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!

Sean Kwon: Volunteering at Muromachi Children's Center

With the help and counseling from Maeguchi sensei and Nakata sensei, I could join Muromachi jidoukan (children’s center) as a volunteer teacher helping students’ homework and playing with them for my CIP this spring.

Although I was not confident with my Japanese language when I first joined the children’s center, I was warmly greeted by the children and staff at Muromachi jidoukan. They were curious about where I was from, which language I spoke, and customs I was used to. I was surprised how much children were interested to know more about where I was from, languages I spoke, and how old I was–like anywhere else, children were full of questions that were innocent and straightforward.

I was also surprised by how children were playing あやとり (thread game) and 五目並べ (gomoku) that I played in Korea in childhood. I could see how I could overcome barriers in language and customs through such games, as if we spoke the same language. For other traditional Japanese games, children were more than willing to explain the rules over the weeks I was there with patience, so that I became able to play such games with them.

As I came to talk with children over games and their homework, I could pick up some kansaiben that they spoke–virtually all the time. The way children spoke to me was not only fast, but also filled with kansaiben words and accents. After a while, however, I became used to the way they talk and started to mimic them–as if I started to learn a new language. As I came to share the lexicon of children over time, I felt that I became part of the community that I love a lot.

My volunteering experience was a rewarding one where I could be part of the Japanese culture as a teacher and a friend of children who offered me more than I could. To anyone who loves children and would like to be part of the community in Kyoto, I strongly recommend volunteering at Muromachi jidoukan.

Heather Heimbach: Kurama Fine Arts Circle

Doshisha Kurama Fine Arts Circle is exactly how it sounds — the fine arts circle of Doshisha University. Many of the members seem to be studying art at Doshisha, either as an art history major or fine arts. There is a regular meeting once a week, where members gather and practice a type of fine art together. Usually, it is drawing or painting, and the theme is set. In spring semester, I believe that they did more still life drawings. This semester, however, they are preparing for EVE, Doshisha’s cultural festival, during which they plan to sell caricatures and portraits. In preparation for selling caricatures and portraits, all of the weekly meetings I have been to have been dedicated to drawing face portraits.

There are also meetings outside of the regular meetings in preparation for the cultural festival. I went to help only once, and after that it hasn’t fit into my schedule well. One observation about the Doshisha circles is that they are much more active than clubs at my home University. By active, I mean people seem to have a lot more free time to spend at the circle, so they hang out in the clubroom or help prepare for events outside of “regular meeting” times. Some people seem to spend nearly everyday preparing for the festival–which is something that is difficult for KCJS students due to the level of homework, and in turn made me feel guilty for not being able to help out more. From what I’ve heard from Japanese students, the level of work is not that much in college, and so hanging around a circle for a long time is feasible for many of them. 

However, hearing other members talk about the festival preparations, as well having participating in the preparation, has been an interesting experience. As American universities don’t commonly have big college-wide festivals as they do in Japan, I did not realize how much work every circle puts into preparing for the festival. Furthermore, senpai-kouhai relationships become very clear during the preparation, because even if kouhai are taking on a management position, the senpai oversees the kouhai, and always has the final word. The senpai in Kurama often took on roles that no one else wanted to do, and his wallet was used for a lot of the shopping for the event (though the funds used are club funds). Many of the members called him not by his name, but simply “senpai.” Although of course there are multiple upperclassmen in the club, that particularly senpai was referred to as “senpai.”  He was also good about reaching out and welcoming all the members, including teaching me how to play tetris on their game station.

I’m not really a fan of senpai-kouhai relationships, but it was interesting to see the hierarchy in the club. Also, almost all of the members, except for the fourth-years, used desu-masu form when talking. However, no one used the special keigo phrases, like shiteirasshaimasu, as that would most likely be considered laughable.

The good thing is that the regular meetings are fairly easy to get the gist of if you have done art class before. However, many of the members are pretty quiet, though a few are talkative, and many people don’t talk that much while drawing. My advice is that you probably shouldn’t join this circle unless you love art, because otherwise, it could be difficult to enjoy the circle time.

Antonio Mckinney: Koto Lessons

This past semester, for my CIP project, I had the opportunity to take koto lessons at Greenwich House. Learning how to play the koto has been a long time desire of mine so I was excited to start classes, to say the least. Through one of the Japanese teachers who also takes classes at Greenwich House I was put in contact with Iwasaki Sensei and soon after had my first class.

When I arrived on the first day, I was warmly greeted by two of Iwasaki Sensei’s experienced students who began to show me the rendition of Sakura and a number of other folk songs that I would be practicing for the next semester. It’s a little embarrassing to admit but when I arrived that day, because I was expecting the students to be my age or younger, I mistook one of the women to be Iwasaki Sensei. It wasn’t until half an hour into the class that I finally realized that the person sitting next to me was actually a student and that Iwasaki Sensei wasn’t even there yet. However, it became very clear who Iwasaki Sensei was once she did arrive because immediately after, to my delight and horror, we played through the entire number as a full ensemble. Rather, I should say, the rest of the class played the entire number as an ensemble. I just plucked some random strings in the background. Despite my complete lack of ability as a beginner, because I had tried to engage as much as possible the rest of the class kindly accepted me and I was able to enjoy my first attempt at playing the koto.

As I continued to return to Greenwich House for weekly classes it soon became apparent to me that the classroom Iwasaki Sensei had cultivated was warm, friendly and because of the communal closeness the lines between Sensei and teacher were casual and unassuming. Before class, arriving students are always enthusiastically greeted, no one gets mad when we have to stop playing to help someone understand a portion of music and on Mondays Iwasaki Sensei and any interested students go out for dinner. There was even an occasion when one of the Obasans, on the first day she met me, invited me over to her house to continue practicing folk songs while we waited for the rest of the class to finish playing an enka piece.

With the students being so friendly and easygoing starting up a conversation is never difficult and I often found myself chit-chatting with other students before the teacher arrived. These casual conversations have been a lot of fun and great Japanese practice as I will often have to put my listening skills to the test to understand a few of the student’s Kansai-ben. However, even if there are times when I mishear something or struggle to convey an idea clearly any of the discomfort that might arise as a result soon fades away once we begin to play.

Actually learning how to play the koto has exceeded all my expectations and getting to learn from Iwasaki Sensei and the other students at Greenwich House has been a truly special experience. For those of you want to learn how to play the Koto or simply want a supportive community to practice your Japanese in I would definitely suggest you stop by Greenwich house. I am confident that if you are excited to engage with Iwasaki Sensei and the other students everyone at Greenwich house will welcome you with open arms.

Kanoa Mendenhall: Jazz Bass

Although I initially wanted to explore and try a new activity, I continued playing jazz bass (my line of work back in America) for my CIP here in Kyoto and Osaka. It has been a wonderful experience being able to participate in the Kansai jazz scene while at KCJS this spring semester.

As all jazz musicians do to get introduced to the local scene, I started off by going to a jam session in the area in order to meet local musicians. This was one of the main objectives of my CIP – to continue going to a regular session that had other members consistently participating.

The first session I attended was a weekly jam hosted by Kyoto University’s student-run jazz circle. The sessions were how typical jazz jam sessions go; a newly fused band collectively chose standards from the Great American Songbook and improvised on these tunes. Students from KyoDai as well as students from additional neighboring universities were involved in these sessions. Getting to know these students from various areas eventually led to participation in other jam sessions at other universities and venues.

As the semester progressed, not only did I get to know fellow musicians my age, but also people from a wide age range who shared a similar passion for jazz. Meeting people from different backgrounds and generations allowed me to practice my keigo and respectful expressions a fair bit. In addition, I had to do quite a lot of writing/messaging to people who I had just met at each session, which was good practice.

One aspect that varied a bit from gatherings in America was the formality, such as saying よろしくお願いします to all of the other members on the bandstand without fail before playing each tune (at jam sessions). This surprised me quite a bit at first, and was a shock compared to the cold, cutthroat atmosphere of New York jam sessions. Also, it has been confusing to decipher the distance between musicians and when to use honorifics. The jazz scene in Japan is unique in the case where numerous musicians have studied or lived in America, therefore demonstrating the vibe and casual approach of American jazz musicians (slang, handshakes, affirmative shouts during performance, etc.), yet there are still limits to how close you can get to a person, especially if there is a rank/age difference. I once called a club owner (who lived in New York for multiple years, knows jazz culture well) that I thought I had established a firm connection with (after multiple casual interactions) by their first name, and they reacted quite hostilely. It took some time getting used to, but overall I found that musicians in the Kansai area are friendlier and supportive of each other, which I wish there was more of in New York City.

These jam sessions ultimately lead to a few performances in formal settings, called by members I met at jam sessions such as the one at Kyoto University. The performances typically involved rehearsals and preparation beforehand, and involved some energy and time. Nevertheless, they were highly rewarding, and I’m especially grateful to the teachers and friends from KCJS who came to my gigs. Continuing music while in Kyoto was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience, and has provided much joy and language practice as well as career connections that are sure to be useful in the future. There were some language barriers at times, but music, especially jazz, is a language and mode of communication itself.