Anne McKee: Doshisha Hiking Circle and Community Orchestra

My experience with the community immersion project (CIP) consisted of two elements – Doshisha hiking circle and a community orchestra. Although I was in Japan for just one semester, my experience in Japan was greatly enriched by the CIP program.

I came to Japan as both an outdoors enthusiast and dedicated violinist. Finding a way to engage my passions felt critical to me in a new environment. However, I quickly found that the CIP experience was not only a way for me to continue these activities but an invaluable opportunity to engage with Japanese culture. Truly feeling like I was a part of something while studying abroad – particularly in a country with a foreign language – was rewarding to the highest degree. Both the hiking circle and orchestra were extremely welcoming, enriching and rewarding.

Though as an exchange student joining a club seemed daunting, Doshisha Hiking Circle lovingly took me in. Although I did not get to share very much time with the group – the 1:30pm Saturday time was very inconvenient, often conflicting with my class field trips – every bit I spent was very rewarding. Typically, on a given Saturday, we would either run on the Kamo River or Kyoto Gosho, or go for a short hike around the mountains surrounding Kyoto. As an avid backpacker and member of my home school’s cross country team, these activities were a great fit, although I would have preferred if the sessions were a bit longer. More often than not, I wished that there were more hikes and less runs. However, these meetings provided a great opportunity to both practice my casual speech and learn what it is like to be a college student in Japan. It was especially interesting to bond with the girls in the circle; out of twenty or so students in the circle there were only three or four girls typically. Although my experience with Doshisha Hiking Circle was fun, my experience was limited by the inconvenient time slot.

The community orchestra was perhaps one of my favorite parts about being in Kyoto for the semester. As a longtime violinist and member of various music groups on my home college campus, the community orchestra gave me the opportunity to continue pursuing music. Rehearsals were just once every two weeks, Sunday from 1-5pm. The only complaint I would have is that I wish that rehearsals were every week! We played primarily Western classical music, such as Brahms and Mendelssohn. What struck me most about this group was the incredible friendliness that they had toward both me and the other KCJS student who was doing the program with me. The elderly ladies in the back of the violin section loved giving out chocolates during every break, I laughed and chatted with my stand partner, I played my heart out although I had to sight-read the music almost every time. Every member treated me with such kindness and respect even though I wouldn’t even be able to participate in the May concert. I would recommend this group to anyone with an interest in pursuing casual classical music in Kyoto.

Being able to take part in both of these endeavors has been very rewarding in their own ways. This weekend I will be racing the Mt. Fuji International Marathon (42km) with a friend! We are looking forward to learning more about the culture around running in Japan.

[Update: Marathon went really well! LOTS of kilometers, Fuji views, Japanese children yelling “fight-o,” fun going to a beautiful onsen after!]

Izzy Hallé: Kyoto Amateur Dance Club

For my CIP, I participated in Kyoto Amateur Dance Club (Amada), alongside students from various universities, including Doshisha. Each week, we practiced a different dance (waltz, foxtrot, chacha, tango, etc.) taught by the two student leaders—first men and women separately, then everyone together in pairs. The club members welcomed me warmly from the very beginning. One of the leaders, in particular, went out of her way to talk with me outside of dance time, and to give me extra pointers when I was having trouble learning the steps.

I had a bit of trouble participating fully in this club, which wasn’t totally surprising, since before this program, I didn’t have much experience either speaking Japanese or dancing. Also, since the club session had started in the spring, the members had already learned most of the dances we practiced. However, I wanted to try something new and meet people my age, and I was able to do that through Amada. I even met with a couple of friends from the club outside of practice. In hindsight, I should probably have chosen an activity in which I had more prior experience. That way, I probably would have felt more comfortable and been able to participate more fully.

Nonetheless, participating in Amada was a valuable experience. Based on what I’ve heard about most Doshisha clubs, this group seemed to be fairly casual, which I liked. Everyone was dedicated to learning dance, but they weren’t intense or intimidating. Everyone was really kind and patient with me, and pair dancing, along with the casual atmosphere of the club, gave me the opportunity to chat with many different Japanese students.

One of the things that I find hardest about Japanese is knowing how formally or informally to address people, since, for the most part, we don’t have such distinctions in English, especially when talking with other students. I still found this confusing after entering this club, but I was able to learn a bit through trial and error. For example, if I’m not mistaken, most of the members seemed to talk to the leader casually, even if they were younger or less experienced than her. I think this is somewhat unusual for a club, but I’m pretty sure it was because most of them had gotten close during their time in the club. I used mas/desu form when addressing the members, because I didn’t know them well and often wasn’t sure of their ages. I noticed other small cultural differences as well. For example, after practice, rather than leaving separately when we were finished changing, everyone gathered outside, and after a few words of encouragement from the leader, we would all say “otsukaresamadeshita” and go our separate ways.

All things considered, I would definitely recommend this club for someone who has experience dancing! It’s a lot of fun!


Rose Gellman: Doshisha Hiking Circle and Kyoto AcroYoga

For my CIP, I joined Doshisha University’s Hiking Circle and did Acro Yoga in the Kyoto/Osaka community.

Hiking Circle

I wanted to join a Doshisha club to meet students my own age, so I decided on hiking circle. The first time I went, we hiked Daimonji (a small peak in the city). It was thrilling to make small talk with other people who enjoy the outdoors in Japanese. The hiking day was fun, but most of the meetings are training (short runs along the Kamo or through the Gosho). If you are someone who likes to get outside for long day hikes, I might recommend a different CIP. Having a commitment in the middle of every Saturday can make it difficult to do other things with your weekend. That being said, the club members were warm and welcoming and are used to having foreigners join for a short time.

One thing that is different about hiking in Japan compared to the US is that trails are so accessible. I loved being able to hop on a bus and go for a short hike anytime I had the day or afternoon free. Most trails have some sort of religious significance, which was fascinating to learn about and worthwhile to experience.

Acro Yoga

I am in the circus club at JHU and have been practicing Acro Yoga for a few years, so when I found out there is a thriving acro community in the Kansai area, I was thrilled to join. In Kansai, most of the acro is in Osaka, but there is a small and growing community in Kyoto. The Kyoto community is extraordinarily warm, and has a nice mix of Japanese people and foreigners. Hearing Japanese in a class environment was exciting because I could understand the directions, and already knew the poses. The Osaka jams had more advanced acro, but also more foreigners, so I used my Japanese less. In both places, I met really lovely people who were open and eager to communicate.

The acro class environment was a great place to practice casual speech. I spoke to the teacher using です/ますform, but even though most of the participants were older than me, we were all students, so we spoke casually. Acro involves detailed communication between the flyer and the base, which is hard even in English. It is especially difficult in Japanese, where both the language and culture emphasize deferring to others. I’m grateful that I had this safe place to practice both Japanese and Acro and was able to engage with the local community doing something that I love.

Yueran Ding: Shamisen Lesson

Based on my interest in musical instruments and previous experience in playing the flute, cello, and piano, I decided to learn a traditional Japanese instrument for my CIP. Learning shamisen(三味線) with Iwasaki sensei seems to me a natural choice given that she has already taught many KCJS students koto(琴) or shamisen before, and I find my experience learning with her as rewarding as I expected.

At first, I thought I was going to a “private lesson” once a week, but it turned out that for the most of the time I participated in a “group practice”. In the first three weeks, Iwasaki sensei taught me and another student from KCJS some shamisen basics, and those were the only “private lessons” that I had. Three weeks later, she let us join the large group and practice with other senior students, all of whom were in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. I realized that the group practice was indeed a perfect opportunity for me to observe how Japanese, especially Japanese seniors behaved during practice. I once supposed they would be very serious just like what I had seen in in television shows or movies how tea masters giving lessons, but I was wrong. The vibe of the group practice was in fact lighthearted. My classmates loved to tell jokes and especially joked about their ages a lot. When a student who was about my grandma’s age pretended(ぼけ) that she was 20, and another student would point out(突っ込み) her actual age in a funny tone, making everybody else laugh. Iwasaki sensei encouraged such relaxing atmosphere to make sure everybody feel happy and enjoy the practice.

One of the reasons that I came to Kyoto was that I wanted to learn a little Kansai-ben, which means dialect in the Kansai area, so I was excited to discover that the teacher and students here all talked in Kansai-ben. Before I came to Kyoto, the only source where I could hear Kansai-ben was Japanese variety shows, so I used to feel that Kansai-ben was hilarious yet might sound a little disrespectful sometimes. However, students here talked to Iwasaki sensei in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions. For example, they would use “食べはる” and “~してはる”, and always talk with “です””ます” ending. This surprised me because my observation here during the group practice broke my stereotype in the way that Kansai-ben could also be respectful. Interestingly, when I got used to hearing Kansai-ben, I started to feel that talking in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions was actually an ideal way to communicate since the speaker would be able to speak in a relatively intimate tongue while showing respect at the same time.

When it was close to dinner time, Iwasaki sensei often invited her students to go for a dinner with her, so I was also able to eat with my warm-hearted classmates. Although all at the age of my grandfathers and grandmothers, they were still energetic, loved to joke around, and even ate more than I do (wow!). Thanks to such opportunities, I was able to observe how Japanese interact when they were at a group dinner. I noticed that Iwasaki sensei and my classmates never poured liquor by themselves but instead always poured liquor for others all the time. When everybody finished eating, Iwasaki sensei would collect about 1000 yen from each student (but not me or other KCJS students, probably because we were too young to earn money yet…or because she wanted to care for new students? ) and pay at the cashier by herself.

Learning shamisen with Iwasaki sensei makes a perfect CIP for me. I was invited by her to join other students to perform as a group on December 8th, which would enable me to show what I have learned during the past three months-a perfect end for this amazing experience. I not only learned how to play Shamisen, but also had a great experience participating in a small Japanese community, observing how people behaved and interacting with them. I would genuinely recommend Iwasaki sensei and her shamisen/koto lesson to anybody who is interested in Japanese musical instrument, or just want to have a great time experiencing Japanese society and culture.

Heather Heimbach: Kurama Fine Arts Circle

Doshisha Kurama Fine Arts Circle is exactly how it sounds — the fine arts circle of Doshisha University. Many of the members seem to be studying art at Doshisha, either as an art history major or fine arts. There is a regular meeting once a week, where members gather and practice a type of fine art together. Usually, it is drawing or painting, and the theme is set. In spring semester, I believe that they did more still life drawings. This semester, however, they are preparing for EVE, Doshisha’s cultural festival, during which they plan to sell caricatures and portraits. In preparation for selling caricatures and portraits, all of the weekly meetings I have been to have been dedicated to drawing face portraits.

There are also meetings outside of the regular meetings in preparation for the cultural festival. I went to help only once, and after that it hasn’t fit into my schedule well. One observation about the Doshisha circles is that they are much more active than clubs at my home University. By active, I mean people seem to have a lot more free time to spend at the circle, so they hang out in the clubroom or help prepare for events outside of “regular meeting” times. Some people seem to spend nearly everyday preparing for the festival–which is something that is difficult for KCJS students due to the level of homework, and in turn made me feel guilty for not being able to help out more. From what I’ve heard from Japanese students, the level of work is not that much in college, and so hanging around a circle for a long time is feasible for many of them. 

However, hearing other members talk about the festival preparations, as well having participating in the preparation, has been an interesting experience. As American universities don’t commonly have big college-wide festivals as they do in Japan, I did not realize how much work every circle puts into preparing for the festival. Furthermore, senpai-kouhai relationships become very clear during the preparation, because even if kouhai are taking on a management position, the senpai oversees the kouhai, and always has the final word. The senpai in Kurama often took on roles that no one else wanted to do, and his wallet was used for a lot of the shopping for the event (though the funds used are club funds). Many of the members called him not by his name, but simply “senpai.” Although of course there are multiple upperclassmen in the club, that particularly senpai was referred to as “senpai.”  He was also good about reaching out and welcoming all the members, including teaching me how to play tetris on their game station.

I’m not really a fan of senpai-kouhai relationships, but it was interesting to see the hierarchy in the club. Also, almost all of the members, except for the fourth-years, used desu-masu form when talking. However, no one used the special keigo phrases, like shiteirasshaimasu, as that would most likely be considered laughable.

The good thing is that the regular meetings are fairly easy to get the gist of if you have done art class before. However, many of the members are pretty quiet, though a few are talkative, and many people don’t talk that much while drawing. My advice is that you probably shouldn’t join this circle unless you love art, because otherwise, it could be difficult to enjoy the circle time.

Zack Even: Volunteering at a Kodomo Shokudo

At the start of the program, I was unsure of what I wanted to do for my CIP. I had mentioned in the KCJS questionnaires that I was interested in participating in an activity involving cooking, and Nakata Sensei suggested that I work at a kodomo shokudo, a cafeteria where members of the community, particularly families with kids, can come for a free meal.

I tried calling a few kodomo shokudo’s in the area, and, after handing off the phone to Nakata Sensei almost immediately in the first call, I managed my way through the second on my own and found a shokudo that needed volunteers. With a limited amount of information about the cafeteria – just the name of one of the volunteers, its location, and a time I should arrive by – I set out the following Friday for the first time.

Because I knew very little about what to expect, I was nervous on my first day. Even finding the shokudo was a bit difficult: it is much smaller than I anticipated, located within an unassuming house. I waited for a few minutes along the street until someone appeared whom I could ask. Luckily, she was one of the volunteers.

Working at the shokudo has improved my Japanese language and allowed me to apply it in a way I rarely get to in class – to discuss food and cooking. My CIP has also introduced me to a number of interesting people, including the two kind women who run the shokudo, an economics professor at Doshisha, and a man who works in computer graphics, whom I met up with outside the shokudo to talk about computer animation. By preparing food alongside the women who run the shokudo, my vocabulary relating to food improved, along with my miming skills, which I could always fall back on if I didn’t understand what they had asked me to do. I also got to interact with kids who came to the shokudo. While my host family has a two-month-old baby whom I love having around, obviously I cannot communicate with her yet, so the shokudo gave me an opportunity – to practice my language with children – that I would not otherwise have had.

While, as a foreigner, I often felt a bit like the odd one out at the dinners, I also felt like I was truly participating in and even contributing to the community. As the woman who runs the shokudo asked me when my last day would be, I felt a sense of pride knowing that to a small degree they had come to depend on my help. While it seems that, at least at this particular shokudo, some families come simply to enjoy the community atmosphere, others seem to rely on the Friday dinners. Like in the US and any other countries, a portion of families in Japan cannot afford enough food for their children – one in seven, Nakata Sensei informed me. The shokudo guarantees them at least one stress-free, pleasant meal a week, and I enjoyed being able to help create that meal for the families who came.

Antonio Mckinney: Koto Lessons

This past semester, for my CIP project, I had the opportunity to take koto lessons at Greenwich House. Learning how to play the koto has been a long time desire of mine so I was excited to start classes, to say the least. Through one of the Japanese teachers who also takes classes at Greenwich House I was put in contact with Iwasaki Sensei and soon after had my first class.

When I arrived on the first day, I was warmly greeted by two of Iwasaki Sensei’s experienced students who began to show me the rendition of Sakura and a number of other folk songs that I would be practicing for the next semester. It’s a little embarrassing to admit but when I arrived that day, because I was expecting the students to be my age or younger, I mistook one of the women to be Iwasaki Sensei. It wasn’t until half an hour into the class that I finally realized that the person sitting next to me was actually a student and that Iwasaki Sensei wasn’t even there yet. However, it became very clear who Iwasaki Sensei was once she did arrive because immediately after, to my delight and horror, we played through the entire number as a full ensemble. Rather, I should say, the rest of the class played the entire number as an ensemble. I just plucked some random strings in the background. Despite my complete lack of ability as a beginner, because I had tried to engage as much as possible the rest of the class kindly accepted me and I was able to enjoy my first attempt at playing the koto.

As I continued to return to Greenwich House for weekly classes it soon became apparent to me that the classroom Iwasaki Sensei had cultivated was warm, friendly and because of the communal closeness the lines between Sensei and teacher were casual and unassuming. Before class, arriving students are always enthusiastically greeted, no one gets mad when we have to stop playing to help someone understand a portion of music and on Mondays Iwasaki Sensei and any interested students go out for dinner. There was even an occasion when one of the Obasans, on the first day she met me, invited me over to her house to continue practicing folk songs while we waited for the rest of the class to finish playing an enka piece.

With the students being so friendly and easygoing starting up a conversation is never difficult and I often found myself chit-chatting with other students before the teacher arrived. These casual conversations have been a lot of fun and great Japanese practice as I will often have to put my listening skills to the test to understand a few of the student’s Kansai-ben. However, even if there are times when I mishear something or struggle to convey an idea clearly any of the discomfort that might arise as a result soon fades away once we begin to play.

Actually learning how to play the koto has exceeded all my expectations and getting to learn from Iwasaki Sensei and the other students at Greenwich House has been a truly special experience. For those of you want to learn how to play the Koto or simply want a supportive community to practice your Japanese in I would definitely suggest you stop by Greenwich house. I am confident that if you are excited to engage with Iwasaki Sensei and the other students everyone at Greenwich house will welcome you with open arms.

John Miller: Practicing at Kyoto University Karate Club

For my CIP, I knew I wanted to do something involving martial arts. I had done Kendo for a year in college and had train in Karate for many years through junior high school and high school. While in Kyoto I unfortunately was not able to do a Kendo circle, as they were unable to lend me any gear. When finding a Karate club, I wanted to find a place that, given the many variations of karate, was something I was somewhat familiar with. I ended up joining Kyoto University’s Seido Karate circle. It meets twice a week for a two hour practice, which is much more laid back than several clubs I found that met for 3 or 4 times a week with longer practice times.
I found everybody to be very nice. My Kaiwa partner is also a member which is very nice. As the official University teams are off limits to non students, the circle has a large number of foreigners as well. Despite this, I appreciate that the lessons are taught only in Japanese.
The instructor is named Yamashiki Sensei. He often tries to speak English to me. Although there is an instructor assigned for our club, being a circle it is largely run by the students and in particular the club leader or bucho. While the flexibility of the club is nice, it could be better organized. In the US, we trained in kata which is a sequence of predetermined movements. That practice was done as a group with detailed instruction from the teacher. However Kyoto University’s circle is much more focused on kumite or partner training.
Japanese club culture is very strong. After deciding on a particular club or circle, you are expected to maintain a degree of loyalty to the group. However being accepted into the group is very rewarding.
I am looking forward to the end of the year’s bonenkai which is typical for Japanese clubs or businesses.
Training twice a week in Karate has been a good addition to my stay in Kyoto.

Ellen Ehrnrooth: Dance

For my CIP, I have been taking a variety of private dance lessons. I dance back home at Tufts University and figured that this would be a good way for me to participate in a community as I have skills to bring to the table. I have taken a range of class styles, from hip-hop to waacking to K-pop, and I have enjoyed being able to continue a hobby I enjoy so much. I go once a week at least (and sometimes more if I have purchased the monthly pass at the studio which lets you go as many times as you want). I also went to a meeting for one of Doshisha’s dance circles.

There have been a number of things about these dance classes that surprised me. Before starting, I had an image in my head that there would be a reasonably strong sense of community within the dancers as dancers (in the US at least) are generally pretty sociable. I also was hoping that the fact that we had a mutual language in the form of dance would be a good way to circumnavigate the language barrier that exists with my questionable Japanese skills. However, at the dance classes I really had to make an effort to have an interaction with anyone there, as they mostly kept to themselves. A number of times I asked fellow students for help with basic things, which in a few instances led to conversation and LINE exchanges, but for the most part people were fairly solitary. Interestingly, the one time I tried taking a class in Tokyo, I had greater success, with people coming up to talk to me and Chungsun Lee (who I have been taking classes with). Also, the way that one is greeted at dance studios was super interesting to me – I was initially very confused when they said ohayou gozaimasu to me when I walked in at 8pm. It turns out that that is custom for the entertainment world in Japan, and not a reflection of my studio’s inability to tell the time.

The one time I tried attending a session of one of Doshisha’s dance circles, I wasn’t met with much success. It was an informal practice as they weren’t training for anything in particular at the time, so people were just practicing what they wanted. Nobody made an effort to come and talk to me at all, which was really surprising – when I participated in dance communities back at Tufts for the first time, people always came up and introduced themselves and made an effort to make me feel included, even when I was a total beginner. I tried to chat with a few students, but as polite as they were, they evidently were not particularly interested in building any sort of connection with me. I think this was the instance in which I really realized how strong the uchi/soto dynamic is in Japan – they were perfectly friendly towards me, but as an outsider I was not invited to join in anything.

Overall, my experience has been pretty good. I don’t necessarily feel like I have been able to join any community specifically, but for the most part I have been able to just fit in with the rest of the people there as someone who is there to dance and learn. I think for the spring semester, I would like to find a more community-oriented CIP, though, and continue with the dance lessons for fun.

Danni Qu: Volunteering at Impact Hub Kyoto

For my semester in Kyoto, Japan, I volunteered at an NGO called Impact Hub Kyoto. Impact Hub Kyoto offers a space for people to exchange new ideas and to change the local community by organizing different forums. In addition, they also rent co working space so a lot of office workers would work here. Through Impact Hub Kyoto, I learnt a lot from interacting with the people there and from my project.

As a college student exchanging at Doshisha University, I do not really have chance to interact with office workers. Through Impact Hub Kyoto, I learnt about how you are supposed to say お疲れ様 to people who are leaving after work. Moreover, I attended a 送別会 (farewell party) for my mentor, and I was able to closely observe how people pay for the meal, what they do at the farewell party and what they say, which is very interesting. I was invited to my mentor’s house and went for food shopping with her prior. After lunch, she took out all the receipts and started calculating in front of everyone divided the price based on the number of the people. This was new to me because in China, usually the colleague that leaves the company pays for the farewell party at restaurant or cooking at home.   

On the other hand, my project at Impact Hub Kyoto taught me so much in multiple aspects. Our goal is to increase the recognition among college students, so we came up with the idea of organizing a forum that interests students. We first interviewed some students and we came up with the theme of the forum: work and travel. Nakamura sensei introduced me her friend as the guest speaker and in order to invite him, I learnt how to write in Japanese business style email and used 敬語 for every email to him. Furthermore, I was able to learn a lot about Japanese people’s mindset by cooperating with my Japanese partner. I talked very directly while he was very indirect and sometimes I misunderstood his meanings. I realized this might be a cultural difference and talked to him about what I think and finally we were on the same page.In addition, we needed to advertise for the forum and I learnt how to ask Doshisha University on Twitter to advertise for us and how to talk to Professors at Doshisha politely to ask if it is possible for him to distribute our flyers on his class.

Overall, I am very grateful for being able to volunteer at Impact Hub Kyoto not only because I get to interact with the type of people I normally do not have a chance to, but also being able to organize a Forum in Japanese with Japanese partner.