Sunday, January 24, 2010

Finally, I get around to writing about Christmas and New Year, a month late! Believe me, it was crazy, and the pace hasn`t really let up since then!

I returned from China Thursday night (Christmas Eve) around 11:00pm, and crawled into bed somewhere around one AM after dinner and minor unpacking and such. Fortunately, I had the first two hours off of school the next day! Christmas morning I got up at 9:00am and made stuffing for the church Christmas dinner that night. Then I took the train and bus to school around 10:00 and got there about 10:30. My friend Kae picked me up at school around 12:00 at my lunch break, and together we went to the church and prepared the turkey and stuffed it. I didn`t realize it was so complicated! Japanese people don`t have ovens, so we had to cook it in the microwave on the “Oben” setting.

By the time we were satisfied that it was cooking well, it was 2:00 and I went back to school without any lunch. Kae, bless her heart, stayed at the church all day cooking and watching over the turkey. That was so nice of her. Two hours was a long time for me to be away from school, but no one minded because there were no kids; they had winter vacation. So why did they make me work on Christmas Day? That`s just irritating. Lots of people have commented that, “Oh, you`re so lucky, Japan has so many national holidays and you get a lot of days off.” In America, teachers get four months off of school all together. In Japan, we get twenty-five days. Joy.

Not that I`m upset with my lot here. I actually am pretty lucky. My job is easy yet stimulating and I like it. I suppose I could have insisted on getting Christmas off and they probably would have given it to me. Next year, I`m going home for Christmas, so they won`t be able to make me work regardless.

Then Kae picked me up again at 4:15 and we returned to make mashed potatoes, gravy and finish the turkey. It caught fire once, which was interesting. Fortunately, I had baked my pies the week before and froze them before I went to China, so that was one headache I didn`t have to deal with. I had baked two peach, two pumpkin, and one blue berry/oreo cream pie, which honestly simply came out of the fact that I had run out of other ingredients and wasn`t about to spend another man en (\10,000, or $100) to get more. Nearly everything was from scratch. The crust was smashed cookies mixed with butter, the pumpkin came from real pumpkins that I cleaned, boiled, and mashed myself into puree. It took three evenings to make all five pies. But in the end, I think it was worth it; they turned out very delicious!

At 6:30 before the dinner, we had a lovely candlelight service. Twenty-four people came! Mostly new. The pastor read from John chapter one about Jesus being the Word of God and the creator of the world. He gave an excellent sermon about who Jesus is and what he means for us today. One lady got up and left in the middle, and we wondered if she was offended, but later her daughter said she simply had to go to work. She just left her daughter there! There was another lady there with her daughter and husband who was her friend, so they took the girl home, but still, we couldn`t believe it.

After the sermon, I sang “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” In Japanese and English. (1st verse Japanese, 2nd English, 3rd Japanese.)My voice totally cracked, but it was OK. I didn`t mess up the words. Then I gave my ten minute testimony, (which I previously posted on this blog), and afterward people said it was very moving. Then we sang Christmas carols while holding our candles. That was my favorite part. Most Japanese people know Christmas carol tunes because they hear them on the radio around Christmas time, but the ones on the radio are always in English. We sang with the Japanese lyrics, so I realized that many of them may have never realized the meaning behind the words until now. I told you how my Thursday night class was shocked that “Christmas” literally translates to “Jesus worship.” They just have no idea, because no one has ever taught them before!

This is a picture of everyone after the service:

The woman holding the little girl is Pastor Kumi (Kumi sensei), and the little girl is her daughter Ia-chan. I am standing beside my Pilipino friend Karen and the woman kneeling in front of us in the red sweater is Kae, and the woman kneeling beside her is Kaumi (I think that`s spelled right). They are both members of the church, along with Kaumi`s husband on the other side of the room, holding their son. The old man with glasses standing in back is Yoshida-san; he is also a member and just lost his wife Emiko to cancer. Pastor Toshi (Toshi sensei), Pastor Kumi`s husband, is taking the picture. His eighty-two year-old father is sitting in front. He was a psychiatrist in Tokyo, but he`s very sick now so he is living with Pastor Kumi and Pastor Toshi. Kumi Sensei was pastor of the church first, and then she was joined by Pastor Toshi, and they soon got married. The church is in the bottom floor of their house.

After that, we had a wonderful dinner! We had turkey and stuffing and chicken and sandwiches and mashed potatoes with turkey gravy and of course, Christmas cake! That`s a really fancy layered strawberry shortcake eaten by Japanese people around Christmas time, introduced by the American G.I.s after World War II. My pies turned out really well; everyone loved them. At first I was really disappointed with the blueberry/oreo cream pie, because it was very viscous and didn`t hold together as a pie should, but then I discovered it made an excellent topping for the other pies. We didn`t have any ice cream, so others quickly followed this example and it was great! Several ladies asked for the recipe afterward.

Blueberry/oreo cream topping:
Half a pound of frozen blueberries
A quarter pound of smashed opon man cookies (any type of cheap sugar cookie)
A quarter pound of smashed oreos:
Half a cup of milk
One tablespoon sugar
One tablespoon butter

I suppose if you actually want it to be a real pie, you could substitute condensed milk or cream for the milk.

Best of all, I had a lot of leftover pie, so I took it home to enjoy with my friends for the next week or so. Pastor Toshi said that next year we shouldn`t have turkey. It was a lot of work. Maybe we`ll have honey-basted ham instead. Unlike America, Japan is pretty good about not putting nasty allergy-flaring preservatives in pork products. (American pig always gives me a migraine.)

So to make myself feel better about working on Christmas, I pretended Christmas was actually Christmas Eve, and the next day (Saturday) was Christmas. I slept in, talked to my Mom and Dad on skype (it was still Christmas for them, thanks to the fifteen hour time difference), opened a few presents friends gave me, put my Chinese candy in a santa hat and enjoyed it throughout the day as if it were from a stocking. Here`s a picture of Chinese “cactus candy.” Yes, it really is made of cactus. You can even see the spines on it still. It wasn`t particularly fun to eat, so I gave most of it away as omiyage to the teachers at work, who seemed to love it. I call this picture "cactus candy man" because it looks like a little person.

I spent the day editing my short story, “Tapestry of Time.” Sunday was church again, and I stayed almost the whole day planning the New Year`s Eve and New Year events with Pastor Toshi and Kumi. Monday I had to go to work, but I had Tuesday through Friday off! I spent the time writing and submitting my novel Dargon, the Human Slayer. Thursday (New Years` Eve) I submitted “Tapestry of Time” to the international Writers of the Future Contest. If I win, I get some prize money and a free trip to a week-long conference in LA where lots of agents and publishers will be waiting. Wish me luck!

Thursday night the church was planning a big count down celebration, but Kae got sick and the pastors decided no one would show up (Japanese people are really busy cooking and cleaning on New Years Eve), so I was really disappointed and lonely. All my friends were off drinking or visiting family, so I decided last minute to go to the Universal Studios count down party.

Don`t go. It was a waste of time and money, loud, crowded, and with a freeeezing cold wind. It was almost a hundred dollars to get in, plus the twenty-five dollars it took to get there and back. It was just a bunch of people dancing on a big stage. Here they are:

Sorry the picture swivels weird-- I was trying to get a crowd shot put all you can see is a wave of blackness for a few seconds.

Here`s the giant color-changing Christmas tree:

And here`s the hip-hop dancers. They were slightly interesting:

Here`s the countdown:

The fireworks look impressive on video, but when you`ve been standing outside for several hours waiting for them (the fireworks were the main reason I went) in a negative ten degree wind chill, and that`s it, they were extremely disappointing. The staff was planning a whole half-hour display, but with the wind they said it was too dangerous.

I brought a small bottle of sparkling cider left by my predecessor to drink in cheers of the New Year, but it broke in my bag and the juice got everywhere, making everything sticky. I also lost a really nice glove, but again, I can`t complain too much because it was a pair left by my predecessor so I didn`t have to pay for them, and a replacement pair only cost ten dollars. I stuck around for the New Year parade at 1:30am, thinking it might be some consolation, but it was only about two minutes long and really pathetic. The whole party was catered to Americans, nearly all the songs American pop, almost everything in English, but the only foreigners there were the performers, and I hated it, but the Japanese seemed to love it. Weird.

So exhausted, miserable, and missing my family, I got the 2:00am train back. (Normally trains stop running around 10:00-midnight, depending on the area, but New Years is an exception.) I set my alarm and was trying to stay awake for my stop, but I must have nodded off and my alarm malfunctioned. I missed my stop. I woke up, didn`t recognize the station name where we had just stopped, and stammered, “Nabari wa doko des ka?” (Where is Nabari?) A nice lady sitting next to me helped me figure out that it was two stations back, but I would have to wait five more stations before I could get to one with a train back to Nabari. So I got off at that stop around 3:45, and had to wait until 4:00am for the next train in the freezing snow. I didn`t get back home until 4:45. It was definitely my worst night in Japan so far, but I really only have myself to blame. Lesson learned; not making that mistake again.

The next day was much better. I got up at 10:00 to go to our New Years church service at 11:00. New Years is the biggest holiday for Japanese people, one of the only times they don`t go to work and get to spend time with their families. The mothers cook a huge meal and the father actually eats and sleeps at home. As far as I can tell, Japanese men typically don`t stay with their families most of the time, but often eat and sleep in hotels or a separate home even when the family is not divorced. At least, this has been the case in every household I have visited, and every Japanese family I have gotten to know with the exception of Christian families and my supervisor, who is newly married.

So suffice it to say, not very many people came to church, only seven, counting the pastors, their daughter, and Pastor Toshi`s father. But we had a nice service, praying for the New Year, and afterward we toasted in the New Year with sparkling grape juice. [“Cheers” is “Kampai” or literally “Drain the cup.” Usually at Japanese parties, they toast with saki (rice wine) and no one can eat or drink anything until the host makes the kampai. Japanese people drink A LOT and in some business circles, men can not be considered close friends until they get drunk and do karaoke (singing) together. Of course, at the church it`s strictly no alcohol.] Kae taught us how to make rolled sushi and we ate that with machi in miso soup. Miso is bean paste, and machi are rice cakes. Totemo oishi des yo! (Very delicious, for sure!) Here is a picture of us all preparing the lunch:

And this is Aia-chan eating rolled sushi:

And this is me, Kae, and Ia-chan with our New Years gifts. They were lovely candles given by the pastors in thanks for the work we do at the church:

We stayed and talked and joked and planned for the year until about 5:00 in the afternoon. So New Years Day was much better than New Years Eve. My church family made all the difference. Still, I`ll be glad to spend it with my biological family next year. I miss them so much!

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