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.

 

What is Seijin Shiki?

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to take portraits of a young lady from a family who, like us, came to Japan last year to share the hope in Jesus Christ with the people of Japan. The occasion was Seijin Shiki, an event that nearly every Japanese girl (and many boys) look forward to participating in.

Seijin Shiki is the ceremony celebrating the Japanese coming of age, which is 20 years old. Like turning 18 or 21 in many other countries, at 20 years old, a Japanese person is considered an adult and receives all the responsibilities of adulthood. In America, many young adults informally celebrate this time on their 21st birthdays (often with a trip to Las Vegas on the West Coast), but in Japan, any young adult turning 20 before April 2nd of the year of the ceremony celebrates on the same day, the 2nd Monday in January.

On that day, young people can be seen sauntering about town in their finest clothes, or at least the finest clothes they could rent. For women, this usually includes wearing furisode, the most formal and colorful type of kimono for single women, and having their hair and makeup professionally done. For men, it can be either a formal black kimono or a Western style suit.

The Seijin Shiki day is generally comprised of three possible components. First, there is a ceremony that takes place at the city hall of the city where the young person resides. They are formally recognized as adults by the city officials and given a token gift from the city.

Second is a photo session wearing the fantastic outfits that are often so expensive, they can only be rented. These photo sessions often take place at shrines, where young people and their families can also take a minute to pray for a good future. Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a very popular shrine on this day owing the fact that the area is popular with young people to begin with.

Lastly, but most importantly, the rest of the day is dedicated to friends and family. Some will have lunch at a fancy restaurant with their family and others will meet up with a group of friends and go out on the town, shopping, eating, and possibly taking their first legal drink together.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph our friend decked out in a lovely furisode at a community tea garden not far from our church. Not long ago, I was introduced to a woman who teaches kimono dressing by a mutual friend and she was able to not only provide a lovely kimono to rent but help with the complex dressing process. (Not every kimono is so difficult to put on but this is one of the most formal styles and is usually done with help from a professional or experienced person). We all had a wonderful and enjoyable time.

For some young people, however, this event can be more bitter than sweet. I was recently contacted by our friends in Chiba, asking if I could take portraits of a girl they knew for Seijin Shiki next month. This girl is one of the alumni of the Children’s home we’ve been serving at for the past several years. An organization our friends participate in is putting on a special event for young people from the home celebrating Seijin Shiki. Some of them don’t have families to celebrate with and most don’t have the kind of money it takes to rent the fancy clothing and take photographs of the event, so the organization is helping to facilitate that.

It’s funny how God keeps finding ways to tie my passion for photography in with my passion for sharing the hope of the gospel. When we first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure how useful my photography experience would be to our ministry and now I find so much of my personal ministry is being built on it. Praise God for using what little I have to offer for His glory!

 

The Canopy of Autumn

Growing up in the mild climate of the Bay Area, one thing we definitely missed was the dramatic turn from warm to cold weather signaled by the autumn foliage. It wasn’t until I visited the eastern Sierras in October of 2011 that I realized what I was missing. Needless to say, coming to Japan where both Autumn and Spring bring spectacles of nature that the entire country goes crazy over was an incredible experience for us.

To say that Japan is crazy over the changing autumn leaves is an understatement. Because cherry blossom season is so short in the Spring, popular places to view cherry blossoms tend to be packed with people for a short period of time. But because the autumn colors tend to last longer and experience a week or more at “peak colors”, the crowds don’t seem to be as intense, though the overall numbers probably match their Spring counterparts.

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There are, of course, websites for tracking the changing leaves across the country. And this is a great thing because you wouldn’t want to trek out to a remote location only to find the leaves haven’t changed colors yet.

It just so happens that one of the best places to view autumn colors in the Saitama prefecture is a mere bicycle ride from our house. And a bicycle is perfect because during peak colors, the streets surrounding the location are a gridlock of cars searching in vain for a parking space.

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The location is the grounds of a Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The temple itself takes up only a small portion of the forest, but the leaves are best viewed against the classic backdrop of ancient Japanese architecture, as some of the buildings were built in the late 17th century.

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The rest of the space is a woodland preserve of the Musashino Forest, a rarity in such an urban environment. On a quiet day, one can walk seemingly alone through a stretch of forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a raccoon dog or other animal not commonly seen in the surrounding city. But there are no quiet days for walks during the autumn leaves season. Hundreds of people wander the park on weekdays and thousands on weekends.

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Still, every once in a while when the crowds disperse for a few minutes, one can get the sense of standing beneath a tapestry of color only the mind of God could have created, breathing in the cool, earthy air and feeling the fall breeze on your face. And in that moment, a whispered “Hallelujah” might escape your lips because to witness autumn in Japan is a glimpse of God’s glory yet to come.

No words can really describe the beauty so I leave you with a few more photos to savor.

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Miyabi – A Lesson In Japanese Culture

If Japanese culture can be seen around us every day in the little things, like a meticulously trimmed bonsai in a bank lobby or an omamori (good luck charm) dangling from a cell phone strap, Miyabi lies at the opposite end of the spectrum as a grandiose, in-your-face display of all things beautiful about Japan.

Miyabi is a three-day event hosted at Meguro Gajoen, a large and famous hotel which is itself known for its over-the-top display of Japanese culture. Gajoen is primarily a wedding venue and as such, has built an environment of perfect backgrounds for Japanese wedding photos. One side of the building is almost exclusively a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a Japanese garden, complete with waterfalls, zen stone garden and koi ponds. As all gardens in Japan, the look changes dramatically from season to season with a little help from both nature and a talented grounds-keeping staff.

But back to Miyabi. This event brings together many of the arts that are collectively known as bunka, Japanese culture. Traditional dance, music, kimono, ikebana (flower arranging), shodou (calligraphy), and other arts are performed for the public in this breathtaking venue, all free of charge. If you were in Tokyo for a week and wanted a crash course on Japanese culture, just spend three days here and you’d be swimming in it.

My friend Paul Nethercott and I went to Miyabi to support Sheila, a woman who attends Paul’s church and whose work a film team we are working with from Huntington University in Indiana will be making a part of a documentary on this month. It is easiest to describe Sheila as a kimono expert and aficionado though officially, she is much more than that. With the depth of her knowledge about kimono, she is a national treasure to Japan.

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On the day we attended, there was an oiran procession which Sheila’s daughter took part in. Oiran were the highest class of courtesan and in their day often attained celebrity status. Paul joked that the oiran’s costume could put Lady Gaga to shame and indeed, the oiran set the standard of haute couture in the same way Lady Gaga affects ours today.

We also viewed a kimono fashion show which Sheila herself was involved in. Though I expected the beautiful traditional kimono, there was a great representation of modern twists on the kimono for the younger generation: shades of punk, goth and good old rock and roll.

After the show we toured a room full of incredible ikebana, plants and flowers representing the New Year arranged in intricate shapes and designs. Ikebana is actually more than just flower arrangement; it’s the art of arranging living flowers.

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Finally, we watched a performance by Yosakoi, a group combining traditional Japanese dance with coordinated flag waving. Several of the flags were on poles 4 to 5 meters longs and were waved gracefully over the heads of the audience. It was an energetic show of skill and stamina.

One might wonder why it is important as a Japanese ministry worker to attend and experience Japanese cultural events. The answer lies in the fact that the culture of a people reveals a lot about the keys to their hearts. If we examine each aspect of Japanese culture individually, one or more facets of the heart of the Japanese is revealed to us. And without a doubt, the very same things that Japanese value in their culture can be found in the gospel. Many Japanese view the Bible as a foreign work of literature and Christianity as a Western religion. But as we better understand Japanese culture, we can relate aspects of the Japanese culture to the Word of God, demonstrating that the Bible is God’s love story for all mankind.

One fine example is the art of tea ceremony. Our friend and co-laborer Matt Burns created a wonderful short called “Serving Through Tradition” that relates the tradition of serving tea to Biblical teachings. Several pastors in Japan are practitioners of tea ceremony as a way of connecting Japanese culture to the gospel.

Serving Through Tradition 茶道:伝統を通して奉仕する from CRASH Japan on Vimeo.

Tim Svoboda, President of YWAM San Francisco, gave us some sage advice in his Perspectives class: “The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place they are in.” Everyday, God gives us a new and deeper love for the country of Japan, its culture and its people.

Life in Japan: Shichi-Go-San

Passing by a Shinto shrine of any repute during the week leading up to November 15th and you will see them: tiny people dressed to the nines in equally tiny kimono and hakama. They are Japanese children of the ages of three, five or seven years old. In one hand they clutch a treasure, chitose ame, thousand year candy (not thousand year OLD candy; that would be gross), in a bag decorated with turtles and cranes, animals renowed for long lives. Often they are accompanied by grandparents who also take the occasion to deck out in their finest traditional attire.

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The occasion is Shichi-Go-San, literally translated to “Seven, Five, Three”. Girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five are given a “rite of passage” of sorts which consists of a visit to the shrine and a blessing by a Shinto priest. Modern times dictate that as long as you went through the trouble and expense of getting the kids dressed up (often in rented clothing), you might as well bring out the camera or hire a photographer for a family portrait at the same time.

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Why the years seven, five and three only? Anyone who has traveled through Asia knows numerology is taken very seriously here. The Chinese are especially crazy over the number eight, while the Japanese prefer odd numbers. Except the number 9 of course, which can be pronounced the same as the word for “death” and should naturally be avoided. Are you following me so far? Also, Japanese used to follow the rule that a person was one year old at birth. Take one and nine out of the equation and you are left with three, five and seven as your odd, single-digit numbers. Tada!

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The tradition likely originated from times when common diseases claimed the lives of many children before they could grow to adulthood, thus the focus of the ceremony on long life and health. In many ways, Shichigosan was a response to the fear of losing one’s child prematurely. At the time, it probably made a lot of sense to parents and gave them a sense of peace. Today, of course, it’s mainly a matter of tradition and perhaps an opportunity for a nice photo to put on the New Year’s Card. To be Japanese, it is reasoned, is to observe the religious traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism; whether or not you believe in them is your own business.

Though the gods of Shintoism have no authority over life or death, thousands of children will be taken to a shrine for this beautiful yet empty ceremony. Our hope and prayer is that one day, Japanese parents will dress their children in their finest kimono and hakama and take them to church to have a pastor pray a blessing over them from God our Father and Creator, and not just for health and long life, but for eternal life through Christ Jesus. Or better yet, that the parents themselves pray a blessing over their own children in the name of Jesus, because as children of the one true God, we have the right to approach Him directly and make our requests known!

 

Black (Burger) Thursday

The Burger King “black burger” received quite a bit of press in America, probably more so than here in Japan. If my friends didn’t mention it to me on Facebook, I might have easily missed the fact that Burger King Japan launched its second foray into the “black burger” market. Anyway, I got multiple requests from people to try and report on it. I haven’t eaten at an American style fast food restaurant since we got here (if you disallow the McD’s melon shake we tried one hot summer day), so this was a special just for you.

If you don’t know what the Burger King “Kuro” burger is, it’s basically a hamburger with a jet black bun, black cheese and a black sauce replacing the catsup. The bun and cheese are mixed with bamboo charcoal to give it the black coloring. The sauce is reportedly colored with squid ink. The meat itself is marketed as “black” but doesn’t look anymore black than a slightly overcooked regular patty. Apparently it is seasoned with black pepper, but enough black pepper to turn the patty black would be pretty horrific to actually eat. So let’s just call it a darker shade of brown.

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The nearest Burger King is at a station a couple stops away from ours, so my friend Mark and I boarded the train and set out on our quest. Sure enough, outside the restaurant there is prominent advertising for the Kuro Diamond and Kuro Pearl. Just so you know the difference, the Diamond has lettuce, onions, tomato and mayo and costs a lot more than the Pearl. Other than that, not much difference.

We both ordered the Kuro Diamond set, which came with a Coke or a Coke Zero, which are both black. Kuro shei-ku o motte imasu ka? Do you have a black shake? My lame attempt at a joke elicited a slight giggle from the staff. No kuro fries either, gaijin.

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The first thing you notice is that the size of the burger is pretty small, about the size of a regular hamburger in a Burger King in America. The difference is that hamburger costs you 99 cents, this one 690 yen with a drink. And, did I mention, it’s black?

The second thing you notice is that it is wrapped in a black wrapper. Many years ago when I first came to Japan, one of my friends insisted I visit Burger King and order a hamburger because, in his words, “they make it look exactly like it does in the advertising!” And indeed, it was handed to you in a little box, perfectly made like the one in all the pictures. Well some things have changed in Japan, at least at Burger King. Because of the tight paper wrapping, the hamburger comes out looking a bit squished, just like one made in America. And because it is black, perhaps it comes out looking just a little more morose than a regular burger. You be the judge.

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But how does it taste? That’s what everyone really wants to know, right? Well, with apologies for being anti-climactic, just so-so. In fact, it tastes pretty much like any other Burger King hamburger, with a little more pepper and a salty flavor from the black sauce rather than the sweet, vinegar flavor of catsup. Of course, it looks far more disgusting than a regular hamburger and costs a little more too.

Stealing a few glances around at the rest of the patrons in the restaurant, not one other person was eating the Kuro burger. The guy at the table next to us was drinking an iced coffee and reading a newspaper, in fact. What do you think this is sir, a Starbucks? Apparently, we were the only suckers falling for this gastronomic trickery today.

After this, I’m seriously going to have to think twice before accepting any food challenges from the folks back home. Hey Todd, did you try the fugu yet? How about the natto ice cream? I mean, why can’t someone challenge me to eat the Lemon Cream Cheese donut at Krispy Kreme Japan? Or the Pineapple Whip Cream Pancakes at Eggs n Things in Odaiba?

Anyway, now I have eaten this creature so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. Until next time, eat well and eat safe!

Stumbling Through Heirin-ji Temple

I finally found a benefit for my Japanese illiteracy. About 3 miles from my house is large park containing a fairly prominent Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The park itself is famous for incredible fall foliage, when many of the trees have leaves that turn fiery red, in contrast with the ones that stay brilliant green. Rather than waiting for the leaves to fully turn (and draw crowds of admirers from around the region), I decided to scout out the park on a nice summer day. The 500 yen entrance fee also came with free attended parking for my bicycle, which the very helpful woman who collected my money allowed me to park just outside her window.

At first, I was a bit disappointed to find out that 2 or 3 of the main buildings are under renovation, which means not only can you not go into them, but also that they are covered with screens and scaffolding that appear in the background of other photographs you shoot if you are not careful. As I wondered if I wasted 500 yen, I came to a huge building with a sign next to the open door. I scanned the sign for any kanji or phrases that I recognized but found nothing, so I went inside. At the front entrance, there was a place to leave your shoes and slippers to put on, typical of any building in Japan expecting visitors.

Since it was still summer and few leaves had even barely begun to turn red, I had virtually the entire complex to myself. So naturally when I stepped inside the building and didn’t see anyone else, I wasn’t surprised. I began snapping photos of the beautiful interior of the building, which housed the temple and several other rooms. One hallway led to the kitchen where the monks who lived on the complex prepared their meals. I had never seen a more simple yet elegant kitchen, now silent and dark except for the soft light filtering through the shoji screened windows.

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As I walked quietly around the complex, I passed a room where a monk was praying. He undoubtedly heard me as I walked to and fro, the shutter of my camera clicking away, but he made no attempt to talk to me. I walked down the hall past a gorgeous courtyard garden until I reached the rear of the complex where a wall of sliding glass doors separated the hallway from a huge, beautifully manicured zen garden. Outside one of the sliding doors were a couple dozen sets of rubber slippers, so I slid open the door, put on some slippers and took a walk outside in the garden. I took pictures for about half an hour before sitting and just drinking in the beauty of the place and the loud chirping of the semi (cicadas) in the trees all around. Finally, I went back inside, took a few more shots in the hallways, and left the way I came.

I was a little curious as to why I saw no one else in the building (except for the monk I saw praying and a few more who were talking in a room that I stayed away from to keep from bothering them). On a whim, I snapped a photo of the sign next to the door and sent it to a friend who could read Japanese to translate it for me. Her answer: “Please refrain from proceeding beyond this point.” Oops.

In truth, after I found out my mistake, I didn’t feel bad about trespassing because I am quite sure at least one of the monks knew I was in there taking pictures and yet he said nothing to me. Also, I was a very respectful guest and I did not touch anything, go into any rooms that weren’t already open and I spent a lot of time admiring their beautiful garden. Perhaps next time, they will invite me to have tea with them!

Later, as I walked alone in the forest around the complex, I understood why I was so alone in the park; I was a one man feast for the hordes of mosquitoes living there. Mosquito season officially ends in November in Japan when the weather gets too cold for them to survive. That will probably be the next time I visit to enjoy the fiery Autumn foliage.

One thing Christians and Buddhists can agree on is that is easy to see God’s handiwork in nature. His fingerprints are in all the details of the forest, from the perfect moss growing from the forest floor to the grand trees over our heads. I can’t wait to return to see it again in November.