He Gives and Takes Away

If I wrote this post just four days ago, it would be about the joy and challenges of welcoming a new furry member into our family. We adopted Aoba from a dog rescue organization on September 16th, just before she turned 3 months old. Having a puppy in the house has been a challenge, but mostly it has been the joy of having a pet who loves you even more than you love them.

But three nights ago, the narrative of this post changed in a way that fills me with sorrow. Chiizu, one of the feral cats living in our neighborhood, was struck and killed. Chiizu was no ordinary feral cat to us. He adopted us as his family, basking in the sun on our doorstep, greeting us in the morning and evening for his meals, eating from our hands. I was convinced it was a matter of weeks before I would have enough of his trust that he would allow me to finally pet him, giving him the physical love that he deserved.

You see, Chiizu was the largest boy in his litter of kittens. Their father was never around and their mother disappeared mysteriously four months ago. Chiizu, for whatever reason, became the caretaker of his siblings. We would often find him cuddled up with one of his sisters, or his little brother Pika, napping around our house. If he was eating and one of his siblings came near, he’d move away and let them eat. While many of the other cats visited our house regularly, it was always “Chiizu and …”. So for six months I regarded him as ours, the same way he regarded us as his.

One of the reasons I resisted pet ownership for so long after our dog Evie passed in 2012 at 14-years-old was because I did not like to deal with the mortality issue of pets. Every time I’ve lost a pet to the inevitable passage of time, I swore I’d never have another. But this is the first time I’ve had to deal with the loss of a pet whose life was cut short.

The loss of Chiizu is still fresh, grating on my emotions, and causing me to give pause during the day to think about the hole his absence leaves in my daily life. But that loss is balanced by the time we spend with Aoba, so young and full of life herself, ready to lick me to death or snuggle up when she’s tired at the end of a long day of playing and exploring. And I feel like God is teaching me about mortality, about not holding on too tightly to things, even life itself. That the cliche that everyday is a gift is cliche because it is true. Aoba won’t live forever and neither will I (at least in this space and time). But God gives us each day richly to enjoy and if we focus on the good gifts He gives us, life is a lot easier to bear. One might even say, life is beautiful when enjoyed the way God intended us to.

Thank you Lord for each of the days we had to enjoy with Chiizu and each special day we have to love and be loved by Aoba.

Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

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Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

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But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

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Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

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No Small Miracles

We were warned buying a home in Japan as foreigners staying on a work visa would be difficult. Well, difficult may have been a mild description. The real trouble comes when you go to the bank to apply for a housing loan. Our situation was a little more challenging than just the lack of permanent residency.

  • Half of our income is paid from a source outside of Japan and cannot be used in any calculations for a loan.
  • And, well, we’re ministry workers, so our total income isn’t that high to begin with.
  • Both in our 40’s, giving us less time to work than the standard Japanese 35-year-loan period allows.
  • Can read Japanese at a level equivalent to Japanese 4th grader who “ain’t doing so well.”

Miracle #1: Our Realtor

Our pastor recommended Mr. Shirakawa as a former church member who moved to another area of Tokyo who helped many of our members with real estate transactions. The importance of having a realtor whom you can trust completely, who prays for you, and who works tirelessly when the odds are against you cannot be understated. There were times in the process we were so frustrated we wanted to give up. But Mr. Shirakawa never gave up; he just kept looking for ways for us to get a loan. And from dozens of phone calls to banks and lending companies, he did find us two options for loans. And though we ended up not using either one, without them, we would have given up hope much earlier and missed our opportunity to buy the property we finally did.

Miracle #2: The Right House

It’s no secret that Japanese houses are very different from American houses. A large house in our area is 1,000 square feet, the footprint of which can probably fit in some people’s living/dining room area. Storage is often the trade off to allow people more living space, but storage is a pretty important feature to Americans. We looked at about 20 different houses recommended by our realtor and dozens of others browsing the internet real estate websites almost daily. No house was perfect and we were resigned to “settling” for a decent home. In fact, we had settled on a less than perfect house when the house we really wanted appeared in my Facebook feed as an advertisement! Yes, something wonderful came from a Facebook ad! I had browsed the real estate site every day and somehow this listing had eluded me until God put it right in my feed! The layout of the house is pretty much everything we wanted and the fact that building has only just started means that we get to choose the colors and materials used in the house, making it truly our own.

Miracle #3: The Right Location

One thing our family was not going to compromise on was location. It was quite a tug of war in our house because many of the houses that were larger or had better layouts were less convenient for getting to school or the train station by bike or foot. This is the real reason we settled on the less-than-perfect house. The location was fantastic: a little closer to school and much closer to the main train station and to the road we use to get to church. So when the link appeared in my feed for our house, the thing that caught my eye first was that it was in the same neighborhood as the less-than-perfect house. In fact, the location was slightly better, only a few meters from the river path that could take Jayne and the kids almost all the way to school without worrying about dangerous traffic on narrow streets.

Miracle #4: The Right Price

Our price limit varied based on the interest rate and down payment we would need by tens of thousands of dollars, but there was definitely a limit which we could not afford to go over. Because the seller helped us with the process of getting a loan through their preferred bank, we got a much better interest rate than what would normally be offered to people in our situation, which gave us a little more room in the pricing. As it turned out, the price we paid was right in the middle of our target, but with the lower interest rate and the 33-year term of the loan, the monthly payments came in lower than expected. Perfect timing as we determine how much money Jeremy will need our help with when he goes to college next year.

The whole experience reminds us of two important things that have been a theme since we began this journey. One, if you let the Lord lead (and at times, we did so only because we had no idea what we were doing), He’s going to lead you exactly where you need to go. And second, the Lord’s blessings are better than anything we could imagine. When we arrived in Japan, the idea we could purchase a new home here in an ideal location, basically custom built for us and with a mortgage lower than our current rent would have been laughable. Even six months ago, it seemed like only a dream. Yet today, it’s our reality.

So yes, it is possible for non-permanent residents to buy their dream home in Japan. But we had a Big Guy working on our behalf.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Zig When They Zag

On the first real day of Spring in Tokyo, I decided to take a walk in the city to see the cherry blossoms. Despite living in Japan for almost three years, I still recognize the fact that cherry blossom seasons are brief and at the mercy of the weather (which has turned windy and rainy, so it was wise to take the walk when I could) and need to be fully embraced when they happen. We also had a lot of starts and stops this year, with the weather appearing to warm up, only to be cruelly thrown back into Winter by a cold storm blowing down from the North.

I started my walk in one of Tokyo’s major Japanese gardens, Rikugien, famous for its huge weeping cherry tree just inside the front gate. Whenever I say “famous” in this article, just translate it as “crowded”. That is how cherry blossom season works in Japan. All those beautiful “famous” places you see in photos are usually swarmed by tourists and locals alike.

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I didn’t spend much time in Rikugien. Well, maybe more time that I would have liked, shuffling slowly behind groups of people looking for a quick exit.

I decided that I would walk from Rikugien to Nezu Shrine and from there, around Yanaka, an old neighborhood of Tokyo that includes a large cemetery which is filled with cherry trees, and obviously, graves. I had no set path to get there; I would use my eyes and Google Maps to find patches of green which indicated parks or temple areas that might have sakura blossoms.

To cut a long story short, Nezu Shrine is famous for azeleas, which bloom later in the month and not for sakura, so it was a bust. Yanaka cemetery was full of cherry blossoms but because of that, it was one of the few days of the year when the living outnumber the dead in that area.

But along the way, I happened to notice a patch of purple flowers down a side street and ended up at Komagome-Fuji Shrine, a small shrine built on a hill about 15 meters above street level. A steep staircase leads up to the shrine, flanked by a few gorgeous cherry trees. I stopped and photographed the shrine for about 30 minutes and found at the end of the day it ended up being my favorite spot to view the Spring foliage.

I can certainly see parallels in my little stroll through Tokyo and my Christian journey. We often have goals that are common with most people in the world, goals that draw the largest crowds. Wealth, fame, popularity, knowledge. We look at the roadmap of our lives and determine the quickest route to reach those goals.

Yet in the times when I was able to abandon my roadmap (usually it was God wrestling the map out of my hands), I found He would lead me to places more wonderful that I could ever dream. Away from the corporate world to a place where I could devote my time and energy to serving Him and others. Away from the hustle to places where I could find rest and regain my bearings. Away from the foolishness of chasing things that ultimately left me empty to a place where I could learn to rely more on being filled up with the Spirit.

Which is not to say that life is perfect and that my plans don’t sometimes get in the way with God’s plan. But I am learning, little by little, that when Scripture tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world, it isn’t a warning, it is a path to Freedom. Learning to trust that just maybe, the twists and turns of the path the Lord leads us on aren’t always trials and tests, but still waters and scenic viewpoints.

Learning Japanese:What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Two years ago when we arrived in Japan, I devised what I believed was the perfect language acquisition strategy. I would use my Rosetta Stone application for an hour every day, read and write kanji for an hour every other day, and “absorb” the language through my everyday interaction with Japanese society. I had to pat myself on the back for being so brilliant. Brilliantly naive.

A few weeks later, I dropped the Rosetta Stone from my plan. I always hated it anyway; it was annoyingly repetitive and the stuff it was “teaching” me was 90% stuff I already knew. Next to go was writing kanji. Why should I learn to write kanji when the majority of the time I use it is behind a keyboard? For the next few months I focused on reading kanji, which was mostly instant gratification given my bent toward visual learning. But once I hit 600 kanji and the new ones become more complex or too similar to ones I already learned, it became a chore to learn new kanji and I quit studying that too.

Which left me with absorbing the language through everyday interaction with Japanese society. Which is a complete and utter sham. As it turns out, there is only so much you can learn from a 15 word interaction with the grocery store cashier or train station attendant. And most of it is “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? My Japanese is poor.”

So a few weeks ago, I finally admitted defeat, swallowed my pride, and went crawling back on hands and knees to where I should have started all along: with a Japanese tutor. My Japanese tutor is the sweetest, most gentle teacher one could ever hope for. Yet showing up at my lesson still feels like climbing into the dentist chair for a root canal.

Because learning Japanese is painfully difficult. The language itself is fairly straight-forward and follows more rules than English by far. But the context of Japanese and the different sets of vocabulary and word forms based on who you are speaking to is mind boggling. This is why I believe some Japanese people prefer to learn English, which is for the most part, a one-form-fits-all kind of language.

But I have already learned some important things only a few weeks into my lessons (apart from Japanese grammar and vocabulary). I hope these lessons are helpful to you as well if you consider whether or not to study Japanese.

I know more than I think I do. My Japanese tutor coaxes me (she’s too gentle to demand) to express myself in Japanese. As it turns out, I can say quite a bit in Japanese, though it doesn’t come naturally and I struggle with finding the right words and sentence formations. But if I don’t practice, it never comes naturally, so as much as I hate to verbalize in Japanese, I do it in conversation with her. And I hope it becomes more comfortable soon where I can also try it with others.

There is a strong connection between speaking and listening. My biggest worry has been that I have been slow at improving my aural comprehension of Japanese. From the time we arrived here to the time I started my lessons, I probably improved my listening skills from about 15% of what I heard to 30% in two years. In the past 3 weeks alone, I realized that my listening skills have already improved noticeably, though my focus has been on speaking and writing. I can easily imagine my aural comprehension reaching 60-70% within 6 months if I remain diligent.

There is a strong connection between reading and writing. My biggest mistake in learning kanji was to stop writing it. When I look back at the kanji that I practiced writing, I still remember almost all of them. The practice of writing definitely ingrains the image of the kanji in your head so when you see it, you recognize it. My tutor has me writing a journal in Japanese every other day, at least. I actually enjoy it though my vocabulary is small and my sentences sound like something a preschooler would say.

Passive learning can only take you so far. And really, it’s not very far at all. Trying to absorb language through “immersion” only works if you are an active participant. People who live in homestay situations with native speakers and engage in conversation every day will learn a language through immersion. If you are only an observer in social interactions, you won’t learn much. Force yourself to engage and push yourself to learn new vocabulary and grammar so you can be confident in interacting with others. Even if you try to learn by watching TV or listening to the radio, parrot the words you are hearing so you are speaking as well as listening.

You’ll probably regret not studying the language. Looking back, I think about how many more conversations I could have had with people, how much deeper I could connect with acquaintances if only I had started studying Japanese immediately after we arrived here. It’s water under the bridge now, but that doesn’t mean I should let another day go by without trying to become fluent in Japanese. We may not live in Japan forever, so is it really worth wasting the time we have here not being able to communicate with people on a deeper level?

I will still admit, it’s hard to approach language acquisition with eagerness and joy. But I am trying to focus on the goal: the day I can talk about almost anything with anyone I happen to meet, without fear of stumbling over my words or sounding like a child. And that gives me hope.

 

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10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love To be Asked

10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked

A former missionary kid (MK) we know posted this link on Facebook and I think it addresses many of the issues we anticipate our own children will face when they return to America to “visit” or attend college. Going on two years in Japan, our kids definitely feel more at home here in Japan and less like foreigners. They speak Japlish, the mixture of Japanese and English and sometimes struggle with finding the right word in English (which is understandable since Japanese has many words with no direct translation to English). They have developed some Japanese mannerisms. And they are still changing and growing.

As a family, we’ve stopped referring to California as “home” for some time now. Home is such a relative term, and right now, our home is here in the Tokyo area. But it’s natural for our friends in California to assume we still consider it our home. We already sense the coming confusion for our kids as they contemplate staying in America after college or returning to Japan (assuming, of course, that we are still here).

I think one of the most difficult aspects of missionary life is the constant change in relationships. People come and go in and out of our lives every year, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently (or at least a very long time). Other missionaries go on home leave or leave the field on a regular basis. Friendships are precious because they are fleeting and I think that’s what hits the kids the hardest.

We always ask for special prayer for our children because we know their lives are challenging and they made involuntary sacrifices in the stability of their social lives when they became a missionary family along with us. We are grateful for the grace the Lord has poured out on them in terms of friendships and opportunities to belong. But we also know these friends and opportunities tend to change rapidly. Thank you for supporting our children in this special way as we serve here in Japan.

For The Love of Sakura

Each year in early March as the cold of Winter begins to thaw and the trees that had been bare for the past three months begin forming tiny buds, the countenance of millions of Japanese begins to change. In Tokyo, where people are notoriously stone-faced in the public eye, you might catch a twinkle in someone’s eye as they gaze out the window of the train over the Spring trees. Or a wide smile as they walk beneath a blossoming cherry tree from the grocery store to their apartment.

Nothing seems to warm the hearts of Japanese people quite like the coming of Spring in the form of cherry blossoms (桜の花). There is even a word specifically for the appreciation of blossoming cherry trees, hanami 花見, which basically breaks down to “flower-watching”. For one or two weekends in March or April and perhaps weekday evenings as well, Japanese travel in hordes to popular locations for hanami: Ueno Park, Meguro River, the Imperial Palace, and what seems like the entire city of Kyoto.

What I love about this season is that it is a reminder to us of what God has in store for his people here in Japan. It reminds me of Isaiah 35, which speaks of those who will be redeemed by Christ:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

The crocus, like the cherry blossom, is a flower that signals the end of Winter by blooming into beautiful color. Like the cherry, it is a hardy plant that reliably blossoms every year. That is why the cherry blossom is such a perfect symbol of the redemption coming to Japan. It is inevitable, it signals the end of the dead of Winter, and it bring joy to the people who see “the glory of the Lord, the spendor of our God” through it.

Please pray with us for the coming “end of Winter” for the people of Japan, that they will see the glory of the Lord as beautifully as the blossoming cherry trees spreading over the country.