Workaway: Beekeeping in Japan

These bees have a room with a view!

Before we started our travels back in January, I heard about a website called Workaway is basically a work and cultural exchange, where you work 4-5 hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation.

This sounded ideal for Japan – not only is Japan quite expensive, the culture is so different than what we’re used to… ten days living with a Japanese family sounded like an ideal way to save some cash and also learn more about the country before starting to explore.

We found a project which appealed to us right away. There was a couple, Yosuke and Yuka, who lived in the mountains near Nagasaki, and they kept bees. They wanted help with the beekeeping and honey bottling, as well as some general gardening around their house. This sounded great to us – we’ve wanted to learn about beekeeping for a while, so it was perfect.

Learning about bees

We were greeted very warmly into the bee farm, and the puppy was an added bonus. Super cute… although she’d steal socks at any opportunity and we’d be chasing her round the house.

Tasting honey with Yuka

Yuka greeted us with a honey tasting, which was so good – who knew honey could be so variable? She said they had three honey harvests per year, with each one being only two weeks apart. In that time, the honey changed dramatically in both colour and taste. It all depends on what plants are flowering during that particular harvest apparently.

I spent the next few days bottling the 2019 honey harvest with Yuka while Blakey got suited up in beekeeper gear and headed off with Yosuke to feed the bees. Once you’ve stolen all their honey, you need to give them sugar syrup to store in their combs instead, otherwise they won’t survive the winter.

Bottling the honey was a big job – from their 50 hives, they had collected half a tonne of honey this year. Apparently last year there was over a tonne but this year the weather conditions were less favourable, so it meant less honey. It still seemed an endless amount to me.

Bottling the honey

Once the honey was bottled, it needed to be labelled with the correct harvest date and their brand. I’m not going to lie, after a few day sticking labels on jars, I was a bit bored. The first day was great – it was actually nice to do some work after 6 months traveling… but that feeling faded pretty fast.

Blakey was having a great time out with the bees – smoking the hives, inspecting the frames, feeding the bees. He managed not to get stung until right before we left, but he said it didn’t hurt any more than a nettle sting.

Smoking the hive, making the bees all sleepy

After badgering him about it for a few days, Yosuke finally took me to see the bees. It was quite fun to get all the gear on – the full white suit and veiled hat, thick gloves and wellies. I felt like we were about to go into a war zone or something.

One thing I realised straight away is that beekeeping is a sweaty business. In 34 degrees and 95% humidity, the last thing you want to be doing is putting on loads of layers and standing out in the sun all day. The worst part was that I couldn’t even wipe the sweat off my face, as I definitely wasn’t moving the veil and risking a bee getting in!

Another thing about beekeeping is that it isn’t as scary as I thought it would be. It was a weird sensation to be surrounded by thousands of bees, buzzing loudly and flying all around me. But it wasn’t scary. You feel quite invincible in your bee suit so once you get used to the craziness of standing in a cloud of bees and not running away, it’s actually ok.

Yosuke inspecting his bees

Once the scariness had faded, it was really interesting to watch Yosuke get out the frames, pointing out the queen bee, the drones and the workers. He showed me how the pollen and nectar is stored, and the cells which would hatch into new workers or new drones. It looked like a massive undertaking to have as many hives as they had, I think we’ll just get a couple when we’re home.

Living with a Japanese Family

Yosuke and Yuka’s house was beautiful – they’d styled it on an Italian farm house, and it was all exposed wood and high ceilings. The best thing was the view… incredible. They were at the top of a hill overlooking the bay. You could see for miles… a calm sea with islands dotted about, a volcano rising high in the distance. You could look at that view forever.

The view from Yosuke and Yuka’s house, Japan

Yuka’s cooking was a definite highlight of our stay. It turns out that she cooks on TV once a month on a local Nagasaki channel, so we definitely landed on our feet there. We tried all sorts of new foods and our chopstick game has improved no end. The only downside to Japanese food is the amount of fish products used… fish flakes on vegetables, fish powder on pancakes, fish stock in soup… not ideal for Blakey, he really doesn’t like fish!

Okonomiyaki, the most delicious food ever

The best meal we’ve had so far is a type of Japanese pancake called okonomiyaki. It’s a batter and cabbage base, then you put toppings on and flip it to cook on both sides. You then cover it in special brown sauce and mayo, and it’s delicious. Like most Japanese foods, it’s also pretty healthy. I don’t think we’ve even eaten such healthy food that is so delicious as Yuka’s Japanese cooking.

…although the first thing we did once we left was make a beeline for KFC…

And then it all went wrong

Things were going well – we were getting stuck in to the work, learning about the bees, eating great food. But there was one little problem… workaway is meant to be a maximum of 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. We were working more like 7-8 hours a day.  And then the weekend came and we were asked to work on the Sunday. You should have seen Blakey’s face when he was asked to clean up the puppy’s puddle of wee… not pleased.

Blakey coming back from a day with the bees

At this point, another workaway person had arrived – a lovely French girl called Catherine. For some reason, Yosuke didn’t seem to like her very much, and it showed. We are still confused as to what exactly went wrong, because she worked just the same as us, but was accused of treating the house like a hotel.

Yesterday, we made breakfast for everyone as usual at 8am then sat down to tuck in. Yosuke walked in and said to Catherine that when Yuka cooks meals she tells everyone it’s ready, and Catherine should have told him breakfast was ready. Now we were confused for a number of reasons… first of all, Yosuke had been sitting at the kitchen table literally 3 minutes earlier, when the bread just went in the toaster and we were putting the fruit out. Breakfast is the same time every day, and he was right there when it was being prepared… so why does he need calling in? Also, why aim the rebuke at Catherine when we’d all made the breakfast?

Catherine apologised and said she didn’t know he needed calling, and that breakfast is a casual meal (it was just toast and fruit) so she didn’t realise we needed to wait for him. Yosuke then told her that he didn’t think she was happy there and she needed to find a new place to stay.

We just sat there staring at Yosuke. Where had that come from?! Catherine was trying not to cry, asking what she’d done wrong and said she’d never before been asked to leave a workaway program before. He said it was best she went straight away.

We weren’t going to sit there and let this happen. We told him he was being unreasonable, Catherine worked really hard and he was out of line. We said that we couldn’t stay if she went, so we packed our bags, hugged Yuka goodbye and left.

On the bus back to Nagasaki, we all were talking about what went wrong… we just couldn’t understand it. Yosuke was so nice in the evenings, but in the morning he barely said two words and was super grumpy, so maybe he just isn’t a morning person? Blakey also pointed out that he seemed extremely sexist – he’d always direct his conversation to Blakey, and praise how hard he’d worked. Catherine and I worked just as hard, but got no praise. Maybe we’d all done something super offensive and didn’t even realise, but anyway we weren’t too sad to leave a day early as the work was starting to get a bit much.

Workaway – is it worth it?

Our experience was definitely mixed. On the one hand, we learned a lot – both about Japan and about bees. On the other, we worked more than we should have, which left us feeling like we were taken advantage of. There was also not much to do in our time off, as we were right in the sticks. There wasn’t even a hiking trail, we were told we should just walk on the road if we wanted to go explore.

I think workaway works well for travellers with lower budgets who need to have the free accommodation in order to stay in a country for longer. But for us it was not so good… the work wasn’t great in the heat, and we definitely didn’t like being ordered about. I would try it again I think, as we both still maintain that the best way to learn about a culture is to stay with a local family, we’ve seen that time and time again over the course of our travels. However, one thing that we will always remember is that if we feel uncomfortable, we can just walk away.

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