Out With the Old, In With the New

This past weekend, Rikko Preschool, the site of our upcoming English Summer Camp, held a ceremony to bid farewell to their old school building which is being demolished this week. Kids and parents alike gleefully wrote, drew or painted on the walls of the buildings and classrooms, everything from “Thank you” messages to piles of poop (Japanese kids love to draw poop).

Though the event was announced only a couple days earlier, hundreds of children and parents came to the event. It was easy to see the love the community has for the preschool and the nostalgia associated with the old building. One of our church members even made a cake in the shape of the old building to commemorate the event. Our pastor presided over the ceremony and it was wonderful to hear him and the president of the school remind people that Rikko is a Christian preschool, a fact that until recently was not well-known or well communicated to the alumni families.

The highlight was being able to tour the brand new building for the first time, and it was so exciting to see how beautiful and spacious it is. With its wood flooring, large windows and open spaces, it has an airy feeling of being connected to the outside space. There are many large, well stocked classrooms and best of all, a chapel that is probably larger than the chapel of our own church. It was not difficult to envision how the space will be used this summer for our English camp, but beyond that, we can imagine that huge chapel being filled every week for worship service with members of the community who have never had the opportunity to attend church before.

A very pleasant surprise was the cross-shaped window above the main entryway, forever a reminder to those who come of Rikko’s roots as a Christian institution. As God has blessed Rikko with such a beautiful new facility, we pray that it can be used for His glory, to share the gospel of Jesus with the families of Rikko and the surrounding neighborhood.

Tea and Gospel

It began as a simple cultural experience opportunity. A very generous woman from church invited us to attend a tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯) demonstration at a local community tea house and thought it would be an enjoyable experience for some of us from church who were from America. We were able to try several different demonstrations, from making our own tea to having tea made and served to us.

At one point, we were joined by a jovial older man who was surprised to see a group of non-Japanese people participating in the event. As we observed the playful way he interacted with the rest of the people hosting the event, it became clear to us who he was: the head teacher of the tea school. Apart from his love of jokes and teasing, his love of tea ceremony was obvious. He began to wax philosophical: “It would be so wonderful if you could experience tea and kaiseki together…” Kaiseki is a traditional preparation of Japanese cuisine in several small individual dishes. Depending on the complexity of the meal, kaiseki could be 5 simple dishes to over a dozen more complex creations.

We agreed that tea ceremony and kaiseki would be lovely, in that moment forgetting that the act of agreeing with him was already a commitment to the future event. Less than two weeks later, our friend from church was contacting us again: would we be available to experience cha-kaiseki (kaiseki meal followed by tea ceremony) with our friendly host preparing all the details?

As it happened, the timing could not be more perfect. My mother was visiting from the States and this was an experience that not many visitors would have the opportunity to participate in.

What we did not realize was that this was a private event just for us. Five of us from church were the guests with the teacher and one of his students serving us. What was most amazing were his words to us at the end:

“The enjoyment of the event was mostly for my student [the woman who served the meal and tea]. It is her pleasure to have guests to practice serving.”

And this is the truth about the tea ceremony. The idea of tea ceremony is that the pleasure is for the host, even though he or she is seemingly doing all the work. But the entire tea culture is based on serving others not out of obligation but out of pleasure. And here in tea culture we find one of the hidden connections between Japanese culture and the gospel message.

As the host of the tea ceremony serves out of his pleasure, so our Lord Jesus served out of his love for us. And Jesus reminded us that we should serve others in the same way when he said: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now, of course, after only two interactions with this tea teacher, we are not yet in a position to explain this connection between tea and the gospel to him. But even as we concluded this past experience, we had already began to lay plans for a future one. This is how we build bridges to people groups in the community that we might not normally have access to, having a sincere interest in their lives while hoping they will express the same interest in ours.

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.

Shichigosan - Boy and his Grandmother

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!