Over the course of this past semester, I have been learning how to play the 太鼓 (taiko) drum with the Fujinomori Taiko Preservation Society. From the very start, I was so impressed with the amount of dedication that goes into playing the instrument. Throughout the past three months, the society has performed all over the prefecture, and participated in the 時代祭 (Festival of the Ages), one of Kyoto’s big three festivals.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this community involvement activity to anyone who is looking to really step out of the KCJS bubble and get an authentic experience. Everyone in the society was so welcoming and kind!
The taiko drum is a quintessential Japanese instrument, and if you have interest in music, you should most certainly try your hand at it. I was tappin’ my toe to the beat all semester long!
I took Kyudo classes, which was held in the Kyoto Budo Center, because I wanted to learn something culturally related to Japan, so I chose Kyudo, a Japanese martial arts of archery. I had never done Kyudo before, but as I continued to take classes I slowly improved from the Sensei’s amazing lessons and resources. I found myself enjoying learning the techniques and the cultural aspects of Kyudo. If you want to learn a unique martial art, I really recommend Kyudo.
For future study abroad students, in any CIP you choose, my advice is that when you don’t understand something, the most important part is to ask questions. Not knowing what the other person is saying, can ultimately cause more confusion to both you and the other person. By asking questions, eventually, not only, you will be able to learn new vocabulary, but also the other person can speak in a way that can be much clearer to you.
For my Community Involvement Project (CIP), I learned Japanese tea ceremony at 幽静庵 (yuseian), which is a tea room that was designed by 井口海仙宗匠 (Iguchi Kaisen), the brother of the 14th Urasenke Grandmaster 淡々斎御家元 (Tantansai). At the 幽静庵, I had many precious experiences, including learning various tea preparation procedures (お点前, otemae) and participating in a special ceremony to celebrate the change of season called 口切 (kuchikiri).
The 幽静庵 was always filled with the smell of burned incense and charcoal, and was the perfect place to learn authentic Urasenke school Japanese tea ceremony. The teacher was very kind and always taught us interesting histories and background stories in Japanese tea ceremony. Learning about Japanese culture and values while drinking a bowl of matcha and eating the finest seasonal sweets was a very peaceful and delightful time.
I strongly recommend anyone interested in learning about Japanese aesthetics or traditional arts to have a semester of Japanese tea ceremony experience. Japanese tea ceremony teaches you the spirit of Japanese hospitality, and through preparing a bowl of matcha, you will be filled with calmness and have the chance to quietly face yourself.
For my CIP this semester I did kendo three or four times a week at Kyoto University Kendo Club. Kendo is a Japanese sword-based martial art that I have been practicing for the past two years at Harvard, my home university. Kendo is generally practiced at a higher level in Japan, as many Japanese Kendoka have been doing kendo since they were young, while abroad most practitioners start as adults. Therefore, practicing in Japan has been very intense, I have learnt so many things and it has been a really amazing experience. I really feel like I have discovered a new side to kendo by practicing it in Japan.
My advice to students wanting to do a similar CIP in the future is to think carefully about how you’re going to interact with your club members. Everyone in the club will already know everyone else before you arrive, so you may feel a bit like an outsider in the beginning. Furthermore, sports like kendo aren’t very conducive to holding conversation in the middle of practice, meaning that it can sometimes feel almost impossible to get to know the other people in the club. It really isn’t impossible though, it just requires a bit more strategic planning, as opportunities to socialize won’t necessarily arise organically and you may need to make more of an active effort to make friends. But when you do get to know the other people, you will be able to have a great time in your club. I genuinely don’t think there’s any better experience than doing the things you love with friends.
For my CIP I took Aikido classes as an absolute beginner. Aikido is a Japanese martial art that focuses on redirecting your opponent’s momentum to defend yourself, rather than offensively attacking. I’ve really enjoyed not only learning Aikido’s incredible techniques and philosophy, but getting to know and learn from the people in the Dojo I’ve been visiting. My Aikido classes have been in a warm, welcoming environment, largely due to the kindness and care Sugai-Sensei spreads throughout the Dojo. I’d highly recommend taking Aikido classes at Chiseikan Dojo if you are at all interested in Japanese martial arts, whether a beginner or a black belt. It’s a great opportunity to meet a variety of people of different ages, and work on a useful and super cool skill. Both English and Japanese are spoken in the Dojo, so I’d recommend asking that the Senseis speak to you only in Japanese, which they were happy to do for me once they understood I was hoping to improve my language skills.
For my Community Involvement Project this semester, I chose to volunteer at みつば幼稚園 (Mitsuba Kindergarten) due to my love of kids and desire to learn more about the Japanese childcare system. Every Monday, I would walk to the kindergarten from campus, and spend two hours assisting the kids in their daily activities, playing with them, and help them practice both their English and Japanese writing skills. This was a super rewarding experience, as in addition to becoming close with the kids, by the end I was also being acknowledged by fellow teachers and even some of the parents as a part of the Mitsuba community. I also felt as if there was a very equal exchange of culture that occurred, as while I was able to learn all about the inner-workings of a Japanese kindergarten (which I found to be shockingly hands off compared to my expectations), the kids were always eager to hear about my experiences as an American (and of course, freak out over me speaking English after relentlessly begging me to). I would highly encourage future KCJS students to pursue a CIP like Mitsuba where there is an existing community which is also accessible to break into, especially if you’re on the more reserved side. In the end, kids don’t judge and just want to have a good time, and by including you in their fun, you’ll be able to interact with other members of the community like teachers, parents, and other volunteers. Overall, I am very thankful for this experience and can’t wait to see the kids again next semester!
For my CIP I participated in Kyoto University’s Choir! Every week we meet twice a week usually from 6:00-8:30 PM. In this period a usual practice consists of the first 45 minutes being like a workout and vocal warmups. Then we split into groups depending on our vocal part for around 30 minutes. This time allows us to practice our parts, especially the difficult sections everyone struggles with. Following this we will all come together and practice the parts we were working on to hear our hard work come to fruition! This experience has been overwhelmingly positive and I couldn’t recommend it enough! It was difficult at first because I truly could not grasp what the students were saying. After all, they utilized a colloquial version of Japanese more known as informal forms which I have barely studied. But after I continued to work on it and listen to what they were saying, I feel as though my Japanese has slowly improved just from this fact alone! It was sometimes difficult because the practices were so late at night and our Japanese classes are early in the morning, but I am glad I have continued going! It is such a refreshing feeling because I feel as though everyone in the choir is truly happy to have me in the choir and looks forward to working with me ! After choir practice as well, most of the students, all go to this restaurant very close to where we practice! This allows us to have some delicious food while also allowing us to develop our one-on-one relationships with everyone in the choir ! It’s always so interesting talking to everyone, seeing where they came from, and what they want to study. My advice to someone wanting to join the choir, I recommend that you have prior choir experience because that will help alleviate any basic problems that could occur. Also, I recommend being able to read basic kanji and hiragana pretty fast. That way when you first start the songs, you are not taking an extra amount of time just simply trying to memorize what to say with what notes.
I took hip-hop and k-pop dance classes at Fly Dance Studio. It was so much fun getting to learn different kinds of styles through explanations in Japanese, as well as their approaches to learning and taking care of your body. It also helped me get used to Kansai-ben and other types of speech since it was such a relaxed environment, which is a little bit different than the ways of speaking I’m normally exposed to. If you want more of a community experience and more opportunities to talk with others, my advice would be to attend classes with a friend! When I went with a fellow KCJS student, it was always much easier to interact with the choreographer and other students. Also consider taking the same class each week to better get to know others around you.
This semester I did yoga at a local yoga studio. I did the beginner level yoga class for the first half of the semester, and the classes were inside my comfort zone because the movements weren’t really hard. Furthermore, since there were a lot of foreign learners in the studio, the classes were taught in both English and Japanese so that everyone could follow. The later half of the semester, I switched to Ashtanga yoga, which was my first time to try and it was really hard. However, it was also rewarding to witness my own progress within just a few lessons.
I felt really comfortable when I was in the studio, because the atmosphere there was just so soft and gentle, and everyone I encountered seemed to be nice even though I didn’t really exchange words with them. I like practicing there because learners wouldn’t compete with each other (which is usually the case of yoga) and just focus on their own bodies, but everyone would be happy to offer some help if it’s within their capacity. Therefore, I really had an unforgattable experience there.
Advice for whoever read this post: first of all thank you for reading! I would suggest just go with your guts, go for wharever you are passionate about and take the first step. Be aware of the cultural differences, so try not to be rude, but it’s always OK to ask questions politely about anything you don’t understand. Consult your teachers, peers, if necessary and I’m sure you will enjoy your CIP!
My CIP was volunteering at the Muromachi location’s elementary afterschool program. My time usually consisted of joining the staff meeting from 2:30-2:45, playing games with kids until 4, which is snack time. Since I worked in two locations, I found that the smaller program with around 17 kids was much more fun and helpful for learning Japanese. Getting to know your coworkers and the kids in a smaller setting is really nice, and I wish I had more time at the smaller location since I spent 6/8 weeks at the larger location. I feel like I’ve learned kansai-ben as well as how to talk very casually (as kids don’t ever use formal language), so it’s been nice to see me understanding them more as the program went on. I will say that kids can sometimes be really rowdy and it might be awkward to try to go up to kids you aren’t familiar with to start conversations, so if you are on the shy side or don’t like to be around too much noise, this might not be a good CIP.