Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto and the Kyoto University Choir

While establishing a CIP and forging connections can prove a daunting and sometimes discouraging process, I found it to be an ultimately invaluable part of my time at KCJS and my life here in Kyoto.

My first CIP, which I have continued both semesters here, is learning how to play the koto (A traditional Japanese string instrument with moveable bridges) and it was through what I suspect to be a combination of serendipity and extreme thoughtfulness on behalf of the KCJS staff that I was placed in a homestay which made these lessons possible. My host mother had studied the koto for quite some time and was kind enough to introduce me to her sensei, who has been generous enough to teach me free of cost for the for the past eight months. This connection made my CIP search easier than most, as I had long admired the instrument and had vague hopes of learning to play it while in Japan. Their long-established relationship made the introduction process very easy, and it wasn’t until I undertook the task of introducing another student that I began to more fully understand the complexity and cultural context surrounding such arrangements. Because all parties involved lived in the same neighborhood, special care had to be taken in regard to kinjo no tsukiai (neighborhood relations) between my teacher, the host families, the students, and all combinations thereof. What I suspect might have taken two or three phone calls in the US took over fifteen phone calls and some rather complex social maneuvering and face redress strategies so that no party felt disregarded – no small task when it comes to the finer points of Japanese joshiki (common sense, if you will) and etiquette.

My subsequent interactions with my sensei and her other students always left me a bit flustered as I could never be sure I was properly adhering to these unstated (and, as a foreigner, rather opaque) social codes, but they were sensitive to my situation and my language skills helped carry me through reasonably well.

My sensei is a true bohemian and has that slightly eccentric flare I personally associate with masters of traditional crafts and art forms – a trait I’ve come to find very endearing, though it certainly threw me at first. She has a very flowery way of speaking that utilizes an impressive range of keigo (formal speech) and Kyoto-ben (the local dialect) which, while I had no trouble understanding linguistically often surprised me in usage. For example, though I am the student and much younger, she often uses formal speech towards me, that is to say, the sort of language I would be expected to use towards her. However, I quickly came to realize this is more a reflection of her personality than misinformation on my part in regard to the way formal language is used in a real-life context.

The sequence of aisatsu (salutations) took a while for me to grasp. One might think, ‘how many salutations can one possibly use?’ but Japanese salutations are not limited to words of greeting. Also included are acknowledgements of the previous meeting, a request for guidance in the day’s lesson, a promise to work hard, and any number of repetitions and reiterations thereof based on my sensei’s responses (which, in accordance with her speech style, were rather numerous). Another repetitive sequence also concludes the lesson.

Also of interest was the occasional use of the greeting ‘good morning’ despite the fact that my lessons have always taken place in late afternoon. This is something not usually taught in Japanese textbooks, and is apparently not even common knowledge among Japanese until about college age, but the greeting ‘good morning’ can be used the first time you see someone in certain contexts (at part time jobs, in the world of the arts, etc.) regardless of time-of-day.

Of course, I also learned quite a few pieces of music, including two of Japan’s most well known songs, and had the opportunity to perform on numerous occasions, but what remains with me was the time I spent with my sensei and the extreme care and kindness she showed me. It was my first time interacting with a Japanese person of her age and occupation, and I believe it gave me valuable insight into the inner workings of Japanese relationships on the whole, despite her undeniable uniqueness. I will remember the time I spent under her tutelage quite fondly and, with any luck, will have the opportunity to make use of what I have learned in the near future.

My second CIP I began only this past semester, but while it was also music-related, it gave me a very different insight into Japanese society, and Japanese college life in particular. Natasha helped introduce me to the KyoDai Gasshodan (Kyoto University Choir) and from day one they welcomed me as a real member. Because our school schedule operates on a different calendar from that of Japanese universities, it is understandably difficult for us to truly experience campus life here the way we would in the US. I never really felt like a student at Doushisha (or Kyoto Daigaku) until I had the chance to sing with them. For the first time I thought “so this is what it must be like to be a ‘regular’ student.” That feeling of belonging was invaluable, and I will  treasure the time I spent with them and the memories we made. I know how difficult it can be to get involved in a campus club or circle, but if you can make it work, it’s more than worth it.

Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto (traditional Japanese string instrument)

CIP Blog 2: The Koto
The first time I ever heard the koto played was in my second year of elementary school and I, child that I was, fell in love with the sound and swore that one day I would learn to play it. To find myself in Japan some thirteen years later, realizing that childhood pledge is a bit wondrous in an odd sort of way. I’m not sure if it was serendipity or extreme care when it came to assigning host families (though I suspect it was the latter) but I was lucky enough to be placed in a homestay with connections that allowed that childhood whim to become a reality.
As with most things, it started off rather simple and increased with difficulty as I progressed to more complex pieces. However, though I’ve learned many songs and practices associated with the ikuda-ryuu tradition, I feel that what I’ve really gained is a glimpse into the heart of Kyoto.
My instructor, Imoto-sensei, is both nothing like I expected she would be, and precisely how I imagined a Japanese thespian would be, if that makes any sense at all. She was raised in an era where everything from behavior to language was cultivated to present a certain image of the Japanese woman, and in Japan’s ancient capital no less. This, combined with her artistic roots and, of course, her own personality has lead her to speak with some of the most flowery language I’ve ever heard. Now, by flowery I don’t mean poetic and overdone, but elegant, pitched, and extremely polite. So polite, in fact, that I was thrown when she spoke to me, her student, in keigo (honorific language), and bowed so many times I eventually lost count.
Naturally, when your sensei bows, you bow back (and lower) and respond to her words in kind. This formality, from what I’ve heard, is not uncommon in the world of traditional Japanese arts, but as one who is still somewhat unsure when to bow to whom and how deeply, I found myself a bit flustered until I learned how to enter, greet, and then conclude these lessons. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t understand the process or words as that there were so many ordered exchanges and bows it took me a few weeks to remember what order they came in. Then there was the presentation of omiyage, and (more difficult to navigate) the way to accept a return gift graciously. I actually found myself biking home in the rain one day with several cold tofu products balanced on one handlebar and about thirty freshly made kara-age on the other, knowing that my host mother had already been cooking all day for her granddaughter’s birthday).
I even had the chance to get an inside glimpse at the way neighborhood relations work when I helped put one of my friends in contact with sensei (I assumed it would take one or two phone calls; in fact it took close to fifteen and a lot of face redress strategies out of respect for people’s existing relations).
All in all I found my experience informative and rewarding. Though it did tend to get time consuming and complicated at times, I realize looking back that it was then that I learned the most. If there is one thing I regret about my CIP, it was the lack of opportunity to interact with people my own age on a more daily basis. Because the American and Japanese school years don’t line up well and we can’t commit to everyday practices, it’s rather difficult for study abroad students to get involved in most university clubs and circles. Unfortunately, this also decreases our chances of interacting with Japanese students who do not actively seek to participate in international circles or courses. Most host families do not tend to have children around our age and, unless you’re up for weekly rounds of nomi-kai (drinking parties), opportunities to befriend Japanese people of our generation are rather limited. Having elected to study abroad a full year, I had hoped to make lasting friendships, but I’m worried that if I don’t find more ways to get involved next semester I’ll lose my chance.