Leo Feininger: Kyodai Kendama Circle

This semester I have been attending a kendama circle at Kyoto University (Kyodai). The circle is held about once every two weeks at a community centre near Kyodai. At an average meeting there are about 5 to 7 people, sometimes more. Kendama is loved by people of all ages in Japan. While it is perhaps more traditionally considered a children’s toy, many also recognize it as a serious pursuit for adults young and old. Aside from being satisfying in other ways, Kendama appeals to me because there are no official rules, and every player you meet has a slightly different technique and selection of tricks.

There were a few regulars at the circle, all university students, but at an average meeting there would usually also be some other kids high-school age or younger, sometimes accompanied by a parent. Because the focus of the circle is ultimately on improving one’s skills, most conversation ends up being limited to explanations of particular tricks. However, because Kendama is generally a more casual and individualistic pursuit, it was not that hard to make other conversation. Even when not actively engaged with each other, members would support each other as they tried different tricks. This is not necessarily unique to Japan, but I was struck by the way in which people have reverence for relatively insignificant activities like kendama.   

In the United States, when it comes to individualistic pursuits such as Kendama, I wouldn’t be exaggerating at all by saying that practitioners of such activities barely interact with or even acknowledge people who are less skilled than they are. Of course, there’s a slightly different dynamic in my case as I am a foreigner, but still I have not observed this phenomenon nearly as much in Japan. Joining this circle was a great experience and I hope I can become involved in similar activities in the future.

Benjamin Bellick: Saiin Park Tennis Club

Every Tuesday 6-7:30pm, I (along with Nick Rasetti) have been playing tennis at Saiin Park. The group is an eclectic mix of people; there are both old and young, experts and beginners, regulars and newcomers, etc. Tennis is something that I have enjoyed since childhood, so it has been a special opportunity for me to be able to continue doing something I enjoy while practicing my Japanese. Every practice usually consists of a warmup, followed by a series of successive drills, each focusing on a different aspect of our playing. While waiting my turn between each drill, I am afforded the opportunity to share small talk with the other players and learn some playing tips.

One aspect I have come to really appreciate is just how accommodating the people at tennis can be to new learners. When you don’t understand something, they explain it slowly and as best as they can. I can think of countless times where it was clear I was not understanding a particular skill and the coaches pulled me aside to personally explain the misunderstanding one-on-one. I think there is a shared enjoyment between the coaches and myself when they see something they have explained previously in Japanese to me click during actual play. I also noticed that the coaches adjust their playing to accommodate the skill level of whoever they are hitting with. General encouragement from the coaches has also been incredibly helpful. One thing that really surprised me is the casual friendships I see on the tennis courts across all age gaps. I expected that large age gaps would prevent closer friendships, but that does not seem to be the case. Everyone is offering a helping hand to everyone else.

Coming to tennis and being greeted by people who care enough to remember my name has been a blessing every week. In many contexts, speaking Japanese can feel stiff. Getting to practice speaking while doing something I enjoy has given me a new perspective on the language. I have learned to take some of the pressure off of myself to “speak-well” and, instead, just enjoy speaking and the relationships that form from it.

Jingzhou Huang: Tea Ceremony Lessons at Wabichakai

For my CIP of the spring 2019 semester, I attended tea ceremony lessons in Kyoto Wabichakaiわび茶会(http://www.kyoto-wabichakai.info/) two hours once a week, normally on Wednesdays from 5 p.m.

I have to say this could be my worthiest experience over the time I have spent in Kyoto to get close to authentic Japanese traditional culture. I did not only learn and practise complicated tea-making process, but also come to understand stringent tea ceremony manner, improve my communication technique while talking with my tea ceremony teacher, Fujimura sensei, and other group members, and spend awesome time with them doing extracurricular activities outside the lessons. For instances, we occasionally had delicate cuisine preparations for specific Japanese events instead of regular trainings, and we once went out to participate in large tea ceremony in Heian Jingu Shrine for cherry bloosom viewing in April. These unprecedented experience enriched my oversea life that could not be gained in scholastic classes or anywhere else.

I chose this lesson as my CIP since I was very interested in this sort of somewhat mysterious Japanese cultural property, so I asked KCJS teachers to look for a local tea ceremony group that could accept a totally inexperienced foreigner like me. I think Wabichakaiwas probably slightly different from other tea ceremony groups in Kyoto, according to my experience exchange with other KCJS students who knew about tea ceremony to some extent. Wabichakaidoes not that traditional and rigid but more flexible and original in the way of delivering the spirit of tea ceremony.

Wabichakaihas its own weekly special event called “ocha therapy” in which the activation of sensory experience is the most pivotal essence of holding tea ceremonies. The most important thing is to perceive the instant existence and obtain spiritual joviality by feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting the tea. The concept and atmosphere of Wabichakaimade me feel less constrained and more like an insider of this group. Certainly I had to prudently learn each single act and way of phrasing from preparing tea tools to tidying up them after making a cup of tea, but, to my surprise, I was not required to strictly comply with 上下関係or use keigo in face-to-face conversation as I used to imagine. The lessons I had in Wabichakaiwere private ones rather than in a group, so generally I had only Fujimura sensei along with one of her apprentices N san in my lesson. Sensei is an amazingly elegant, easy-going and enthusiastic lady. In our normal practice lessons, as I proceeded to a certain step of the tea ceremony, sensei often explained some interesting cultural background and origin in relation to that step. For instances, I have learned the history and features of overall Japanese tea ceremony and Kyoto tea ceremony, the reason of arranging tea tools in given places in the tea tray, the meaning of conducting certain ritual acts, etc. I have learned far more manners about not only tea ceremony but also Kyoto culture than I expected.

Honestly speaking, as for tea ceremony itself, the intricacy of it was sort of out of my scope that it was difficult to truly assimilate things I have learned in the lessons. The semester is not long enough for me mastering a newly learned skill and being adept at tea ceremony. But overall the experience of building good relationship with these friendly Japanese and experiencing Kyoto culture with them was memorable.

Sillin Chen: Volunteering at Bazaar Cafe

I was recommended Bazaar Café  by my classmate as my CIP. Of course, since I do not have a high cooking skill that could be compared to a professional chef, volunteering at Bazaar Café basically equals to helping around chores like washing dishes or ironing aprons. Yet, when the kitchen is not very busy, other volunteers or regular staff are very willing to teach me using some special kitchen tools or allowing me to do some side works while preparing the orders.

Clearly knowing how poor my keigo is, I was very nervous on my first day. Luckily, Bazaar Café is a place where everyone is here to support each other, and thus keigo is not something mandatory even when you are speaking with the manager. Regardless of that, I was still able to learn some nuances in workplace culture. For example, there is a co-volunteer, nice middle-aged lady, who always greets me with “おはようございます” even though I usually go to Bazaar Café around 3 pm. Then my friends, also my co-volunteers explained it to me that in Japanese workplace culture, one would always greet his or her co-workers with “おはようございます” when starting to work. Besides, sharing snacks or small souvenirs after a trip among co-volunteers is rather common as a way to build up the relationship.

In addition to my new findings of unique Japanese culture, meeting different kinds of people at Bazaar Café is my best memory within these several months. As some of us might have known, Bazaar Café is like a harbor for minorities, LGBTQ, foreigners, and immigrants. It is also the reason why on my first day of work, the manager suggested me to not ask some sensitive questions on personal background. I then struggled a while on how to get into the group without being sure about what are the topics that I could talk about. To my great surprise (in a good way), they accept me naturally by leading me through the things I could help around and inviting me to share food. After around three weeks, although my co-volunteers are still trying to memorize my name as I was struggling on writing down everyone’s name, I was settled in the kitchen as well as I know where I should put dishes back.

I haven’t mentioned the details of my conversations with these lovely people because it might involve a lot of personal information. Nevertheless, if there is one thing I have learned from this experience, it is how to communicate with your heart. I know it really sounds like preaching or those old talks, but to treat other people with respect and trying to help whatever is within one’s ability range is never a wrong thing to do.

Nicholas Rasetti: Tennis

For my CIP, I’ve been playing tennis at the Saiin Park Tennis Courts with a local recreational program. Every Tuesday, Ben Bellick and I show up at 6PM and get to practice honing our tennis skills, both with each other, with Japanese, and under the guidance of the people running the program. Even in the short time I’ve been playing for since coming here, I can already see a lot of improvement in my game. On top of that, it’s a great way to blow off stress and relax without going out and spending too much money.


Although not particularly a Japanese activity in and of itself, I feel like tennis is a good window through which many aspects of Japanese culture and people can be seen. For example, one of my most common observations throughout my time on the courts was the willingness of the Japanese to lend a helping hand whenever you need it. They’ll gladly take time out of their own development to help you by explaining how you can improve your form or showing you what the right method is. Even with the language barrier, they’ve really done their best and I’ve learned a lot as a result. They have no obligation to help me in that way, but they’re always willing to, and for that I’m extremely grateful.


In addition to a willingness to help whenever I might need it, they’re also very encouraging and supportive. Anytime I might whiff a ball or make an error, they’re quick to jump in and tell me not to worry about it, or “Don’t mind!”. While this might not seem like much, when you’re trying your best to get back into a sport you haven’t played in a long time and are making a lot of errors, it can make all the difference. It’s much easier to laugh off an error along with everyone than to feel uncomfortable because you feel like people are silently judging you.  Overall, it’s the little things that make it a true pleasure to go out and play tennis with the friendly Japanese folk down at the Saiin tennis courts.


-Nick Rasetti

Austin Cobb: Volunteering at a Bouldering Gym

I have had the wonderful opportunity of volunteering at the NOAH bouldering gym in Kyoto this semester. I took the CIP as a chance to do something I loved and I was surprised by how easy it was to find a gym in Kyoto.

NOAH has become much more than a climbing gym for me and many of the other customers. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a community. Part of this stems from the fact that climbing as an activity is much more group focused in Japan compared to America. That is, regardless of whether you know the person climbing or not, people will cheer you on, give support, and even advice on how to improve. The community this creates a welcoming atmosphere that makes me look forward to going back.

Volunteering at a bouldering gym means dealing with a wide variety of tasks. From cleaning the staircase to filling up chalk balls and stripping tape off the routes. By doing all of this, I am able to interact a lot with the customers and practice my Japanese skills. I’ve also learned that most of the people also have a curiosity about English, so it becomes beneficial to both parties when they speak in English and I reply in Japanese.

With this CIP, I’ve created many great memories and learned a lot. When I come back to Kyoto, I will definitely stop by at NOAH to catch up with my friends.

Andrea Radziminski: Tea Ceremony Lessons (Spring Semester)

From the fall of 2018 through the spring of 2019 my CIP was attending tea ceremony lessons. In the fall, I experienced how tightly knit a tea ceremony school could be, because it took a couple of lessons before the teacher and other students stopped keeping me at such a distance and treating me as a complete outsider. They kept me at a distance not to be mean nor discourage me, but because we had not yet developed a feeling of closeness and had no shared experiences. Since then my linguistic, cultural, and mechanical knowledge of the tea ceremony has increased week by week, and the distance between myself and other students has decreased in proportion. Along the way, I learned that my school takes the tea ceremony very seriously. Therefore, until they get to know a new student more and witness that student’s hard work at lessons and passion for the tea ceremony, the new student cannot become a member of the group.

With the above in mind, I also came to realize that just as Japanese culture emphasizes the group, as opposed to the individual, so too does the tea ceremony. At our tea school all students are at different levels and are of vastly different ages, but everyone learns and works together. For instance, there are only two tearooms and one tea teacher despite there often being 12-18 students learning at one time. Thus, we must work together so that lessons run smoothly, such as by helping one another in small ways to set up for practicing the tea ceremony. Likewise, we clean up together by helping those who finished practicing the tea ceremony to clean up the tools, sweets dish, etc. Then, we also learn together. Since there are so many of us in the same tearooms at the same time, our teacher could not possibly teach us one by one. Therefore, only a few students practice the tea ceremony while the rest play the part of guests. We take turns playing each part so that everyone gets to eat a sweet twice and to prepare tea once or twice.

At the head this hustle and bustle, our teacher orchestrates and oversees what the makers of tea and guests of tea do. Meanwhile, the students playing guests are expected to help one another and, when the teacher is in the other tearoom, to help give reminders, hints, etc. to those making tea. When our teacher has an important point to make about a tea ceremony type (as there are quite a few kinds), techniques, tea tools, tea ceremony décor, all students are expected to pay close attention at the same time. Whether or not this style of teaching is unique to my school, I know not. However, it makes our school at least a place to learn, make mistakes, and sometimes even laugh together—it also makes the fairly intense strictness tolerable and even enjoyable at times. And so, I am still very glad I chose this school and did not give up.

In summary, I learned that our tea school is tight knit community that takes the way of tea very seriously. However, once a student proves that their intentions for learning are serious through sincerity, hard work, and practice; our school becomes a welcoming community. In our vast world of tea inside our little tea school we learn together, work together, and admire the many tea ceremony seasons together all while making tea.

Alice Padron: Volunteering at the Manga Museum

My CIP is working as a volunteer at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. I was told before going into it that it would not be a CIP that had as many opportunities to speak at length with Japanese people as many other CIPs, and for the majority of days I came in this has been true. Most days I worked around the main areas of the museum arranging bookshelves, but other days I worked in the back making files or labeling books’ spines. The people of the Manga Museum, however, taught me a lot about Japanese workplace etiquette – which mainly involves polite greetings. I think this created a workplace atmosphere based on respect and awareness of the work other coworkers are doing. These kinds of greetings tend to be much more casual in American workplaces, and are less of an expectation than here. The setting also gave me an opportunity to practice my keigo, which is something I definitely need to work on. Other than these days, however, volunteering at the Manga Museum gave me opportunities to speak Japanese at length that I did not expect to have. The fact that I am a Boston University student in Kyoto during the two cities’ 60th year of being sister cities resulted in me being interviewed by people from Kyoto City Hall about both cities, my time in Kyoto, and other related topics. I also have talked to Museum employees who are going to the Boston Japan Festival this year and wanted to know more about Boston and the average American person’s knowledge concerning manga. These opportunities really made me feel like I was helpful to people in Kyoto through my involvement during my time at the Museum. I have truly enjoyed my time at my CIP this semester.

Sophie Burke: Volunteering at the Children's Kitchen

For my CIP, I volunteer at a children’s kitchen(子供食堂) every Thursday. The organization is located on the second floor of a church in Higashi Kujo, and caters mainly to families with young children. The objective of the kitchen is to build a community, and I definitely felt this while working alongside the other volunteers. Most of the other volunteers were from Kyoto, and were generally college-aged. Every week we worked on a variety of different tasks including serving food, cleaning and putting away dishes, and engaging in conversations with the other volunteers. It was overwhelming at first, since I was largely unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary used, but little by little I found myself improving and becoming closer with the regular volunteers.

One of the difficulties of the Shokudo was trying to communicate when I didn’t understand instructions, since everyone was already familiar with each other and spoke very quickly in Kansai-ben. However, the volunteers were always patient with me when I didn’t understand something, and would take the time to explain it to me and make sure I understood. I also observed how friendly and accepting they were of me and the other KCJS volunteers, as well as new members who arrived at the Shokudo. Because of this welcoming atmosphere, we were always able to joke around when the kitchen wasn’t too busy and learn a lot about Japanese culture. They even taught us some useful phrases in Kansai-ben, and taught us some popular children’s games. As most of the volunteers didn’t speak a lot of English, Japanese was often the only way of communication. Because of this I was forced out of my comfort zone while trying to communicate. This was a fantastic chance to build up my own confidence and practice speaking casually with the other students my age while learning new grammar and vocabulary. Out of pure coincidence, I was even able to meet an alumna of my home college who is now living in Kyoto! I am thankful for the opportunity to volunteer at the Kodomo Shokudo and engage with the community.

Tara Satnick: Klexon

For my CIP, I registered for Klexon, a club based in Kyoto that provides opportunities for Japanese people practice their English-speaking skills. I chose this group because I was interested in meeting new people and helping others improve their English language skills. Through Klexon, I have been able to meet Japanese people of all different backgrounds. Beyond that, I have been able to talk engage in a variety of topics with them, which has given me tremendous insight into Japanese culture.
My favorite part about Klexon is that it is has taught me so much about Japanese everyday life. The conversations I have at Klexon are very casual, so my partner and I usually start by sharing about our week or day. A specific element of everyday life that particularly surprised me was the way that some of the members talk about their jobs. I had always been under the impression that, because Japanese people generally work very hard, they must have a lot of respect for their work. As it turns out, this was not the case for many of the members I met at Klexon. I heard from several members that they either hated their jobs and planned on quitting or had just recently quit, which I was not expecting. Due to the strong work ethic and polite nature of Japanese people, I quickly assumed that most Japanese people care a lot about the type of work that they do and are very committed to their jobs. However, by talking to people at Klexon, I learned that there are many Japanese people who actually hate their work. Listening firsthand to Japanese people talk about their daily experiences has helped me see that many stereotypes about Japanese society are actually untrue for many people.
Another interesting lesson I learned from attending Klexon meetings is that many people take longer than others to shift from formal to casual style speech. For example, within minutes of meeting certain members, they were using casual style speech. These people were usually very outgoing and friendly, so they felt more comfortable using conversational speech. Shy and quiet members, on the other hand, tended to wait longer before using conversational speech. Since arriving in Japan, I have struggled to figure out when to use casual style speech when speaking to Japanese native speakers, but Klexon has taught me that there is no strict set of rules for speech style. The style of speech you choose depends on your relationship with the other person, but it also largely depends on your personality and your comfort level with the other person.
Overall, I have really enjoyed my time at Klexon. I found all of the members to be extremely welcoming to me and grateful for my willingness to help them practice English. I would recommend Klexon to anyone that is looking to meet a lot of new Japanese people and have opportunities to practice your own language skills, as well as opportunities to help others with theirs.