Looking for a way to get out into the community? Considering how small the foreign population is in Japan, it is surprisingly easy for us to spend almost all of our time with our foreign friends. JET is a great community, but sometimes it’s almost too good! One of the best and most rewarding parts of working and living in Japan is the opportunity to meet new people and learn about a different culture.
I am also guilty about forgetting the “Exchange” part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. In order to force myself to expand my comfort zone, I intentionally carve some time out to do things in the community every once in a while. Some of my best memories so far have been my interaction with locals as part of the community, rather than simply a “foreign teacher.”
One of the first things I did when I came to Japan over a year and a half ago was to sign up at my Working Youth Center in Aizuwakamatsu City where young adults can take classes and join clubs with other people their age in the community. Since joining, I have taken part in a Break Dancing Club, cooking, baking, jewelry-making, leather-work, and lacquer painting classes. In the next few months, I am looking forward to adding calligraphy and magic classes to my list.
Most clubs meet weekly, such as basketball, hula dancing, tea ceremony, and volleyball. If you are looking for something with less commitment, they also have short courses running once a month such as taiko, flower arrangement, yoga, how to put on a yukata, or even one-time courses including jewelry-making and leather-work classes.
During my time at the Working Youth Center, I have made a lot of friends with fellow members and staff, while definitely feeling like I am a member of the community. We converse entirely in Japanese and we get into great discussions about the similarities and differences between our cultures with everyday things, such as chatting about customary fruit and vegetable peeling habits in our countries as we peeled fruit in baking class.
Another benefit I have reaped from these classes is a new appreciation for handmade crafts. While I have always admired gorgeous handmade goods, I have always hesistated to buy them due to the hefty price tag.
After taking a lacquer-painting class where I got told – to my horror – that there are no templates for designs, and seeing the difference between my finished product and the teacher’s array of products on display, I realized the price is befitting of the time and effort these professionals have poured into their work.
My hands-on experience with one of Japan’s traditional crafts made me ashamed for not valuing the products which professionals work so hard to create. A single plate can take up to two months to make, which doesn’t include weeks to dry the paint and the decades of accumulated skill. Joining in on one of these classes is a great way to see how professionals work, and an inexpensive way to learn more about traditional Japanese crafts in a hands-on way!
If you have any interest in trying Japanese traditional crafts or joining a sports club, ask around and either find a Working Youth Center near you (勤労青少年ホーム/ kinsei shounen homu) or a community center. The membership and classes offered will depend on your location, but as a reference, Aizuwakamatsu City’s Working Youth Center costs 500 yen for membership and 500 yen for insurance per year, in addition to the cost of the course – although many courses are free. Even the courses or clubs that have a fee are generally very reasonable.
There are several Working Youth Centers around Fukushima in Aizuwakamatsu City, Fukushima City, Kitakata City, Sukagawa City and Iwaki City. Unfortunately, the websites are only in Japanese, but I encourage you to team up with someone who knows Japanese and jump into a class or two!