If you want to feed your wanderlust and experience a less-explored Japan, book a stay in the countryside
One way to discover rural Japan is through volunteer vacations. Farm tourism is cheap, benefits both locals and travelers, and makes for an unforgettable experience. Skip the big cities and find a homestay host in a tiny mountain village, where wooden farmhouses, tatami mat floors, and comfortable futons are the norm.
Two classic accommodations in Japan are the ryokan, a luxurious inn, and the minshuku, a guest house. However, if your goal is to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, consider the increasingly popular third option: the homestay. While traditional accommodation focuses on excellent service rather than forging relationships, homestays offer a more relaxed experience with an emphasis on simple work, camaraderie, and cultural exchange. Each family has its own flair and style, but all offer the opportunity to form a meaningful bond with locals. Plus, paying off your room and board by volunteering help is a convenient solution when money is tight. Additionally, volunteer-based homestays offer an opportunity to learn new skills, from rice farming and animal care to traditional arts.
Where to find hosts
Hosts and volunteers can find each other through online matching services such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It's an international organization matching foreign volunteers to hosts all over the world. In Japan, many WWOOF hosts are based in rural locations. They tend to offer a glimpse into microcultures and local traditions usually inaccessible to foreigners.
Volunteers help their hosts for a maximum of six hours a day, six days a week and, in return, hosts offer accommodation, meals, and a connection to local communities and events. In other words, you're not so much doing work as you are being part of a Japanese family and their countryside livelihood. WWOOF operates on a philosophy of kindness, sharing, and community.
Another possible matching service is Workaway. If farming isn't of interest, Workaway can help you find a host who's more interested in other kinds of help, such as language learning, child care, and general household chores. Though take care: not all Workaway hosts offer free room and board, and some even offer payment, which is prohibited on a tourist visa.
Discover your new favorite local delicacy
Nearly every prefecture in Japan has its rural hidden gems, but the most rural parts of Japan are the far north, the far south, and the alpine middle. Hokkaido and the Tohoku region are the northern areas of Japan and are known for dairy production and delicious sake, respectively, whereas Kyushu in the south is known for its shochu, a strong drink distilled from potatoes. Rice farming is virtually everywhere, as is tofu production and soy sauce brewing. Each prefecture also prides itself on specialty produce, like region-specific fruits. Oita Prefecture is famous for its kabosu, a small, juicy citrus fruit that's great in soups and noodles. Shizuoka's renowned muskmelons are so delicious they're often offered as expensive gifts. Yatushiro's famous salt tomatoes are dark ruby-red and sweet as candy. Do some research on regional farming and see what calls out to you.
Final things to consider
There are a few things to consider before settling on your homestay. If you have dietary restrictions, it's a good idea to check if your host can accommodate them.
Another consideration is whether you are comfortable immersing yourself in an unfamiliar language and culture. If you don't speak Japanese, check that your host has enough English to communicate with you. It's good etiquette to arrive at your host's house with cookies or snacks from your home country as a way to show appreciation and a way to exchange cultural tastes.
Weather is another consideration. Japanese summers can be brutally hot and humid so if you do decide to brave outdoor work, invest in some UV-blocking clothing. Locals cover themselves head-to-toe in it to avoid heat stroke. On the flip side, winter can be surprisingly cold. If you're headed to Kyushu, for example, you'll be tempted to pack light, but Japanese households south of Tohoku have neither insulation nor central heating, meaning inside will be the same temperature as outside in every room without a space heater. A nighttime trip to the bathroom may involve throwing on a sweater.
Lastly, bugs. Snakes. Hornets. Wild boars. Spiders. Talk to your host about what you can expect to find in the countryside.
Japan's famous public transportation is not quite as convenient when you venture out into the countryside. Most remote areas rely on community buses that may only come four or five times a day. The best way to get to rural locations will be by car, and luckily, you can rent a car relatively cheaply in Japan. Small cars made for narrow local roads are recommended. If you are heading deep into the mountains, be aware that mountain roads are rarely wider than one lane, and sometimes lack guardrails. Be wary of a lack of phone coverage, and if it's snowing, don't drive. The best and safest way to get to a remote mountain location is by having your hosts pick you up or asking them to arrange a shuttle. For easier locations, defer to your host on which route to take by car.