Omiyage: the reason why travelling light in Japan is next to impossible

I’m heading down to Tokyo tomorrow for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, and after that I’m taking a break from study to meet up with friends. I’m only going for a week, and so I had planned to travel light. I’ve gotten fairly good at that over the last few years and was looking forward to cramming everything I need into a medium-sized shoulder-bag.

But then I remembered . . .

In Japan travelling light is near-impossible. For one simple reason:


If you don’t know much Japanese then you might be thinking I’m referring to some kind of mystical force barrier. Or maybe an offering you have to make to pacify the crows.

Not quite. Omiyage is kinda the Japanese equivalent of ‘souvenir’ or ‘gift.’ Except that there’s a whole load of culture tied up in that word. Culture that, to be honest, I still don’t fully understand.

So anywho, here’s what happened when I tried to do my packing.

lots of omiyage next to my bag


Nope, that’s not an optical illusion. My omiyage was the same size as all my clothes and stuff.

Looks like I’m going to need a bigger bag.

Because there’s quite a lot of expectations when it comes to omiyage. I remember one time hanging with some folk in Japan, talking about one of our friends who was on a 2-day trip to (if I remember correct) Korea for a conference. Someone said, “I wonder what omiyage he’ll bring back.” I suggested that maybe he wouldn’t bring any back. Like maybe he wouldn’t have time to buy any. The look I received in return was somewhere between pity, disdain, and utter confusion.

My understanding is that giving omiyage is part of how you express your thanks and appreciation to people. It’s a way of letting people join in with the experiences you have whilst you’re away from them. Kind of like saying, “I really wish you could have been there with me, and I’m sorry for not being around to help you when you needed me.” In a way that’s a very good thing for someone like me, because expressing all that stuff in Japanese is much harder than handing over a box a chocolates.

Plus some of the folk I’m meeting up with I haven’t seen for literal years. I’m really excited to see them, and I’d be bringing gifts anyway. So I’m not really complaining about the whole gift-giving culture. Except I do feel a bit unsure at times whether I’ve given enough (or possible too little, but on my budget I doubt it). Plus I know for some people it can become a real burden. Putting aside the need to double your luggage size, omiyage are often not very cheap, especially if you have to buy them for a whole bunch of folk.

Then there’s the fact that Japan can create trains that travel at 500kph and yet somehow still be one of the most inefficient countries on the planet when it comes to packaging. I guess the idea is, ‘If something’s worth wrapping, it’s worth wrapping twice.’ The problem is that makes it really, really hard to travel light. And I like to travel light.

But I guess that’s part of the point of moving to another culture. Sometimes I have to make compromises. And sometimes I have to make those compromises whilst I’m still working out how and why things work the way they do.

Still I shouldn’t complain too much. I am after all, going on holiday.


But how about you? Had any similar experiences? Or can you shed any light on omiyage-culture?



Running through the pain: on (half)marathons and missions

never again  . . . until next time

In my last post I shared some thoughts that I came up with whilst running a half-marathon a couple of weeks back. Well two hours is a long time and I had more thoughts than I could fit into a single post, so I decided to write another one. But this is not about mourning, it’s about missions.

Specifically, keeping on with a mission when you feel like you want to quit.

But I should explain what I mean by ‘missions,’ right? I think about it in three different categories. Let me illustrate from my own life.

In a sense I think of this blog as a mission. Or maybe it’s more like weekly mini-missions. I’ve set myself the task of writing one post a week. I also have a few other writing projects coming and going. These kind of missions have clearly defined parameters: e.g. write a certain amount by a certain date and try to make it not suck.

Then there’s Japanese. I have been for years and the end still seems nowhere in sight. Learning Japanese is definitely not a sprint. But you know what, it’s not really a marathon either. It’s a mission. Some days I feel like Frodo, trudging onwards, knowing every step takes me further into unknown territory where the only certainty is that something will try to kill me. These kind of missions have an end goal, but it’s harder to define and there’s no real deadline: you finish when you reach the level you’re after.

Then there’s my main mission that the others are a part of.  When/if I ever reach fluency in Japanese there will be no great eagles to fly me back to the happy comfort of the shire. Nope, mastering the language is just a smaller part of my main mission: making followers of Jesus in Japan. These kind of missions are life-long. They’re the ‘this is going to be my legacy’ type missions.

So that’s what I mean by ‘missions’ and here’s the thing they have in common with marathons:


Not just that they both involve pain. But that you have to run through the pain.

See when you run a marathon, eventually it’ll start to hurt. And once the pain starts, it doesn’t tend to go away. Sometimes it shifts through different parts of your body, but whenever I’ve run a marathon the second half has been a continual battle with pain or some kind.

And with that comes the desire to quit. “If I just stop then the pain will too.” That thought pesters you like a spoilt, and yet sensible-sounding, child. Why keep running, when all it causes you is pain? Why not just quit the race and enjoy some comfort? Stop and the pain will stop.

Except it’s not true. The pain will remain.

OK it will go away, but it will be replaced . . . By a different kind of pain.

The pain of giving up. The pain of knowing that you could have kept going. That you could have done better. The target you were aiming for will remain. And all the training . . . Well that will have been for nothing.

No, the only way to really get rid of the pain is to keep on running. Run through to the finish line, and then the pain will stop (well stairs will hurt for the next couple of days, but after that it’ll stop).

In that way marathons are like missions. You can’t avoid the pain, you have to run through it. Running through the pain is the only way to make it stop. And it’s the only way to make it worth while.

There’s been a few times when I’ve been writing posts and I’ve got fed up with them and felt like throwing them aside. It feels like a waste of time and energy. Even now I’m sat at my laptop trying to bring thoughts together, feeling like I’m attempting to nail jelly to the wall, and wanting to give up. But if I stop now, I’ll have wasted the time I’ve spent getting this far. The only way to make that effort meaningless is to stay on thrashing out a stream of rubbish and sifting through it until I find some words that might make someone’s soul that little bit stronger.

The same is true of my Japanese study. I feel like giving up a dozen times most months. But giving up now would be like dropping out of a marathon at the twenty-mile mark (at least I hope I’m that far). So I keep on studying, some days feeling like my brain is actually melting, but knowing that every painful step is one step closer to the finish line . . . knowing that the way to make the pain worthwhile is to run through it.

And, above all, knowing the smaller missions––whether they be writing assignments, language study, building projects, or just regularly spending time with folk who need a friend ––they are all part of the bigger mission. They are each chapters of the book that God is writing in my life. 

Sometimes the pain involved in these mini-mission feels too much, like how can it be worth going through this much trouble for something so small? But then I remember that running through the pain takes me a step towards completing the bigger mission. The pain is worth it, because people are worth it. That’s my main mission: making followers of Jesus in Japan. Jesus endured the cross to bring me to know Him. He ran through that pain for me, so I can run through my pain to bring others to know Him.

OK as I finish there’s something I need to confess . . . I wrote this post for one person. You know who you are. You probably already worked out this was aimed at you. Anywho, keep running. Jesus runs with you. You will get there. The pain will be worth it . . . And it will stop! (^_^)

The importance of going at ‘my pace’: on (half)marathons and mourning

me stretching before a morning run

Photo by Tre McKee

This time last week I was recovering from running the Obihiro half-marathon (yeah, I may have taken longer to write this than I intended). My time was 1:59:45, which is not a great time for me. But I wasn’t aiming for a personal best. I was running at ‘my pace’ – in the Japanese sense of the word.

‘My pace’ (マイペース) is one of many phrases in Japanese that have been taken almost directly from English. I say almost because the meaning is more like ‘at one’s own pace.’

(Incidentally my favourite expression of this kind is ドンマイ ‘don mai.’ A contraction of ‘don’t mind,’ which I suppose is itself a hybrid of ‘never mind’ and ‘don’t worry about it.’)

So when I say I was running at ‘my pace,’ what I mean is that I was running at the pace of the two dudes I was running with – Tre and Nariken. Or I was until a moment of confusion meant that Tre ended up behind me and Nariken with him thinking that we were behind him somewhere whilst we thought he was ahead of us somewhere.

The point is that I adjusted my pace to be Nariken’s ‘my pace.’ At least until the 17km mark when I ran off on my own.

 And that I think is a good picture of mourning.

When you run for 13.1 miles (that’s 21 kilometres if you prefer metric) you have a bit of time to think about stuff. And I was mainly thinking about my dad, and how running a half-marathon is similar to mourning his death.

The conclusion of my pondering is this:

In mourning, as in marathons, it’s important to go at ‘my pace’ (in the Japanese sense of the word).

You see, when I ran the Obihiro half-marathon I wasn’t running alone. There were others running with me. And as I work through mourning for my dad I’m not travelling alone. There are many folk travelling with me. In both cases ‘my pace’ is important.

Running with Nariken I deliberately slowed down to match his ‘my pace.’ I’m studying Japanese full-time so have the luxury of being able to train regularly. He finished his work week at 7.30am Saturday morning, which was fairly typical of his working hours. If I had tried to make him match the speed I wanted to run at, he would not have finished the race.

I think mourning is the same. Our situations are different and therefore so is the speed at which we grieve. I guess it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway:

Mourning is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Sometimes that means slowing down so others can go at their ‘my pace.’ And sometimes it means going on ahead so they can rest.

After about 10km Nariken was complaining that his feet were hurting and encouraged me to go on ahead. I said I’d run with him – that we could slow down, which we did. We had the same conversation a few times and I always said that I’d run at his pace. But at the 17km mark he stopped. His feet hurt too much and he needed to rest. He told me to go on ahead. I hesitated because I didn’t want to leave him. But then I had a thought: maybe I had actually been making him run faster than was comfortable for him – maybe his feet hurt because I wasn’t letting him rest.

I think it was right for me to have stuck with Nariken for the first part of the half-marathon. But I also think it was wrong for me to have tried to make him stick with me for the whole thing. I was unconsciously making him try to run at a pace somewhere between his ‘my pace’ and my ‘my pace.’ This ironically meant neither of us were running at the speed that was comfortable for us.

In another move of irony, I have found it very difficult to fully process these thoughts, so I will just leave it there for now . . .

‘My pace.’

It’s why I’m happy to not rush mourning for my father and it’s why I’m OK with the fact that I didn’t get a personal best in Obihiro. After all, it was lots of fun, and there’s always next year!

me and two friends at the start of the Obihiro half marathon


Fighting crows with cheddar (or how common grace helps me deal with culture stress).

This has been a week of the unexpected. Unexpected trials and unexpected joys.

None of them particularly huge, but that’s kinda the point of this post. Sometimes it’s the little things that make living overseas stressful, and sometimes it’s the little things that take that stress away.

OK, here’s what happened…


On Monday my friend Tre took me along to the nearby Costco store to stock up some essentials. We eat some freebies, buy super-sized goods and head to the car park. As we’re putting our shopping into the car I turn around to see a crow taking a big beakfull out of my minced pork multi-pack.

That’s right, a crow had swooped into the two of us, hopped into the trolley, and was eating my freshly purchased raw meat.

Then it flew off like an utter punk coward. I mean, if you’re going to steal a man’s meat, at least have the stones to fight him for it.


I have ranted about the crows in Japan a bit before. But it’s worth re-mentioning that they are quite simply living embodiments of everything wrong in this world . . . with wings.

Honestly, they drive me insane. They’re everywhere, squawking away, and they swoop down on you from behind and try to peck you in the back of the head.

A Japanese crow

Look at it, hiding there in the shadows . . .

In a way, Japanese crows represent the culture stress I experience in Japan.

I saw ‘stress’ rather than ‘shock’ because I think there’s an important difference there. Some aspects of living in Japan really are shocking when you first arrive. And they take a little while to get used to. But other tough aspects of living in Japan never go away. And I don’t think I’ll ever get fully used to them. It’s not that they’re surprising, or odd, it’s that they’re really annoying.

For instance, leading up to the crow incident, I had two days in a row where I was asked the same question by a Japanese person. It’s a question I am often asked when people hear that I’m from the UK.

“Is it true that British food is horrible?”

Because you know that’s an acceptable thing to say to a person you’ve just met.

My point is that by Monday afternoon my culture stress meter was on the rise.


But by the grace of God I was able to overcome that stress.

And by ‘grace of God’ I mean ‘mature cheddar cheese.’

Because Costco had cheese. Mature cheddar cheese.

A beautiful block of mature cheddar cheese

Yes, it was twice as much as it’d cost in the UK. No, I don’t regret buying it at all.

Because cheese is amazing. And mature cheddar is the undisputed champion of cheese. If I were to have to compare cheddar cheese to a Street Fighter 2 character (and I kinda have to in order to satisfy a promise I made), it would be Ryu. Sure occasionally you’ll play around with Blanka/Brie and there’s also that one weird friend who claims to genuine prefer Zangief/Red Leicester . . . but deep down we all know that Ryu/Cheddar is the only sensible choice. No pretense. No fanciness. Just straight-up-dragon-punch-you-in-the-mouth brilliance. (See Priss, told you I could do it).

Anywho, I’m aware that the cross-section of people who love both British cheese and 90s beat em ups is probably quite small, so I’ll get back to the whole culture stress point.


Here’s the thing. I believe that everything good in this world comes from God. He gives all of it to us. And we’re meant to enjoy it. It’s meant to de-stress us.

Laughing with friends until your sides hurt . . . kicking your way through piles of autumn leaves . . . getting giddy with excitement over the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron . . . melting cheddar cheese over a bagel . . . all of these are good gifts from a good God. And all of them have helped me to deal with the stress of trying to live for Jesus in Japan.

Yes, I absolutely believe in the power and importance of prayer. I believe in the need to be reminded of the simple amazing truths that make up the good news of Jesus Christ. And I believe that the main battles I face are battles of my own heart. That’s a large part of writing this blog: to encourage folk like you to encourage folk like me.

Yup, words have the power to strengthen souls.

And so does cheese.

No seriously. Because cheese is a physical reminder of the fact that God cares for me and that He provides good gifts. And when I’m stressed that’s the truth I most need to remember. When it feels like the world is against me mature cheddar says, “God is for you.” It reminds me not to focus on all the negative stuff, but to enjoy the good stuff. To give thanks. Be grateful. Smile.


So there you have it. When crows attack, I fight back with cheese!



OK I’m feeling a bit vulnerable having exposed all my crazy, so it’s sharing time.

What are the little things that help you to battle stress? What is your equivalent of mature cheddar? (And don’t say Red Leicester!)

The hardest part of learning Japanese? Having Love.

My last post was about applying lessons from Rocky to language learning, and whilst there is much more the Italian Stallion has to teach about learning Japanese, today I want to share a language learning principle from the Bible that has been impressed on me these last few weeks.

It’s fair to say this is the most difficult aspect of learning Japanese (or any language), and it also happens to be the most important:

Having love

For folk like me, fighting away in the hope of becoming fluent in a foreign language (or at least close enough to blag it), there is a verse in the bible that hits like a brutal sucker punch to the gut,

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Or to paraphrase:

A Japanese gong, is still a gong.

A Japanese bell

Photo by Suguru Yamamoto on Creative Commons (original)

Which means that all of my endeavours to master Japanese –– all the hours I pour into memorising vocab, all the ink I spill practising kanji, all the Rocky movies I watch dubbed into Japanese (hey, it counts as study!) –– it will be totally useless if I don’t also work on having love.

Actually that’s not true. It won’t be useless. It’ll be really useful for doing stuff like offending people and screwing up friendships.

Because if I’m honest, I’m pretty much a master of using words to negative effect. Sarcastic snipes? Expert level. Jokes that get a cheap laugh at someone’s expense? Nailed it. Twisting words so that I don’t have to listen to a genuine grievance against me? Piece. Of. Cake.

And none of that is caused by a lack in my English abilities. It’s not like I mean to speak kind, affirming, encouraging words and get mixed up. No, I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. And often what I mean to say is mean.

And at those moments I am a nothing more than a resounding gong.

I can trick myself into thinking that the main thing hindering me from making a positive difference in Japan is my lack of language skills. When in fact the main hinderance is the same thing that hindered me back in the UK:

Not having love

The gong quote comes just before the famous ‘Love is…’ passage, where Paul explains what having love looks like. It makes for quite an unexpected set of criteria for assessing language ability.

Love is patient

Love is kind

Love does not envy

Love does not boast

Love is not proud

Love does not dishonour others

Love is not self-seeking

Love is not easily angered

Love keeps not record of wrongs

Love does not delight in evil

Love rejoices with the truth

Love always protects

Love always trusts

Love always hopes

Love always perseveres

Now listening to a recording of myself speaking Japanese, and having my teacher dissect all my faults was pretty painful. But reading through that list of the attributes of love, and reflecting on how I use my words . . .

Seems like I need another training montage!

And like Rocky I also need a good team to encourage me in my training (seriously, you could write a book on lessons in Japanese learning from the Rocky films). And not just me, but anyone who is trying to master a foreign language. Especially if we’re doing it in order to tell people about the love of God.

So if you’re studying Japanese, etc then don’t forget this key principle. And if you’re encouraging folk in their studies make sure you remind us of the foundational lesson we need to be mastered by.

Don’t be a gong: have love.

My Japanese sucks! Do I give up or grow up? (lessons in language learning from Rocky Balboa)

I’ve been studying Japanese for over 6 years now. And in total I’ve spent over 2 years of that actually in Japan.

So you might think that my Japanese language is pretty good. I used to think so too (although I’d be sure to play that down).

But the other day I listened to a recording of myself.

Boy, do I suck!

Seriously, I’m not trying to be humble anymore. I have realized that I still genuinely suck at Japanese.

This week I started a new course at my language school where I prepare a speech on some topic related to Christianity. Then in the class I give the speech, and then listen back to it with my teacher giving advice on how to not suck so much.

Monday’s class was pretty brutal because I tried to go just from brief notes.

Tuesday’s class I went with a full script prepared. My teacher stopped the recording every 15 seconds to ask me to pronounce words properly.

Today I thought would be OK because we would just be going over an essay I had handed in the night before.

Here’s some of the mistakes I made.


I now know how Rocky’s felt after his first fight against Klubber Lang.

But, like Rocky, I’m not throwing in the towel. No, I’m calling for a rematch. And Japanese, you can pity me all you want… Because I’m about to start my training montage.

That’s right, it’s on.

It. Is. On.

Because the thing about realizing you’re not as good as you thought you were is that it gives you a choice:

Give up or grow up.

That’s the choice I face now, and it’s the choice Rocky faced.

And I’ve decided to follow Rocky’s example. I’m going to grow up.

In case it’s been a while since you saw Rocky 3, allow me to remind you of the story.

Rocky is champ. He’s held the title for a while and has successfully defended it a number of times. Then he’s challenged by Klubber Lang. He accepts the fight because he thinks he’s unbeatable.

He gets beat. Bad.

That’s when he discovers his team has been protecting him. Only accepting easy challenges.

Why? Because Rocky’s lost that crucial element. He no longer has ‘the eye of the tiger.’ He’s lost his hunger to be the best he can be. That’s why he got pounded by Klubber Lang.

So now Rocky has a choice: give up, or grow up. Throw in the towel and walk away, or throw himself into training and get back in the ring.

Cue epic training montage.

Back to reality, and this week I have realized that I really am not as good at Japanese as I thought I was. I’ve been doing OK because I haven’t been challenged. Maybe even (dare I admit it?) I’ve lost my hunger. I do not have ‘the eye of the tiger.’

So I face that choice:

Give up, or grow up.

To be honest, I’m tempted by the first option. I mean seriously, it’s been six years!And my Japanese is good enough for most situations.

And as much fun as a training montage is to watch, the training itself is neither glamorous or easy. Working on your weaknesses means constantly having your failings highlighted. That’s not much fun. It’d be easier to just coast at the level I have.

But, as I mentioned before, my dad didn’t teach me to give up. And God doesn’t tell me to give up, but to give my best. Not to impress other people (good job, because my Japanese a long way from being impressive) but because it pleases my Heavenly Father, as I know it would also please my earthly one.

“Whatever you do, do at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, and not for people.”

(Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 3:23)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some training to do…


Sometimes e-mail can be a beautiful thing (or ‘instant encouragements from Norway’)

1 item in e-mail inbox

I hate e-mail as much as the next person. Possibly more. Nothing sucks the fun from my day like an inbox full of e-mails. Most of them unnecessary, all of them time-consuming, and the important ones somehow exerting a kryptonite-like power over me, meaning I go for weeks at a time with my starred inbox gradually growing, until I finally break down under the pressure to reply.

And I’m pretty sure we can blame e-mail for the creation of the ‘word’ LOL.

But occasionally I get an e-mail that makes me realise the struggle to keep the inbox clear is worth it.  Yesterday I got just such an e-mail.

It was from my Norwegian friend Simen, who is, it must be said, a master of the encouraging e-mails.

They come out of the blue. No warning. No polite pre-ample. No awkward apologies for not e-mailing sooner. No ‘are they rhetorical or should I answer them?’ opening questions. Just straight into some great soul-stirring chat.

And it made me think: what if I were more pro-active in using my e-mail? What if I took the fight to the inbox? What if I decided to e-mail people who I don’t get to see now because of the distance, and just share some encouraging thoughts I’d had that morning?

Because isn’t that the beauty of e-mail? Sure like the Uruk-hai it has become this dark and twisted beast, but originally it had the grace and happy charm of an elf. Or something . . . my point is this:

E-mail can be a beautiful thing, and I am incredibly grateful for it, and for those who use it to encourage me to keep on keeping on.