Alana Hodson: English Assistant at Hiyoshigaoka High School

For my CIP, I was fortunate to be able to participle in two CIP activities. The first of the two was volunteering as an English language assistant at Hiyoshigaoka high school. I had no idea what to expect going into this CIP, but as soon as I arrived (along with my classmate, Mika, who was also doing the same CIP) we were instantly welcomed by the head teacher of the program, Oe-sensei, and the other JET ALTs. They explained to us how the high school’s English club was run and what our role was, which was to simply converse with the students in English. However, we quickly found out that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Although the students were able to use English during times of structured activities, they were often quite reluctant to do so outside of those times. That being said, I have seen the students use English well, so I am sure that had the club been more strict about the use of Japanese, their English would have improved greatly.

The Hiyoshigaoka students were phenomenal at organizing events. While I was there, I was able to participate in two of the events; a Valentine’s Day party and an Aikido lesson. The Valentine’s day party was a lot of fun and the students used a lot of English. For example, two of the activities were “speed dating” and acting out skits, both of which were done completely in English. I was very impressed!

My second CIP was also about teaching English, but with a much younger age group. My host mom is an English teacher, so I was able to help teach her classes, which were from about ages 5 to 10. One of the most interesting things I was able to do for that part of my CIP was to read a children’s book in English while my host mom read the same book in Japanese, taking turns reading each page consecutively. One of the most surprising things I noticed while helping out my host-mom is the accuracy the children’s pronunciation.  I was often asked to read a category of words and then the children would repeat the words after me. They always were able to repeat the words perfectly!

By participating in these CIPs, I got to observe how English is taught and studied at both the high school and elementary age. It was very interesting to see how each age group interacted with the language. The younger children where more eager to share their English skills with me, though it was most the at the basic vocabulary level. However, the older student, although they knew much more in terms of grammatical structure as well as vocabulary, seemed more reluctant to converse with me or other native speakers, but did very well when their English skills had to be applied for activities. My favorite English teaching method I got to see was when and ALT at Hiyoshigaoka helped one of the students with the difficult to distinguish syllables such as R vs L, SH vs S, and V vs B. He was able to coach her through the proper mouth and throat movements use to produce each sound, and in just one session, the student improved tremendously!

Jamal Tulimat: Klexon

For my CIP activity, I participated in Kyoto International Club Klexon, a conversational club where English speakers come to speak with Japanese participants who would like to practice their English. The club met once almost every week from 7 to 9 PM at the Wings Kyoto Center. The two hours were split into parts; for the first one, I usually got a new partner every ten minutes in a way similar to speed dating, where I talked with them about anything ranging from our daily lives to our opinions on recent political developments. For the second hour, several Japanese participants and I made a group of five to six, where we got to speak in a way similar to friends on a group outing. Although we were usually given topics to talk about, I found it more helpful to talk about things that often come up in conversations to help the Japanese participants improve their English.

Participating in Klexon was a great opportunity to make native Japanese friends and feel more like I’m participating in the community. I was a bit sad at the beginning thinking that I was not going to get much of an opportunity to practice my Japanese, but luckily after the first week, I got to go to the local bar with newly made Klexon friends where I spoke with them in Japanese while sharing a nice drink. After immersing myself more in the club, I began to think of Klexon as more of a social place where one meets friends rather than a place where one comes to do work. The more I participated in Klexon, the more I bonded with friends I made there. Eventually, several KCJS student participants and I got to make a group chat with our Klexon friends where we scheduled meet ups and outings on some weekends. On one Saturday, we all got together and went to the Kyoto Shibori Museum where we learned different dying techniques before we each got to dye our own scarf in wonderful patterns and colors.

Even though English is my second language while Japanese is my fourth, participating in Klexon really helped me understand my progress in Japanese, further showing me what I needed to focus on to get better. For example, after seeing where Japanese people commonly made mistakes, I was able to reflect on expressions that were difficult to say since they did not translate between the two languages very well.

Needless to stay, Klexon was a significant part of my study abroad and language study and I’d recommend it to anyone who is willing to go out of their comfort zone to make friends. My tip is – if you want to get to know someone, ask for their LINE! It’s easy and most people will say yes. Klexon is really the experience that you make out of it!

Madison Covington: BAZAAR Café

At first, due to my lacking social skills, 「気にしない 」demeanor, and the ‘already a minority but especially a minority here’ situation, I was not looking forward to interacting with native Japanese people one-on-one without a sensei nearby translating my awkward hand gestures.

However, after I started volunteering for the BAZAAR Café, these worries though still subtly present were compromised with immense kindness, patience, open-mindedness, and 無料の美味い料理. As said at a meeting by regular a volunteer of the café, BAZAAR is “a home away from home.” A place for minorities, LGBTQ, 外国人, and those who are unable to find a community to settle and communicate with others who share their interests. All in all, a haven for any and everyone, a basho for open expression, free of judgment or the beloved ‘unasked for’ commentary. Not only that, but everyone there loves to eat. Every dish is prepared and put out with great care. If someone were given the opportunity to look inside the kitchen, they would truly understand that “yes, there is a certain way a grapefruit must be cut.” and “No, it is not just cutting it in minuscule slices and hoping for the best.”  No dish faces discrimination. From the Philippines to Thailand, most all recipes have a bit of home present within them due to the diverse backgrounds of the people who made them.

Though I’ve unnecessarily talked a lot about food, there are a couple of other things I have learned from my time here. One, I look somewhat descent in a green bandanna; Two, the entrance is in the BACK, accidentally entering the actual household will only result in feelings of embarrassment and force a child to escort you to the doorway; and, three, kindness can transcend any language barrier.

Though this experience was short, it left a lifetime impression and a story to tell for when I return. Advice to anyone looking for a place: if you want cool people, a cool atmosphere, and hot coffee, I encourage you to drop by.

Marcia Lagesse: Klexon

For my Community Involvement Project (CIP), I participated in the Kyoto International Club Klexon. Klexon is a Japanese nonprofit international club that brings together English-speaking volunteers and Japanese participants who want to practice their English. They generally meet up on Tuesdays, from 7pm to 9pm, at the Kyoto City Gender Equality Center, or Wings Kyoto. Occasionally, they’ll host an event over the weekend or holidays.

Klexon’s time was divided into two parts.  For the first hour, I spoke individually with Japanese participants. While the English speakers remained in the same place for the entire hour, the Japanese participants switched chairs every 5-10 minutes, so that in an hour I spoke with sometimes up to 12 different people. While initially a lot of the Japanese participants were rather shy and the conversations slightly stilted, after a few sessions conversations became more lighthearted and free-flowing. The Klexon managers gave us previously decided upon topics to talk about, but I found that the conversations often flowed naturally, and often ended up speaking about the common topics of interest between myself and my Japanese partner instead of those assigned. Through these one-on-one talks I managed to create a more personal connection between myself and the Japanese participants, and often found myself exchanging LINE numbers with them.

For the second hour, we were randomly put into groups of 5-6 people, usually with 2 English speakers and 4 Japanese participants. We gave small introductions, describing our names, where we come from, and our hobbies. Much like the previous one-on-one conversations, conversation often flowed naturally and we found ourselves speaking of new topics. Through these group discussions I learned more about a variety of topics; Japanese traditions, the Japanese view on religion and their own connection to religion, Japanese work culture, Japanese family structures, etc. Klexon provided me with a unique opportunity to gain an insight into Japanese culture, directly from Japanese people.

It was interesting to learn more not only about Japanese people and culture from the Japanese participants, but also about why the other English speakers decided to move to Japan. While some of them were American, a lot of them were from differing countries, each with their own point of view on Japan. An outsider’s point of view is often telling, and promoted serious discussions such as those about racism and discrimination in Japan.

Through Klexon, I’ve not only learned more about Japan and its culture, but I’ve also gained good friends. I often go to bars or karaoke with the Japanese people I met at Klexon, providing them with ample opportunity to practice English, and myself with an opportunity to practice Japanese. In sum, I’ve had a great time at Klexon, and I recommend it to everyone who is looking for a way to meet more Japanese people.

Derek Hong: Ritsumeikan Wadaiko DON

For my CIP, I participated in Wadaiko DON.  Wadaiko DON is a student-run taiko circle at Ritsumeikan University.  At my home university in the US, I am a part of a taiko club run by Brown and RISD students called Gendo Taiko, and I wanted to see how a wadaiko circle as run by students in Japan differs from a taiko club run by students in the US.

My initial contact with the club was difficult since I was still getting used to having full conversations in Japanese.  However, the students in the club were welcoming and readily willing to let me participate.  The amount of time I needed to put into my CIP was a little higher than usual since practice was usually twice a week for at least an hour, but I was determined to try and participate as much as I could.  During practice, I had to quickly get comfortable using plain forms and, more importantly, using casual speech.  In the end, even though I’m still not fluent in casual speech, I was able to hear how the friends talked to each other and gave instruction.

It is a bit regrettable that my time in the taiko group was so short and that I needed to commute far to participate.  It made it difficult to spend enough time with them to really practice my Japanese and get a sense of how they are outside of the taiko circle setting.  That said, I think it was a great insight into how student circles are run in Japan.  For the most part, there are a lot of similarities between Wadaiko DON and Gendo Taiko.  We are both student run groups, we both practice together as a group, and we play many of the same styles.  Further, like Gendo Taiko, many of the Wadaiko DON members started taiko only after entering the circle.  As for differences, Wadaiko DON is about twice the size of Gendo Taiko and, as such, they are able to perform at a much higher potential level.  For each performance, they hold auditions to decide who can participate.

On the whole, I’m very glad that I was able to participate and be accepted into a Japanese university student group, especially one that concerns taiko.  Wadaiko DON performs at a very high level, and I am very thankful to be able to have seen their mainstage performance, participate in regular practice, and perform in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri (pictures and videos below).  The Wadaiko DON members were extremely welcoming and helpful even when I didn’t quickly understand their instruction.  Even though the language barrier made it difficult to interact smoothly with the groups usual happenings, this was a unique experience that could only have happened during my study abroad.  I am especially glad to have participated in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri, during which I was able to see the carrying of the Mikoshi from the perspective of the parade that went down Teramachi-dōri.  It was a unique perspective on Japanese life and the continuation of tradition.

On the day of the Matsuri, the weather was sunny and warm, and the sakura blossoms were just beginning to lose their petals.  As the wind swept through the trees, the petals flew up and floated down gently, breezing in the background of the crowded streets.  Even though it was my first sakura matsuri, I had the feeling that it was a picture perfect representation of what sakura matsuri could be.  People of all ages attended, from the elderly who came to experience the annual matsuri once again to the children who are sure to have made fond memories.  Anyone can participate in the carrying of the mikoshi (“portable shrine”, although its significance is far deeper than the English translation would make it seem) throughout the streets and, within the large group of mikoshi carriers, there was a strong sense of community and participation in tradition.  As the large parade processed through Teramachi-dōri Shōtengai and the narrow streets adjacent to it, onlookers came out to see this once-a-year event.  The spot of the festival, the Former Rissei Elementary School, seems to have been particularly chosen because of its long history.  At the taiko performance, a woman danced among the taiko players.  Although out of the ordinary, it seemed like she and her family had attended the Rissei Elementary School before it was decommissioned and that she was moved to the point of dance by the once-again lively atmosphere of the school.  Instead of letting the building fall into disuse and be forgotten, the matsuri brings life to the location.  Although the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri is only in its 38th year, the tradition of matsuri goes far back in Japanese history.  Even though it was my first matsuri, I felt like there was deep significance in the passing of cultural memories through events like this.

I hope to bring these new perspectives on taiko and matsuri back to Gendo Taiko and try to inform the way we put on matsuri in our own communities half-way across the world on the East Coast.

第38回高瀬川桜祭り 神輿


Khanh Ta: FBI Filmmaking Circle & Kyotographie

For my CIP this semester, I decided to continue the CIP that I previously did during the fall, which is my filmmaking club at Doshisha University. Even though during the spring, Doshisha students have spring vacation from February until April, FBI club still has a lot of filming activities depending on the projects and students. Hence, one of the club members that I am close to actually invited me to join the shoots for her project during this time, so I was able to continue with this activity. I suppose, similar to how many student film projects in America are very network based, here too at Doshisha and Japan at large, film is also a network based domain.

Since shooting schedule is very irregular, there are weeks when I don’t have CIP participation. However, there are also weeks where we meet 2-3 times a week for around 4-5 hours in order to film the many scenes required for the project. Sometimes, shoot schedules are also adjusted based on the weather; especially, Kyoto often snows a lot during spring, so we had to reschedule twice. Our roles also vary depending on the day of the shoot; every member always want to try new responsibilities during a film shoot, so sometimes our roles are exchanged between one another. This is quite different from the US, since our roles are often decided during the pre-production stage, and people usually stick to that role throughout the entire project rather than changing it up day by day.

As aforementioned, since FBI doesn’t meet as regularly during the spring, I decided to join another activity as well for my CIP, called Kyotographie. Through a friend I met on the internet who is currently working at this company (a media editorial agency), I was introduced to Kyotographie. The company is currently organizing for an international photography festival in Kyoto, and they need volunteer help, so I decided to join as well as introduce it to my friend from E class, Kasey Huang. The fact that I was able to find a volunteering job to apply for and even introduce my friend to it really reminds me of networking experience in America as well. Originally, I wasn’t sure of how networking is like in Japan, but this experience proves to me that it is actually very much the same.

At Kyotographie, I get to utilize some of my advertising and communication skills from my actual major, combined along with Japanese, for work. From trying to connect the company to many different local universities in Kyoto to trying to expose the festival and events to many Japanese media outlets and students alike, these experiences allow me to do what I usually do best in English, only now in Japanese. At first, I was originally afraid that my Japanese wasn’t good enough to be used in the work place. However, considering this is a very international company, many people use both Japanese and English; while everything is mostly spoken in Japanese, many technical PR, advertising or art terms are in English, so I was able to do my work just fine. Thus, I feel that this volunteer is a great stepping stone for me to prepare myself for the workforce later if I manage to get a job and live in Japan.

In general, for those looking for CIP, my advice for future students is that having around two or more CIP experiences during the spring would be ideal. This is because even if your CIP are guaranteed to meet, you’re not guaranteed to meet as regularly as the fall semester.

Benji Hix: Private Koto Lessons (Part 2)

This semester, I continued my koto lessons from last semester. It all started with my first ever performance with all the rest of my teacher’s students, numbering around 50 people total. The recital was 2 parts: first, various songs performed by different groups of students, and second, 3 songs that featured her. It was a loooooong night – the rehearsal was at least 6 hours, and the performance itself was around 3 total. But, it was a fun experience, especially since I can tell people that I performed “Let it Go” in an ensemble of traditional Japanese instruments. I also got to meet lots of interesting people, including a geiko, my teacher’s very old mother, and even a nice fellow who took me on a date and bought me socks! After that performance, I took a short break from rehearsing, and went back after a few weeks to discover my technique had deteriorated greatly. The solution to this was to, in theory, practice 2-3 times a week, but due to my health and business I averaged once a week… oops! However, I quickly relearned what I had forgotten and began practicing new music to perform at the closing ceremony for KCJS.

After one semester of practicing, I considered switching my CIP – having performed, it was the perfect time to make my leave. However, my teacher was so sweet that I couldn’t resist when she asked if I was willing to keep practicing with her. Furthermore, she invited me to lots of random outings – such as visiting cherry blossoms and seeing random performances around the city. We actually texted decently often, which at one point resulted in an embarrassing but funny texting interaction on March 2nd (3月2日, the Japanese is important here) that reminded me not to misread 4月 as 4日:

Her: “Benji, I know a good spot to see the blossoms around April (4月), would you like to go see?”

Me: “Sure, class ends at 11:30 so I’m free after that!” [I was thinking she said 4日]

Her: “…Right… Don’t your classes end around the 20th of April…?”

[LATER, ON 4日]

Me: “I believe so!”

Me: “Today it’s raining… what will you do?”

Me: “Oh, whoops… I misunderstood”

Me: “Nevermind”

Her: “It is raining today, but what will we do…?”

My friends and I all had a good laugh about my incompetence at reading kanji, though I never asked her what she made of that interaction.

Overall, I enjoyed my CIP this semester just as much as last semester. After working with my teacher for so long, we definitely reached a level of comfortability such that I never felt nervous going to practice like I did last semester. Furthermore, my skill has improved to a level that I can actually feel proud of – enough that I plan to look for koto teachers once I go back to America! For anyone considering doing instrument lessons at all, I urge them to do the full year if possible. It really is worth the investment to practice with someone for a full year!

Sam Lefar: Playing go at the Kyoto Go Salon

For my CIP, I played go. Go is a game that is chesslike in strategy, simpler in rules, and much more complex in planning. It is played between two players labeled as black and white, on a 19 by 19 board. The board begins empty and slowly fills up as players take turns placing small, circular stones on the empty intersections in a bid to surround as much territory (empty intersections) as possible. Because of the sheer number of ways to play and moves that can be made at any given point, the strategy and long-term planning far exceeds chess in potential strategy, while simultaneously staying much more simple in ruleset.

The place I played go was a place called the Kyoto Go Salon, a small little place on a side street off of Shijo (a main street running through downtown Kyoto). At first I started playing on a small 9×9 board against other beginners, and as I got better I managed to get used to first the 13×13 boards and then eventually the full size 19×19 boards. The salon is closed on Fridays, but is open from 1PM-6PM every other day of the week, Saturday through Thursday. I would go every Wednesday as soon as I could, as well as the occasional Sunday or Monday afternoon, and play a few games. A full-length game on a full-size board will take about an hour to complete, so with perfect efficiency, you might be able to play five games in an afternoon, although if you’re not used to it, your brain might be fried by the time you play three.

The main difference between this salon and other go salons in Kyoto, is that it prides itself on how accessible it is for beginners, and I could feel it. At the start, I was a complete beginner, who only knew the general rules of the game, but my growth has been explosive due to the manner in which sensei teaches. Sensei is extremely animated and excited about go, and that emotion bled over to me: whenever he would explain something, like why one move is generally preferred over another, or when replaying a moment of a game where he saw a mistake, he’d have the biggest grin on his face, and he was potentially the single most expressive person I’ve met in Japan. At first, the most important thing with Sensei’s lessons was asking questions about words’ definitions. I couldn’t understand the vocabulary of the Kansai dialect very well, let alone the faster-than-Tokyo-dialect speed and the increased use of tone and pitch. For a good two weeks, I didn’t have any idea what Sensei was saying, but I slowly managed to get the hang of it. Even now, comprehension isn’t perfect and I ask questions about meaning, but I can follow a conversation now.

Sensei is also a big fan of getting stronger through experience; he is more likely to let you play out a game by making a mistake and then seeing where you went wrong than he is to give advice on a move that you should make in the future, although if you continuously make the same mistake, he will give you advice. A lot of his instruction is like that; the only general teaching he does is at the start of the afternoon, right at 1:00, by doing just a few tsumego (practice problems) on a large magnetic front-facing board before allowing everyone to play against others of the same skill level.

Something that surprised me a bit was that at the end of the games, when it came time to count territory, it wasn’t just a matter of counting, but the MANNER in which you count. You have to arrange it in a specific way, and even if it’s harder for you to count it like that, if it’s not the “correct” way, then you’re doing it wrong. It was frustrating, but it reminded me of the oft-said idea regarding Japan that it’s not a matter of “best” way of counting, but rather “what’s been decided.”

The other players were, with a single exception, all over 50 years old, with the grand majority being at least in their mid-60s. The patrons of the salon were very friendly, and I enjoyed talking to them—there was a some general talk of the weather, recent travels, current events, and family, but most of it was related to go itself, and the games that we just played or were about to play. The way that the patrons talked with me was similar to each other: in rapid Kansai dialect. With no shortage of politeness, but also not as formal as Tokyo Dialect’s standard desu-masu form. At one point, on Valentine’s Day, one of my fellow kishi 棋士 (go and/or shogi players) brought in chocolates for everyone and introduced me to the idea of girichoko, or “obligation chocolate,” which in turn led me to learn more about how Valentine’s Day (and White Day) are handled in Japan—it’s very different than the U.S.!

The only exception was with the one young player, a young man named Inata-san. And Inata-san was more of a stone than the black and white stones we put on the goban. He didn’t react to Sensei’s positive and goofy energy in the slightest, and even when I tried to make conversation, he gave me one-word answers with no emotion. I had heard of the famous “Japanese reservedness/shyness” before, but this was my first time experiencing it firsthand. Maybe I only saw it once because Inata-san was a young adult and not an older fellow? It definitely seemed like there was a correlation between higher age and openness to conversation, so maybe this was the logical extreme, with “much younger” being “much more reserved”?

The salon was just a great experience for me, and I loved it immensely. I would recommend this place to anyone who doesn’t have much experience (or even any experience at all) but still has any interest at all in not just go, but in chesslike games as a whole.

Tracy Jiao: Pottery and Yoga

When deciding to attend the KCJS program, I understand a commitment that goes beyond taking regular Japanese courses, and CIP (community involvement program) is just one of these opportunities to reach out and truly become an active member in the city of Kyoto. Because of some previous experience in pottery and yoga, I chose to proceed to take classes in these areas. Surprisingly, both pottery and yoga take a very distinctive style in Japan; like many other things, they have turned Nihonka, adapting to the aesthetic tastes and physical needs of the locals.

Unlike western countries that prefer doing pottery on electric wheels, the pottery studio I went to in Kyoto, 藤平陶芸, makes most of their works on hand-powered wheels or simply boards. At first, I was a little befuddled by this choice, since the electronic machine seems much more efficient in making a perfect, slick piece. This question kept coming back to me, especially during times on the hand-powered wheel that last two hours every two weeks. Used to the fast electronic tourneys, I felt impatient toward the slow pace and vibe in the Fujihira studio. However, when strolling around the work display area in the studio one day, I suddenly began to understand the masters’ choice of slow development. The delicacy and elegance of these finished works directly relate to the time each master spent making them. If a pottery maker did not look close and long enough at the piece, he would neglect the details which set it apart from other mass-produced vessels. In this era of mass production, customers keep coming back to Fujihira studio to purchase a cup three times more expensive than the ones sold in IKEA. The secret behind Japanese Art’s gracefulness and their studios’ durability is rooted in the tradition. Instead of conforming to new trends, small workshops in Kyoto kept their traditional way of practice as if time has not passed.

In addition to pottery, I found a deeper understanding of the meaning of yoga practices as well. Through the zen breathing and meditation combination, I discovered a peace in my body that power yoga classes would never bring out. By communicating with teachers and students of these two studios, I gradually recognize the spirit of Kyoto that goes beyond its magnificent temples and shrines.

Sincerity yoga(シンセリティヨガ):


Nancy Nguyen: Assistant English Teacher at Hiyoshigaoka High School

For my CIP activity, I volunteered as an English conversation partner at Hello Village at Hiyoshigaoka High School. Hello Village is a center at the high school that encourages Japanese high school students to practice their English conversational skills. Originally, I intended to take a bus every week after class to go to the school to practice English conversational skills. However, because Japan’s academic calendar differs greatly from that of the American academic calendar, there was a long gap in which I was not able to volunteer because the students were on spring break.

Regardless, I’ve had various interesting experiences during my time as a volunteer, and also discovered many similarities between Japanese students studying English and American students studying Japanese. I particularly remember one time when an ALT was helping a student prepare for a pronunciation test. Seeing the difficulties with pronouncing certain consonants in English such as “v” and “b” reminded me of my own struggles with pronunciation in Japanese such as with “su” and “tsu.”

Also, what was interesting to me was that there was differing types of students that I would meet at Hello Village. Some students were particularly more outgoing than others and more excited to speak English: some were because of their participation on the English debate team and others, I found out later, were known to be the “boisterous” of their class. But many students I encountered were more reserved and self-conscious about their English ability, and it was interesting to see that whenever I spoke with them, they would often consult each other as a group first before responding as a whole. However, even with the vastly different personalities, every student I encountered at Hello Village was eager to practice and improve their English. Their eagerness inspired me to examine my own reasons for wanting to learn Japanese and doing study abroad.

Even though there were difficulties because of differences in academic calendars, I still found my time at Hello Village to be a worthwhile experience during my semester in Japan.