Anne Wen: Yosakoi Traditional Dance, Fly Dance Studio, Kyoto Student Impact (Christian Group)

I joined three different activities to fulfill my community involvement project, in part because each project lasted shorter than I expected and the circles in Japan had eligibility constraints. For starters, I spent two weeks practicing with Doshisha University’s Yosakoi traditional dance group. The practices culminated in a Yosakoi dance festival in Osaka, which later turned into one of my favorite memories in Japan because we performed three times, and I was the only non-Japanese person among a group of 40 Japanese students. Attempting to speak Japanese, given my second year language abilities, was challenging, but the awkwardness forced me to study the language even more. I also found a few Japanese allies who were crucial to learning the choreography and reading Japanese festival instructions. For Yosakoi practice, I went to the Kamogawa River twice a week and rehearsed for three hours. Beyond the dance steps themselves, I learned about the nuances of Japanese circle rules. For instance, Japanese students were extremely punctual, schedules were outlined down to the last second on Excel sheets, and many people wanted to speak with foreigners but worried that they lacked language skills. For future KCJS students, I’d recommend trying your best to find Doshisha university circles. I googled most organizations and expanded my search to Kyoto University affiliates, randomly emailing any address that I could find. I emailed seven different groups, nearly forgot which ones I emailed, and heard back three weeks later about the Yosakoi group. Though the effort was challenging at the start, interacting exclusively with Japanese people without international students to help you can make you grow as a person.

I also attended private lessons at Fly Dance Studio in Shijo. Given my lack of dancing experience, I worried that I’d be an awkward duck flailing my arms, but the teachers were super nice, and most of the students there didn’t consistently come to any one practice. Instead, students varied from week to week, and the studio’s EASY set one-month package ensured that I could show up to any class, any time of the week. Most of the classes hovered around dinner time, so I’d go once or twice a week and attend either their beginner or ultra-beginner hip hop and K-pop dance classes. For students worried about feeling awkward the first time, I’d drag a friend along and exercise together, then attend the next few sessions alone. A first once told me a mantra that I try to repeat: If you can talk, you can sing, and if you can walk, you can dance. Since I’m leaving the country after one semester, I didn’t feel as bad if I made dance choreography mistakes, and also knew that many of the teachers appreciated having more students because it created more energy. Plus, the chance to dance off all the gyoza I ate in the city was necessary, given that I don’t hit the gym.

Temporarily I attended one practice for ASH, a k-pop dance group, but the members weren’t super welcoming, so I spent my last few weeks working with Kyoto Student Impact, a Christian group in the city that’s unaffiliated with Doshisha University. I don’t think the ASH dance group members meant to be rude, but my lack of Japanese fluency proved hard to communicate with local students, and they rarely held practices, so the chance to meet friends was extra hard. Instead, through Kyoto Student Impact, which I found through the Mustard Seed Church that I attended, I met students once or twice a week and engaged in social activities. I went bowling in Japan, had a worshipping session, and as of this writing, will soon attend an international Thanksgiving feast in a country that hardly celebrates this November holiday. The experience with student impact surprised me for a variety of reasons, two of them being that Christianity is hardly practiced in this Shinto/Buddhist-dominated country and I hadn’t expected to attend church. Fortunately, it felt refreshing to practice my religion in a foreign country, and I wanted to speak English a few times, even though the goal of studying abroad was to learn Japanese. Having even a few international friends or Japanese speakers who spoke fluent English ensured that I could compare cross-cultural conversations and engage in deeper conversations. Also, church proved to be a consistent place where I could find friends and have deeper connections over a shared religion, so I resumed my religious practices.

Some tips for future KCJS students, since I found my project activities largely through reading past blog posts:

  1. Don’t email or Instagram DM one or two groups; hit more. I started by contacting seven groups, and two of them eventually got back to me three weeks later. You want to cast your net wide, and don’t worry if you don’t hear back since it’s nothing personal. Also, most groups have eligibility requirements. For instance, my Yosakoi traditional dance group didn’t allow foreign students because they wanted to recruit Japanese freshmen and sophomores for a full year. When I reached out to them, they only wanted international students for one specific festival, and though the experience was short, I still learned a ton of new Kansai dialect slang.
  2. Don’t chicken out of going to a project. As cliche as it sounds, feeling uncomfortable means you’re growing. There were multiple times when I felt awkward in all-Japanese spaces, and one time, I arrived at a practice location and wanted to turn around, for fear of awkwardness. Your first few times at a project won’t be the easiest, but over time, the more conversations you have, the better your experience will be. When you don’t know what to say to Japanese students, ask questions and pull the “gaijin card,” aka ask about anything on your mind because you’re a foreigner and confusion feels justified.
  3. It’s okay to change your projects, even multiple times. I hopped around different projects and felt that each one of them taught me something different. For instance, the Yosakoi dance organization taught me about language immersion and the international Christian group reminded me about the comfort of speaking in my native tongue. Given the number of people that you can meet in Kyoto, don’t worry you won’t make friends. Sometimes, even in Japanese spaces, you’ll meet many internationals. At my Christian group, most people I met hailed from foreign countries like Indonesia and China, and I’ve had fun exchanging cross-cultural talks with them.

Cassie Rodriguez: Klexon

The CIP I have chosen this semester is a circle dedicated to helping Japanese people improve their English skills. Most of the people who participate come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I have been able to talk with college students my age, people interested in living or working abroad, people who study English just as a hobby, and even a member of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. One of the most rewarding things about participating in this circle is that you have the opportunity to meet people who understand exactly what it is like to study a difficult foreign language, so communication is not that difficult as we share similar experiences. Sometimes, depending on the level of English that my conversation partner has, I often offer explanations in Japanese, which helps both my language skills and helps deepen the understanding of my conversation partner.

Because KCJS students are required to keep a CIP log and come up with small tasks for ourselves, I feel like participating in this circle has been really useful. For example, each week I set a goal for myself to participate in activities outside of the circle so I would be able to practice my Japanese and also make new friends. Each week I gave myself a small goal to complete that eventually led to me hanging out with some of the friends I made in the circle “outside of class,” so to speak. Funnily enough, even though many of the Japanese people try hard to practice English, most of the time outside of the circle we only speak Japanese, which has been actually really good practice. All in all, I’m glad that I have been able to participate in this circle because it has helped me accomplish my primary goal that I set before starting the KCJS program: becoming more comfortable with expressing myself in Japanese.

Hana Lethen: K.Classic Ballet

I have done ballet since I was five years old, so I was very excited to take ballet class every week during my semester in Kyoto at K.Classic Ballet Studio.   Initial contact was a bit daunting, as it involved painstakingly reviewing rather simple emails to make sure they didn’t involve any embarrassing keigo mishaps.  My first day at the studio, I was very nervous, wondering how out-of-place I would look and feel.  However, as we took our places at the barre to begin class, I felt completely at home.

The etiquette in a typical ballet class shares a lot in common with that of Japanese society.  Politeness and humility, especially toward one’s teacher and to older students, are essential, as is following the rules of classical dance.  Uniformity is emphasized; the students all wear a similar style of leotard, tights, and ballet slippers.  Even the Japanese rule of not wearing street shoes indoors applies to ballet studios.  I realized that having grown up taking ballet classes helped me to adjust to life in Japan.

The content of ballet classes here is comfortingly familiar.  The same French ballet terms are used, although they are uttered in Kansai-ben.  Our teacher is very direct in her critique, and ballet class is the only setting in Japan in which most of the Japanese I hear is in command form.  However, although class is very formal, the students have been very welcoming.  I feel that we relate to each other because of our shared love for ballet and because of our shared lifestyles, which have been shaped by ballet.

Through my classes at K.Classic Ballet, I have been able to challenge myself to branch out beyond the community at KCJS and Doshisha.  Ballet classes themselves do not offer much opportunity for communication practice, as everyone, besides the teacher, is expected to be silent.  It was the moments in the dressing room when I worked up the courage to ask someone their name or to compliment their dancing—and the conversations which stemmed from these initial remarks—which were the most rewarding regarding interaction with the other ballet students.  In my experience, taking initiative to interact with my CIP peers, along with choosing an activity I am truly passionate about, have definitely been key to having a meaningful community experience in Kyoto.



Gloria Kantungire: Klexon

I am currently volunteering in the Klexon English Language Conversation group. Through Klexon, I’ve been met so many new people. In fact last weekend,I went to Fushimi Inari and Lake Biwako with a woman named Kahori, who I met at a Klexon Party. Klexon Parties are held at the director of the program’s home every other weekend. The Klexon programs that operate in Shiga and in Kyoto come together for one night for a language exchange over dinner and drinks. That night, there were only a few foreigners, so foreigners were dispersed among separate tables. Kahori is actually quite a bit older than I am, however she is rather outgoing and (surprisingly) loud, so it was easy for me to become friends with her at the party. She invited me to go see Lake Biwako with her that next weekend.

Through meeting new people every week, I’ve noticed a lot of subtle cultural differences between America and Japan. For example, at the Klexon party, I made the mistake of pouring myself another drink. In Japan, it is customary for others to pour your drink for you. Since I was foreign, I was considered a “guest” of the country, which perhaps made it more imperative for Japanese people to pour my drink. Kahori explained to me that pouring a drink for yourself appears quite lonely, and the culture of pouring a drink for others is just another way for people to connect with one another.

Another difference I noticed was the gestures. Gestures in America can be are completely different from gestures in Japan. Most Americans when signaling someone to “come over here” will usually wave a person over with their palms facing upwards. When I was in Osaka with a friend from DESA (Doshisha Exchange Student Association), who offered to show me around Shinsaibashi, we were standing in front of a crepe store waiting for our crepe to be prepared. Unfortunately, I had been standing in the way of other people who also wanted crepes. He gestured for me to come closer, and away from the front of the store. However, he did so with palms facing down. In Japan, people signal “come here” with their palms facing downward.  Also that the American gesture for “kind of” or “a little” is gestured with palms facing downward and rotating your wrist up and down. When I asked Kahori later on whether or not she’s seen or used the American gestures for “come here” and ” a little”, she answered that Japanese people might see the American “come here” as a signal for a dog, rather than a person. Also Japanese people will signify “a little” with their thumb and index finger pinching together, while the American version of the gesture be seen as a rejecting hand motion in Japan.

Through Klexon, I’ve been able to practice my Japanese, and at the same time learn more about Japanese culture through observing the people I meet every week.






Briana Freeman: English Conversation Circle and Assistant English Teacher

Because of the differences between the Japanese school year and the KCJS school year, I assisted at a junior high English class only three times.

Most of my assisting consisted of standing awkwardly to the side of sensei’s desk, doing what sensei asked but failing to be outgoing in the slightest. I dreaded the time at the end of class when the students worked on their homework (or more often, talked amongst themselves), as sensei would then cheerily encourage me to walk about the room offering help and asking if the student’s had any questions. I don’t generally consider myself a shy person, but talking to junior high students, especially those of a different culture and language, was terrifying. There was such a stark contrast between the JET volunteer that was there for half a class, bright and upbeat, and me, who stood nervously trying not to let my discomfort show. I don’t think I could ever teach young children.

This CIP presented a precarious situation to navigate; I was only an assistant, not a teacher. Once, I was asked to read aloud a translation of Momotaro. I stumbled over several incorrect parts, hesitated and blushed when I had to say, “Oh, my God!,” but didn’t mention the errors. The translation was not from a textbook, and if sensei had done it herself I definitely couldn’t point out her mistakes in front of the class.

I often wondered if the only time the students interacted with foreigners was in English class. I sometimes felt like a cultural ambassador, a representative of America for the young teens of my classes. My first day there involved the students asking questions in English and me responding. For example, questions like, “What is your favorite food?” My favorite food, if I had to choose one, is collard greens. But since tons of Americans I’ve talked to haven’t even heard of that, I racked my brain for a food easier to understand. To my everlasting horror, I said, “Cheeseburgers.” How much more stereotypically American can you get? Everyone (including me) laughed and I imagined I heard a few “yappari”’s from around the room.

Despite my shyness, I did encounter quite a few students whose enthusiasm encouraged me; a boy whose pronunciation was excellent, a girl whose penmanship was especially beautiful. Despite English being a required class, there were some who genuinely seemed interested in learning it well. And, one-on-one, kids didn’t seem so intimidating. Maybe I’m not cut out for teaching little kids, but I feel as if I could be a good tutor.

One thing that really surprised me was the low amount of discipline in the classroom. Students would often talk out of turn or interrupt the teacher, but sensei didn’t tell them to stop. It seemed in such contrast to the impression I’d had before coming to Japan: quiet students, respectfully bowing to the teacher before class while saying “Good morning” in unison. I wonder what other Japanese junior high schools are like. But then, I can only compare to my own school experience, which was pretty strict.

I participated in my other CIP, an English conversation circle, three times as well.

The leader and members seemed close; he would often address the women with “-chan” instead of “-san.” I was very surprised at first, but maybe the group is more laid-back than I had assumed. After all, everyone would go out to a bar together after the weekly meeting. In my eight months here, I have seen drinking parties appear in a variety of contexts (business, college clubs, conversation circles, etc.) to aid in socializing and create a friendly atmosphere. It seems an important part of Japanese’ social lives. Since the circle met on Tuesday nights, though, I was never able to participate in this particular social event. I suspect they did much of their group bonding over drinks, and I’m disappointed I missed out on getting to know any of them better.

I learned on the first night that conversation circles consist of a lot of self-introductions. Once you got past the preliminaries, though, it was a great opportunity to speak to a wide variety of interesting people. For example, one guy asked me to teach him some idioms, which made me realize just how weird phrases like “Don’t have a cow” really are. It made me want to learn some Japanese idioms; I wonder if there are any with cows…

There were also some interesting linguistic moments (shout out to Yotsukura-sensei’s class). For example, I noticed was when a woman used “like” as a filler when speaking. It sounded so natural, I knew she must have studied or lived abroad. When asked, (yappari) she answered she’d lived in Seattle for awhile. Although it was just one word, that “like” differentiated her from all the other Japanese I had spoken to that night. I hope I can achieve such naturalness in Japanese!

Jameson Creager: Shamisen

One of the things I anticipated dreading most before coming to Japan was not having access to a guitar. I was thrilled when I learned that my host family in fact had one lying around that I could borrow. That is to say, I haven’t had to abstain from one of my most immediate needs, to make noise. I’ve also discovered another means of stress relief and enjoyment though my CIP, learning the shamisen.

With regard to the instrument and music itself, the experience has been demanding. As opposed to guitar, in which anyone can pick up a few chords and be on their way within thirty minutes of having touched the thing, shamisen requires diligence in order to achieve its potential. That is not to say the physical action of producing a tone is difficult, like learning a woodwind, but that one must be very conscious of their technique and take care to not play more than what is written. A good shamisen player is precise in their movements. There is also a barrier of entry for first timers: To play along with others, I had to learn how to read a new type of music notation that is counter-intuitive to the notation I am familiar with. Learning has made me much more grateful for how easy it is to make pretty sounds on my guitar at home. The real treat, however, has been playing with others at the studio.

For my first month or so, I visited Greenwich House, a small Japanese music studio, twice a week. I would go once for a group meeting of musicians and once for individual lessons. Recently, I have just been going to group meeting, although I have been spending just as much time there. Last week, I spent five and a half hours playing and lounging, which included dinner out with my teacher. The place has a really laid-back, friendly atmosphere, and in between pieces we snack on sweets and drink coffee that has been prepared in the jazz bar on the first floor.

The individual lessons have been incredibly helpful in the process of learning the fundamentals, but the group meetings are what I’ve come to treasure. A few times a week, shamisen, koto, and shakuhachi players gather at Greenwich House to play together. Depending on the day, the attendance varies. There have been times at which the tiny studio in which we meet has been uncomfortably crowded with players of all types and times in which my teacher and I are the only string players, helping a group of shakuhachi players keep rhythm. The smaller gatherings are preferable in terms of time the teacher can spend correcting our mistakes and teaching technique, but there is something magical about hearing it all together, as the individual parts play off each other and form a lush aural image. While traditional Japanese music is rather humble in light of the music we listen to nowadays, it has stark and devastating beauty when executed well.

I wish that I could continue going to the music studio after I leave Japan. My teacher and the other members of the studio have been incredibly welcoming. This CIP allowed me to integrate with a tiny, very specific group of people in Kyoto who share my interests. Just as I am becoming comfortable playing and conversing with the other players, my departure looms over me. I have thoroughly enjoyed involving myself with this group of people and learning from their experience and company.


私のCIPは三味線のレッスンです。毎週、金曜日に、Greenwich Houseというジャズクラブに行きます。そのクラブの二階は邦楽スタジオです。そこで先生から個人的な三味線レッスンを受けています。たいてい火曜日にもGreenwich Houseに行きます。火曜日には邦楽の例会があります。それは三味線と尺八と琴の音楽家が集まる会です。先生は指導しながら、一緒に弾きます。あまり技術は身につかないけど、個人的なレッスンより例会の方が楽しみです。









Briana Freeman: Pottery Studio and Kyoto Cooking Circle

My CIP was the pottery studio. Catherine had the same CIP, and it was nice to have someone with which to navigate unfamiliar situations. Every Saturday I spent about five hours making Japanese-style cups and bowls of various sizes. Before, I never paid much attention to the difference in shape between Western and Japanese dishware, or the fact that most Japanese cups and bowls have a foot. Going only once a week, making pieces and getting to know people has been a slow process. I’ve made several things and given them to sensei to bisque-fire, but as far as I know none of them have been fired yet, so I haven’t glazed anything.

Starting out at the studio, I was pretty nervous. I hadn’t done pottery in about two years—and worst of all, the first day, we threw on the wheel. Needless to say, I was pretty bad; I was never very good at throwing. Someone at the studio spent that whole day teaching us how to wedge and helping us throw. I’d never seen that method for wedging clay before—the clay ended up circular, flower-like with ridges coming our from the center. And, as I soon found, it was very difficult to replicate. To this day I haven’t mastered it; I’ve had to stick to the basic wedging method I learned in high school. I’d like to learn the more advanced wedging method before the year is through, since wedging is the basic of basics in pottery.

When we’d finally wedged the clay sufficiently (one way or another), we were ready to throw. I was very surprised when the person helping us placed the entire, very large, chunk of clay on the wheel. Before, I’d always chosen a chunk according to the size of final piece I wanted to make. I’d only ever seen professionals put a huge piece on clay on the wheel, center it all, then use only the top to form a piece. This allows them to simply cut the finished piece from the top when finished, and use the already-centered clay at the bottom to make more and more pieces. I had a hard time with this method, because the more clay you have, the harder it is to center.

Slab machine

I never realized how easy we students had it in high school; there was a slab machine for making perfectly flattened, consistent-thickness slabs of clay, and a coil machine for making endless coils of the same size. At the studio, I’ve learned to make coils myself, by rolling the clay between my hands in a way I’d never thought of. Doing everything by hand seems more authentic, more traditional. I like it. (However, I have no idea how I could make a slab of consistent thickness by hand…) That being said, not everything in the pottery studio is done by hand. I’ve seen a lot of people use molds to mass produce things like cups so that they’re exactly the same. It’s fascinating, and I’d like to try it sometime.

Since the first day, I’ve stuck to what I’m good at: making pieces by hand. It is also much easier to talk to people when working at a table than at the wheel. Little by little it’s gotten less awkward, on both sides. At first the studio didn’t seem to know what to do with Catherine and me, but I think they’ve gradually become comfortable having us there. Indeed, the pottery studio isn’t some big, impersonal company, but rather has a very friendly, personal feeling to it. A little over ten people come every Saturday, and seeing some of the same faces every week is nice; it allows me to talk with people beyond just my name and the fact that I’m studying abroad.

A few times some people at the studio have commented on how I work diligently on a piece, sometimes spending hours at a time making it the shape I want. When they complimented my determination, I was happy, but surprised. In high school, where we only had 50 minutes to get out all our materials and tools, work on our pieces, and also clean up, perfectionism was a luxury that no one could afford in order to get all our projects done in time. I like that at the pottery studio, you can work at your own pace and focus on a piece as long as you want. I’m really glad that for my CIP I’ve gotten to work on pottery, which I’ve loved since my freshman year of high school, my first pottery class.


My second CIP was the Kyoto Cooking Circle. I now realize just how hard it is to make the nightly meals I take for granted. I look forward to making some of the things I learned for my family in America. One thing about the Circle surprised me. Though there was a relaxed air throughout the cooking, after we had eaten, we did aisatsu. One by one, each person introduced themselves and talked a bit about the cooking experience of that day. The sudden formality caught me by surprise, and I wonder if similar bouts of formality are common at other kinds of relaxed events.