Dale Yu: Volunteering At Nalba (子供の食堂)

My CIP activity involved volunteering at Nalba, a children’s after-school cafeteria. However, Nalba serves as much more than just a cafeteria for many of these children; it functions as an after-school program where they can learn how food is prepared, interact with peers, and engage in creative play. The children are primarily elementary school students, ranging from first to fifth grade, which introduces a wide variety of personalities to work with. I spent most of my time playing and conversing with the children, which provided excellent practice in listening and speaking. Frequently, there are opportunities to assist adults in preparing dinner, alongside children who are curious about food preparation. The children are generally welcoming and express excitement each week upon your arrival. This enthusiasm makes you feel appreciated as a volunteer, especially when they seek your assistance with various games, tasks, or even resolving conflicts with others. Some of the kids even get attached to seeing you every week which makes the times at Nalba memorable for you and the children. Overall, I would recommend Nalba to future students seeking an experience where they feel valued as part of the community.

Anastasia Maggiolo: Volunteering at Mitsuba Kindergarten

playstructure at the kindergarten

During my CIP, I volunteered with a few other KCJS students at Mitsuba Kindergarten. Located a short 10 or so minute walk away from campus, the kindergarten is a great place to volunteer if you don’t want to travel too far after classes.

My duties there were pretty much the same as everyone else’s- namely, playing with the kids! I was surprised to see how much more freedom Japanese kindergarteners are given in comparison to American children- rather than having sit down classes, the kids are mostly given free reign to play with some group activities occurring earlier in the day. The kids are shockingly extroverted, and extremely interested in new teachers, so expect to have a couple kids on you at all times!

If you’re thinking of volunteering at Mitsuba or any other kindergarten, I think it’s important to make sure you’re really comfortable with kids. The children range from around 3-6 years old, and thus haven’t really learned about personal space yet. Additionally, although they are cute, I often found myself leaving the CIP much more tired than i went in- the kids are super rambunctious and you will be being dragged around by them. Compared to the other lesson based CIPs, this is definitely more like unpaid work, so keep that in mind! Overall, my experience was really great and I had a fun time running around and playing with the kids during my volunteer time.

Tsuki Carlson: Volunteering at Mitsuba Kindergarten

This semester, I volunteered at Mitsuba Kindergarten (みつば幼稚園) for my CIP. Every Wednesday from 2-4pm, I would walk over to the Kindergarten and spend time with the kids (ages 3-6) playing games, reading picture books, drawing, and of course, supervising along with the other sensei to ensure a safe environment. The kids are incredibly excited to spend time with us volunteers, so it was really easy and heartwarming to connect with them. By the end, they were always sad for us to leave, and it was gratifying to know that we had make an impact on their day.

Through this experience, I not only gained an understanding of the Japanese kindergartens themselves and the free-nature structure of this environment, but also how to communicate with children in both a disciplinary and playful manner. I had not previously considered the cultural differences that may take place in the early education systems, but through observing the sensei-student dynamics and finding my own place within that, I feel grateful to have gained a new perspective through this experience.

I would advise anyone who enjoys spending time with kids to take part in this CIP— I was expecting to have to make a big effort to connect with the kids, but we were immediately warmly greeted and after just one visit, they remembered our names and those relationships deepened over the semester. This CIP is high energy and sometimes loud (you spend more time talking with kids than adults), but the community is so vibrant and anyone who is interested in this environment would be welcomed with open arms (literally, by the kids!).

Adela Schwartz: Weaving

For CIP I took weaving lessons with 河崎先生 and ゆり様. I learned to weave on the loom, develop my ideas into physical form, dye threads, etc. – creating 6 projects this semester (3 scarfs, two mats, and a wall piece). Having this time with 河崎先生 and ゆり様 has left me with much more than a new skill set – I have gained confidence in unfamiliar territory and have grown in my ability to enjoy the present. When I look back on this time and at the pieces I made I will be thinking of the laughs shared and enjoyment in problem solving that I experienced with 河崎先生 and ゆり様. 

My advice around the CIP experience is to be as present as possible – it is easy to fall into routine and feel academic (or other) pressures but I think the CIP is a designated time where your personal growth and wants from study abroad can be centered. Also, I would not be afraid of the “boundaries” or “differences” (ex. Language barrier) you may perceive as hindrances to your ability to connect with those around you – showing up and choosing to be excited about what you are doing is enough to build meaningful relationships with your CIP hosts.

Chiemi Tagami: Japanese Tea Ceremoy

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.

Gavin Scott: Kyoto University Choir

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.

Joe Parker: Volunteering at Fukakusa Kindergarten

For my CIP, I volunteered on a weekly basis at 深草幼稚園, (fukakusa yochien), a kindergarten near Fushimi-Inari. My tasks included playing games, drawing, and otherwise having fun with the kids, as well as preparing Japanese picture books to read and translate into English for them. Aside from just playing with the kids, we also got to teach them many English words, sing English songs, etc. to try and raise their English ability.

I really enjoyed this CIP. The kids are all incredibly cute, extremely nice, and very open. My only worry going into this volunteering program was that it would be difficult to connect with the kids, but that wasn’t true in the slightest. They are extremely excited about your presence, and will happily invite you to play games with them. The kids are very passionate and energetic, which definitely brightened up my days.

If you enjoy working with kids and want the opportunity to see how kindergartens in Japan work, I highly recommend volunteering here! The professors provide an excellent support system and are very clear about the rules. The opportunity to see the kindergartener’s gratitude was a pretty unbeatable feeling, so I’d strongly encourage new KCJS students to apply, even if they haven’t worked with kids before and are just curious!

Me and the other volunteers with the Yochien’s Senseis.

Ben Wolstein: Judo

For my CIP, I joined the Kyoto University Judo Club and Enshin Dojo. At both of these clubs, I had a great experience and made a lot of new friends. As I already had been doing Judo in the U.S. for a couple of years, it was a great way to build on skills that I was already developing, while experiencing it in the place where it was invented. The two dojos were fairly different from each other: the university club held practices almost every day for two and a half hours and focused on newaza (ground techniques) more than tachiwaza (standing techniques). Meanwhile, Enshin dojo held practices twice a week and had people of all ages participating. Even for me as someone who is really passionate about judo, the Kyoto University team was a lot, and if I had continued attending the practices at the same pace throughout the semester that I was at the beginning, my whole experience in Japan would have consisted of judo. I really do feel that I got to make some meaningful relationships through the sport/martial art, and I’m certain that my Japanese improved greatly as a result. I’m really glad I had the chance to practice judo in Japan, and if you would like to as well, I would definitely recommend Enshin Dojo!

Lucy Shauman: Filmmaking Club

For my CIP activity I joined a film club at Kyoto University called “雪だるまプロ.” I have experience working on film sets, so I was hoping that I could use my technical knowledge to make some lasting friendships with Japanese people who share my interests.

Since I joined at the beginning of Kyoto University’s spring break, it took a little while for the club to start making any films; the members where engaged in final exams for the first few weeks I attended their meetings. However, I did finally get to work on one upperclassman’s film set and was offered the role of sound recorder right off the bat. The club’s weekly meetings were usually very short, and I found it difficult to talk to the few members who showed up. However, the set dynamic was much more relaxed, and I was able to interact with people more easily. I definitely felt like part of the team when I could contribute my skills and work with the other members to create a film.

Although I only got to participate in my CIP for about two months due to the unfortunate spread of the Coronavirus, I think I had a very valuable experience. I learned a lot about the differences in how a Japanese film set is run, and was able to develop a Japanese vocabulary pertaining to film terms and equipment; for example, lights (照明), shotgun mic (ガンマイク), and storyboard (絵コンテ) were all words members often used. To my surprise, the club did not begin a take with the classic “lights, camera, action!” directive, but instead started filming after recording the sound file number and counting down following an exclamation of “演技おおい!” I also got to practice operating sound on set, which is something I did not have a lot of experience doing before I arrived in Japan.

While I would say that overall my CIP experience was positive, I had some trouble with this group at the beginning and considered switching activities. My first interaction with the club was very welcoming; I was shown the clubroom and two club members asked me out to dinner with them. However, by the second meeting I felt like that initial interest had altogether vanished, and I spent what short time of the weekly meetings I could trying to get other people to interact with me without coming off as creepy. I usually managed to hold a short conversation with one or two people each meeting, but it was stressful to be the only one asking questions. I decided to stick it out until the first film shoot, and my experience drastically improved once I was able to demonstrate my abilities by participating on set, but for a while I had a pretty isolating experience.

My advice to subsequent students would be to find a group with members who seem genuinely interested in you. If you are not able to make connections within the first few meetings, try a different activity. Your time at KCJS is not nearly as long as you think it is, and ultimately, I think it is more beneficial to find a group that facilitates your ability to practice your Japanese rather than an activity that is directly in line with your interests. In the end, I was disappointed that we were called back from our study abroad just when I was starting to build relationships with my peers in the club. If I had had more time, I think I would have had an even more rewarding experience.

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.