Roger Wilder: Volunteering at Hanazono Church Aquarium (花園教会水族館)

I was primarily responsible for taking care of the many aquatic animals that lived at the aquarium (freshwater fish, turtles, geckos, frogs, and more), while also teaching guests about those animals during their visits. It was a great opportunity to interact with local Kyoto residents, while also learning about marine science, animal husbandry, and science communication all in Japanese. Moreover, I had the opportunity to join a tight-knit community, getting the chance to chat and becomes friends with people of all ages while working at the aquarium and spending time together afterwards. Whether you have any prior experience working with aquatic animals, I could not recommend a more patient and welcoming community than the aquarium owner and other volunteers. If you are interested, don’t hesitate to shoot them an email!

Dylan Atencio: La Carriere Cooking School

For my Community Involvement Program, I participated in La Carriere Cooking School, located in downtown Kyoto. The school is geared toward Kyoto locals, and separated into men’s and women’s classes. As a member, I was able to learn many methods of cooking–particularly focusing on Japanese cuisine. Many of the other men tended to be middle-aged and older, sometimes there to learn how to cook for themselves, and sometimes there to be more involved in the kitchen with their family.

My first several times were rather a bit of a struggle language-wise. Though I have a decent grasp of understanding conversational Japanese, I did not know most of the food-oriented vocabulary (I did not even know the word for “pepper” before going in). However, over time and with help from the instructors, I became much more comfortable using the terminology and was much better able to follow the recipes as a result. One of the most interesting things I noticed was that when we made Japanese food, it was a necessity that I follow the recipe exactly, and the instructors would sometimes get flustered if I deviated. When it came to European-style food, however, the atmosphere felt much more relaxed, and I was allowed to experiment more freely. As well, the only instructor that seemed okay with me trying to tweak the recipe as I pleased was the only one who had worked outside of Japan.

While cooking, I was able to converse with the chefs and other students, and as my cooking terminology grew, my ability to have more fluent and nuanced conversations about the food increased too. Of course, I did have the more interesting conversations with the younger men–partly because we had more in common, and partly because it seemed that the older men were much more focused on keeping their head down and understanding and perfecting the recipe. For instance, I often was able to talk with others about cultural and linguistic differences between Japan and western countries. Cooking in a Japanese kitchen was a very different experience from the kitchens that I was used to, in that it was much more regimented and focused on aesthetic detail. However, I am glad to have had this opportunity.

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!


Xiaoxi Wu: KU Amateur Dance Club

During my stay in Kyoto I participated in the activities of Kyoto University Dance Club (社交ダンス), where I managed to immerse myself into a Japanese college club vibe. Since I’d never danced even a single time before attending the club, I was quite nervous on the first day, and found myself just as clumsy as I expected at the dance practice. Yet learning to dance is not the point of joining a dance club in Kyoto; rather, it was to interact with my Japanese peers on a regular basis so that we both could serve as かけ橋 through which we were able to understand each other’s cultural background better.

The Dance Club holds activities as often as 3 times a week. Each time lasts for 3 hours. I tried to commit as much as possible to the club activities, but I was also busy with schoolwork, so I often ended up going once or twice a week. One thing I found interesting though was the fact that the club claims to have between 20 to 30 members who have signed up for club activities, but almost every single time only those 6 or 7 same members showed up. Occasionally we would be lucky to have others join us but that was pretty rare. One of the club members told me that this phenomenon is quite common among Japanese university circles, where you would expect some members to regularly show up and become the core of the circles while others who rarely show up are labelled ‘ghost members’ (幽霊部員). I’m glad that I didn’t become one of the ghosts.

During the 3 hours of club activity we would practice different forms of 社交ダンス such as Tango, Waltz, and Samba, although I still have difficulties even now in distinguishing them from each other. To be frank, dancing is not my thing, but thanks to the warm-heartedness of my Japanese peers I was able to enjoy the activity sessions as much as I could. They knew I had never had experiences in ballroom dance and my Japanese wasn’t that good, so they treated me with patience and taught me step by step. Although more often than not I still ended up messing up with everything, I do not regret joining the Dance Club, because other members regarded me as a normal, functioning member of the club too. The opportunities to interact with Japanese peers are absolutely the most valuable experiences I’ve had so far. Therefore I highly recommend the KU Amateur Dance Club even if dance is not your thing, and on a side note I’m pretty skeptical that someone is actually worse than me at dancing.

Valeria Magallan: Calligraphy

For my CIP project, I decided to join my host sister in learning calligraphy.

The classroom is found at the top floor in a building next to the local train station. Students ranged from elementary school children to people well over their 50 years. Although Sensei individually teaches students at their respective level, the students of all ages and levels interact. In such a way, the newer students can be inspired by seeing someone else to produce a beautiful piece, and the older students can be reminded of how pure and fresh raw calligraphy can be.

Classes consist of sensei demonstrating how to draw a character in Shodo (Cursive) Style and I copying it several times-usually until I get the hang of it. Starting Calligraphy, I didn’t think it would be too hard, we are just writing, right…but it actually takes a lot of practice. During my first lesson, I was eager to begin, but Sensei kept telling me to go slower as I write my characters. In order to carefully define the strokes: the ink must be allowed to sink into the paper before continuing, which required slower movements.

Before the fall break, Sensei gave me a calligraphy gift. It was written on a small gold-painted wooden board. In the middle it had the characters for Red leaves:紅葉 and surrounding it were characters that I had learned how to read and write in Shodo style. Such as Arashiyama嵐山, Bamboo竹, and to spend time pleasantly: 遊ぶ . The gift was personalized, and made me appreciate it so much more. During one of our conversations, the topic of nature and seasons came up, and I learned that Autumn was his favorite. I purchased some tea over my fall break, specifically an autumn flavor, as an omiyage for him. I was really happy to see his reaction as he received it. Gift giving culture and appreciation for the seasons is real in Japan!

Learning calligraphy is like learning a different set of Kanji, some of them don’t look anything like the print version, but learning a traditional art or craft can really give you a different perspective, and you realize that these arts are still very present in Japan’s Pop Culture.


Gerlin Leu: Koto

After many years of weekly piano lessons and many years of resting, I felt both nostalgic and renewed to start learning koto. Koto is an 13-string instrument which similar counterparts in Chinese traditional music. I remember days in my childhood when I worshiped the beautiful performances of fingers brushing over strings, so during every practice, I enter a dream-like blissful state. As much as I love the instrument, the charm of the weekly practices is also because of the wonderful people I get to share this experience with.

The koto classroom’s homely layout reflects in the family like welcome of the teacher and students. Well, I say students, but many are retired people who spend all afternoon and evening practicing and hanging out. Besides koto, there are samisen and shakuhachi. Every time I arrive at the classroom, we would wait for the current repertoire to end before we eat snacks, usually omiyage from all over Japan, and drink tea while chatting about current life happenings. Through our conversations, I have learned many trivia about Japanese household supplies and food names. My Japanese language skills have also improved vastly. Everyone in the classroom speaks in a heavy Kansai-ben. While I can barely distinguish the exact words, I have grown to be able to observe the various tones and guess (mostly correctly!) the meaning. However, I have also learned that over text, when I lose the visual hints, I can no longer as successfully figure out Kansai-ben.

As I continue onto Sri Lanka for the second half of my year abroad, the fond times with the Koto Classroom will definitely stay with me. Sensei is a very welcoming and enthusiastic person. It is through the many awkward and confused yet rewarding and heartwarming moments that I have also become a more go with the flow person. This has been certainly crucial during my semester in Japan to be able to happily adapt and to eagerly welcome new events.

Jorge Gómez Fernández: Volunteering for Children at Hospital/ Cooking Circle

I couldn’t be more thankful with everyone who has helped to enrich my experience here in Kyōto. From giving me their recommendations for good 京都の観光客スポット (Tourist spots in Kyōto) to teaching me how to make だし巻き卵 (Egg roll with Dashi) with a special Kyōto twist, everything has been a new and unique experience.

This semester I got to volunteer at the Kyōdai Hospital with ニコニコトマト(NikoNiko Tomato), where my responsibilities and duties ranged from being able to play with the children to helping other volunteers prepare for lesson plans or activities. Playing with the children was a bittersweet experience, as there is an inevitable sad aura that you feel by being there. However, once you start to see the children play, those feeling start to diminish. As a Japanese language learner, it was very interesting to see how moms and native Japanese volunteers interacted with the children. I say that in terms of diction and level of formality; they chose to use certain words and grammar patterns that I supposed were appropriate to use with children (e.g. 遊ぼう vs. 遊びましょう, 寝んね vs. 寝って, 噛み噛み [to chew]). The volunteers in charge of NikoNiko Tomato are a great group of people who are highly dedicated to what they do and deserve the upmost respect. I’m glad I met everyone.

In addition to NikoNiko Tomato, I attended a cooking circle that meets once a month. There, native Japanese cooking instructors taught us how to make traditional Japanese dishes. My first time, we made お好み焼き(Okonomiyaki), which was a delight because after you make the meal you get to enjoy it (I love to eat so this was one of my favorite parts). Additionally, I met some of the most interesting and 元気 (Genki) cooking instructors. They were extremely helpful and you could tell they loved what they were doing. The second time I went, I was welcomed back very warmly. We made an array of Japanese dishes such as キノコご飯 (Mushroom rice) and 柿なます (Persimmon salad). I’m so grateful to the women who keep this wonderful cooking circle going. You could tell that they fully prepare as they are very knowledgeable about traditional Japanese cooking. I’m really looking forward to cooking more Japanese dishes my last time in December, where I will also have to, dismally, say my final goodbye to my cooking instructors and Kyōto.