Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | April 2, 2011

Savoring Uncertainty


I’ve been waiting for some time for the moment when it felt right…to write again.  After writing about the loss of a friend, Ben Larson, in the Haiti earthquake in 2010, something seemed amiss whenever I would approach writing for my own sake.  Each idea just never seemed interesting enough or important enough to share.

Then, a few days after the earthquake here in Japan, my friend Ann asked to hear my thoughts, reminding me that writing is a cathartic exercise.  I wasn’t ready to write at that time, and not knowing exactly what ‘cathartic’ even meant, I looked it up.

Catharsis is “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, such as tragedy or music .” In an obviously contradictory sense, life has moved very quickly but also painfully slowly  over the past few weeks.  Since the earthquake, I haven’t had or made the time to allow myself the ability to experience catharsis of any kind.  It’s been a seemingly endless series of decisions and responses, leaving me only able to react and not to process or reflect.

This morning, I met with the men’s group from Tokyo Union Church.  This simple time with church percolator coffee and scraps of food from each of our refrigerators (pretty good actually) turned out to be a watershed moment for my own ability to begin to process the events of the past few weeks of our life in Japan.

Simply stepping out of a reactionary state-of-being and into a more reflective state allowed each of us to engage one another in meaningful conversation about the deep meaning underlying our recent experiences.


The key take-away for me this morning was a focus on the power of disequilibrium.  This is a concept that defines success or failure in my profession, even if it goes by other names.  In education speak, disequilibrium for the learner has been referred to as the “Zone of Proximal Development” (Vygotsky).  Essentially, students learn the most not when things are too easy or too hard, but when they are “just right.”  You can literally see the discomfort and challenge on their face until BOOM, something clicks, the lightbulb turns on, and they “get it.”  Think of Goldilocks’ porridge or dissonance in music.  Or limbo, sitting on the fence…the list goes on.

To me, disequilibrium is essentially that uncomfortable feeling you get when you can’t quite resolve something one way or the other.  For example, when I recently applied for a promotion at work, the ensuing four weeks of waiting for the outcome were frustrating, uncomfortable, and even infuriating at times.  However, it was through that frustration that I learned the most about myself.  I was advised by a good friend to embrace the uncertainty as something positive and even to stretch it out for as long as possible. By the time the decision came around, the result mattered much less than it did when I first applied.  Essentially, the result didn’t matter either way.  I had allowed myself to embrace the discomfort associated with not knowing where God might be taking me and to accept that it was out of my control.  That was a powerful experience in humility, trust, and grace.

Delving deeper

Now, with Rachael in Minnesota, and me in Japan, I am living in an even deeper chasm of disequilibrium.  To be honest, it’s been awful for the past few days.  My wife is someone I admire, love, and respect more than just about anyone on this planet, and being without her has been much more difficult to handle than I ever expected it might be.  The joy and perspective she brings to my life makes every day more beautiful and more meaningful.  I deeply miss her and will continue to until I return to the US for the summer.  Add to that many other major areas of uncertainty regarding physical health, emotional stability, employment options, financial possibilities, and even questioning the very ground we stand on…this makes the wait for that job promotion a few months ago seem like child’s play.

With the guys this morning, I was reminded again of my need to embrace the uncertainty inherent in our life as a true blessing.  My first reaction of feeling sorry for myself and doubting God’s plans for my life as somehow less wise than my obviously superior plans is an honest reaction, but also a spiritually immature one.

It is only when I live and breathe the uncertainty that I will truly learn, grow, and follow God’s will for my life.

Christians believe that Jesus first died in order to rise again.  It is this experience of death, in our case a spiritual one rather than a physical one, that allows for growth.  The beauty of marriage is when our own desires give way to the desires of our partners.  This constant state of give and take will continue to be difficult for decades to come, but it is exactly how Rachael and I will grow together in our love for one another, our love for our growing family, and our love for all those with whom Christ brings us in contact.

I do not understand why bad things happen to good people, especially tens of thousands of people in northern Japan.  I do not understand why my personal and professional goals are not going to work out as planned.  I only understand that God works most effectively when I am humble enough to listen.  I understand that music sounds better when I shut up for a few minutes and turn up the volume.  I understand that my wife’s food tastes infinitely better when I don’t shovel it into my face faster than I can swallow.

Savoring uncertainty is difficult, but it is ultimately life-changing and a worthwhile and powerful experience.  Contrary to how many of us Christians might approach it, faith is not knowing exactly what we believe with certainty.  Faith is accepting uncertainty and allowing yourself to be be put in situations you never thought you could handle.  It is seeing life through God’s eyes and knowing that we have very little control over it.

At this point, my life is a blank slate.  I acknowledge that everything I have built and planned can be taken away in an instant.  Rather than fearing this lack of control, though, I will embrace it.  I will follow more and plan less.  I will listen more and speak less.  God willing, I will accept opportunities to serve God, my family, and the people of Japan even when it’s inconvenient.  Through this, I pray that the hope and love of Christ are made brighter, more abundant, and more clear.

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | February 25, 2010


Howdy friends.

A few updates since life is moving a billion miles an hour right now (as usual):

1.) We still live in Tokyo. Yep, no change there.

New Year's Eve in Japan

2.) We’re moving!…to another place in Tokyo.  Rachael found an absolute gem of an apartment.  It’s quiet, much larger, has a garden/patio, and that makes #3 a reality (see below).  We’re ecstatic.  Rachael went apartment shopping with one of our good friends here and made an offer on a beautiful place we never thought would be accepted.  Well, to our surprise it was, and we’re moving next month.  So, now it’s back to packing for the fourth time in two years (3 apartments, 2 school buildings).  If the place wasn’t so great, it wouldn’t be worth it, but we can’t wait for #3…

New living room

Rachael's favorite part

3.) Callie is coming to Tokyo! Thanks to the efforts of our families in CO and MN, Callie has been generously taken care of since we left for Tokyo in 2008.  We had hoped to bring her to Tokyo this school year but I made a mistake with the paperwork and we had to start our 6-month wait all over again.  We have high hopes that we’ve done all the right paperwork and that Callie will be getting her pilot’s wings in September.

Callie (right), cuddled up with my parents' dog, Sarah

4.) We’re headed to Nagoya, Japan today.  One of my favorite authors is doing a conference in Japan for teachers, specifically on best practices in teaching reading.  Her name is Debbie Miller and she hails from none other than Denver, CO.  Since Rachael has been hired full-time at our school next year, she will be coming to the conference to brush up her instructional chops too.  We get to take the bullet train (shinkansen), which we love, so that should be a blast.

5.) Japanese police are not like my little bro. My brother Blake (not so little actually) is a fair, tough, and dedicated state patrol officer in Colorado.  If he sees people breaking the law, he addresses it.  Our neighborhood in Tokyo is quiet, residential, and filled with several schools, so not much happens requiring police attention.  But they’ve managed to bother me a few times for various bicycle infractions.  Yesterday, two bike-cops pulled up around me and definitely noticed my bike had no identification or registration.  But, although they both looked at my bike carefully and we were stuck at a traffic light so I had nowhere to go, neither said anything because I didn’t make eye contact.  It’s just that simple.  Can you even imagine my brother ignoring something obvious just because of a lack of eye contact and probably that they’re nervous I might not speak Japanese?  No way Hosei (Japanese spelling of Jose).

6.) Spring is coming. Thank the Lord.

7.) Lent has actually been a valuable time this year. My friend Michael and I are doing the Ignatian Examen each day to reflect with gratitude on the ins and outs of each day and consider life with a more prayerful attitude.  It’s shifted my perspective more than once and may become a long-term way to pray for me.

8.) Reading is fun again. After high school and college I wasn’t much of a reader.  However, Rachael and I joined a book club with some other teachers, which has been great.  We’ve read The Post American World and Tokyo Vice. Now, we’re on to In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  Should be interesting.  I’m still on my American history kick, currently reading Faiths of our Fathers, which tries to emotion-lessly set the record straight on the recorded faith lives professed (or not) by several of the Founding Fathers.  Next is a behemoth: Truman (1000 pager by David McCullough).  My mom and I loved his John Adams and I’m using the reading in my research paper of Harry Truman for one of my master’s courses in leadership.  Oh yeah, and I’m somehow keeping up with reading my four textbooks for my master’s courses that began in January.  We’ve put our TV in a closet, so that helps to free up time.  I get up and hour earlier just to read and write, and Rachael helps me focus on getting some things done at night when my brain is mush.  Great stuff.

9.) We miss you. There were a few moments this winter that I sincerely longed for some time with old friends and our families back home.  I just have to remember that we have a couple months in the summer to catch up before doing this whole Tokyo business again for 9 months.

10.) No ten yet, but I hope you enjoyed the first 9.


Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | February 23, 2010

Going for a Wok in Chinatown (Yokohama, Japan)

Over Christmas break Rachael and I took a short train ride to Yokohama, Japan (about 45 minutes) in search of one of her Christmas presents.

When we arrived, we realized we’d forgotten our guidebook, which despite living here for a year and a half is still quite valuable for things like this.  So, using only our eyes and noses to guide us, we meandered through the brightly lit and distinctly not-Japanese streets of Chinatown. Here are some photos from the harbor area, a few blocks from Chinatown.

Yokohama Harbor, a few blocks from Chinatown

Taken in a "couples swap" (we take their picture, they take ours)

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We agreed to move to Japan without an inkling of knowledge about Japanese culture or history.  Since that time, we’ve both delved into Japan in our own ways: me through studying the language as much as I can, Rachael through learning to cook with some serious Japanese flair.  Walking around Chinatown was a bit of a revelation for me.  I probably couldn’t have told you many differences between Chinese and Japanese cultures before moving to Japan.  Sure, I knew about sushi and had heard of geishas, but I was basically an ignorant fool when we began this journey.  Chinatown showed me how well I’m actually getting to know Japan through living in Tokyo, even as insulated as our lives are from “true” Japanese culture working at an international school and attending an international church.

Chinatown is fascinating.  Just look at some of these photos of the streets.  We enjoyed a little treat (steamed bun with minced pork inside) along the way.

This was in many shop windows- shark fin, maybe?


Buying our snack

The architecture in Chinatown doesn’t feel like Japan.  The food doesn’t taste like Japan.  And the restaurant service…now that difference deserves more than a passing mention.

Customer service in Japan tends towards the ludicrous, at least on the surface level.  People call to you in the street, respectfully bidding you to come in their shops and take a look.  Walking into a restaurant, you are often greeted by each employee emphatically yelling “welcome” (irashaimase!).  Department stores, grocers, ramen shops, and fishmongers all greet you with the same phrase.  To be honest, I love it.  Many people seem put off by it, but it’s just plain fun to me.  The first thing I noticed when we walked into a restaurant for dinner in Chinatown was that nobody welcomed us with an exuberant “irashaimase!”  It was bizarre.

We were quietly led to our seats and made our first order only after waiting 15-20 minutes and doing all we could to get the server’s attention.  This has never happened to me in a Japanese restaurant.  Simply say “excuse me” (sumimasen) and you’ll usually have someone at your table in a few brief moments.  There was no such service at this restaurant.

The food was decent, but nothing like the simple, beautiful food I have come to love in Japan.  Ornate sushi platters and hand-turned Japanese-style kabobs are now a common craving for me.  Last, upon leaving the restaurant, we took the receipt that was on our table and walked to the front door.  We waited for a few minutes until someone noticed and came to help us pay our bill.  In about fifteen seconds, she took my bills, put change on a plate and walked away- no “thank you,” no escorting us out the door, and certainly no bow of gratitude for our patronage.  Now, I realize that sentence may sound arrogant and is a ridiculous expectation just about anywhere else in the world, but this is what we have come to expect here in Tokyo because it’s what happens at 99% of the restaurants.  The lack of basic customer service at this one restaurant was an amazing difference to me between two great cultures.  I don’t know enough about China or Chinese culture to really know if there is a difference, but that’s what we saw that night.

Could it have been that the employees of this particular restaurant just had an off night?  Could they just be terrible at customer service, and all the other Chinese restaurants would be different?  That’s definitely possible.  But it was at least interesting to think about our experience in Japan and how bizarrely different and unsatisfying it felt to dine at a restaurant in Japan that didn’t feel like a restaurant in Japan.

Before leaving Chinatown, we found our holy grail: a locally produced Chinese wok for Rachael’s kitchen.  She has now used this to make all sorts of new dishes that our other pans just couldn’t do.  With the close proximity of Chinatown from Tokyo, we’ll definitely be back, and I’ll let you know if things are different the second time around.

Wok on, Rachael, wok on.

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | February 18, 2010

My super bike

Adding some bells and whistles

Tomorrow, I’ll be taking my super-bike in for repairs.  But this purple beauty has been pretty good to me, so here’s a little photo update on the awesomeness that is my current Tokyo commuter bicycle.

This bike began as a generous gift from a parent at our school, and it has been transformed into my lifeline for shopping, work, and even a good workout.  As you’ll see, my parents had fun “pimping my ride” for Christmas, so here’s my bike from start to finish.

Check out the saddlebags (closed)

Yep, saddlebags that detach to become eco-friendly shopping bags

Rear light (burn-your-eyes-out red blinker)

Yep, a rear-view mirror

Uber-bright mini headlight

My (Warning: Brad's coming) bell

Yes, a solid lock. This bike won't be stolen again...

Mini-mud flaps

Bungee cords for boxes, umbrellas, or just about anything

Bringing sexy back. 80s wrist-slapper converted to a pants-saver.

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 16, 2010

Ben Larson (1984-2010)

This past week, I heard about the devastating loss of life in Haiti through news coverage online.  The destruction and deadly power of that earthquake was unsettling personally for many reasons, but somehow the estimated death toll didn’t “sink in” in any meaningful way.

Then, Rachael got a late-night message from our friend Chris.  He had gotten word that a college classmate of mine, Ben Larson, was in Haiti working with lay people there as a part of his lifelong commitment to serving God and God’s people, but also as a component of his final year of preparation at Wartburg Theological Seminary.  Our friend Chris had also heard that Ben was unaccounted for after the earthquake and that he would keep us updated.

After Rachael and I reflected on Ben’s possible predicament and talking about all the amazing things that come to mind when you picture Ben Larson, we tried to get to sleep since there was nothing we could do but wait and I had to get up to teach in a few hours.  Soon though, Rachael received a message from Chris that neither of us expected or could handle immediately.  Ben was reported to have “perished” in the earthquake.  His wife Renee and cousin Jonathan made it out safely, but Ben couldn’t have survived the collapse of the building he was in at the time of the quake.  Rachael woke me and shared the heartbreaking news.

After laying there in stunned silence for a few minutes, I had to get out of bed because I was immediately overcome with grief at the thought of this world losing such a special person as Ben Larson.  I had to talk to Chris directly.  Fortunately, the time difference allowed me to call him since it was well after midnight in Tokyo and the middle of the day in the States.  In our brief chat, we reflected together on this great, single loss of life and were both still stunned at the news.

Ben was the kind of man you couldn’t help but absolutely adore.  His gentle humility, Christlike joy, and sincere love for everyone he encountered was one-of-a-kind.  I can only dream of the impact he would have had serving a community of Christians as a pastor.  Though I can’t find any way to comprehend why Ben won’t have that opportunity, I also take heart in his mother’s words:

A statement from Reverend April Ulring Larson

As an infant Benjamin Judd Ulring Splichal Larson was wrapped in the arms of God in the waters of baptism, and from those waters, his life was an outpouring of love and joy, laughter and play, in response to God first loving Ben.

Ben’s love of God, walking in accompaniment, passionately loving others, listening and learning from those who are poor across the globe, drove his serving.

We give thanks to God for the incredible joy of knowing Ben.  His laughter, playfulness, passionate heart for those who are hurting was manifest in his daily life.  He delighted in the privilege of serving and knowing God, laying out his life in joy.

We are blessed by still being able to hear Ben‘s music.  His father Judd says, “If you want to know Ben, go to his music.”  In his tender music remains some of the treasure that is Ben:  what he believes, what he cares about, his deepest soul.

Ben died doing what he did best- loving God's people

Most of the people who died in this deadly earthquake in Haiti are the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere.  Ben went to Haiti to teach theology and scripture in the new Lutheran Church of Haiti; but more deeply to learn from these people loved by God.  In his young death his life joins the bodies of the poor.  In the Haitian rubble Ben’s life joins these dear beloved people of God:  all those parents crying for their children; young widows calling out for their husbands; new orphans searching for their parents.

God have mercy on us.

I was fortunate enough to play with Ben through the FOCUS (student-led contemporary worship service) worship team at Luther College for a few years.  His co-leadership of our group was always a bit quirky, but also genuine and passionate.  Through many of my faith struggles in college, Ben provided quick prayers and a compassionate ear that never made me feel judged, even when I had to step away from the music team for a time of introspection.

At one point in my return to a vibrant faith life, I was walking home in the rain after a frustrating day and a peaceful worship service at FOCUS.  I began to weep, feeling completely overwhelmed by the love of God and a renewed desire to live more like the example set by Christ in his short life on Earth.  As I got home to my tiny single dorm room, I wrote the lyrics to a song that expressed my feelings at that point.  The only problem was that I didn’t know how to play guitar well enough to write music to go with those lyrics.

Most High (He Reigns)

In a moment of true worship
I feel the warm rain as it covers my body.
As it touches my head,
I think of you Lord.
I think of the blessing that you’ve rained down.

My Lord you reign in all things
Through winter and summer
And autumn and spring.
These are tears of joy that I cry.
I love you, I love you,
I love you Most High!

You are Most High!

As it touches my chest
I breathe you in Lord
And your Holy Spirit fills me.
As it touches my lips
I’m called to sing
To worship my God and my King.

My Lord you reign in all things
Through winter and summer
And autumn and spring.
These are tears of joy that I cry.
I love you, I love you,
I love you Most High!

You are Most High!

So, I called Ben, and fortunately, he was available and more than willing to trek across campus in the rain to come help me write the song.  We sat around for a few minutes, awkwardly trying different chord progressions that just didn’t fit.  Then, Ben had an idea for something simple and I began to sing along.  The product was something beautiful that will always be a great reminder to me of a pivotal moment in my faith life (and now a defining moment punctuated by the early loss of this friend).  He then suggested we might use the song for worship at FOCUS at some point, another amazing gesture that showed Ben’s loving spirit.  In his memory, my wife Rachael and I will lead our congregation in this song tomorrow at our church here in Tokyo, Japan.

I have been to funerals for past high school classmates that left this Earth far too early as well, but have never before been as emotionally affected as I am this week thinking about Ben’s passing.  Knowing that he was around was always a comfort, even if he was in the American Midwest somewhere, or working in Haiti.  I kept tabs on his ministry experiences and new musical endeavors online and watched as he grew closer to the point we were all waiting for- his ordination as a phenomenal new pastor with brilliant ideas for new musical liturgies and an unending passion to serve.

Ben will be sincerely missed by all who knew him, but especially by his wife Renee, and incredible family.  I will pray often for their pain and grief to be eased by the knowledge that he accomplished more for the Kingdom of God in his short time with us than many people accomplish in a lifetime.  His song, “Psalm 30: Mourning into Dancing” will be something I carry with me for the rest of my life.  The raw passion that comes through in his voice is a well we can all drink from.  Rest in peace, Ben, knowing that all those close to you or that like me, only knew you for a brief time, will daily aspire to your Christlike example.  Bless you brother.

(I don’t know how long these links will be available, but some of his music is located online.  Please take the time to listen to his music, especially “Psalm 30: Mourning into Dancing.”)

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 9, 2010

Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower

This book was a phenomenally eye-opening account of the confusion and evolution of Japan before and especially after the Second World War.  Though I certainly won’t retain all the information I read about in this well-written but dense piece of history, here’s an attempt to jot down a few lessons:

1.) I still can’t believe I live in a place that is so peaceful and welcoming when my grandfather fought in the very war that started Japan on the path to peace.

2.) I had no idea how revered and even worshiped the emperor was before the Japanese defeat in WWII.  Until then, he was referred to as a god, and the direct descendant of the sun god Amaterasu.  Amazing.

3.) After reading about what American GIs did to women (“comfort” women serving as government-sponsored sex workers) and the culture at-large in Japan after WWII, I sometimes feel ashamed to show my face here.  That kind of pain is still inflicted on many Japanese through the continued military presence in Okinawa, where rapes and reckless behavior still occur to the disgust of many Japanese.  That’s probably why the new administration (Hatoyama) seems to be making such big shifts in the Japanese support of American war efforts in Afghanistan and other military maintenance traditions in the Pacific.

4.) The irony of “imposed” democracy is one of the most important lessons I learned in this book.  Rather than allow democracy to form in a spontaneous and creative way, the U.S. basically forced her values upon an entire nation with deeply held and long lasting traditions of political life.  Japan certainly benefited from the U.S. occupation and in their guidance over the new constitution, but the cons of imposing something that should be embraced by a “grassroots” movement also weigh strongly in my mind as a detriment to our postwar policies here.

5.) The bombs.  I certainly understand the mentality of why the atomic bombs were dropped much more than I did before.  The determination of the Japanese to not accept defeat at any cost required great sacrifice to break.  However, the U.S. persecution of Japanese “war criminals” then automatically carries a great deal of irony.  After killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians ourselves, we executed leaders for doing the exact same thing.  They just happened to be on the losing side of history, and thus didn’t have the option to take the American military and political leaders to task for their role in the concentrated bombings of civilian targets.

6.) The U.S. occupation had a massive censorship on Japanese press and art in the 6-7 years after the war.  I feel like that effort had a crippling effect on the development of a truly “free” press and expression in Japan and buried a lot of very important conversations that might have set Japan on a better initial path of rejuvenated internal recovery.

7.) Leaving Emperor Hirohito, who led Japan into war, without any responsibility for the war was surely smart policy, but is just another example of the trade offs of U.S. pragmatism vs. idealism.  Like in the current situation with Iran, supporting the protesters (whom we would like to see as successful because of the horrible government they are seeking to remove) is a Catch-22.  If we support these protesters, and stand by our idealistic American charter of freedom and democracy, we risk further alienating the Iranian leaders with whom we are seeking meaningful and productive dialogue to end a dangerous path towards the development of nuclear weapons.  If we don’t support these protesters, we lose a great opportunity to see the spread of a system of government that, although far from perfect, at least holds high the goal of providing equality and opportunity to all its citizens.

8.) American lawyers basically wrote the bulk of the Japanese Constitution in a week.  And not even lawyers who were truly prepared for the task!  But what was produced has been an interesting Japanese-specific form of democracy.  It makes me think about Iraq and the incredibly short time period that we imposed “democracy” on their government and people.  Japan has lasted because it depended on peace and economic development for its sustained growth.  Can Iraq survive on such a fragile sheet of paper without the same commitment to peace and without great opportunity for widespread economic development apart from serving our oil needs?

9.) Many of the successful Japanese companies that are prevalent today have their roots in post-WWII development, and even in the Korean war re-militarization of Japan (Even though we imposed a completely pacifistic constitution, we then asked them to re-arm a few short years later when we wanted them to help us fight the “reds.”  The irony never ceases.).  Canon and Nikon made military optics tools before switching to consumer cameras.  Honda started by a guy taking small engines from war communications devices and refitting them to power bicycles called the “Dream.”  Sony, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and many other companies all benefited from restructuring following the war.  This must explain previous (and some current) Americans’ anti-Japanese product sentiments.

10.) Hierarchy, patriarchy, and bureaucracy have been a major part of Japanese public life for a long time.  In trying to change this mentality, the U.S. put these exact things in place again.  General MacArthur was the “Supreme Commander,” and all laws pronounced by the U.S. victors were required to be embraced by the Japanese.  Although the ends may have justified the means, the hypocrisy in these efforts certainly wasn’t lost.

Japan is a fascinating place.  The mix of old and new, Asian and Western, is startling, exciting, and depressing all at the same time.  On a train, I’ve seen gothic punk 16-year old girls with pink spikes for hair standing right next to their peers clad in flowery traditional kimono and wooden sandals.  Both are costumed to a certain extent, but the contrast is striking and confusing at first glance.

After delving into the modern roots of this country, I can understand why that tension exists.  It’s due in part to having received democracy through imposition, and also through the process of seeking a postwar identity after some of the strings to the conquerors had finally been severed.  I imagine Japan asking herself, should we: 1.) seek out the traditions of the past, 2.) rebrand Japanese culture with a unique flair, 3.) embrace Westernization, or 4.) accept some bizarre mix of all of the above?  From what I can tell, option number 4 has been the route taken, whether intentionally or not.

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 6, 2010

Happy New Year!

Our New Year door decoration

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

This year, we rang out the New Year in a very different way.  Rather than try to celebrate in our “normal” way, watching the countdown with some champagne and friends, we decided to fully embrace being in Japan for the holiday.

Done for the night- Happy 2010!

New Year’s food: soba, mochi, sweet potato/chestnut soup, and two types of sake.

After reading about many of the meaningful and unique ways that Japanese folks use food to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we bought many of the special New Year’s ingredients and did our best to create some festive dishes of our own.

Renkon– Rachael made these little lotus root chips, which, due to the swiss-cheese-like holes in the root, symbolize being able to peer into the next year (through the holes).  Eating lotus roots supposedly brings good fortune, so we had our fill!

Seeing through the lotus root to the year to come

Lotus root chips a la

Soba are buckwheat noodles symbolizing longevity in life.  These are common year-round, but especially important for new year celebrations.  Rachael made a soup with soba noodles in dashi broth.  Delish.

Our Chinese/Japanese rice ball creations and some bubbly

Mochi are small balls of glutinous rice-flour, or hand-pounded rice if you have the wooden mallet and accessories to make it from home.  We made ours in a Chinese style after having a few of the slightly-sweet delicacies in Yokohama’s Chinatown earlier in the week.  Apparently these sticky balls can be a problem in New Year’s celebrations, however, as there are several choking deaths due to pesky mochi reported each year in the newspapers.  I’ll let you know when I find out how many people are pushing up daisies via mochi this year.

Kuri kinton is mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnuts (kuri). The golden color symbolizes prosperity for you and your family.  Instead of serving it like mashed potatoes, Rachael made soup with both ingredients.  Maybe we’ll get some extra college debt paid off this year!

Delicious chestnut/sweet potato soup

– Sake was served at the Shinto shrine after the midnight festivities began.  First we were able to try unfiltered sake (see video below).  Though the texture was a little difficult to swallow as a brown liquid with mushy, fermented rice chunks floating around…it was delicious and a nice preview to the upcoming traditional filtered sake.  That sake, like any you’ve probably tried, was served as a clean, clear, refreshing drink.  Love it.

Stairs to the neighborhood shrine

New Year’s Eve at the Shinto Shrine

That leads me to the celebration of the new year itself.  We crossed the river to a large shrine (where last year we attended a small festival akin to a county fair) and looked for signs of life at about 11:45pm.  Not really knowing anything about what we were about to experience, we followed an older man with his Cocker Spaniel puppy as they climbed the stairs to the local shrine.

Once we got to the top, we joined a line after about 50 others, again, not having any idea what we were waiting for.  Everyone was strangely quiet in the minutes leading up to midnight.  There was no clock or countdown.  But right at midnight, a bunch of drummers began pounding on massive taiko drums and everyone cheered and hugged for a minute.

Then, the line started moving.  Remembering lessons from previous shrine visits, we brought 10 yen ($0.10) coins with us in case we’d need them for our prayer.  As we got closer to the shrine’s main building, we noticed people praying in the “normal” Shinto manner.

It goes a little something like this: Stand facing the center of the building, drop your change in the clanking box in front of you, bow, clap 2-3 times or ring some bells to get the god’s attention, say your prayer about your family/business/etc., bow deeply again and move on.  We did our best to follow the crowd, said a prayer about the new year, and moved on as well.

Then, we purchased a few of the fortune-telling arrows, which show an image of the tiger since 2010 is the Year of the Tiger.

Our first glance of the line to the shrine

Waiting for the new year

Closing in on the prayer spot

Where we bought our fortune-teller arrows

After enjoying some warm & sweet red bean soup and the two types of sake, we stood by as countless people from the neighborhood tried their hand at hitting the large drum. Here’s a video that we put together for Rachael’s blog- you’ll see people taking their turn to hit the huge drum.

After freezing our tails off for an hour, we biked back home and warmed up with a yuzu bath (more of a winter solstice tradition than new year’s, but it was nice nonetheless).

New Year’s Day

On New Year’s Day, most of Japan closes down for a day of rest, so we woke up late and checked for our one and only nengajo, a new year’s card similar to American Christmas cards.  One of my students’ families sent us a nice card, but most Japanese will get many of these on New Year’s day, and they are all guaranteed to be delivered today by a temporarily augmented post office force of student helpers.

We relaxed all day, played badminton (hanetsuki), and we’re hoping to write a haiku or two after dinner tonight.  Tomorrow we’ll be getting up early to hit up some sales at IKEA, along with about 10 million other shoppers.  Should be fun.

All in all, it was incredible having the opportunity to experience the holiday in Japan.  Happy New Year to you all!

Getting ready for some New Year's badminton

Bradley, King of Japanese New Year Badminton

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 3, 2010

Homelessness in Japan

Growing up, my family often stressed the importance of reaching out to our homeless neighbors in Colorado.  We spent many holidays serving meals at local shelters and I was impressed at a young age with an understanding of the presence and pain of homelessness and poverty in the Denver area.  This only developed further as I began traveling, first to a remote village in Palugsha, Ecuador, then to Native American reservations in Arizona and South Dakota, and later to Alaskan Native towns, Mississippi residential areas hit by Katrina, migrant farm communities in rural Iowa, Argentine city slums, an orphanage in Thailand, and now the gargantuan metropolis of Tokyo.

In most American countries (North and South), homelessness is constant and much more visible than it is in other parts of the world.  People reside in portable cardboard boxes in busy city parks or streets, may be nestled up in a variety of collected blankets, and probably have all their worldly possessions placed carefully within reach.  Adults ask you to share your spare change, children play songs with broken harmonicas for a generous tip, and our schools, churches and food banks collect and distribute necessities to those in need.

In Tokyo, homelessness is, more often than not, invisible.  From my (very limited) perspective, the cultural context here renders many jobless people also homeless and hopeless.  Many low-paying jobs come with housing, so if you lose your job, you also lose your home.  You may remember that, to even get a contract to rent an apartment last year, we had to put down a down payment of nearly $10,000 for a modest 500 square foot apartment.  Unless an individual has family support, this high upfront cost is prohibitive for most people of lower socioeconomic status.

Near the bridge, a man resting on a bench

I remember reading a tragic story (possibly in the book Japanland) about a man who, because he had lost his decent-paying job, kept on pretending he was still employed for months to avoid dishonor and scorn for his family.  He slept in his beautiful, tailored suit on a secluded park bench at night, made repairs and patches to it with a small sewing kit, continued getting his hair cut regularly, and to most onlookers walking with him on the street during the day, he probably appeared to be a well put-together and employed businessman.  Once his savings ran out, the man died.  This doesn’t make any sense to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but it certainly rings plausible to me after spending a year and a half in Japan.

Here are two short must-reads about recent developments with the homeless population in Tokyo:

Since moving to our new home in Kawasaki, on the other side of a river from Tokyo, homelessness has become much more visible to us.  Up until a month ago, Rachael and I regularly biked past a man who had created an astonishing home setup under a nearby bridge.  A clean shaven and quiet man in his 40s or 50s, he usually dressed in flannel shirts and jeans with square glasses and always kept his eyes lowered or focused on the task at hand.  By collecting discarded camping equipment from wealthy partying youth by the riverside, he had used multiple charcoal grills, tarps, boxes, and eventually a rickety tent to create a decent home for himself that MacGuyver would have been proud of.  We would often wonder aloud what he was cooking for dinner, who his late-night chatting visitors might be (drunken revelers or estranged relatives?), and what he was up to when we couldn’t see him during the day.

Right before Thanksgiving, I passed him on my commute to school.  Everything appeared as it always had, but on my ride home that afternoon, the only remnants of his home setup were black ashes and scorched cement surfaces.  Rachael and I haven’t been able to shed the unsettling feeling that something terrible must have happened to this man.  Even if he survived, he had been collecting and storing up for the cold winter ahead and would have absolutely nothing left to survive on.  The darker possibility would be that he, like other depressed individuals in Tokyo, set himself and his home on fire in a final act of desperation.  We bike past this location many times a day and, although the local fire department cleaned up the ashes and melted remains of old materials, still take note of the burn marks on the cement wall adjoining his former home as a reminder that not everybody has it as good as we do.

The only evidence anyone was ever here

Paint peeling off after the fire

Ashes and burned plastic coat the cement tiles

The sole of a shoe? Who knows.

Recently, in our new neighborhood, we discovered something incredible that we don’t quite understand yet: a subsistence-farming homeless neighborhood next to the Tamagawa river.  We often exercise along the river path, but have always traveled eastbound toward our school and former neighborhood.  Last weekend, we decided to try heading west for our run together.  After about 4km, we began to see strange fenced-off areas with vegetable patches and crude huts erected seemingly as homes.  We didn’t see a single person walking around, but the leafy greens sprouting up everywhere certainly give the impression that many people use those spaces at least to provide for their basic food needs, if not for their homes as well.  There are government-posted signs in front of each plot of land, but we of course can’t read anything here so it remains a mystery to us.  Here are some photos of the area.  (UPDATE: Please see the first comment posted below for a translation. Sadly, the reason that a cat was the only living thing near these gardens was that all the farming residents of this area were recently kicked out by the government).

Poverty and wealth, side by side

Home? Garden? What is this all about?

Taking a moment to read one of the posted signs

Curious about what this says...

Curious what this says...

Crows surrounded the small garden plots

The only sign of life I saw (cat, center)

Old discards

Another home, built into the bank under a tree

The treehouse's plot of land

I can definitely say that I feel conflicted by the poverty and homelessness around us on a daily basis.  How can we, as young people enjoying such a charmed life, stand by idly and watch all this happen without lifting a finger?  However, without being able to communicate, understand local laws and regulations, and feeling saddled by our own education debt and financial responsibilities, it is also difficult to know exactly what to do to help.  Buying a meal for someone in Denver was something my brother Blake and I did frequently, but here, even helping a busy mother pick up her dropped purse prompts a shameful apology and multiple bows.  Altruism, as I know it, just doesn’t have the same role in this culture.  What can be done in our neighborhood here?

Our church has a vibrant daily and monthly ministry providing food for hundreds of our “Homeless Neighbors,” which in one particular location last year, was shut down by the government because passing out food so irritated the residents of the community fortunate to have a home and food on their table.

What is our role in all this?  Can we help?  Should we?  How?

Notice the contradiction- wealth & prosperity vs. desperation & poverty

Subtle reminder of the homelessness around us (yellow tent, bottom right)

New York Times article about coping with homelessness in Tokyo:

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 1, 2010

A few more Christmas photos to share

Posted by: thewhitesintokyo | January 1, 2010

Christmas Craziness in Tokyo, 2009

For our one (and only, hopefully) Christmas away from home and family, we decided to make the best of it by searching for Christmas tradtiions here in Tokyo and also making sure to continue many of our own.

We bought new ornaments for our Charlie Brown 2.0 Tree, ones that I hope we’ll keep for a very long time to be able to remember what it was like to spend Christmas in Japan.  We made, decorated, and gifted Christmas cookies.  We went out looking for Christmas lights, although not in a car in our neighborhood, but by train to the other side of the city.

All in all, Christmas was excellent.  We attended a gorgeous candlelight service in which the pastor challenged us to accept that our world is a very messy place that is in constant need of “light.”  He encouraged us to not lose hope in the “mess” and to do our best to shine a compassionate light where it is needed most.  After that, we sang Silent Night in English and Japanese, which was moving enough for one of us to get choked up (who may or may not have been a bearded emotional wreck).  In the morning, we opened gifts from family and each other and spent the rest of the day creating and enjoying incredible food courtesy of Tokyo Terrace.

Good times.

Here are some photos and videos from our Christmastime in Tokyo.  Please leave questions/comments if you have any.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  (New Year’s post coming very soon).

(No idea what this Christmas display is all about)

Having fun exchanging a gift in trendy Omotesando

Buying some treats in Omotesando

An artsy Christmas Tree exhibit

Real snow, trucked in from the mountains to Tokyo

Our Christmas door decoration

Christmas in Japan was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we will both treasure for many years.  It wasn’t quite the same as usual, and was certainly quite difficult to be so far from those we love, but it was a great opportunity for which we are deeply grateful.

Merry Christmas 2009!

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