Zachary Armine-Klein: Kendo

For my CIP I practiced Kendo four to six times a week at the Kyoto Butokuden (Martial Arts Center). Overall it was a fantastic experience. The practices themselves were always brilliant, even if I was not. The variety of lessons was so challenging because every night a different Hachidan Sensei (Highest rank attainable) would lead and each had their own styles of teaching and valued different skills. Nonetheless, each Hachidan Sensei maintained a heavy focus on keiko (sparring) at a level of rigor I found to be noticeably higher than in the U.S. I loved this intensity. Everyone at the practice was so focused on improving that the room almost always felt electrified. During matches each person’s desire to win was palpable. Although exciting, this energy was also rather intimidating. The “regulars”  had rivalries with other people around their level and had specific Sensei with whom they enjoyed practicing. Also, the established Kendo students more or less knew exactly who they were going to practice with and where to go within the Dojo (practice hall), before practice had even begun. As a new foreigner who knew nothing of the Butokuden etiquette I spent my first week being nicely turned down when I asked to spar someone, and also getting yelled at by sensei for being in the wrong space during basics and drills. Overall, I would describe myself as being rather flustered and confused and in culture shock. 

But disorientation slowly dissipated. I began to know which drills were done on which days, which Sensei’s were more open to practicing with newbies and became closer with some of the other foreigners in the community. Near the end of the first month some of the other young adult “regulars” began challenging me during free sparing and I slowly became friends with a couple of them. It was during this time that one of the more notable Nanadan Sensei (second highest rank attainable), Imada Sensei, started hovering around my sparring matches. Finally, after a couple of days of hovering around and silently judging me, he approached and asked (ordered) me to practice with him. Imada Sensei’s sparring session was brutal. He ran me ragged hitting the same basics over and over and every couple minutes asking if I wanted to give up? Every time I would tell him no and push further than I thought possible getting past my earlier urge to give up. He kept me going for a full hour until the final drum sounded signaling the end to the practice. He would  simply tell me it was a good practice, let’s spar again tomorrow. It continued like this for about a week where everyday he would run me ragged and just ask me to see him again tomorrow. Finally, at the end of the week he approached me and invited me to come to his personal Dojo (Yubukan) on Sundays. Of course I said yes and after being accepted by one of the most respected Sensei the community opened up. Sensei’s that previously wouldn’t give me the time of day started practicing with me and actually giving me advice. The other foreigners, who I learned a lot of went to Yubukan, began telling me about other Dojos where they practiced and offered to introduce me to their Senseis, so that their Sensei might invite me to practice with them as well. 

By the end of the second month of rigorous practice, I received a fantastic opportunity when my friend Yusuke invited me and Tamara, another foreigner I had become close with, to come practice at the Kyoto Police Headquarters with Ito Sensei, one of the few Kyudan Sensei still alive. This level of expertise is no longer available to be earned and after the last of the Kyudan Sensei pass over this level of expertise will enter history. This practice was a blast, but absolutely brutal. Ito Sensei spent a good thirty minutes breaking down Tamara and my basic strikes and having us repeat them over and over commenting on a new error each time and making us do it again. He finally left us and told us to start sparring with the other sensei at the Dojo. I was certain we had disappointed him or failed in some way, but at the end of practice he approached us and asked if he would see us next week at his practice so we could work more on our basics. I was ecstatic and of course said yes. Ito Sensei’s practices became a highlight of my week every week, albeit an often exhausting and painful part of my week as well. Sadly, after only a month of this extraordinary access to a Kyudan Sensei we had to return to America; however, I did get to have one final practice and a send-off party with the friends I made at Kendo. 

For any future students at KCJS who want to practice Kendo I have a few pieces of advice. First of all, whether you have practiced before or not, make sure you are really committed to this before you start. In order to be taken seriously and have doors open up for you in the community you really need to give 110%. I saw other foreigners only practice once or twice a week and even though they had been in Kyoto for months or even years longer than me, none of the sensei took them seriously or gave them their full attention. Secondly, if you already have experience, the best thing you can do is just start going to the Butokuden. It is a central space where all the different students at a variety of Dojo’s go in order to practice together. It  is a great place both to practice and meet different sensei and players. Finally, if you haven’t practiced Kendo and are starting fresh, it can be hard to find a way into the community. Most people in Japan start Kendo as children so there are few dojo’s that take young adults, let alone young foreigners, on as complete beginners. When I asked around for a friend who was interested in starting to learn Kendo, most sensei recommended my friend join the Doshisha Kendo Circle-which is Not the Kendo Club! The Doshisha Kendo Circle is welcoming to taking on beginners. Unfortunately, unless you are going to KCJS for the Fall semester or full year it could be harder to find a Dojo, since the Doshisha Circle is on break during the Spring semester until mid-March. If you are determined to learn Kendo I recommend you ask your host family or the KCJS office if they have any connections they can call on your behalf. In my opinion, it is worth persevering since once you have that connection and find a Dojo, the Kendo Community becomes a wonderful and welcoming place that will enhance your experience as an exchange student in Kyoto.

Sofija Podvisocka: Fencing

One of the conditions depending on which I decided to study abroad at Doshisha University was the presence of a fencing team, since I needed a space to practice in order to rejoin Brown’s team upon my return. Doshisha’s fencing team operates with a system very different from the one I’m used to, due to the absence of a coach and the dependence on small groups to schedule their own practices, which included usually a warm-up and sparring, with a few days where we would give each other individual lessons. I would meet with the women’s epee team anywhere from two to four times a week, depending on everyone’s availability. 

Practicing with the Doshisha fencing team led me to better understand Japanese cultures in terms of the senpai/kouhai system, but also the progression from using respectful forms to casual speech as we got closer. Furthermore, since I was the youngest of the group, although I had the most experience with fencing, I was given very little responsibility in terms of practices. However, as time went on and the boundary between me and the upperclassmen began to dissipate, I was allowed more say in what the practices entailed, and could even lead some of our drills. 

That being said, Doshisha’s fencing team reminded me in many ways of my own. No matter the differences in speech between Japanese and English, the struggles of the student-athlete remain the same. Between balancing classes and practices, making time to focus on this extracurricular, and the comradery of the team dynamic, I felt very much immersed in the same society as I was back home. 

For future KCJS students thinking about their CIP going into their study abroad experience, my main piece of advice would be to choose not based on the subject of the CIP entirely, but also based on the community you would be involving yourself in. Focus on building relationships throughout the semester just as you would back home, even though there’s an expiration date hovering in your mind you can’t always ignore. The CIP itself might be temporary, but what you learn from it will remain ever-present.

Carter Yee: Kyoto University Hiking Circle

For my CIP for the fall semester, I joined one of the other KCJS students, Theo Sternlieb, in entering the Kyoto University Hiking Circle. This circle was intended for students who enjoy the outdoors and spending time in nature. But unfortunately, due to frequent scheduling conflicts including the fall Okayama trip and the typhoon, Theo and I were only able to attend meetings in the club’s box. Nonetheless, it was an exciting time as Japan was in the Rugby World cup. As such, we hung out with the other students and watched them play against South Africa in the semi-finals.

I was happy to join the hiking circle despite not being able to get outside with them at all. It was nice to be able to talk to and enjoy the company of students in a more relaxed environment! Many of the students seemed surprised that we wanted to join their circle. One aspect that I was glad to see was how inclusive the club was in terms of its leadership. Often, I have found that outdoor spaces and activities are permeated by an overwhelming sense of masculinity, so I was happy to see that this was not the case.

Since Kyoto University did not start again until midway through September, and the club does not do many activities in the fall, it was difficult to attend the necessary amount of CIP meetings. We were able to supplement this with outside activities that got us involved in the community, but overall, I was sad that I could not do more with the hiking circle itself. As the start of our semester does not match up when either Doshisha or Kyoto University students start, the number of activities on the calendar that KCJS students can participate in can be somewhat stunted. It is important to realize that there are other opportunities to get involved with the community. I was able to continue rock climbing in Kyoto; an activity that I participated in back at my home university, and even got Theo involved as well. It has been a great experience to meet people at the rock gym. Similarly to the hiking circle, there is also balanced representation among the genders. As it is mostly locals who climb there, we have started to learn some climbing-specific words and phrases in Japanese. There is a very supportive environment where everyone cheers on everyone else. People often shout ”がんば!”, meaning “try your best!” Being able to travel to Okayama on the fall trip also helped me expand my network of friends in Japan! I have been surprised at all of the kindness with which we have been received living and studying in Kyoto.

Benjamin Hofing: Ultimate Frisbee

For my CIP, I joined various Ultimate Frisbee teams around Kyoto. Since I have been playing Ultimate for years already, this seemed like a good choice for me. I thought it would be much easier to communicate since I already knew plenty of things about the sport. I could not have been more wrong. While it definitely helped that I already knew the jist of what was going on, I sometimes had a tough time understanding what was going on.

Fortunately, everyone was very accommodating. When I couldn’t understand some of what was going on, someone would sit with me and draw the situation out, explaining the necessary vocabulary as we went. In addition, there were a few people who spoke English, who occasionally helped me out when I was struggling really badly.

At first, when I found out there were several people who could speak English, I was nervous that I would become reliant on them: it would be far easier to speak with them in English, and then have them help translate into Japanese, than it would be for me to learn the myriad of vocabulary that would be necessary to explain myself. If this had happened, I don’t think I would have gotten much out of this experience. But it didn’t. Instead, I forced myself to speak Japanese, even when I was talking with the people who could speak English. At first, it was very difficult, but I slowly acclimated. Since I sometimes had practice on both Saturdays and Sundays, it got to a point where I would go whole weekends without speaking English. Thanks to this, I got lots of speaking practice, while having fun at the same time.

Camrick Solorio: Ballroom Dance Circle

For my CIP, I asked to join Kyoto University’s Amateur Dance (ballroom dance) club and they kindly let me participate. Club activities consisted of weekly or bi-weekly practices at local recreational centers, where we learned a variety of dances from tango to cha-cha. The club members were all extremely kind and accommodating despite the frequent language gap, and it became quickly apparent that the regular club members are really invested in the club—not just in improving their dance skills, but in building community. I did roughly a year of ballroom dance in college prior to joining this club (zero dance experience before that), and with this background the practices being held were challenging but somehow manageable. There were some members with similar skill levels as me, but I would say most are better dancers than I am. Some of the members were even taking private lessons outside of club practice.

I was constantly amazed at how kind everyone was to each other. They treated me as a regular member of the club even though I was only to be there for a semester, and I can’t stress enough how incredibly grateful I am for that. Around mid-November I attended one of their bi-annual Dance Parties (formal venue, ~100 guests, dance time), and even though I couldn’t contribute much to planning the event, they kindly welcomed me as a club member and let me celebrate with them after the event.

Some general advice for interested students: the club members are extremely kind and welcoming towards everyone, and that very much includes study abroad students (they told me it isn’t uncommon for short-term study abroad students to join for a while).  Having seen the intergenerational ties and motivation of the club members, I highly doubt this inclusivity and positivity is something that will change in the near future, so don’t be afraid to take a first step. Lessons might be particularly challenging for newcomers (notably because fall is second semester in Japan), but this is not a steadfast obstacle. You should definitely feel empowered to reach out and try if it’s something you’re interested in. Be sure to reach out for help, practice to have fun, and (very important) show others a smile even if things are difficult!! It makes a big difference.

Some other one-off tips:

  • You can buy cheap dance shoes on Amazon (~$30?). Gentlemen, if you can only get standard or Latin shoes go for the former.
  • Go to the post-practice afterparties.
  • If you’re interested in private lessons in addition to club practice, reach out to the senior members.
  • If you don’t quite understand something, ask! I had a number of times I did something clumsy because I didn’t quite get what was going on.
  • Always say please and thank you (aka お願いします、ありがとうございます、お疲れ様です、失礼します、).

John Miller Karate Circle at Kyoto University

This semester I continued attending my CIP from last semester, which was a Karate circle at Kyoto university. It is rather informal group, where attendance is not strictly required. However there is a core group of about six students who regularly attend both two hour sessions each week. After a month break, it was great to be able to reconnect with reconnect with friends I had made last semester.

There were several foreign exchange students from other countries, including France, Germany and China. This made the circle approximately half Japanese and half foreign. While this did sometimes weaken the initiative to speak Japanese, there were plenty of opportunities to speak to the Japanese members. I great opportunity I had was serving almost as an interpreter between  my German friend Henrik, who does not speak Japanese well and the Kyoto University students who do not speak English well.

Continuing with the same CIP into the second semester was advantageous in my opinion because I was able to deepen relationships I had made the previous semester. Last semester, I did not spend much time outside of the dojo with the other members, however this year, we went on several outings together, including hiking Mt Atago and going to izakayas. I had a number of memorable conversations with my friend Henrik during those trips. He told me several fascinating stories of his great grandfather who was an officer in the German army during WWII. We were then able to ask Japanese students about their perceptions of the war and how the war is viewed differently between Germany, Japan and the United States.

Another aspect of Japanese culture I was able to observe was the importance of gift giving. The club president made cookies for all the members on Valentine’s Day, which was very nice. Last week, we wrote special appreciation messages for those who graduated in March after several years in the circle.  


Heather Heimbach: Doshisha Figure Skating Club

I participated in the Doshisha Figure Skating Club. Last semester I participated in a circle, but since most circles are on break during the spring semester, I decided to join a sports team instead, since many of them continue to have practice through the university break.

About once a week there would be a morning practice from 6:30 to 8:30 am where the club rents out the ice for only club members. Most members would go to this morning practice as well as several afternoon practice sessions throughout the week. I went to the morning practice as well as practicing in the afternoon, usually on Mondays and Thursdays since I did not have class on those days. The practices were usually held at Kyoto Aquarena, or the rink in Hyogo.

At the ice arena, everyone warmed up individually. Before practice, the person in charge for the day would call a team meeting. I never figured out who had what position of leadership in the club, except for the Captain, who usually wasn’t there. Someone would then announce the schedule of the practice, which was usually divided into compulsory figures for 15 minutes, skating drills for 20 minutes or so, and then individual people running their programs while the rest of the skaters are free to practice jumps and spins.

However, oftentimes advanced skaters usually ignored this order (listed above) and did whatever they wanted. At the end of practice, everyone had to clean up the ice by filling the holes. I never did this in America. Again, oftentimes advanced skaters ignored this and continued practicing and no one had a problem with it. When leaving, everyone would say otsukaresamadesu, do a head bow and walk out.

Some people stayed at the arena to continue practicing and other people had part-time job at the rink. I usually had to leave because of class. I didn’t really hang out with anyone outside of practice at the rink.

One of the most interesting things was that while the team had strong senpai-kouhai relationships and was pretty traditional in terms of having rules and status quo, rather than age, skating ability was the most important factor in the club hierarchy. Advanced skaters acted as leaders, leading drills and correcting the beginner skaters, regardless of age.

Sometimes there was a coach who would come to offer advise. Everyone was told to greet the coach and listen. However, some advanced skaters did not, but again, no one stopped them. The coach mainly worked with the beginner skaters.

There were several rules that mandated public apologies if they were broken. By that I mean, at the team meeting held after the practice ended, the member who broke the rule might have to apologize to the whole team for being a bother (meiwaku). For instance, being late to practice (if you are a beginner), forgetting duties (if you have them–I didn’t), not going to the team “meeting” before and after practice.

Having to go to the team meeting was annoying because sometimes people wouldn’t be done putting on their skates, or one boot would be on and the other untied, but everyone had like 5 seconds to get there, so people would have to run over or limp over in socks or with only one shoe on. And usually the meeting wasn’t anything important.

One of the girls was always late and she would skate around and apologize to every single person. I never understood why this was necessary, since the “team” practice is actually mostly people practicing individually, just at the same time.

When I started going to more practice sessions throughout the week, I got to know the members a lot more. Also, I think when they saw that I was showing up regularly and that I actually like skating a lot, we were able to easily build a connection off of that. A lot of the members work at the rink or go every day to practice. I got to know the people who often went to practice, and the people who went on the same days as me.

I really enjoyed joining this skating team. Because it is something that I would do even in America, I think I was able to feel very natural joining the team in Kyoto. Going to international exchange events in order to make Japanese friends always felt forced to me, but the skating team–because everyone is not there to make gaijin friends but to skate– made me actually feel included in a community. Everyone spoke to me in Japanese.

Joining a sports team can be difficult since you can’t really participate in everything they are doing (like multi-day training retreats, traveling to matches, etc.) but it is a great experience. However, I don’t recommend joining a sport you haven’t done before.

Benjamin Bellick: Saiin Park Tennis Club

Every Tuesday 6-7:30pm, I (along with Nick Rasetti) have been playing tennis at Saiin Park. The group is an eclectic mix of people; there are both old and young, experts and beginners, regulars and newcomers, etc. Tennis is something that I have enjoyed since childhood, so it has been a special opportunity for me to be able to continue doing something I enjoy while practicing my Japanese. Every practice usually consists of a warmup, followed by a series of successive drills, each focusing on a different aspect of our playing. While waiting my turn between each drill, I am afforded the opportunity to share small talk with the other players and learn some playing tips.

One aspect I have come to really appreciate is just how accommodating the people at tennis can be to new learners. When you don’t understand something, they explain it slowly and as best as they can. I can think of countless times where it was clear I was not understanding a particular skill and the coaches pulled me aside to personally explain the misunderstanding one-on-one. I think there is a shared enjoyment between the coaches and myself when they see something they have explained previously in Japanese to me click during actual play. I also noticed that the coaches adjust their playing to accommodate the skill level of whoever they are hitting with. General encouragement from the coaches has also been incredibly helpful. One thing that really surprised me is the casual friendships I see on the tennis courts across all age gaps. I expected that large age gaps would prevent closer friendships, but that does not seem to be the case. Everyone is offering a helping hand to everyone else.

Coming to tennis and being greeted by people who care enough to remember my name has been a blessing every week. In many contexts, speaking Japanese can feel stiff. Getting to practice speaking while doing something I enjoy has given me a new perspective on the language. I have learned to take some of the pressure off of myself to “speak-well” and, instead, just enjoy speaking and the relationships that form from it.

Nicholas Rasetti: Tennis

For my CIP, I’ve been playing tennis at the Saiin Park Tennis Courts with a local recreational program. Every Tuesday, Ben Bellick and I show up at 6PM and get to practice honing our tennis skills, both with each other, with Japanese, and under the guidance of the people running the program. Even in the short time I’ve been playing for since coming here, I can already see a lot of improvement in my game. On top of that, it’s a great way to blow off stress and relax without going out and spending too much money.


Although not particularly a Japanese activity in and of itself, I feel like tennis is a good window through which many aspects of Japanese culture and people can be seen. For example, one of my most common observations throughout my time on the courts was the willingness of the Japanese to lend a helping hand whenever you need it. They’ll gladly take time out of their own development to help you by explaining how you can improve your form or showing you what the right method is. Even with the language barrier, they’ve really done their best and I’ve learned a lot as a result. They have no obligation to help me in that way, but they’re always willing to, and for that I’m extremely grateful.


In addition to a willingness to help whenever I might need it, they’re also very encouraging and supportive. Anytime I might whiff a ball or make an error, they’re quick to jump in and tell me not to worry about it, or “Don’t mind!”. While this might not seem like much, when you’re trying your best to get back into a sport you haven’t played in a long time and are making a lot of errors, it can make all the difference. It’s much easier to laugh off an error along with everyone than to feel uncomfortable because you feel like people are silently judging you.  Overall, it’s the little things that make it a true pleasure to go out and play tennis with the friendly Japanese folk down at the Saiin tennis courts.


-Nick Rasetti

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!]