Monday, November 2, 2015

Seven months out.

Yesterday, November 1, was the three-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan, and the seven-month anniversary of my return to the States. I wanted to do something to commemorate it (I wasn't planning to abandon this blog forever!), but instead I spent the evening Skyping with Caroline, which honestly was probably better for me.

These seven months back in America have been all right. Since April I've gained a car, an apartment, and a job close to my hometown, which are all great blessings. I've also had the opportunity to speak about my J-3 experiences at a couple of churches, as well as visit friends and family I haven't seen since before I left for Japan. In May Caroline and I had the opportunity to visit each other in our respective hometowns, something we've been talking about since we lived in Tokyo. God's been taking care of me, as always.

There are a few reasons I stopped writing. A big one is that I just plain no longer live in Japan, of course. But another one, one that I didn't expect, was that reverse culture shock hit me harder than I thought. At first it was kind of amusing. The first week back I found myself bewildered by things like fire hydrants and USPS trucks, and it took me a while to re-learn which side of the car has the steering wheel. I had to resist the instinct to eavesdrop on every English conversation in earshot. Sometimes I felt like I'd been in a coma for two-and-a-half years, but other times everything felt so familiar and comfortable that it seemed to only have been a few months before that I was last at my aunt's house, not three years.

Downtown Kumamoto after the last
International English Service I attended.
I remember being surprised to hear a missionary pastor in Kumamoto refer to finishing the J-3 program as a "grieving process" last fall. Back then I felt pretty strongly that I was ready for my J-3 journey to end, that my calling was back in the States. But the "honeymoon phase" of returning wore off soon after I got back. It's been rough, knowing that I can never return to the Kumamoto I knew as a J-3. I'm still working through it.

But I felt it unfair to leave this blog unfinished; I still have stories and photos to share. Back at the end of March, after packing up, shipping out boxes, and sending our suitcases ahead of us to Tokyo, Caroline and I hopped aboard a train to Aso for three days of melting the stress of international moving away in the Kurokawa hot springs.

Taking a break between soaks.
Kurokawa is a town that is almost entirely made up of ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. Each ryokan has its own hot spring, and for only about fifteen dollars you can buy a pass good for a dip in any three ryokan hot springs. We stayed at one of the more affordable ryokan, and during the day ventured out in our ryokan-issued yukata robes to hit the baths. My favorites were one in the middle of a Japanese garden and one that was literally in a cave. The hot spring at our own ryokan we dubbed "rustic beauty"... mostly because we discovered upon exiting that the iron-rich water left rust stains all over our skin. The mountain air was still chilly but the hot water was perfect.

Then it was on to Okinawa, which is almost like the Japanese equivalent of Hawaii--it's a tropical island chain, a popular vacation destination, was formerly a sovereign kingdom, and has its own unique culture. We'd been wanting to visit since even before we arrived in Japan. Okinawa is just beautiful, with bright sunshine, colorful flowers, friendly people, and delicious food. We spent most of our time in and around Ocean Expo Park on the northern part of the main island. The biggest attraction is the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the largest aquariums in the world, which houses some of the few whale sharks in captivity. We also found time to explore a reconstructed historical Okinawan village and the Tropical Dream Center botanical gardens, as well as just hang out on the beach.

View from our hotel room balcony.

At Ocean Expo Park, gorgeous Okinawa ocean in the background.

Exploring Motobu. This bench is a local landmark (really).

At Churaumi Aquarium. It's hard to tell exactly from this photo, but whale sharks are MASSIVE.

Historical Okinawan village.

The Tropical Dream Center.

Fun fact: we decided to head to the beach right after seeing a terrifying exhibit at the aquarium about all the deadly camouflaged animals that live on beaches such as the one we're goofing off at here.

We finished up our J-3 adventures where they'd started: Tokyo. The pastors at Tokyo Lutheran generously let us stay in the guest room behind the kitchen for a couple days while we reconnected one last time with some of the first friends we'd made in Japan. We also stopped for one other thing...

Can't go through the Ōkubo district without getting hotteok!

The Japanese Lutheran missionary association very kindly let Caroline and I book the same flight out of Tokyo (and sit next to each other!), so on April 1 we boarded a flight bound for Vancouver, where we met a friendly Japanese gentleman who gave up his seat so he could sit with his fishing buddies and we could have an entire row to ourselves. It made the flight much more comfortable than it could have been. In Vancouver we went through U.S. customs and said our goodbyes as I found the gate for my connecting flight to San Francisco. Just a few hours later, I was in a car on my way home with my father and brother, eating a turkey sandwich my mother had made for me that morning, and my 30 months in Japan were over.

When I look back on those 30 months, I can see that God was with me the whole time, even when I didn't feel like it. Nowadays it's strangely hard to believe God's with me now, in unexciting old America, with a secular job and relatively mundane responsibilities. But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, in Japan and in the United States, and I know He'll keep guiding me, even if it's harder to tell.

More to come.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, 
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139:9-10 (NIV)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tea lessons with O-sensei.

I've been back in the United States for about a week now, and am still in the middle of adjusting back to life in my home country and processing the past two-and-a-half years. I'll post more later about this stage of my journey in the coming weeks, but first, I wanted to share this article I wrote in January for the official blog of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Association, originally published here in Japanese.

As a J-3, in Japan I'm often called sensei, "teacher." I teach English five days a week at Luther Junior and Senior High School, I teach an English Bible study about once a month at Kuwamizu Lutheran Church, and I teach English Sunday School twice a month at Kumamoto Lutheran Church. But even with all this teaching, I feel that throughout my time here in Japan I've learned a lot more than I've taught.

First gifts from O-sensei: a fan (required
equipment for a guest) and a vocabulary list.
The Japanese church particularly inspires me. Every day I learn something new about hospitality, kindness, and patience that I want to take with me back to America. Many of these lessons have been learned in the tea room of Ms. O—, a member of Kuwamizu Church.

For the past year-and-a-half or so, Ms. O— has been teaching me the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. She'd heard that I was interested in Japanese culture and one day in July 2013 invited me to her house for an o-keiko, "practice session."

Page from an instructional photo
album O-sensei assembled for me
from my final lesson.
I'd only ever experienced the tea ceremony once before, as a guest, and although I'd enjoyed it, I'd had no idea what to do. I didn't understand the meaning of a lot of the steps—why turn the chawan (tea cup) before you drink from it? But I held my questions and just followed Ms. O—'s instructions as best I could. A few weeks later she invited me again to her house, and then again, and before long I found myself at her house two or three times a month, her pupil in the Omotesenke school of the Way of Tea.

Once at the end of an o-keiko, I made Ms. O— a cup of tea. After she drank it, she asked, "You didn't wipe the chawan in the shape of the letter ゆ (yu), did you?" I was surprised that she knew that—I didn't think she'd been watching me that closely—but then she showed me the little bits of matcha stuck to the bottom of the chawan. "If you don't wipe it," she explained, "the matcha will clump and won't dissolve."

Wearing kimono for a moon-viewing
party in O-sensei's garden last fall.
Under Ms. O—'s patient teaching over the next several months, I slowly began to realize the deep thought that goes into each step of the ceremony. You put the chawan over here with your right hand so your left kimono sleeve won't drag through the dirty water in the mizusashi. You put the fukusa cloth here after you finish ceremonially cleaning the instruments with it so your hand can immediately move to the shaku to scoop hot water from the kettle (though after you take the shaku you take the fukusa and use it as a potholder to take the lid off the kettle and put it on the futaoki you just freed up). There is a depth to everything in the tea ceremony, even though it might seem arbitrary to an untrained American eye, and it all is rooted in mindfulness for the guest. The tea ceremony is a marvelous exercise in generosity.

I'm getting better at the tea ceremony, though I still bumble and fumble, and evening o-keiko with Ms. O— have become a highlight of my week. I'm so grateful to her and to all the generous people here in Japan that have taught me so much about the depth of God's love and graciousness. You will all be in my heart as I journey back across the Pacific this spring.

Practice hospitality.
Romans 12:13b (NIV)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Luther and J-3 chronicles.

I love them, too!
Another year of Luther history came to a close as the junior high school held its graduation ceremony this morning (the senior high's was on Monday, March 2). Classes continue through Monday (the Japanese school year calendar is kind of nebulous), but for all intents and purposes, my duties at Luther have come to an end. The final class I taught this year was the senior-high second-year Advanced English Course homeroom. Those kids are a riot. I'm going to miss them.

Martha Akard.
Given that I'm about to become part of it, I thought I'd share some photos from Luther's almost-90-year history. Founded in 1926 as the Kyushu Girls' School, it was funded in large part by American Lutheran women in the United Synod of the South. Apparently some of them even sold their wedding rings to raise money to support women's education in Japan. Land at the foot of Mt. Tatsuda was purchased in 1923, and construction soon began on what was to be called the "Janice James School," in memory of the deceased eight-year-old daughter of one of the biggest contributors. Miss Martha B. Akard was appointed first principal, the school motto (感恩奉仕 kan'on houshi, "Gratitude and Service") and school verse (John 10:10, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full") were chosen, and classes began in 1926.

From the official record.

In the early days.

Staff and students.

First staff.

Prewar winter uniforms--quite similar to today's!
(Katie and I both wish they'd bring back the hat, though.)

Chapel during the "Shimizu" era.
Tougher times came in the years leading up to the Second World War. Nationalism ran so high in Japan that Martha Akard and other foreign staff were sent home, Kyushu Girls' School became Shimizu High School (after the neighborhood it was in; the former name was deemed too "American"), and nearly all vestiges of the school's Christian foundation were covered up. Students even bowed to a picture of the emperor in the chapel. (Katie once told me the story of how in one of the top-floor rooms there used to be a square painted on the floor that students weren't supposed to set foot on, because on the wall on the floor below hung a picture of the emperor. The room has since been remodeled and carpeted, but I may or may not have spent a few spare moments one afternoon peeking under carpet tiles to look for it.)

Maud Powlas.
Maud Powlas was another missionary that was sent home before the war broke out. (I've mentioned Maud Powlas before, when I talked about my church.) She founded the Colony of Love and Mercy social welfare institution in Kumamoto in 1919, and did not spend her time back in the States idly. She visited a Michigan church in 1942 to speak about her work serving Japan's most vulnerable populations, and contrary to the rampant anti-Japanese sentiment in America at the time, proclaimed love and forgiveness for the people of Japan. In attendance that day was a teenager named Andrew Ellis, who was particularly moved by her presentation.

Andy Ellis (far left) in front of the bookmobile
that he and other missionaries used until 1960.
Nine years later, in 1951 Rev. Andrew Ellis arrived in Japan to begin what would become a lifetime of missionary service. He was assigned by the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church to do rural evangelism in a podunk southern town of 220,000 called Kumamoto. (A month after he arrived, the city got its first traffic light.) He helped establish churches and worked with Maud Powlas herself at the Colony of Love and Mercy. He also found himself teaching English at KyuGaku--Caroline's current school.

The missionaries felt stretched a bit too thin with the double-duty of evangelism work and English teaching, so Andrew and other Kumamoto missionaries created a new short-term program for English teachers and called it "J-3," meaning "Japan--3 years." The first J-3 arrived in 1954, and from there the program spread to Kyushu Girls' School in 1956.

To date there have been over 250 J-3s in Japan, not only in Kumamoto but also in cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, and from what I've heard, God has done some amazing things through (and to) the people on this program. I count myself privileged to have been part of it. I'll be departing from Kumamoto soon, but please keep the students, teachers, and missionaries of Luther Junior and Senior High School in your prayers.

The information and photos in this post were gleaned from Luther and JELC archives, Andy Ellis' English memoirs, conversations with former J-3s, and snatches of Luther's staff orientation presentation that I could understand. I also just discovered in the course of researching that Luther has a new English website, so feel free to check it out for more information:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10 (NIV)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Winter Break highlights and the beginning of the end.

We're already into February, and I'm still not quite able to believe that next month marks the end of my J-3 journey. I'll post more reflections on that later--now it's time to share some overdue stories from the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015.

Chinatown, near our hotel.
The first excursion of winter break was to Nagasaki with Caroline. Kumamoto is only a couple of hours by train from Nagasaki, and we'd been meaning to go for a while, so the afternoon of the last day of school we braved the Emperor's Birthday holiday rush and arrived at our budget hotel in Chinatown just in time to eat chanpon and sara udon, Nagasaki's regional specialty, for dinner. Both of them are noodle dishes with similar ingredients (champon is a soup, while saraudon is sauce spread over crispy noodles), but we figured we'd kill two delicious birds with one stone and order one of each. Both were amazingly delicious--they both contain mushrooms, squid, pork, shrimp, shellfish, bamboo shoots, and a multitude of other ingredients in a creamy, savory sauce or broth--but they proved to be too much food even for two hungry J-3s right off a train. Too bad.

Next time we'll just order one to split.

Most Americans probably know Nagasaki best for being one of the two cities that were hit with an atomic bomb by the U.S. military in World War II, but Nagasaki also has an extensive Christian history. Nagasaki was one of the first ports through which Christian missionaries came to Japan, and it is home to some of the most famous churches and cathedrals in the country.

Ōura Catholic Church, considered the oldest standing church in Japan.

However, as a center of Christian activity in Japan, it also is the site of some of the saddest and cruelest episodes during the government's nearly-300-year ban on Christianity from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Likely the most famous of these incidents is the 1597 crucifixion of the so-called "Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan." 14 Japanese men, six missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and three Japanese boys (the youngest was 12) who were publicly executed by order of feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. We visited the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, which made for an emotional few hours. The stories of these martyrs--their sermons of forgiveness from their crosses, their persistence in singing praises to God even in the midst of their agony--were incredibly moving.

Monument to the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan. Below the statues is a
portion of Mark 8:34: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny
themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

The sobering afternoon continued with a visit to the Peace Park, remembering the victims of the atomic bomb, and Urakami Cathedral, which was only 500 meters from the center of the blast and whose toppled belfry remains on the hillside where it fell on August 9, 1945. We walked and talked and reflected all the way back to the station for dinner before getting on the train back to Kumamoto. It hadn't necessarily been a fun trip, but it was certainly one worth taking.

Urakami Cathedral, rebuilt.

The old belfry, unmoved since 1945.

Peace Statue at the north end of the Peace Park.

Nagasaki at night.

A week later, I met up with Caroline and a couple of her friends visiting from the States in Hiroshima, a city that's also probably best known in America for having been hit with an atomic bomb by the U.S. in World War II--and its Peace Park and memorials were a must-stop for us, as well. Though it wasn't necessarily a hotbed of Christianity in the old days like Nagasaki, it certainly has its own unique history and culture. One of its best-known places is the island of Miyajima. Most people probably don't know the name of Miyajima, but it's home of Itsukushima Shrine, which I'll wager most people will recognize when they see it.

The torī of Itsukushima Shrine

To make the day extra-special, we all rented kimono at a shop near the ferry port and toured the island in what Japan would consider our Sunday best. We were stopped and asked to be photographed more times than I can count! Fortunately there were a few kind folks touring the island that took our picture with our cameras, as well.

After landing back at the port and changing back into our regular clothes, we walked around the Peace Park for a while, mostly just reflecting as we took it all in.

Night view of Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb Dome (currently under renovation).

We grabbed dinner at the station before finally boarding the Shinkansen bound for Kumamoto, where Caroline's friends hung out with us for a few more days. It was good to hang out with Americans from the homeland again! I've forgotten how new and wonderful things in Japan can be.

Back in Kumamoto! Karaoke for New Year's Eve.

Before I knew it, the fun was over and it was time to head back to school to prepare for the final three months. We also welcomed three new J-3s to Kumamoto in January. They'll start teaching at Luther and KyuGaku in April. And I have some packing to do...

Kumamoto J-3s. Back row: me, Morgan, Brent, Caroline, Zach (new).
Front row: Hannah (new), Dean (new).

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it."
Mark 8:34-35 (NIV)

Monday, January 5, 2015

The final Christmas.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! It's been a while since I last posted, and there is much I want to share from the past month.

December was, as usual, insanely busy (I attended a record three separate Christmas Eve services on the 24th) but lots of fun. Here are some photos:

Angels under the gingko trees at Luther High School.

The Advent setup at Kuwamizu Lutheran Church.

Star lantern (made from paper!) hanging from the rafters right over the stable at Kuwamizu.

Annual International English Christmas pageant, starring Katie as Mary and Baby Jun as Jesus!

Seniors heading up to campus after having caroled through the neighborhood since 5:30am, looking forward to a breakfast of hot pork soup and rice balls.

The sermon at the 9:30pm International English Christmas Eve service was once again delivered by a former J-3 who still lives and works in Kumamoto (and whose kids come to our International English Sunday School), and he delivered a particularly moving message about how we often use Christmas as a reason to be (or expect others to be) more generous or kinder or more patient than usual--but that's not the point of Christmas at all! Rather, Christmas celebrates the light appearing in the darkness, the light of Jesus Christ our Savior, who gives us hope that we carry all year round.

There are less than three months left in my J-3 tenure, and the future after this spring is still murky for me. But if there's anything I've learned in my time as a J-3, it's that God knows exactly where He's leading us, and our job is to listen, obey, and trust in His perfect love, even when we don't understand--a lesson much more tangibly felt in a land where the language is not your own! May we all walk in His light this year. 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you."

Isaiah 60:1-2 (NIV)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tumbling through fall.

Fall foliage on the campus of Luther High School.
For J-3s, fall goes fast. No sooner had Caroline and I gotten back from Sapporo than school started again, and the craziness will continue straight on through till Christmas. We've had a good share of three-day weekends, but fall is also the prime season for both school and church events, so I've been kept quite busy.

Festival decoration by the senior Special
Advanced English kids. (They sold rice balls
wrapped in grilled meat--so popular that the
line went out the door and down the hall!)
October marks the beginning of the second semester at Luther, and to ring it in every year Luther holds its annual Gakuinsai, or school festival, on the first Saturday. The school festival is a major event at any Japanese high school. It's the one time of year that the public is invited on campus (for a non-admissions related event, anyway), and each homeroom class and club plans its own special "thing", whether it's selling school-logo emblazoned towels, holding a mini-carnival, decorating their classroom like a haunted house, or serving up fast food. Some even get corporate sponsorship--we've had classes selling real Baskin Robbins ice cream. The PTA also comes out and takes over the entire parking lot selling used goods, official PTA t-shirts, and every kind of street food imaginable. For the entire duration of the festival there's a "stage presentation" (talent show) in the gym, featuring mostly student bands. Students wander the hallways hawking their Luther notebooks and zipper pouches, using their best sales-English with the J-3 teachers, leading to amusing exchanges such as this:
Students: "Please buy our class t-shirt!"
Me: "I don't even teach your class!"
Students: (Pause, look at each other.) "But... we love you!"
Me: (Shells out 15 bucks.)
I spent most of the day hanging out with the English Speaking Society, who was busy making their school festival staple: s'mores. We have to special-order the graham crackers, hunt for marshmallows at the import grocery store, and spend a minute explaining what they are to most visitors, but the s'mores always end up a huge hit.

Sign outside the ESS tent for the uninitiated.

Getting ready to roast!

Not exactly a real campfire, but it did the job.

On the church side of things, the major fall event for most of the Lutheran churches here is an annual "bazaar", which is like a rummage sale crossed with a street festival. At Kuwamizu's bazaar in early November, the whole thing was held in the sanctuary. Half the room was covered in used articles and handicrafts for sale; the other half was food--and a lot of it. Church bazaars are great places to pick up Japanese housewares and traditional items at garage-sale prices and grab a cheap lunch to boot!

Some of the goodies you could get at the Kuwamizu bazaar in 2013.

The pews are all put in the center of the sanctuary for cafeteria-style seating.

I spent most of this year's bazaar on sauce duty for the mini-okonomiyaki (Osaka-style savory pancake) my pastor's wife served up (and occasionally ketchup duty for the corn dogs, called "American dogs" in Japan).
My lunch--or the half that was left by the time I remembered to photograph it. I was so hungry by the time I could go on break! From left to right: sweet red-bean soup, yakisoba, and the paper sleeve for the mini-okonomiyaki I'd just scarfed down.

There's been a million other little things going on, events and get-togethers (fried chicken bento boxes for Kumamoto J-3 Thanksgiving 2014, for example), that it's a bit disorienting to stop, look back, and realize it's already been more than three months since summer vacation ended--and there's plenty more coming up to keep me busy this month, as you may imagine. Happy Advent! More to come in the next few weeks.

Hmm... something's going on in front of the high school building at Luther...
Welcoming the Christmas season with songs and Scripture readings at the Luther tree lighting last month.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
Romans 15:4 (NIV)