Alexander Hall: Kyoto University Basketball Circle

This semester, I continued my CIP from last quarter, which was Free Club, a basketball circle at Kyoto University. I spent the semester getting closer to my friends from the previous semester, while also getting to know people that I hadn’t known quite as well. Through the semester, I met alumni (which are called OB in Japanese – short for Old Boys), older members which only came occasionally, and, when the school year changed, new members who were coming in from high school. As such, I got to sort of experience all of the differences in the relationships between Japanese university students based off of age.

The thing I focused on most was levels of politeness in speech, which is what I struggle most with in Japanese, behind only kanji. Perhaps what I found most surprising was not the differences in speech style per se (as in sentence endings, etc.), but the differences in content. For the most part, members of the same year did not really filter things out when talking to each other. They made fun of each other, made stupid or dirty jokes with each other, and overall talked like most guys do in the United States on basketball courts. If members were separated by a year, the older members would not filter very much, but the younger members would be careful to tone down when making fun of the older members. What I found most interesting, however, was the differences in speaking between members separated by two or more years. Of course, the younger members were very polite, making sure not to appear rude. I expected the older members to not filter at all – however, they were extraordinarily nice to younger members. A fourth year, who would crack jokes with third years who made mistakes, would often give advice to first years when they did the same thing,

My advice for future students would be to pay attention to these sorts of things. Everyone knows about です・ます and 敬語, but in reality, we all make mistakes with these and are often forgiven. However, we are not really taught which sort of content is appropriate, even though this is just as important. Therefore, I would suggest to future student to use my experience as a rough outline for university circles, but also to pay close attention to interactions between differently aged members in order to navigate these things.

Laixian Wan: Doshisha Tennis team

For my CIP I attended Doshisha Univerisity Tennis Team where most of the members are either from Doshisha University itself, or Doshisha International High School which lies right next to Doshisha University Tanabe campus. Because I am a member of tennis club back at my home institution, I really want to use my CIP as an opportunity to both maintain my skills and engage with Japanese student in college and get an insight of how they practice. Unfortunately due to the fact that how far Tanabe campus is, I cannot really practice as regularly as all team members. Despite that, however, being able to join the team is definitely one of my greatest experience in Kyoto.

I was very nervous when I contacted the team first. No pervious student had never tried to join Doshisha University’s team, which is one of the best, or maybe the best college tennis team in all Kansai area. As an exchange student who has no experience regularly practicing in a formal team, I actually never thought I would be accepted. Surprising the director replied right away and scheduled the meeting, and I was placed at the International High school team first. After several practices, I was lucky enough to practice with regular members. Unlike tennis meeting back at my home institution, which focus more on using tennis as a tool to develop friendships, while practices with Doshisha University’s team members was much tougher and focus on tennis itself more, and at first I hardly found any chance to communicate with other members. What helped me out most is the courage to overcome the fear of language barrier. As the time went on, I pushed myself to move out of my comfort zone and talked as much as I can, and I soon found out that, outside the court, team members were actually all very talkative and eager to share their understanding about tennis and life at Doshisha even though they looked super serious on the court. In order to really become a member of the team, I shared an enormous amount of information about my interesting experiences in Japan, how I practice back in Boston, and whatever I can think of. In return, they became my best teachers and told me everything about Doshisha, interesting places around the campus and what did they outside tennis courts. Meetings with Doshisha International High school team were more relaxed. Compare to practice in Doshisha University, We did easier and more interesting practices, and I had more times to chat with high school students to know about the common life of Japanese high school students, but not college students. I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to let them show me around and see the beautiful landscape of countryside around Tanabe campus. I could not believe that we even played Onigokko at a shrine together!

Overall, this has been one of the most memorable parts of my time here at Kyoto. I never expected that my interest in tennis would lead me to so many precious relationships with coaches and team members at Doshisha University and International High School team. Without the CIP I would not have been able to make as many friends and know as much about students’ life in Doshisha as I have here. I definitely think my participation in Doshisha University tennis team was a remarkable choice and I succeed in emerging into the team and leveling up my tennis skills while getting some insight on Doshisha’s students and culture.

Laurie Wang: Doshisha Figure Skating Club

While last semester I was involved with Kyoto University’s Science Communication Group as a second community involvement project, I was notified that the group’s activities would be discontinued the coming spring. For this reason, I decided to look for another CIP, ultimately settling to join the Doshisha Figure Skating club. Practices ran once a week from 6:30-8:30 in the mornings at Kyoto Aquarena and there would be occasional competitions in the Kansai region that the exceptionally skilled members in the club could partake in. Skill levels ranged from beginners to quite advanced skaters who even competed at last year’s national championships.

To be honest, I initially wanted to join the club because I’m a rather avid spectator of the sport, and I also knew that figure skating spectator-ship in Japan was huge compared to in America. Given the small size of Japan and the prevalence of elite skaters in the Kansai region, it wasn’t uncommon for some members to be one or two degrees of connection away from the best of the best skaters in Japan (I even got meet one such skater who happened to be practicing at Aquarena one day, and another one at a skate shop). For that reason, I felt that attending ice sports events in Japan was much more exciting than in America, simply because the community felt more tight knit.

This being my only experience of school sports in Japan, I didn’t know what to expect going in, especially regarding how seniority was structured in a sport as technically demanding as figure skating. It really didn’t seem as if people paid any mind to school year or age within the group, and we referred to each other pretty casually. Still, from the first day, it seemed that there was a small divide from the advanced skaters and the intermediate/beginner skaters, and it was admittedly hard to approach the stronger skaters because it seemed they were seriously practicing advanced programs and to disturb them would be rude. This impression was turned on its head when those same skaters would mess around off-ice and became perfectly nice and approachable, which was a pleasant surprise. What also surprised me was how much dedication some club members put toward the sport. Some would work part time in Kyoto Aquarena, either as teachers or ice resurfacers, and thus got to spend a lot of time in the ice rink.

I’m grateful I got to experience how it is to be in a sports club here as well as attend many types of ice competitions in a nation as passionate about ice sports as Japan. Still, near the end of the semester, it grew more and more difficult to attend all the practices and activities as work from class and independent research piled up, which I admittedly regret now. While last year I was better able to balance two CIP activities, I now think it would’ve been better if I had thought about the time constraints that can limit participation in sports CIP’s (which have scheduled practice times with many people) versus volunteer work CIP’s (where you can have more flexibility in scheduling through talking to your CIP contact). I encourage others to consider the same when choosing their CIP’s.

Alan Cheng: Calligraphy (Shodō) Lessons

This semester I continued taking calligraphy lessons with an instructor in my neighborhood, who I was fortunate to have been introduced to by my host mother. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9pm, I practiced writing Japanese characters with an ink and brush along with two other students.

As a college student, how you fit in within the demographics of students who take calligraphy lessons is quite interesting: either you find yourself sticking out as the oldest among a crowd of elementary school students, or you’re conspicuously the youngest among adults over twice your age. (To be fair, as a foreigner, you pretty much stick out wherever you are but that’s beside the point!) The reason for this is that students who pursue calligraphy as an extracurricular activity typically practice in clubs at school, rather than taking outside lessons, and working folks, of course, hardly have time to take these kinds of lessons.

My class was the latter, and the two other students were both in their 50’s or 60’s (I never asked directly) and at least one of them was a grandparent. Since they’ve both been practicing calligraphy for at least 8 years, their writing already looked perfect in my eyes, so at first I wondered why they were still taking classes. However, it didn’t take long for me to come across the answer: these lessons were also important social gatherings. The students and our instructor always chatted about anything and everything while during our lessons, and the atmosphere was always very warm and friendly. I could tell that, while the student-teacher relationships were always upheld (by the way they were speaking), they were truly friends as well.

Incidentally, the teacher, too, had grandchildren, and it seemed that she would give them handwriting exercises to work on–as the classes were held in her home, I recall that occasionally her young grandchildren would come into the classroom to have their handwriting looked over. That my calligraphy teacher was keen to make sure that her grandchildren had good handwriting even at such a young age, I believe, reflects the importance placed on handwriting in modern society, where, for instance, resumes are still traditionally handwritten and applicants with messy handwriting are indeed judged to also have a looser character.

Comparing the cultural emphasis on handwriting in Japan to two other countries that I’m familiar with, there’s a similar attitude in China, but America doesn’t value handwriting as highly. My dad, an immigrant from China, was very proud of his handwriting and calligraphy, but he realized that these skills are not nearly as important in America, so unlike my calligraphy instructor, he didn’t feel the need to comb over my handwriting as a child.

As for advice to incoming KCJS students who are unsure about what to choose for their CIP, I would definitely recommend calligraphy as a CIP activity for those who are interested. One of the hurdles for anyone starting to learn calligraphy that ends up turning many people off the art is embarrassment. It can be embarrassing to struggle writing even simple Japanese characters as beautifully as the samples you’re given, especially since you’ve been writing Japanese for years, not to mention that the instructor will say that your writing is 上手 seemingly without regard to how poor it is. However, it’s important to realize that calligraphy is difficult even to native Japanese folks, and, practicing the traditional art of calligraphy can have wonderful effects for your handwriting in general.
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Xue Bai: Volunteer at Keiai Hoikuen

I was very excited to volunteer at 保育園(Japanese nursery centers)once a week as I have dreamed a long time of having such opportunity to observe early childhood education in Japan. There are actually two types of care and education for infants and little children and 保育園(could also be called daycare centers)is the one for kids younger than age of 3 before attending 幼稚園(kindergarten). The latter one is considered more educational whereas 保育園mainly functions more to “foster” children as daytime care center for the sake of busy working mothers.

The volunteering went surprisingly smooth from day 1 because sensei tachi are super warm and nice and kids are cheerful and cute as angels. They welcomed me as a “Yuki nene” (sister Yuki) guest and spending several hours every Monday afternoon is an emotional therapy for me especially when stressed out during the day. I usually arrive after the children just finish their afternoon nap and helping them changing clothes is the first major task. I messed up time to time such as forgetting to take off the diapers before putting on pants or getting their clothes inside-out. Though instead of being angry with me or even noticing my mistake, kids always thank me energetically with big smile. Sometimes I feel like my role slightly changed when singing Japanese songs, dancing as rabbits, piling toy blocks or listening to teacher’s storytelling together with the kids — I am not a volunteer, I become one of them. I was happy to pick up many interesting 幼児語 too such as “ブーブ”means cars, “ねんねしよ”means time for bed and “オッチン” means to sit.

According to be observation at 保育園,  I realized that Japan indeed has finely tuned educational approach to life and actions of each individual child. The thing that shocked me most is called 連絡帳 (parent-teacher notebook?) I’ve never heard of it before actually saw my host mom and teachers writing it – it is a kind of a note for both parents and teachers to keep track of very detailed activities of the children each day such as sleeping time, body temperature, food content, little stories if happened, what mood the child is in and even when they poop, sometimes including pictures. Children are really provided with considerate care and respected for their very existence. Creating and reading these kind of notes and memories as seeing the process of children growing up into themselves must be a great enjoyment for parents.

Moreover, children get to learn the rules for living in society by adopting basic daily routines of life and proper habits at 保育園. From saying  “いただきます” “ごちそうさまでした” “ごめんなさい”and “〜ください” to taking care of own dishes after finishing eating, they are learning to be more independent and well-mannered. In this case the early childhood education is sometimes disappointing as most kids are often treated like the center of the universe. Parents tend to say “leave it there I’ll clean it for you” after meal or “give me your backpack” when picking up their kids after school.

During play times, children are given enough freedom and encouraged to relate with one another through various options of activities. They can decide on their own about what to play and what to use. While there are group activities as well, there is minimal direct instruction from the teacher. This is good for children learning to be independent at decision making. Also have to make sure clean up everything by themselves before leaving, otherwise sensei would have a private talk and watch him/her put things in order.

Overall I learned a lot from the experience and I feel so lucky to be able to get involved in the community as Yuki nene. I hope I can be a better one in the future.



Elizabeth Smith: Nihon Buyou and Ballet


This semester, I have continued with both of my CIP activities: Ballet and Nihon Buyou. Unlike last semester, when I was primarily focused on acclimating into a new environment, I started this semester feeling comfortable with both of my CIPs. This allowed me to delve deeper into both communitiesscreen-shot-2017-03-31-at-19-57-45

In Nihon Buyou, I am now able to pick up on details that largely escaped me at the beginning. This is in part because my language skills have improved dramatically. Last semester was essentially survival mode: I was only focused on understanding the gist of what my teacher had to say, and had little room to pick up on details or nuance. This semester, I know her better and am more familiar with the repertory that I am studying. This has allowed me to learn more about the history of Nihon Buyou, its links to the Kabuki tradition, and the different schools. For example, both last semester and this semester, my teacher has given me tickets to see Nihon Buyou performed in Pontocho. (This semester, I got to see her dance with her sister!) Compared to last semester I was much more aware of the context what I was seeing, and was able to ask better questions afterwards.

In terms of ballet, I feel like I have become a much more involved member of the community. Last semester, due to a minor injury and the process of adjusting to life in a foreign country, I typically went home right after classes. This semester, because I was more comfortable with life in Kyoto and my injury has healed, I have started staying to wear pointe shoes for an extra half hour after one of my two classes every week. This has given me a better opportunity to get to know the other girls much better. Whereas girls that dance together for several days in a week in America tend to become very close, I at first thought that the atmosphere at K.Classic ballet was much less social. However, spending more time around the girls, I’ve realized that while the dressing room is too small to talk much before and after class, they do have a strong community. They have been incredibly inclusive towards me as well! For example, when one of the girls brought Valentines’ chocolate for everyone, she included me as well! Additionally, girls who I was once intimidated to speak to have approached me to start conversations about my pointe shoes or my training in the US. Little gestures like these have made me increasingly like I have become part of a community.

Mengjiao Zhang: opera lesson

こんにちわ、this is Mengjiao Zhang from Mount Holyoke College. I want to share my experience of taking opera lesson in Kyoto, Japan. I was taking an individual voice class back to homeschool in America. When I told my voice teacher I would go study abroad in Japan for next semester, she told me in a serious way that I’d better continue voice practice in this off-campus period, or my singing level will drop to the starting level. So I decided to continue opera singing/voice practice during this four month in Japan.

My voice teacher’s name is Tamada Makimi, she is a local who offered individual opera practice class for over ten years, given that she is really experienced at teaching classical singing. I went to my first class on a random Wednesday afternoon, with some of the music sheets I got from last semester – but according to my previous experience, I know the first class is for which teacher to evaluate student level. For instance how long you been practiced, how high or low you are able to sing, etc… First time greeting just like every normal Japanese greeting, teacher called me ジャスミンさん in a very cute way, she was indeed amiable and had an obvious 可愛い personality.

My lessons in both America or Japan are divided into two parts, 30 minutes of warming up and 30 minutes of singing an opera song. Sometimes the class before me ended late, but I arrived on time, so I had chances to observe how my teacher treat other native Japanese students. Most of them are around 40s to 50s, but also there are also 20’s young girls or 10 years elementary students. So my teacher is teaching a large variety of students. Moreover, for the older students, It seems usual for them to have a schedule book which they can record the schedule of next class, and an envelope to pay for the tuition. I asked Tamada Sensei about the envelope whether it is necessary to have one to pay for the tuition or not. But, she told me I don’t need one. (Still the reason of using an envelope.)

Another thing to notice is in the class time, Sensei talked to me in standard Japanese, but when talked to other students, she used Kansai dialect instead. I didn’t ask her the reason because it seems somehow obvious. Like we discussed in the class, I’m a foreigner who is on the way of studying, mastering Japanese. In order for me to understand what she is talking about, standard Japanese works much better than Kansai dialect.

Also, Tamada Sensei was easy going. When warming up, body contacting was involved, it seems very normal to touching the body because she needed to show me how to use the belly to breathe and sing. Tamada sensei taught me another way of singing which named Bel Canto. I’m able to sing it right now, and we plan to learn a Japanese song at the last two classes. I really appreciate the time I spend with her, and, I’m thinking about what kinds of gift I should give to her at our last class.

Mengjiao Zhang

Anna Kelly: Volunteering at a Museum (2)

I stuck with my CIP from last semester, and continued to volunteer at the Kyoto Institute of Technology’s museum and archive this semester as well. Although I was at the same place with the same people, I did learn a lot of new things about the museum itself, and the Japanese work environment in general.

Although my job often consists of working with old art books, I am sometimes asked to help translate things from English to Japanese and vice versa, correct English presentations and essays, and help set up the new art exhibits. I do learn quite a lot from the old books and have fun figuring out the old kanji, but it is probably in the interactions with the employees at the museum that I learn the most about Japan.

Through working with people in the museum’s office I have noticed that a lot of importance is put on the daily kyuukei, which seems to almost always be around three o’clock (the same as the daily ‘snack time’ at my host family’s house). During this time the people in the office separate out small snacks for everyone and sometimes even offer tea. I already knew that omiyage-giving is an important thing in Japanese culture, but I didn’t so much know how important it is to also bring something for your co-workers! Whenever someone goes on a trip they bring back an easily-sharable snack for everyone in the office. I wish this sort of custom was expected in American offices!

Being the only native English speaker at the museum, I had quite a few requests to work with people to translate writings from Japanese to English (and sometimes the other way around). When speaking Japanese in class or doing homework in Japanese I try to think in Japanese to help my learning. However translating forces you to think in two separate languages, and this experience has taught me how difficult that really is! In some areas where Japanese is very detailed and poetic, English does not have the same kind of flow or beauty. In other places were English is straight and to the point, Japanese can be frustratingly indirect. I also ran into some problems with words that cannot really be translated such as dorya (used often when exerting self, moving heavy objects, etc.).

Having the opportunity to volunteer at the museum for the last two semesters has been a really great experience. I learned a lot about Japan, and a lot about the work world as well. I had an internship at an American museum a few years ago, so it was very interesting to compare those two experiences. I feel more confident in my Japanese language ability, and feel more comfortable with communication after this experience. I am very excited to use what I have learned, and to continue learning more.

Thyra Root: Osaka Central Church of Christ

Since I arrived in Kyoto in January, the Osaka Central Church of Christ has welcomed me in with open arms. A small church of mostly married couples and working singles, I was connected to it via my church in Boston, a sister congregation within the worldwide International Churches of Christ. Our meetings consist of meaningful lessons and much conversation on a never-ending variety of topics, usually over an after-church lunch. From these friends of mine, I have learned about the care and creativity Japanese exhibit in apparently every aspect of life, a prime example being a cake they made for me out of avocado slices and nuts, since I cannot eat cake. Other experiences include making sushi by hand and witnessing the traditional mochi-making process. I’m afraid much of what I’ve learned in the realm of the Japanese language consists of Kansai Ben, the dialect particular to this region in Japan, and niche church phrases. They must think I’ve progressed, for I had the opportunity to make a welcome speech in front of the congregation one Sunday morning! The most important thing I have learned, however, is certainly that I have a home here in Japan if I ever choose to return.

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.