Another Christmas Season in Japan

If there is any particularly difficult season to be overseas, it would definitely be Christmas. It’s a time of year normally spent with family and friends and there is an excitement in the air that is very different from the rest of the year. Living in Tokyo, Christmas seems very different to us. We are thousands of miles from our families and though the outward signs of Christmas are apparent in decorations and the beautiful winter “illuminations” that many parks and neighborhoods setup for this time of year, the spiritual emptiness of the season is also very real. Most Japanese, knowing little about Jesus and the reason we celebrate Christmas, do not celebrate in the same way we do in America. Christmas day isn’t even a holiday in Japan, so with people going to work or school like any other day, it all seems so, well, normal.

Yet it is during this season that we are most aware of why we are here. We pray for the day when the people of Japan recognize Christmas in the same way we do: the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of hope to mankind. So one of the pleasures of the season is helping to introduce the gospel story to the people of Japan through the message of Christmas.

For our church, the Christmas season means a special Children’s Christmas Festival, where children both from the church and from the community come together to perform skits and music, play games and compete in indoor sports, make crafts and eat food. As most of activities, the idea is to allow people from the community to come into the church and see that we aren’t weird or dangerous. We are just regular people who are willing to admit we need a savior, and that savior can only be Jesus.

My small offering this year was once again taking family portraits. Though I was initially disappointed to find there were less families taking portraits this year, I was later happy to learn that there were more families who were not regular attendees of our church or church events who took photos. I had a team of people helping me and the care they took in helping families get the best possible portraits were hopefully noticed by those new families who came.

We also helped to host a Christmas party for our English Club with help from our pastors and other ministry workers from church. We made Christmas cookies and had a little photo booth to take fun Christmas pictures with the students. University students will go on break for about a month soon, so we wanted to send them off with something fun in the midst of their studying.

 

And no Christmas would be complete without the wonderful Christmas Gospel Choir concert. Choir members are practicing for this amazing concert for months in advance and it shows in their enthusiasm and the beautiful harmonies. The concert plays to a packed house of over 300 people, many of which are friends and families of choir members who are not yet believers (in fact, a number of choir members themselves are not yet believers). As I have previously mentioned, the gospel choir is one of the most effective outreaches to people who wouldn’t normally visit a church and hear the gospel message. Many members of our church became Christians through participating in the choir. As always, even the next generation of gospel choir members, from 3 to 13 years old, also performed and our pastors Seiji and Kathy gave a lighthearted gospel message in the middle of the concert.

And finally, we took a short trip to Kyoto for a little family time. We drove to Kyoto to save some money and it turned out to be an easy drive with very little traffic. We had a great few days of exploring the beautiful city of Kyoto, but we’ll save that for another post.

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We may never become used to the differences in celebrating Christmas in Japan compared to celebrating Christmas in America. And that’s okay, because in the end, it all comes down to a miracle over 2000 years ago, born as a humble King in Bethlehem.

A Christmas In Japan To Remember

My alarm woke me at 6:00am, 45 minutes before the sunrise. We had made a last minute decision to caravan to Lake Yamanaka with our neighbors, who had rented a cabin a cabin on the lake from Christmas until the new year. They had generously offered to let us stay a day or two with them and not having a better time available, we decided we’d better go up and spend our first Christmas Day in Japan there.

Grabbing my camera gear, I made my way out the door into the chill of the morning air. -4 degrees Celsius, 25 degrees Fahrenheit, biting at my face and my fingertips through my gloves. Crossing the road, I stood on the gravel shore of Lake Yamanaka. A fishing boat idled at a nearby pier, waiting for fishermen to arrive and board. Giant swans were waking from their slumber, stretching out their graceful necks and taking gulps of icy lake water.

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45 minutes later, the reddish-orange rays of the sunrise reached the peak of Fuji-san, igniting the snow like a faintly lit candle. With every passing minute, more and more of the peak was brought to colorful life by the rising sun. What a glorious way to usher in the birth of Jesus! I was reminded of the scripture from Isaiah 52,

How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
    who bring good tidings,
    who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
    “Your God reigns!”

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Later in the morning, we visited Oshino Hakkai, a set of 8 ponds fed by springs originating from Mt. Fuji which are now a tourist attraction. We shared the location with a couple bus loads of Chinese tourists and admired the crystal clear ponds full of beautiful huge fish that looked like trout. Fuji-san looked on from the distance, sometimes hiding in a shroud of clouds of its own making.

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For lunch, our friends took us out for a local Yamanashi dish, houtou udon. Made with super thick noodles, sliced pork and a host of winter veggies, this dish is closer to a stew than a soup. With tummies full, we felt a food-induced drowsiness coming on.

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After a refreshing afternoon nap, my neighbor and I made another trip down to the lakeside to photograph the sun setting on Mt. Fuji. Jumping in the car, we visited a few places, chasing the setting sun. One of those places was Mt. Fuji Hotel, set up on a hill overlooking the lake and the great mountain. The hotel had set up its own amazing little illumination, complete with a replica of Mt. Fuji itself.

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After dinner, we drove over to Hananomiyako Park to view what was likely our last Winter illumination of the season. We were not disappointed by the quality of the displays or the surprise firework show as we were leaving. There was even a man who looked a lot like a Japanese Santa performing Christmas music on saxaphone while we thawed out in a room heated with kerosene heaters. Such a bizarre situation, yet made perfect when he casually mentioned between songs that “Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.” Wow. You don’t hear that every day in Japan. Let alone from Japanese Santa.

We said our goodbyes to our friends back at the cabin and made the quick 2 hour drive back home under a sky full of stars and an empty expressway. It’s amazing how less than 50 miles from the largest metropolis in the world, you can feel like you’re a million miles from anywhere.

Funny how you can come to Japan with certain expectations or no expectations at all, and somehow God just amazes you with His goodness. We don’t expect every Christmas to be as amazing as this one, but we’ll take them, one year at a time.