Zackary Entwistle: Shakuhachi

I learned how to play shakuhachi for my CIP. Every Thursday I received private lessons from Kawamiya-san for around two hours where I was taught the fundamentals of the instrument, and every Tuesday I put what I learned at my lesson into context by playing with Iwazaki-sensei’s ensemble of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi players. These lessons and rehearsals culminated with two performances, one where I played a duet with my private lesson teacher and another where I performed a couple pieces with the larger ensemble.

I adored my experience learning shakuhachi here in Kyoto. I’ll cherish not only my newly acquired (but still extremely rudimentary) ability to play this instrument I had never even heard in person before coming to this country, but also the memories I made from practicing at rehearsals, getting dinner with my teachers, and going to parties together after the performances. Of course there were also times when I struggled, as hardship is inherent to learning a new instrument, and especially finding time to practice at home in addition to scheduled practices twice a week was challenging to do during a short study abroad experience. But overall, I couldn’t have dreamed of a cooler way to interact authentically with Japanese people and learn about traditional Japanese culture, improving my language skills along the way too.

For any incoming students thinking of learning a new instrument as your CIP, just make sure you’re okay with the sacrifices first. Your time abroad is short and an activity that requires diligent practice like this will drain any freetime left in your already extremely packed study abroad schedule; my time spent on shakuhachi-related activities would sum to more than 10 hours most weeks. I was happy to let shakuhachi be such a big part of my study abroad experience, but you should be mindful of the commitments you’re making before you make them.

(See the full performance here:

Chris Elson: Doshisha KGK (Bible Study), Kyoto International Church, Mustard Seed

For my CIP, I wanted to involve my Christian faith in some way. I included my activities of going to two different international Church (Kyoto International Church and Mustard Seed) and the student Bible study as part of my CIP activities. Church was held every Sunday: I normally go to KIC, but when it was not in person, I went to Mustard Seed. KIC was located near Kyoto University and Mustard Seed at Teramachi. As for KGK, they had 3 meetings a week, around 4:00PM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I usually only went to the Thursday meeting.

At KIC, my pastor gave the sermon in Japanese, but there were subtitles that he made himself that would appear on the screen behind him so I had no difficulty understanding. Mustard Seed had a live-translator so the English and Japanese speaking was constant. Spiritually, they were both very fulfilling and if anyone is looking for a Church, I recommended these two. For my Japanese Studies, I appreciated the KIC sermon more, as I would start translating in my head before I read the subtitles. At both Churches, there were incredibly kind people, both Japanese and foreigners. Honestly, this gave me the opportunity to reach beyond my student community and had a chance to connect with some what felt like “real” people. It was a good experience with Japanese, but I felt that maybe I should’ve done more in the Church regard. I did go to some things, but as a younger person, I paradoxically did not want to do the events in favor of doing homework or hang out with my friends. The advice I would give would be to really buy into the community and hang out with them.

As for KGK, I ended up becoming really good friends with my Bible Study leader. She ended up helping translate, clarifying, and even going as far as to prepare a translated sheet that was normally in Japanese. She ended up becoming someone I would hang out with regularly and always someone I could count on. This type of friendship is one of the reasons why I wanted to join a Japanese activity—-the chance to connect with Japanese students that translate into real world experiences is a natural consequence of something as intimate as Bible study. For that reason, I am happy. As for the Bible Study itself, it was a really interesting look into how Japanese Christian students interact with Christianity. Given that Japan is a much less Christian society than a place like America, the sessions were what I would describe as a little more “distance,” but it was still a place to be vulnerable, honest, and connection. We would read multiple passages from the Bible (usually in Japanese) and then discuss questions from a question sheet. As for Japanese, I honestly struggled a lot. It was difficult to try not to interrupt the kind of sanctity of Bible Study and letting the students explore and deepen their faith, while still wanting them to accommodate me. I often found myself just zoning out as the Japanese would get very fast, and I gave up trying understand multiple times just to try again later. But this sort of trial by fire really did have a positive impact on my Japanese, I believe. Towards the later sessions, I found myself naturally understanding more, and needing less clarification when I gave an answer.

I wanted to learn more about how to speak the Japanese version of “Christianese.” I think I was mildly successful. I think I focused a lot of the Japanese speaking aspect of this CIP, and thus, it’s been a relatively spiritually dry experience, so I warn Christians to be weary about this aspect. Yet, at times, there were deep revelations and spiritual moments, so I would still recommend this CIP.

Angelie Miranda: Calligraphy Lessons

Every Thursday, I would walk about half an hour from the Doshisha-Imadegawa campus to Asakusa-sensei’s house to take calligraphy (shodou) lessons. I always enjoyed my walks to shodou because it was a quieter suburban part of Kyoto that I wouldn’t otherwise explore. Once there, I was joined by Asakusa-sensei’s other regular students (never more than 5 at a time). They were mostly middle-aged women, but very occasionally another college student or child would join us. This at first was a little disappointing because I had been looking forward to making Japanese friends my age, but these women were all so sweet and welcoming that I quickly got past this feeling and looked forward to going back every week.

I had some experience doing shodou before I came to KCJS, but this was the first time having a teacher supervise my work so closely. I learned how to hold the brush, the amount of pressure required for each stroke, and what the correct posture is. Having a teacher to remind me of these details that are so easy to miss when you’re focused on copying the characters in the example booklet made a huge difference in my rate of progress. Not only was she technically helpful, Asakusa-sensei and the other ladies were encouraging me and pairing critiques with compliments. I wasn’t sure what to make of all their positive feedback because I was a beginner and I worried they were being overly friendly, but over time I realized that shodou isn’t always about right and wrong. While there are certainly standards for what makes a balanced work, a lot of the times, what I viewed as a mistake was simply seen as another style of writing the character.

During the shodou lesson, we would usually take a tea and cookies break. Sometimes it was homemade cookies that Asakusa-sensei’s daughter made and other times one of the students brought in a little snack. Seeing this culture of exchanging little sweets I brought my own (a treat called torimon from Fukuoka) that I shared with everyone that week. Though I was always eager to get back to my shodou, I really enjoyed these breaks because it allowed me to both interact with the others more intentionally and observe the interactions among these Japanese women, which did include puzzling through some Kansai-ben.

I decided upon this CIP because it was an activity that I would be able to continue on my own once I returned to the States. However, as much as I enjoyed learning shodou and seeing my progress over time, what I’ll remember is the peaceful and warm environment that Asakusa-sensei and her students created.

Anne Wen: Yosakoi Traditional Dance, Fly Dance Studio, Kyoto Student Impact (Christian Group)

I joined three different activities to fulfill my community involvement project, in part because each project lasted shorter than I expected and the circles in Japan had eligibility constraints. For starters, I spent two weeks practicing with Doshisha University’s Yosakoi traditional dance group. The practices culminated in a Yosakoi dance festival in Osaka, which later turned into one of my favorite memories in Japan because we performed three times, and I was the only non-Japanese person among a group of 40 Japanese students. Attempting to speak Japanese, given my second year language abilities, was challenging, but the awkwardness forced me to study the language even more. I also found a few Japanese allies who were crucial to learning the choreography and reading Japanese festival instructions. For Yosakoi practice, I went to the Kamogawa River twice a week and rehearsed for three hours. Beyond the dance steps themselves, I learned about the nuances of Japanese circle rules. For instance, Japanese students were extremely punctual, schedules were outlined down to the last second on Excel sheets, and many people wanted to speak with foreigners but worried that they lacked language skills. For future KCJS students, I’d recommend trying your best to find Doshisha university circles. I googled most organizations and expanded my search to Kyoto University affiliates, randomly emailing any address that I could find. I emailed seven different groups, nearly forgot which ones I emailed, and heard back three weeks later about the Yosakoi group. Though the effort was challenging at the start, interacting exclusively with Japanese people without international students to help you can make you grow as a person.

I also attended private lessons at Fly Dance Studio in Shijo. Given my lack of dancing experience, I worried that I’d be an awkward duck flailing my arms, but the teachers were super nice, and most of the students there didn’t consistently come to any one practice. Instead, students varied from week to week, and the studio’s EASY set one-month package ensured that I could show up to any class, any time of the week. Most of the classes hovered around dinner time, so I’d go once or twice a week and attend either their beginner or ultra-beginner hip hop and K-pop dance classes. For students worried about feeling awkward the first time, I’d drag a friend along and exercise together, then attend the next few sessions alone. A first once told me a mantra that I try to repeat: If you can talk, you can sing, and if you can walk, you can dance. Since I’m leaving the country after one semester, I didn’t feel as bad if I made dance choreography mistakes, and also knew that many of the teachers appreciated having more students because it created more energy. Plus, the chance to dance off all the gyoza I ate in the city was necessary, given that I don’t hit the gym.

Temporarily I attended one practice for ASH, a k-pop dance group, but the members weren’t super welcoming, so I spent my last few weeks working with Kyoto Student Impact, a Christian group in the city that’s unaffiliated with Doshisha University. I don’t think the ASH dance group members meant to be rude, but my lack of Japanese fluency proved hard to communicate with local students, and they rarely held practices, so the chance to meet friends was extra hard. Instead, through Kyoto Student Impact, which I found through the Mustard Seed Church that I attended, I met students once or twice a week and engaged in social activities. I went bowling in Japan, had a worshipping session, and as of this writing, will soon attend an international Thanksgiving feast in a country that hardly celebrates this November holiday. The experience with student impact surprised me for a variety of reasons, two of them being that Christianity is hardly practiced in this Shinto/Buddhist-dominated country and I hadn’t expected to attend church. Fortunately, it felt refreshing to practice my religion in a foreign country, and I wanted to speak English a few times, even though the goal of studying abroad was to learn Japanese. Having even a few international friends or Japanese speakers who spoke fluent English ensured that I could compare cross-cultural conversations and engage in deeper conversations. Also, church proved to be a consistent place where I could find friends and have deeper connections over a shared religion, so I resumed my religious practices.

Some tips for future KCJS students, since I found my project activities largely through reading past blog posts:

  1. Don’t email or Instagram DM one or two groups; hit more. I started by contacting seven groups, and two of them eventually got back to me three weeks later. You want to cast your net wide, and don’t worry if you don’t hear back since it’s nothing personal. Also, most groups have eligibility requirements. For instance, my Yosakoi traditional dance group didn’t allow foreign students because they wanted to recruit Japanese freshmen and sophomores for a full year. When I reached out to them, they only wanted international students for one specific festival, and though the experience was short, I still learned a ton of new Kansai dialect slang.
  2. Don’t chicken out of going to a project. As cliche as it sounds, feeling uncomfortable means you’re growing. There were multiple times when I felt awkward in all-Japanese spaces, and one time, I arrived at a practice location and wanted to turn around, for fear of awkwardness. Your first few times at a project won’t be the easiest, but over time, the more conversations you have, the better your experience will be. When you don’t know what to say to Japanese students, ask questions and pull the “gaijin card,” aka ask about anything on your mind because you’re a foreigner and confusion feels justified.
  3. It’s okay to change your projects, even multiple times. I hopped around different projects and felt that each one of them taught me something different. For instance, the Yosakoi dance organization taught me about language immersion and the international Christian group reminded me about the comfort of speaking in my native tongue. Given the number of people that you can meet in Kyoto, don’t worry you won’t make friends. Sometimes, even in Japanese spaces, you’ll meet many internationals. At my Christian group, most people I met hailed from foreign countries like Indonesia and China, and I’ve had fun exchanging cross-cultural talks with them.

Alyssa Willeford: Shamisen Lessons at Greenwich House

This semester, I took shamisen lessons with Iwasaki-sensei at Greenwich House, a small music studio located near the intersection of Shijo-dori and Kawaramachi-dori. Every Tuesday, after eating lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants, I would show up, sheet music in hand, to practice with the others at the studio. Typically, the lesson would start at about 1:30, when Ishida-san (a very kind woman and one of Iwasaki-sensei’s friends) and I would practice shamisen technique and drill the songs I had been working on. Because I only started shamisen lessons at the beginning of the semester, I was far behind where the others were, so I needed that extra time. Then, at around 2, other students – mostly middle-aged people, though a few younger and older people too – would show up and we would begin rehearsing our songs. Inevitably, we would break at some point for gobocha, or burdock tea, and a wagashi snack, my favorite of which was definitely ichigo daifuku. I would usually leave around 3 or 3:30, but I would have been free to stay longer too. It all felt a lot like visiting a hippie music studio back home in Seattle, except, of course, for the music we were playing. Most of the other people were practicing the koto, so I was the only one on shamisen and definitely felt some pressure at times to deliver! Iwasaki-sensei was very kind and lent me one of their shamisen so that I could practice at home, which definitely helped me improve much faster. Sometimes I would practice for as much as 45 minutes a night because I found it so calming. The semester was capped off with a performance at Shimogamo Elementary School – a group of us went to serve as essentially a teaching aid for a lesson about traditional music. That was a ton of fun, and it really felt like a spectacular way to finish out my experience!

Overall, I cannot recommend this CIP enough. In terms of things I would change, Iwasaki-sensei could be a little bit spontaneous at times, and I didn’t always feel like I knew what was going on. We played three pieces at the elementary school, and I had only gotten a copy of one of them two days before, so that was definitely a little stressful. Other than that, though, I had a great time! Iwasaki-sensei was very generous with gifts, sweets, and her time – I feel like I got far more out of the lessons than the small fee should really have covered. I played trombone from fourth grade until I graduated high school, and I enjoyed the shamisen because it’s surprisingly similar in a lot of ways. But the main thing that drew me to the lessons was just the chance to reconnect with music and experience again the joy of making music with others.

Also, and this was incredible, but after my first lesson, I got to meet a maiko, or trainee geisha. Because it was the first day and I had no idea what was going on, I was definitely super stressed, but that was still one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Japan.

I would give my CIP five stars. I would recommend it to anyone who loves playing music – but if you only want a 1-hour-a-week commitment and you don’t like snacks, you should probably look elsewhere.

Christopher Avalos: Tea Ceremony Lessons

For my CIP activity, I took tea ceremony classes at Kyoto Wabichakai わび茶会( They took place once a week for around 2 hours. Even though this semester abroad was unfortunately cut short, I was able to take four lessons and learned a great deal in that time. I have always really liked Japanese tea and have seen videos about tea ceremony, but I still didn’t really know much about it. With the help of Yamaoka sensei, I found Wabichakai.

For my very first lesson, I mostly observed my sensei as she performed the tea ceremony for me, which involved multiple rituals, preparing and serving the tea, and serving wagashi, or a traditional Japanese sweet. The wagashi was one of my favorite parts of my tea ceremony experience, as the sweets were not only delicious, but they usually held some meaning. For example, one of the lesson’s wagashi was a plum blossom shaped mochi treat, which signified the winter season. I was also fascinated by the ritualistic nature of the entire ceremony. Specifically, everything was done precisely and a specific number of times. During the ceremony, my sensei also explained to me the history of tea ceremony in Japan. Although the vocabulary used was difficult at first, it got easier as time went on through the use of flash cards.

Subsequent lessons saw me more active during the lesson. My sensei taught me how to properly hold a tea bowl and how to drink the tea. Everything had to be done precisely and cleanly, especially when eating and drinking. Moreover, another one of my favorite parts about my experience was the field trip we made to Kitano Tenmangu shrine. The time we went, they had a plum blossom tree field for plum blossom viewing. Not only were the plum blossom trees beautiful, we also got some plum tea. My sensei also explained the history of the temple to me, as she is also well-versed in Kyoto history.

I really enjoyed the one on one nature of the lessons, as it allowed me to really build a relationship with my sensei. Not only did we perform the tea ceremony, but we also learned about each other as well. She told me about her experiences living in San Diego when she was younger and about her daughter. We also talked about my other classes, my family back home, and about my homestay family and experience. Even though I only had a few lessons with her, I feel like we were able to build a relationship that will hopefully last for years to come.

Despite the craziness of the past couple months, my CIP experience was a worthwhile one, and I plan on taking another lesson when I return to Japan in the future. I am grateful for the time I was able to take lessons with my sensei, and I look forward to seeing her again the future.

Malcom Summers: Shogi

For my CIP, I went to a local shogi club in Kyoto and played/learned shogi. I first visited the club and told them I was interested. Then, I came back the next week to start. Throughout my time there I learned some shogi strategies and played several times against the people in the club. Since few people spoke English, I mainly used Japanese. I also borrowed and read a book to aid with my practice.

One of the first things I noticed was a lack of keigo usage. Even the younger kids just used です/ます form when speaking to adults. Meanwhile, the adults mostly used casual form. I believe this was due to the nature of the club. Specifically, senpai and kōhai relations weren’t really about age so much as skill. Thus, some of the younger kids didn’t use honorific forms because they were actually better than the older players.

I learned a lot of shogi specific vocabulary from the club. I think it may have been harder due to the fact that shogi terms aren’t exactly used in everyday conversation. This required me to actually review some of these terms before I went to the club. However, it was an enjoyable experience because, in between games, we would review what went wrong and where I could improve. As someone who has played a lot of chess, that part of the process was very familiar.

The best advice I can give to others is to find a CIP that isn’t as skill oriented. Unless you already do the activity at home/school, learning something from scratch is a very difficult process. Especially, learning in a non-native language. For me, playing chess allowed me to pick up shogi concepts quicker, but my CIP eventually became a chore. I had to spend time practicing in order to eventually win, but, when I became busy, practice was difficult. So, when I would go back to the club it would be the same result of me losing the entire time. As such, I think a more social oriented CIP could lead to a better experience.

Mina Horner: Sumi-e Lessons

For my CIP I chose to take sumi-e lessons at アトリエ喜心. I knew from the start that I wanted my CIP to be art related, and I wanted to learn about something I wouldn’t get the chance to in America. I also wanted to do something I’ve never done before, and since I’ve mostly done pencil or digital art, working with ink was a completely new experience for me. 

Every week, I had two-hour lessons held at my teacher’s atelier. There were usually two or three other students as well, but they would filter in and out at their own pace. It seemed like many of the students had been going there for a long time and seemed to mostly use it as a workspace and for the materials. For my first lesson, the teacher had me paint only straight lines for two hours, which might seem menial but was actually very helpful in getting familiar with the brush and ink. I’m used to having the ability to erase or undo my mistakes, so working with a permanent medium like ink forced me to be more careful with my strokes and made me learn how to work with the mistakes I’ve made. The lessons usually consisted of choosing a sumi-e painting I liked and recreating it while receiving advice from the teacher. He would usually do a demo for me at the start, and since he would actually paint what he was explaining, it was very easy to follow along. I was also able to pick up some sumi-e and art related words. It was rewarding to see my own progress and how much more natural my strokes had become compared to the awkward, jagged lines I had made during my first lesson. 

lass. There were actually a few times where I lost track of time and stayed past my lesson time. Since starting college, I haven’t had much time to do art, so it was nice that I had a scheduled time every week to paint. However, I unfortunately didn’t get many chances to speak Japanese during my lessons, since the atelier was almost always completely silent, and it was hard to start a conversation. I spoke a little with my teacher, but it was mostly just him giving guidance on what I was working on. I somewhat regret not choosing a CIP where I could talk more with other Japanese people, as a major reason why I wanted to study abroad was to improve my speaking ability. However, I’m sure a big part of the reason why I wasn’t able to talk a lot was my own shyness. 

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience with taking sumi-e lessons. It was something I’ve never done before, and something I would have had trouble doing outside of Japan. However, if I could do it over, I think I would have chosen a CIP that would have given me more opportunities to speak and integrated me more into Japanese society. 

Christine Ahn : Shamisen Lessons

For my CIP, I chose to learn the Shamisen under Iwasaki sensei. Since previous students from KCJS had already taken lessons from her, it was easy to start (although contacting her was a bit of a struggle since she was always out when we called). On the first day, I was nervous but going with another KCJS student, Alexis, made it less stressful. The first day, we were welcomed in during the middle of a lesson, which felt more like a rehearsal. Like previous posts already made, the lessons aren’t really like lessons and more of practicing together. By playing with the other students, I found myself slowly improving while having fun. The other students were all old, but they were energetic and treated us kindly. They even sent us back home with chocolates on the first day. 

I knew that I wanted to push myself to talk more so I would also ask a few questions here and there whether it be about trying to understand the sheet music (which is very different from western sheet music) or asking how long they’ve been playing. It was hard for me to start or continue a conversation but luckily, the other students, and Alexis who came with me, were pretty talkative.  During lessons, everyone mainly focuses on playing the piece so there isn’t much opportunity to talk then. It may be different depending on when you set your lesson time since each time we came in, the students there were already rehearsing a piece so there was no chance to talk before a lesson. After each lesson, however, they offered to treat us out to dinner providing an optimal time to chat with them and the teacher. It was interesting to me that even though they were much, much older than us, they told us to call them by their nicknames and gave us nicknames too. They told us some stories about themselves and in exchange, we also gave some of our own. I also saw that even quieter students became so talkative after they started drinking.

Since our program in Japan ended abruptly, I couldn’t properly say bye to them but was able to eat with Iwasaki sensei one last time before leaving. I was able to talk a lot then and before we left, she showed us around an antique cafe she liked (The interior was really cool. I highly recommend asking her about it so you can go too). I really enjoyed how kind the other students and teacher were, even though it was awkward at times. If I could go more times, I think instead of relying on the other students to talk, I would’ve definitely pushed myself to talk even more and try to practice keigo more with the teacher. They understand we’re learning Japanese and have fun hearing us talk so I recommend just saying anything, even if it sounds dumb, off, or random, and to try to treat them as friends (with respect though). Overall, the experience was really enjoyable. However, my goal was to be in a CIP with a lot of people to talk with so this fulfills that but if you want to make friends with younger people, I would suggest finding an active club.

Brigid Mack: Calligraphy Lessons

The CIP that I chose for the semester was traditional calligraphy or shodō (書道). Shodō evolved from Chinse calligraphy and has been relevant to Japanese culture for hundreds of years, and so it is a common activity for kids to do after school. The person who led the class that I took held lessons in his house about three times a week and students could come any of the days that they chose and stayed for about an hour at a time. During this hour, you could do shodō with the brush and ink, writing exercises with either a pen or a pencil, and math with a soroban, which is essentially an abacus that was created in Japan. While I was participating in these classes, I did both shodō and the writing exercises.

At first when I started this CIP it was difficult to really pick up on the environment outside of what I was doing because I had very little confidence in my ability to speak to the Sensei in Japanese and my host mother would usually come along to help translate. I spent around three class sessions getting used to what it was like to be in a room full of shouting children while also comprehending very little of what they were saying. Finally, after several weeks I began to participate in the discussions and talk more to everyone else who was there. The kids who were taking lessons seemed very comfortable with each other and with the Sensei and were often making jokes or singing while they were there. It was easy to see that everyone was enjoying themselves and that while they took their work seriously, they were also there to have fun.

Most of the students seemed to have been in school classes together or were friends from around the neighborhood and knew each other very well. After a while it was more entertaining to watch them fight over who showed Sensei their work first as they stood on chairs or crowded around where he was sitting, waving their papers around before they had even finished drying.  Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to join in conversations or ask questions and clarify things that I had been confused about, or even to answer the things that they asked me. By the last week, it was a far less stressful environment because I was able to communicate and the kids were excited to try and include me in their fun.

As far as being successful in a CIP goes, I think that the most important thing to remember is that you’re there to learn, and that even if you aren’t sure about how to go about things like asking questions or joining conversations, it’s easier to just say something and gauge whether it was right or not by other people’s reactions than it is to overanalyze it and not say anything at all. I spent a lot of time just watching and trying to figure out how to fit myself into all of the chaos of shouting children when in the end, all I had to do was raise my hand and ask a question or talk to one of the kids. They let me know when I was wrong or if something I said was so off that it was funny, and in turn I learned more about the language while also being able to have fun. I think that if there was anything I would do differently, I definitely would try to be more confident in my ability to at least try and speak rather than overthinking it all and ending up saying nothing because even though I enjoyed going to all of the classes, it was definitely a much better experience towards the end.