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.

Mira Gordon: Town Revitalization in the Kyoto Countryside

For my CIP, I participated in two different groups that work on 町おこし, or town revitalization, in the countryside outside of Kyoto. One of the groups was the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative, where I shadowed their young farming representative, Yoshida-san. The other group was the Kyoto Seika University Takarasagashikai, a student circle that works revitalizing the town of Utsu, in the northern countryside of Kyoto, under the supervision of Humanities Professor Tamura sensei. As I was participating in two different groups, I alternated visiting one group per week, sometimes visiting both in the same week. Combining my CIP with my independent research on Japanese town revitalization, I used it as an opportunity to conduct ethnographic fieldwork by meeting and talking with a variety of people involved in such efforts.

Because of the multi-faceted nature of my CIP, every day was different. On the days that I participated in the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative, I would take the JR train about half an hour outside of Kyoto to Sonobe, Nantan. There, Yoshida-san would pick me up and tell me the day’s activities. Yoshida-san’s farming specialty is sweet potatoes, so one day I helped him bury last year’s leftover sweet potatoes, in order to form new sprouts for this year’s crop. He also took me to meet one of his neighbors, a farmer who has kindly welcomed Yoshida-san into the Nantan community and given him a lot of practical farming advice. One day Yoshida-san took me to an 朝市, or morning market, which functions both as a farmer’s market and community gathering space. There I had the incredible opportunity to chat with and interview several community leaders, and witness 炭焼き, traditional charcoal-making, in action. For the Seika University Takarasagashikai, I attended two club meetings, and also visited Utsu’s morning market once. One thing I really enjoyed about the Takarasagashikai was having the opportunity to interact with students my age. The club had a casual and fun atmosphere, and there was a lot of joking and chatting as we put together an informational pamphlet about their club and planned activities and games to play with the kids of Utsu at an upcoming retreat.

Overall, I was blown away by the warmth and welcome I received from everybody I met. Though neither group had ever had an exchange student participant before, both Yoshida-san and Tamura sensei worked to accommodate me and kindly found me many opportunities to talk to different people. Thus, through my CIP I had the chance to use Japanese in a variety of settings with people of all different ages, some of whom had strong regional dialects. It was incredibly special to be able to get different local people’s perspectives on the declining countryside population, and hear what they think can be done about it. Another thing I valued about my CIP was that it enabled me to get out of the city and enjoy the breathtakingly beautiful mountains and forests of the surrounding countryside. 

Even for those who aren’t researching town revitalization, I would highly recommend the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative to anybody who wants the opportunity to experience the Japanese countryside, and I would recommend the Takarasagashikai to anybody who wants to interact with a very fun group of college students. Though it was cut short, my CIP was hands down the best part of my study abroad in Kyoto.

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.

Oliver Bauer-Nathan: Volunteering at Soup Kitchen/kodomo shokudō

On Thursdays, Sophie, Jared, and I head down to Kujō Station, where we begin the short walk to the kodomo shokudō. Located in a primarily Zainichi Korean neighborhood, due to discrimination against Zainichi Koreans, there is a real need for a place where kids can come and receive free meals and adults can receive inexpensive ones. By the time we arrive, final set-up is being done for the day. At first, the jobs include plating food, taking orders, serving food, and washing dishes, and, once we close, vacuuming, cleaning tables, etc. I’ve found that working here is very fulfilling and that we actually have the ability to make a difference, however small it may be, and contribute meaningfully to the community.

Before coming, due to stereotypes that Japanese people tend to be very formal and aware of hierarchy, I was a bit nervous, especially given the fact that I had not learned keigo yet. However, I was surprised to find that people there were quite informal—people often use contractions, short form, and don’t finish sentences—and that it felt a lot like when I had volunteered at a soup kitchen in the United States. However, when we were added to the group chat, I was surprised to find that people used quite formal Japanese in the group chat. It seems that formality is more important in written Japanese, even group messaging, than in person.

I’ve been humbled and grateful to be able to volunteer at the kodomo shokudō, even if I feel that my weakness in Japanese is sometimes a hinderance to me being helpful. Thankfully, they are quite forgiving whenever I have trouble understanding. In fact, I feel that they’ve taken me in as a part of the community in a way that I did not expect. For example, whenever I arrive, I am often greeted warmly, and people are eager to talk to me and include me in banter. Although a language and culture barrier separates us, they do their best to include me and keep me in the loop, even during busy hours. I will be very sad to say goodbye when I leave for the last time next week.


Gabrielle Chen: Volunteering at Bazaar Cafe

Throughout the semester I volunteered at a small café located near Doshisha called Bazaar Café. What initially attracted me to this particular place was its policy on accommodating all kinds of people, regardless of things like sexuality, illness, nationality, etc. I don’t think minority experiences are what one typically has in mind when they think of Japanese culture, or any kind of culture, so I joined out of a curiosity to see what that might look like.

I wasn’t surprised to find that it was just an ordinary café. Every Wednesday I simply washed dishes and chatted with my co-workers, something I found to be quite enjoyable. Of course, at the start I had my own preconceptions of what “immersing myself in Japanese society” would be like when I volunteered. It’s hard not to default to generalizations, especially ones as unique as Japan’s. I was worried about being formal and how much making mistakes in my Japanese would affect my relationships with the other workers. However, on my first day I was immediately given the nickname “Gabby-chan” by my co-workers who also introduced themselves with a nickname using the honorific “chan”. The atmosphere of the café wasn’t formal at all, and I would speak both politely and somewhat casually without anyone remarking on it. My co-workers joked around often despite the age differences between them, and would often involve me in these jokes as if I had been there for as long as they had.

It was things like this that made me quickly realize that I couldn’t draw any concrete conclusions about Japanese culture from my time volunteering at the café. My co-workers would also switch between speaking formally and speaking casually. They wouldn’t talk about themselves too much or about Japan, because it wasn’t as relevant as what needed doing around the café. The most “Japanese” things I observed were all the shoes out on the veranda that you took off before you came inside, and now I know that Shizuoka is famous for its eel dishes. To replace this lack of cultural observation, I found that I was able to deconstruct ideas I previously held instead. For example, I’ve learned in my Japanese classes that “umai” isn’t typically used by women. Neither is “azasu”, but one of my female co-workers used those kinds of masculine words very often. This particular instance reminded me that to learn about a place you really have to experience things on an individual level, and not expect behaviour that you only learn about in a classroom to apply to an entire country.

I think my CIP experience has been very rewarding and I would definitely recommend volunteering at Bazaar Café to people looking for something both fun and low energy, workwise. However, I will say that volunteering here is very much what you make of it for yourself. Everyone was very kind to me. They’d chat with me whenever the café wasn’t particularly busy, or offer me whichever random snacks they had around the kitchen. But there were also slow days where I didn’t say much at all. I had to push myself to be social and gradually overcome a fear of making mistakes that would sometimes hold me back when it came to conversations. It was very much an experience I benefitted from because I made the conscious decision to speak more each time I went, and my advice would be to do the same.

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 Lombardo: Volunteering (“Interning”) at Impact HUB

I had the chance to assist the staff at Impact Hub Kyoto as my Community Involvement Project this semester.

Impact Hub is a non-profit organization that provides working space for community businesses to utilize and collaborate, hosts events promoting local social and entrepreneurial initiative, and provides an international network of “Hub Members”. At the Hub here in Kyoto, my main objective was to assist the Hub associates with small projects and to get to know the large community of members that frequented the Hub each Thursday. I also had the pleasure of attending and assisting with setup and cleanup of  a couple of events.

From the very first day I went to Hub to meet with my first point of contact, Asada-san, I was struck by a well established yet fluid system of honorific language used among the Hub associates, towards and among the Hub members, and with me. Even after several weeks chatting together, Asada-san, and the head of Hub Kyoto, Asai-san, continued to use very formal language with me. Although at first I didn’t understand, however, especially given the nature of our relationship – I am doing them a favor helping with work, and they were doing me a favor by taking me on like an “intern” – I came to see how the register of the Hub associates speech matched our roles, and created an overall pleasant, polite atmosphere throughout the working space.

In addition, I got to meet many different entrepreneurs and company employees through the Hub associates, and as these new acquaintances would introduce me to their co-workers. I’ve come to appreciate the process of introducing myself to others and how one tailors common phrases and sayings based on to whom one is talking, and then builds natural conversation from the common ground established. And the conversations, although usually brief, are still so interesting, given the variety of businesses and organizations that come by the Hub.

My advice to anyone would be here: while I think I did well getting to meet many people, and navigating the space and interactions politely, sometimes I think I was not direct enough, and did not push myself enough to talk more with people, missing out on a more fully engaging with such a cool community. While the members and associates may be busy, and so may I with whatever task I had for the day, I wish I had tried more to talk to everyone about their work, and tell them about mine – in the spirit of the collaborative space of this CIP itself!