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.

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Japan Photos: The Last Fall

The last fall IMAGE, that is. At least for this year. With temperatures dropping below freezing for several nights in a row, Winter is definitely ready to make its entrance. Wind and rain have hastened the dropping of the last remaining leaves from the trees around our neighborhood. Goodbye Autumn. You were so lovely.

A few interesting notes on this image (yes, this is a photography post, not a Japan or ministry post).

It is an intentional double exposure. This is literally one of the last photos of Autumn I took this year. After taking thousands of photos Autumn leaves, I have to admit, it gets tiresome. That’s not Autumn’s fault. That’s the fault of a photographer who gets lazy with the creative process and shoots the same image of the same subject over and over. By this time, I realized I needed to try something different, so I began to experiment. Experiment with focus, with camera movement, with new angles. And finally, multiple exposures. Yes, it is nice to let the beauty of nature speak for itself sometimes, but you can also lend some God-given creativity to the process. You might be surprised.

It sat around untouched for nearly two weeks before I noticed it. I had so many beautiful shots from that day, I never even gave this shot a second look. When I had reviewed it quickly in my camera, it had not seemed like anything special to me. It was only when I opened it up and really checked the details that I realized this shot was special. In the creative process, don’t be too hasty with your work. Look closely at the details, post-process the image to its strengths, and see what materializes. And even if you reject an image once, give it a second a chance a week or two later. Perhaps your perspective will have changed.

Of all my Autumn images, this one captures my feelings of the season best. That’s a difficult thing to say because I have taken so many lovely images of Autumn here in Japan. Everywhere you turn, you see the beauty of Autumn, from mountains bursting with fall color to gardens punctuated with strategically planted momiji to the bicycle path on the street outside our front door where autumn leaves fall into a clear stream full of koi. In this image, my intent was to layer the familiar colors and shapes of Fall in an almost abstract way. Like looking through the Autumn leaves at the Autumn leaves. Unlike many of my other images, I also subdued the brashness of the color, deadened it, as a reminder that Autumn, like every season, also must come to an end. Compared to some of my other fall images, it might even seem a bit drab color-wise. But that too is part of Autumn.

With Autumn gone, I can now turn my attention to capturing the feel of Winter here in Japan. What will I find that defines Winter in our city and in the great metropolis of Tokyo? Let’s find out together!

Promoting “2 Criminals” With Paul Nethercott

Atsuko, Shinada, and Paul at ICA.

Atsuko, Shinada, and Paul at ICA.

This past Sunday, I helped my friend Paul Nethercott photograph an event held at International Christian Assembly (ICA). The event was both promotional for the movie Paul is working on, “2 Criminals”, as well as an outreach opportunity for the church. Shinada-san, one of the two men the movie is based on, was the special speaker for the morning.

The movie is loosely based around the story of two men who were former members of the Yakuza, Japanese organized crime families. As a result of encounters with Christian relief workers in the Tohoku area following the tsunami, both men eventually became followers of Jesus Christ and left their lives as criminals. Shinada-san was a thief and a violent criminal, but while in prison he studied the Bible and found there was redemptive power in the Word of God. He came to be called to be an evangelist and asked his crime family for a release from his obligations to them, a courageous and dangerous act.

Hearing Shinada-san speak, there is no question the man has found his true calling. He is an engaging speaker with a real story of true redemption that he loves to share with others. Few people will have experienced the life Shinada once led, but all will understand that it takes a powerful Savior in Jesus to redeem a person from such a lifestyle.

Paul’s vision for the film is not to make a “Christian film”, but a mainstream film with Christian values and themes playing a prominent role. Christian films tend to get pigeonholed and rarely seen by the audience who would most benefit from them: non-Christian film-goers. Paul hopes that a mainstream release will enable thousands, perhaps millions of Japanese to be exposed to the gospel message in a direct, yet non-threatening way.

Though no actual production has begun, there is a lot of work Paul is doing to sell the idea of the film to those who have influence over whether or not the film gets made. Once the film is funded and the actors have been cast, I hope to be involved in the actual production. In the meantime, I am using my photography to help in the promotion and pre-production phase of the film.

To find out more about 2 Criminals and learn how you can help get involved with promoting or funding the film project, please visit the film’s website. If you would like Paul to speak at your church about the film, please let me know in the comments and I will connect you with Paul.

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.

Everyday Japan – Playground

Today, I rode my bike past this playground made up of a set of swings, a slide, and a few sets of bars. Though fairly well maintained with fresh paint, like 90% of other playgrounds like this around Tokyo, it was completely devoid of kids, even in the middle of Japanese school’s summer vacation.

It occurred to me that if I were a kid, the last thing I would want to do would to be out playing on a metal playground in the middle of summer. Besides the hot sticky summer air, metal play structures capture the heat of the sun and a swing that might be fun in the cool months would probably become a branding iron for your bottom in the summer.

Kids are out playing in the summer heat, but that play often involves sports (perhaps keeping in practice for the school team they participate in) or water play, which is exactly the sort of fun I would love to have in the summer. But for the most part, children are hiding away from the summer heat indoors.

To me, the average Japanese playground seems to be completely disconnected from the audience they are trying to reach: children. How can play areas be restructured to recapture the hearts of children and draw them out to play in the summer? Treehouses built in the protective shade of a grove of trees? Wooden forts with water cannons?

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Japan Photo: Hana Nobe No Sato

Today Jayne’s uncle took us to Hana Nobe No Sato near Katsuura, Chiba. While we used it as a beautiful place to view Japan’s summer flowers, it apparently is also a camp site with an outdoor onsen that people can camp at year round. They have many gorgeous flowers in the area, but the most abundant is the ajisai, or hydrangea, the symbol of Japanese summers.

Right now is past the prime season and the hydrangea are starting to die off, but the place is still extremely beautiful. The breeze off the nearby ocean helped sooth the 90 degree, 90% humidity weather we are having today.

Hana Nobe No Sato can be visited in all 4 seasons for different experiences. There are winter and spring blossoming cherry trees, ajisai for the summer months and maples for the autumn.