Anthony Villa: Origami and craft circles

For various reasons, I ended up having two CIPs. The first was an origami club at Kyoto University that I participated in during October until autumn break. There were various origami tutorial magazines and paper provided, but I found some of the tutorials pretty difficult to follow so I ended up finding easier ones online. This was totally fine because most of the others were working on all sorts of cool and complicated looking origami projects that weren’t in the magazines. 

I don’t think I could find the dedication to this craft that I saw in everyone there in American craft clubs. They were always chatting about something or other but they would still be working on these big, modular crafts that couldn’t be finished in one sitting. I think some of them were folding projects they wanted to submit to origami magazines like the ones the brought. That kind of craftsmanship was honestly impressive to see. Despite that, because of the gap from autumn break, scheduling, and because the location kept changing to rooms I wasn’t familiar with, I decided it would be better to look for a different club to join.

I was in a bit of CIP limbo for a bit after autumn break, but I eventually joined a craft circle that another student was a part of. She had also just recently joined it which made it a bit easier to jump into as well. At the club we have been crocheting which is honestly a skill I never thought I’d learn but so far it’s been fun. Receiving verbal instructions in Japanese is challenging but I’ve managed to figure things out with everyone’s help. Some of the members let me use some of their yarn and hooks which was extremely kind (I have since bought my own to practice a bit on my own time). 

I don’t think these clubs were too different than those in America, but there were some differences that stood out. That these clubs were pretty popular was a bit surprising to me; the craft circle was also mostly men, which isn’t what I would have guessed. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that in both clubs people were talking about anime they had seen recently and games they had played; I don’t hear that all that often as a smalltalk topic in America. 

It looks like there are all sorts of CIPs, so if you look hard enough you’ll find something you enjoy. If the one you pick at first isn’t working out for you for whatever reason, I don’t think there’s any shame in looking for another one. Your time in this program is precious, so you should spend it on activities you’ll enjoy doing, not something you’ll trudge through out of obligation. There shouldn’t be any problems once you find something that works for you; both clubs that I attended had a very friendly, relaxed atmosphere. As someone who couldn’t speak Japanese very well there was always some sort of language barrier, but don’t let that stop you from trying your best to communicate. I found talking to the students was always very rewarding.

Things might be a little awkward at first, but if you make an effort you’ll have invaluable experiences to show for it.

Sunny Snell: Volunteering at Preschool

For my CIP, I volunteered with Mitsuba Preschool twice a week as an English teacher and more general participant in daily activities. On Mondays, I joined the preschool for lunchtime, eating and playing outside, and on Thursdays I would come during after-hours, which was mainly indoor play.

Mitsuba is organized into three classes oldest to youngest: yurigumi (lily class, kindergarten-age), baragumi (rose class, pre-kindergarten), and momogumi (peach class, very pre-kindergarten). Although this was explained to me early on, it took a while to sink in. Similarly, there were other elements to the preschool, such as when and where we clean up, when it is appropriate to play, and how to dispose of a plastic bento box, that it felt like I struggled to learn. In general, I felt a lot of concern at first about fitting in and figuring out where I should be at any given time. However, the sensei’s and children were welcoming, it wasn’t long before I found myself more comfortable and invested, albeit not the most aware of every detail. Despite my lower level in the language, through smaller attempts at memorizing names or bringing proper supplies, I did my best to show the principal and teachers how much I wanted to be there, and they were hugely supportive. I also began to notice really interesting points about the preschool. For example, after playtime each day (which included activities like knitting, coloring, or construction using toys like Legos), the teachers would call up a few students to show the others what they had made. This was a fun way to see playtime being used for more specifically creative purposes, and I could tell the students loved the chance to see their effort validated. And the items that the students created truly were impressive: I watched a boy make a fully functioning (if not motorized) merry-go-round from a plastic construction-type playset.

Towards the beginning of the semester, I did activities like reading and singing in English, even singing “Let it Go” karaoke-style for all the kids during after-hours playtime. While that was a lot of fun and I hope the students enjoyed it, the most rewarding part of this semester was probably getting to know one particular student. During playtime, I noticed a student whose family more recently immigrated to Japan spent more time on the sidelines, so I approached him and we began to play together, most often communicating through gestures since neither of us could speak to each other in Japanese that well, let alone the other’s native language. Eventually he started to open up and seek me out, and I had the opportunity to see firsthand his work to adjust to the pace of the preschool. Just this week I spoke with another teacher about how much he has worked to learn Japanese: when I first arrived he was hardly speaking at all, but last week I watched him get through whole sentences. Being close enough to watch him improve alone made me feel the time I invested in the preschool was worthwhile.

Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent at Mitsuba and feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to get so uniquely involved in the community immediately surrounding Doshisha. If there is anything I have taken from the experience, it is gratefulness for the warm welcome of the teachers and students, and excitement for the future of the preschool, even if I cannot be there for it.

Meghan Gibbons: Volunteering at Kenryu Kindergarten

I worked as a Kindergarten “teacher” at the nearby kindergarten. I would come in the afternoons, and play with the kids, until either I went home, or their parents came and picked them up. Whatever came first. Usually I’d try and incorporate some English into the play- weather that was doing bad renditions of the hokey pokey- or reading books in English and doing my best on the fly translation from the English book into Japanese.

For a country that’s struggling to meet the demand for child care it was interesting to see how the kindergarten was set up. The one I volunteered at was different from what I had seen in America, where school typically starts with preschool, and classes are arranged by age.

This kindergarten wasn’t just five-year old’s, but children ranging from ages 3-6.  More like a combination of American preschool and kindergarten, rather than just a kindergarten. The kids would typically be in “classes” for the morning, these were divided by age. For the afternoon all the kids whose parents couldn’t come and grab them quite yet, would pile into the play room, where there were a plentiful crafts and toys awaiting. They hung out there until one of their parents came to get them, and they would either go home- or play on the outside playground with parent supervision.  I remember being struck with how independent and cleanly they were. Maybe my elementary school was full of degenerates, but coat racks, and craft supplies were always an utter mess, and were prone to housing ants.  However, for this kindergarten, children were trusted with tape and scissors. One of the more popular crafts was to wrap string around a plastic device, then cut along the edge of it to make small yarn pom-poms. Kids had tons of these little pom poms tied to their bags, which were orderly put away in small cubbies, along with their coats and yellow hats. They were also trusted with puzzles, which miraculously had all of their pieces. A rare find in my preschool days.

It was also interesting how kids would play differently than how I remembered playing as a kid. The biggest one was how play didn’t seem particularly gendered. Meaning the boys would gladly take the big blocks and build towering structures, but then would all sit down and play teacher, or house together. Girls would either play and build along with them, or would wander off to color, or use the blocks to build small police station, and play cops. There were several times I would come in and be labeled a criminal, and a small girl tied string around my ankles as makeshift handcuffs.

It was also interesting how kids would intermingle despite the age difference. Both of my parents worked when I was a kid, so I would routinely go to after school care, where we had kids ages 5-12, and kids would always clump by age group. However, at this kindergarten, kids age 6 would be playing store, or cops, or princess with kids who were 3 or 4.

It was also interesting to see, not only how things had changes since I was young, but also to remind me of how children think. Ultimately. I understand, regardless of how different the age gap is or how different the cultural context is, children will ultimately be children. I think ultimately regardless of where children are raised there’s something fundamental to how the world is viewed. Seeing as I’m no longer a child, I don’t understand that as well as I once did, but I think I might’ve been able to understand that better, after this experience.

I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions about Japan or Japanese culture, based on this one kindergarten, or by the experiences I had there, but overall it was fun experience, and I wouldn’t change it.

David Lee: Klexon Language Exchange

Are you embarrassed to mess up speaking Japanese? Ever had a question that you were too shy to ask to a stranger? Do you know how to speak at least one language? These are pretty much the basic prerequisites of my CIP.

When I first came to Japan, I set a goal for myself to speak to as many Japanese people as possible before I leave. I’m not insane so I didn’t start talking to every stranger I either ran into or sat next to on the bus, so maybe the guidelines for this goal wasn’t as well established as I had thought. Regardless, when it came time to consider what my CIP should be, I still knew I wanted to (to the best of my ability) achieve this goal. When I found out about KLEXON, I realized this would fit my needs perfectly. I spent the majority of my time speaking in Japanese, though since the program is a “language exchange,” one could speak entirely in English. At KLEXON, you engage in a type of “speed dating” conversations, discussing anything from Japanese culture to favorite foods.

KLEXON is very much a “you get what you put in” kind of CIP. If you want to spend the entire time just having small talk, by all means. If you’d like to ask about the much more complex, cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan, you can do that too. One of the most interesting cultural differences that I’ve noticed between Japanese and English is the latter’s abundance of slang. When I asked what kind of slang Japanese had, many people struggled to give more than 3 examples. Although I don’t doubt that there isn’t slang in Japanese, it seems like most “slang” comes from the various dialects spoken throughout the country.

If I had to mention a failure, and unfortunately, I do, it’s my inability to speak Japanese. I’m only half joking, but in all seriousness speaking with people in Japanese for 2 hours straight, I’d find myself unable to convey certain thoughts without the help of Looking at it from a different lens, I think this kind of failure really motivates someone to do better, or to look up a certain grammar point that I may have forgotten. KLEXON really helps you learn your strong and weak points when it comes to speaking, which is admittedly a bit embarrassing, but helpful nonetheless.

For any of you considering studying abroad in Japan, you might have the notion that you’ll be spending most of your time with Japanese students. How I envy you. While certainly some students of KCJS do this, making friends with Japanese people is much more difficult than it might seem. This isn’t a dig at Japanese people, but rather more of a comment on the reality of studying abroad itself. Think about how hard it is to make friends normally, now add to that a language barrier.  Especially for those of you who haven’t studied Japanese for very long, this language barrier certainly hinders one’s ability to make friends with locals. Now, as to how this relates to KLEXON, the program makes it quite easy to meet new Japanese people on a daily basis. Over time, you’ll meet people you share a genuine connection to. KLEXON also hosts parties, making the whole friend making process a whole-lot easier. If making friends and talking incessantly sounds like your cup of tea, I would recommend this program.

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.


Jared Hwang: Volunteering at a Children's Food Kitchen (子ども食堂)

Throughout this semester, every Thursday, I’ve had the honor to volunteer at the Higashi Kujo Kodomo Shokudo (東九条子ども食堂), or Children’s Food Kitchen.  It is run on the third floor of the Kyoto Southern Church, by the pastor Baekke Heo, a third generation Korean born Japanese. The kitchen is open to anyone and everyone: adults, children, families, or anyone who is in need of a warm, cheap, homecooked meal (free for children, 300 yen for adults). Every Thursday, volunteers, mostly students, gather at the kitchen from the early afternoon to the evening to prepare, cook, and serve food in meals that have been prepared weeks in advance to both be healthy and appeal to the Japanese palate. The end result is a bustling kitchen filled with people from all walks of life: students getting work done, regulars chatting with the kitchen staff, kids running around having fun by the small designated area with toys, or even a national taekwondo champion.  For me, this was the first time I had volunteered at a food kitchen in any real capacity, so I didn’t really know what to expect. However, in just a short time after arriving there, I could truly sense the amount of passion and kindness that goes into the Kodomo Shokudo project, by both Baekke-san and all the rest of the staff. It truly is a kitchen run by the love that these volunteers have for their work, and the bond that’s created with the surrounding community is all the better for it.

During my time volunteering at the Kodomo Shokudo, I was also given a unique opportunity to observe the culture and spoken language in depth. I have to say, even coming into the experience as an official “beginner” at Japanese, I did not understand as much as I thought I would. As is the case with native speaker of any language I’m sure, the casual speech was spoken at a much faster pace than what I was used to. What’s more is that the Kansai dialect was often used, leaving me even more confused, albeit entertained. The kitchen was also extremely casual, which certainly was in opposition to my expectations: newcomers being treated with relatively polite speech, which would slowly transform into the casual style used amongst friends. This assumption was immediately destroyed after just the first day, where the entire staff was so incredibly kind and friendly, that polite form would just have been odd to use.  Throughout my time volunteering I was also able to pick up many Kansai-dialect words, which I am thankful for as Kansai-dialect is a wacky and unique style of Japanese that is great fun to use.

At the same time, I’m not sure how many comments I can make about what I learned about Japanese culture at the Kodomo Shokudo. What I can say is that everyone at the Shokudo, staff and customers alike, have treated me with such kindness and approached me with so much curiosity and interest in my background and where I’m from, and never turned down the opportunity to make conversation and be patient with my less-than-great Japanese. We often had the most fun when the staff would attempt to say something in English, and I would tell them how off they were with their pronunciation. There was a true curiosity and interest in my being foreign, while at the same time being wholly accepting of me into their small community. And, the same kindness that was shown to me is shown to everyone who enters the doors—the way that regular customers interact with the staff and especially Baekke-san and his wife, truly show the bond and appreciation for the customers by the staff, and vice versa. In fact, I asked Baekke-san why he decided to open the Shokudo two years ago, and the answer was simply “I had the space and the kitchen, so there was no reason not to use it to help the community.”  It doesn’t hurt that the Shokudo often is heavily influence by Korean culture and food, and is established in an area with a large Korean population.

Ultimately, I am beyond grateful that I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the Higashi Kujo Kodomo Shokudo. Seeing the passion and kindness with which Baekke and the staff work with every Thursday has not only inspired me to study Japanese language and culture harder, but also seek out a similar volunteering opportunity back home. I am appreciative beyond words for the staff always treating me as an equal and a friend, and I will certainly miss and think about this experience and the people I met once I return home.

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.

Ellen Ehrnrooth: Dance

I initially started out this semester with the intention of volunteering at an NGO so I could improve my formal Japanese skills – something I felt like I was lacking, both in terms of my ability to use it and identify when to use it. I settled on an NGO that a previous KCJS student had had a fantastic semester with, and I was excited to take on the challenge. However, I quickly realized that I did not have the time to contribute meaningfully to the work they did – I felt quite strongly that I was causing them some trouble by being there as a foreigner with questionable Japanese skills. Although my time there was brief, I still learned a lot – I found it really interesting how the keigo dynamics worked in regard to me as a foreigner, and I was called Ellen-san instead of Ehrnrooth-san – then again, I do have possibly the most difficult-to-pronounce-in-any-language name conceivable.

After I came to the decision to switch CIPs, my mind wondered about what was best to do. I had had a less-than-ideal experience at my CIP last semester, which was taking dance lessons. However, I am the world’s most enthusiastic dancer (albeit a not particularly skilled one), and I realized that it was worth giving it another try. Last semester I mostly took K-pop dance classes, which may have been the cause the lack of a community feeling – the majority of the people in the classes were high schoolers and were there with their friends, and it was hard to relate to them in many ways. For that reason, I decided to take classes at a couple different studios with a wider demographic of students this semester, and the styles I’ve focused on have been waacking (a style born out of 1970s Los Angeles LGBT clubs) and hip hop – and I am happy to report they have been a success compared to last semester.

In a sense, it has been a very multi-lingual experience. First of all, the number of random English words that are a part of the vocabulary dancers use continues to surprise me. Both waacking and hip hop find their roots in the U.S., so it makes sense that the technical vocabulary would travel over – but some of the words used have very obvious Japanese counterparts, so the usage of the English words feels kind of unusual.

Not that I am complaining; it does make understanding the instructions much easier, especially when they are combined with the onomatopoeic sounds the instructors sometimes use to describe movements. This has been a challenge, albeit an amusing one. I am really bad at remembering the meaning of Japanese onomatopoeia, and often get it wrong when trying to explain things in conversation, to the amusement of my Japanese friends. However, the power of guesswork can go far, and usually I am able to figure out pretty quickly what I’m being told to do. The times when I don’t, however, are pretty obvious.

Those times of confusion were communicated pretty instantly with my facial expressions, which actually ended up being to my benefit. I think I emote visually a lot, which means the teachers would come over quite often to help me out as it was immediately obvious when I was confused. This was an interesting parallel to my classmates, who tended to just try and focus on drilling the mistakes on their own until they fix them. The different routes we took to get to a place of understanding has been an interesting thing to observe.

Lastly, dance to me is a language in itself – so even when I had some difficulty understanding what was happening around me, when everyone performs the choreography together, there is a sense of mutual understanding. This common understanding went far, and I felt much more welcomed in my classes this semester compared to the last. The teachers took an active interest in asking about me and introducing me to the class, and the students followed suit, with me exchanging contact info with some of them. I think taking classes in more niche styles (waacking and style hip hop fall into that category) helps – people who have niche interests, in my opinion, tend to mostly be happy to find other people who have those same interests, even if there is something like a language barrier that can get in the way of communication.

The studios I attended most often can be found here and here.

Jeanine Bell: Volunteering at Klexon English Conversation Circle

For my CIP, I joined Klexon, an English second language learning group as a volunteer. I’ll admit that things went about as I expected at first — non-native English speakers were very nervous to start talking, but were interested in knowing why I came to Japan. As the weeks rolled by, we moved on from basic self introduction topics, and I got to know some of the people rather well. Some of the things that I hadn’t really realized before coming to Japan were some of the simplest daily tasks. A lot of the people I talked to mentioned going to the grocery store on an almost daily basis (whereas I typically would go once a week). Also karaoke boxes are super popular, but that seems to be the only place people will really cut loose to sing. I’ve gotten a few strange looks for mentioning how my friends and I will burst into song while walking down the street. One of my Japanese friends said that it was more of an issue with being embarrassed than being polite.

Aside from being a little surprised at some of the more reserved attitudes and lifestyles people adhered to, some things felt very much the same. As always, the easiest thing to talk about is food, and no matter who it is or where they’re from, they have something to say about food. On top of that, outside of Klexon’s usual meetings, I’ve come to realize that all kinds of people are capable of drinking a little too much, and either way the sober people feel a little bit responsible for them. Fortunately, the people I was with, no matter how inebriated, were always pleasantly polite and considerate. Either way, I’m glad I got to talk to people in different environments and settings and learn about the differences and similarities we all carry.

Gina Goosby: Volunteering at Kyoto Korean School

This semester, I set out intending to continue volunteering at Bazaar Cafe. However, when I was approved to conduct research at a local Korean school, I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to try a new CIP. With the help of a Doshisha student, I arranged to lead some of their middle school English classes. Being a foreigner and a complete novice at Korean (this school requires students to speak only Korean while on campus), I was worried that I would be eyed with suspicion or even flat-out rejected. But when I arrived, the students and faculty greeted me warmly — students would wave and say “Hello” when they saw me, as did teachers. Classes centered around speaking: class began with a Q&A where the students and I took turns asking simple questions. Then, I guided students in reading aloud from their textbooks or gave a short speech and quizzed them on the content. We ended each class by learning and singing a song.

I think I learned more about Korean culture than Japanese culture during my CIP, but I imagine there are some overlaps in the culture of Japanese and Korean schools. Little things, like the fact that students greet teachers in the hallway or that everyone knows at least three Disney songs, did not surprise me. What did surprise me was that at this particular school, teachers and students interact almost casually: outside of class time, teachers seemed more like older cousins, especially to the high school students.

I had expected a rigid barrier of formality between teachers and students. I think the difference stems from the school’s importance beyond education in just history or math — Korean schools are one of the pillars of the Korean minority community in Japan. At school, students are treated as young members of the community, which in my experience is a bit like a large family. Even though I am not exactly a member of this “family,” the friendly atmosphere helped me feel at ease.

If you are good with middle schoolers and speak Korean and English — or simply have an interest in Koreans in Japan — I highly recommend this CIP. The teachers I spoke to expressed interest in having more native English-speaking volunteers. Who knows, you may even get a feature in the nationwide Korean school magazine like I did!