There’s No Place Like Kansai For the Holidays

Tori gate covered in snow
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

You did it. Your first semester abroad is almost over. You might be preparing for you flight back home, or for your next semester abroad. Either way, you have a unique opportunity before you leave: exploring another country during the holidays!

Japan offers a lot when it comes to the winter, whether it be festivals, lighting ceremonies, or just the gorgeous scenery in the snowfall. Here are some of the top things to do in Kansai during the holiday season.

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

Priest ringing bell

Visiting a temple on New Year’s Eve is a staple of Japanese culture. You get to eat good food and ring in the New Year with an unforgettable experience. While there are temples closer to JCMU, you just can’t beat Kyoto’s temples.

Otsu’s Rose Fantasy Garden of Lights

Lights display on Lake Biwa
(Photo Credit: Shiga Photo Library)

Starting on December 1st, Otsu hosts a spectacular light display along the shore of Lake Biwa. It features over 100,000 holiday lights! So bundle up, grab some hot chocolate and a friend and take a night time stroll through this luminary garden.

Winter Festival’s in Tohoku

Ryokan covered in snow by river
(Osawa Onsen, Hanamaki, Iwate)

Maybe you want to go all out and see more of Japan. JCMU Program Director Kate Simon recommends going to the Tohoku Region! The winter festivals are incredible and you get to see a very different side of the country. If you have the travel bug, there is no better place to go for the winter. Most of the festivals do take place in February though, so you might have to be patient.

Honke Tsuruki Soba

Who needs fancy lights and pretty sights – after all, the only thing you really need is some good food. Our follower Ian Shepard recommended Honke Tsuruki Soba, a 300 year old soba shop located in Otsu. So if you have the itch for some traditional Japanese food this winter, this is the spot.

Ryokan Beniyau

It’s been a hard semester. Adjusting to a new culture and the daily grind of learning Japanese have taken their toll. You need somewhere to relax. Look no further than Ryokan Beniya, located just north of Hikone in Nagahama. This Ryokan has amazing baths! From the outdoor bath you can see Lake Biwa and watch the snow fall. So treat yourself and enjoy some classic Japanese bath houses!

Jazz-Bar Coltrane in Kusatsu

What better way to wring in the roaring 20’s part two then some Jazz! Recommended by JCMU’s very own Harada-san no less. This bar sports a classy feel and some smooth jazz. In short, all you need for a relaxing and fun evening. So now that you know your onions go and have some fun!

Being a POC in Japan

皆さん、こんにちは! Hello, everyone! 

My name is Tariq Muhamed, and I am an alum of the 2018-2019 academic year program at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). I was asked to provide some insight into my life in Hikone from the perspective of a person of color, so here is my story:

I should first explain what led me to this point. With my home institution being Michigan State University (home to JCMU’s administrative office in Michigan), I had many professors and instructors advising me that if I wanted to improve my Japanese skills and have the experience of a lifetime, studying in Hikone was the way to go. So I packed my bags and did just that.

Two young students wearing jackets in front of a pine tree
My older brother and I outside of JCMU

I was greeted in Hikone and JCMU by a very common occurrence in Japan: a typhoon. Weirdly enough, that was when it finally set in – I’d finally achieved my lifelong dream, I’d finally made it to Japan.

I quickly became adjusted to life, going to karaoke with friends, the bi-daily trips to the convenience store, hanging out at the local restaurant Diner Pop, the works. My academic life also had been progressing well. Although I don’t want to get into the preachy stuff just yet, I want to give my first piece of advice to prospective JCMU students, whenever that may be – it is regarded as an intensive program for a reason! You will most definitely be pushed to the limits in your Japanese classes, so don’t be discouraged by the amount of work you will have to put in to your studies, you will definitely see results.

Now for the meat and potatoes, my experience in Hikone and Japan in general being a POC. Coming from a country in which I am already a steep minority, I couldn’t help but not expect many more stereotypes than the preexisting ones surrounding mine and many other’s lives in America. Excuse me if this is a generalization, however through my time in Japan, I’ve learned firsthand that many people know only kindness. I had been shown nothing but respect and love from almost every encounter I had.

That is not to say I didn’t have my share of questionable actions. More so than my friends and peers around me, I got stares and many more questions. Shrugging it off as the classic ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) enigma, I didn’t think much of it. Though I have been asked many questions such as “How do you feel about Trump?” or the classic “Can I touch your hair?” Nonetheless, I believed then and still do that they come from a place of genuine curiosity. Especially for a town such as Hikone, foreigners (specifically those of African-American descent) are quite scarce. All-in-all, I faced no discrimination at all during my time abroad.

Five Japanese and U.S. students together, with two in the front holding acoustic guitars
A fellow JCMU classmate, myself and some Japanese friends

So to prospective POC students of JCMU: you get back what you put in. I believe the saying “respect goes both ways” reigns true in this regard. Much in the same way you’re both surprised and amazed about the brand new culture in front of you, the Japanese person to your left or right feels the same way about you. Just think, through every conversation you have an opportunity to teach someone from an entirely different background and history, about YOUR heritage, own it.

I sincerely hope that you take the opportunity to expand your cultural horizons by taking a chance and putting yourself out there. If you are on the fence about studying, not just in Japan, but anywhere due to the color of your skin, I am here to tell you to not worry, and take that leap of faith.

No, liking anime doesn’t mean you’re a bad student

While I was studying Japanese at Michigan State, there were two distinct factions of people: those that liked anime and those that didn’t. Those that liked anime were often derided as wanting to learn Japanese for the wrong reasons.

Weirdly enough, many classmates automatically assumed that I didn’t like anime – after all, people that like anime can’t be serious about their studies, they thought. I didn’t really think much of it until one of my classmates pointed at two others across the room and whispered: “Those two are always talking about anime – no wonder their Japanese is awful!” The classmate then looked at me, expecting a chuckle or other amused response. Instead, all they got was a look of bewilderment. After all, I felt like I was being judged as an anime fan myself.

Group photo of study abroad student in front of Japanese temple gate
My classmates and I on the 2015 JCMU “Crossroads of Japan” short history program

Till that point, I didn’t realize just how ingrained this culture against anime-watchers was within the Japanese program. It was argued that people that like anime often equate the fictional worlds within their favorite TV shows to being exactly what Japanese culture is like, which would be culturally insensitive. Indeed, I have certainly come across some people that do think like this: they talk of going to Japan solely to visit Akihabara, a popular destination for pop culture fans filled with various anime-centric stores. However, I have never come across anybody in the upper levels of the Japanese language program that would assume anime and real-life Japan to be one and the same. That’d create a lot of contradictions with what you’re studying!

Generally, if you’ve committed to studying Japanese for two, three, four, or more years of your life, you likely are more dedicated to it beyond a simple desire to watch a television show without subtitles. Sure, anime was the reason I first got into my studies, but that was really it: a start. From there, my interest in Japanese culture coupled with the challenge of learning kanji and the grammar structures propelled me to three separate study abroad programs and a major in Japanese. I spent hours every days bettering my language skills, and prided myself on my ability to achieve high marks. So to hear people assume that certain hobbies necessarily meant you were an insensitive, low-achieving student was pretty hurtful.

Now working at JCMU, I have the opportunity to meet with students across the state at various events promoting our study abroad programs. During my conversations, some lamented the same thing happening at their school. Many of them went on to have successful semesters at JCMU.

Close-up picture of 6 people smiling
Meeting up with JCMU alumni at Japanese pop culture conventions

With this all said, I think it’s time we put this rumor to bed: your hobbies are not indicative of your ability to succeed in the classroom! So rather than focusing on whether or not your classmate watches anime, cosplays, reads Harry Potter, goes to the gym, plays sports, or what have you, instead work together and focus on the one thing we all collectively hate: keigo.

What should I bring to JCMU?

While study abroad and traveling are incredibly exciting experiences, they come with a lot of stress. On top of worrying about flights and visas, you have to think about what to bring with you. “How am I supposed to fit everything I need in one or two suitcases?!” is a line of panic we all feel the day or two before departure.

The JCMU handbook gives some packing tips, but I’m going to go a little more in depth into what I would recommend you bring and what I think you should leave at home, based on my own experiences at JCMU.

Deodorant

The first thing you’ll hear when you look into packing for Japan is to bring your own deodorant/antiperspirant. It’s true! Unless you’re an incredibly lucky person born with a superpower that prevents you from sweating, bring your own deodorant.

Americans tend to use stick deodorant, while the majority of what you’ll find in Japan are roll on or spray type deodorants. And, according to… well, everyone I’ve ever talked to, they all assured me that Japanese deodorants don’t work as well. It’s safer to bring your own that you know works for you, especially if you’re going to Japan in the summer. In fact, if you are going in the summer, consider bringing extra! There’s no escaping the sweat during a Japanese summer.

Hair/Body Wash

For products like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and face wash, I tend to go by this rule: if there’s a brand you can’t live without, bring it; if not, buy it in Japan.

For example, I have really frizzy hair and use a particular anti-frizz shampoo, so I bring a full supply of shampoo and conditioner with me. However, in the US I tend to buy whatever body wash is on sale, so I pack a tiny travel size body wash and get more when I’m in Japan. I do the same for face wash and toothpaste; bring a little bit and buy more when I arrive. This really just comes down to personal preference, so only you will know what’s best for you.

Other Personal Care Products

If you have a period and use pads and/or tampons, I recommend packing enough for your whole trip. Pads in particular can take up quite a bit of space, but that space will be emptied up by the end of your trip. That’ll leave you with extra room for souvenirs! You can also buy pads in Japan if you’d prefer (and if you do, this guide to pads in Japan might be helpful for you), but tampons are a little harder to find.

As for items you can go a day or two without, like sunscreen, I wouldn’t pack any and just buy it when you arrive. Also, whether you pack it before leaving or buy it after arriving, I would suggest carrying hand sanitizer or hand soap in a travel container and a small towel. Most public bathrooms don’t have towels and some don’t even have soap.

Makeup

If you wear makeup, I would recommend bringing your favorites and leaving space for additions. I usually bring my most used mascara and eyeliner and buy blush and lipstick in Japan (mostly because it’s fun! Check out RatzillaCosme if you’re interested in Japanese cosmetics).

Japan has a very limited range of skin tones when it comes to makeup compared to the US, so it’s best to bring your own foundation as it might be hard to find one that matches.

Travel sized versions

Electronics

Japan uses the same type of outlet as the US does, but they only have the two-prong type. That means for most things like phone chargers you won’t need an adapter, but you will need one for things that require a third grounded prong like most laptop chargers. Japan (100 V, 50/60 Hz) runs at a different voltage and frequency than the US (120 V, 60 Hz), but you most likely won’t need a converter. Most chargers, like an iPhone charger, can accept any voltage/frequency.

The only things I ever needed to plug in were chargers and a hair dryer, and I personally never had any issues. If you’re unsure about an item, check the label. If it says something like “INPUT: 100-240V, 50/60 Hz”, it can be used in Japan.

A Japanese outlet

Shoes

I would also bring at least one pair of good, comfy shoes that can withstand longer days of walking. You’re most likely going to be moving around a lot in Japan. I ended up walking a hole into a pair of off-brand Converse I brought when I was in Japan for an academic year.

Depending on your shoe size, you might also have a hard time finding a new pair in Japan. Generally, it can hard to find sizes over U.S. men’s 9/women’s 11. I have pretty big feet for the average American woman, but I was lucky and found a replacement pair of shoes that fit me in the men’s section of Trial (a grocery store near JCMU). They definitely weren’t cute or comfortable and didn’t last me very long, though.

It would be best if your shoes are easy to slip on and off, or at least bring a pair that is. You’ll be taking them off entering the dorms, academic building, and some restaurants, izakaya, and old buildings you might go to.

Clothing

In general, Japanese sizes are smaller than those in the U.S., so I would definitely bring around 1-2 weeks’ worth of clothing that you know already fits you. You might still find clothes that fit in Japan though; I’m a bit chunkier than the average American woman and I found quite a few T-shirts that fit me fine.

Although not necessary, you may want to bring a swimsuit. You will be living on a lake and may want to take a dip at some point, especially if you’re there for the summer!

While unavoidable if you’re going to Japan in the winter, pack clothes and towels that dry quickly. Most everyone air drys their clothes, and it can take days to dry when it’s humid. There are clothes dryers at JCMU, but like other dryers I’ve used in Japan, they never quite reach completely dry, so I wouldn’t rely on them.

Towels & Bedding

Speaking of towels, I would pack one good absorbent towel, and buy another one (and a hand towel) once in Japan. For reasons mentioned above, towels in Japan are pretty thin, so, in my experience, don’t really feel like they’re absorbing any water. I use the towel I bring with me most days and use the one I buy in Japan when the other is in the wash or drying.

Fortunately, there’s one thing you definitely don’t have to bring unless you have allergies to certain materials: bedding. Your sheets and blankets are provided by JCMU, so you don’t have to worry about packing them!

Seasonal Items

One of the hardest things about packing clothes is knowing how to dress for the weather, and it really depends on what time of year you’ll be in Japan.

This can be especially difficult if you’ll be there in the winter, because bulky winter clothes takes up a lot of suitcase space. To save up space, I packed my coat but bought new gloves and a scarf in Japan when it started getting cold.

A friend and I after walking to a nearby konbini. I regretted not bringing a better coat!

On the other hand, if you’re going to Japan during the summer, you’ll be there for the rainy season. Make sure to bring good water resistant shoes, but I would buy an umbrella and rain poncho after arriving. If you’re on the heavier side, you might want to bring your own poncho, as bigger ones are harder to find in Japan. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need a poncho, I don’t really wear them anyways,” think again: biking in the rain sucks without one.

School Supplies

I would pack a small notebook and pencil and buy anything else you’ll need after you arrive. There’s lots of stationery at the grocery stores and konbini near JCMU. Don’t worry about bringing any textbooks; they’re included in tuition and you’ll be given the books you need after class placement.

Gifts

Pack some gifts for your new friends in Japan! Small trinkets, like keychains from your hometown or home state make some of the best gifts. Then, use that space in your suitcase for gifts for your friends and family back home. Remember to be careful not to bring anything perishable or fragile, and don’t forget to buy a little something for yourself. You earned it!

Of course, don’t forget to bring your passport and money!

Fireworks in Shiga

The Fourth of July is right around the corner, which means everyone in the U.S. is preparing to see fireworks light up the night sky. But did you know that Japan is also known for its summer firework shows?

Rather than being a nationwide fireworks spectacular, hundreds of firework festivals take place throughout the summer and across Japan – including plenty of big ones in Shiga! These festivals typically begin in July and continue into late August. So if you want to see fireworks more than once or twice a year, Japan is the place for you!

Hiraku character firework

Japanese fireworks can be viewed from any angle and often include special fireworks that look like flowers, hearts, and even cartoon characters. These displays are best enjoyed with friends and delicious food, like grilled corn, shaved ice, and candy apples, from 屋台 (yatai, food stalls) found at every festival.

Firework festivals are generally free, but you need to show up early to find a good place to sit as they tend to get crowded. If you want to secure a good, comfortable seat for yourself and your friends, most firework festivals have chairs in a premium sitting area ranging anywhere from 2,000円 to 20,000円 (about $20~$200).

Firework festivals are especially beautiful in Shiga, with the fireworks reflecting off of Lake Biwa and the lake breeze staving off Japan’s summer heat. Be sure to check out one of the following firework shows if you have the chance!


びわ湖大花火大会
The Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks in Otsu from the Michigan Boat

Date: August 8th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Otsu Port (大津港; Ōtsu-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the rapid service train (快速, kaisoku) to Otsu Station (~55 minutes, 970円). From there, walk down the hill to the lake (~15 minutes).

Otsu, the capital of Shiga, has the most famous fireworks display in all of the prefecture. It’s definitely worth the trip! If you really want to see how beautiful the fireworks can be, take a ride on the Michigan Boat to watch the show from within Lake Biwa.


長浜・北びわ湖大花火大会
Nagahama & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

JCMU Summer 2018 alum Rebecca Phoenix at the Nagahama Fireworks Festival

Date: August 5th, 2019 7:30PM

Location: Nagahama Port (長浜港; Nagahama-kō)

Getting there: From Hikone Station, take the train to Nagahama Station (~20 minutes, 240円). Walk to the lake from there (~10 minutes).

Nearby Nagahama also has its own fireworks festival and can be enjoyed from any spot on the lake in town. Be sure to prepare for the crowded trains after the festival, and bring a fan to fight the heat!


彦根・北びわ湖大花火大会
Hikone & Northern Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival

Fireworks near JCMU

Date: August 26th, 2019 7:40PM

Location: Matsubara Beach (松原水泳場; Matsubara-suieijō)

Getting there: Matsubara Beach is just a 10 minute walk from JCMU!

If you want to experience the magic of a Japanese fireworks show without the travel, look outside your dorm window from the JCMU campus! While a smaller festival than the previously mentioned ones, there are still a lot of fireworks to see – including a Hikonyan one often!Yatai line the path along the beach, so be sure to take out some money at the nearby 7-11 to try some festival food.


Want to learn more? Visit the Shiga Tourism Board to read more about these events & other summer festivals happening in Shiga.

Connecting with Japan through Coffee

In America, one of my favorite pastimes is drinking coffee with my dad. As my primary caretaker, my dad did his best to make sure we spent quality time together when he was free on the weekends. Starting in middle school we would go to Dunkin’ Donuts together after church on Sundays to drink coffee. It became a way for me to spend time with my mother, too; although we didn’t have much in common when I was younger, in high school I began to drink coffee with her and with other members of my family after meals. Coffee became central to my latinidad. Regardless of whose house I was staying at, regardless of the time, there was always a can of Cafe Bustelo within reach. Sharing a cup of coffee with my family meant spending time together to talk. The comforts of coffee reached me even within the confines of Kalamazoo College, as I work as a barista at an on-campus cafe. Through that job I was able to connect with students and their parents as well as teachers and other faculty members that I never would have been able to meet otherwise. Every cup of coffee I served reminded me of my time with my family, and I tried to serve everyone I met with the same care I would have received at home.

As soon as I came to Japan, I found myself faced with the problem of how to connect with my latinidad when no one else here identified with the same culture that I did. Central to this problem was where I would get my daily dose of caffeine. Of course the vending machines were available and I found myself using them more often than not because of the convenience of being able to exchange a single coin for a can of my vice of choice. However convenient, they could not compare to the handmade beverages I had become used to making and drinking myself at home. Before long I was venturing into Hikone and Japan at large to find better coffee. I began to frequent Micro Lady, the cafe that I found to be most similar to American-style cafes. It seems more often than not that ‘cafes’ in Japan are not places to get coffee, but to sit and enjoy cute and tasty meals. At many of these cafes, the coffee is mediocre, an afterthought alongside the presentation of the food. These cafes were referred to as きっさてん (kissaten) in my experience, while the truer coffee shops were called コーヒー屋 (koohiiya).

Visiting these various cafes and coffee roasteries made me think about what it was like to work in a cafe in Japan. Although the handbook advises people not to choose internships or activities they would have access to in America, I found that I wanted to work in a cafe more than I wanted to do anything else. Regardless of what the handbook says, I did not want to engage with Japanese culture in a way I viewed as intrusive. I thought that working in a cafe would be good because I could compare my experience working at a cafe in America to my experience working at cafes in Japan. I wanted to see if people connected over coffee in Japan like they did in America and how popular coffee really is in Japan.

In addition to being curious about the workings of a cafe abroad, a part of me has always hoped to run my own cafe one day. In America, I do not have the opportunity to talk and work with owners of independent cafes. My job on campus is run by a larger corporation, and cafe owners in the Kalamazoo and Chicago areas are just a little too intimidating for me to talk to. This is not to say that cafe owners in Japan are any less intimidating, but through the Kalamazoo College Integrative Cultural Project (ICRP) I saw a chance to work with independent cafe owners that I would not have in America.

I anticipated a few challenges going into my internships: most notably the language barrier. Although I have been studying Japanese since the start of high school, I often stop myself from speaking unless I know what I’m going to say sounds perfect. I often found myself refraining from conversation even in the classroom. I was also worried about my gender. I understand that not everyone will recognize my identity as a nonbinary person. Though there isn’t often a need for pronouns in Japanese, I was still worried that every time I was referred to I would be thought of as a girl/woman. It is a tiring experience to constantly be on edge about my identity and wondering what these people would think of me if they knew who I really am. All of these worries color the experiences that I will now describe in this ICRP.

In the beginning of January I began working at a roastery in Hikone named Shiga Coffee Corporation (SCC) and a cafe in Nagahama named ‘Takachiho’. SCC focuses primarily on selling coffee beans and offers a much larger variety of blends and beans to pick from than Takachiho. SCC provides around 33 different blends to choose from, while Takachiho has about 12. Both SCC and Takachiho purchased raw beans from an intermediate business in Japan, but I did not learn the name of the business.

I was only able to visit SCC three times and all three times were on Saturdays (their busiest day according to the owner). SCC is a small establishment located on Bell Road in Hikone. All of their equipment and product is located in the same narrow room, with their roasted beans kept separate from raw beans. Their roaster was located at the back of the room behind the cash register and checkout counter. Their grinder, scale, and vacuum sealer were all on the same small counter space. The first time I visited, they boasted proudly that everyone who worked there is a woman. They hoped that this would make me more comfortable working there – and it did, because in such a narrow space we often had to squeeze past each other to get what we needed.

SCC did not have a steady stream of customers but people came in frequently. Customers ranged from people in their twenties, to families, to elderly people. I served complimentary cups of coffee to customers as they looked over the blends available to choose from. If the customers came in with children, we would ask if it was ok to give them candy and act accordingly. I also helped the staff mix blends, bag blends, grind beans, and seal coffee for customers. I watched the roasting process but I did not have the opportunity to roast beans myself.

Most customers were confused by my presence in the cafe. They would ask my supervisors why I was there instead of them, often because they were unsure of whether or not I could speak Japanese. My reasons for wanting to observe how a cafe worked firsthand in Japan seemed to perplex a lot of people; many said they were unsure of why I was interested in opening my own cafe, or at least why I chose to observe one in Japan. Unfortunately my limited understanding of Japanese prevented me from having a full conversation with them where we could come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives. Regardless, they were all very encouraging.

Customers always seemed willing to have a little bit of conversation with the person behind the register before they ordered. They would sip their coffee and have small talk before saying which blend they wanted, how much they wanted in grams, and whether they wanted it as a whole bean or already ground. Then it was up to the other staff to bag and seal the blend. I was surprised at how infrequently the staff at SCC washed their hands. My first day there, they asked me to mix up a blend, and I was instructed to do it just with my bare hand and forearm. I washed and dried my hand and forearm prior to sticking it into the bin, but I was still a little uneasy at the idea of using my bare skin to mix it together. This was one of the hygienic standards that would have been taken much more seriously in America.

In addition to this, SCC was connected directly to the owner’s home by an open doorway. The cafe lead into a small office space, which then lead to the rest of the home. On occasion the owner’s dog would peak her head through the office’s doorway. Although the dog never appeared when customers were around, I was still surprised she was even allowed to come near where the beans were roasted and mixed. In America the presence of a house dog in an establishment that handles food would have been off putting to most customers.

In between customers, we would all drink coffee together. We kept our cups of coffee behind a small refrigerator in the corner of the room. I’m not sure if it was because I was a temporary person in their lives, but the staff at both SCC and Takachiho were very kind when it came to how I drank my coffee. Drinking coffee with my family in America, I feel like I can do anything to it and not be judged. But at work and among coffee connoisseurs in America, I often felt as though I was being judged for putting cream or sugar in my coffee. In my opinion, part of the pleasure of drinking coffee is being able to have it as sweet or creamy as I want on any particular day. They also asked me how I make coffee in America. I explained that at work, I mostly made lattes using an espresso machine and that I didn’t get to see the coffee roasting process firsthand. We all agreed that my job is a lot different from working at an independent coffee shop and is more like working at a chain like Starbucks. They asked if I knew how to make latte art and if I could send them pictures later.

Takachiho is a larger cafe than SCC with a separate room for their roaster. They have a serving space that is filled with tables for groups of two or more and a counter for individual customers. However, since Takachiho is so sparsely visited, they often let people sit wherever they want. Most of the shop’s regular customers are elderly individuals.

Takachiho focuses jointly on serving a few coffee-based beverages, some deserts, and roasting beans for their blends. The most popular dessert on Takachiho’s menu is their cheesecake. Yukako-san makes it from scratch in their home’s kitchen. Once again I was surprised at the relaxed nature of hygienic standards in Japan. When we made the cheesecake we made sure to wash our hands and used clean equipment, but it still surprises me that businesses can basically be run out of the home. I guess it is not so weird when you consider the amount of baked goods that are produced out of homes in any given country, but I still found it a little unsettling. Regardless, their cheesecake was delicious every time I had the chance to eat it.

Takachiho attracts mostly tourists or elderly people from the area who come for a cup of coffee, a slice of cheesecake, and some conversation. While I was taking Japanese language classes before having chosen my ICRP project, my teacher lead me to believe that I would need to use keigo (formal Japanese) the whole time I was at work. However, at Takachiho, I was teased more often than not for only understanding formal Japanese. It seemed the elderly people who came for conversation simply wanted to talk at a casual level, and didn’t enjoy being spoken to in keigo aside from the phrases いらしゃいませ (irasshaimase, “welcome”)、少々お待ちください (shoushou omachi kudasai, “please wait a moment”), and お待た制しました (omatase shimashita, “thank you for waiting”).

I learned a lot more of the normal everyday functions of owning a cafe at Takachiho. My first day, Akira-san and Yukako-san showed me all the beans they purchased to roast and all the blends they made from those beans. I had never thought about the things they asked me to observe: comparing the size and smell of the beans pre and post roast, and then after a few days listening to the sound of the beans in the roaster to know when they were ready. Before working in Japan I had never taken the time to consider the way the beans features changed pre- and post-roast. My love for coffee was connected to my family and less to the practice of how it was made.

Before working at Takachiho I was aware of the basic idea that freshly ground coffee beans make better coffee. At Takachiho the beans for every cup of coffee served were ground when the customer ordered. Every time I worked there, I shared a cup of coffee with Yukako-san; since I was so anxious all the time, it was her way of helping me relax. Where it felt pretentious to drink this kind of coffee in America, in Japan it felt more like sharing an intimate moment with someone; it felt like being with family again.

Whenever Yukako-san and I drank coffee, she asked me to make it. I thought I was familiar with how to make coffee by hand, but it seems that Takachiho had a very specific way of hand pouring coffee. The process is a bit a long, but the most notable difference is the way we pour the water into the grounds. Where I poured in large circles, making sure to wet all the grounds every time, Yukako-san and Akira-san asked that I pour in small circular motions in the center of the filter. Although I felt this would create a watered down flavor, I chose to trust them since I had been using pre-ground and pre-packaged coffees before working at Takachiho. I think using freshly roasted and ground beans made the flavor stronger, and pouring in a smaller area probably did little to dilute the flavor of the coffee.

I think because of our different pouring styles, they didn’t have me make coffee for customers as frequently as they wanted to. I think my air of confusion and anxiety about Japanese language also lead them to believe that I did not want to make coffee for customers, when that was what I wanted to do most. Most of the time when customers came in I served them water and took their order, rather than making their coffee. Although this was more nerve-racking, it allowed me better use of the language than just pouring coffee would have.

Like SCC, Takachiho was directly adjacent to Yukako-san and Akira-san’s home. Yukako-san’s mother also operated and lived behind a clothing store that was the building next door to Takachiho. I did not have the language skills to ask, but I wondered if they owned the buildings. I also wondered how they kept their business open with so few customers. Even if I did know how to ask, I do not think I would have. It seems like too invasive a question. Most of the time I talked to them about their customers to avoid getting into stuff that was too personal.

The customers at Takachiho also seemed very curious about me being there. Towards the end of my time at Takachiho, a disabled woman and her living assistant came in a couple times. Both times, the living assistant asked me to serve the woman her drinks. Both times, the living assistant took a picture of me helping them out. It felt a little awkward, but I was glad that they both seemed happy with the experience.

In between awkward customer interactions and roasting coffee beans there was a lot of free time. To make the days less monotonous, Yukako-san often took me outside of the cafe to help with Takachiho’s errands. We took trips to the bank and the post office where Yukako-san would ask me to handle the transaction (and where I would refuse, because I was not going to be responsible for a small business losing something important). There were occasions we went out just to have fun. I’m unsure what the event was for, but on one day we went to a local shrine where people threw mochi into an eager crowd from a raised platform. The group was made of lots of elderly people and I was afraid that I might be too rough if I really tried to catch the mochi. However I soon found myself pushed to the back of the crowd by their eagerness to catch the mochi for themselves. I did not catch any with myself, but while we were returning New Year’s decorations to the shrine another local business owner approached Yukako-san. After explaining that I was unable to catch any mochi, he kindly gave us two pieces that he had been able to grab. A few weeks later, the same man came in for a cup of coffee. I was happy to serve him; I felt like I had become part of the community in a noninvasive way.

This marked the beginning of a series of gifts from customers that I was surprised to receive. Another old man gave me several booklets of his art; they were not the originals, but even so, I felt that I did not deserve the free copies of his art. He asked me to take them to my school in Michigan to share them. He did drawings in pen of landmarks in Shiga, including a picture of Lake Biwa and JCMU beside it. Another old man gave me a bag of food and Pocari Sweat powder because we had a conversation wherein I told him that I had only strawberries and juice for dinner.

I found working at both coffee shops to be fulfilling and fun. My time at SCC and Takachiho allowed me to learn the perspective of a small business owner in Japan. Similar to American small businesses, the success of a small business in Japan relies on having a good reputation and a supportive community. Without a reliable community frequenting the establishments, SCC and Takachiho wouldn’t be successful. Realistically it’s hard to find such a supportive community in the U.S. – or at least in Chicago, where I see myself living in the future. Takachiho’s and SCC’s reliable customer base seemed too small to be able to support either of the businesses, which leads me to believe that it’s easier to keep small business going in Japan.

I hoped that the coffee shops I worked at would be central pillars of the communities they were situated in. Although they may not be missed by the whole community if they were gone, SCC and Takachiho provided spaces for the people in their communities to come and chat about their lives in a relaxed environment. At Takachiho, locals have the chance to stop by and check in with the couple at work there. At SCC, families grow while enjoying the quality product that SCC has to offer.

Takachiho and SCC helped me create the connections I was missing. I became a part of their communities in a way that I thought was both unobtrusive and helpful to the community. I intend to keep in contact with both shops and I hope that I can return one day better able to communicate with them. I have a better understanding of what it would take to open and run a cafe on my own, and it doesn’t seem like so vast a task anymore. Even if it’s hard, I know that the staff at SCC and Takachiho will be supporting me from afar.

How I Survived JCMU’s Intensive Language Program (and how you can, too)

I was not prepared for how intense the JCMU Summer Intensive Language program would be. And you know what: I think a lot of the fault lies with my own misconceptions of what my life in Hikone would be like.

It’s not like JCMU didn’t try and warn me. I mean, “intensive” is literally in the program name. At pre-departure orientation, it was clearly explained to me that I would take 4 hours of class a day and could expect to do another 3-6 additional hours of homework and studying thereafter. Meeting with the instructors the day before my first class, we were told that due how quickly we would be moving through coursework, we have to really stay on top of our studies lest we rapidly fall behind.

Biking around Hikone before class starts

Despite their best efforts, I opted to replace their caution with my own unrealistically optimistic expectations: “Surely it won’t be that hard,” “They’re just trying to scare us,” and so on. So I waltzed into my 4th-year classroom the first day excited to do a few hours of work then be off to explore the rest of the day.

If you’ve ever been on an intensive JCMU language program, you may have come into the program underestimating it too. So you likely know how it felt when expectations and reality finally collided.

Classes were difficult that first day – I felt like I learned a lot, but it took all of my energy to keep up and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. However, the real “star” of the day came afterwards: the homework. With my Japanese classes at Michigan State, it wasn’t too hard to spend just an hour or so studying after class and feeling confident in the material discussed that day. At JCMU, it really did take the 3-6 hours the staff were warning me for.

JCMU summer 2014 – 4th year class

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all, though, was learning how to cope with this new academic reality. On campus, I always felt like if I studied the textbooks long enough, I would be absolutely prepared for class. I was so used to reaching a point in my studies where everything clicked, a sort-of “aha!” moment where darnit, this ~ている form actually makes total sense. However, try as I might, I never really got to that point in my studies at JCMU – especially at first. You see, the first night after classes at JCMU, I studied from the end of class till 2 in the morning, all without taking a break to eat or relax. Sure, the first few hours were pretty productive, but the sheer amount of content combined with my overworked brain prevented me from feeling like I could get a complete grasp on what I was learning just in one sitting. But I refused to accept this, so I continued studying in vein till the wee hours of the morning hoping to finally have it all click.

Unsurprisingly, there was no such moment. I kept up this pattern of death-by-overstudying for the next week, desperate for everything to start making sense. Despite my efforts, my JCMU teachers and I both noticed something peculiar: even as I studied by far the most time out of everyone, my grades were actually getting worse. I was a 4.0 student through my first 3 years of college, yet here I was scraping by with a 2.0 thus far. I was so stressed out by my falling grades I actually sent the Program Coordinator at JCMU’s East Lansing office a frantic message asking them about what in the world they thought I should do to magically increase my grades (now working full-time in the East Lansing office myself, the two of us get a chuckle about this every now and then).

One of my instructors, Kamiya-sensei, was very concerned that I came to class increasingly despondent from studying past midnight every night. After seeing it wasn’t producing the results I was hoping for, Kamiya-sensei decided it was time to sit down and talk with me about it around the end of the second week of class. She spoke with me about what my typical day looked like, my concerns about the course content, and my own emotions regarding the program.

Kamiya-sensei told me three things that immediately and positively impacted my time in Japan:

  1. You’re in Japan for a reason! Go out, practice using the language in day-to-day conversations, experience the culture and society you read about in the textbooks, and have fun while doing it.
  2. You should of course study, do your homework, and prepare for the next day’s coursework. However, there’s a difference between positive and futile study tactics. Your brain needs rest in order to work properly – takes breaks between study sessions to give your brain more time to recuperate.
  3. There are more ways to study than just from a book. Work together with your classmates and ask for their input. You can even reach out to JCMU’s English Language Program students and help each other out with each others’ language work.

Hearing a professor tell me I had to be more flexible with my study habits was something I really needed to hear.

Finally visiting Hikone Castle

I followed Kamiya-sensei‘s advice as best I could: I still studied 3-6 hours a day, but gone were the days of studying past midnight. I worked closely with my classmates, including the Japanese students studying English at JCMU. And above all, I made sure to dedicate at least some time to going out into the Hikone/Shiga community, learning more about my temporary life abroad. Low and behold, my experience became much better thereafter! I was enjoying my time exploring the area, I gained a group of really close friends, and my grades even improved to a 3.0 overall.

Not considering exactly what the intensive nature of JCMU would mean for me before the program definitely made me think more negatively about the experience at first. However, this wasn’t JCMU’s fault, but my own for trying to treat study abroad like any other on-campus class. After readjusting my thinking though, I really felt like I was making great strides with my studies – and having fun while doing it!

To current and future students traveling to Hikone: JCMU is a difficult academic experience. However, it’s so much more than just the classwork! Make sure to do your homework and prepare for tests, but also practice Japanese at the grocery store, explore the historic sites in Shiga (and elsewhere in Japan), and hang out with your friends – both classmates and Japanese students. Your experience (and maybe even your grades!) will be better for it.

Sticking Out, Together

To celebrate the diversity of our JCMU community, we are featuring stories from students and alumni that self-identify as a person of color. If you have your own story you would like to tell for this campaign, then contact us at media@jcmu.org.


Hello, my name is Val Norman. I participated in the JCMU program in spring of 2012. I took the accelerated course for Business Communications in Japan so I stayed in the dorms in Hikone for less than three weeks, but that was plenty of time for a crash course in living and conducting business within the social guidelines and norms of the Japanese culture.

Trip to Hikone Castle

My concerns prior to my study abroad were not related to color. Japan was the first country I had visited other than Canada. The language barrier and self-government made me anxious, but meeting with my future classmates ahead of time in Michigan built the foundation for friendships I still have and cherish today. I also learned that some of my classmates spoke fluent Japanese while others were in the same boat as me. This greatly eased my worries.

The program was phenomenal! We visited other cities like Kyoto and Osaka. We visited temples and gardens. We met with actual Japanese companies like Brother and Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. In our down time, we bonded by venturing out to karaoke and the izakaya.

Totoro, Totoro~

I never felt my color was a factor. If anything, my citizenship as an American was the only thing that made me feel like an outsider. Knowing zero Japanese, I quickly picked up on several words and “foreigner” was at the top of list. Japanese people saw me as American, not black. White, black, Asian; we all were foreigners who stuck out like sore thumbs.

The experience made us a tight knit group and humbled me immensely. I have so much more compassion for the struggle of “foreigners” in the States now and I almost view it as an ugly label. With all of that being said, there were also many people who showed me great kindness and patience as I struggled to speak bad Japanese. Most locals were friendly and welcoming. Every experience I had in and outside the classroom was educational.

I met so many amazing people on the program

To people of color considering a study abroad, I say “DO IT!!” You will not regret all of the incredible things you gain getting out of your comfort zone.

The passive voice was taught (by a blog)

The first time I started struggling with Japanese was in my second year when we started learning more complicated grammar structures: particularly the passive and causative forms. I even had the perspective of a linguist and I still struggled, so I thought I would try and offer some insight.

I think one of the things that makes grammatical forms like the passive voice and causative form difficult is that there is a conception that there is no real English equivalent. That is far from the truth. You might not realize it, but the passive voice is common in English. Before I try to explain Japanese passives, let me walk you through English passives.

So, what exactly is passive voice? Or ‘voice’ in sentences in general? Think of it as a way of framing a scene. I can say in active voice: “The dog chased the child”, and that same sentence in a passive voice: “the child was chased by the dog”. These two sentences are saying the same thing. The difference is in the subject and object of a sentence.

Great, so what’s a subject and what’s an object? Well, in English, the subject is usually before the verb, and it is the agent. That is to say, the thing that is doing something. The object on the other hand is usually after the verb, and is the experiencer or theme, or the one that the agent is affecting.

Looking at our sentence in the active voice before:

The dog chased the girl

“The dog” is before the verb and is the one doing the chasing. It definitely fits the role of subject. Meanwhile “the girl” is after the verb, and is the theme of the action of being chased. In other words, it’s the object. But something changes in the passive voice:

The girl was chased by the dog

Notice the object of the active voice, “the girl”, is now before the verb – that is to say, it’s in subject position. Meanwhile, the subject of the active voice, “the dog”, is now after the verb in object position. However, “the girl” is not the agent of the verb chase. “The girl” is not doing the chasing, she is being chased. Similarly, “the dog” is not the theme of the chasing, the dog is still the agent of chase.

This interaction of word position, whether its before the verb or after (called syntactic position) and the role of word, whether its an agent or theme (called theta roles) is the essence of the passive voice.

The passive voice promotes the noun in object position to subject position, and demotes the noun that was originally in subject position. This changes the syntactic position of these nouns (‘the girl’ is now before the verb, for example). The passive voice does not change the theta roles of these nouns. No matter what happens, ‘the dog’ is still the agent of ‘chase’.

So now we have a basis of what the passive voice is in English and what it does. What about in Japanese.? To explain that, I’m going once again start with the active voice. (We are going to ignore the difference between “wa” and “ga” for this exercise, because while there are differences in meaning, it doesn’t have much bearing on structure of the passive voice.)

犬   が      子供       を   追いかけ た
inu ga      kodomo   o     oikake    -ta
dog SUB child       OBJ   chase     -PAST
“The dog chased the child”

Above we have our sentence in active voice… with a lot of stuff under it. The first two lines are the Japanese, the bottom line is the English translation, but it’s the third line that gives us the tools we need to discuss the passive. In it is the linguistic function of each word. Some are fairly standard: “inu” means “dog”, “kodomo” is “child”, but you might notice that there are a few strange things in line 3, namely the “SUB” and “OBJ”. Those stand for “subject (marker)” and “object (marker)”. Check out this blog to learn a little bit more about how those particles work. The important thing for our purposes is that Japanese gives us a convenient way of tracking which noun is syntactically an subject or object.

So, just like in the English active voice, “dog” is the subject (marked helpfully by “ga“) and “child” is the object (marked by “o“). The word order is a bit different in Japanese, but the subject is still first, and the object is closer to the verb. “Dog” is still the agent, and “child” is still the theme.

What happens in the passive voice then? Let’s take a look:

子供      が       犬   に       追いかけ   られ  た
kodomo ga      inu   ni       oikake      -rare    -ta
child      SUB   dog  IOBJ  chase        -PASS  -PAST
“The child was chased by the dog”

Notice that the syntactic subject (still marked by “ga“) is now “child” instead of dog. The object was promoted to subject position by the passive. In the same way, “dog” was demoted to object (marked by an indirect object marker, which can be treated just like normal OBJ in this case). Just like in English though, “the dog” is still the chaser, and “the child” is still the chase-ee.

So, for the most part, the passive voice behaves similarly in both English and Japanese. Why does it feel so much harder in Japanese then?

To start with, no matter the similarities on a linguistic level, learning a new language is hard. But, to offer comfort as you struggle with your Japanese homework, the Japanese passive does have a feature that English doesn’t worry about: the particles.

In English, the only real thing that distinguishes the subject and object is its position in the sentence – not so in Japanese. Subjects and objects have different particles connected to them, and when the subject or object gets changed by something like passive form, those particles have to change too. It’s just another thing to keep track of in learning the more nuanced parts of Japanese.

I might not be able to magically make Japanese easy to learn, but I hope this at least helped you understand a little more about the pieces you are working with. Don’t give up, you’ll be an expert in no time!

Escaping My Comfort Zone

To celebrate the diversity of our JCMU community, we are featuring stories from students and alumni that self-identify as a person of color. If you have your own story you would like to tell for this campaign, then contact us at media@jcmu.org.


Hello, my name is DaJanea McBryde. I went to JCMU in 2007 as a May short program and a Summer Intensive Language student (where I completed level 3). My time in Hikone was very positive. I always tell everyone that the 3 months I spent in Japan changed me as a person for the better. 

Visiting the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto

I first heard about JCMU from my high school Japanese teacher. She studied there when she was in college in the 90s. Then when I went to Eastern Michigan University, and everyone in all of my Japanese classes were either talking about going or had already went. At the time, I was an International Business major and one of the requirements of the major was to do a study aboard, so it just made sense to go to Japan.

There were other black students at the school the same time I was there and I never felt unwelcome or out of place. I made a lot of life long friends who I talk to to this day.


When traveling around the country, I was definitely stared at by the Japanese people. But I never felt unsafe or threatened. I just figured it was because I was probably the first black person any of them had ever seen in person. Also, on the train, older people would move seats if I sat next to them but younger people would sit next to me and sometime talk to me (usually in English because they wanted to practice). However, my white friends also experienced this as well. Honestly, Japan is probably the only place I’ve traveled to where I felt completely safe to go out on my own.

My most interesting experience being a black person in Japan was when we did the elementary school visit. The kids were so amazing and so excited to meet us. During the free time when we got to play with the children, one of the children asked my friend who is also black, if his skin color rubbed off! Children (these were 1st and 2nd graders) at that age are so innocent and honest we weren’t offended by the question. It actually made us laugh.

DaJanea (JCMU 2007) - Tanabata (2)
Tanabata festival activities

To other minority students: one of the greatest things you can do for yourself is to step outside your comfort zone. You may be the only one of your “kind” in Japan but in my experience, you learn so much about yourself by living in another country. I was very insecure and shy before I went to Japan but I knew that if I really wanted to get the most out of my time there, I had to be more open and put myself out there. When I look back on my time in Hikone, I always look at myself as who I was before I went and who I am today and I am a much more confident woman now thanks to JCMU.