Everyday Japan – Yakitori

Stepping into the narrow smoke-filled alley, I squeeze past a mix of white-shirted “salarymen”, a gaggle of eastern European tourists, and Japanese hipsters snapping pictures with iPhones. On both sides, impossibly narrow shops consisting of a counter, a few bar stools and a charcoal grill are crammed full of people, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, enjoying a hot summer evening eating yakitori.

Yakitori dining isn’t as much about eating as it is fellowship. It’s a time to get together with friends and throw back a few beers (or something stronger) while dining on skewers of grilled chicken, yakitori. Yakitori can’t necessarily be compared to American BBQ. Yakitori is a chicken head-to-tail delicacy. Yes, there are the old standards of thigh meat, interspersed with Japanese leeks and called “negima” or for the carnivores, just the meat, (momo), grilled wings (tebasaki), and ground chicken (tsukune). But there are also more exotic yakitori: chicken skin (kawa), tails (bonjiri), liver (rebaa), hearts (hato/kokoro), and cartilage (nankotsu).

Outside the West exit of the behemoth Shinjuku Station stands a remnant of the past that remains as popular today as it was when it opened 70 years ago. In fact, it is now called Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, in honor of its history, though its actual name in the past was Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination how it got that name. Right after WW2 when food was scarce, entrepreneurial folks set up makeshift stalls outside of Shinjuku Station selling small pieces of chicken meat (and parts) that were easily obtained from Allied occupational forces. These stalls became Omoide Yokocho, and have become such a part of the neighborhood that the community rebuilt the whole area when a fire nearly gutted it in the 1990s.

Quite the opposite of how many people think of Japan, Omoide Yokocho is rowdy and gritty (though not dangerous), full of loud laughter and coarse joking among comrades. Thousands of Japanese salarymen filter through the alley every weeknight, using the easy atmosphere and free-flowing alcohol to blow off steam from their stressful or boring jobs. If the Tokyo workforce seems robotic during the workday, this is a great place to visit to remind yourself that they, like you, are regular human beings who need time to relax and friends to be themselves around.

4 Behaviors of a “Soto Muki” (Outward Looking) Church

As our Japanese Christian network continues to expand, I keep “meeting” new people with amazing stories and ministries to the Japanese. “Meeting” in the sense that I am only able to make their acquaintance online and if I am lucky, have a Skype call with them to introduce myself.

Today, I exchanged messages with Kathy Oyama who co-pastors the Biblical Church of Tokyo with her husband Seiji. It turned out we attended this church once 3-4 years ago as a missionary family we know attend there. In the past few years, however, the church has made great strides in connecting with their community, an area of Tokyo with a growing number of young families, a rarity in Japan these days.

The Biblical Church of Tokyo is thinking outside the box to connect with their neighborhood. Here are a few things they are doing that make them exceptional in being an outward looking or “soto muki” church.

1. Participating in the community. Seiji and Kathy sit on the board of their community association along side local business owners and influential people in their neighborhood. By showing they are willing to serve their community in ways that are outside the scope of church activities, they are building bonds of trust and transparency with their neighbors and showing them they have no reason to fear the church.

2. Serving community needs without an agenda. The church found simple ways to serve the community by simply opening the church’s restroom to families playing in the park across the street. As they gained trust, they were able to offer more services, now opening a play center for use of the community families. At no time did they pressure anyone using the facility to attend church; they simply used the “soft sell” of posting information about classes and activities that might be of interest to local families. And the community members were astounded that the church never “forced religion” on them, which built a stronger bond of trust.

3. Relating to their community in the context of Japanese culture. Biblical Church of Tokyo embraces the beauty and uniqueness of Japanese culture. They host their own mochi making party on New Years Day. They celebrate Children’s Days and Respect for the Elders Day. Contextualizing the gospel is very controversial in Japan where so much of the culture is tied to idol worship and animism. Yet in order to make the gospel relevant to the Japanese, who see Christianity as a Western religion, it must be done. The Oyamas address the context of the culture carefully while maintaining the integrity of the gospel message.

4. Bonding with the community in service to others. The Oyamas invite their neighbors to participate alongside the church in serving others in their community. There is no greater opportunity to witness to others about the love of Christ than to work side by side with them. The greatest impact for the gospel in the tsunami affected region of Tohoku was not the people who were being served, but those in the periphery, family, friends and community who witnessed the selfless work of Christians for others.

In a country where the vast majority of the population is apathetic about or sometimes hostile to your faith, it’s easy to “circle the wagons” to protect your flock. But to do so is to ignore the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) and moreover, to deny the reason for our existence as children of God: to share the good news with those who have not had the chance to hear it. It takes courage to do what Kathy and Seiji are doing, but through their faithfulness, they are being ¬†building bridges of love with the people around them to experience life in Christ.

Read more about what the Biblical Church of Tokyo is doing in Kathy’s article for Christianity Today.