Zachary Chapman : 室町児童館 Child Care Center

For my community involvement activity I volunteered at the muromachi jidoukan, an after-school center, where I played with children and taught English. The kids quickly took a liking to me, and everyday I would be tackled by a gaggle of them the moment I walked in.

    I noticed a lot of things while working at the jidoukan. First and foremost, was the independance displayed by the students. The kids were between the ages of 6 and 9 but displayed a far greater ability to solve problems for themselves compared to American children. For example, during snack time, Japanese students are expected to set up their own tables, get their own food, and pour drinks for each other. Teachers are essentially not involved. Also, when students had a conflict with each other, they were generally expected to be able to solve it on their own. Once, a student was fighting with another student over a toy, and the student went and asked the teacher for help. Instead of resolving the fight, the teacher asked the students about how they could resolve amongst themselves.

    Another time, a student destroyed a toilet. Us teachers had no clue who did it, so we had a student assembly, and one of the teachers talked about how the destruction of the toilet was a burden on everybody else. Here speech went along well with Japanese ideas of communal collectivism. In the end she asked the student to give him/herself up because they owed it to the jidoukan community as a whole. I thought this was quite interesting and different to how American teachers would have handled the situation.

In closing, I had a very interesting time working at the jidoukan. Working with Japanese kids enlightened me concerning a lot of facets of Japanese society.

Isaac Jemielita Tennis!

For my spring semester, I chose to play tennis at a local tennis group called Pacorn tennis. They meet everyday except Wednesday at courts nearby Omiya station. Because the most people come on the weekend, I would go every Friday and play tennis. This was good because usually people picked a regular day to go so I got to know several people over the course of the semester. I played a bit of tennis in high school but hadn’t had much of a chance to play in college. The level of play was just right for me and I have gotten a bit better at tennis and Japanese from doing it.

The way it’s structured is always the same. For an hour and a half, everyone does drills together. The remaining time is spent playing doubles. Since there a lot of people (sometimes as many as fifty people come!) and not many useable courts, there were a lot of chances to catch my breath and chat in Japanese.
One thing that happened every week is that at least one person would express concern about the way I was dressed. Everyone wears long sleeved atheistic shirts and work out pants. And a hat sometimes. I can’t really play tennis in pants, so I always wear shorts. Someone always asks me if I’m cold. Then I say no and they look at me like I’m an idiot who will probably die of hypothermia or something. Playing tennis in Japan was a great choice. It was a fun way to get exercise and meet Japanese people.

Meave McIver-Sheridan: Koto lessons

This semester I continued to attend group koto lessons with Iwasaki sensei. We were joined by two more KCJS students, giving us the chance to work on learning and preparing to perform a piece together. Although I have been learning to play the koto, our new classmates took up the shamisen. Because of this I was able to learn a bit about the shamisen and even got the chance to try playing the shamisen once.

One major difference with my previous musical training, having only been exposed to the Western musical tradition before this, lies in the way the instruments are tuned. For example, although the shamisen reminds me of the violin in form, its tuning changes depending on the piece. The same is true for the koto. This reminded me of the way wind instruments in Western style orchestras sometimes receive music that has been transposed to different keys, although the instruments retain their standard tunings. With the koto, the tuning of the strings changes while the musical notation remains constant. While this makes the music much easier to read, because the notation is relative it has made understanding the music theory much more difficult.

Another characteristic of the music that I have noticed involves the way it is arranged. Most of the pieces that I have heard, even more difficult ones, are more sparsely arranged than much Western ensemble music. The spaces and pauses are more integral to the music, I think, than in music I am more familiar with. Only the shakuhachi and the vocal line provide sustained melodies, while the stringed koto and shamisen are plucked. This allows for longer spaces of time to elapse between end of one note and the start of the next.

One of the most pleasant aspects of this semester’s weekly koto lessons has been our sensei’s hospitality. Every week she provides hot tea and sometimes sweets or other snacks. Many weeks she also invites the students who are able to attend out to dinner. This welcoming atmosphere gives a homey atmosphere to Iwasaki sensei’s studio, making it easy for her students to look forward to returning each week.

Maeve McIver-Sheridan: Koto Lessons

Right from the start of KCJS, I knew that I wanted my CIP to involve music. While not particularly accomplished, I have played the violin since I was very young. I found it hard to imagine my life without orchestra and lessons every week. Because of this, I initially contacted the Doshisha orchestra, but found that their rehearsal schedule conflicted with my own schedule. Although I was disappointed, I was soon presented with another opportunity. A friend who is excellent at the Chinese version of the koto had found a KCJS recommended koto instructor whom we could take lessons with.

Although I did not expect to have the opportunity to take lessons on a new instrument, my experience learning to play the koto has been very rewarding. Having played only Western classical music in the past, I have found that learning an instrument that is so different from what I have been used to has stretched my understanding of music in many different ways. One aspect that I found particularly challenging was the music notation. Music for the koto is transcribed using numbers denoting the 13 strings of the instrument. Because there are only 13 strings, there are a limited number of notes available with any given tuning. The music can, however, require the pitch of a string to be changed by a half step or a whole step by depressing the string to varying degrees. Although the tuning of the pieces did not come very naturally to me, I nonetheless found myself relying on my ear more than I do with Western music notation, which I know how to read much better. I hope that this ear training will help me to become more acclimated to Japanese music harmonies as I continue to practice the koto.

One other interesting aspect of my time spent at koto lessons involved the other people we took lessons with. For the first couple of weeks, we joined a large group of adult students who variously played koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. These folks were very kind and welcoming, helping demonstrate techniques for me on the first day and eventually taking us out to dinner on one occasion. One thing that surprised me was how easygoing and approachable our sensei could be, while still presenting rigorous material and expecting our best work. There were also several younger students who joined us at varying times, including one young woman who proved to be a very patient and understanding teacher when she stood in for our regular sensei once or twice. All in all, I believe that studying the koto has been a very positive experience for me and I am enthusiastic to continue next semester.

Isaac Jemielita: Shogi

I did not know what to expect when I started my CIP. When I was in high school, I played some chess so I thought it would be fun to learn how to play Japanese chess- shogi. The first time I went to the shogi room, this tiny little room called a box, I opened the door to find a single person sleeping on the floor. Not wanting to disturb him, I slowly closed the door and took down the contact information for the club. That was a weird introduction to the shogi club but was pretty representative of the club as a whole. The atmosphere of the club is very relaxed- people come and go as they please, they play shogi as the want, and generally just want a place to kick back with friends.

When I started learning shogi, I had two problems. The first problem was that I had no idea how to play shogi. This was further compounded by my inability to read the kanji on the pieces. The second problem was that chess strategy is hard enough to understand without trying to figure out what is being said in Japanese. Somehow, I figured out how to play the game after a couple of thoroughly embarrassing interactions. I’m still getting trashed by all the other shogi players but it’s okay because if I ever want to relax and play a quiet game of shogi, I know where to go.

Alex Hall : Kyoto University Basketball Circle

I joined Kyoto University’s Free Club, a basketball circle, thinking that because I had been playing basketball since I was young, it would allow me to make connections with people based off of common ground. This was a correct choice in my eyes, as it felt natural to play and I could focus my energies on making friends in between scrimmages. While many KCJS students probably want to delve into something “new” and “Japanese”, I would suggest choosing something natural as their CIP, so they too can make valuable connections instead of focusing on learning something new.

Another thing that I feel I did correctly in the past few months with Free Club is saying “yes” to as many invitations as possible. Because of this, I got put into various Line group chats, grabbed meals with various members of the circle, and even got to go to the Autumn Camp, a group trip to Adogawa. The whole point of the CIP is to become a member of some community, and I believe the only way to truly become a member of any group is to interact with them as much as possible.

One of my fears in joining Free Club was navigating the complex Japanese hierarchy revolving around age. And while this exists (first-years always mop the court and most of my closest friends in the circle are my fellow second-years), it was not as strict as I believed. Those older than me would forgive me the occasionally omission of さん, and those younger than me didn’t really seem to be afraid of asking me to rotate faster on defense, etc. That being said, I would caution those joining university circles about the delicate balance you have to strike when it comes to these sorts of things. On one hand, I wanted to get to know everyone, and would try to talk to everyone from first-years to Ph.D. students. On the other hand, I had to be cautious of appearing rude. As a foreign student, I’m sure I got some more leeway on this issue than most, but at the same time I feel like I still made some missteps that I hope future students can avoid. My advice would be to use the です/ます form most of the time, until you feel certain that the other party is comfortable enough with you for you to stop using it. That is probably the most important thing – to not judge things from your own static point of view, but to try and see them through the eyes of the other circle members.

Free Club’s website:

Elizabeth Smith: Dancing- Ballet and Nihon Buyou

For my CIP, I’ve taken ballet classes at K.Classic Ballet, and private lessons in Nihon Buyou- classical Japanese dance. It has definitely been a highlight of my time in Japan!

I had no idea how much ballet would make Kyoto feel like home. Throughout my life, ballet has followed me everywhere I’ve gone- I’ve been dancing seriously since I was about eight, helped direct my college’s ballet company, and have also studied a ballet academy in Paris. Ballet classes are remarkably similar all over the world- so enrolling at K.Classic ballet felt less like being the “new kid,” and more like re-joining a community where I’ve always belonged. Additionally, I’m so lucky to have found such an inspiring place to take class- several students from the school have placed in internationally-known competitions, and last week, the class was visited by a recent alumni- who is now dancing professionally at American Ballet Theatre!

Being in the ballet studio has really helped me learn to pick up on small social cues and cultural differences. The atmosphere in most good ballet schools (anywhere in the world) ranges from disciplined to strict, and K.Classic Ballet is no different. On my first day, I remember the teacher making a speech to her students (in somewhat difficult to understand Kansai-ben) about the importance of working hard, and not wasting valuable time in the studio. As the semester has passed, I’ve noticed that the students here seem to define hard work differently than I have in the U.S. At home, there are often clear times when it is and is not appropriate to practice on the sides of the floor, (for example, when the teacher is working with another student, it is considered polite to stop dancing and watch.) Here, the students spend a much larger percentage of the time practicing on their own. They are constantly tweaking their technique and working to apply corrections, through repetition in every free moment, especially at times when in my past experience, it would be customary to be still and observant. Additionally, when Sensei gives her students a correction, I’ve noticed that in comparison with most American teachers, she leaves about twice as long for students to practice applying it. In order to fit in, I’ve had to carefully pick up on these different cues, and adjust my working style to match the other students.

Nihon Buyou has also been an incredible experience. I originally started Nihon Buyou in the U.S., when I was about four, and continued until I was about twelve. I had the opportunity to take it up again over the summer in Hokkaido, and was lucky that my sensei from then was able to put me in touch with a sensei in Kyoto. I absolutely adore my sensei here- she is one of the warmest, most understanding people that I’ve met. She spends a lot of time making sure that I understand the technical vocabulary that she uses, but has a sense of humor when things become confusing or difficult. Furthermore, something that has surprised me about Nihon Buyou here is the slight emphasis on developing a personal relationship with the teacher. In every lesson, the two of us start and end the lesson with a cup of tea, where we discuss everything from my host sister’s undoukais to her recent trip to Tokyo. I’ve taken private lessons in ballet before, and music as well, and although I’ve always gotten to know my teachers very well, there has never been an established time to stop and pause and talk with each other.  For me, especially with the occasional language barrier, taking time to drink tea together has helped me to better communicate with my teacher during the lessons themselves.

Overall, dancing in Kyoto has enriched my experience in two ways. Ballet has helped me find a place where a shared interest has helped me find a sense of belonging, while Nihon Buyou has helped me make the most of my time by helping me learn something that is incredibly difficult to pursue in the U.S. I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve had this semester, and can’t wait to see what the next will bring!

Nicolle Bertozzi: Chanoyu Lessons

In addition to continuing my CIP at the Kubota Birendo sudare shop this semester, I began studying the tea ceremony. Thanks in large part to everything the Kubotas taught me about the tea ceremony last semester, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the ceremony myself. In addition to researching chanoyu as part of an Independent Study research project, taking lessons myself seemed like a natural next step. I was introduced to my tea teacher, Arai-sensei, through a colleague of my IS project advisor at the beginning of this semester, and have been taking weekly lessons ever since.

In the world of chanoyu, which is often seen as very rigid and uptight, Arai-sensei is known for being very relaxed. He makes room for casual conversation during his lessons and is always happy to answer questions from his students. As I have never taken tea lessons with anyone other than Arai-sensei, I cannot compare firsthand how his teaching style differs from those of, say, an Urasenke-certified teacher. I can say, however, that the environment of Arai-sensei’s tearoom is very calm. Generally, there are two stations set up for students to practice their temae, the choreographed motions one goes through when preparing a bowl of matcha for one’s guests. At the center of the tearoom, Arai-sensei sits seiza, keeping a watchful eye on the students’ temae. While acting as the shokyaku—or main guest—of the student’s ceremony, he guides the student through the temae, correcting errors and explaining each step along the way.

One of the first things that caught my attention about Arai-sensei was how carefully he pays attention to each of his students’ temae; even when there are two students practicing at the same time, Arai-sensei always keeps track of exactly when the shokyaku is supposed to bow during the course of each ceremony. Additionally, he can tell immediately when something in the temae is out of order, even when that something is as easy to overlook as a cloth folded along the wrong seam.

As opposed to the teaching style one often finds in America, in which students are divided into classes based on experience level, Arai-sensei’s chanoyu lessons are designed for students of all levels. At the same time that I would be struggling through the beginner’s temae, there might be a student practicing alongside me who had been taking lessons for years, for whom the motions of the temae felt natural. Watching these students during their practice is considered a great learning opportunity for beginner students, so I was often invited to observe their temae seated next to Arai-sensei. What surprised me, however, was that the opposite was true as well: Observing the temae of a less experienced student is considered to be just as valuable. It is a chance to revisit the basics, when each movement of the temae is still executed as a conscious effort. There is a term in Japanese—shoshin, or “beginner’s heart”—that is believed to be an important part of any student’s core practice. No matter how far one advances in their training, it is incredibly important to return occasionally to the beginning.

It wasn’t until I explained my tea lessons to the Kubotas that I came to understand how fundamental this philosophy of the shoshin is in the Japanese traditional arts. A student of tea himself, Shinji Kubota nodded along knowingly as I told him about the other students observing my practice. “It really is a great way to learn,” he said. “You notice so much about how the flow of the temae works when you are watching someone learning it for the first time.”

My study of the tea ceremony this semester has proven to be an incredibly valuable experience. It has provided me with many insights into the world of tea, which has of course been central to my research project. More so than that, however, learning tea has connected me to a new community within Kyoto, a city where the art of chanoyu continues to thrive.


Lindsey Henderson: SOIC (Sodefure International Community) Dance Circle

Sodefure is a “Kyoto-style dance” which incorporates a variety of traditional Japanese dance styles and imagery into its routine. SOIC is one branch of a large Sodefure Community which has participating circles across a number of university campuses in Kyoto. Each group must learn the primary dance for Sodefure as these individual groups will come together and dance as a single group at festivals held in Kyoto. The largest of these events has over 1000 members dancing at once, the result of which is a beautiful and uniquely synchronized performance that is truly amazing to watch.

One of the particularly unique qualities of the SOIC Circle is that it is primarily directed towards international students. This means that I got to interact with a variety of students from around the world who were studying abroad in Kyoto. Naturally, there were also experienced Japanese Sodefure members present to help guide, teach, and interact with the international students.

What I ended up learning the most from by participating in this circle was not from the dance practice itself, but from watching the Japanese students interact with the foreign students. There was an incredible range in Japanese language ability among the study abroad students, and the Japanese students were not fluent in English. However, this didn’t deter anyone in the least from trying to build friendships across the language barriers. Members who were more proficient in Japanese helped out other students who were beginners, and we worked to teach the Japanese students new words in English. When all else failed, we simply pulled our cell phone dictionaries or tried our best to mime what we wanted to convey.

The most fascinating aspect to me was the casual atmosphere that arose incredibly quickly. Japanese students often started addressing new foreign students in the polite form (think desu/-masu), but soon relaxed to using casual speech and their home dialects within the span of one practice. The keigo and kouhai/senpai relationships which are so ubiquitous throughout Japanese-only circles was seemingly non-existent. The formal phrases I had practiced before going to the first meetup turned out to be unnecessary. People tended towards using first names instead of last ones, and due to the lack of formalities, it was difficult to tell who the leader was, or if there even was one at all. When the Japanese students gave me my own nickname to be used within the group, I fully came to understand how much they wanted to break down any walls of formality, and I started to feel really accepted into the group. I think that being part of a group that was directed towards foreigners allowed Japanese students to drop formalities more quickly than they can in other situations.

Being able to watch this dynamic and participate in it myself made me realize just how eager and willing people are to make international friends. In Japan, where many of the social interactions can be formal, even to the point of being outright cold, it was fascinating to watch how warm and open the Japanese students were when trying to break down the barriers between themselves and the foreign students. Having the opportunity to become part of such a large community has been an invaluable experience for me.

Nicolle Bertozzi: Kubota Birendo Sudare


This semester for my Community Involvement Project, I have been working with the Kubotas, a family of Kyoto artisans who make sudare screens for private homes and temples. Once a week, I go to their shop near Shijo, where I learn about the craft of sudare making and, through conversations with the artisans themselves, about life as an artisan in one of the most historical cities in the world.

One of the things that has stood out most clearly to me through working with the Kubotas is how closely their line of work connects them with traditional culture of Japan. In a country as modernized as Japan, it can be difficult sometimes to find traces of the culture’s long and rich history. When I’ve asked Japanese friends about their exposure to some of the most known traditional elements of Japanese culture—the kinds of traditional elements like shodo calligraphy and sado tea ceremony that are often presented to foreigners during cultural exchange events—their responses are largely of non-interest. For the artisans of Kyoto, however, this is not the case. The very nature of their work forces them to confront the divide between traditional and modern lifestyles in Japan on a daily basis. And as a result of this, they often find themselves exploring other aspects of traditional culture, aspects that have no connection to their particular craft.

Through working with the Kubotas on my own sudare, through talking with them as I bound the bamboo together strip-by-strip with twisting threads, I found that our conversations often tended to drift to this topic. Over a cup of matcha tea one week, we wound up talking about the tradition of the tea ceremony, something that I had been asked to participate in for cultural exchange events many times but still knew next to nothing about. When I mentioned this, Shinji Kubota, the oldest son and next in line to inherit the family business, began to tell me about how working as an artisan had inspired him to study tea ceremony. Although most Japanese had very little interest in the ceremony, had never even experienced one themselves, he found the ceremony beautiful and has been studying it for many years. Mayu, Shinji’s younger sister, also mentioned how central their background as traditional artisans was in sparking their shared interest in the ceremony.

When I came in the next week, I found the tatami room cleared and prepared for a tea ceremony. A piece of calligraphy hung in the tokonoma, beneath which sat a flower arrangement. Water boiled away in a kettle over the fire of the sunken ro hearth. Shinji and Mayu took me through the ceremony, explaining how every proper tea ceremony had a theme, which the host decided upon and would then carefully select each utensil to match. Through inquiring about the particular calligraphy piece hanging in the tokonoma, for example, you would be able to work your way through the various connections it shared with the other utensils of the ceremony. This ability to appreciate details is one of the most important elements of the ceremony.

The care with which Shinji and Mayu then walked me through the ceremony was truly amazing. It was clear how much they respected the ceremony’s tradition, how much they wanted to do justice to its history. Which of course connects to the way they treated their own craft as well. Throughout this whole semester, I have noticed lots of very tiny ways in which the Kubotas honor the history and tradition of their craft. They explained to me, for example, how the natural darkening of bamboo material over time is something beautiful, something worth noticing and appreciating. Which I don’t think is something I would have thought about in that way before.

My time with the Kubotas this semester has broadened my understanding of traditional Japanese culture as it exists in the modern age. Through making my own sudare, I have come to appreciate the incredible level of craftsmanship that goes into the making and maintaining of these traditional crafts. And through exploring the connections that exist between those who are continuing Japan’s craft tradition and those who are carrying on other aspects of the traditional culture, I have come to see the degree to which these traditions are still very much alive, still being constantly innovated.