Throughout this semester, every Thursday, I’ve had the honor to volunteer at the Higashi Kujo Kodomo Shokudo (東九条子ども食堂), or Children’s Food Kitchen. It is run on the third floor of the Kyoto Southern Church, by the pastor Baekke Heo, a third generation Korean born Japanese. The kitchen is open to anyone and everyone: adults, children, families, or anyone who is in need of a warm, cheap, homecooked meal (free for children, 300 yen for adults). Every Thursday, volunteers, mostly students, gather at the kitchen from the early afternoon to the evening to prepare, cook, and serve food in meals that have been prepared weeks in advance to both be healthy and appeal to the Japanese palate. The end result is a bustling kitchen filled with people from all walks of life: students getting work done, regulars chatting with the kitchen staff, kids running around having fun by the small designated area with toys, or even a national taekwondo champion. For me, this was the first time I had volunteered at a food kitchen in any real capacity, so I didn’t really know what to expect. However, in just a short time after arriving there, I could truly sense the amount of passion and kindness that goes into the Kodomo Shokudo project, by both Baekke-san and all the rest of the staff. It truly is a kitchen run by the love that these volunteers have for their work, and the bond that’s created with the surrounding community is all the better for it.
During my time volunteering at the Kodomo Shokudo, I was also given a unique opportunity to observe the culture and spoken language in depth. I have to say, even coming into the experience as an official “beginner” at Japanese, I did not understand as much as I thought I would. As is the case with native speaker of any language I’m sure, the casual speech was spoken at a much faster pace than what I was used to. What’s more is that the Kansai dialect was often used, leaving me even more confused, albeit entertained. The kitchen was also extremely casual, which certainly was in opposition to my expectations: newcomers being treated with relatively polite speech, which would slowly transform into the casual style used amongst friends. This assumption was immediately destroyed after just the first day, where the entire staff was so incredibly kind and friendly, that polite form would just have been odd to use. Throughout my time volunteering I was also able to pick up many Kansai-dialect words, which I am thankful for as Kansai-dialect is a wacky and unique style of Japanese that is great fun to use.
At the same time, I’m not sure how many comments I can make about what I learned about Japanese culture at the Kodomo Shokudo. What I can say is that everyone at the Shokudo, staff and customers alike, have treated me with such kindness and approached me with so much curiosity and interest in my background and where I’m from, and never turned down the opportunity to make conversation and be patient with my less-than-great Japanese. We often had the most fun when the staff would attempt to say something in English, and I would tell them how off they were with their pronunciation. There was a true curiosity and interest in my being foreign, while at the same time being wholly accepting of me into their small community. And, the same kindness that was shown to me is shown to everyone who enters the doors—the way that regular customers interact with the staff and especially Baekke-san and his wife, truly show the bond and appreciation for the customers by the staff, and vice versa. In fact, I asked Baekke-san why he decided to open the Shokudo two years ago, and the answer was simply “I had the space and the kitchen, so there was no reason not to use it to help the community.” It doesn’t hurt that the Shokudo often is heavily influence by Korean culture and food, and is established in an area with a large Korean population.
Ultimately, I am beyond grateful that I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the Higashi Kujo Kodomo Shokudo. Seeing the passion and kindness with which Baekke and the staff work with every Thursday has not only inspired me to study Japanese language and culture harder, but also seek out a similar volunteering opportunity back home. I am appreciative beyond words for the staff always treating me as an equal and a friend, and I will certainly miss and think about this experience and the people I met once I return home.