors. With the children were on the horses, the staff and volunteers participated too, running around the tracking like giant children.

There were days when we didn't have any school outings or any rides scheduled. Those days were pretty chilled and laid back. But there was still plenty to do around the farm from cutting grass for the horses' food, piling horse poo around the banana trees as fertilizers, training the horses to repainting parts of the farm to name a few chores. Mari-san tasked me with painting the signs for two of the horses, Mokichi and Furana and sewing the name tag for Mokichi.

Seeing as I haven't painted and sewed since high school, I was certain I was about to screw up these tasks. But surprisingly, the end results didn't look too bad.


Now, the farm had two dogs, two cats, two goats and one chicken which were great fun to look after as well. Occasionally, I would play fetch with Jonathan and give Lune bellyrubs.

On those days when I was indoors sewing, the cats would take turns making themselves comfortable on my lap.




What the Spam!
Everyone would have lunch together at the farm which was mostly cooked by Ma-kun or Hime-san and their cooking were very delicious. As I write this, I am just salivating thinking about the colourful and healthy dishes I had while there. They did ask if I could cook for them but as I ran through the recipes of my Malaysian dishes in my head, I realised that Okinawa didn't have some of the key ingredients such as Bak Kut Teh packet for the soup or sambal for nasi lemak. Next time, I promised them.

For dinner, Shu and I (and initially Chika) would raid the farm kitchen for ingredients and I would automatically target meat and eggs while Shu would go for the vegetables. One of those evenings, I rekindled my love for fried spam and ended up cooking fried rice with spam omelette. By the way, Okinawa is the only part of Japan where spam is readily available everywhere due to the heavy American presence in their lifestyle and many Japanese tourists often buy them as presents. Meanwhile, spam is everywhere in Malaysia from the non-halal sections of markets to the chinese mixed rice shops and that makes it so easy to be taken for granted. In Okinawa, spam was easier to come by than roasted pork.

Horsing Around
Anyway, back to the horses. During my short period at the farm, I learnt a lot of things about caring for a horse from grooming them to handling them to saddling them up. I even got to ride the horses when things weren't too busy. Due to the Yonaguni horses' petite size, they were just ideal for children to ride and even for someone with short legs like me. They are mostly docile and gentle by nature and my favourite horse to hug and pat was Mokichi. He was like a giant cat, often so curious as he would trot up to me when I was working to see what I was doing. He was also the most restless and noisiest whenever the other horses were out riding. He basically reminded me of my cat, Milo.

While sweet most of the time, although some of the horses I met do have feisty personalities. The horse I rode the most, Aruma was one of the feistiest. He would attempt to nip me whenever I was brushing him but I let it slide because he was just so fun to ride on. My first experience riding Aruma was at Hyukana Beach and it was by far my most memorable moment of my time there. The beach was just stunning with pristine blue waters, green seaweed, white sands and almost no one in sight save for a few locals. Practicing riding was awesome there.

With Chika's patient guidance and help, I got Aruma to trot up and down the beach without a saddle or someone guiding him which I enjoyed. My legs were pretty sore after that as I had to clench my knees and calves to keep from falling sideways whenever he went to a speed above walking. Aruma was one of the farm's fastest horses and loved running.

It showed when Chika took over and off they went, galloping across the water. It was a great thing to witness the sheer happiness on Chika's face when she was riding Aruma. Chika had practically grown up riding Aruma for the past nine years and saw him as a grumpy old friend whom she adored.



No Goodbyes, Only See You Soon
I count myself fortunate to have met the awesome people of Umikaze Horse Farm. I was even tempted to just cancel my plans to explore Naha and stay on but I couldn't as I had already paid for a whale-watching trip. That trip was underwelming to be honest and I had actually forgotten I had done whale watching before in Sydney during which I was practically sleeping due to the seasickness med. (link)

Even though my time at the farm was short, I felt as though I had made not just memories but good friends as well. The people there were so nice and patient with teaching and guiding me through the many things that needed to be done. If it wasn't for Shu and Chika helping to translate and explain things to me, I would be slow on the uptake. I've learnt so much and realised that every life skill I had was an asset on a farm like Umikaze Horse Farm. After watching Mari-san, Hime-san and Ma-kun in action, I was in awe by the love they have for their work. I would definitely be returning to the farm in the near future be it to WWOOF again or just for a holiday. 

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