Cameron Molnar: Boxing

For my CIP, I had the opportunity to at group boxing lessons at the フュチュールボクシングジム (Futur Boxing Gym). I got to learn a Japanese style of the sport while having the chance to meet many different kinds of Japanese people in a friendly setting. I appreciated my time at the boxing gym because I got to see more firsthand about how Japanese people interact and react with difficult challenges. Also, since myself and others in the lessons were experiencing the same physically challenging activities, we had something to bond over that made it easier to talk to them afterwards. My advice to incoming KCJS students would be to come in with a positive mindset. Sometimes you try to speak with someone and they are too busy or just not interested. But if you keep pushing and look for the right opportunities, you could find some great friendships that you would’ve never been possible otherwise.

Malcom Summers: Shogi

For my CIP, I went to a local shogi club in Kyoto and played/learned shogi. I first visited the club and told them I was interested. Then, I came back the next week to start. Throughout my time there I learned some shogi strategies and played several times against the people in the club. Since few people spoke English, I mainly used Japanese. I also borrowed and read a book to aid with my practice.

One of the first things I noticed was a lack of keigo usage. Even the younger kids just used です/ます form when speaking to adults. Meanwhile, the adults mostly used casual form. I believe this was due to the nature of the club. Specifically, senpai and kōhai relations weren’t really about age so much as skill. Thus, some of the younger kids didn’t use honorific forms because they were actually better than the older players.

I learned a lot of shogi specific vocabulary from the club. I think it may have been harder due to the fact that shogi terms aren’t exactly used in everyday conversation. This required me to actually review some of these terms before I went to the club. However, it was an enjoyable experience because, in between games, we would review what went wrong and where I could improve. As someone who has played a lot of chess, that part of the process was very familiar.

The best advice I can give to others is to find a CIP that isn’t as skill oriented. Unless you already do the activity at home/school, learning something from scratch is a very difficult process. Especially, learning in a non-native language. For me, playing chess allowed me to pick up shogi concepts quicker, but my CIP eventually became a chore. I had to spend time practicing in order to eventually win, but, when I became busy, practice was difficult. So, when I would go back to the club it would be the same result of me losing the entire time. As such, I think a more social oriented CIP could lead to a better experience.

Megan Everts: Klexon

Originally, for my CIP I wanted to learn more about Japanese calligraphy, so I attended an introductory session where I met the teacher and the children taking the class. Although everyone was very welcoming, I quickly realized that children speak very quickly and are hence difficult to understand in Japanese. I thought more about what I wanted to get out of my CIP, and I realized that although my interest in exploring calligraphy was strong, I did not think it was the right activity for me to pursue. My main purpose of coming to Japan was to improve my ability to speak Japanese and to gain a greater understanding of Japanese culture, and I felt that there were other options that would allow me to pursue that goal more deeply.

So, I ended up changing my CIP to a language exchange club called Klexon, where both foreigners and Japanese individuals met to have conversations in English and Japanese. Klexon meetings were divided into two parts: one-on-one discussions and group discussions. The former had a similar format to speed-dating, where I would spend ten minutes talking with one Japanese individual and then my partner would switch. For the latter, the groups were randomly created to have a mix between foreigners and Japanese individuals, so I often got to meet more new people outside of the ones I interacted with in the group discussions.

I was able to gain a lot of interesting insights into Japanese culture through my interactions with these individuals. For instance, one thing I found very interesting when talking to the Japanese individuals is that they constantly commented on how bad their English was, even though I did not have much trouble understanding them at all. I thought that this was odd at first, but then when I switched to speaking in Japanese with one girl, I prefaced it by saying that my Japanese was not very good. She found it very funny that I said that and commented that she feels like sometimes foreigners start to “act more Japanese” after they begin studying the language, as she said that the way I talked down my ability to speak Japanese parallels the same way many Japanese individuals may talk down their ability to speak English.

Similarly, I had a conversation with another Japanese person about the differences between American and Japanese cultures. One of the interesting points she mentioned was that she said she felt like Americans were very aggressive and blunt in interactions, making them sometimes difficult to communicate with. This made me more aware of how to handle myself in future interactions with Japanese individuals, as I tried to pay more attention to the way in which I said things in order to minimize any awkward vibes I may have been giving off.

There were, however, some difficulties with my CIP as well. For example, when we transitioned to group discussions, sometimes the native English-speakers would take control of the conversations, causing the Japanese speakers to become more shy and talk less. This was frustrating, as my main purpose of coming to this club was to speak with the Japanese individuals, rather than other foreigners. For future KCJS students, my advice would be to not be afraid to reach out more to the Japanese individuals you interact with during your CIP. I wish I was able to get the Line information of some of the people I talked with to continue conversations beyond that short period of time.

Sean Corley: Volunteering at Muromachi Jidokan

For my CIP, I volunteered at Muromachi Jidokan, an after-school care center for elementary school students. I was interested in volunteering here because I have previously mentored children through a program at my university, as well as at home in New Jersey. At the Jidokan, my role was to help students with their homework and to play games with them once they were finished.

I was initially daunted by the idea of helping students with their homework. I was not confident enough in my own language skills to be able to explain how to solve math problems or other homework questions in Japanese. Moreover, I often found it difficult to understand the students when they were speaking. I had been used to hearing adults speak in Japanese during my school instruction, but I did not have much practice with listening to young kids, who sometimes mumble or say words incorrectly. Thus, interacting with the kids at Muromachi became a great language experience for me. I learned how to understand the kids when they spoke and how to communicate my own thoughts to them in a way that they could understand. For instance, during one of my visits to the Jidokan, a first-grade student asked me for help with her math homework, in which she had to read the time on different images of analog clocks. I had forgotten how to say “hour hand” and “minute hand,” so I explained them as “the short one” and “the long one” instead. Even though I didn’t use the correct words, the student understood what I was explaining to her, and she was able to figure out the rest of her homework. I was happy to find that her and other students began asking me more and more for help with their homework, as they started to see me as a teacher instead of a temporary volunteer. 

One of the best moments of my time at Muromachi Jidokan was when the students finally referred to me as “Sean-san” instead of “gaikokujin sensei,” or “foreigner-teacher.” During my first few visits, I always pointed to my name tag to remind the students of my name, but it didn’t seem to stick, and most of them continued to call me “gaikokujin sensei.” A few weeks in, the students started to call me “Sean-san” all of a sudden. Although I found it funny when the kids called me “foreigner-teacher,” it was nice to finally be seen not as a foreigner, but as a part of the community. 

I really enjoyed my time volunteering at Muromachi Jidokan. I will miss going in on Tuesdays and seeing the kids get excited that I was there again. They were all so friendly, funny, and full of energy that I left the Jidokan smiling every week. I recommend the Muromachi Jidokan to any future KCJS members who are looking for an exciting and rewarding volunteering experience.

Elvis Jimenez: Volunteering at Aoi Jidoukan

The sheer amount of options available to me by living in Kyoto was honestly a bit paralyzing at first, but Nakata Sensei was quick to notice that I had a passion for working with children and helped me make the necessary connections. For my CIP, I dove into the deep end by volunteering at Aoi Jidoukan, a children’s hall. Every step of the process was a bit of a challenge, but it allowed me to use what I had learned in the classroom in a real-life setting. I first had to contact the head of the program by phone since I was unable to set up an interview by email. Thanks to conversation practice with Nakata Sensei, I was able to express my interest in volunteering at the Children’s Hall and practice my keigo at the same time.

During the interview, I was able to talk about my past experiences working with children, understand the rules and regulations of the Children’s hall, and set the frequency and times that I would volunteer at. I had to do several self-introductions with the staff members, as well as one for the children. The self-introduction for the children was the most entertaining as they had many questions to ask a foreigner.

The reason I said I had jumped into the deep end is because I worked with elementary school children that at most knew a couple of English phrases. There was also only one staff member that spoke some English. While it was quite a challenge, the setting allowed me to observe Japanese Culture in its truest form and pushed my listening skills to a whole new level. As this was an after-school programs, many of the activities were games and sports that allowed me to at least respond with simpler phrases and actions.

Although I am not the most articulate person in Japanese, I can confidently and joyfully say that I was able to make meaningful connections with several of the children. At first, most of the children would refer to me as foreign sensei, but by the end of the program many were calling me Joe sensei or Giovanni Sensei. If any forgot my name, they had been comfortable enough to come up to me and look at my name tag or ask me directly. Several of the children would also run up to me when I arrived and give me a good hug.

Overall children across both countries share enough similarities that allowed me to interact with them relatively easily. The language barrier was the biggest challenge to overcome in terms of cultural differences. Some of the toys such as Kendama and Koma where new, but many of the American games such as Uno and Set have made their way over.

Allison Capron: Klexon

For my CIP, I participated in an English-speaking circle called Klexon. Klexon took place every Tuesday from 7-9pm. Through this CIP, I was able to speak to college students and working people. The first hour consisted of 10 minute talks with 6 people, and the second hour involved group conversations.

I had a few observations during my time at Klexon. Most Japanese people studied English for work purpose or in order to gain a better advantage for job hunting. One interesting reason I heard for studying English was for talking with people at concerts. One person said he enjoyed metal music and wanted to learn English so that he could go to concerts and talk with other people. Another observation I had was that when I asked people where they want to go abroad, they usually said Canada or Australia. I thought it was interesting that many did not say America. One girl said she did not like New York because it was too loud, crowded, and dirty. Also, many Japanese people were courageous and wanted to speak with foreigners fluent in English. When some people learned that I would be returning to America, they would be disappointed because they wanted more chances to speak with foreigners.

While I initially hated Klexon because of the late meeting time, I became good friends with this one Japanese girl so I became more appreciative of Klexon. We went to Higashiyama together, rented kimonos and walked around in Arashiyama, and ate delicious foods. Overall, Klexon was a fun experience and I had the opportunity to learn more about the culture and engage in various conversations.

John Evans: Art Lessons at Apollo Academy of Fine Art

After hearing about it from Lisa Qi and Yamaoka Sensei, I started attending art classes at the Apollo Academy of Fine Art in late September. Every Thursday, I would ride the subway from Doshisha to Karasuma Oike. Afterwards, I would walk several blocks southwest to the apartment building in which the classes took place, surrounded by various stores and traditional merchant homes (machiya). Though the idea of a class in an apartment seemed strange to me at first, the class was very comfortable and organized and had the familiar accumulation of random sculptures, kitchenware, and fake flowers used for still lives back home.

I was initially thrown off by the fact that the majority of students were adults, many around my dad’s age – I had been expecting students around my age. The students were more or less consistent every week and had been attending for quite some time. As of such, they were very talented. There was the occasional foreigner that came to classes, though we still spoke in Japanese. I would spend 3 and a half hours working, though the professor and the other students often urged me to stay longer. I had no materials with me in Japan, but luckily the professor sold them, (i.e. pencils and a sketchbook). Throughout the class period, the professor would walk around the room, pointing out strengths and weaknesses in everyone’s work, but I often had a hard time understanding his suggestions since I lacked the proper vocabulary, which led me to search for helpful words to use in future classes. I had initially signed up for watercolors, but for the first month and a half I only worked on still life drawings. However, I reminded the professor I would only be attending until December, which allowed me to start painting a little earlier.

Although all of the students were serious about their art, the class was not solely work. About halfway through, the professor and his colleague would set out snacks and tea. This break was a great opportunity to speak to get to know others in the class. My classmates often asked me not only about my hometown, but my family’s heritage, which I personally do not know a whole ton about since it is not a common conversation for me back in the US. I was also surprised after I contributed tea one week because I was thanked the following week as well, even though it had seemed very minor to me. Like many American students, I had only ever had female Japanese teachers, which led to issues understanding my professor and my male classmates. I received the occasional chuckle and comment about being “cute” or “too formal” because I was so used speaking formally. However I have had more experience speaking casually after this class. One of my classmates who was designing a poster would occasionally ask me to check her work to see if the spelling and meaning made sense in English. I also received invitations to my classmates’ exhibitions and galleries in the area.

Overall my experience in this class was very rewarding because I was able to sue Japanese in a somewhat “familiar” environment and meet various people who shared my own interests, regardless of background.

Isabela Rovira: Learning Shamisen

Before coming to Japan, I had never listened to shamisen or really any traditional Japanese music. It wasn’t until I watched Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings last summer that I first heard a shamisen. Now in my third month of shamisen lessons, I am happy that I was swept away by its sound.

When I came to KCJS, I knew I wanted to take shamisen lessons but was not really sure how I would do it. Thankfully, other students from the fall semester had already been going to a teacher for koto lessons and that same teacher could teach shamisen. In the first few weeks of KCJS, I went to meet my new teacher, Iwasaki-sensei.

My first impression was unforgettable: Iwasaki-sensei presided above the Greenwich Jazz Club in an alley that swept you away from the buzz of Shijo Kawaramachi. As soon as I entered the door, she handed me a shamisen, a bachi (used to pluck the strings) and the opportunity to jump into the piece that the other students were already learning. Scary? Sure. But luckily, with my previous experiences learning violin and piano, I could at least stumble my way through the first few bars.

Since then, every week I’ve learned a new piece or practiced a new technique on the shamisen. As a student of Iwasaki-sensei, there’s never a dull moment. But I’ve also gained so much more from my lessons. I’ve gotten to meet new people and practice Japanese in ways I would have never done in the classroom. I’ve gone from being nervous about using my keigo to casually striking up conversation with new students. Even if you don’t have any musical experience, lean in and take the leap because you’ll learn more than just playing an instrument.

Nicholas Han: Assistant English Teacher at Ohara Academy

At my home school in America, my university offers a language partner program with study abroad students. I had really enjoyed teaching others English, which is why when I came to KCJS and had to pick a CIP, I was very interested in becoming an assistant English teacher. Once I started it at Ohara Academy, however, it did differ a little from what I expected.

My experiences back home with teaching Japanese tended to involve the meaning of phrases, often for American slang. As a result, I came in with expectations similar to that. However, because the students at Ohara were elementary and middle school students, their Japanese was not that advanced yet. Instead, it surprised me that what they really focused on was pronunciation and forming basic conversations. However, it was still enjoyable, as I was able to meet and talk with many young Japanese students.

During my time at Ohara, I also encountered a couple unexpected cultural customs. The first that comes to mind is how at Japanese schools, everyone is required to completely finish their food with no leftovers at all. One day, after eating lunch, I left a few tiny bits of rice in the bowl. However, when the teacher saw, he told me that in Japan you couldn’t do that. After that time, I made sure to finish everything every day. Furthermore, another surprising aspect of Japanese schools is how cleanup is done by the students. It contrasts significantly with American schools, where students tend to care very little for the school’s cleanliness. One final unexpected thing was that every day each class had a student assigned to begin class. They would call for all the students to stand up, and then everyone would say “good morning” to the teacher, before sitting down and beginning class.

I think my experiences as a English teaching assistant wasn’t quite what I expected when coming into it. Despite that, it was a great opportunity to see a completely different perspective of how school is run. Because of that, I think that it was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience that I would definitely consider doing again.

Mayra Monreal: Nico Nico Tomato

Volunteering at Kyoto University Hospital has been an enriching experience. Going into it, I believed I would interact a lot with the child patients much like how I have done while volunteering in hospitals in America. However, it appears to be different in Japan as the children usually have an escort nurse with them at all times to keep them company. We volunteers would take part in the playroom activity of the day more as a model rather than a playmate. That does not mean, though, that I was not able to interact with others. Most of my time has been spent in the Volunteer room where all the volunteers create arts and crafts projects to hand out to the patients and visitors. All in all there would be about seven or so people in the volunteer room, which is a somewhat small space, and time would be spent conversing. Being able to understand the others, I would find it easy to follow along in a conversation. The volunteers are very kind as they speak with me, helping correct me if I were to make a mistake.

The volunteers consist of mostly older women, and they are always up for conversation. They want to know as much about your own culture as you want to know about theirs, so there is always something to talk about. Considering that I volunteer in the fall, there are events and crafts that follow the themes of Halloween and Christmas. I asked about what is done to celebrate these holidays in Japan, and the volunteer women provided that they were not really sure how Halloween became popular in Japan. Apparently, its popularity started rising in Japan about 10 years ago. The same goes for Christmas. Those holidays are more of a casual occurrence than they are taken to be in America. There are even events held at the hospital for these holidays, though sadly I am not available to partake in either. Hopefully, others interested in volunteering are able to partake in more activities and learn even more from their experience.