Austin Cobb: Volunteering at a Bouldering Gym

I have had the wonderful opportunity of volunteering at the NOAH bouldering gym in Kyoto this semester. I took the CIP as a chance to do something I loved and I was surprised by how easy it was to find a gym in Kyoto.

NOAH has become much more than a climbing gym for me and many of the other customers. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a community. Part of this stems from the fact that climbing as an activity is much more group focused in Japan compared to America. That is, regardless of whether you know the person climbing or not, people will cheer you on, give support, and even advice on how to improve. The community this creates a welcoming atmosphere that makes me look forward to going back.

Volunteering at a bouldering gym means dealing with a wide variety of tasks. From cleaning the staircase to filling up chalk balls and stripping tape off the routes. By doing all of this, I am able to interact a lot with the customers and practice my Japanese skills. I’ve also learned that most of the people also have a curiosity about English, so it becomes beneficial to both parties when they speak in English and I reply in Japanese.

With this CIP, I’ve created many great memories and learned a lot. When I come back to Kyoto, I will definitely stop by at NOAH to catch up with my friends.

Yueran Ding: Shamisen Lesson

Based on my interest in musical instruments and previous experience in playing the flute, cello, and piano, I decided to learn a traditional Japanese instrument for my CIP. Learning shamisen(三味線) with Iwasaki sensei seems to me a natural choice given that she has already taught many KCJS students koto(琴) or shamisen before, and I find my experience learning with her as rewarding as I expected.

At first, I thought I was going to a “private lesson” once a week, but it turned out that for the most of the time I participated in a “group practice”. In the first three weeks, Iwasaki sensei taught me and another student from KCJS some shamisen basics, and those were the only “private lessons” that I had. Three weeks later, she let us join the large group and practice with other senior students, all of whom were in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. I realized that the group practice was indeed a perfect opportunity for me to observe how Japanese, especially Japanese seniors behaved during practice. I once supposed they would be very serious just like what I had seen in in television shows or movies how tea masters giving lessons, but I was wrong. The vibe of the group practice was in fact lighthearted. My classmates loved to tell jokes and especially joked about their ages a lot. When a student who was about my grandma’s age pretended(ぼけ) that she was 20, and another student would point out(突っ込み) her actual age in a funny tone, making everybody else laugh. Iwasaki sensei encouraged such relaxing atmosphere to make sure everybody feel happy and enjoy the practice.

One of the reasons that I came to Kyoto was that I wanted to learn a little Kansai-ben, which means dialect in the Kansai area, so I was excited to discover that the teacher and students here all talked in Kansai-ben. Before I came to Kyoto, the only source where I could hear Kansai-ben was Japanese variety shows, so I used to feel that Kansai-ben was hilarious yet might sound a little disrespectful sometimes. However, students here talked to Iwasaki sensei in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions. For example, they would use “食べはる” and “~してはる”, and always talk with “です””ます” ending. This surprised me because my observation here during the group practice broke my stereotype in the way that Kansai-ben could also be respectful. Interestingly, when I got used to hearing Kansai-ben, I started to feel that talking in Kansai-ben with honorific expressions was actually an ideal way to communicate since the speaker would be able to speak in a relatively intimate tongue while showing respect at the same time.

When it was close to dinner time, Iwasaki sensei often invited her students to go for a dinner with her, so I was also able to eat with my warm-hearted classmates. Although all at the age of my grandfathers and grandmothers, they were still energetic, loved to joke around, and even ate more than I do (wow!). Thanks to such opportunities, I was able to observe how Japanese interact when they were at a group dinner. I noticed that Iwasaki sensei and my classmates never poured liquor by themselves but instead always poured liquor for others all the time. When everybody finished eating, Iwasaki sensei would collect about 1000 yen from each student (but not me or other KCJS students, probably because we were too young to earn money yet…or because she wanted to care for new students? ) and pay at the cashier by herself.

Learning shamisen with Iwasaki sensei makes a perfect CIP for me. I was invited by her to join other students to perform as a group on December 8th, which would enable me to show what I have learned during the past three months-a perfect end for this amazing experience. I not only learned how to play Shamisen, but also had a great experience participating in a small Japanese community, observing how people behaved and interacting with them. I would genuinely recommend Iwasaki sensei and her shamisen/koto lesson to anybody who is interested in Japanese musical instrument, or just want to have a great time experiencing Japanese society and culture.

Tracy Jiao: Pottery and Yoga

When deciding to attend the KCJS program, I understand a commitment that goes beyond taking regular Japanese courses, and CIP (community involvement program) is just one of these opportunities to reach out and truly become an active member in the city of Kyoto. Because of some previous experience in pottery and yoga, I chose to proceed to take classes in these areas. Surprisingly, both pottery and yoga take a very distinctive style in Japan; like many other things, they have turned Nihonka, adapting to the aesthetic tastes and physical needs of the locals.

Unlike western countries that prefer doing pottery on electric wheels, the pottery studio I went to in Kyoto, 藤平陶芸, makes most of their works on hand-powered wheels or simply boards. At first, I was a little befuddled by this choice, since the electronic machine seems much more efficient in making a perfect, slick piece. This question kept coming back to me, especially during times on the hand-powered wheel that last two hours every two weeks. Used to the fast electronic tourneys, I felt impatient toward the slow pace and vibe in the Fujihira studio. However, when strolling around the work display area in the studio one day, I suddenly began to understand the masters’ choice of slow development. The delicacy and elegance of these finished works directly relate to the time each master spent making them. If a pottery maker did not look close and long enough at the piece, he would neglect the details which set it apart from other mass-produced vessels. In this era of mass production, customers keep coming back to Fujihira studio to purchase a cup three times more expensive than the ones sold in IKEA. The secret behind Japanese Art’s gracefulness and their studios’ durability is rooted in the tradition. Instead of conforming to new trends, small workshops in Kyoto kept their traditional way of practice as if time has not passed.

In addition to pottery, I found a deeper understanding of the meaning of yoga practices as well. Through the zen breathing and meditation combination, I discovered a peace in my body that power yoga classes would never bring out. By communicating with teachers and students of these two studios, I gradually recognize the spirit of Kyoto that goes beyond its magnificent temples and shrines.

Sincerity yoga(シンセリティヨガ):


Rachael Kane: Pottery Classes

For my CIP I took pottery classes in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. This area is known for it’s having a wide variety of pottery shops among its curving back alleys. I attend weekly classes in a studio there. The student body is mostly older, mainly past retirement age. There are two teachers who wander around and help students as they pursue independent projects. Luckily, I had some experience in ceramics, so it was less of a shock to be asked to self-direct my own study.

The people that regularly come to the open studio are local artisans in their own right. This creates a very interesting dynamic within the studio, encouraging collaboration and learning between not only the teachers and the students but amongst the students as well. Despite the incredible quality of the work done in the studio, there is no judgment placed on those who are less skilled.  The congenial atmosphere serves to make visitors feel comfortable, but it does not take long to realize that the uchi/soto dichotomy is still heavily present in the space. Many things are not labeled and procedures, and locations are often not explicitly disclosed. Between the distinctive vocabulary, significant use of kansai-ben and importance of implicit instruction, communication was definitely difficult at points.

The experience was overall, quite rewarding. The environment provided a unique viewpoint in the small artisan community in Kyoto, traditional industries and teacher/student relationships. While I may not have learned very much about pottery, I certainly gained valuable exposure to language usage and culture.

This is a photograph of the first piece I worked on this semester.


John Lyons: Miconos Swimming Circle

  After another semester participating in the Miconos Swimming Circle at Kyoto University, I feel I have come away from the experience with a new understanding of Japanese college life that one cannot learn from class, and a group of friends that I sincerely hope I can keep in contact with. The members of Miconos were all incredibly nice, and accepting of me from the first time I entered the pool.

  However that does not mean that my transition from an American Water Polo club to a Japanese Swimming circle was flawless. There were several steps along the way were I felt distanced from the other members of the circle, but at this point I feel that is not the case at all. For example, the lack of swimming that occurs at this swimming circle initially was an alienating aspect of the circle as my club at my home college is especially strict on ensuring all members participate at hundred percent. Yet, I eventually found myself adapting to the conditions of the circle, and even valuing engaging other members in conversation over swimming. Another aspect was reconciling that the President of the circle was in the same year as me. While in America, seniors usually occupy the roles as leaders within the club. But, the president’s kind nature, and friendliness helped me overcome this cultural difference. Although he is no longer the president, before the transition occurred, I had already resolved my discomfort with this difference and even started to no longer refer to him as 会長, but by his circle nickname, 岩ちゃん.

  While I feel I have mostly adapted to some aspects of Miconos that are certainly quite different than what I am used to, the end of one term and start of another brought forth various other difference from the college situation in America. As the end of the term drew near, I noticed that many of the upperclassman would forsake swimming for the entire practice period, but instead congratulations cards for the members of the circle who were graduating. Considering that I had been practicing with the club for five months at that point, but had yet to see any of these seniors participate in the practices, I did find this practice a bit strange. Furthermore, the graduating seniors had apparently created a similar card, but for the restaurant Tsumura which has housed the after practice meals of Miconos for at least five years. The reason I know this is because within the restaurant, the walls are littered with these cards from the Miconos members in previous years. This and the circle itself arbitrarily deciding that the ending of the 2014-2015 year and beginning of the 2015-2016 at the start of April, a week before the University`s actual new year begins are two aspects of this transitional period that differ quite a bit from my experiences in America.

  Through my short time with Miconos, I have found that joining a circle that you have a profound interest in can really help you overcome the initial awkwardness distancing a foreigner with Japanese students. By taking advantage of these common points, and actively engaging the circle members one can easily find their place within the circle. There may be times were you feel like an outsider, or like you’re being ignored, don`t be shy and try to engage members in one on one settings rather in a larger group. You will find that in most cases the members want to converse with and be friends with you, just as much as you want to converse and be friends with them.








John Lyons: Miconos Swimming Circle

 For my CIP, I participated in a Kyoto University swimming circle called Miconos ( ). This experience was great for me, and taught me about Japanese college social life. I met a lot of really nice people, had a blast swimming, and am happy to be able to continue participating in this club next semester.

Prior to coming to Japan, I had some presumptions on what Japanese sports circles would be like based on my own experiences studying abroad four years ago at Doshisha International High School, my playing Water Polo at the club level at Hamilton College, and from various TV shows and anime. I had believed that sports circles would be very strict, and that participating in practices and other events would be mandatory. This assumption stemmed essentially from my applying an even stricter hierarchical relationship, and expectation to participate to my surprising strict Water Polo club in America. But when I started participating in my circle, I quickly realized how wrong my assumptions had been. While there certainly is a stricter hierarchy relating to senpai-kouhai status, there is very little pressure to go to practice or other events. When I was first searching for a club to join, I found Miconos’ website which stated that swimming was to be done at one’s own pace, and that members were expected to participate in the after. After is the act of members of the club going out to dinner after practice. Despite the website’s claims, I found that even amongst the members who went to practice the number of members who participated in the after was less than those who don’t.

Additionally, I discovered the swim at one’s own pace part turned out to be a bit of an understatement. The club is much less focused on swimming than I had thought a swimming club to be. Although I did not expect everybody to be swimming for the full two hour practices, I was still surprised by the lack of swimming going on in the swimming circle. Most members would do a lap or two every now or then, but the majority of the time in the pool was spent chatting with each other. Most members were part of a swimming club at their High School, so they are definitely able to swim much more than they do, but instead most of them eventually spend a good amount of time in the pool’s Jacuzzi rather than swimming laps. In my college’s Water Polo team, we bond over overcoming arduous training regiments together, but in this Miconos that is not the case. I had assumed that the circle would be an incredible tight knit group that spends most of their free time with each other like a high school club. But Miconos did not reach the level of camaraderie that I was hoping for in a sports circle.

Although Miconos was not at all what I was expecting it to be, it is certainly not a bad experience. Because there is a larger focus on talking than swimming, I am able to better work on my Japanese by conversing with my fellow club members. Considering that most of our conversations pertain to past sporting events in High School, I believe that most of the members I converse with still love swimming. Yet, because they are no longer competing in meets, they are able to simply swim because they want to. Additionally through the club, they are able to meet people with similar interests, thus although the club does not have the athletic camaraderie that I love about sport teams, the circle appears to consist of several groups of friends, usually split by grade. Right now, I straddle an awkward position of foreign exchange student where I am friendly with most of the people in the circle, and their friend groups, but I am still an outsider to each one of the groups.

Overall, I am incredibly happy with the circle that I am participating in. It has taught me a great deal about Japanese college social and sports culture. It’s always a fun time swimming, talking and eating dinner with the members. Although I may not be completely satisfied with my current situation, I have a whole other semester to better get to know, and become better friends with my fellow club members.

I believe the most important point in picking a CIP is finding one that deals with something you have a lot of experience with, and are passionate about. Whether that be a certain sport, musical instrument or even a niche interest. Commonly shared experiences are some of the easiest way to make connections with people, and as foreigners, we really don’t have many with Japanese students when it comes to everyday life. But one shared experience you are bound to have in your CIP is an interest in whatever the subject of said CIP is. Therefore, you will have a lot more to bond over, and talk about if you are more invested in the topic which your CIP covers. This can come from connecting over long arduous practices routines you suffered through while in high school, songs you know how to play, and teaching others how to play them, or a show that you and those in your CIP have watched and enjoyed separately. It will definitely be awkward in the beginning, especially if you are the only foreigner in your CIP. But if you can reach out and bridge the gap between you and the members of your CIP through these shared experiences, I’m sure you will have a great time.




Tracy Le: Bazaar Cafe

Volunteering at Bazaar Cafe has been one of my favorite things to do here in Kyoto. Every Friday I go to the cafe and help out in the kitchen or as a waitress.

It has truly been an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. For the precise reason that most of the staff at the cafe are volunteers and they come from different countries in the world that Bazaar Cafe is a strange and refreshing experience. On one hand, the working environment is very Japanese – the manager is Japanese, the customers are Japanese – you have to be polite, efficient and attentive; but on the other hand, everyone in the kitchen is speaking a mixture of Japanese and English and other languages and offering unique cultural tidbits at every turn of conversation. The staff have been some of the warmest people I’ve met in Japan. It’s fascinating to hear them speak about why in Japan, or what they think of Japan; their experiences, from common or bizarre, give a glimpse into the Japan from the perspectives of minority peoples, and lets us see the lives of people we would usually not encounter everyday. That, underneath the idea of homogeneity so heralded of Japan’s society, there are many unique lives quietly transforming social boundaries and ideas.

Even on the customer’s side, many are Doshisha’s students and professors and/or regulars and friends of the manager. They, too, have been engaging and interesting people. Some have come talked to me out of genuine interest in foreign students and workers in Japan. It’s a comforting experience.

All in all, I’ve had an amazing time at the quaint little cafe by Doshisha. I try and go there at least once a week, twice if I have time, and I really recommend it as the food’s great and it has a good ambiance for studying or chatting.