Tag Archives: Life in Japan

How snowboarding, soup curry, dog sledging, and onsens help me love the Japanese more

These last few weeks have been pretty packed. Mostly with fun stuff. I’ve relaxed in onsens, added a few more notches on my snowboard, eaten a whole lot of outrageously tasty food, and tried my hand at dog sledging.

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I spent a lot of the time with two of my friends, Richard and Peta. If you want to here more about the adventures I got up to and see some photos, you should check out this blog post: http://beautifulsilliness.com/2015/02/14/hunger-is-the-greatest-source/

And if you want to watch a video of us dancing like idiots:

So yeah, I have had a whole lot of fun recently. Now maybe I’m just trying to justify my regular onsen trips here, but I’ve been reflected a bit lately and think that all this fun really does have a purpose:

Snowboarding, soup curry, and onsens help me to love the Japanese people.

I don’t simply mean that all the fun stuff in Japan makes me love Japan. In fact I think that all the awesome stuff here could simply make you lust after Japan rather than love it (but more of that in my next post).

No, I mean that onsens and soup curry help me to love the people of Japan. They help to make me desire to do good here, to be generous, to share the good news, and to do it out of joy not duty.

They do so by becoming reminders for me–tangible, tasty, enjoyable reminders–of God’s love for me.

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I recently learned a great new Japanese phrase: 太っ腹 (futo’para). It literally means ‘fat bellied’ but it actually means ‘very generous’ or ‘big hearted.’ I use it now to refer to God’s grace, God’s ‘fat bellied’ grace.

All the stuff I’ve been j in the past few week, and all the fun and food that I will continue to enjoy whilst I’m here in Sapporo, they are all means of me enjoying God’s grace. Because I don’t deserve onsens, I deserve hell. The fact that I can enjoy chilling in a hot spring whilst soaking up the views of Hokkaido winter is an overflow of the amazing grace of God. It’s a concrete example of His undeserved and steadfast kindness. Because God gave His own son for me, to set me free from the weight of my sin, I can enjoy creation and culture, natural hot springs and unnaturally hot curry , without guilt, fear, or shame.

Richard Foster in ‘Celebration of Discipline’ notes that we often claim we’d love others better if only we had enough faith when the reality is,

‘Frequently our lack is not faith but compassion.’

I can only speak for myself, but those words wring devastatingly true for me. I need to be more compassionate. But I can’t create compassion just out of a sense of feeling guilty for lacking in compassion. It is only when I feel the weight of God’s compassion for me that my heart is changed.

‘We love because he first loved us.’

So as I allow God to care for me, it creates in me the kind of heart that wants to share that care with others.

As I warm my body in onsens I allow God’s love to warm – to melt – my heart to love others with that same love.

As I feed on God’s grace I become, in a small measure, like Him. I become ‘fat bellied.’ Filled up on God’s love for me so that I am then able to joyfully share that love with the people of Japan.

(And just in case you were wondering how well I did at dog sledging . . .)

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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!

 

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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!)

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

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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.

How a handful of words gave me the joy to keep on track in Japan

Yesterday I read a blog post by my friend Peta that reminded me of two things that are critical for me as I seek to live for Jesus here in Japan:

The power of joy

The power of words

You see I’ve been in Japan for just over a month now, and the long-termness of my stay here has sunk in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on the edge or anything, but life here can be tough. The Japanese language . . . goodbyes  . . . natto. It’d be easy to be cynical. Especially if you’re me (but more on that some other time).

So the words of Peta’s blog struck me something mighty. Actually the title by itself struck me,

Today I Choose joy

Starbucks cup with "Have a nice day" written on it

 

This was the reminder I needed. That the fight for joy involves a choice. A choice to rejoice (sorry I didn’t intend that terrible rhyme!).

It was a simple message. After all it was only a blog post. About 500 words. I doubt it took Peta more than an hour to write. And yet there was power in those words to keep me going in the fight against cynicism.

And this is not the only experience I’ve had of the power of a few words. These last few weeks I’ve received a number of e-mails from different friends that have contained powerful words. Words that have guided me and spurred me on. Just e-mails. Simple, brief, and generally with sketchy grammar. But with words that have kept me going.

Because we often think that the only words that can stop a disaster, or motivate someone for adventure, are epic speeches, right? We think in order to fire people up we need to quote the Lord of the Rings or something.

But it is often the simple daily reminders that keep us on the straight and narrow.

Think of your car sat-nav: which instruction is the most important?

OK sure, if you miss the turnoff from a motorway it is more annoying than if you do the same on a normal road, but you get my point, right?

It’s the gentle “Keep going straight” that encourages us that we’re on the right track. And the quiet but firm, “Perform a U-turn when necessary” that stops us from continuing in the wrong direction.

“Keep going”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself”

“Isn’t Jesus awesome?”

“Praying for you”

“Choose joy”

Simple words. But sometimes that’s all we need: clear but gentle reminders to keep on keeping on. To keep fighting the good fight. And to do it with a happy heart.

The post Peta wrote was actually inspired by another blog. That didn’t reduce its power. Because the power of words doesn’t come from their originality, but from their truthfulness. The call to “rejoice” was not a new idea for me. In fact, none of the words that people sent to me were really original. They didn’t have to be. They were reminders of truths that I had taken my eyes off in the business of life.

Not that I’ve been particularly busy. I don’t think busyness is a necessary requisite of forgetfulness – being human is enough for that. I think that’s why the Bible is so full of the same things being said over and over again. And why the apostle Peter wrote to the first bunch of Christians,

“I know you know this stuff, but I’m going to keep reminding you of it until I die.”

Because joy in the Lord Jesus gives power to pour out your life for the sake of others. And that joy can come from a handful of words.

 

But enough from me: what about you? Have you ever experienced the power of a few simple words?

Which is harder: getting into a Japanese university or getting into the kingdom of God?

school girl looks up during an exam

Photo courtesy of OMF International

I have a friend here in Japan who is currently studying towards her university entrance exams. The pressure on her is visible. And it’s crazy.

University entrance works differently in Japan than in the UK. You do have different subjects that you study for and you have to pass exams for those in order to pass school. But to get into a university you have to take an exam specifically for that university―if you mess up on the day of that exam (or if you can’t make it for whatever reason) then that’s it, you’re not getting in.

I know that exams in any country result in pressure and stress. But seriously, Japan feels like a whole other level to the UK.

It’s no secret that the pressure to succeed in Japan can be crazy. It’s one of the reasons for the crazy suicide rate and other social problems such as hikikomori and ‘work death.’

One of the most common words in Japan is ‘ganbaru’ (頑張る) which is almost impossible to translate into English, but roughly means something like ‘do your best.’ So people who are studying for exams are encouraged to ganbaru. And you will often hear people saying ganbaranai-to “I must work hard.” The idea is that if you do mess up on that all-important occasion, then it is almost certainly because you didn’t practice/study/work hard enough in the build up to it.

Now I have nothing against people doing their best. But when you feel like you have to keep pushing yourself even when it’s crushing your body and soul . . . Then you know something’s gone wrong.

The thing is that I feel helpless in the face of this ‘ganbaranai-to’ culture.

Take my friend struggling under the pressure to do well in her exams: I can offer some sympathy and practical help, but I’m very limited since:

  1. The UK entrance system seems much more chilled out than here in Japan.
  2.  I can barely remember my high school Physics lessons (all I recall is that Mr Dugan had one of the world’s most impressive moustaches)
  3. I haven’t yet learned the Japanese necessary to discuss differentiation or thermodynamics.

And even if I could help Yukiko pass her entrance exams . . . What about the rest of Japan? I know the story about starfish on the beach, and sure it’s great to help those you can, but my heart still breaks for the millions of people in Japan broken by the pressure to ‘ganbaru’ to the bitter end.

 

Luckily I know a dude who is able to help. His name is Jesus.

He knows what that pressure to ‘ganbaru’ is like. He went through His whole live fighting temptation every day, and beating it, to win perfect obedience for us. And when the critical moment came, He didn’t fail. He wrestled through blood, sweat and tears and submitted Himself to betrayal, mockery, false-accusations, humiliation, torture and execution on a cross.

“It is finished”

Done. Passed. 100%

See, as far as I can tell, in Japan you don’t get a second chance. If you fail it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

Sure you can wait till next year and try again. But the thing is that can simply amplify the pressure to succeed. What if you screw up the second time? Then what excuse do you have?

But here’s the punchline: the good news of Christianity is not that God offers us a second chance, but that He offers us His Son.

Because Jesus doesn’t just sympathise with our weakness―although He most certainly does that―He pays for (or rather He paid for) our failings at the cross.

This why Jesus is able to make promises like,

“Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

To be frank, without the death and resurrection of Jesus, this would be a meaningless claim. But with Jesus being seated at the right hand of God it is a promise that is as sweet and powerful today as it was the day He first spoke it.

And I’ve seen this verse enough in Japan to know that it resounds here loud and clear.

This then is why I’m in Japan as a missionary. I genuinely believe that the only hope for the broken people in Japan is Jesus. That’s why I’m committed to being here for the long-term: so that I can introduce people to Jesus. Jesus the great high priest. Jesus the perfect filial son.

Yesterday I Had a Shocking Experience at a Japanese Public Bath

Most of my experiences with Japanese culture are very pleasant, but occasionally they can be quite shocking. Last night was one such experience.

baby in a bathtub

Photo courtesy of OMF International

Here’s what happened.

I took a trip down to my local public bath, which is happily a literal five-minute walk from where I live. It was my first time at this particular baths, having moved into my house (and indeed Japan) less than three weeks ago. It did not disappoint. There was of course the standard bath, but they also had two saunas and an outdoor mini-hot-spring type bath (I’m not sure how you translate 露天風呂). And also a bath that I really should have checked before getting into.

You see, either side of the door leading to the outside bath there were two little cool-down baths. Because you can of course have too much of a good thing. Especially when that good thing is heat. So in Japanese public baths and onsens you get these baths full of cold water. The general plan (as far as I’m concerned) is get in quick and get out quicker.

So that’s what I tried to do.

Except it turns out that the bath on the left of the door had a sign that I really should have read before getting in.

でんき風呂

If you know Japanese you’ll understand why the side of my body cramped up as I dropped myself into this in-hindsight-rather-clearly-sign-posted bath. It was not a cool-down bath. It was an electric bath.

Yup, electric. A bath with an electric current running through it. Not enough to kill you (although there is quite a long list of ailments that would make using it inadvisable), but enough to make your muscles spasm out of control. Especially if you’re expecting cold, still, non-electrified water.

I guess there’s a couple of lessons to be learnt here:

  • If you want to engage with a culture, then you need to be willing to try out new things.
  • But first make sure they’re not electrified.

 

What about you? What’s the most shocking experience you’ve had whilst immersing yourself in a different culture? (It doesn’t have to involve a lame wordplay on the word ‘shocking’.)

Japanese food: the good, the bad, and the natto.

I’ve been in Japan for almost two weeks now, and I’m finally feeling like I’m actually here. One of the things that has helped me feel like I’m in Japan (you know, besides from the two million Japanese people who live in Sapporo) has been the food I’ve eaten.

I guess I’m a bit of a foodie, because lots of the key things that define Japan for me are foods. So let me share with you some of the foodstuffs that are making me feel at home in Japan.

Like most countries, some Japanese food is all-round amazing, some of it is not really tasty in itself but somehow is really good, and some of it should be eradicated from the face of the earth.

In other words, with Japanese food you have: the good, the bad, and the natto.

 

The Good

I guess one of the least well-known Japanese dishes is ‘curry rice’ (カレーライス). This is a shame, because it is almost incontestably tastier than the better known dishes such as sushi or even – dare I say it – ramen.

For me curry rice has a real home-made feel to it, even if it’s from a restaurant with a vending machine. But curry rice that is actually home-made is even more amazing. Especially when the person who makes your curry shapes the rice into a map of the island of Japan you’re staying in.

Check this out.

Japanese curry rice in the shape of Hokkaido

 

The Bad

You have probably picked up on this by now, but one of my favourite things about Japan is canned coffee. I love it.

The thing is that canned coffee is, if I’m honest, not very good in terms of being coffee. And yet it is somehow amazing.

And like the curry rice, part of the great thing about canned coffee is the way it looks. By which I mean, the insane over statements that get printed on the cans.

Check this out.

A can of coffee

In case you can’t read it the claim for this particular coffee is,

“Gold Is A Premium Coffee With A Radiant-like Beauty Perfected With Premium Beans.”

Not a single word of that is true. And yet somehow it’s still really good.

 

The Natto

Again, you may have heard me talk – or rather rant – about natto in the past. I do not love it. For the simple reason that it is nothing more – or less – than condensed foulness.

I would post a photo to prove that point, but it’s hard to convey the depths of the horrendousness of natto through a photo. So I’ve made a video.

However, I haven’t edited it yet, so you’ll have to wait a few days for that.

But if you could watch the video, then you would have picked up that I have a cunning plan to get myself to like natto. Well, I say ‘cunning’ .  .  .  stupid is probably a better word.

See I tend to be quite vocal in my hatred of natto (as with anything, really) and this has caused me to be reprimanded on several occasions by natto-lovers. I have been informed that natto is simply an acquired taste, and that to reach the necessary level of acquirement it is necessary to eat natto at least ten times.

Now I try to be a trusting, outgoing kind of person so I have decided that I will give this ten times natto thing a shot. By my count I have now clocked up five attempts at eating natto, leaving five more bowls of the slimy, smelly skunge before I am able to either eat natto with some degree of enjoyment or not eat it with a clear conscience.

 

And there you have it: Japanese cuisine making me feel at home in Sapporo.

What about you? Do you have foods that you love/hate about Japan, or anywhere else? Or foods that make you feel like, “Ah, now I am really here!”?