A Workaway Adventure in Japan and Korea

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Joining us on this week’s feature is Amy Yu, a management consultant based in Boston, MA. Amy’s travels have ranged from workaways to hiking in the mountains, and her love of seeing the world endlessly inspires me. Today, she’s sharing with us her experiences with Workaway (a free work-exchange program abroad) in Japan and Korea.

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Last June and July, I spent a month in Japan and Korea, working (for free!) in cafes.


I’ve always been fascinated and enticed by how big the world is. But the more I traveled, the more I felt myself drained by the imaginary checkboxes associated with exploring a new place – walking tours that I became too exhausted or distracted to listen to, fighting for photos in front of famous monuments and the lethargy associated with waking up in a foreign hostel with photos of things I couldn’t remember the name of. I was determined to find what meaningful travel looked like for me, so I decided to start with full-blown immersion for an extended period of time.

Workaway is a platform that brings hosts and volunteers together globally. Hosts that need help with almost anything – construction, social media, teaching, housework – offer accommodation and meals to volunteers in exchange for work. The experiences can range from farm labor in Mongolia to au pairing in Spain to teaching English in Chile; there could be 25 volunteers or one, in a city like Tokyo or in the middle nowhere. Volunteers can check host reviews and message hosts on the Workaway site to research and make arrangements.

I found two Workaways that agreed to have me: a café in Naoshima Island, Japan, and an English café in Busan, Korea.

Workaway #1: 2 Weeks on Naoshima Island, Japan

I woke up at 7am to leave Osaka via 3 train transfers and a ferry ride to Naoshima Island (would not recommend this after a messy night out in Dotonbori with the Brits in your hostel). Naoshima is tucked away in southeast Japan, part of a group of islands in the Seto Sea. It is known colloquially as the “Art Island” for its dense collection art museums and installations, featuring famed artists ranging from Monet to Yayoi Kusama to James Turrell. I signed on with a little café – Seven Islands Café – to help with food photography and waitress after talking to the owner, a man named Iwao.

The Work

Upon arrival, I find out that Iwao is a hardy 75-year-old man with more energy than half my college class. He purchased the café’s property and converted the house into a cafe in order to preserve local Seto Sea cooking traditions.

While I was taking photos of food, I also started to coordinate future volunteers, wash dishes and manage Iwao’s TripAdvisor and Facebook pages. Then I helped refloor the new volunteer house, trekked up a forested area of Naoshima behind a realtor with a machete to help Iwao assess the land, attended Iwao’s antique auction in the neighboring port town, and drew new menus. I was constantly amused by the newness of everything I was learning and doing. None of this was glamorous – we had no air conditioning in the 90-degree heat, so I was a perpetual sweaty, dripping mess, especially if we were doing yard work. I returned from trekking with bloody cuts all over my arms and emailed potential volunteers sometimes into the wee hours of the night.

The People

I learned that Iwao is a cancer survivor, spent the bulk of his past life organizing English language camps and theatre troupes for local youth, and loves ice cream more than anyone I know (we discovered this when a carton of ice cream disappeared overnight).

The other volunteer was a cook named Marco, who was born, raised and trained in Mexico in culinary arts. We slept beside each other every night on a tatami (bamboo mat) in a tiny spare room, so any awkwardness dissipated as quickly as it came. Marco fell in love with a Japanese girl that worked at a café, in a town that was a 2-hour train ride away; we spent many days and nights discussing their relationship in the abstract until one morning, when he woke me up to announce she had agreed to go on a date with him via chat on Google Translate.

I’ve never been an art aficionado, but I was amazed by how much I came to love this island. I loved the way Iwao’s ambition and intensity contrasted with the peaceful quiet of the island, which was so small that I could bike from one end to another in 20 minutes. Mealtimes with Iwao and Marco became an excuse to listen to Iwao’s many stories about the ups and downs of his life. More than anything, I was amazed by the serendipity of my time there – how did I get to be in this very moment, serving a shiso rice bowl to a cute Dutch couple, on a tiny island most people have never heard of (yet they’ve surely heard of the artists showcased there)?

Workaway #2: 2 Weeks in Busan, Korea

My second Workaway was nothing like the first. Busan is a bustling port city on the southern coast of Korea, known for seafood and city life.

I arrived in Busan to find a 3-bedroom apartment that fit about 20 people inside via bunk beds and creativity. The job was to talk to students at a language café called L-zone from 4 pm – 10:30 pm each day in three different shifts. The other volunteers were from all over – Russia, Sweden, the UK, Malaysia, France, Israel, to name just a few, and our ages ranged from fresh out of high school to mid-30s. Our café and apartment were located in a university district, so that nightlife didn’t end until dawn and there were tons of food options nearby.

The Work

Each volunteer typically worked three 2-hour shifts that comprised of talking to different levels of local Koreans. Some students could be in high school, while others were well into middle-age and beyond. We’d discuss our lives at home or Korean culture, learn games, play a million rounds of BS or Dobble and do anything else that got conversation flowing and the students more engaged.

As an introvert, talking for that long daily almost drove me insane, especially after two weeks of quiet island solitude. While I loved getting to know the students and other volunteers, I felt constantly drained at first. There was also a party-centric culture that had me hiding in coffee shops every morning and falling asleep immediately after my last cafe shift.

The People

I made some fantastic friends to go hiking with, to go out drinking and dancing with, even to crawl through museums and mountains in Seoul with. I was surprised and amazed by how different the volunteers were – among others, a Swedish friend described how she often took unpaid leave in her commitment to see as much of the world as possible; there was an adorable British graphic design student, an entire group of friendly Polish students and Americans from Montana to New Jersey. Even more interesting was how each person ended up working at the café – some of us had long-winded, involved reasons around budgeting and wanderlust, while others just thought it’d be a good time and jumped on a plane.

In Retrospect

Serendipity rocks. I wished there was time to stay months at my Workaways rather than a few weeks – I was surprised that new routines felt comfortable and normal and the people I volunteered with seemed like familiar friends after only a few short days. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows – it was meticulous planning, sometimes hard work in unfamiliar languages and cultures, and adapting to the uncomfortable. But it was also an adventure, the kind that left me feeling empowered, strong and adaptable; grateful for big possibilities and with a greater clarity of what my personal version of meaningful travel is.

(I’m also not sure anything could ever top Iwao’s green tea soba with shrimp tempura, or his local Shiso juice).

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Have you ever done a Workaway? Share your experiences or thoughts in the comments!

Amy is a Boston-based traveler and management consultant who spends her free time chasing hiking and food adventures wherever she can. All photos were taken by Amy herself – you can find more of her inspiring travel photos on Instagram.

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Kay is a full-time working professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare vacation day to get outside and explore the world. When she travels, she loves visiting the most iconic and naturally beautiful destinations in the USA and abroad. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, running through a park, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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