Jiarui Yang: Volunteering at Children's Cafeteria (子ども食堂)

This semester I volunteered at Happiness Children’s Cafeteria. In this cafeteria, every Wednesday dinners are offered for free for kids from low-income families. Every Monday, the cafeteria also serves as a study room for kids to do their homework.

I went there every Wednesday from 5 pm to 8 pm. Volunteers’ duties include serving dinner, washing the dishes, cleaning up, and playing with kids. There were plenty of opportunities to communicate with kids and other volunteers.

Advice to incoming students: the children’s cafeteria had a chill and casual atmosphere. It is great for anyone who enjoys hanging out with kids. Plus, volunteers can also enjoy free meals with the kids.

Amanda Mihovilovic: English with Kindergarteners

Nearly every week beginning in October of the fall semester, I began volunteering at Fukakusa Kindergarten. A small kindergarten nestled in a residential area on the other side of the Kamo River, I remember how nervous I was my first day! However, all the staff were extremely kind and helpful, making sure I knew what I would be doing with the kids. My time with the kids was comprised of lots of English picture books, random vocabulary the kids wanted to know, and lots of free play time!

I was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic the kindergarteners were! Every week they entered the room full of excitement, and would come right up to me to ask to play together or just to ask me how to say certain words in English. As excited as they were to learn from me, I approached every visit just as excited to learn from them. Although not in any formal capacity, through the children and staff I learned so much about how schools operate in Japan! From how snack time and free play time works, to just simply how removing your shoes inside the school is a strictly adhered by custom. I was treated with the utmost respect as just a student visitor, and I was blown away by how much of a positive experience my CIP ended up being. More practically, I learned a lot more about Kansai-ben! While this dialect is often heard in Kyoto, across the Kamo River it’s almost all you exclusively hear from the locals. Picking up Kansai-ben in my interactions with the staff and the students really helped me feel more confident in my Japanese as a whole.

My CIP experience is one I’m eternally grateful for, and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to participate in it thanks to the help of the KCJS office. Exploring an area of Kyoto I had previously never seen, interacting with a dialect I was unfamiliar with but wanted to learn, and simply being able to be around the cutest children I’ve ever seen are memories and lessons I will never forget.

Lisa Morton: Intern at Misonou Lab

For my CIP, I was lucky enough to volunteer as a research intern in the Misonou Lab at the Doshisha Graduate School of Brain Sciences. The lab focuses on the cell biology of neurons, specifically the nature of tau proteins and the role they play in the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. The work being done in Misonou sensei’s lab is fascinating, and it was humbling to get to witness the day-to-day work that (I believe) will amount to life-improving findings. I primarily spent my time assisting two PhD students in the lab, and in them, I feel like I have found not only mentors and role models but true friends. Initially, our relationship was quite professional, but we bonded through the challenges and successes we shared in the lab. At first, I wondered if this bond I felt I shared with them was all in my head. I figured to them, I might be more of a burden than anything — that American intern who doesn’t understand any Japanese scientific terms and gets in the way more than she helps. A few weeks into interning, however, they began inviting me to hang out and explore Kyoto and Osaka on the weekends. Having afternoon tea in Osaka Castle park and admiring a lunar eclipse together with them have got to be some of my most treasured memories from all of KCJS. Misonou sensei once told me that he was excited to have me as an intern because he thought my “American friendliness” might help bring his busy grad students out of their shells. This was immediately hilarious to me as an introverted over-thinker, and I worried that I might let him down somehow. After all, the grad students were undeniably incredibly busy, and at first, were incredibly formal and serious. I now believe this to be less about them having shy personalities or them playing into Japanese social customs and more about the deep respect they have for each other and for the work at hand. This is something I truly admire and will take away with me as I continue my studies in America. Because this respect is something we all mutually shared (and because I may be undermining American stereotypes with my lack of outgoingness), our bond was slow to form but is deep. I am incredibly grateful for this. When I return to America, I hope to stay in touch with everyone in the lab, and even have plans to meet one of the grad students next year at a neuroscience conference!

Christine Ahn : Shamisen Lessons

For my CIP, I chose to learn the Shamisen under Iwasaki sensei. Since previous students from KCJS had already taken lessons from her, it was easy to start (although contacting her was a bit of a struggle since she was always out when we called). On the first day, I was nervous but going with another KCJS student, Alexis, made it less stressful. The first day, we were welcomed in during the middle of a lesson, which felt more like a rehearsal. Like previous posts already made, the lessons aren’t really like lessons and more of practicing together. By playing with the other students, I found myself slowly improving while having fun. The other students were all old, but they were energetic and treated us kindly. They even sent us back home with chocolates on the first day. 

I knew that I wanted to push myself to talk more so I would also ask a few questions here and there whether it be about trying to understand the sheet music (which is very different from western sheet music) or asking how long they’ve been playing. It was hard for me to start or continue a conversation but luckily, the other students, and Alexis who came with me, were pretty talkative.  During lessons, everyone mainly focuses on playing the piece so there isn’t much opportunity to talk then. It may be different depending on when you set your lesson time since each time we came in, the students there were already rehearsing a piece so there was no chance to talk before a lesson. After each lesson, however, they offered to treat us out to dinner providing an optimal time to chat with them and the teacher. It was interesting to me that even though they were much, much older than us, they told us to call them by their nicknames and gave us nicknames too. They told us some stories about themselves and in exchange, we also gave some of our own. I also saw that even quieter students became so talkative after they started drinking.

Since our program in Japan ended abruptly, I couldn’t properly say bye to them but was able to eat with Iwasaki sensei one last time before leaving. I was able to talk a lot then and before we left, she showed us around an antique cafe she liked (The interior was really cool. I highly recommend asking her about it so you can go too). I really enjoyed how kind the other students and teacher were, even though it was awkward at times. If I could go more times, I think instead of relying on the other students to talk, I would’ve definitely pushed myself to talk even more and try to practice keigo more with the teacher. They understand we’re learning Japanese and have fun hearing us talk so I recommend just saying anything, even if it sounds dumb, off, or random, and to try to treat them as friends (with respect though). Overall, the experience was really enjoyable. However, my goal was to be in a CIP with a lot of people to talk with so this fulfills that but if you want to make friends with younger people, I would suggest finding an active club.

Sophie Matsumoto: Bible Study

When I came to Japan, I wanted to get involved in Japanese life in a way that felt natural for me. I am involved in a Christian organization on the Cornell campus, and I was hoping to get involved in one on the Doshisha campus. I found out about KGK イエス会through a teacher and some friends, and I decided to attend their Monday afternoon Bible study. Since majority of the members are Japanese students, we read and discuss the Bible in Japanese. We have been reading through the book of Revelation each week. As one of the more complicated books in the Bible, it has been difficult to understand in a language that is not my mother tongue. However, I have been able to learn a lot from reading both the English translation and the Japanese translation. It has been a great experience for me in terms of improving my Japanese vocabulary knowledge, learning about Japanese culture, and learning more about the Bible.

When it came to the discussions, I noticed how they differed from ones I was used to in America. In America, I was accustomed to loud discussions where people are quick to speak their opinion. While it is important to express one’s opinion, I really appreciated how all of the Japanese students would take the time to try to understand everyone’s opinions before expressing their own. It is a style of discussion that I would like to take home to America with me because it makes people unafraid to share their feelings and opinions.

After living in Japan for a while, I have come to realize how Christian community looks different in Japan compared to what it looks like in America. Since Japan has such a small population of Christians, I found it to be a little more difficult to find a Christian community here. America has many places for people to find community, so people sometimes switch from group to group or place to place. In Japan, however, there are not too many places to find the community they want, but since it is difficult to find, people treasure it when they do find it. They create a small support system for the people in their community and act as an open space for anyone to join. Since everyone knows each other for the most part, they are able to get to know each other better and offer support easily. I really appreciated feeling a part of their community immediately by getting to have conversations with each person individually. The students in the Bible study have all been extremely welcoming to everyone.

It has been interesting to learn about what Christianity in Japan and America looks like from the other students’ perspectives. We have been able to discuss differences in culture and the way Christianity can be framed within them. For example, although people in Japan and America identify as Christian, values differ from person to person in both countries. Another example is the culture surrounding religion and the perception of American mega churches from Japanese people. Although many of our discussions revolved around serious topics, we have had a lot of fun just getting together and reading the Bible. Besides weekly Bible studies, they hold occasional events, such as takoyaki parties, where everyone just spends time together to get to know one another. Being a part of this group has obviously been a great way for me to learn more about Japan and the Bible, but it has also been a great way for me to make friends. It has allowed me to get more involved on the Doshisha campus and feel more at home in Japan.

Benjamin Hofing: Ultimate Frisbee

For my CIP, I joined various Ultimate Frisbee teams around Kyoto. Since I have been playing Ultimate for years already, this seemed like a good choice for me. I thought it would be much easier to communicate since I already knew plenty of things about the sport. I could not have been more wrong. While it definitely helped that I already knew the jist of what was going on, I sometimes had a tough time understanding what was going on.

Fortunately, everyone was very accommodating. When I couldn’t understand some of what was going on, someone would sit with me and draw the situation out, explaining the necessary vocabulary as we went. In addition, there were a few people who spoke English, who occasionally helped me out when I was struggling really badly.

At first, when I found out there were several people who could speak English, I was nervous that I would become reliant on them: it would be far easier to speak with them in English, and then have them help translate into Japanese, than it would be for me to learn the myriad of vocabulary that would be necessary to explain myself. If this had happened, I don’t think I would have gotten much out of this experience. But it didn’t. Instead, I forced myself to speak Japanese, even when I was talking with the people who could speak English. At first, it was very difficult, but I slowly acclimated. Since I sometimes had practice on both Saturdays and Sundays, it got to a point where I would go whole weekends without speaking English. Thanks to this, I got lots of speaking practice, while having fun at the same time.

Angel Yi Fei Ding : Shamisen

My first time encountering the shamisen was at a taiko performance by a student group named Yamatai on Cornell’s campus. I remember sitting in the massive concert hall and awing at the explosive, yet pure beats accompanied by two Japanese pluck instruments. During the performance, one string on one instrument snapped, but the performer remained calm and continued the notes with the remaining strings.

As music has been a part of my life in many different ways and forms over the past 15 years, I decided to keep it in my life even during my times abroad. Learning a traditional Japanese instrument became a natural option and drawing from my memory regarding that taiko performance I saw over a year ago, that accompanying instrument came to mind. I decided to learn the shamisen. With the recommendations of KCJS teachers, I, along with another KCJS student who wanted to learn the koto, contacted Iwasaki Sensei. My CIP became one of the best highlights of my time in Kyoto.

It is fair to say that Chloe and I walked into the unknown. With the help of our teacher, we called Iwasaki sensei in somewhat broken Japanese and arranged to meet that exact afternoon. I thought we were simply meeting to introduce ourselves, but we jumped into practice, and Tuesdays became our lesson time. In the first two weeks or so, Iwasaki sensei taught me shamisen basics like reading traditional Japanese music notation and learning the basic positions. Coming from over 15 years of violin practice, I was able to catch the basic, basic, fundamentals, and we moved onto pieces.

Iwasaki sensei’s classroom is conducted in a fairly unique style with students of all sorts of backgrounds. Our usual Tuesday group ranges from a 6-year-old pre-elementary girl to 60-year-old grandmas, and we always have so much fun. Since I don’t have other activities planned on Tuesdays, I tend to spend around 3 hours at the studio. We play different pieces, varying in difficulty, and I often have flashbacks of my time back in orchestra when we have multiple shakuhachis 「尺八」( bamboo flute), kotos 「琴」(Japanese harp), and shamisens 「三味線」play all together.

This classroom was also the perfect place to observe Kansai’s hospitality and customs. The students spoke with kansaiben「関西弁」 and used kansai-keigo「関西敬語」 ( which is the best invention) and interacted with each other in a fun way. Sometimes different students would bring omiyage「お土産」 or ogashi「お菓子」, and we would teatime in between the lesson and chat freely.

It has been an amazing time, and I really look forward to our Christmas performance on December 14th. I will cherish the few weeks we have left with the small studio and make the best out of it.

Rebecca N. Clark, Iaidô (Spring Semester)

I hate stage fright —the way it feels like there’s a riot of dancing mad butterflies in your stomach and a jackhammer where your heart should be; the distinctive itch along the nape of your neck as you imagine all eyes on you; the fear of overhearing whispers commenting on what you did, or did not, do to mess up. Unsurprisingly, it’s scarier when you don’t fully understand what people are saying, when every whisper you hear could just as likely be about you as someone else if only you could understand the language enough to tell the difference.

During the month of training leading up to my first competition in iaidô —Japanese sword-drawing— I couldn’t keep these thoughts out of my head. They kept creeping up on me, pouncing right when I would reach for the hilt of my sword, turning a smooth draw into a stuttering, stumbling flail of limbs and blunted steel. My senseis at the dojo probably noticed it, the way I shied from being in the front row of any in-dojo demonstration or the look of terror that I never managed to hide fast enough when they asked me to perform solo to demo a new technique. One day, as we put the finishing touches on our routines the Sunday before competition, we held a mock competition. As each flight stepped up and ran through the four kata (routines) we had to perform, each person called out their number and the name of our dojo’s style, musoujikiden eishinryuu. When my turn came, I took a breath and started to speak, gripping my sword, sheathed at my left hip, like a lifeline. I made it through the number, but then the name of the style came.

MusojMusokideMusokiden enryuu,” I finally stuttered out, face probably as pink as my practice kimono. It was embarrassing, to say the least, that I messed up something as simple as our style’s name, but we had to keep the mock competition going. After a quick correction from the head sensei, N-sensei, my flight and I completed out set and soon the mock competition was over.

The dojo’s de facto mother figure, H-sensei, had of course been watching, and when we split off into belt groups she took over teaching mine and started by having me practice saying our introductions. I could do it if I went slow, but it sounded odd coming after the confident declarations of my belt-mates. Rather than letting me apologize, she waved her hand in that affectionately dismissive way few can pull off and turned to all of us. With a clap of her hands she declared,

“We’re all your nakama. And so we’re going to help you.”

Then she turned to the native Japanese speakers and had them all say their introductions again, but this time at a steady and slow pace that I could match. I was stunned at hearing her declare us all to be nakama —friends who share a close bound and look out for the well-being of each other and the group— and felt myself wanting to cry at the sincerity and acceptance with which she said that and at the grins the other students immediately sent my way.

We all sounded the same when H-sensei was done with us, and as she went off to talk with another student, I apologized again to the other students, feeling bad for inconveniencing them. They just chuckled, and K-san, a feisty young woman the same age as me, replied with her trademark smirk,

Isshou ni ganbarou!” (We’ll do this together!)

Then the call for us to lineup and ceremonially remove our swords for the final time as practice ended went out and we all scrambled for our places. I smiled through the whole thing.

When competition day came, I was nervous, but not nearly as much as I would have been if I didn’t know I had my dojo-mates and senseis, my nakama, standing beside me and supporting me. My flight went up, and we all said our introductions, my own fitting in right alongside theirs, even if the American accent I can never seem to shake fully was still there. It was over in a flash and we walked off the stage together, laughing with the aftereffects of nerves and congratulating each other on a job well done as our senseis smiled in approval.

In the end, I didn’t place, but I still consider the memory of that experience alongside the men and women who count me —and I them— as their nakama to be one of my dearest from my time here. Moreover, I learned first-hand about the importance of teamwork in Japanese group mentality and how that translates into experiences such as my own, where the members of a group look out for the well-being of both each other and the group as a whole. Though this is not a quality unique to Japanese culture and society, it is one for which my experience here in Japan, interacting with the Japanese, has been all the richer.

Gita Connolly: NICCO (NGO) Intern

After searching for NGOs in the Kyoto area that focus on international development, I decided to join NICCO for one of my CIP. NICCO stands for the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development, and this NPO (as non-profits are called in Japan) supports self-reliance projects in developing countries around the world as well as right here in Japan. I mainly serve as a translator from Japanese or Hindi to English for online publications or information from partners on upcoming projects, but also get to enjoy just volunteering at events, such as their annual charity run along the river at Demachiyanagi. Although I am really close with some of the other interns, one staff member in particular took me under his wing, gifting me manga for kanji practice, teaching me about various Japanese historical events in the area, sharing interesting folk stories, and correcting my Japanese grammar in exchange for my help with English or explanations of American events like Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

I had many great experiences while interning, but the most interesting part was simply learning all of the small habits unique to Japanese office culture. I experienced more than my fair share of mishaps and misunderstandings during my fifteen hours/week at NICCO, especially when just joining the office. When I showed up to the NICCO office (a cozy machiya-style building) for the first time to “talk with them”, I met with four staff members for an hour or so and answered questions. To my surprise, afterwards they asked me to walk into the main office room (momentarily pausing work for everyone else seated at their desks, typing away) to give a brief self-introduction.  I realized later that our little chat was actually considered an interview, and somehow I had managed to pass their intern criteria and that’s why they had gone ahead and introduced me as a new team member.

The second time I came into the office, when I had just sat down at the intern desk, one of the staff members suddenly announced that some kind of meeting was starting and everyone around the room stood up immediately. After a couple seconds I realized that they were holding this meeting for my sake, and promptly (embarrassedly) stood up while everyone began very formally introducing themselves in keigo. Since I was only used to attending meetings where people either stand up and talk one at a time so that everyone focuses on them, or we all just stay seated, the whole process of going around the room while everyone is standing and presenting overly-formal intros was quite a surprise. Despite these formal intros, however, we all share snacks and make jokes in a very friendly work environment, with one co-worker (to my great surprise and amusement) even laughingly commenting on my Kansai-ben. It is simply a fact of office culture that the standard soro soro shitsureishimasu-es upon leaving are always met with a hearty assault of otsukarasamadesu-es.

I’m especially entertained by one other office tradition, the aizuchi (emphatic interjections to show that they are listening) that everyone uses while talking to the founder of NICCO or while on the phone. Other than just being extremely polite to their superiors (as an employee would do in any office), they speak in a voice about an octave higher, use hesitant tones to ask questions that they already know the answer to, or soften even the smallest of requests. Another intern and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh as, just a couple meters away, one co-worker emitted an enthusiastic “hai!” every two seconds while the shachou explained directions. The best part is, I notice a lot of people smile to themselves while watching others make these seemingly-ridiculous aizuchi, and yet these laughing people make the same exact aizuchi when talking to the shachou as well. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Rebecca N. Clark: Iaidô (Japanese Swordsmanship)

   Iaidô is a sport —and an art— that I’ve wanted to learn since I first heard of its existence several years ago as a freshman in college. The fluid power and steady grace of iaidô practitioners’ movement transfixed me as I replayed YouTube videos and followed along as best I could as swords flashed through the air.


Presentation of members before the grand master at a joint gathering of dojos

When I learned that I had been accepted into the KCJS program with its Community Involvement Project (CIP) requirements for us students, my top pick for the CIP was very obvious. With the assistance of the teachers and staff, I was able to find and join an iaidô dôjô in nearby Hirakata city and soon found myself immersed in a vibrant, close-knit community of martial arts enthusiasts. The people I met there have been nothing short of kind and helpful, making sure that, even with the language barrier, I am able to make it to practices and luncheons every week (the dôjô has no physical presence and as a result, practices are held at a different community center each weekend), and they have even included me in the carpool system that ensures members of all ages and locales are able to arrive on time.

Putting on the iaidô uniform proved to a ready catalyst for bonding among myself and the other female members. We all chuckled good-naturedly over my utter confusion as I attempted to wrangle a kaku obi —a stiff cloth wound around the waist to hold the sword

From top to bottom, left to right: sword carrying case; cloth sword cover; kimono; hakama; kaku obi; iaitô; sheath; knee pads

and belt the kimono— into place and keep my hakama —wide-legged pants— in place throughout the three-hour practices. This same uniform also quickly proved to be my biggest reminded of the kindness and generosity of my dôjô-mates. Every time I look in the mirror of the community center’s practice hall, I see the soft gray of my kimono, the heavy black cotton of my hakama, and the lacquered sheath of my iaitô —a blunt-edged sword— and am reminded of how these items were either gifted or loaned to me so that I could practice with the proper equipment from day one. For example, when we figured out that the iaitô I had been using was hindering me because of the length, a member volunteered his extra iaitô that was short enough for someone with my five-foot-even stature to wield.

As with any new sport, I had to learn a whole new way of moving and then how to control each of these motions —such as the initially awkward motion of drawing a sword— in a process that, unsurprisingly, had its hiccups. One such instance is how I, unused to the wide flowing sleeves of my kimono, have a tendency to catch the hilt of my iaitô in the cuff while drawing. In response, the elder gentleman who oversees my training paused the lesson and carefully explained to me how to remedy the problem with a needle and thread when I got home by making the sleeve opening smaller and so allowing me to move more freely. Moments like this, where help and instruction are so readily offered with a smile and steady patience, have come to define my time at the iaidô dôjô and I wear the reminder of my dôjô-mates’ kindness every time I step out onto the mats alongside them.