Camrick Solorio: Ballroom Dance Circle

For my CIP, I asked to join Kyoto University’s Amateur Dance (ballroom dance) club and they kindly let me participate. Club activities consisted of weekly or bi-weekly practices at local recreational centers, where we learned a variety of dances from tango to cha-cha. The club members were all extremely kind and accommodating despite the frequent language gap, and it became quickly apparent that the regular club members are really invested in the club—not just in improving their dance skills, but in building community. I did roughly a year of ballroom dance in college prior to joining this club (zero dance experience before that), and with this background the practices being held were challenging but somehow manageable. There were some members with similar skill levels as me, but I would say most are better dancers than I am. Some of the members were even taking private lessons outside of club practice.

I was constantly amazed at how kind everyone was to each other. They treated me as a regular member of the club even though I was only to be there for a semester, and I can’t stress enough how incredibly grateful I am for that. Around mid-November I attended one of their bi-annual Dance Parties (formal venue, ~100 guests, dance time), and even though I couldn’t contribute much to planning the event, they kindly welcomed me as a club member and let me celebrate with them after the event.

Some general advice for interested students: the club members are extremely kind and welcoming towards everyone, and that very much includes study abroad students (they told me it isn’t uncommon for short-term study abroad students to join for a while).  Having seen the intergenerational ties and motivation of the club members, I highly doubt this inclusivity and positivity is something that will change in the near future, so don’t be afraid to take a first step. Lessons might be particularly challenging for newcomers (notably because fall is second semester in Japan), but this is not a steadfast obstacle. You should definitely feel empowered to reach out and try if it’s something you’re interested in. Be sure to reach out for help, practice to have fun, and (very important) show others a smile even if things are difficult!! It makes a big difference.

Some other one-off tips:

  • You can buy cheap dance shoes on Amazon (~$30?). Gentlemen, if you can only get standard or Latin shoes go for the former.
  • Go to the post-practice afterparties.
  • If you’re interested in private lessons in addition to club practice, reach out to the senior members.
  • If you don’t quite understand something, ask! I had a number of times I did something clumsy because I didn’t quite get what was going on.
  • Always say please and thank you (aka お願いします、ありがとうございます、お疲れ様です、失礼します、).

Charles Stater: Zazen (Second Semester)

Reality can be overwhelming. Increasingly I feel both my own life and society at large is being consumed with 用件; there always seems to be more business to attend to, more things to do. That is why I’m intensely grateful for my experience with Zazen this year. When I’m sitting with my monk, laughing about nothing in particular, my watch and phone sit and buzz in another room, disarmed. When I’m meditating, the real world can try it’s absolute hardest to ruin my peace, but my serenity is a fortress. Zazen has provided me with an escape to the society we are all bound to- and I can even practice my Japanese while I’m at it.

I learned a great many things in my time at Zazen this semester, but one stands out to me as the most salient- contradictions. How can I live a peaceful, unattached life when society rewards only the most extreme attachment? How can I live in this prison of human suffering, longing to escape to detachedness but simultaneously loathe to let go? Contradictions exist in every philosophy, to be sure, but having the chance to actually converse with a member of Rinzai Zen about contradictions within his ideology (and indeed within his own practices) has been a rare opportunity to sail beyond my mental horizons into unchartered waters. The most interesting of these contradictions is my priest’s marriage; the antithesis of Zen is to bind yourself to someone so closely. He still has yet to provide me with an answer, only telling me “it’s difficult” repeatedly and changing the subject as quickly as he can.

I feel like I’ve learned actually a great deal about general Japanese philosophy and identity from my time at Zazen, which has been incredibly interesting to someone like me with clearly a vastly different upbringing. There are so many unspoken rules, so many tiny rivulets of Buddhist influence coalescing to form the rushing stream of Japanese consciousness. Most difficult for me to understand is the emphasis on the group versus the individual- I still struggle to understand it, but my Zazen discussions have given me a special perspective on Japanese ideology and cultural history I would sorely miss had I done a different CIP.

I have learned kanji history, Buddhist history, the Buddhist perspective on the modern world, and far too much about the relative worth of escalators vs. bowls (hint; escalators are not the more useful of the two) in my Zazen CIP. I have been able to practice my Japanese and disconnect from a reality that seems only ever bent on sapping me of whatever happiness I can make for myself. I have found peace. I may not have the answers to any of life’s questions, or ever understand the willing subjugation of the self to the society, but at least I have learned there are ways to find peace still left out there.


John Miller Karate Circle at Kyoto University

This semester I continued attending my CIP from last semester, which was a Karate circle at Kyoto university. It is rather informal group, where attendance is not strictly required. However there is a core group of about six students who regularly attend both two hour sessions each week. After a month break, it was great to be able to reconnect with reconnect with friends I had made last semester.

There were several foreign exchange students from other countries, including France, Germany and China. This made the circle approximately half Japanese and half foreign. While this did sometimes weaken the initiative to speak Japanese, there were plenty of opportunities to speak to the Japanese members. I great opportunity I had was serving almost as an interpreter between  my German friend Henrik, who does not speak Japanese well and the Kyoto University students who do not speak English well.

Continuing with the same CIP into the second semester was advantageous in my opinion because I was able to deepen relationships I had made the previous semester. Last semester, I did not spend much time outside of the dojo with the other members, however this year, we went on several outings together, including hiking Mt Atago and going to izakayas. I had a number of memorable conversations with my friend Henrik during those trips. He told me several fascinating stories of his great grandfather who was an officer in the German army during WWII. We were then able to ask Japanese students about their perceptions of the war and how the war is viewed differently between Germany, Japan and the United States.

Another aspect of Japanese culture I was able to observe was the importance of gift giving. The club president made cookies for all the members on Valentine’s Day, which was very nice. Last week, we wrote special appreciation messages for those who graduated in March after several years in the circle.  


Evan Scardino: Tenrikyō

This semester I have been conducting research on the Japanese new religious organization called Tenrikyō. In tandem with this research, as my CIP I have been attending services, meals, and monthly festivals hosted at the Heian Nishi Bunkyōkai in my neighborhood. I have been acquainted with the family that runs the church, the Ōshita family, since last year and they have been immensely helpful to me in my study of both their faith and Japanese culture as a whole.

Usually what this entails for me is watching the Ōshita family perform the service, eating a meal with them, and helping with tidying up the church room after the service, putting away chairs and offerings and such. The most helpful part in terms of my Japanese learning is without doubt the conversations shared over meals.

At the monthly festivals, the entire community of this church gathers, and I’ve had the chance to meet and talk with a large number of people, the overwhelming majority of whom are middle aged or elderly. This has provided me with a chance to observe dynamics of an older generation which I have less of a chance to interact with in my schooling. Their tendency towards self-deprecating humor is much stronger than that of the college students I have met, and an even greater tendency to discuss the weather at length at the start of any social interaction. They also speak Kyōto dialect, rarely heard in my generation.

The elderly exclusively use Kyōto dialect. Perhaps in their youth standard Japanese was not as widely taught or enforced. While the middle-aged people seem to be most comfortable speaking Kyōto dialect, they don’t lead with it. When I first came to the church, the middle-aged people would use standard Japanese, but as time went on, either they became more confident in my Japanese ability or I became a more recognized face in the community and they as well started using Kyōto dialect when speaking to me.

Kyōto dialect is somewhat distinct from the more widely known Kansai dialect. When I expressed interest in learning about Kyoto dialect, the brother of the head priest, Norio, was happy to oblige. He taught me the phrases “Samū oman na!” and “Atsū oman na!” used to express that today is particularly cold or hot, respectively.

I tried these phrases out on my college-age friends, and the ones who weren’t Kyōto natives didn’t understand at all. Even the ones who were from Kyōto, while they could understand, said they didn’t know how to speak much Kyōto dialect themselves. But at the next church meeting, I tried out my newfound words on some of the elderly people, and they seemed overjoyed at my efforts.

This story demonstrates a more unfortunate aspect of modern Japanese society: dialect is disappearing. In my Japanese class, we read several articles about the disappearance of dialect as standard Japanese becomes ever more, pun intended, standard.

I’m sure the people of the church were happy to have someone interested in this aspect of their culture, as only interest in the dialect will keep knowledge of it alive. One of the people whose words we read, an entertainer by the name of Ina Kappei, said that people who speak dialect need to be proud of it, and that pride, in the face of whatever derision they may face for speaking it, is the key to keeping it alive. Aside from the occasional joke about how hard it is to understand, the people of Heian Nishi seem to have pride in their unique way of speaking.

My experience with the people of Heian Nishi has been wonderful. I’ve been amazed time and time again by their kindness, and they have taught me so much. The opportunity I had to explore often overlooked aspects of Japanese society, such as dialect and new religions has been welcome, and the crossover with my classwork that dialect has provided has also been fascinating. I’m proud to say that with the support of this community I am “bocchi bocchi ni shiteiru” in my endeavors to understand Japanese culture and language.

Evan Scardino: HMP Theatre Company

For my CIP I have had the opportunity to volunteer at HMP Theatre Company in Osaka. What I actually do there week to week varies based on what they need help with, but the actual activity is not the most important part of what makes volunteering there a fun or informative experience for me. The part of this experience that I have valued the most is the social interaction with people of many different ages who hail from all over Japan.

My activities at HMP have included stage building, app testing, ticket selling, and note taking. Whatever the activities, a group of people usually goes out for drinks at a local izakaya afterwards. These experiences have been fun without exception. HMP’s employees are warm and welcoming, and even if I don’t understand a joke that one of them says, I find myself laughing due to the sheer infectiousness of the atmosphere.

That isn’t to say that I have a great deal of trouble understanding the conversations that go on, or that the experience hasn’t improved my Japanese though, as I don’t, and it certainly has. No one at HMP speaks English, but if there’s something I don’t understand they are ready and willing to explain in simple and easy to understand Japanese. Oftentimes they will anticipate what I won’t understand and explain it to me before I even have the chance to ask.

Observing this tight-knit group has also provided me with a great deal of insight into the culture of Japan, the Japanese theatre community, and this group specifically. As a matter of fact I was shocked by just how much the atmosphere at HMP reminds me of that of off-off-Broadway productions that I have volunteered with. Because the group has been together for a while and they all seem to have a shared repertoire of acquaintances, colleagues, and friends, they have a habit of leaving a “…” in the middle of their sentences, but even without specifying that shared piece of information, all of the participants in the conversation (myself excluded, of course) immediately understand what the speaker is saying.

Another observation I have made about this group is how readily they abandon polite speech to talk to each other in a very casual manner. The director’s younger sister came to help out with ticket sales, and it was the first time most people at the company had met her (due to her lack of resemblance with the director most of them didn’t even know who she was until we all went out for drinks afterwards). Even so, a couple of people started dropping the polite verb endings, picked up the director’s nickname for her, and within a few sentences of conversation she was doing the same right back.

This has definitely had an effect on the way I speak as well. Our assistant director on the current project, Takayasu-san, observed the other night at the izakaya that my once “kirei” Japanese had “disintegrated,” and that I’d even picked up some dialect particular to Osaka. I expressed some ambivalence about this, but she insisted I sounded more like a native speaker this way. All present readily agreed.

Ultimately, I’m truly glad that this was the CIP I chose. Even if the commute is long and the chains of communication can be a little hard to navigate, the warm and friendly environment and fun conversation more than make up for it. I feel like I’m really starting to become a part of this community, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Charles Stater: Zazen

For my CIP activity, I decided to take the path less traveled (literally) and hike up a large hill near Kinkakuji each week to partake in traditional zazen in a small Buddhist temple, Fumonken. At these meetings, which were entirely in Japanese and one-on-one, my priest and I would first have a lesson, of sorts. In this brief lesson, my priest would introduce a central zen concept (for example, the first week we discussed muga (無我) and it’s relation to Japanese zen) which featured both philosophy and philology, as he frequently would connect the related kanji to both Buddhist legends and to modern Japanese language and I would desperately try and follow along. These lessons were only about a half-hour long, sadly, but were always riveting; for someone like me who loves both the history of language and philosophy, I never lacked for interesting subject matter in these discussions. We would also always have sweets and tea during our discussions, relaxing on small cushions and both donning Buddhist robes.

The second part of the experience was then proper zazen meditation. I would first remove the paper screens from the meditation room, to clear a view to the rock garden and open the area up to fresh air, and then we would sit and meditate for about a half an hour. At first this was agonizingly painful for my legs, but with repetition the pain has progressed from “bear mauling” levels to more like “light gunshot wound”, which I would call a plus. Certainly the experience of meditating in itself has been beneficial for me, allowing me a quiet place to first worry about things, then worry that I’m ruining my meditation by worrying, and finally overcoming both and finally shutting my inner dialogue up. In the Rinzai school of Buddhist zen that I am practicing (and is, incidentally, the most rigorous type! Joy!) when meditating one must always keep the eyes open; this is 1. So you don’t fall asleep and 2. If your mind is truly in no place, looking ahead should be no different than eyes closed, as you should be unable to “see” anything.

This experience has taught me a lot of humility. It has taught me a lot about leg pain. It has taught me a lot about how complicated kanji history can be. I think most significantly, I have gained some intriguing insights into how Buddhism and the modern mindset cannot coexist. You have to pursue one or the other; both are inherently toxic to the other. Learning how this dichotomy has played out here in Japan, with such a deep tradition of Buddhism and now such a voracious consumer culture has been fascinating, not least because I am learning it from my priest who is an ex-salaryman. I am glad I chose to pursue a more ephemeral CIP, as I think personally this experience has been more helpful to my ongoing construction of my own identity and growth of my spirit than anything else could have been.

In terms of observations, the temple I go to is quite small and cozy. It is located near Kinkakuji, high up on a hill, and seems to receive very little traffic. I have seen several other adherents stop by, but usually they are working for a room for a night or two. The temple is actually my priest’s house, and so I have gotten a little look at the orderly (if cramped) lifestyle of the ordinary Japanese. As for my priest himself, he is a warm, genial ex-salaryman who decided the priestly life was far more interesting for him, and so married a French woman and became a Buddhist priest. I can’t attest to their relationship much since I rarely ever see his wife, but they seem to handle the language barrier and the whole issue of his priesthood quite well.

Finally, in terms of feelings, the greatest feeling I have with zazen is relief. Relief to be away from my phone, job applications, emails, commitments; even time itself seems to bend to the overwhelming silence. Having no prior experience with meditation, that aspect I also find to be refreshing, despite the sometimes difficult leg postures. I am glad to have chosen such a radically project, I think, as it is now coming in handy both in terms of resume-building (because, of course, the hustle never stops) and in finding inner peace.

Benji Hix: Private Koto Lessons (Part 2)

This semester, I continued my koto lessons from last semester. It all started with my first ever performance with all the rest of my teacher’s students, numbering around 50 people total. The recital was 2 parts: first, various songs performed by different groups of students, and second, 3 songs that featured her. It was a loooooong night – the rehearsal was at least 6 hours, and the performance itself was around 3 total. But, it was a fun experience, especially since I can tell people that I performed “Let it Go” in an ensemble of traditional Japanese instruments. I also got to meet lots of interesting people, including a geiko, my teacher’s very old mother, and even a nice fellow who took me on a date and bought me socks! After that performance, I took a short break from rehearsing, and went back after a few weeks to discover my technique had deteriorated greatly. The solution to this was to, in theory, practice 2-3 times a week, but due to my health and business I averaged once a week… oops! However, I quickly relearned what I had forgotten and began practicing new music to perform at the closing ceremony for KCJS.

After one semester of practicing, I considered switching my CIP – having performed, it was the perfect time to make my leave. However, my teacher was so sweet that I couldn’t resist when she asked if I was willing to keep practicing with her. Furthermore, she invited me to lots of random outings – such as visiting cherry blossoms and seeing random performances around the city. We actually texted decently often, which at one point resulted in an embarrassing but funny texting interaction on March 2nd (3月2日, the Japanese is important here) that reminded me not to misread 4月 as 4日:

Her: “Benji, I know a good spot to see the blossoms around April (4月), would you like to go see?”

Me: “Sure, class ends at 11:30 so I’m free after that!” [I was thinking she said 4日]

Her: “…Right… Don’t your classes end around the 20th of April…?”

[LATER, ON 4日]

Me: “I believe so!”

Me: “Today it’s raining… what will you do?”

Me: “Oh, whoops… I misunderstood”

Me: “Nevermind”

Her: “It is raining today, but what will we do…?”

My friends and I all had a good laugh about my incompetence at reading kanji, though I never asked her what she made of that interaction.

Overall, I enjoyed my CIP this semester just as much as last semester. After working with my teacher for so long, we definitely reached a level of comfortability such that I never felt nervous going to practice like I did last semester. Furthermore, my skill has improved to a level that I can actually feel proud of – enough that I plan to look for koto teachers once I go back to America! For anyone considering doing instrument lessons at all, I urge them to do the full year if possible. It really is worth the investment to practice with someone for a full year!

Julia Selch: Doshisha Hiking Circle

For my Community Involvement Project (CIP) this semester, I continued to participate in Doshisha’s Hiking Club. Because Japanese students were on spring break for a few weeks of the semester, we were not able to meet as often as we did in the fall. Nevertheless, on the weeks that everyone was able to assemble in our club room for our Saturday afternoon meetings, we would usually head for the trails of the mountains surrounding Kyoto or go on training runs in Gosho, the imperial palace that sits right by Doshisha’s campus, or by the river near campus.

More than just working out and going on hikes together because we had to, it felt like we all were interested in staying active because we all really wanted to. I noticed this in particular this semester, because many of the club members showed up for our meetings despite being on vacation. Even though many of them had other obligations during their spring break, they still made the effort to come out every Saturday. If I could place why this was so, it’s because they all valued the community we’ve built and all wanted to see as much of Kyoto as possible by foot.

I’ve spent practically every Saturday this year with the hiking club. I have really enjoyed these meetings, because it’s felt like I’ve been part of a team, despite not being Japanese, and despite not speaking perfect Japanese all of the time either.

So, if you’re looking to stay active and to be a part of a great community, check out this club!

Grace Bologna: ECC English Tutoring

My CIP from last semester culminated into four days of policy building on the sustainability of journalism at the All Japan Model United Nations Conference over winter break. As I returned for a second semester of KCJS, I decided to change my CIP from a school activity to a more volunteer-based project. Thus, I began tutoring English through a previous host mother’s ECC English class.

After nearly five months of non-stop Japanese lessons, becoming an instructor rather than a student was certainly a change, as was speaking English in a classroom setting. However, I powered through and worked to instruct to my best ability despite realizing that living in Japan had managed to erode my grammatical skills.

I had previously spent a summer in Kyoto as a high school sophomore, nearly five years ago now. I stayed with a small host family just west of Doshisha while commuting to a Japanese language school daily. I’d kept in touch over the past few years, and when I reached out to ask if my host mother would be willing to accept a volunteer assistant teacher, she seemed excited. We met in January to discuss lessons plans, games to play with students and how to prepare them for an ominous upcoming English conversation test in February. I returned the next week to begin helping run classes.

Over my time at ECC I worked with a variety of students, ranging from second year elementary schoolers to third year middle schoolers. I was incredibly impressed by all of their dedication, many arriving to English lessons after both regular school and juku cram school. They did their best each lesson and honestly inspired me to work a bit harder myself.

A typical lesson would last a little over an hour. Students would come in and warm up with a short conversation exercise, like stating their favorite sweets, sports, or season. We’d then begin work from their textbooks, typically covering a conversation piece followed by a series of questions detailing the scene. We also sang quite a few songs and played more interactive games like ‘Simon Says” or ‘Heads Up.’ Finally we’d go over homework and prepare for the upcoming speaking text before going home.

I was surprised by how rigid the language study was. Even organic activities like playing games or speaking about weekend plans seemed carefully scripted. Perhaps most rehearsed was interview test prep. Students were expected to introduce themselves by name and then reveal exactly three facts about themselves. Acceptable facts were outlined to include school, hometown, age, and favorite sport. The students would then respond to a few prepared questions (What time do you go to bed? Do you like steak? Etc.) Before pointing to certain objects in a picture.

I was struck by the differences in this language study and my own experience learning Japanese. I began taking Japanese classes in high school, and despite being twice the age of some of the ECC students, remember playing far more games and interacting naturally albeit in fractured Japanese. As I result, I gained far more confidence with Japanese, seeing it as a free-flowing language rather than a series of acceptable answers and responses. The difference was apparent. Simply changing questions slightly (What time do you wake up? Do you like sushi?) rather than the previous questions seemed to stump students. I began to more clearly see the cultural pattern of Japanese adults who have spent multiple years learning English yet shy away from foreigners. Learning English in a series of set phrases is relatively easy, but any change to the existing structure tends to leave you reeling.

I have to say that interacting with the students was challenging at first. Most of them were incredibly surprised to see me (very distinctively not Japanese) in the classroom and grew nervous. I think at the start of my time, the students certainly distrusted me and as a result were quieter in class. They weren’t quite sure if I spoke Japanese or if I would be harsh towards their English. Yet over time, I feel I got through to many of the students. They grew more relaxed in my presence and more willing to engage with me by choice rather than through coercion. I was happy to provide the foreign exposure necessary for speaking English with foreigners. I hope that the positive interactions with me will lead those students to be more outgoing as they interact with native English speakers in the future.

I’d definitely recommend working as an English tutor while at KCJS. For one, the activity is fun and rewarding in its own right. Building relationships with Japanese elementary school students is a unique experience and one that will vastly improve your colloquial Japanese. However, more than that, I think it’s important to see if you enjoy teaching English. Many American college students studying Japanese hold vague plans to participate in JET as an assistant language teacher. In my experience, many JETs go into Japan without real knowledge of what teaching English is like. Students are shy and the majority of the work is more about coaxing them from their shells than intensive English study. It’s not a good fit for everyone, and teaching English as a CIP is a wonderful opportunity to check if it’s for you. I’d highly recommend everyone give it a shot.

James Hilton: Kyokushin Chronicles, Vol. II


Much has transpired since my previous Kyokushin Chronicles update.

Previously, I wrote about my revelations regarding integrating various aspects of different fighting styles, walking the taboo cusp of aggression, and aspiring toward balance—all internal changes that were occurring in me due to the Kyokushin Kaikan environment. This time, I want to look outward and detail my social observations.

Throughout my time at the dojo, my social status has changed, but one thing has remained constant: I’m a gaijin. That’s not too significant: one of the esteemed sensei is Polish; and one of my senpai hails from Australia. The factor of pertinence is, even when compared to the other, white foreigners, I alone stand out. I am, in effect, doubly gaijin. To this day, children, and even some adults, that have seen me week-in and week-out cast lengthy—often shameless—stares (even when their attention truly ought to be elsewhere). To top it off, I was a white belt, which in Kyokushin is not the bottom-of-the-ranks position that one would expect. No, it is less than that; it literally signifies nothing.

Last month, I took the promotion exam. In preparation for the exam, I increased my time in the dojo tremendously. Two of my black belt senpai—the prodigious pair that we refer to as the Twins—took notice of my efforts and were kind enough to grace me with their private tutelage. Under their instruction, I achieved the goals I set out for myself.  Moreover, there was another, unexpected development. I was able to forge personal relationships with the Dynamic Duo; and in turn, others became more willing to socialize with, and even support, me. After passing the promotion exam and ascending two levels, I became a legitimate member of the kaikan community—and was conferred newfound respect and camaraderie. My relatively elevated standing has served to make the dojo a more welcome environment for me. It does not erase my so readily apparent gaijin-ness, but it does provide a counterbalance of sorts. To be honest, though, I have been privileged in my own right from the very start.

Due to my (supposed) ability to converse in Japanese, my status as a student at Doshisha University, and the weight of the University of Chicago reputation, I have always had great favor with Shihan—the kaikan head. His approval has granted me a special, privileged status among my peers that significantly eased my burden of social integration. Over the last month, I have learned much about the hierarchy in the dojo and my place within it. For all its quirks, it has been a remarkable journey.

With my impending return to America, recent weeks have been a period of reflection. My time at the dojo has been my most important experience in Japan. It is the place where I established the lion’s share of my most treasured bonds. While I am not one for much sentiment, I can say without hesitation: I will miss the Kyokushin Kaikan.