Esja Staggs: Calligraphy Club

Before coming to Japan, one of my goals for my time abroad was to learn 書道, and so I decided to attempt to join the Doshisha calligraphy club. Unfortunately, the Doshisha calligraphy club did not meet until the beginning of their semester, and so it was impossible to actually start my CIP until well into October. Moreover, since I reached out to the club officers via email, it was extremely difficult to maintain contact and decide on a time that I could participate in their meetings. Eventually, however, I was able to meet with one of the club officers, who then lead me to the clubroom at the Shinmachi campus. Before entering the room, it was necessary to first knock, and then say 失礼します while opening the door. Although I did not speak directly to many of the other club members, I would overhear their conversations while I practiced. Particularly, I noticed the level of formality and/or informality of the conversations, as well as the use of Kansai-ben and colloquial speech. As 書道 is by its very nature a quiet activity, I did not speak to anyone in the room besides the club member that was assisting me for the day. Consequently, most of my observations pertaining to culture and language were vicarious. Although I still do not know the names of any of the 部員 that have gone out of their way to sit with me for well over an hour and (arguably in vain) teach me how to write characters that they learned as schoolchildren, I am extremely grateful that they allowed a 留学生 such as myself to take up their time and resources.

Alex Hutchins: Bazaar Cafe

I have enjoyed volunteering at Bazaar Cafe on Friday afternoons for many more reasons other than my love of doing dishes. This is to say that I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet people in Japan who embody narratives outside of the societal norm — who break down oft-repeated monolithic statements about Japan’s cultural homogeneity. Granted, I came into this experience with a certain level of background knowledge surrounding Japan’s cultural diversity, but it is another thing in its entirety to meet and speak with people who have had those experiences. I have witnessed a group of people — there are a wonderful volunteers at Bazaar Cafe –who are dedicated to ensuring that Kyoto welcomes ALL people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. I did a lot of dishes at Bazaar, but I was also able to do a lot of thinking — and I think it is because of the people I met here at my CIP that have made me realize that Kyoto is a place that I will definitely be returning to. Recently the cafe hosted its annual event at the end of November celebrating inclusivity and featuring food and goods from organizations representing groups from places such as Okinawa, Syria, Korea, and so on. This demonstration of community, aside from Kyoto’s physical beauty, has made the main hours of washing and drying worth it, and makes me excited for my future efforts to go to graduate school in this city. For me, Bazaar Cafe made Kyoto “home.”


Alan Cheng: Calligraphy (Shodō) Lessons

This semester I continued taking calligraphy lessons with an instructor in my neighborhood, who I was fortunate to have been introduced to by my host mother. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9pm, I practiced writing Japanese characters with an ink and brush along with two other students.

As a college student, how you fit in within the demographics of students who take calligraphy lessons is quite interesting: either you find yourself sticking out as the oldest among a crowd of elementary school students, or you’re conspicuously the youngest among adults over twice your age. (To be fair, as a foreigner, you pretty much stick out wherever you are but that’s beside the point!) The reason for this is that students who pursue calligraphy as an extracurricular activity typically practice in clubs at school, rather than taking outside lessons, and working folks, of course, hardly have time to take these kinds of lessons.

My class was the latter, and the two other students were both in their 50’s or 60’s (I never asked directly) and at least one of them was a grandparent. Since they’ve both been practicing calligraphy for at least 8 years, their writing already looked perfect in my eyes, so at first I wondered why they were still taking classes. However, it didn’t take long for me to come across the answer: these lessons were also important social gatherings. The students and our instructor always chatted about anything and everything while during our lessons, and the atmosphere was always very warm and friendly. I could tell that, while the student-teacher relationships were always upheld (by the way they were speaking), they were truly friends as well.

Incidentally, the teacher, too, had grandchildren, and it seemed that she would give them handwriting exercises to work on–as the classes were held in her home, I recall that occasionally her young grandchildren would come into the classroom to have their handwriting looked over. That my calligraphy teacher was keen to make sure that her grandchildren had good handwriting even at such a young age, I believe, reflects the importance placed on handwriting in modern society, where, for instance, resumes are still traditionally handwritten and applicants with messy handwriting are indeed judged to also have a looser character.

Comparing the cultural emphasis on handwriting in Japan to two other countries that I’m familiar with, there’s a similar attitude in China, but America doesn’t value handwriting as highly. My dad, an immigrant from China, was very proud of his handwriting and calligraphy, but he realized that these skills are not nearly as important in America, so unlike my calligraphy instructor, he didn’t feel the need to comb over my handwriting as a child.

As for advice to incoming KCJS students who are unsure about what to choose for their CIP, I would definitely recommend calligraphy as a CIP activity for those who are interested. One of the hurdles for anyone starting to learn calligraphy that ends up turning many people off the art is embarrassment. It can be embarrassing to struggle writing even simple Japanese characters as beautifully as the samples you’re given, especially since you’ve been writing Japanese for years, not to mention that the instructor will say that your writing is 上手 seemingly without regard to how poor it is. However, it’s important to realize that calligraphy is difficult even to native Japanese folks, and, practicing the traditional art of calligraphy can have wonderful effects for your handwriting in general.
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Alan Cheng: Origami Circle

For my CIP, I joined an origami circle and took shodo (書道) calligraphy lessons. The origami circle meets weekly on Wednesdays between 6 and 8pm in the Kanbaikan (寒梅館), located just a minute’s walk away from the Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus. No experience is needed and membership is not limited to only Doshisha students—any college student studying in Kyoto is welcome. The shodo lessons, on the other hand, were taught by a sensei living in my host family’s neighborhood, recommended to me by my host mother. The lessons took place once a week on Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm, so even though I participated in two activities, it was only a commitment of four hours per week with minimal travel, which was manageable with my schedule.

For this post, I’ll be focusing on the origami circle, which had more group interaction compared to my shodo lessons. The origami circle had a very relaxed atmosphere. We could fold whatever we liked, with paper and origami instruction books provided by the circle. There was no strict attendance requirement, so members could come and go each week as they pleased.

By participating in the circle, I feel like I have a better understanding of how group structures work in Japanese society from. Before, I envisioned that all clubs and circles would have a fairly rigid senpai-kohai structure, and I was curious to see what that would be like. However, the group structure, too, was fairly relaxed, and the senpai-kohai dynamic wasn’t so palpable in the origami circle. Rather, it felt more like a circle of friends—those who were more familiar with each other used casual language, while those less familiar stuck to polite form. For instance, during the first few sessions I attended, one of the more involved members (who was younger than I) used keigo when speaking to me, which is what one might expect in terms of senpai-kohai relations. However, after going out to dinner with fellow club members, they started using casual language with me without concern for age differences. The origami circle gave me a broader view on how Japanese people interact within groups.

As for advice to incoming KCJS students, I would recommend actively participating in CIP activities as soon as possible. I didn’t join the origami circle until a month into the program because I was still waiting for responses from some other groups and I didn’t want to commit to too many groups at once. In retrospect, I should have just joined the origami group from the start and been more decisive.

Michael Mauer: Fencing

Ever since middle school, the sport of fencing has been an important part of my life, so naturally I picked fencing as my CIP. The Doshisha fencing team practices every day but Monday for about 2 hours. I’ve only been going to Tuesday and Thursday practices because I have to take a 70 minute bus ride to get to Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus for practice. Much like in America, practice is composed of some warm-up, followed by free bouting.

Practicing with the fencing club was a great opportunity to learn about Japanese society. For example, like most sports club in Japan, younger members are expected to use formal language when talking to older members. Moreover, members usually only socialize with other people in the same age group. I’ll never forget my first night of practice when I asked a freshman if he wanted to sit together on the bus ride home. He was bewildered that I even considered asking him instead of another Junior (even though I hadn’t talked to the other Juniors yet!).

That said, the most important thing I’ve learned from the fencing club is that no matter how different two cultures are, some things are the same around the world. Sore legs after practice, triumphant screams after a successful touch – these sorts of experiences and emotions are shared between fencers in Japan, America, and around the world. In short the love and dedication we share does not just belong to one culture. It is universal.

Thus, my advice to the students that follow in my footsteps at KCJS is to remember that no matter how strange and alien Japan might seem at times, remember that you certainly have some common ground with the people and culture around you. Explore those similarities and differences by getting involved. Immerse yourself. Even if you don’t know what to say, even if you aren’t confident in your Japanese – dive in head first. I know it might be scary, but I promise that no matter how scary it is, it will be even more rewarding.

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Lauren Levine: Kyoto Walking Circle

For my CIP I knew that I wanted to be in a relaxed environment with Japanese students my own age so that I would be able to engage the other club members as peers. For this reason I chose to join the Kyoto Walking Circle, a club open to students of various colleges around Kyoto, and which meets once a week to walk around and explore different temples and shrines around the city. The club met every Saturday at 1:30 PM (at different locations around Kyoto depending on which temple or shrine we were visiting that day) with occasional night time events during the week.

One thing that surprised was how many members the club had and how much the people that came varied from week to week. At a given activity there could be more than twenty people, but very often more than half of those people would not have come the following week. Since the walking club is a very relaxed environment, attendance is always optional and most people come to events sporadically. This meant that I got to meet a lot of different people, but I often would not see the same person multiple weeks in a row, which made it difficult to stay in contact and become close friends. Still, everyone was really welcoming and friendly, and I enjoyed hanging out with everyone during the club activities.

Another thing that I noticed was that there was not a strong distinction between senpai and kouhai in this club environment. Even though there were students ranging in age from first years all the way to graduate students, most people in the club spoke in short form to each other and treated each other like friends (though some younger members did frequently speak in teinei). When speaking to mw, people usually started by speaking formally during the introductions, but soon switched to casual speak afterward.

Rather than the main distinction in the group being specifically by age, the more prominent distinction was in the smaller circles of friends that formed within the group. Since the group had so many members, only some of whom would come any given week, it was normal for the group walking that day to split into smaller groups of 4-6 while we were all walking. Some groups were all girls, other were all boys, and others were mixed (though there tended to be more guys than girls at the club activities). These were not official groups, but just groups that naturally formed based on friendships because our group was too large to all walk around together.

As a result, each week I would usually only end up talking to about five or six people depending on whichever smaller group I ended up walking with. I usually walked with whoever I started talking with before the activity started. The people in my CIP were very friendly, so I was almost always approached by someone who wanted to make conversation. If not, I would just introduce myself to the person who was staring at me the most. We would sometimes talk about the place we were visiting, but usually our conversations revolved around more general discussions of school, hobbies, and interests.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time as a member of the Kyoto Walking Circle. I got to see a lot of different temples and shrines around Kyoto, and because our club activities were mostly walking, there was a lot of time to make conversation and get to know the members of the circle.

Debotri Chatterjee: Calligraphy

For my CIP, I chose to take private lessons in shodo (brush-style calligraphy). The first time I went over to sensei’s house, I expected to simply talk about future lessons and figure out timings for class, etc. To my surprise, I soon found myself staring down at a piece of washi, brush in hand, with both my host mother and sensei looking on expectantly. I wasn’t completely a stranger to the brush, but I’d never done any sort of calligraphy before in my life. Realizing this, sensei showed me how to make a few basic strokes, and then I was on my own again.

This set the tone for all future classes. I’d come in with some kanji I wanted to practice, or sensei would let me pick a phrase from a massive book of kanji and then I’d try to get my writing as close as possible to sensei’s sample. Shodo is a pretty solitary activity – there isn’t much hand-holding or even teaching, really; all your teacher can do is suggest improvements for next time, and then it’s up to you. Which means that in a typical shodo class, there aren’t too many opportunities for conversation.

However, my shodo sensei wasn’t running a formal class; she teaches shodo because she likes it, and likes teaching people. Because of the informal tone of the class, I didn’t get to practice using keigo at all, but I like to think that I had several very interesting conversations with people from very different walks of life – from elementary school kids, to housewives, to even Buddhist monks! Despite being the new ‘gaijin’ in class, it didn’t take me very long to feel very at home among everyone. One thing I noticed in particular was how quickly everyone dropped their formalities around me and began talking to me in casual speech, as they would to a friend.

What did I learn about the Japanese language/culture through my CIP? There are countless things I could talk about, but one aspect I found particularly interesting is the interplay between the usage of different levels of formality in speech. Using different levels comes easily to me, because my native languages (Bengali and Hindi) have a similar speech pattern (with informal, formal and honorific levels). It was interesting to me how similar the usage of these different levels is, comparing Japanese to say, Bengali. For example, in both languages, I’ve noticed that little children can get away with using informal speech, no matter who they’re talking to, but as they get older, it’s no longer acceptable to, say, approach a stranger and begin talking to them at an informal level. Another thing I found particularly interesting is that sometimes, a means of expressing displeasure/disappointment/anger in these languages is to suddenly switch to a more formal way of speaking. My CIP was one of the things this semester that showed me how to use the knowledge I have about other languages, and channel that into learning yet another, just by virtue of understanding the basis behind the language.

Aside from becoming somewhat decent with my brush, I’ve also learnt so much just by being able to interact with people I normally wouldn’t have the chance to meet. My sensei was one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve met in Kyoto, and I appreciate how at home she made me feel. Shodo class was one of the highlights of my week through the semester, and I’m so glad I chose to pursue it.

Angel Mui: Shamisen Lessons + Cooking School Lessons

For me choosing and settling down on a suitable CIP had been a long process. I took shamisen lessons for the first half of the semester and ended up taking cooking lessons as my CIP instead. Since I am in Kyoto, at first I had my mind set on learning some form of traditional Japanese art as a CIP, which I eventually settled down on learning the instrument, shamisen. Through my Japanese teacher, I was introduced to a shamisen instructor and she offered to give me free lessons once a week. The lessons took place in a small room filled with various instruments (shamisens and kotos, etc) on the 2nd floor of a jazz cafe/bar near Teramachi Shijo. The lessons were not actual one to one lessons, but was more similar to a recital. There are usually 4-8 people in the room putting together and practicing the same song. For me, because I had no previous experience with the instrument prior to coming to Japan, this type of lesson did not suit me well. Although it was interesting to be able to play along with the group while improvising, I felt that I needed something more to fulfill my goal of doing something that suits me while still being able to interact and be integrated into a group.

I decided to take a Japanese cooking class at a cooking school called La Carrière, located at Kawaramachi Sanjo. I really enjoyed learning how to make not only Japanese dishes, but also Western dishes and learning how to bake cakes while interacting with the teachers and other students. The program that I enrolled in allows me to take most basic courses from their schedule, excluding the more advance Wagashi and Kyoto Cuisine classes. The classes are taught fully in Japanese and being the only non-Japanese student there, I really had to learn a lot of cooking-related vocabulary in order to keep up with the class. However, the students and teachers are very welcoming and did not treat me in any special way simply because I am a foreigner. Usually there are 2-3 people sharing a station and although we usually do not talk much while we prepare the ingredients and cook; we do make conversations afterwards while enjoying the meal we have just prepared.

Although I am in Kyoto for only one semester, I have learned a lot from my CIP. One of the most important thing is to know what suits you and what does not. If something does not suit you well and does not work out even after you have really put a great deal of effort into it, it is alright to start anew. For me, starting anew actually takes a lot more courage to do than to stay with an unsatisfactory situation. From my previous CIP experience, I learned how to properly quit. The necessary steps and the carefully presentation of the prepared speech, along with the tone of voice are all of importance. Regardless of what reasons were behind the decision, I learned that it is important to take responsibility and carefully end and say farewell without leaving any hard feelings. In other words, tie it with a good end.

That being said, I then moved on to another teacher-student environment, the cooking lessons. This time however, I was not only a student but also a consumer because I actually paid for the lessons. One thing that I have observed is that the level of politeness for the instructor is still present while the status of the two parties remain approximately the same. The teacher receives respect from the student but she is also the service provider. The students acknowledges the teacher, but they are also consumers. When compared to the shamisen classroom, the level of respect for the teacher who is wiser or more experienced in the subject is not as apparent. The atmosphere in the cooking classroom is, in other words, more balanced and relaxing because we are all on the same level. The social hierarchy does not really exist in this sort of environment.

Although there have been ups and downs, I have really thankful that I had taken the shamisen lessons instead of started with the cooking lessons. The ability to compare the learning environment of the two very different areas of skills and the different background of the students and the atmosphere created gave me much more insight into the Japanese culture.


Christian De La Paz: Parkour

What have I learned while practicing parkour with the Kansai team? Well there have been some observations that, although obvious to me know, were rather eye opening at the beginning. The first few practices that I attended were all in Osaka so the team members that were around were all originally from there, with an exception of a couple of the more experienced members but we’ll get to that later. I got along great with these members, even though I was a foreigner they welcomed me with open arms and were soon friends as if I were any other Japanese person. Fast forward a couple of weeks and we have our first practice in Kyoto (yes!). The change of place also came with a change of members. The Kyoto members made their appearance at this practice. Interesting thing was that it took me longer to become as close as I had gotten with the Osaka members with the Kyoto ones. It took a lot longer to feel part of the group, to be teased and not just be that foreigner that everybody was polite to because his “Japanese is so good!”. This proved to me that the myth that Osaka people are a lot friendlier than Kyoto people was actually true.

But although there might be varying degrees of friendliness, all Japanese people seem to have something in common, at least in terms of language, which is politeness levels. I had been told by professors that you needed to change the way you speak depending on who you’re talking to, but seeing it in real life is impressive. When teaching they would use ます and です, but the moment they were just talking to you all semblance of politeness would fade away and start calling you おまえ, i.e. go completely down in the politeness scale. As a learner of Japanese I know that this is what I should strive for, but this takes years of practice so even though I’m getting there and am getting used to changing back and forth it’s still one of the greater challenges of this language.

This can only be experienced and not learned. Rather than a classroom, to become proficient and a functional member of society you need to go outside get your hands dirty and fall down a couple of times, just like I have while doing parkour.

Jennifer Wang: Band

This post officially marks the end of my CIP forever! It’s my second semester of CIP, with my first being a member in Doshisha’s piano circle. This semester, I’m the keyboardist for a band – called “ガールバンドパワー(GBP)” – along with Ife (vocalist), Shouko (bassist), Mako (drummer), and Noyuri (backup vocalist).We have a concert planned for the 17th of this month, for which we’re practicing a mix of Ife’s awesome songs and Japanese rock covers. 

Like i mentioned in my previous blog, I really didn’t know what to expect going in; I’ve done large string orchestras before, but never small, garage “rock” bands. Or, more accurately, studio bands since that’s what we rent and practice in. We started off at the nicer but pricey Studio 246 (where out concert will be held) in Shijo, but recently switched to the much smaller but cheaper Studio BURU. Studio BURU is only a 2-minute walk, literally across the street behind the Ryosinkan, and a single person practice room is only 500yen per hour, so I highly recommend it if you’re looking to practice piano (which I do), drums, or any other instrument that catches your interest! We planned to meet every week for an hour, but due to time conflicts, sometimes 2 or 3-hour makeup sessions happen.

As for the practice sessions themselves, they went surprisingly well. They’re a far cry from the stereotypical image of a drama-filled, crazy rock band, which I think is due to the combination of the Japanese members’ easygoing natures, other members’ past band experience, and Ife’s encouraging leadership. Ife dances around and tells us to let loose, but we tend to smile and laugh quietly; me because I’m nervous and the others, I assume, because they have more reserved natures characteristic of many Japanese people. I feel comfortable around everyone, but, just like in piano circle, I don’t feel particularly close to the Japanese members. Seeing Shoko in the hall today was the first time I’ve seen anyone outside of band practice, where we talk about the music 95% of the time. Although I spend more time with them than last semester’s piano circle members, I think it still requires more effort – LINEing regularly, inviting the Japanese person to activities – to become what they consider a friend, as opposed to more easy invitations in the US.

A key difference from piano circle is that I haven’t noticed the senpai-kohai relationship present. I’m not quite sure what year everyone is in and they’ve never asked me for mine, a question that I always got after meeting someone new in piano circle. Since the Japanese members were separate acquaintances of Ife, I’m not sure if the Japanese members know each other’s years in the band. But they’ve been speaking casually to each other from the start, so I assume it’s not as important in a small, less formal group. Just last week, when Noyuri came for the first time, despite initial introductions being in distal (-desu/-masu) form, Mako soon switched over to casual speech. Perhaps being in a band automatically creates what is, technically, an “in-group” of sorts? The lack of senpai-kohai relationships in the band makes me more comfortable interacting with everyone since I don’t have to worry about not fitting into that construct as a third year international student. Last semester in piano circle, I was stuck between being a senpai and a kohai: I’m a third year, but I’m also a study abroad student who’s never participated before in piano (or any) circle.

Overall, this semester I have learned less new aspects of Japanese culture than I have fleshed out what I learned last semester. I joined piano circle last semester purposely to get a feel of Japanese circle and club interactions. But after stressing each week over how to act and where I’d fit in during club activities (being the only third year who did yobikomu during the school festival, while the rest of the upperclassman organized scheduling and made food), I wanted to try the opposite: spending time with a small group of Japanese students in a casual setting. Depending on your personality and/or your goals, my recommendation for a CIP activity would vary. I highly recommend smaller, not as school-affiliated groups if you’re like me, generally more reserved and would like to have a constant few faces rather than often shuffling circle acquaintances. On the other hand, trying circles and clubs are truly a great way to experience a unique and very prominent component of Japanese university life. The circle culture is much stronger than that of clubs in the US and introduces you to students not particularly interested in English/international affairs. To hear more about my experiences last semester, please read that blog post here.