Alexa VanDemark: Koto Lessons

When I started learning koto back in September, it was a musical experience like I’ve never had. From the beginning, I considered the presence of both “uchi” and “soto” within that world. Is the student in the sphere of “uchi?” Or maybe “soto?” As it turns out, it’s not black and white – both are valid, though I think one is more appropriate to my particular situation that the other.

In America, I have taken clarinet, piano, and guitar lessons, among others, and they were all done in local music studios. This kind of lesson is certainly a “soto” experience. I would go to a school-like building with individual classrooms, take my lessons in the room that my teacher is renting, and leave that room when my lesson is over. On top of that, because my teachers were borrowing those rooms from the music studio owners, doesn’t that mean that my teachers were also in a “soto” sphere within that space? You can hardly call that an emotionally close experience. However, my koto lessons here in Kyoto are taught at my teacher’s, Noda-sensei’s, own home. Considering that, I had to consider whether this was an “uchi” or “soto” world, in comparison to the clearly “soto” world of my previous lessons. If I were to say “soto,” there are certain formal and polite interactions to consider. For instance, when my teacher is talking to me, not only about her other students and acquaintances, she uses the Kansai-ben word “iharu.” I wondered why on earth she would use keigo with me, her considerably younger student. Through using this language, though she uses it out of kindness, it’s as though my teacher is carefully handling our teacher-student relationship to keep a social barrier between us.

Though I say that, I find the argument that this situation is “uchi” more compelling. Because my lessons are done in my teacher’s home, there are also plenty of experiences that aren’t “soto.” For example, because I’m going into someone’s house, I have to use the appropriate greetings, and sometimes I meet members of my teacher’s family by coincidence. I was recently talking to my teacher about the coming of spring, and I asked if she was planning on going to a hanami. She responded that although she wasn’t planning to go, since she dislikes the bugs that live in the sakura and the crowds that accompany a hanami experience, she can enjoy the ume in her own backyard garden, and opened the shoji separating the classroom and the living area so that I could see through to the ume outside. If I had been taking these lessons in a music studio, there’s no way I could have had this experience.

On top of that, lessons aren’t the only thing I receive from my teacher. She lends me a koto for free so that I can practice on my own at my host family’s house, and so that I don’t have to spend money on my own music, she lets me borrow her own sheet music to copy at school for a fraction of the cost. In addition to that, because I am doing my independent study on the tegotomono genre of koto music, my teacher has given me various things in preparation for that project. For instance, because she works as a koto performer in addition to teaching lessons, she gave me three CDs of tegotomono music that she recorded to use as sources – all for free! These kinds of experiences where I receive all these things from my teacher are certainly “uchi.” That is to say, all of the above-mentioned freebies that I received would normally be paid for, and would be a “soto” relationship, right? But Noda-sensei is not only my teacher, but also my mentor, and as such she helps in any way she can to make my experience a good one, which convinces me that this is more of an “uchi” relationship than a “soto” one.

Of course, you could reasonably say it’s “soto or “uchi” – it all depends on what specific experiences you consider to be more telling. However, I have found that my relationship with Noda-sensei is more meaningful than the relationships I have had with previous private lesson instructors, and so I consider it to be “uchi.” If I were to take lessons again when I return to America, I have to wonder if I’ll pay attention to these same kinds of interactions more than before I took my koto lessons.

Romana Perez: Niconico Tomato

           For the past 8 months I have been volunteering at Niconico Tomato, a volunteer group at Kyoto University Hospital. I have had the opportunity to help kids staying long-term in the hospital. Most of what Nicotoma does is to create events for the children. At Nicotoma we often create intricate cards, do crafts with the kids, and have sales to raise money. I’ve particularly enjoyed created various crafts and using my hands to create something beautiful that a kid can enjoy. I am really glad to help the children have fun and I want to continue to do similar things in the future.

            Since I am leaving soon and returning back to America, I often think about how I can continue to help children in America with a similar program. I know there are programs at hospitals in the US, but they are often very different. The ability to play with the kids as a volunteer is the same, but often fun activities and events are lacking. I also find the attention to detail to be lacking as well. At Nicotoma, all seasonal decorations are taken care of very carefully and used year after year, where in the US new ones are often bought or old ones are easily damaged. Also, at Nicotoma every craft is organized and planed out in advanced, which allows the cards we make to be intricate, but very easily put together. I don’t imagine American programs to be as detailed and they would probably be bought. From what I’ve seen and heard from friends in the US who have volunteered in similar programs, the kids usually make crafts but rarely receive them from staff. Also, the regulations and rules for American programs are very strict and can restrict the fun the children can have. For example, a lot of the events we have at Nicotoma give the kids a lot of sweets. In America, since childhood obesity is a big problem, I don’t think we could do similar activities.  

Either way, if I do become a doctor I want to continue to help however I can. I also want to maybe take what I’ve learned from Nicotoma to improve any program I’ll participate in the future. One idea I have if I am able, is to maybe set up a pen-pal system between American children and Japanese children. I think it would be a very cool activity for kids to talk to each other around the world, especially ones with similar situations. So hopefully I can accomplish that goal.

            One thing that remains the same between the two countries is the energy of the kids, and I want to protect their hopeful outlook on life. I’m a little sad to leave Nicotoma, but I know they will continue to give excellent care toward the kids. I’m glad to have been able to make a difference, however small. I’m glad to have picked this as my CIP. I am also grateful to the kindness of the members of Nicotoma who were always helpful and generous. I had a lot of fun (and snacks!) and I am just very grateful for the experience.






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Carolyn Whittingham : Ohara Gakuin – Assistant English Teacher

A crucial part of the KCJS curriculum is one’s involvement in the CIP or “Community Involvement Project.” The aim of this project is to help KCJS students immerse themselves in a certain aspect of Japanese culture, and can consist of activities from volunteering at a hospital or nonprofit organization to participating in a Doshisha University club or circle.

Since I have aspirations to participate in the JET programme after graduation, and since I ultimately plan to pursue a career as a college professor, I opted to volunteer at an elementary/middle school called Ohara Gakuin as an assistant English teacher for the experience.

Ohara Gakuin is a quaint little school in the middle of the mountains a little ways outside of Kyoto City. The school consists of grades 1through 9, and they have also just recently instated nursery and kindergarten services. Since I do not have afternoon classes/commitments at KCJS on Mondays or Wednesdays, I volunteer on one of those days, once a week, from about half past twelve to 4 pm.

I shall hereby describe a typical day of volunteering. Since Ohara and Doshisha are quite far apart, I have to take a series of very strictly scheduled trains and buses to make it there on time every week, and the commute can take up to an hour. But once there, I typically will eat lunch with one class then teach two classes during Ohara’s 5th and 6th periods. The grades I eat with and teach alter every week, so I have a chance to interact with every grade 2-3 times over the course of 10 weeks. However, since I teach all grade levels the teaching itinerary is never consistent, but there is a pattern. Generally, with the 1st-4th grade (sometimes 5th) we tend to just play games, sing songs or do other fun activities that involve using English on a very minimal level. Whereas with the older students, we do grammar exercises, and dictation and reading drills (some examples include learning about relative pronouns and how to use the gerand in English).

Over all, teaching at Ohara has been a very eye-opening experience for me. Since I was born and raised in Jamaica, I can only compare the activities to Ohara to what I experienced in my own school system at home (as opposed to the U.S. where I only went to high school and college), and the overall operation of the education system is drastically different. First of all, in Jamaica, we have one teacher for all academic subjects who we work with every day, as opposed to staying in the same homeroom and having teachers come in and out depending on the subject. Another discrepancy is that in Jamaica, when a student or group of students started to cause a ruckus or disturbed class in any way, teachers are very quick to rebuke students about their conduct and discipline them if necessary. At Ohara, the teachers often turn a blind eye and continue teaching or simply wait for students to calm themselves down before resuming the lesson.

In addition to this, while working at Ohara something else that struck me as odd was the nature of the English education system in itself. For instance, when using the textbook, I often found some very unnatural English structures that are understandable, but would be very obscure to a native speaker, and also some expressions that seemed very ‘Japanese-y.’ In fact, I brought this up with some of the teachers there and they agreed with me! Therefore, we created alternative expressions/explanations and I was extremely pleased to know that my contributions had made some kind of a difference. Otherwise, the pacing of many of the classes seemed extremely slow, and consequently, I noticed that quite a few of the students had a hard time keeping focus for the full 50 minute class period.

Now, I understand that with only 10 visits to the school, I am seeing only a very limited example of what the system is like. Therefore, it is impossible for me to make judgements on the Japanese English education system on a whole based on my time spent at Ohara. However, I still could not help but consider the scholastic practices which are so different than what I am accustomed to on a critical level.

For instance, some of my findings included the realization that the pronunciation ability of the students in 1st and 2nd grade rivaled the ones of those in 8th and 9th grade, and classes in all grade levels spend a lot of class time focusing on perfecting their 「自己紹介」or “self-introductions.” Out of curiosity, I asked two teachers, whom I assist frequently, for their thoughts on the matter. It turns out that one teacher believed that the most effective method of retaining material learned in class is through repetition, and so because of that, progress can be rather slow. Conversely, the other teacher told me that the reason these inconsistencies exist is actually because the English program at Ohara is a fairly recent development. In fact, English language instruction was not fully incorporated into the syllabus until about 5 years ago. Currently, the elementary school students take English classes once a week for an hour, while the middle school children have English 4 times a week for one hour. Whereas beforehand, the 1st through 3rd grade did not have English lessons at all and 4th through 9th grade only had classes once a week.

The limited English ability of the students often left me feeling frustrated because I often felt there was so much I wanted to do or try that worked for me as a language student, but because of the strictness of the syllabus, because I could not express my sentiments clearly to the students and to avoid overstepping my boundaries, I often simply had to sit back, have faith in the methods employed by the teachers, and do my best to help where I could.

Additionally, I am a Cultural Anthropology/Japanese double major, so cultural differences among social groups, especially as they relate to Japan, are extremely interesting to me. Therefore, although volunteering at Ohara has been an extremely fantastic and rewarding opportunity, it is simply not enough. Thus, when I go on to (hopefully) participate in the JET programme, or whenever I have any other exposure to the Japanese education system, I intend to further my studies and research and derive some concrete theories as to how and why the system works the way it does.

Denton Williams: Assistant English Teacher

Before I came to Japan, I knew that I wanted to teach English for my CIP activity.  When I finally arrived in Japan and started the CIP process, I encountered no difficulty in deciding where I was going to teach; everything was easier than I could have hoped for and KCJS already had well-established connections with schools.  I started to hit a few bumps in the e-mailing stage, but only with respect to waiting for responses.  So, after practicing my written 敬語 for the first time in Japan, I finally started my dream CIP of teaching at Kaisei Middle School (開晴中学), located near Kiyomizu-dera.

As I explained in my first, Japanese blog post, teaching on my first day at Kaisei did not start out so smoothly.  The seventh graders, contrary to my ideal expectations of Japanese middle school students, were incredibly raucous and disrespectful to their teacher.  Throughout the entire fifty minutes some of the students did not stop talking, and others were running around the classroom or sleeping.  To my greatest surprise, however, was that the teacher did absolutely nothing about the chaos.  I stood in the crowded classroom, jaw-dropped, and waited for her to explode in a disciplinary rage at any second.  I myself considered telling one or two boys to sit down and be quiet, but before I knew it the clock struck 3:20pm and the students were free.  When I returned home after my first day, I thought to myself, Do I really want to teach here?  Can I actually make a difference in this kind of hopeless environment?  Luckily, I decided to do my best and be patient, and I am extremely glad to write that I am thankful I hung in there.

As the weeks of my study abroad experience passed by and I commuted every Monday to Kaisei Middle School, the classroom setting seemed less and less harsh.  I acquired a second class to teach as well, meaning I could practice my week’s teaching with better-behaved eighth graders before facing the rowdy pupils of room 7-2.  So, each week I asked individuals questions in English, helped answer students’ questions about worksheets etc, and tried extremely hard to encourage students to participate.  Eventually I started practicing my Japanese as well by trying to better explain things to students who were not as skilled at English.  Meanwhile, little by little I was becoming more familiarized with who the students were and the dynamic of their relationship with the teachers.

This leads me to what I gained the most from my CIP.  Contrary to my original dream back in the United States, I did not learn how to fluently speak Japanese and teach angelic, diligent middle schoolers how to speak English.  What I did learn, which falls in line with my personal theme of studying abroad with KCJS, is that there is way more than meets the eye during first encounters.  The Japanese students were incredibly unruly the first time I met them, and they proved to change very little week after week.  However, every time I spoke 「英語アシスタントでございます」through the gate’s doorbell and stepped foot into my slippers at Kaisei Middle School, I was about to witness the students surprise me in some way.  I started to see that some of the most misbehaved students were actually the ones who were participating the most, albeit in decibels higher than what is safe for human ears.  Furthermore, I saw that many of the students truly cared about learning English, and even more so about learning in general.  They were excited to start class with personal questions for me in English, and they always asked their teachers to chat with me in English so they could observe.  I quickly came to realize that I misjudged my students on week one, but I was happy that this was so.

The CIP component of KCJS may seem like another task on a checklist of “things to do,” but it actually was a crucial part in making the theme of my time abroad become whole.  Teaching English at Kaisei Middle School helped me learn even more not to judge people based on first impressions, stereotypes, and preconceived notions.  It taught me that everyone needs an extra chance or dose of attention in order to see his or her true personality and potential.  Upon realizing this, I was able to conclude that while Japan’s culture and language are very different from that of the U.S. in many ways, the people of each country are at the core very much the same.  I truly hope that I was able to teach many students at Kaisei Middle School, or maybe even just one or two.  However, I can say with conviction that I entered the building as “Denton-sensei” determined to teach English, but I will be flying back to America as a student who was taught the universal language of life.

Alexa VanDemark: Koto Lessons

For my CIP in Fall 2013, I chose to take private koto lessons. Naturally, I’ve learned a lot. The point of the CIP to begin with is to involve yourself in the Japanese community, hopefully learn some keigo and Japanese culture, and have fun in the mean time. I can say without hesitation that I have been enjoying my lessons. Like any other instrument I’ve played, there is a learning curve. You have to learn the correct posture, positions for you hands, musical notation, the list goes on. When you do something new, you naturally make mistakes, so you probably get frustrated from time to time. Put that pressure on top of learning that new skill in a different language and having to explain what you don’t understand in that same language. Oh, and don’t forget to use keigo! Despite the pressures, I have learned more than I had originally anticipated.

Rokudan no Shirabe sheet music

Sheet music for the song I’m currently learning. Reading music vertically instead of horizontally is the hardest hurdle for me to jump over at the moment.

More than anything, it’s only too easy to create a list of all the faux pas I’ve made in one semester and how to not repeat them in the future. For instance, I spent the first few weeks being a regular Floridian and wearing flip-flops to my lessons. It was hot outside! The problem was that my lessons are held at my teacher’s house, in a washitsu. It hadn’t occurred to me that by not wearing socks, my dirty feet were seen as a social taboo in the traditional setting of koto lessons. Noda-sensei never said a thing, but I was mortified when I found out from someone else that what I had been doing was quite incorrect. And up until a few weeks ago, I had been cheerfully saying, 「お疲れさま!」after Noda-sensei said it to me. I learned not to do that after a linguistics class in which we discussed that is just not something you say to a teacher. Even after I feel like I’ve learned so much, every week it seems I find something else to correct!

However, that in of itself is rewarding, because at the next lesson, I can walk in confidently, amassing all of the formalities and aisatsu I’ve accumulated over the semester. I can return the sheet music my teacher and know how to politely thank her for lending it to me. I can attend her concert and know to bring an omiyage in congratulations. I can laugh when I get lost in the unfamiliar sheet music and ask to start a passage over, and it’s comforting when she laughs too, and agrees. It was difficult doing a CIP where I had to solely communicate my questions and such in a language that I’m still learning, but through these lessons, I come into contact with an elegant side of Japanese culture that I would not have touched otherwise. I’m looking forward to continuing this immersion next semester, while learning more How-Not-to-Be-Act-Like-a-Gaijin pointers as well as beautiful music.

Romana Perez: Niconico Tomato

For the past few months I have been volunteering at Niconico Tomato, which is a program that tries to bring smiles to the children at Kyoto University Hospital. We do things like prepare events, organize parties, make gifts, and generally have fun.

For Halloween, and now for Christmas, we make cards for the children. I really enjoy trying my best as I make the cards, since I know the child who receives it will appreciate it. I also enjoy the creativity the volunteers put into making the designs. For the Halloween cards, we embroidered a spider web into the card, attached a ghost, and created a foggy spooky background. I think they look really cool. The Christmas cards are going to be just as well thought out.

I’ve also enjoyed talking with the other volunteers. We tend to talk about the differences of American and Japanese culture. Everyone in the program is extremely nice and it’s easy to talk with them as I work. Interacting with the kids is also rewarding. Even though the children are sick, they still have so much energy and are able to have fun. I find it amazing that the little activities we create for them, like collecting a sticker every day they visit the playroom, keeps their spirits up. I really do believe we are doing a good thing at Niconico Tomato.

Jasmine Hensley: Kyudou


Before applying for KCJS, I read up on the program parameters on the KCJS website.  Upon reading about the CIP assignment, I knew that I wanted to do kyudou because I had a previous interest in the martial art.  Initially I had been concerned that I would not be able to do it because I am very petite young woman and was without any form of archery experience.  Nevertheless, I pursued kyudou as my CIP, and began practicing every Monday and Thursday at the Kyoto Budou Center.

When I first entered the Budou Center’s kyudou dojo, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the archers were women around my size (though clearly much stronger than me from their years of practice).  Our teacher Kawaguchi-sensei herself is a sprightly and strong older woman with a commanding presence.  That is not to say that she was cold or unapproachable; on the contrary, she has been so kind and patient with us over the past few months, as have the other archers at the dojo.

Although practices are usually very independent, Kawaguchi-sensei and occasionally the other archers will offer tips and corrections to our postures.  Because kyudou is so ritualized, requiring one to repeat the same pattern of movements before every shot is fired, it is crucial to correct one’s movements before they become too deeply ingrained to be fixed.  I had very little upper body strength before starting kyudou here, so it took almost three months before I was strong enough and good enough to be allowed to move to a larger, heavier bow.  I don’t think that I could ever have imagined how much pride and self-accomplishment I would feel for being allowed to exercise harder.

Kyudou as a whole has served as a catharsis during my months in Japan.  This was my first time abroad, and the experience has been wonderful, but trying at times.  As I’ve become more aware of my linguistic inabilities, I’ve found myself losing self-confidence very rapidly; however, kyudou is an activity that almost entirely transcends the language barrier.  In addition, because there are other students who do not speak Japanese at all, I’ve gained some confidence in being able to translate between Kawaguchi-sensei and those students.  Furthermore, it is a time apart from homework where one focuses only on the ritual of drawing the bow and one’s own body.

Kyudou is definitely a CIP that requires time and effort, but the rewards far outweighed any measly inconveniences.  The support that I felt from Kawaguchi-sensei and the other archers, the atmosphere of the dojo, and the time for self-reflection not only helped rebuild and boost my self-confidence but also allowed me some peaceful time in my continuously active life in Japan.



毎週、大原に行く前の日、前田先生から今週の授業のために必要の準備について、メールをもらいます。今まで、時差について教えたり、「Hokey-Pokey」と「If You’re Happy and You Know It」と「Twinkle Twinkle Little Star」と言う歌を子供と一緒に歌ったり、料理の授業のために焼き芋を作ったり、ジャマイカについて発表したりしました。