David Massart: Volunteering at the Higashi Kujo Children’s Soup Kitchen (子ども食堂)

My CIP consisted of volunteering at the Higashi Kujo Children’s Soup Kitchen located at
Kyoto Southern Church. On Thursdays every week, Pastor Baekki Heo, his wife, and some
volunteers (ranging from lower school to university to parents) would prepare a delicious dinner for community members — anyone was welcome. These affordable meals would cost adult customers around ~3 dollars, and no charge for children. I would arrive at around 5:30PM and start working. Due to afternoon classes, I was only able to volunteer from 5:30PM – 9:30PM. During my shift, I would spend the first two hours serving customers, and the last two hours cleaning dishes (including a ~10 minute dinner break). Serving customers was pretty straightforward: put food plates on a tray and bring the tray to the correct location.

The space in the church wasn’t too big but every week a little under 100 customers would
come and sit with their families, friends and loved ones to enjoy a meal. The pastor and his wife do incredible work to build a community full of people that care about each other. One of my most memorable experiences was when one of the customers, a mom, came to the kitchen and helped us clean dishes because we were a little understaffed that day. It’s times like these that made me appreciate my CIP and the generosity of the community surrounding the church. Beyond learning my way around a kitchen in Japanese and serving customers, I was also given the opportunity to interact with a Japanese community and observe a different facet of society in Japan. However, the friendliness and casual atmosphere at the church and amongst volunteers and customers completely crushed any preconceptions. As a beginner Japanese student, I wanted to impress (or rather not disappoint) and use keigo on my first day. During the subway ride I quickly memorized whatever formalities I knew and told myself I would try to use them as much as possible. Believe it or not, within the first 5 minutes of talking to the pastor, I threw keigo out the window and never looked back. The friendly manner in which I was treated and the casual atmosphere amongst everyone there quickly made me realize that it was impossible not to answer back in casual fashion. Apart from kitchen vocabulary and formalities, another big barrier for me to cross was the Kansai dialect. I already knew that I was coming in as a beginner and that I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with the speed of most of the volunteers, but add a different dialect to that and my head was just spinning at the end of the day. On the bright side, I was able to learn a lot from the volunteers and felt that I had a better grasp on the dialect and the language after only a few times volunteering!

Throughout my “CIP journey” I learned to be more independent in regards to learning
Japanese. I quickly found out that many of the other volunteers at the church wanted to speak to me in Japanese, but were often hesitant to spark up a conversation. I learned that most of the time, the onus was on me to try and start the conversation. A big piece of advice I can give to prospective or current students at KCJS (regardless of your CIP) is to take advantage of the opportunities that you are given to learn and try to engage with the Japanese community as much as you can. It’s the best way to improve and a great way to make friends in a foreign country!

Hearing from other students’ CIPs it seems that my experience with formalities in Japan may be a pretty rare and unique one, so I would not advise on relying on my experience alone. However, I can say that at my CIP and at most places in Kyoto, locals are always friendly and willing to help you! I am so incredibly honored for the opportunity I was given to volunteer at the church and temporarily be a part of their community — I will most certainly miss it.

2 thoughts on “David Massart: Volunteering at the Higashi Kujo Children’s Soup Kitchen (子ども食堂)

  1. Sounds like you had a meaningful and fun CIP experience! it sounds like the church was a very welcoming community and, as shown by their use of casual forms versus Keigo, really worked to make everyone feel connected and welcome. I imagine, especially as a beginner, the nature of casual Japanese and the sheer amount of jyoshi and words that were omitted was probably pretty overwhelming, but I bet it also really helped your baseline listening proficiency and your ability to infer meaning based on context. During your dinner break did you get to talk to any of the local families or other volunteers or was this more of a working CIP? I would also love to talk at some point about what a Japanese church is like, not often you get to see one let alone work/volunteer at one!

    • Yeah it was great. Context was definitely super useful when trying to understand what some of the volunteers were talking about. I mostly followed what the other volunteers did and none of them ever went to sit with the local families. They would occasionally chat with them during shifts but not during their dinner. And yes of course! The work I did as a volunteer was done in an upstairs part of the church so I didn’t get to see/visit too much… but it was still a unique experience.