Christine Lee: Bazaar Cafe Volunteer

When I first arrived at KCJS, I really had no idea what I wanted to do for a CIP activity. After scouring for hours on this very CIP blog and reading students’ various experiences, I decided that I wanted to do something a little bit out of my comfort zone: working in customer service at Bazaar Cafe. While the experience differed a little bit from my expectations (I did not interact with customers all that much), being a part of the Bazaar Cafe family was one of the most valuable experiences I had while studying abroad in Kyoto.

Bazaar Cafe was first founded in 1998 as essentially a safe space for people of all ages, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexualities, and faiths to come gather and relax. The cafe is located just down the block in a small side street. The atmosphere is cozy with a wooden interior filled with the voices of people enjoying their (extremely delicious) dishes and the happy chatter of the staff in the kitchen.

Something that I really enjoyed about my time working as a volunteer was the casual atmosphere of Bazaar Cafe. By ‘casual,’ I mean that there’s not a lot of 敬語 (けいご – honorific language) that needs to be said. When I first arrived, I had practiced the written 敬語 phrases that KCJS suggested I use the first time I meet the cafe staff. However, on arriving, my supervisor, はっちゃん and レイカさん, were extremely kind and welcoming. From there, I started to build small, but strong relationships with the various volunteers and staff members that would make their way to the cafe.

Essentially, I would spend a lot of the time doing menial tasks such as washing the dishes, putting leftover rice in tupperware, fixing business cards, etc. But I felt that doing something that required little thinking ultimately allowed me to try and fully engage in conversation with the cafe staff. We talked about various things from first loves, Nicolas Cage movies to Filipinx dance. What I enjoyed most of all was the diversity amongst the staff members. There weren’t only just Japanese people, but Filipina and Thai staff that have lived in Japan for most of their lives. There were also people like me, who had just arrived in Japan or were studying abroad.

If anyone is looking for a chance to really engage in conversation, I would recommend this volunteering opportunity at Bazaar Cafe! In addition to sometimes being fed amazing food, I thought that the laidback and kind cafe environment was the ideal place for me to share my experiences as an exchange student and for the staff to tell me more about themselves. Overall, I hope that more students continue to volunteer their time at the cafe!

6 thoughts on “Christine Lee: Bazaar Cafe Volunteer

  1. Christine–

    Working at the Cafe sounds like a fun and enriching experience. I’m jealous of the amount of conversation you got to have! It seems like you were able to really build a sense of being a part of the community there. It also seems like such a great way to learn about how other cultures engage with Japan, working with such a diverse staff–something that ties right back into our coursework and of course just being a citizen of the world. I only wish I could’ve made it over there while you were on duty!


    • Trevor, thanks for stopping by!

      Yeah, it would’ve been so nice to have done that outing we were planning on, but alas, things happen and at least we’ll be eating there with 前口先生 this coming week! I really, really enjoyed my time there and while I don’t think I’ve learned any new practical “skills” per say, I very much appreciated the loving atmosphere that I met every time I went over!

  2. Hello Christine! Ah yes, keigo, our old friend. It’s interesting how you didn’t have to use much keigo when speaking with your supervisors. Although I tried to use keigo at the beginning of my time at the Manga Museum, my priority shifted to being able to communicate effectively with Watanabe-san (my supervisor) and other staff members. Funnily enough, Watanabe-san and a couple of other staff members always use keigo when talking to me, which threw me off the first couple of weeks as I was not expecting to be spoken to at that level of politeness as a short-term volunteer. Were you ever spoken to in keigo, too? Also, did any other volunteers join the cafe staff after you and if so, did you get a chance to see how they chose to speak with cafe staff senpai, as it were?

    • Hey Kimmy! Thanks for reading my post!

      I mean, the only time I really used keigo to my supervisors was when we first met and I had basically memorized the verses in the CIP Handbook we received at the beginning of the semester. One time I “すみませんでした”-ed at least 3 times and my supervisor laughed saying that I had nothing to be sorry about, so I gauged from that interaction and similar ones after, that perhaps keigo is not necessary. I also tried to focus on (as you mentioned as well) communicating effectively with the other volunteers/staff members through です/ます form. In regards to the other staff members/volunteers, the only time I’ve seen them talk in keigo is when they are talking to customers. Everyone mostly uses です/ます form or casual form, and the only time I’ve been spoken to IN keigo is the first time I met with my supervisor. There was a person, ジュンさん from Nepal who lives in Tokyo, that joined after I did, but he spoke basic Japanese which made me think he didn’t know that much keigo.

      Basically, I didn’t think that the atmosphere called for such formal language and I personally really enjoyed that! ^^;;

  3. Christine,
    Your experience at Bazaar Cafe sounds like it was a lot of fun. I am curious whether the Filipina and Thai staff who had lived in Japan for most of their lives were willing to share some of their life stories with you and, if so, what you learned about Japan from them. The very idea of having a cafe with a mission of openness is fascinating! Do you know if this type of cafe is commonplace in Japanese cities or whether, at the very least, any others exist?

    • Hi Leah! Thank you for reading my post!

      Unfortunately, I didn’t get to speak with the Thai and Filipinx staff all that much about their life experiences here in Japan. That’s the disadvantage to going in during prime lunch time when we are bombarded with orders. However, I did get a slight glimpse into one of the worker’s life, where she mentioned that she was a single mother raising 4 pretty grown up children now. She was talking about her 2nd youngest daughter who has a boyfriend (from what I remember) and she’s okay with them having a relationship as long as they’re safe about it (which I thought referred to practicing safe sex and such).

      As for your question about whether these kinds of cafes are commonplace, I don’t really know. I don’t think a lot of cafes explicitly state that the purpose of their cafes are to build inclusive spaces, which makes me think this might be a particular feature of Bazaar Cafe. The cafe’s beginnings also have Christian links so I also think that’s perhaps another influence on the cafe’s mission statement.

      I hope that more cafes pop up that have similar stances around Japan!