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.

Beauty from Ashes, Hope from Despair

Note: While trying to stay as factual as possible, the details of this story were conveyed to us only in Japanese and I cannot confirm everything is absolutely correct. The great news is that with the help of filmmaker Matthew Burns, my friend Paul Nethercott will be releasing a video of Mrs. Fukuoka’s story in the near future. This story only scratches the surface of the story the video will help tell about her. I will link to the video when it is completed.

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Standing on the porch of the new Fukuoka house, now elevated a few feet from its original foundation, one can hear the quiet roar of the ocean beyond the fifteen foot tall cement barrier built to protect the neighborhood from a tsunami. Assuming, of course, the tsunami in question is less than fifteen feet high itself and not the terrifying wave of destruction that occurred in March 2011, which was in many areas of the coast, far greater. Alongside the road running parallel with the coast, a grotesquely twisted guard rail remains where it lay after being manhandled by the power of the water.

We are greeted at the door by Kai-kun, the Shiba dog whose amazing story plays an role in Mrs. Fukuoka’s emotional recovery from the tsunami. Inside the Fukuoka house, Mrs. Fukuoka shows us a few of the many crafts she has been working on lately. Besides the lovely seaglass necklaces that my friend Paul Nethercott has been selling to help raise support for the 2 Criminals film project, she shows us adorable things she has been sewing: purses and bags. And with the seaglass, she has moved beyond just necklaces, now making earrings and candle holders.

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Soon, we are walking down toward the beach, along a road that was once lined by the houses of Mrs. Fukuoka’s neighbors. Most have gone now, some taken by the surging sea, some moved on to other areas, some still stuck in temporary housing. Mrs. Fukuoka reckons all the neighbors who intend to return have already come back, a few family homes scattered around the desolation now overgrown with weeds and littered with debris. But for the ones who have chosen to return, they are very close, sharing a bond only those who survived such a traumatic event could share.

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On the hill behind the Fukuoka house is the building where Mrs. Fukuoka watched the waters sweep over her neighborhood and eventually over her house. The presence of the hill and her instinct to run up it probably saved her life, but from that view, she watched the horror of the power of the tsunami unfold. The family dog, Kai-kun, was tied up at the house when the tsunami came. It wasn’t until the following day that she learned he had gotten free and somehow managed to swim to safety. Miracle number one.

Weeks later, as Mrs. Fukuoka struggled with the emotional weight of the disaster, she began to take Kai-kun for walks on the beach. The beach made Kai-kun happy and his happiness in turn made her happy. It was on one of those walks when Mrs. Fukuoka first saw the glimmer in the sand of a smoothly polished piece of seaglass. Garbage and other debris were constantly washing up on local beaches for months after the tsunami, but this seaglass, there was a beauty in it. Sure, most of it had probably gone into the ocean as a result of the tsunami but the sea had returned it in a new shape, as something beautiful. Miracle number two.

On her daily walks on the beach with Kai-kun, Mrs. Fukuoka would find many pieces of seaglass of all shapes and sizes. Using fine wire and nimble fingers, she creates unique necklace pendants and earrings. Many of her creations end up being given away to friends and other people she meets. Paul has purchased hundreds of her pieces to sell, helping raise awareness and funding for the movie project.  But for her, it is part of her healing process, to take back from the sea something of beauty and use it to bless someone else.

Indeed, there is no better word to describe this woman than “blessing”. Instead of choosing hopelessness, bitterness or despair, she chooses to infuse beauty and love into the lives of others. As we sat around her table listening to her and her husband talk about their lives and family, it was obvious that they, like Kai-kun, were meant to live, meant to bring hope to the people around them.

The upcoming video was meant to be a blessing to Mrs. Fukuoka, to aid in her emotional healing by giving her an audience to hear her story. As we reluctantly said our goodbyes to her, it was less clear whether the blessing was on her or more so on us that day.

All Things Japanese – Mizuhiki

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My mother, being the serious crafter she is, asked me if I could send her some Japanese decorations she could use to make cards with. I knew what she wanted was mizuhiki, an art form in Japan involving strands of stiff cord that are shaped into beautiful designs. It so happened that we had a bag of mizuhiki stored in our house from many years ago (don’t ask me how this happens) so I got the bag out to send some to my mother. Of course, the mizuhiki turned out to be so beautiful I had to photograph them before I sent them.

Mizuhiki are used in Japan to adorn cards, basically the way we use ribbons or bows in America. I have a couple of examples of cards made with mizuhiki here.

Mizuhiki can also be wire sculptures given as gifts for special occasions. They are usually sculpted into the forms of animals or other objects that can be displayed in people’s homes. Originally, mizuhiki was used to tie up the hair of samurai. Undoubtably, the ties became more and more ornamental. Today, modern jewelers are taking a riff from mizuhiki and creating mizuhiki inspired jewelry. Just another case of how modern Japanese preserve a centuries old art form for future generations to appreciate.

All Things Japanese – Tenugui 手拭い

Tenugui - how Japanese make everyday things beautiful

Tenugui – how Japanese make everyday things beautiful.

One thing I admire most about Japanese culture is how it celebrates beauty in everyday things. Modern Tokyo, and I daresay modern Japan, is not beautiful. Japan has traded the beauty of wood and paper buildings for the time and disaster enduring qualities of concrete and steel. Old Japan was expected to fall to destruction regularly, by fire, earthquake or other disaster. Modern Japan is built to withstand these disasters but at the cost of the elegance of eras gone by.

Yet the beauty of Japan remains in the little things, such as the humble tenugui. The tenugui is simply a thin strip of cloth, much longer than it is wide. It is generally made of a thin cotton with unfinished edges that are often already fringing. It can be used for a variety of things, though it has commonly been used as a hand towel for the lack of napkins and paper towels in Japanese establishments, a scarf, a headband on stifling hot Japanese summer days, or to wrap and carry small objects.

Based on that description, a tenugui could be any cheap strip of cotton, sold in quantity at the 100 yen shop and thrown away once it was soiled. But to the Japanese, the tenugui has become something of an art form. Almost every tenugui has some sort of print on it. Because Japan loves its four seasons, there are often prints depicting symbols or activities of each season, like tonbo (dragonflies) in the  Summer, or hana no sakura (cherry blossoms) for Spring.

Recently, I received a gift of a tenugui that went beyond delightful into the category of “work of art”. The company that made it is called Hamamonyo and they are located in Yokohama. This particular tenugui was called a “book tenugui” because as you unfold it, it reveals different pictures of familiar objects. Hamamonyo apparently garnered a Good Design award, a national design award in Japan for objects and buildings that display exceptional aesthetic qualities.

The object in question in Mount Fuji, the universal symbol of Japan. As you carefully unfold the tenugui, it reveals different views of Mt. Fuji that are easily recognizable to those who have seen the great mountain at different times of the year or from different locations around it. The bottom half of the tenugui, once fully opened, reveals a large Mt. Fuji passing through the seasons.

In some sense, it is almost too beautiful to use. Yet, that’s the point of Japanese design, that beautiful things are designed to be seen and used. I know when the time comes, I’m going to have a hard time wiping my face with this tenugui, but when I receive my first compliment on it, I know it will be worth it.

Here are a few more photos of the tenugui “book” as I paged through the different frames.

Red Fuji

Red Fuji

Upside down Fuji

Upside down Fuji

Cap Cloud

Cap Cloud

Diamond Fuji

Diamond Fuji

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Tenugui with card and instructions (in English!)

Tenugui with card and instructions (in English!)