Julie Shih: Nico Toma Hospital Volunteer

Every week at Nico Toma is a different experience. As a group that plans and puts together activities for hospitalized children, one week we would be packing items to sell at their bazaar and another week we would be helping to serve food at their annual Sakura café. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect each week, but that was part of the fun, and the volunteers were always energetic and welcoming. While helping them prepare, we had many opportunities to talk with fellow volunteers. They were naturally curious about the places we came from and we also discussed the differences between American and Japanese culture. I also got the chance to talk to some volunteers about their experiences volunteering with Nico Toma and why they decided to become involved. Many of them had been part of the group for years and years, and from working with them, I could feel a strong sense of solidarity.

I’ve volunteered back in the States before, but never in this kind of setting. It was hard to see the children attached to tubes and machines knowing that there’s nothing we could do regarding their illnesses. I couldn’t help but wonder what a childhood would be like that was spent going in and out of the hospital. However, I’ve realized that children are children wherever you go, energetic and mischievous (one boy snuck back for seconds!), who enjoy playing with other kids and playing games on their DS. Seeing everyone smiling and enjoying the café, I hope that we’ve been able to do what we can to bring some joy into their lives. Overall, volunteering at Nico Toma was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Shuyi Shang: Ikebana

Before coming to Japan, my first and only encounter with ikebana was at a party held by my university’s Japanese department. It was not so much the product but the process, executed with such precision and elegance by my sensei, that moved me the most. Needless to say, when my KCJS sensei and I found out about several ikebana classrooms in Kyoto, I was ready to try my hands on creating ikebana of my own.

Now, after only six lessons, I am obviously still very far from understanding—not to mention achieving—that elegance. But along the way I have had a lot of fun learning about ikebana and interacting with my Japanese sensei and classmates.

Niwa-sensei, who just turned 79 last month, is a connoisseur of traditional Japanese arts. She enjoys showing and explaining to me about her collection of paintings, calligraphy scrolls, and other obviously expensive antiques. Our lessons take place at her Japanese-style house, and the displays of ikebana and crafts at the genkan and the tokonoma are frequently changed, making my lessons into a time for appreciation of Japanese arts. The first time I was there, she led me into a room and in front of a tokonoma, where she had placed a small vase of pine and a scroll of painting that complemented the ikebana. Pine is the plant of the winter, she explained. That was when I realized that acknowledging the current environment and time is very important in ikebana.

My four or five classmates (the number and people always change at each lesson because of different schedules) are all middle-aged Japanese women, which was not surprising to me at all. At every lesson, Niwa-sensei gives us each a sheet that explains the structural concept of the ikebana that we would do for today. The container is usually preselected by sensei, who has a collection of vases, plates and bowls for ikebana. We then unwrap our bundles of flowers and proceed to selecting, cutting and bending them in order to create the design we want. I receive frequent verbal instructions from Niwa-sensei, sometimes down to the specifics such as the angle at which I should place a particular branch. This is perhaps because I am only a beginner. Even though sensei and the students complimented on my works often, sometimes I wonder how lost I would be if I were to complete an ikebana work completely by myself.

Although we each sit at a separate table during class time and concentrate on finishing our work, the atmosphere is quite laid-back and sometimes small conversations pop up here and there among the students. Most students already know each other very well, so I have tried hard to understand and join the talks. I usually speak up when there is something I wanted to say or ask, and have always been warmly included in the conversation. One thing I like about the atmosphere in the class is that while the students are polite to Niwa-sensei, the politeness is that of a relaxed and natural manner, never stiff nor forced, making it easier for me to feel at ease even during my first lesson.

Although all students receive the same flowers and sheet, our works always end up looking very different by the end of the lesson. In my observation, there aren’t many strict “rules” in ikebana—at least not in the Sagagoryuu school in which Niwa-sensei specializes in. It is always a joy to see the various styles the same set of flowers could be arranged into, and the structural integrity they possess.

We can bring home the flowers we used in class for a second round of ikebana. As you can see, because what I have at home is different and most of the time limited, the ikebana almost always turns out differently. It's frustrating at times, but also part of the fun!


At the end of every lesson, Niwa-sensei always takes out her tea set and serves the students apple tea and delicious snacks. This is a time when we relax and admire each other’s work (and comment on how delicious sensei’s snacks are, of course). Although as a foreign college student I have little in common with the people around me, by listening politely and making a few comments here and there, I am able to have very pleasant conversations with sensei and my classmates, especially since they’re very open people who also happen to be quite curious about my foreign experiences. Tea time is when I can truly see the less formal side of the sensei-apprentice relationship that they have built over time. Although I am still new to the class, I feel welcomed and appreciated by everyone.

It was sensei's birthday, and she was so pleased with my birthday gift (a pair of Thai candles in carved wooden bowls) that she gave me a whole basket of tsubaki flowers and told me to design my own flower-candle arrangement. This is what I came up with. Not only did I complete two ikebana works in one lesson, we had a mini party enjoying homemade pumpkin cake, tea, and wakashi!

Unfortunately, my time in Kyoto is limited. It may take years of hard work to even begin to grasp the true essence of ikebana, and as of now I feel that I have hardly scraped the surface. What I can proudly say is that I have learned a lot about appreciating ikebana works in a more critical way, enjoying their beauty while recognizing the structural composition and possible concept behind each piece of work. In addition, this was a unique experience in which I joined a group of Japanese people much older than me, and learned about a beautiful Japanese art in a traditional house situated in a historical Japanese city.

Completed in my most recent lesson (not sure how much I really improved but I'm really happy with this one). I like the rectangular plate, which complements the structure of this piece very well. And the large branches are sakura!


Andres Oliver: Taiko

My time in the taiko circle has allowed me the opportunity to interact with an older sector of Japanese society than that with which I interacted last semester in the shodou club. One of the first things I noticed upon joining the circle was how serious and yet relaxed the other members were. Because we practice at Kita-no-ten-mangu, a large temple in the western part of Kyoto, we depend upon the generosity of the priests there to allow to use the practice space. At the end of each practice, we all gather around one of the priests as he offers his reflections on the group’s activities and goes over basic housekeeping duties. Everyone sits very quietly and respectfully—the position of priest is obviously one of some regard—but when the priest makes jokes, everyone laughs like old friends.

We also were allowed to participate in a ceremony at the temple where another priest prayed for the taiko circle’s continued success. This ceremony and our interaction with the priests makes me feel like playing taiko is about more than just having fun or relieving stress by beating on a drum for two hours. I feel it is possible that we are doing something of a vaguely spiritual nature, in the sense that our playing is an homage to some sort of god or force. In light of the relative seriousness of this act, I was very surprised to see another side of the members when we all went to a nomikai. While drinking and eating, all of the members, including one of the priests, just looked like normal people who have gathered around a common interest and forged long friendships.

Angelica Gam: Kyudo and KyoDai Choir

As per usual, the days have continued to grow increasingly busy now that the end of the semester is drawing near. Even so, I continue attending practices for both Kyudo and choir on a regular basis.

First, I’d like to discuss my relationship with my bow. Emily, Megan and I have nicknamed the bow that I tend to use during Kyudo, “Edward”, as in “Edward Cullen.” Why would I ever do that to myself, you ask? See, just like the abusive boyfriend Edward Cullen of Twilight fame, I tend to get injured whenever I use the bow. And, just like a textbook case of domestic abusive, I still use the same bow because I know that the reason why my bruises from Kyudo continue to increase is because I’m doing something incorrectly. It’s all fun when we joke about my abusive bow (Bow, Beau, get it?) but whenever I think my bruises have healed, I find myself getting new ones to replace the old ones. It’s like the bows are trying to remind me that this is a sport and requires some kind of physical strain. I joked around about finding the one sport that doesn’t require running and getting exhausted when I found my strong affection for archery of all types, but after practicing for these past months, I realize that’s not entirely true. Partly because of the occasional slaps of the bow string against my arm, and partly because of the gripping energy I realize I lack after a full hour of shooting, do I realize that archery still exercises muscles more than one would think.

With that said, I’ve known for a while as to what my issue is, and I’m just having problems changing it. My fear of being attacked by the string of the bow and my improper method of handling the bow has hindered me from shooting arrows sans corporal punishment. You’d think I’d be used to dealing with pain from the string after having gotten hit so many times, but I’m still subconsciously shying away and doing weird things when I practice. Meaning, I’m not really getting the meditating aspect part of Kyudo down. I’m entirely wrapped up in going through the motions that I find that I’m having difficulty getting out of my mind. More than shooting the arrow, trying to get out of my mind is the hardest part for me.

Since I’ve figured out how to hold the bow somewhat properly, the pain has decreased over the past couple of weeks. That does not mean that I’ve been able to graduate on to a painless existence in the dojo. In the end, the pain I receive is just like when those monks hit people during meditation when they find their minds wandering. It serves as a reminder of the fact that A.) I’m still doing weird things unnatural to kyudo and that B.) it needs to stop. All I can do is keeping chugging on, and maybe Edward and I can come to some kind of compromise soon. Or I could just use the other bow we named Jacob, whom I work better with anyway. Either works.

Moving on to choir, I think my main issue is the fact that my motivation to regularly attend is like zip. My lack of motivation stems from the fact that I know I’m practicing for a performance that I don’t have the funds to participate in. I personally think it’s ridiculous that I have to pay 10600 yen to perform in my own concert. And I really want to introduce the concept of fundraising to the group. But since I need some kind of motivation to keep me going, I’ve decided to go with the cheaper option: performing the theme song and the encore for only 2000 yen.

It’s still frustrating, though. The people are really nice, and they’ve always been incredibly welcoming, and even though we’re not performing the actual set, we’re still allowed to practice with them. But perhaps actually going and practicing the set with them increases my frustration with my lack of sufficient funds to appear in the whole concert.

It makes me wonder though, am I in this for the music, or am I in this for the people? Giving up on performing because of funds, and losing motivation… Perhaps this also stems from the lack of practices over their spring break, and the cancelled practices due to influenza bugs going around. I miss singing like crazy, but I’m not so crazy as to spend that much on my own performance. Maybe my love for music has died over the years of not singing — although I really hope that’s not the case. I have to think about this more.

It’s at least a bit heartening to know that my issues with both kyudo and choir do not stem from some kind of cultural misunderstanding. These are things that could virtually, and probably already does, happen anywhere else in the world. Money, time, lack of skills—these are all problems common to any other college student like myself, Japanese or not. And in a way, that provides at least a little bit of comfort, knowing that I have some kind of inherent connection with this strange new world I’ve been living in for the past few months.

Woes aside, I really am having a blast. That much, at least, hasn’t changed.

Andrea Mendoza: K-Pop Dance Aerobics

Although mirrors line the walls of NAS Sports Club, each time that I find myself sitting or stretching idly on the hard, wooden floors before lessons, I feel strangely imperceptible. In a society that targets Seta’s middle-aged (and predominantly female) community, everything suddenly falls into a wonderful routine of blending in through partially transforming mentally into a middle-aged woman from Shiga.
Very little actual K-Pop dancing happens in K-Pop dance class. (a phenomenon entirely comprehensible given that the majority of the class delightfully consists of ojisan and obasan). Small talk is limited to the first five minutes before class, when I usually find myself sitting next to a short woman in her mid-forties who enjoys talking about KARA and Kim Hyun Joong. Our instructor, Karl, walks in with over-sized pants whose inspiration may have derived from a raggedy parachute and begins to stretch, never failing to check on his (again, oversized) baseball cap in the mirror.  With Seungri’s “Strong Baby” blasting in our ears, we immediately feel pumped up for the new KARA dance. We will look like fools for the first forty minutes, and exhausted pop stars for the last twenty. Somehow, though, this is the least of my worries.
I wonder where the man on my right bought his neon orange towel.
More than this, though, I wonder what it is about KARA’s dance that attracts the middle-aged population of Shiga to come to NAS and learn it from a man named Karl whose pants are too big for his small frame and who barely hides his muffled giggles when we visibly lack to ability to move our legs in sync to the song.
If asked about the true identity of my Community Involvement Project, I should have to admit that it is not KPop. Sometimes, I could say that it is NAS Sports Club (where I find myself in at least twice a week, sweating through kick-boxing, zumba, pilates or a variety of embarrassingly difficult aerobic work outs that my host mom has somehow mastered). Generally, however, I would say that this is not me who makes this “project” so “involved”, but Seta’s involved ojisan and obasan who have adopted me into their community that have made this visceral and emotional experience thoroughly enjoyable.

Cecilia Dolph: Assistant English Teacher

Even though I had taken a month-long break from my CIP over winter vacation, going back in January was like nothing had changed at all. Once the teachers welcomed me back, I ate lunch with the same students, taught the same classes, and participated in the same activities as I had last semester. Nothing might have been different for the students and teachers at Ohara, but for me, taking the experiences I had last semester and building off of those to reach my goals of becoming a better teacher and learning more from the students and teachers at Ohara, I was able to have a more rewarding experience this time around than I did last semester.

This semester I made it a point to become more active while teaching English classes. Most of the time I teach the younger students whose English ability isn’t at a level where they can understand my explanations of activities or games to learn the vocabulary or expressions I’m teaching in class. The English teacher I work with has to translate my explanations or we have to do an example of the game or activity in front of the class for the students to be able to understand. The point is for the students to be able to hear a proper English accent, but last semester I was still hesitant to use too much English for students who wouldn’t be able to understand what I was saying. This semester, I changed my point of view and made an effort to use English more and teach the class thinking like the students could understand what I was saying. Hearing phrases like “Now we’re going to play a game” or “This is how you play” over and over, the students are eventually going to come to recognize what those phrases mean, and that is that point of my CIP at Ohara to teach English and let the students hear how English sounds. I think this is an important point to remember when teaching someone a foreign language.

Last semester, it took me a while to become confident enough in my Japanese and brave enough to talk to the other teachers at Ohara to be able to have a conversation with them. It wasn’t until the end of last semester that I ended up having some very interesting and informative discussions with the other teachers in between classes or during the car ride to the station. This semester I did my best to talk to the other teachers as much as possible. In front of the students I’m not allowed to speak Japanese, so in between classes in the teacher’s room while we were all standing around the heater, the other teachers would be kind enough to involve me in their conversations or ask me questions. Sometimes I was able to connect some of the conversations to things I was learning in class, so it was nice being able to give my opinion about some of the things we talked about. I was also a great source of information for the differences between Japan and America, and the teachers were interested in hearing how the school system or classes or test taking worked differently in the States.

With such a diverse group of adults, opinions didn’t always agree, but most of the time the opinions I heard were those that I expected. Getting into heavier subjects, like religion or education or family systems, sometimes I would hear opinions I didn’t expect or haven’t heard at all, and sometimes I would hear some extreme misunderstandings of how things worked in America. For example, one of the teachers who sat near me in the teacher’s room had an interest in classical music. I played classical piano for most of my childhood and had an opinion on what music I liked and which composers I thought were good. We agreed on several points, but our opinions didn’t always match up. But having a conversation or discussion with someone is a give and take process, so while we may not have agreed on everything, I heard and accepted their opinion while they were able to do the same for me. On some occasions, I heard assumptions about American culture and the way things worked in the States that were just simply a misunderstanding.  On these occasions, I was able to correct their assumptions with information from my own experience and culture. In the end, I’m very glad I made an effort to talk more to the other teachers this semester. It was a chance to learn in a situation that doesn’t come around very often for study abroad students. I ended up learning a great deal and things I would never be able to learn in class or in a textbook and was able to create closer ties with some of the teachers at my CIP.

One thing I noticed this semester was the way the teachers worked together. When teaching English classes, the English teacher would work closely with the class’ homeroom teacher, asking if they thought this was a good way to do this activity for these kids or how they thought it would be best to proceed through the prepared lesson plan. The homeroom teacher teaches most of the classes for the students throughout the day, so they know the students and the way they learn a bit more than the English teacher does, who only comes in a few times a week. Therefore, when teaching English class, the homeroom teacher would know the best way to run an activity or game for their students in order for it to the most effective and would correctly convey that to the English teacher. For individual students as well, the homeroom teacher would know which students needed a bit more attention than others and would let us know who to keep an eye on when the students would be doing individual or pair work. I noticed this happening not only in the English classes, but between teachers of other classes as well. In between classes in the teacher’s room, teachers would talk to each other about their classes, discussing their students and their opinions and the best way to go about teaching a certain subject. It was interesting seeing that a class wasn’t just a class for the teacher leading the lesson, but also for the other teachers in the school. I’m sure something similar happens in America and happened during my own time going through school, but being on the other side of the equation was the only way for me to be able to see it.

I’m very glad I chose this activity for my CIP and continued it into second semester. I was able to gain experience that will help me in the future going towards my career goals. Being able to compare the Japanese school system to my own education, learning what it was like to teach English to a group of kids at the front of a classroom and not just one-on-one, talking to Japanese teachers and learning their points of view on a variety of subjects, all of the skills and information I attained at Ohara will be beneficial for my future studies of Japan and teaching. At the end of six months of teaching, receiving gifts and words of thanks and appreciation from the students and teachers at the school was very rewarding. Even though I learned so much at Ohara and gained so much from everyone there, it’s nice knowing I was able to give something back in return.

Diana Stanescu: Tea Ceremony and Taiko

I first became acquainted with tea ceremony through my studies of Zen Buddhism, years ago, but didn’t have a chance to become part of this world before starting studying in the US. As such, while I was able to gain insight into the world of tea through my readings, I was not able to practice it until much later, which translated into what I believe to be an understanding of chanoyu that didn’t align much with its ideology. Studying abroad in Japan was as much about improving my Japanese level and gaining a better understanding of the Japanese society, as it was about better integrating chanoyu into my life.

I contacted the Urasenke office as soon as I arrived in Kyoto, hoping to be able to start my lessons immediately. Although I had a very long list of requests regarding how my lessons should be, I knew that the office would be able to find a teacher and a location that would fulfill all my expectations, so I tried to be as specific as possible when I contacted them. To my surprise, they were able to find not one, but several teachers that fit my requests. Or so I thought, until I arrived at the chashitsu where my first tea ceremony in Kyoto was to take place. Despite the fact that I was assured that the lessons were going to be one on one, in the 4 hours I spent that day in that tea ceremony room, I was to meet no less than six other tea ceremony practitioners.

That was the first instance here in Kyoto that forced me to realize that regardless of my linguistic abilities, communication barriers might arise. It turned out that, given that despite having to work with multiple students at the same time a teacher can give her undivided attention to a student at a time, in a one to one lesson as many students as permitted by the spatial constraints might take part.

My first reaction was to try to find a teacher who could offer the type of lessons I had envisioned: with no other students coming in during my practice. It didn’t take me long to realize that such a lesson format would not only be very difficult to come across, but also not advisable. My initial reticence regarding studying with other tea ceremony practitioners stemmed from my fear that I would feel and be felt as an outsider from the very beginning: if my appearance wouldn’t, my command of the Japanese language and my understanding of the Japanese culture would definitely betray the fact that I was far from being Japanese.

I feel that I wasn’t able to become an insider but after I accepted the fact that it was only natural for me to be seen, at least to a certain extent, as an outsider. Often, while I was drinking the tea prepared by the other practitioners or after the lesson, the other people in the room would try to include me in their conversations, either discussing tea ceremony, the Japanese culture, or inquiring about my culture. Although this made me feel welcome, it definitely also accentuated the fact that I was the non-Japanese in the room. On the other hand though, I was as much a tea ceremony practitioner as everyone else, and therefore the only factor that determined whether I was an insider or not was my seriousness towards tea ceremony. This was also reinforced by the fact that in tea ceremony, a highly ritualized traditional Japanese ceremony, a formal behavior is expected and therefore becoming part of the group is not equal to becoming friends.

I decided I was going to be as much of an insider as everybody else, and by the end of the first month I started feeling as such. Being part of this CIP definitely helped me gain a better understanding of tea ceremony, but maybe more importantly, it gave me the confidence to effectively interact in a fairly unfamiliar environment. What makes me feel I have become part of the group is that my sensei invited me to hold a formal tea ceremony in her chashitsu during this summer.

Unlike tea ceremony, my Taiko CIP experience taught me less about itself and more about myself. I still can’t concretely figure out when and why I decided to join the group, but I assume part of the reason was because I vividly recalled the type of feelings the Taiko performances I saw years ago in the US arose in me. I wanted to have this experience so much that I didn’t even think about whether I was suited for it or not. And as such, the first practice I participated in didn’t run as smoothly as I was hoping it would, mostly because I couldn’t understand what was happening around me: I was unfamiliar with the non-Western notation used on the musical sheets, I didn’t know how I was supposed to use the bachi, and because of the loud environment, I couldn’t hear anything our group leader was saying. I felt as if there was no point in even trying to follow the other members of the group, so I ended up sitting aside.

As soon as I had the chance to observe the other members of the group perform their songs though, the same type of feelings that made me join the group returned. This translated into a very frustrating situation, that made me wonder if there was any point in me being there to begin with. As interesting and as exciting as it seemed from the distance, I was starting to feel taiko as a burden.

By the time we had our performance though, I feel I was able to become part of the group sufficiently not to feel any pressure anymore. Especially after practices, as some of the taiko group members drove me home, I had the chance to discuss with them about my concerns and therefore to better understand the reasons behind them. Maybe those were the only instances in which I became closer to some of the people in the group, but I think that was just because of the nature of the CIP itself, and not because me or the other members of the group were not making an effort. What surprised me the most was the extent to which everybody went in order to make sure I can still have dinner with them, despite being vegetarian.

Samantha Lee: Hospital Volunteer

For the spring semester, I decided to continue my CIP with the Niconico Tomato (Nico Toma) volunteer group at Kyoto University Hospital.  Nico Toma is responsible for organizing activities for the children receiving long-term treatment at the hospital.  In addition to arranging activities, they also change the monthly decorations in the children’s ward and create holiday treat bags for the children.

Because of the language barrier, it was sometimes hard to understand the conversations that the other volunteers were having, but overall I felt that I had been included as a member of the group.  The other KCJS students and I usually sit around the table with the rest of the Nico Toma volunteers and work together on various projects.  No matter what task they are focused on, Nico Toma stays meticulously organized, and group cohesiveness is always important.  When making holiday cards, for example, each volunteer is assigned a different step in the process, and it is through our combined efforts that the quality of every card is preserved. Teamwork was also important when we prepared for the bazaar event, as all of the merchandise needed to be sorted, priced, wrapped, before being arranged neatly into sale displays.  The KCJS students were assigned to the towels and clothing section, and we were responsible for creating an organized display that would appeal to the shoppers.  We successfully completed this task, and I felt very happy when the other volunteers complimented our display.  Volunteering Nico Toma has been a great experience, and it was very impressive to see how much time and effort the volunteers spend towards helping the children have a more pleasant stay at the hospital.

Emily Camarata: Kyudo

When starting out Kyudo I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I’ve done several types of martial arts in the past and know that each of them is entirely different from the other and I knew right away that Kyudo was going to be a unique experience.  What I did not realize was how unique of an experience Kyudo practice and the atmosphere of the dojo itself was going to be in comparison to the rest of Japan.

Immediately upon contacting my sensei I realized that she was a very confident, laid back, and friendly individual.  She was very welcoming and accommodating, and as long as her students showed a general interest in learning Kyudo she was more than willing to go above and beyond to help them.  I believe it is primarily from her that the atmosphere of the rest of the dojo flowed from.  More than any group of Japanese people that I have encountered, I can say that the Kyudo Dojo felt like my ウチ.  These were people that, even before they got to know me, would notice whether or not I was there and would be glad to see me.  They would respond well when I reached out to them and reach out to me in kind, often offering a lot of useful advice for Kyudo.  Once I started wearing a uniform I especially felt like I was considered part of the dojo, no different from any other student there.

The practice itself is also extremely rewarding and the more I get into Kyudo the more I sense the spirituality associated with it.  Kyudo is very much a sport with intentions of meditation and stillness in mind.  It’s less about hitting the target and more about the process, with the goal being to put every bit of your soul into each shot.  It’s a very intriguing art form that with each additional practice, becomes more and more mysterious and awe inspiring.  I was fortunate enough during a practice two weeks ago to have an experience which left me dumbstruck for a while after my arrow had already hit the target.  I was standing in position, taking aim, trying to synchronize my breaths with my shot.  When I finally started exhaling for the last time, it was as if the bow took over.  I don’t even remember releasing the bowstring, but there the arrow was, flying towards the target.  The bow then spun itself in my hand, a sign of a good release, and my ears were filled with the striking ring of the bowstring that never fails to be satisfying.  I felt as if my own body had just stood aside while the bow took over.  It was mystifying and I can’t wait for more.

Jacqueline Wee: Noh Masks and Woodblock Prints

Masks are creepy.  I think that’s a fairly agreed-upon opinion.  And yet, somehow I’ve been spending four hours of my Mondays, almost every week, surrounded by them.  My Monday activities started about halfway through last semester, at the beginning of November.  After my host mother’s coworker heard that I was taking a class on Noh theater, she invited me to her house, where her father and one other person were learning to carve Noh masks from a teacher.  Being an arts-and-crafts person, and having always been fascinated with wood carving, I agreed to learn Noh mask carving.

The classroom is an extra room in an acquaintance’s house.  The other two students, who I’ll call Tail-san and Village-san, and teacher, Inside-sensei are all ojiisan (grandpas) who have been friends for a very long time.  On top of gathering at Tail-san’s house every Monday to hack away at some wood, they also play mahjong and basketball at other times in other places during the week.  Going to my Noh mask class might be my favorite part about being in Japan.  A lot of people who hear about my latest hobby give me a weird look when I mention that it involves hanging out with grandpas almost every week.  They go, isn’t that…boring?  But it’s far from that.  The three of them are some of the most interesting people I’ve met since coming to Japan, and having lived for quite a deal longer than I have, they have tons of stories and knowledge of things I’ve never even heard of before.  Also, since they’re good friends with each other, despite being “old”—a word I don’t buy anyway since I consider age more of a mental thing than something purely decided by number of years one has been alive—they’re always cracking jokes and displaying their competitive side.  For example, they’ll pull out a scale and argue about who has carved his mask thinner and lighter.  Or who has managed to make his mask look older and more weathered.  Every minute spent in that classroom with those three is fun, and I feel like I’ve slowly become a part of the group.

Also, although it’s not really directly related to mask carving, the actual setting of my lessons is also lively.  Since I’m there from 12:30pm to 4:30 pm, in between carving, we take lunch and snack breaks.   Sitting around the floor eating various Japanese snacks with tea, I listen to stories about Japanese customs and traditions, as well as hearing about everyone’s families and histories.  Tail-san’s wife is a talented cook, and everything she makes is delicious, from the familiar and comfortable oden to the chewy and flavorful boar meat, which I tried for the first time last week.  They also live in the countryside, in a traditional house that’s more than a hundred years old.  Between coming and going to the classroom, I walk through the well-groomed garden, and even going to the toilet brings me through the wooden corridor bordered by sliding doors.  On top of everything else, by going to mask class, my comprehension of Kansai-ben has gotten infinitely better.  When I first started going to class, I could barely understand anything that anyone was saying, but now I can get through with very few understanding problems.  And I’ve picked up some phrases that I would have never been taught in any Japanese classroom.

From the combination of my Noh class and mask carving lessons, I have learned a number of things.  First of all, there’s a set number of mask types, and in the world of Noh, there is no such thing as original masks.  Of course since every mask is handmade, each one is unique in some way, but in general it follows strict mask standards.  There are even stencil-type tools that one carves the mask to fit into, and if carved properly, every curve on every mask of the same type should be the same.  For example, probably the most famous and commonly used mask type is called the Ko omote, which is supposed to represent the face of a young girl.  If you saw five ko omote masks carved by five different people, at first glance they would look exactly the same.  At the second and third glance, they’d probably still look the same.  But after staring at them for a while and getting accustomed to the subtleties of the masks, you’d start to notice a few slight differences.  The angle of the eyes might be just the slightest bit sharper on one, giving a subtle impression of slyness.  Or the corners of the mouth might lift up a little bit more on one mask, imbuing the expression with a tint of playfulness.  But take away the other masks to compare against, and you might as well have imagined the differences.

Although I started off with “masks are creepy,” I don’t actually think so anymore.  Well, for the most part.  We recently started painting our masks, and seeing multiple pure white faces lined up on the floor is still a little alarming.  But that part aside, now they’ve become like any other product of hard work.  To me, my mask is sort of pretty, rather cute, and something I’m quite proud of. I’ve also gotten a little better acquainted with traditional Japanese materials.  The tools used to carve masks are hard to find even in Japan, and I’ve never seen them in America.  They come in three general shapes, flat, curved, and diagonal, and in all different sizes.  After one finishes carving, paints the mask, but the base coat of white paint isn’t even paint at all.  It’s called gofun, and it’s used not just for masks, but also in some traditional Buddhist sculptures.  It starts out as a white powder, ground up oyster shells, and after being mixed with animal glue that resembles gelatin, called nikawa, it becomes a somewhat paint-like suspension.  Although I occasionally paint and draw, I’ve never worked with such materials in America.

After many months, I am close to finishing my first mask.  Mask making takes a long time.  A very, very long time.  But it’s a rewarding process, and through it, I’ve made friends that I wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with.  In contrast to my other main, wood-related, activity for the semester, woodblock printing, I’d say that I’ve found a closer community in Noh masks.  But I can where the difference comes from.

My woodblock printing class was twice a month from January to March, meaning that it only met six times, two hours per session.  I also got started slightly late, so I really only got to attend a fraction of the lessons.  The classroom was on the third floor of an art building.  Although I really love woodblock printing and think it’s very fun, I do much better in small, intimate group settings, so the structure of the class made it hard for me to make any particularly close friends.  It also didn’t help that the class met so few times and ended so soon.  For outgoing people, I think classes with one teacher and many students work fine, but since I find it uncomfortable to approach unknown people and start talking, I couldn’t get past just the friendly “hello, how are you.”  To each his own, I suppose.

I did learn some techniques and information about woodblock printing that aren’t really spelled out in books.  And since the students outnumbered the teacher, sometimes I got help from fellow students who had dealt with the same problems and figured out ways around them.  I got to learn from an experienced expert as well as normal students who had some genius tips of their own.  During these moments, I could feel the semblance of community forming, but the end of the woodblock class came too fast, and I didn’t get to see any further development.  Had it kept going, despite my slightly asocial nature, I think I might have been able to make some good friends, similar to those in my Noh mask class.  Ironically, pretty much everyone in my woodblock class was also an ojiisan.  I keep being told that I have old-person interests.  I guess it might be true.

My advice to anyone studying abroad in Japan or anywhere is to definitely find a place where one belongs and to continue going for as long as possible.  I feel most part of a community at my Noh mask class, and I feel like my closest friends are there too.  And I think part of the reason I feel so at-home in my mask class is because I got started fairly early and continued going for nearly two semesters.  For the same reason, I think I wasn’t nearly as comfortable at my woodblock printing class.  But above all, I think it’s important to take part in an activity that’s interesting.  Since I like carving both masks and prints, attending class was always fun.  And because I was surrounded by others with similar interests, I always had something in common with the people around me.