Chasing Waterfalls in Saitama

While Tokyo is one of the busiest and most crowded metropolis in the world, travelling out of Tokyo for an hour can take you to a different world. On this day, our destination was the mountainous area outside of Hanno, a  bedroom community in Saitama about an hour by train from Ikebukuro.

20150518-_1080286

This area is the starting point for many wonderful and fairly leisurely short hikes into the mountains of the Chichibu range. However, our hike would not be a leisurely one, but rather on the path less traveled. Rather than hiking the winding path above the river, we would walk down along and through the river, occasionally requiring us to climb small and medium sized waterfalls.

20150518-_1080414

Our youth pastor, Keisuke, has been taking adults and children on this hike for several years. An avid outdoorsman, Keisuke often takes his wife and children on outdoor adventures consisting of hiking, climbing, skiing, camping and fishing. But Keisuke combines his love of nature with his compassion and love for children. That’s why he offers these trips several times per year to homeschool children and their parents as well as the children and parents who live in the neighborhood around our church. Most people, especially in urban Tokyo, won’t have the chance to take a waterfall hike which requires a skilled guide to lead.

Keisuke asked Peter and I to come along on this trip to shoot photos and video which could be used to create promotional materials for families who might be interested in future trips. Together with a boy and his mother and another girl from our church and our driver Tanaka-san, we went on the first hike of 2015.

Arriving in Hanno, we were greeted with beautiful weather. The sun was shining but there was a nice cool breeze to keep it from getting too hot. A typhoon would be passing offshore in the evening bringing rain, but for the time we would be hiking, there would only be sunshine and some light clouds. Tanaka-san waited with the van for us but said he enjoyed the wonderful breeze and sunshine while reading a book.

Keisuke had us sit through some basic training at church using the climbing wall in our basement, so after suiting up in our equipment, he gave us a short sermon on taking risks and being courageous, reminded us of the important safety information, and prayed for us. Then we were off into the forest.

Following the river, we encountered no other people, most of whom were walking well above us on the trail. We scrambled over rocks and through the water until we came to our first waterfall, a short one, maybe 3 meters high. Keisuke scrambled up, secured the rope and helped each of us make the short climb. At this point, the adrenaline was pumping and it seemed pretty easy.

As we continued up the river, the terrain became steeper and each progressive waterfall became slightly higher than the ones before it. We ended up climbing 5 waterfalls (the adults anyway; the kids were spent after the fourth). Truth be told, I only climbed the second half of the fifth waterfall. I went around to the path so I could photograph our other members climbing up.

The fifth waterfall was in two parts, a 10 meter section where the easiest part was to climb in the waterfall itself and a 12 meter section where you could climb in the water or off to the side. Peter bravely climbed both parts in the water though he admitted he was freezing cold afterward because the water was pretty chilly. I climbed the second part to the side of the waterfall, but there were few places to put my hands and feet and a lot of moss to keep me slipping.

Halfway up, I honestly wanted to give up. I couldn’t seem to find any place to hold on and move any higher. My arms and legs were growing tired and I was getting frustrated. There were places to hold onto to my right that I could see, but I couldn’t stretch far enough to reach them. Keisuke encouraged me from above. Somehow I managed to wedge my knees into the tiniest ledges and grab onto rough spots on the rock that I didn’t think would support me, slowly making my way to the right. Miraculously, I grabbed a large outcropping and pulled myself up.

I arrived at the top of the falls exhausted but victorious. As I sat there regaining my strength, the message Keisuke had given us to start the day really hit me. At that moment I was afraid, but I needed to be courageous. I wasn’t going to fall because Keisuke had the rope secured, but I still needed to use my own power to find the places to pull myself upward.

Christian life is like that as well. God won’t allow us to fall, but he will allow us to stumble. He encourages us from above, but often, He won’t do the hard work for us. He allows us to struggle to build our character and our confidence because He knows that we are able to accomplish the goals He set for us.

I went along on this trip as a helper for Keisuke’s ministry but came home blessed with a lesson that I could not have learned anywhere else but clinging to a mossy rock, climbing a waterfall.

20150518-_1080524

The Encouragement of Advocates

Our monthly newsletter is being created a few days late this month, but I’m not sorry for the circumstances behind it. On the contrary, I am grateful for them, for they are two of our dear friends and supporters who came to visit us as part of their trip to Japan.

I have known Haj and Eiko for 30 years, from the time I first started attending church. Eiko is an amazing encourager. She encouraged me as a young writer in my high school years and continues to encourage our family as we serve here in Japan. Haj is a wonderful teacher who has the ability to make anyone, and I mean anyone, laugh. His sense of humor crosses all cultural boundaries and we have had the privilege of serving with him on several short term teams here in Japan.

20150504-_1080132

We spent a few short days catching up with Haj and Eiko over this past Golden Week weekend. They attended our church and were able to have some good conversations with our pastors and learn about the vision of our church. Pastor Seiji was excited to interview Eiko about her job as part of the dissertation he is working on.

Haj and Eiko serve us back at our home church in a role we call “advocates”. These are special people in our ministry who have passion for the work we are doing and help to spread that information throughout the other members of the congregation. We funnel special prayer requests and other important information through our advocates.

The advocate role is a special one for us because we know that our advocates are making sure we are being supported in prayer and remembered by the churches who support us. In a sense, they are our anchor to the resources of the praying church in America. We are so grateful for each of our advocates like Haj and Eiko.

But a visit from our advocates is special indeed because it enables them to see first-hand the work we are doing and meet some of the people we are serving and serving with. We believe this helps build a stronger connection with our supporting churches and a more tangible understanding of what God is doing through our ministry.

For those serving as advocates of our ministry like Haj and Eiko, we thank you for the special blessing you give to us. And we invite you to visit us and spend some time alongside our ministry, meeting our local partners, and sharing in a part of our lives here in Japan.

Passing The Japanese Drivers Test

Last week, I finally received my Japanese drivers license. It only took three attempts to pass the practical test (which according to most websites on the subject is about average), but it felt like it took forever. My friends and family on Facebook have heard me complain and celebrate over this topic for the past month now, so this will be my very last post (hopefully) and we can close the book on it. But I wanted to record my final thoughts on the process of getting a Japanese drivers license because one day, probably soon, I will forget the joy and pain of it all.

First, I want to say that getting this license was all by the grace of God and the goodness of friends who encouraged and prayed for me. Yes, I know it sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech, but honestly, it is true. Without my friend Keisuke taking me the first time and translating everything for me, I would have never been able to even get to the practical test. It was an 11 hour day from when we left our station to when we got back and Keisuke was with me the whole time. That is a true selfless act of kindness.

The thing is getting your drivers license in Japan is much more a cultural and language test than it is a driving test. From the language perspective, there is very little written or spoken English going on anywhere in the test center. Even the cafeteria menus are completely in Japanese.

On one form, an employee insisted that I write my address in kanji, not romanji. The first time, Keisuke wrote it for me. The second time, the employee saw my look of panic, crossed out the romanji I had written and wrote the kanji for me. The third time, the supervisor stood by me and watched me struggle to write the kanji like a pre-schooler and offered some coaching when I got stuck, though he still made me write every character myself.

The cultural testing is learning to act like a Japanese person would in similar circumstances. Americans might get frustrated or even angry at the amount of bureaucracy and lack of English at the testing center. That will get you nowhere, and more likely, will prolong the torture because you are completely at the mercy of the employees who work there. So instead, I spent a lot of time apologizing. Apologizing for not knowing how to write my address in kanji. Apologizing for having to ask for clarification on something explained to me in quickly spoken Japanese. Apologizing for not signalling my turn 30 meters before where I am turning even though in real life, nobody does that.

You’ll also learn how strongly the Japanese view of equality among peers is. It doesn’t matter that you arrived first thing in the morning, drew the first card for the practical test and finished your test 2 hours before the last person who arrived did. You will be expected to sit and wait until every person has finished their testing before you can go on to the next step of the process. Whenever there is a group of people in the same status, you will all wait as a group until everyone has completed that step in the process.

People ask me the secret to passing the practical test and I really have no answer. On my passing day, about 30 foreign license holders took the practical with me in the morning and when the group who had passed was gathered together, it was myself and one other woman (and a handful of Japanese) who had passed that day. The passing rate is supposed to be 30% for foreigners but we accounted for less than 10%.

The proctor I had was the same one I had the first time I failed the test. He was so strict, when I saw that I was in his car, I immediately thought I was going to fail again. The first time he tested me, he had his pen in his hand and was marking off points from the second I pulled away from the curb. This day was completely different. The first day, he spoke completely in Japanese and I didn’t even think he could speak any English. On my passing day, he gave me instructions in Japanese and repeated the number of the location I was supposed to turn at in English! As far as marking down my mistakes, I didn’t even see him pick up his pen until we were almost three-quarters of the way done with the testing.

My only explanation for his change in behavior is that I demonstrated that I took his comments about my driving to heart from when he had failed me two weeks earlier. At the time, I thought it was a little ridiculous that I would fail a drivers test over such small details, but as he explained it to me, I listened intently and clarified (in my broken Japanese) what he had explained to me. Getting him as my tester again turned out to be a Godsend because he was able to see that I took his advice from the first time. And I believe that’s all it took to pass on the third attempt.

I mentioned that the process of getting a Japanese drivers license is a humbling experience and now that I have finished it, I can say for certain that it is. Nearly every step of the process, you will be reminded that you aren’t Japanese, especially if you aren’t language fluent. Even if you are language fluent, you’ll be flabbergasted by the bureaucracy and “Japanese-ness” of the process. But in the long run, the process should serve as a reminder that we are strangers in a strange land, that what seems right to us seems wrong to others, and learning how to maneuver within the context of the culture is the best way to accomplish things.

Remembering Kenji Goto

It’s taken a while for me to process what the tragic death of Kenji Goto, the Japanese journalist murdered by ISIS, means to me. Here in Japan, it seemed the public stance before his execution was a little cold; that he knew the risks when he traveled to Syria and he put himself in harm’s way. But that stance has seemed to melt away quickly after his death as people begin to realize what a selfless man Goto was, reporting on the plight of the Syrian children, shedding light on conflict and genocide in African nations, and the inequality in education for girls in Afghanistan. He was living out in a very dangerous way God’s heart for the poor and oppressed of this world.

Though the death of Goto is a terrible loss, especially for his family: his parents, his wife and three children, we must take heart that they will be reunited one day. And through his tragic death, his life has become a beacon of light to his country, shining the message of the gospel in the darkness for all to see. For all he has done for the people of Syria and other places where people are being oppressed, what he has done for his own people is even greater.

It is an honor to call you brother, Kenji Goto. May you rest peacefully in the arms of your Savior, Jesus Christ. Otsukare sama deshita.

On Facing My Fears

 

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32

Today, I visited Sayama Park at the eastern shore of Lake Tama, about 11km from my house. I sat in the park feeling an incredible sense of peace and satisfaction. It wasn’t so much because I was at Sayama Park; it was more about how I got there. I drove myself there, navigating the often narrow and confusing streets of suburban Tokyo. It took me over 30 minutes (and yes, that breaks down to about 20km per hour, or for you Americans, 13mph), but I did it.

But that’s not where the story begins. The story begins earlier in the day when I sat on the side of my bed praying for nearly 10 minutes for the courage to get in the car and drive somewhere. You see, I have a fear of driving in Tokyo. Between the narrow streets often wide enough for 1.5 cars, confusing road signage, bikes and pedestrians that seem to dart out of nowhere, driving in Tokyo seems to stress me out. The nearest grocery store is about 2km away and I literally have to make 4 turns to get there including the one out of our driveway, but I still procrastinate driving there. I’d rather ride my bike actually.

While I’m in confession mode, I’m afraid of a lot of things here, actually. I’m afraid of trying to converse with a store clerk or waiter or policeman and not having enough vocabulary to communicate what I want to say. I’m afraid of saying something totally wrong and looking like an idiot, like when I tried to tell a shop clerk “No bag.” and ended up saying “No hat.” I’m afraid to try anything other than the ramen I’ve already ordered at my favorite ramen shop because I don’t know how to read the menu properly and might get something I totally didn’t want to eat.

I know it sounds ridiculous but there are honestly times I’d rather shut myself up inside the house and not have to say a word to anyone in any language except English and not have to think about driving on the left side of the road, and not have to wonder if I should apologize to someone for something that’s not even my fault, because that’s the way Japanese people do things.

I’m not saying these things because I don’t like Japan. I love Japan. I love living here and making new friends and renewing old friendships. I love being able to get in the car and navigate to a new and wonderful place. I love ordering food I’ve never had before and finding out its delicious.

I’m saying these things because I have to admit that I have fears and more often than not, they are irrational and childish. But at the time, they are real to me, hovering over me like monsters, chiding me to stay at home and lock the doors and shut the curtains. Which is why I found myself today sitting on the side of my bed praying for the courage to do something as simple as get in the car and drive somewhere. It was in that prayer that God reminded me when I get in the car, He’s already there with me. Wherever I’m going, He’s already there waiting. Like a father waits with outstretched arms for his baby to take his first steps, He is already there.

Which is why I felt such satisfaction sitting in Sayama Park on this beautiful late summer day. As He promised, God was with me. I might even say the drive was enjoyable, almost relaxing. On the way home, I even went by the grocery store and picked up my suits from the dry cleaners.

If it crosses your mind, pray for me, actually, pray for our whole family, to be courageous and face our fears as we live out our lives in Japan. Our fears of speaking in Japanese. Our fears of making new acquaintances. Our fears of learning to do something in a whole new way.

Getting Into A Groove

With my wife at work and the kids back at school, the house is either a lonely or quiet place, depending on the day. But now that the rest of the family is busy, it has given me inspiration to find a schedule that works for me.

When we were getting ready to come to Japan, we had already decided that I would dedicate the better part of a year to “language and cultural acquisition”. That’s just a fancy way of saying that I would study Japanese and experience as much of living in Japan as I can from a local perspective. This was clearly communicated to our supporters so there would be no question as to why I wasn’t jumping headfirst into ministry opportunities (though in a limited way, I have done that too).

The value of language acquisition is fairly straightforward; if you’re going to get beyond surface conversation with most Japanese people, you have to know how to speak their “heart language”. Japanese is so rich with expressions and nuances that are difficult to express in English. What might take 10 minutes to explain in English can be said in a simple Japanese phrase that will light up a Japanese person’s eyes.

Beyond that, it is frustrating to have to ask for help from a friend to read documents or visit the city office to get something done. Thank God for our friends who have been so helpful in this area. If you ever want to experience your “second childhood”, try moving to a country where you can barely speak, read or write the local language. It is a humbling experience to say the least. I’m looking forward to the day I can carry on a decent conversation and read enough to visit a bank or government office by myself.

That said, I have started finding a groove in language study. Once or twice a week, I study for 4 hours on Rosetta Stone, which is teaching me reading, listening and speaking skills. It’s something I have to do at home because it would be, well, awkward to be out in public doing speaking exercises with my computer. Once a week, I meet my friend Mark to go out to a cafe to study; on these days, I can practice my reading and writing. Also once a week, I meet my wife’s cousin and her husband for lunch and we exchange Japanese and English conversation and instruction for a couple of hours.

Cultural acquisition takes place on a number of levels. The first is simply learning how to live like a local. That means shopping where they shop and eating where they eat. Admittedly, in Japan, none of these things is a huge challenge for us. We love Japanese food. We love shopping in Japanese stores. But we also experience the problems they experience. The incredible bureaucracy involved in any major (and many minor) processes. Having to wait in the doctor’s office waiting room because they don’t take appointments. Getting smooshed into a rush hour train.

But then there are the experiences of doing things the locals enjoy. Attending a summer festival. Going for a hike in the mountains. Cheering on the local baseball team. In a city with a population larger than the population of entire countries, there seems to be endless things to do and see. There is even a monthly magazine, “Tokyo Walker”, packed with information about events, restaurants and neighborhood attractions. 

When we do these things, we don’t want people to get the idea that we’re playing tourist. The exact opposite is actually true; we are trying to live out our lives here like we were born and raised in Japan. Tim Svoboda, President of YWAM San Francisco said this: “The job of the [M] is to fall in love with the place they are in.” The main reason we are exploring our city of Tokyo (and hopefully the country of Japan) is to better understand the people who make up Tokyo and Japan, because to understand them is to grow to love them more deeply. And to adequately share the gospel, we must have that deep love for those whom we serve.

You’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts from now on describing some of the local culture and activities of Tokyoites. Don’t worry; this isn’t becoming a travel blog. It’s simply a way for me to process what I am learning about the local culture and share it with you. I hope you will enjoy these posts as much as the updates about our ministry, because, in fact, they are truly an important part of our ministry!

Ichinomiya: Second Home

We arrived in Ichinomiya yesterday afternoon to overcast skies and a cool ocean breeze which felt so good after the heat of our Saitama summer days (yes, we technically live in Saitama, by way of some bizarre city borders).

We first came to Ichinomiya almost 14 years ago, with a 4 month old baby boy. It was a time when we didn’t even realize we would be involved in ministry in this town 10 years later, let alone move to Japan as full time ministry workers. I remember walking from the house across the busy highway to the beach, dipping my feet in the cool but not cold water and thinking how beautiful and peaceful this place was.

Today, standing in exactly the same place with my feet in the same water, I felt the same feelings. But the beauty and peace this town brings me is no longer just a surface feeling, but a feeling in my heart. We have so many friends here, people we love and have worked shoulder to shoulder with for the sake of the gospel.

In a few days, our California team will arrive and we will begin another year of summer ministry in this area. It will be non-stop, exhausting days, full of the joy of working hard for the Lord. But today was just another sleepy day in Ichinomiya, a meal with friends, a shopping spree at Beisha, a soft creme cone eaten hastily before it melts in the hot summer sun. God’s blessings are on this place and I, for today, have enjoyed soaking up some of that blessing before the days get a little crazy.