"How was your Bon holiday?" Every other Saturday and Sunday afternoon, five men and five women gather in Nara and ask each other questions like this in English. There is one requirement for joining the lesson at S-tage hall - you have to be single.
This Konkatsu Eikaiwa class, where participants study English conversation while engaging in konkatsu marriage-hunting, was launched by Office Nowest in 2009. According to Masahito Imanishi of the Nara-based company, the class was initially held every other Saturday but there were more female applicants than expected, so it was soon expanded to every other Sunday as well.
Taking culture classes to prepare for marriage is nothing new, but more and more businesses are emphasizing lessons designed to help men and women find marriage partners. English conversation, pottery, baking bread and other subjects have become ways to catch two birds with one class.
At the Nara class, participants practice their English conversation in male-female pairs, saying things like "What kind of wedding do you want?" and "Where do you want to go for a date?"
They change conversation partners about every 10 minutes so all the participants can talk with everyone of the opposite sex. The class costs ¥10,000 to join and ¥5,000 as monthly fee.
Participants "graduate" once they find a prospective marriage partner. According to Imanishi, 13 couples have graduated and six pairs have married.
A 31-year-old woman from Nara Prefecture who recently joined the class said: "[The class] would allow me to get to know people better since it's not like a conventional one-time konkatsu party." A 36-year-old man from Osaka who joined three years ago said: "It's fun, like a college circle gathering. But I want to achieve a good result and graduate soon."
English conversation classes are not the only option for people who want to find a partner while learning something. Natural Kitchen Style in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, started Konkatsu Kitchen classes in 2013 where people can meet their future partner while learning to bake bread. Three such classes have been held so far.
The classes were launched after some of the students at the school's conventional bread-baking class, many of whom are single women, complained that there were not many places or opportunities for them to meet a man.
Participants can introduce themselves and talk freely while mixing bread dough, leavening and baking the bread. Natural Kitchen Style official Midori Kariba said participants can make friends naturally thanks to the group work.
The cooking school has confirmed that couples were successfully formed on the day of the first two classes held so far. A total of 145 people have taken part, and 17 couples were formed.
The school said there also was a man who came to get interested in bread making itself and began learning in earnest.
The next konkatsu slash bread-making class will be held on Sunday with up to 15 men and 15 women. The participation fee is ¥4,000.
Gallery Toshin in Naniwa Ward, Osaka, offers konkatsu opportunities at its pottery class. Ceramic artist Koji Yamamoto started the konkatsu class six years go, and there are now three or four lessons a month in collaboration with three different konkatsu agencies.
Participants can help each other when rotating a potter's wheel, for example, and after the workshop, they can talk on a one-to-one basis or in groups.
According to Yamamoto, both the male and female participants are usually in their 20s to 40s, and they tend to be quiet types. The two-hour participation fee varies depending on the konkatsu agency involved, but it is always ¥6,000-¥7,000. Participants can pick up the pottery they made at the workshop later at the gallery or have it sent to their home. Three such lessons were held this month.
Yamamoto said a circle was formed by single people who joined the pottery class, and 15 couples among them married last year. Another seven couples had married this year as of August.
Konkatsu specialist Akiko Kawakami said cooking, pottery and other classes are popular for konkatsu because they allow people - even those who don't have a way with words - to talk to each other in a natural setting while doing something together.
"You can ascertain other people's personalities at such events, something you usually cannot do at conventional konkatsu parties. People may be more likely to find partners at such places," Kawakami said.
Kawakami advises not dressing up too much. Instead, participants should wear something suitable for what they're going to learn. "That will make a better impression," she said.