Are you interested in getting involved in some traditional Japanese arts or other cultural pursuits? Below is some information from current and former Saga JETs about the types of activities they are/have been involved in around the prefecture and how they got involved.
Remember to talk to your predecessor, supervisor, or JTEs about any groups or activities that you’re interested in and they can help point you in the right direction. There are plenty of things out there, so start exploring!
Japanese Language Classes
Several organizations offer very cheap Japanese language classes that meet weekly or monthly. For help in locating your local class, contact SPIRA or visit here:
Nishi-Karatsu Taiko Team
This team has adult, elementary school, and junior high school+ classes in Karatsu City. The adult class is held every Monday evening in the recording studio at Nishi-Karatsu JHS. The taiko leader is the local butcher, Murasaki Sensei, a very patient and encouraging teacher. If anyone has a hard time with a rhythm, he will help them practice it until they are 100% confident with it. He doesn’t speak English, but he makes the classes very easy to understand and makes an effort to welcome new members.
The adult class focuses on three main scores that they then perform at festivals, enkais, and even weddings. The adults don’t usually enter competitions so there is no pressure to be perfect or to attend every class if something comes up. It is a great way to get involved in a traditional part of Japanese culture with a group of fun people who, after a few gyoza parties and silly posing in front of the studio mirror, will make you feel part of a family.
- Where: Nishi-Karatsu Junior High School
- When: Mondays 8-9:30pm
Fukudomi-daiko is a fun group that operates in Fukudomi, in Shiroishi Town. The leader, Mori-san, is energetic and fun, and always wants new people (especially foreigners) to come and enjoy playing the drums, without necessarily expecting or requiring a strong commitment. The group has about 40 members in total, of which a large proportion are elementary school students. The group has different ‘squads’ (ES students, a core team, older female group) who perform at different events around the prefecture, from local festivals to competitive events. This group has also been asked to perform for the past few years at the Saga JET Welcome Orientation dinner and the Saga Charity Christmas Party.
Learning and playing taiko with the group takes place in a fun and relaxed environment, although the performances can be a little nerve-wracking if you are not 100% confident of the song/routine! It is also quite good exercise/muscle-toning. Mori-san only speaks Japanese but is happy to try and communicate using broken English and gestures. If you want to try out taiko and don’t necessarily want to feel obligated to attend every week, this might be the group for you!
- Where: Fukudomi Yuuaikan
- When: Every Monday and Thursday 8-10pm
- Get involved: Penny Fox (Saga ALT 2009-2014)
Each year the International House at Saga University offers an introductory Ikebana (flower arrangement) class during May, June, and July. A new style and technique of arranging flowers is introduced in each class. The lessons are run in Japanese, although with some English and just following diagrams and examples it’s possible to do with minimal Japanese (some of the exchange students from the University can speak fairly good English as well and may be willing to help). After each class you get to keep the flowers you used, making for a brighter and more scented apartment for the next week. It’s a great chance to practice your Japanese with many lovely older ladies willing to help you learn a traditional Japanese art.
- Where: International House, Saga University, Saga City
- When: Mondays 6-7:30 pm (10 week course starting in May)
- Cost: A small sign-up fee, and 600 yen each class to pay for the flowers.
- Contact: SPIRA, or the language course classes in Saga City
Kashima Shamisen Class “Mitsushoukai” (鹿島市の三味線教室「光梢会) is a group that meets on the first and third Fridays of every month, though times may be subject to change depending on student availability. The class takes place at Able (エイブル), a lifelong-learning center located above the Kashima City Public Library, centrally located next to the town hall. Taught by Koizumi-sensei, the class offers instruction in the basics of shamisen playing and group performance. The style of shamisen taught and practiced tends to be traditional minyou (民謡) songs played together. Though the style taught and practiced in the class is not as fast as the famous tsugaru shamisen, the music is connected with the history and culture of both Kashima and Japan at large.
For newcomers, another teacher or student available usually helps with basic instruction, though Koizumi-sensei’s modus operandi is to have newbies learn “on the fly” by playing together with everyone. Previously, the students were primarily made up of primarily older men and women, but recently younger Japanese men and women and some non-Japanese students have joined their ranks (including some elementary school children). Currently, the class numbers between 4 and 8 on any practice, and the class is quite intimate. Outside of practice, the class often has performances around Saga to spread the shamisen love in such places as summer festivals and senior citizen homes. For these events, Koizumi-sensei finds kimono or yukata for all the members (if they don’t have their own).
- Where: Kashima Lifelong-learning Center “Able” (鹿島市生涯学習センター), 2nd floor Japanese-style room (２階の和室）
- When: The first and third fridays of Every month from 8 to 9.
- Cost: ¥2000 per month, with rental shamisens available (or for borrowing in limited quantity).
- Contact: Call Able for Koizumi-sensei’s contact details or ask Tyler Kasindorf-Mantaring (Kashima ALT, 080-6428-1405).
Karaoke is a huge part of Japanese modern culture and whether you live in a big city or a rural area there will more likely than not be karaoke bar open for business. Exercising your vocal cords is also a great way to socialize with coworkers and get to know locals.
You can try your hand in a more public setting at a bar or opt for a private booth. The main feature of karaoke places with private booths are the nomihoudai (all you can drink) rates. You can choose how long you would like the nomihoudai rates to be for to suit your drinking needs (and wallet). Some places even provide complimentary ice cream and costumes! English song menus are also available everywhere but be sure to give yourself a try with Saga’s own song! Some famous karaoke chains found in most cities include:
- Big Echo: A bit more on the pricey side but offer swanky booths and high tech
- Manekeneko: You need a members card (it’s free and relatively simple to join) but the prices for hourly rates as well as nomihoudai are really cheap.
Also, if you are stuck in the somewhere with no where to stay the night, karaoke booths are a good way to catch some shut eye without breaking the bank.
Koto, Kimono, Okinawan Sanshin
Okamura-san and Izumi-san are a mother-daughter pair that teach koto in private lessons from their home near Takeo-Onsen Station. The koto, the Japanese version of a harp, is carved from a tree trunk and has 13 strings which are plucked with picks that fit on the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Okamura-san and Izumi-san have weekly lessons and around two or three concerts a year.
Izumi-san can also teach the sanshin (the Okinawan version of the shamisen), and Okamura-san runs kimono-lessons on an as-needed basis, occasionally dressing people for special occasions. If anyone wants to experience koto, kimono, and tea ceremony, they also offer a one time cultural experience class.
- Where: Takeo Town, Takeo City, private home
- Regular lessons: One hour per week, usually on weekends or by appointment.
- Cultural Experience Class: As requested.
- Contacts: Izumi-san can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and speaks English, Japanese, and some Korean.
Run by Yamashita-sensei in Karatsu City, she is literally one of the best calligraphers in Japan. Don’t worry if you’ve never done calligraphy before as she starts you off by showing you the ‘ropes’ of traditional Japanese calligraphy, clear brush strokes and solid, proportioned kanji. After a while you can level up to more stylised forms where you can develop as an artistic calligrapher.
Every month there is a new set of four kanji to practice and submit to a team of national judges, who assess your progress and choose whether or not to move you up a level. You start on level 10, moving to level 1, from where you can go to preparatory ‘Dan’ and then you become a ‘black belt’, after which there’s a different grading system. It really is a great class and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can improve.
Historically she has a special class for foreign students, because they get a special deal which involves a meal after class. Sensei’s daughter cooks the delicious meal, and then you all sit and have a laugh, getting great Japanese language practice (but don’t worry—they both speak plenty of English!) and often a culturally-informative discussion.
- Fee: Lessons are ¥5000 a month (which includes the delicious meal) and there’s an initial start-up cost of a few extra thousand yen because you have to buy your materials.
- Where: Karatsu City, also other places around Saga.
Wado Ryu Karate: Koga Dojo
Whether you are a hard core karateka in waiting or would like to just learn some cool moves and get into some semblance of shape, the Koga Karate Dojo has something for everyone. The Dojo feels like one big family and is home to many kids, adults, and older folk. There are several tournaments throughout the year for kids and two main local tournaments for karateka of all ages.
At the dojo there is an emphasis on mastering the basics which including proper stance, balance, punching and kicking. In practice you will not only learn the basics but also learn kata (forms), practice sparring and, occasionally, learn some grappling and escape moves. This style of karate is essentially non-contact, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get punched in the face or take a good one to the abdominals if you are not paying attention. Emphasis is placed mostly on technique and proper use of force and control.
The dojo leader, Daiji sensei, does a great job of not only explaining, but showing what you’re supposed to do. Practices are every day and usually last 1 1/2 to 3 hrs. You’re allowed to attend as many classes per week as your body can handle.
Beyond the rumble and tumble of practices there are various barbeques, enkai, and training events that you can be a part of. The practice is conducted in mostly Japanese, but is very repetitive so after a few practices you’ll be able to keep up like a genki shougakusei. Also, there are a few English speaking members and Daiji sensei himself can speak decent English. I definitely recommend trying it out. It is a stress free environment and you won’t be asked to more than you can.
- Where: Near S-Platz (Saga City)
- Website (Japanese only)
- Leader: Koga Daiji sensei (please refer to him as Daiji sensei).
- Hours: M – F 5:00-7:30 (Mixed Class), Tu, F 8:30-10 :00 (Adult Class), W 8:-00- 10:00 (Sparring Class), Sat. 2:00 – 5:00 (Mixed Class), Sun. 10:00 -12:00 (Mixed Class). No classes on holidays and some other days. Times may change based on the season. There is a monthly schedule that is given out every month.
- Fee: ¥6500 month (Plus start-up fees: Registration, Insurance, Uniform, etc), ¥1500 month (during months when you are unable to attend, e.g. if you become injured).
Saga is home to several Kyokushin Karate dojos scattered across the major towns and cities. Kyokushin is a no-nonsense, full contact style of Karate that emphasizes the practical applications of fighting techniques. It is a style that might be familiar to those with an interest in K1 or UFC, as it has produced some of the top fighters in the MMA circuit. Training in Kyokushin has a root in the fundamentals common to many styles of Karate, but focuses on more modern training methods, such as bag work and sparring. Despite it’s fearsome reputation in the martial arts world, Kyokushin dojo’s (especially the ones’ in Saga prefecture) are very welcoming of complete beginners.
On top of learning a practical and effective style of self-defence, joining a dojo is a great way to experience the martial arts culture of Japan and expose yourself to aspects of the Japanese language that you might not encounter in a school setting. Each session gives an intense cardiovascular workout as well as exercises focusing on developing strength and technique, so it’s a great way to get in shape fast. There are full contact tournaments held every two or three months, so if you want to throw your hat into the ring there’s always a chance around the corner.
Even if you have no experience with martial arts you can get an understanding of what to do without having to go through a Japanese textbook. There are Kyokushin dojos worldwide, so you can continue your training after your time on JET.
- Where: Various dojos are available across Saga Prefecture.
- When: Varies, but generally Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 7-9pm.
- Fee: ¥7000/month, plus start-up fees (registration, uniform, gloves etc). The first month is always free (so that you can get a feel for it).
- Get Involved: Simply turn up at your local dojo! For assistance in finding your local dojo, you can contact Scott Hastings (Takeo City ALT and DR), who trains at the Saga Kyokushin branch.
Though not as popular abroad as Karate, “The Way of the Sword” is certainly alive and well in Japan and our own Saga prefecture, especially with Junior High and Senior High school students. You can find Kendo dojo’s almost anywhere, with the most likely places being schools and police stations (as the police in Japan are required to undertake Kendo training).
Unlike Karate which has changed with the times, Kendo has maintained it’s traditions throughout the centuries, and thus is a fantastic way to experience a fundamental element of Japanese culture. So whether you aspire to become a dashing swordsman, or simply wish to wear the awesome armour for a time, Kendo is definitely worth a try. Practicing Kendo at your school is also a great way to befriend your students and get to know them better!
Like Karate, Kendo places large emphasis on learning the basics, which encompasses form (kata), movement (idou) and sparring (kumite) drills, with more free-form sparring towards the end of the session for the more experienced members. The great thing about Kendo is that you don’t have to be physically strong to be an excellent Kendo-ka; like European fencing, it places emphasis on speed and form over strength. As a result, Kendo is not overtly physically demanding, but it is a very precise martial art involving strict training. Despite this, Kendo dojo’s are generally welcoming places and dojo masters are understanding of the difficulties inherent to Kendo.
Unless your Junior High/Senior High Kendo members/teachers speak English, some Japanese ability is required.
- Where: Various school gyms (Elementary, Junior high and Senior High), police stations and independent dojo’s across the prefecture (generally every town will have a Kendo dojo nearby). If you are an ALT, simply ask someone at your school if you can participate. You can ask at your local Koban (police box) about other Kendo dojo’s around the prefecture.
- When: Varies depending on the dojo type/location. If it’s a school, practice starts when club activities begin. Adult dojo’s will most likely start from 6 or 7pm, with a session lasting 1 and a half – 2 hours.
- Fee: Varies depending on the dojo type. In most cases, a school that you teach at will let you participate for free. School’s and sometimes independent dojo’s will have equipment for you to borrow. When buying your own gear, Shinai (bamboo training sword) are fairly cheap, but if you want to have your own armour instead of borrowing some, it can get very pricey, very quickly, with new armour typically costing ¥70,000 upwards.
International Cooking Classes
Saga City has good number of foreign residents coming and going at any given time. Many of these residents and students choose to get involved in the community and give back by volunteering and sharing their culture with their Japanese neighbors and one of the most popular types of events is a Cooking Class.
Many of these events are held by the Saga City International Relations Association. Each year the events are different but previous year’s events have included: Japanese (cuisine for Setsubun), Korean, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese, and Portuguese cooking classes, and also classes about popular American sandwiches, Hannukah and a Philly Cheese Steak class.
The Saga City CIR is usually very involved with the cooking classes, and will both spread the word about upcoming classes, create English materials and recipe books for the participants, and participate themselves to help things go smoothly. In addition the CIR usually hosts a cooking class or two themselves, and usually opens it up to the JET community.
- For more information see the Saga City International Relations website or get in touch with the Saga City CIR!
According to the All Nippon Kyudo Federation, Kyudo (Japanese archery) “is a traditional discipline that uses the Japanese bow for both recreation and sport as well as the training of body and mind.” Kyudo is not only fun, but also a good way to relax your mind after a long day at work.
The Arita Kyudojo is small and pretty laid back, and everyone comes and trains as they like. There are also many opportunities to take part in local competitions around Saga Prefecture.
There are two very nice and patient teachers (both women). Practices are once a week, unless there is an upcoming competition or Kyudo examination (Shinsa), in which case there are weekend afternoon practices.
Kyudo equipment is very expensive (especially the bow), but you don’t have to worry about that at the beginning, as you can borrow everything from the Arita Kyudojo (and then buy your own stuff later if you want to).
- Where: Arita Kyudojo (a 10 min. walk from Kami-Arita Station)
- When: Every Wednesday, 6-7 pm; occasionally on Saturdays, 2-4 pm