Leo Chau: Volunteering (子ども食堂)

My CIP was volunteering at Saint Mary’s Church’s Children soup kitchen with my good friend Alex. We would head over to the Church every Monday to help out for about two hours. We were originally tasked to help out in the kitchen by cutting ingredients and washing dishes. By the second time we went, we were instead redirected to play with and run around with the children. The actual period for serving food was 7 pm – 8 pm, but we came at about 6 pm, when kids started coming to the church. Every week we would end up playing with the children for about an hour, then help set up tables and eat the delicious food together! 

Instead of volunteering to help serve food to children, it really felt like I was volunteering to keep the kids entertained, which was really fun to do. When the kids played with us, they would speak Japanese too quickly and often with a Kansai accent. I wouldn’t understand them about half the time. One particular time, I asked one child to repeat what they said and they said it even faster to play with me. Being able to interact and communicate with the children was one of the best parts of my CIP and it made it extremely fun and enjoyable. With the energetic kids running around and playing with each other and the pastor and parents yelling at the kids to stop, it really made me think that young kids really do act the same no matter where you go.One big thing that I noticed when observing the children was that they would actually clean up by themselves after eating and would move back the table they ate on by themselves. It surprised me because that rarely happens in America. I feel that most children in America probably wouldn’t clean up unless their parents yelled at them to do so. Another cool thing that I was able to observe is the different kinds of games that kids play in Japan and how some games are basically the same in America, but named differently. For example, “onigokko” is basically just “tag”. Another cool thing that I was able to observe is the different kinds of games that kids play in Japan and how some games are basically the same in America, but named differently. For example, “onigokko” is basically just “tag”. Another cool thing that I was able to observe is the different kinds of games that kids play in Japan and how some games are basically the same in America, but named differently. For example, “onigokko” is basically just “tag”. 

Not only was interacting with the children fun, but it was also fun to talk with the other volunteers and the parents. I was able to feel how nice and caring everyone was. Learning about the backgrounds of each person was also very interesting! I was also able to learn new vocabulary and random knowledge from them! 

I feel that it was such an honor to be able to have been part of the church’s community, filled with caring and generous people. I wish I was able to help out more and were able to connect more with the members of the community. I especially wanted to connect more with the pastor of the church. During my last meeting with him before coming back to America, he brought us out to eat dinner and we talked a lot about religious things. But while he was driving me back home, I found out that he was also a big anime fan and I want to talk more about anime with him! It is a shame that my CIP activity was cut short. When I visit Japan again someday I will for sure make a stop at the church and say hi!

Megan Everts: Klexon

Originally, for my CIP I wanted to learn more about Japanese calligraphy, so I attended an introductory session where I met the teacher and the children taking the class. Although everyone was very welcoming, I quickly realized that children speak very quickly and are hence difficult to understand in Japanese. I thought more about what I wanted to get out of my CIP, and I realized that although my interest in exploring calligraphy was strong, I did not think it was the right activity for me to pursue. My main purpose of coming to Japan was to improve my ability to speak Japanese and to gain a greater understanding of Japanese culture, and I felt that there were other options that would allow me to pursue that goal more deeply.

So, I ended up changing my CIP to a language exchange club called Klexon, where both foreigners and Japanese individuals met to have conversations in English and Japanese. Klexon meetings were divided into two parts: one-on-one discussions and group discussions. The former had a similar format to speed-dating, where I would spend ten minutes talking with one Japanese individual and then my partner would switch. For the latter, the groups were randomly created to have a mix between foreigners and Japanese individuals, so I often got to meet more new people outside of the ones I interacted with in the group discussions.

I was able to gain a lot of interesting insights into Japanese culture through my interactions with these individuals. For instance, one thing I found very interesting when talking to the Japanese individuals is that they constantly commented on how bad their English was, even though I did not have much trouble understanding them at all. I thought that this was odd at first, but then when I switched to speaking in Japanese with one girl, I prefaced it by saying that my Japanese was not very good. She found it very funny that I said that and commented that she feels like sometimes foreigners start to “act more Japanese” after they begin studying the language, as she said that the way I talked down my ability to speak Japanese parallels the same way many Japanese individuals may talk down their ability to speak English.

Similarly, I had a conversation with another Japanese person about the differences between American and Japanese cultures. One of the interesting points she mentioned was that she said she felt like Americans were very aggressive and blunt in interactions, making them sometimes difficult to communicate with. This made me more aware of how to handle myself in future interactions with Japanese individuals, as I tried to pay more attention to the way in which I said things in order to minimize any awkward vibes I may have been giving off.

There were, however, some difficulties with my CIP as well. For example, when we transitioned to group discussions, sometimes the native English-speakers would take control of the conversations, causing the Japanese speakers to become more shy and talk less. This was frustrating, as my main purpose of coming to this club was to speak with the Japanese individuals, rather than other foreigners. For future KCJS students, my advice would be to not be afraid to reach out more to the Japanese individuals you interact with during your CIP. I wish I was able to get the Line information of some of the people I talked with to continue conversations beyond that short period of time.

Jessica Weibrecht: Volunteering at Nico Nico Tomato (Kyodai Hospital)

For my CIP I decided to participate in Nico Nico Tomato. Nico Nico Tomato is a volunteer organization that specializes in making grafts for the children at Kyoto University Hospital. The work is super meaningful and the dedication of all the volunteers is really amazing. 

This organization focuses mainly on crafts. However, the volunteers also program many events throughout the year for the children. However, the main focus for us KCJS volunteers is helping make the cards and other mementos to give the children. Over my near semester there I got to know a lot of interesting people as I volunteered. One thing I definitely picked up on was the situations of when to use Keigo and when not to use it. While speaking amongst ourselves everyone spoke casually. Some used -masu form others short, but that depended on how close they were in terms of their personal relations. 

Perhaps what stuck out to me the most while participating in this CIP was the differences between Kansai-ben and Tokyo-ben. At my university all of the professors are from the Tokyo area and thus speak Tokyo-ben. Even at KCJS the Japanese that was most prevalent amongst the staff and Senseis was Tokyo-ben. So walking into Nico Nico Tomato was the first time I really felt culture shock while in Japan. My listening comprehension skills were really put to the test. Not only is Kansai-ben extremely fast, but words are different as well as accents sometimes. (compare to different regional dialects in America) However, after a little while it wasn’t that bad anymore, and I also learned new words and phrases. This became especially interesting when listening to Japanese from different sources and suddenly being able to spot regional differences I would have otherwise missed. 

Another things I picked up on while volunteering are different customs I used to associate only with office related environments. For example, one of the older volunteers had been unable to attend for a week or two due to vacation. When she returned she brought back souvenirs for everyone and apologized for being gone. I also noticed that the Japanese attention to detail is much higher than the American one.

Perhaps the best advice I could give regarding Nico Nico Tomato is don’t be afraid to ask questions. They could be about anything ranging from clarification about instructions to questions aimed at getting to know your fellow volunteers. This way you will be able to get to know the other volunteers more quickly as well as learn new things. The room itself is quite small so you’ll end up spending quite a bit of time with new people in a smallish space. However, this environment is perfect for learning new things and getting to know new people. Sometimes there will be large chunks of time where no one is talking; instead everyone is amicably completing their own assigned tasks. During these times it’s completely your choice if you want to make small talk or let the silence continue, but personally I found those small pockets of silence to be very peaceful.

Christof Ketchmark: Assistant English Teacher

For my CIP, I volunteered at 末光先生’s home as an assistant English teacher working with elementary school and middle school students. Every week, I would arrive to 末光先生’s house before the lesson to speak with her about what we would be doing that day, as well as just talking and getting to know each other better.

During the lessons, there would often be opportunities for me to answer questions that the students had for Americans. At first, I feel like it was difficult to know what the right speaking pace would be for the students, as well as what kind of vocabulary might be a bit difficult for them to understand, but I gradually got more confident. It was definitely easier with the older students as they had been studying English for longer. In general, I think it was really beneficial to be able to see how children speak to each other in Japanese as generally speaking, there aren’t many opportunities as a student to do that.

Something I really got an appreciation for was how despite Japanese having a reputation for being an ambiguous, context-based language, the same can often be true of English, making it a similarly difficult language. One of the lessons involved going over the song Beauty and the Beast from the movie of the same name and it wasn’t as straightforward as I thought, as at points I really had to wonder what actually was meant by this line or that line.

I also think it was interesting to see how foreign language education differs in Japan. The materials were somewhat similar in the sense that children use very child-oriented textbooks that, in the case of a couple of the middle school students I worked with, they might feel they’ve outgrown, but the materials felt very similar to what I used in middle school when learning Chinese. That being said, there was greater emphasis on using Japanese to explain what something means whereas in my American foreign language classes, Chinese and Japanese at all levels, there was greater emphasis on using the language in order to answer content based questions to show understanding.

Overall, it was a very valuable experience and I regret that I wasn’t able to participate more before the program was ended.

Christine Ahn : Shamisen Lessons

For my CIP, I chose to learn the Shamisen under Iwasaki sensei. Since previous students from KCJS had already taken lessons from her, it was easy to start (although contacting her was a bit of a struggle since she was always out when we called). On the first day, I was nervous but going with another KCJS student, Alexis, made it less stressful. The first day, we were welcomed in during the middle of a lesson, which felt more like a rehearsal. Like previous posts already made, the lessons aren’t really like lessons and more of practicing together. By playing with the other students, I found myself slowly improving while having fun. The other students were all old, but they were energetic and treated us kindly. They even sent us back home with chocolates on the first day. 

I knew that I wanted to push myself to talk more so I would also ask a few questions here and there whether it be about trying to understand the sheet music (which is very different from western sheet music) or asking how long they’ve been playing. It was hard for me to start or continue a conversation but luckily, the other students, and Alexis who came with me, were pretty talkative.  During lessons, everyone mainly focuses on playing the piece so there isn’t much opportunity to talk then. It may be different depending on when you set your lesson time since each time we came in, the students there were already rehearsing a piece so there was no chance to talk before a lesson. After each lesson, however, they offered to treat us out to dinner providing an optimal time to chat with them and the teacher. It was interesting to me that even though they were much, much older than us, they told us to call them by their nicknames and gave us nicknames too. They told us some stories about themselves and in exchange, we also gave some of our own. I also saw that even quieter students became so talkative after they started drinking.

Since our program in Japan ended abruptly, I couldn’t properly say bye to them but was able to eat with Iwasaki sensei one last time before leaving. I was able to talk a lot then and before we left, she showed us around an antique cafe she liked (The interior was really cool. I highly recommend asking her about it so you can go too). I really enjoyed how kind the other students and teacher were, even though it was awkward at times. If I could go more times, I think instead of relying on the other students to talk, I would’ve definitely pushed myself to talk even more and try to practice keigo more with the teacher. They understand we’re learning Japanese and have fun hearing us talk so I recommend just saying anything, even if it sounds dumb, off, or random, and to try to treat them as friends (with respect though). Overall, the experience was really enjoyable. However, my goal was to be in a CIP with a lot of people to talk with so this fulfills that but if you want to make friends with younger people, I would suggest finding an active club.

Mira Gordon: Town Revitalization in the Kyoto Countryside

For my CIP, I participated in two different groups that work on 町おこし, or town revitalization, in the countryside outside of Kyoto. One of the groups was the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative, where I shadowed their young farming representative, Yoshida-san. The other group was the Kyoto Seika University Takarasagashikai, a student circle that works revitalizing the town of Utsu, in the northern countryside of Kyoto, under the supervision of Humanities Professor Tamura sensei. As I was participating in two different groups, I alternated visiting one group per week, sometimes visiting both in the same week. Combining my CIP with my independent research on Japanese town revitalization, I used it as an opportunity to conduct ethnographic fieldwork by meeting and talking with a variety of people involved in such efforts.

Because of the multi-faceted nature of my CIP, every day was different. On the days that I participated in the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative, I would take the JR train about half an hour outside of Kyoto to Sonobe, Nantan. There, Yoshida-san would pick me up and tell me the day’s activities. Yoshida-san’s farming specialty is sweet potatoes, so one day I helped him bury last year’s leftover sweet potatoes, in order to form new sprouts for this year’s crop. He also took me to meet one of his neighbors, a farmer who has kindly welcomed Yoshida-san into the Nantan community and given him a lot of practical farming advice. One day Yoshida-san took me to an 朝市, or morning market, which functions both as a farmer’s market and community gathering space. There I had the incredible opportunity to chat with and interview several community leaders, and witness 炭焼き, traditional charcoal-making, in action. For the Seika University Takarasagashikai, I attended two club meetings, and also visited Utsu’s morning market once. One thing I really enjoyed about the Takarasagashikai was having the opportunity to interact with students my age. The club had a casual and fun atmosphere, and there was a lot of joking and chatting as we put together an informational pamphlet about their club and planned activities and games to play with the kids of Utsu at an upcoming retreat.

Overall, I was blown away by the warmth and welcome I received from everybody I met. Though neither group had ever had an exchange student participant before, both Yoshida-san and Tamura sensei worked to accommodate me and kindly found me many opportunities to talk to different people. Thus, through my CIP I had the chance to use Japanese in a variety of settings with people of all different ages, some of whom had strong regional dialects. It was incredibly special to be able to get different local people’s perspectives on the declining countryside population, and hear what they think can be done about it. Another thing I valued about my CIP was that it enabled me to get out of the city and enjoy the breathtakingly beautiful mountains and forests of the surrounding countryside. 

Even for those who aren’t researching town revitalization, I would highly recommend the Nantan Regional-Revitalization Cooperative to anybody who wants the opportunity to experience the Japanese countryside, and I would recommend the Takarasagashikai to anybody who wants to interact with a very fun group of college students. Though it was cut short, my CIP was hands down the best part of my study abroad in Kyoto.

Brigid Mack: Calligraphy Lessons

The CIP that I chose for the semester was traditional calligraphy or shodō (書道). Shodō evolved from Chinse calligraphy and has been relevant to Japanese culture for hundreds of years, and so it is a common activity for kids to do after school. The person who led the class that I took held lessons in his house about three times a week and students could come any of the days that they chose and stayed for about an hour at a time. During this hour, you could do shodō with the brush and ink, writing exercises with either a pen or a pencil, and math with a soroban, which is essentially an abacus that was created in Japan. While I was participating in these classes, I did both shodō and the writing exercises.

At first when I started this CIP it was difficult to really pick up on the environment outside of what I was doing because I had very little confidence in my ability to speak to the Sensei in Japanese and my host mother would usually come along to help translate. I spent around three class sessions getting used to what it was like to be in a room full of shouting children while also comprehending very little of what they were saying. Finally, after several weeks I began to participate in the discussions and talk more to everyone else who was there. The kids who were taking lessons seemed very comfortable with each other and with the Sensei and were often making jokes or singing while they were there. It was easy to see that everyone was enjoying themselves and that while they took their work seriously, they were also there to have fun.

Most of the students seemed to have been in school classes together or were friends from around the neighborhood and knew each other very well. After a while it was more entertaining to watch them fight over who showed Sensei their work first as they stood on chairs or crowded around where he was sitting, waving their papers around before they had even finished drying.  Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to join in conversations or ask questions and clarify things that I had been confused about, or even to answer the things that they asked me. By the last week, it was a far less stressful environment because I was able to communicate and the kids were excited to try and include me in their fun.

As far as being successful in a CIP goes, I think that the most important thing to remember is that you’re there to learn, and that even if you aren’t sure about how to go about things like asking questions or joining conversations, it’s easier to just say something and gauge whether it was right or not by other people’s reactions than it is to overanalyze it and not say anything at all. I spent a lot of time just watching and trying to figure out how to fit myself into all of the chaos of shouting children when in the end, all I had to do was raise my hand and ask a question or talk to one of the kids. They let me know when I was wrong or if something I said was so off that it was funny, and in turn I learned more about the language while also being able to have fun. I think that if there was anything I would do differently, I definitely would try to be more confident in my ability to at least try and speak rather than overthinking it all and ending up saying nothing because even though I enjoyed going to all of the classes, it was definitely a much better experience towards the end.


Sean Corley: Volunteering at Muromachi Jidokan

For my CIP, I volunteered at Muromachi Jidokan, an after-school care center for elementary school students. I was interested in volunteering here because I have previously mentored children through a program at my university, as well as at home in New Jersey. At the Jidokan, my role was to help students with their homework and to play games with them once they were finished.

I was initially daunted by the idea of helping students with their homework. I was not confident enough in my own language skills to be able to explain how to solve math problems or other homework questions in Japanese. Moreover, I often found it difficult to understand the students when they were speaking. I had been used to hearing adults speak in Japanese during my school instruction, but I did not have much practice with listening to young kids, who sometimes mumble or say words incorrectly. Thus, interacting with the kids at Muromachi became a great language experience for me. I learned how to understand the kids when they spoke and how to communicate my own thoughts to them in a way that they could understand. For instance, during one of my visits to the Jidokan, a first-grade student asked me for help with her math homework, in which she had to read the time on different images of analog clocks. I had forgotten how to say “hour hand” and “minute hand,” so I explained them as “the short one” and “the long one” instead. Even though I didn’t use the correct words, the student understood what I was explaining to her, and she was able to figure out the rest of her homework. I was happy to find that her and other students began asking me more and more for help with their homework, as they started to see me as a teacher instead of a temporary volunteer. 

One of the best moments of my time at Muromachi Jidokan was when the students finally referred to me as “Sean-san” instead of “gaikokujin sensei,” or “foreigner-teacher.” During my first few visits, I always pointed to my name tag to remind the students of my name, but it didn’t seem to stick, and most of them continued to call me “gaikokujin sensei.” A few weeks in, the students started to call me “Sean-san” all of a sudden. Although I found it funny when the kids called me “foreigner-teacher,” it was nice to finally be seen not as a foreigner, but as a part of the community. 

I really enjoyed my time volunteering at Muromachi Jidokan. I will miss going in on Tuesdays and seeing the kids get excited that I was there again. They were all so friendly, funny, and full of energy that I left the Jidokan smiling every week. I recommend the Muromachi Jidokan to any future KCJS members who are looking for an exciting and rewarding volunteering experience.

Nathan Koike: Klexon

For my CIP, I joined Klexon, an international conversation club where English speakers help Japanese members practice their English and vice versa. We met on Tuesdays from 7-9PM at Wings Kyoto, unless cancelled. Upon arrival, everyone sat down, Japanese members in odd numbered rows of tables and English speakers in even rows, and everyone mostly kept to themselves; some people started conversations, and were met with little (if any) resistance, but most people kept to themselves before the meeting started. However, promptly at 7PM, the meeting began, and the Japanese members turned around. The room quickly burst to life with conversation and laughter. I would speak with my partner for 10 minutes, at which point the Japanese speakers would shift over to the next English speaker, so most people had a chance to talk to each other. After meeting with 6 partners, for a total of 60 minutes, the second half of the meeting began, and we were (relatively) randomly assigned groups of about six people. From there, we would have a conversation as a group, usually about a different topic, then the meeting would end. Topics were provided, but I found that almost everyone I spoke with was much more engaged when talking about a topic that came up naturally instead.

I’m not a very outgoing person, so participating in Klexon was a great way for me to make some friends. Although many people went out for dinner and drinks afterwards, I wasn’t able to attend because I talked myself into believing that there would always be another chance. I was wrong. Because of the outbreak of COVID-19, I had to return early; not going out with everyone else is one of my biggest regrets. Still, I had a genuinely wonderful time. Even though I don’t consider myself advanced, by any stretch of the word, having to struggle through translations (mostly questions from English to Japanese and answers from Japanese to English) was one of the most fun challenges I brought upon myself.

Along with this, Klexon brought a lot of time for me to reflect on language as a tool. My Japanese is far from perfect, but I generally manage to communicate what I want in spite of this; likewise, the Japanese members at Klexon don’t have perfect English, but it’s not difficult for me to understand what they’re saying and what they want to say. My reflection came in the form of a realization: the way I use a language isn’t as important as the ideas I can communicate. Along with this, I noticed a few mistakes where I knew exactly what grammar structure or mechanic from Japanese matched the mistake, having only recently learned the grammar structure or mechanic and made the inverse mistake.

Klexon is one of the most important things about my study abroad experience and one of the things I enjoyed the most. I’m not sure if I can be positive enough to reflect my time at Klexon. I am an introvert, but even with that I had an amazing time meeting new people and talking with them about all variety of topics, from stock trading to slang (both real conversations I had). While I am also fairly awkward, everyone I met was so kind and friendly that asking for their LINE to stay in touch was no issue. Klexon was a truly fantastic experience, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone who would like to make friends. The only tip I have is to be genuine; it’s a lot harder to make friends if you hide what you think and feel all the time.

Jannel Lin: Volunteering at Mitsuba Kindergarten

My CIP is to volunteer in a kindergarten called みつば幼稚園. My experience at the kindergarten playing with kids is definitely memorable and treasurable to me. I chose to engage in volunteering activity in a kindergarten because I always loved to play and talk with little kids. As a foreigner and also with my level of Japanese proficiency, I always feel that other Japanese university students of my age are nervous or even slightly scared to engage in conversations with me. Also, since Japanese people are known for their modesty and politeness, they are not so likely to correct me when I make mistakes in Japanese. However, kids tend to be more straight forward and they always talk to me in the most-casual way of speech in Japanese, which I enjoy talking with them a lot.

Before I engaged in this CIP activity, I expected kids to be speaking in really simple, easy Japanese, and I most likely would be able to understand most part of what they are saying. But I was wrong! I realized that kids tend to talk really fast, and they always ask なんで、どうして、なぜto everything I say, which I find it really funny. For instance, they asked why my hair is brown? Why do I have accent when speaking Japanese? My task in the kindergarten was basically to play with the kids, literally just to PLAY with them. In this process, I was able to practice my Japanese a lot from talking with them. It was an interesting experience to be a 「先生」at the kindergarten. Everyone in the kindergarten calls me ゆいせんせいthere. Although the kids call me sensei, I can tell that they see me more like a big sister or friend from the way they talk and play with me. It is funny that the kids actually do not understand the fact that I am a 外国人. Since I am not fluent in Japanese, I make mistakes a lot and my Japanese has accent. Whenever I say something wrong in Japanese, the kids will always correct. I remember having a hard time to say ケチャップin its right Japanese intonation, and a kid made me pronounce the word again and again till I can say it perfectly. I was questioned of my strange Japanese intonation once by a kid, who asked なぜ発音そんなにおかしいの、外国人みたいThat was very funny but it truly made my day. I recommend this CIP activity a lot because you get help for Japanese from young 先生達 a lot even though you are actually the “teacher.” The kids were never hesitant with correcting my mistakes, and I really love my experience with this CIP.

I definitely learned a lot from this CIP experience and was also able to make wonderful memories that I will take with me forever. It is indeed important to find a CIP that you truly enjoy. Although CIP is part of the curriculum’s requirement, it should never be something that adds up to your burden or stresses you. In fact, CIP should be something that you find joy doing it. When searching for a CIP, know what your passion is and what is something that always gives you a good time. Simply enjoy your time with the community involved in your CIP! Although our time in Japan is limited but the experience and relationships that we build though CIP is timeless.