Kyoto, Japan is a city of contrasts. The imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, it is home to the famed Gion District, the beautiful Golden Temple, and the former Imperial Palace. It is also a bustling, modern metropolis, a city that is a blend of old and new, and the perfect location to volunteer abroad.
Kyoto offers a wide variety of volunteering opportunities, catering to all talents and tastes.
NICE -- the “Neverending International work-Camps Exchange” -- is one of many NGOs in Japan that offer volunteer opportunities in a range of areas, including community support and social welfare. Connected to a range of non-government organizations, it provides placements for one to 12 months, with volunteers placed with a partner for support. There are also community development volunteer programs specifically focused in Kyoto.
Other Volunteer Opportunities
Interested in animals? You can volunteer for the Japan Cat Network. This group of volunteers work to rescue, shelter, spay and neuter, and rehome stray abandoned pets in Japan. In Kyoto, they need help developing their guest house facilities and looking after their resident kitties, preparing them to move on to loving families. If you are more of a dog person, the Japan Cat Network is also known for its care and support of abandoned dogs, also helping them to find forever homes.
If you have a passion for teaching, GoCambio offer volunteers the opportunity to stay, for free, with Japanese families, in exchange for English lessons. As well as being able to expand your own teaching skill set, the GoCambio exchange offers a meaningful (and cost effective) way to immerse yourself into Japanese culture. In exchange for sharing your language skills, you will be provided with housing and food for your stay.
Those with carpentry and building skills, or an interest or working outdoors, might like to consider volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity provides support to government and non-profit organisations following natural disasters. In Kyoto, it has previously built emergency shelters and housing, which were transferred to areas of need throughout Japan.
Short-Term Volunteer Placements
Organisations like Volunteer for Peace are able to link volunteers to short term opportunities in Kyoto with specific aims, such as renovating a tea farm or constructing emergency housing. The Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development also helps link volunteers to shorter term projects, with a focus on projects that support impoverished communities.
If you are fluent in the Japanese language or have any specific skills to share, you can also try contacting individual organizations and offering your expertise.
It can be hard to determine what type of volunteering you would like to do. To help you decide, think about the type of work that you will find most rewarding. It’s a good idea to do some research into the organization you are interested in, and read reviews from others that have volunteered previously.
Most, but not all, volunteer organizations in Kyoto will require you to speak a little Japanese. While many people in Kyoto speak English, in rural areas, this is less common. If you can’t speak any Japanese, don’t give up -- you are best to try volunteering for a large, international organization, which is more likely to have English speaking staff. If you want to learn Japanese while volunteering in Kyoto, consider enrolling in a Japanese language school during your time there.
You also need to think about how long you can commit to volunteering. Some organizations have a minimum number of days to commit to, and others are a long-term arrangement. You must also make sure that your visa will cover you for the whole period of time you are in Japan.
Lastly, there are a few practicalities you must take care of before heading overseas. Make sure your vaccinations are up to date, that you have adequate medical insurance, and that you have obtained - or applied for - the relevant travel documents required to volunteer.
Moving to Japan can be a huge culture shock, particularly if you haven’t visited the country before. While you might think you know Japanese culture, it’s quite different to live it. The Japanese are extremely polite, and there are many cultural quirks that you will experience. You would be wise to spend some time researching Japanese culture before your big move.
To make the most of your time in Kyoto, you need to be responsible, cooperative, flexible and adaptable (learn more about what makes a great volunteer). In addition, some volunteering opportunities are based in rural areas, which might make you feel isolated. If you have never traveled on your own before, look for opportunities based in Kyoto city, which are more likely to provide opportunities to interact with others and immerse yourself in the culture.
When travelling overseas, you always need to prepare for the unexpected. However, it is sensible to do some research. It’s a good idea to note down the numbers of emergency service organizations in Kyoto -- and your insurance information -- as well as carrying your medical records.
You also need to remember that you are there to help. This might mean that some of the activities you are asked to do aren’t exactly fun -- they can run from the mundane to the downright tiring. Volunteering is not a holiday. However, you need to remember that you are really making a difference. Volunteering abroad not only helps the communities that you are volunteering in, it also helps you develop your own skills.