Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nagoya Festival!

Wow, just got back from an amazing time in Nagoya, the fourth largest city in Japan, following Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka! It`s only my second time; the first time I didn`t find it that impressive, but this time it was a blast!

I went down Saturday night to do dinner and karaoke with some Japanese Exchange Teacher friends. It was my first time doing "real" karaoke. I did it in Kumamoto with Diana, but only half an hour, one-on-one, no drinks. This was full-blown, six people crammed in a little room singing their lungs out for three hours with nomihoudai, "all you can drink." That last part didn`t interest me, but I learned some new fun songs and got to sing a few of my favorites and hang out with some old friends I haven`t seen for a long time. So that was good. But I guess I keep learning the same lesson about myself, which is that no matter how good the company is, loud, crazy parties that last late into the night are not my favorite way to have fun. They leave me feeling tired and a little rung out in the morning. That`s just my personality, nothing more, I think. I prefer hanging out with just one or two other people, walking through quiet nature or seeing cultural shows. Which is what I did on Sunday.

Sunday morning I went to Mustard Seed Church in Nagoya with a friend of mine I met at the Christian conference last weekend. His name is Taesung/Taisei Kim and he`s Korean/Japanese. OK, I have to pause for a second to explain that. In America we have "Chinese American" or "Mexican American" etc, which I guess are new terms in and of themselves. Not long ago (and you still hear these words today), people were lumped together as "Asian American" or "Hispanic American," etc, even though you`d be hard pressed to find a first generation Chinese and Japanese who could relate to each other any better than a Dutch and Greek person. The languages are different (not even related), culture, religion, food, clothing, style, just about everything you can think of. Only I think the Greek and Dutch people might actually do better because at least they are both a democracy and semi-capitalist economy, have somewhat of a common history in recent years, share a modern culture and have a similar education, whereas the only cultural ties between Japan and China ended over a thousand years ago. About the only thing the average Chinese and Japanese people meeting on the street in American could relate on right off the bat might be Disney songs. It really irritates me when people act like there`s no difference at all. What, you mean Japanese people don`t speak Chinese? Not unless they chose to study it in college! They speak Japanese for Pete’s sake. Ugg...

OK, so I used to be one of those ignorant people too (though I never thought the Japanese spoke Chinese as a first language). But the point of this is to explain that America, as ignorant as it can be of other cultures, at least understands and accepts the concept of dual or multiple ethnicity. That isn`t the same as dual nationality or citizenship, but it`s more than a lot of places have. Japan has no such concept. You can not be "Brazilian Japanese" or anything like that. There are families who have been living in Japan for generations, who were born and raised in Japan and attended only Japanese schools, speak only Japanese, have never been to any other country, and have Japanese names (in addition to their foreign one). But because they never changed their last name (why should they have to?) they are not Japanese citizens. They can't vote. To the Japanese, they are not Japanese. And because of that, they always introduce themselves as "Puruvian" or "Korean" and such. But if they went back to that country, they would feel far more out of place, and as often as not the people there would not consider them to be essentially "Puruvian" or "Brazilian" and such others. So I guess they're in a sort of ethnic limbo with no country that will claim them. Why is this a problem? I think people essentially long to be identified with a particular group, and it's not fair to deny them that, let alone the right to vote, hold office, etc. Japan really needs to get their act together on this. In another fifty years, at the current rate of immigration and lack of Japanese babies, Japan will be an "immigrant country." Japan can`t afford to have a tenth of even a quarter of its population not be citizens. So what if they don`t have a Japanese last name? They study foreign languages for at least six years in school; if they can`t pronounce foreign last names, that`s their problem! If you`re born in a country, you should be the citizen of that country! That`s what I believe, anyway.

This is the largest area in which Japan needs to reform. The second is foreign language education. The Japanese have this writing system called "Katakana." It is used to spell foreign words, but the problem is, it is just like their original hiragana syllabary, which is a collection of consonant sounds followed by vowels: "ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, sa, shi, su, se, so, ta, chi, tsu, te, to" etc. They learn this before they ever learn English, so if you transliterate katakana, they learn to pronounce their frist English words like this: "Herro, Hoto, coldo, cato, dogo, runningu, joggingu, rearry, Makudonarudo (McDonalds), Donoldo Ducku (Donald Duck) Engrish," etc. The pronounce my own state “Okurahoma” and my name “Lolo Popu” because they always insist I write them in katakana. And because they don`t learn the correct way until they are twelve or thirteen, seven or eight years later, they speak English incorrectly their whole life. It is so frustrating to work with a teacher who tells me in class, "Rerry? I lovu flesh piggu too!" That`s from a teacher with his masters in teaching English. It`s no wonder the Japanese get so frustrated when they travel abroad. No one can understand them! Here they have been studying a language WRONG for the past six years, all because they learned it wrong to begin with. If they are to make any progress in English education, they must eliminate katakana from all classes. It`s a crutch, and a broken one at that. You may say that English speakers to the same thing, but we don`t. All language textbooks written for native English speakers have standardized pronunciation and accent markings to indicate exactly how a foreign word should be spoken. Katakana doesn`t have that. By definition, it butchers any word that is not Italian or Spanish, which just so happen to have the exact same set of sounds as Japanese, except for the rolled R.

Now I realize why the Chinese are so much better than English than the Japanese. When I was studying Chinese characters out of a children`s textbook, exactly like a six-year-old Chinese child would learn it, I learned with Roman letters. Do you realize what that means? The Chinese learn Roman letters and pronunciation before they ever learn to read and write in their own language! No wonder they speak it better (on average) than the Japanese!

Anyway, sorry about that. After all that negativity on Japan, let`s talk about something positive! So I went to Mustard Seed Church with Nagoya, and it was amazing to see such a young, vibrant, Japanese church! Granted, half the members are foreign, but there were some young Japanese couples with kids too, and so many men! That was probably the most exciting thing to see. Statistically, less than 20% of Japanese Christians are male. But I would say they made up the majority there, and all of them young! That`s great, because Japan is still a society that follows the father. (On a side note, it`s not uncommon for a woman, after she`s been married awhile, to start talking to her husband with formal, polite language, and husbands to speak back with informal language. You can tell when the "honeymoon" stage is over when this switch in language occurs. The word most often used by these women for their husband is "goshujin," which literally means "master.") I`ve known many Japanese families in which the mother became Christian, and what usually happens is that she tries for years to get her husband to come, but he is too busy with work, out drinking, whatever. She either continues to come by herself, alienated from her other family members who either pay no attention to her faith or think she`s strange, crazy, and even traitorous for abandoning the family traditions, or she gives up hope and slowly slides out of faith. But if a man comes to Christ, he usually takes his family with him. That`s just the trend now, but I`m hoping it changes in multiple ways as Japan continues to modernize it`s thinking. I hope and pray that both more men will come to Christ on their own, and that more wives will be able to convince their husbands of the reality of the gospel.

It was a surprisingly short service, maybe only an hour (I`m used to two or three in most Japanese churches), and the message was very useful for both seekers and believers, discussing the historical accuracy of the Bible and why we should follow it. It was a great review for me, and I wrote down some of the statistics to use in my Thursday night class. Afterwards, we had fellowship (hung around and chatted over doughnuts) for maybe two hours. I met so many passionate Christians there, and learned that they`re a new church, less than a year old, and they already have almost fifty members! They don`t have their own building yet, but meet in a dance studio. Everyone helps unload and load everything from a van before and after. Then a group of us went to the Nagoya festival!

We were headed for an Indian restaurant and intersected the huge parade. Basically the Nagoya festival was created to commemorate three famous samurai from the Nagoya area: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. This last fellow was particularly famous, for he was a shogun over all Japan in the early 1600s and moved the capital to Tokyo. He`s also infamous for signing the Christian Expulsion Edict in 1614, which banned Christianity and expelled all foreigners. So he wasn`t a very nice guy. Anyway, we got to see the three heroes parading through the streets with their entourages of musicians, soldiers, queens, princesses, and concubines. Here's some of them:

I would have liked to stop and just watch the parade, but the others were hungry so we hurried on. At some point, we got separated from the other girls, so it was just me, Taisei, and Hideki. We saw a reenacted battle with samurai, ninja, shoguns, guns, arrows, etc. Ieyasu was not only mean, he was a cheat. He had guns and no one else did! Well, I suppose it`s not cheating to use the resources available to you. You`d be stupid to make it a “fair fight.” But the battle was over pretty fast, and you can probably guess who won. But if you decide to go, don`t stand in the street. You won`t be able to see hardly anything! Go up on the hill. I only realized that after it was over. Oops.

Well, here's a dude with swords:

We ended up eating at a good Chinese restaurant instead of the Indian place, then walked around to see the various shows, stalls, and cool places. Here's a really beautiful fountain:

The best place was probably Oasis 21, a tower overlooking the whole city with a giant, lighted fountain in the center. We rested there and swapped our favorite Bible verses and English slang. Taisei has quite a colloquial repertoire, some that I didn`t even know! Let`s bounce? I guess it means “let`s go,” but I`ve never heard it before. He spent eight months working in Australia, so that explains it. It`s refreshing to meet a Japanese speaker who doesn’t use English so formally.

Around 7:00, there were some really cool dance troops with giant flags and umbrellas and such. I think the style of dance is called Yosakoi and originated in 1954, combining elements of traditional Japanese dance with hip-hop while screaming the word “sore sore!” a lot, which means absolutely nothing. Here's a not so great picture:

I can`t really describe it, and unfortunately I didn`t get any videos because my camera was still broken (it`s fixed now)! But I posted videos on it before or you can look it up on youtube if you really want to see it. It`s quite impressive!

Then we saw a really cool dance from one of the Northern prefectures. Taisei got a video. Here it is:

Take a closer look at the weird hat ladies:

There was also a really funny dance about a man flying two kites. The "kites" were men dressed in colorful shirts and mimed flying around, swooping, getting tangled, crashing, and rising again in reaction to their master pulling and tugging on invisible strings. It was really funny!

After the children, women, and men danced, they invited everyone in the audience to join them! Of course I had to jump right in! What fun! Hideki and Taisei were bantering back and forth in Japanese that I`m so child-like. “Hey,” I said, “I can understand what you`re saying, you know!” But I guess I shouldn`t be offended. “Child-like” is not like childish in English, it`s almost a compliment in Japanese, like young and energetic. Then it was time to go home. I got in around midnight and crashed, getting up early the next morning for work. Staying up late two nights in a row was not good for me. I`ve been tired all week. But it was fun! I just won`t be doing it again any time soon.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost

Laura Popp (L. J. Popp)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Japanese Exchange Teacher Christian Fellowship Retreat!

Since Monday, October 11th was a national holiday (Health and Sports Day) in Japan, the Japanese Exchange Teacher Christian Fellowship decided to hold their biannual retreat that three-day weekend! But first, what is Health and Sports Day? It`s called "Taiiku no hi" in Japanese, and I think a more direct translation is “physical education day.” It was first celebrated in 1966, commemorating the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and is always held on the second Monday of October because statistically, that week has the best weather. Students, companies and families get together to play sports all day. Actually, most schools don`t compete on that actual day, but during the week preceding it. Our sports tournament was on Tuesday and Wednesday, Tuesday for games not involving balls (like relay races, tug-a-war, and track and field events), and Wednesday for ball games like badminton, volleyball, basketball, baseball, etc. On Wednesday afternoon, we had a big ceremony awarding those who placed in their sport.

My school actually has this event twice a year, and then, after the winter semester, we have a half marathon. All students must participate, unless they`re really sick, but they get to choose what sport or sports to play in. They only have to do one. This, combined with the cultural festival and annual school trip for each class, makes Japanese schools a lot better rounded than American schools, I think. Students are a lot more fit and all of them can at least read music, though I don`t know about being more cultured. I think I already told you about the somewhat disastrous cultural festival this year. Not that drag queens aren`t amusing, but considering how most students spent all their time at that stage, completely ignoring the koto and band and other events, I think we have problems.

And alas, despite the holiday, I had to work at the school open house on Saturday, making it not quite a three-day weekend for me. At least I got the afternoon off. I taught an English class to third-year middle school students interested in attending our high school next year. It went really well. The theme was traveling abroad and we pretended to visit a restaurant and doctor in Dallas, Texas with dialogues for ordering food and explaining how we felt. The members of English Speaking Society helped, and everyone got candy at the end. I think it was a good first impression.

I got a ride to the station and caught the 11:55 train to Nagoya, and from there the shinkansen (bullet train) to Fukushima, limited express to Iwawashiro and a taxi to the conference site. I had to change transportation six times, though it was only about an eight-hour journey, but so expensive! The shinkansen is a very comfortable way to travel when you have to get somewhere fast and I prefer it over a plane, but that`s about all I can say for it. Highway buses, when they fit with your schedule, are a much more economical option, or sometimes simply renting a car. Unfortunately, my Internatinoal driver`s license expired and the only highway buses to Fukushima wouldn`t get me there until the conference was halfway over, (not leaving until evening and taking twice as long), so the shinkansen was my only option. If I were to stay in Japan another year, I would definitely invest in a Japanese driver`s license and car. K car`s (with small, slower engines and very fuel efficient) go for only $1,000 for a nice one, and though the shaken (insurance) is expensive, I think I would end up saving money (and a lot of time) in the long run, and I could sell the car in the end.

At least I got to split the taxi cost with a girl name Karen I met at the station from Trinidad and Tobago who was also going to the conference. We arrived at Bandai Seinen no Ie (Mount Bandai Friendship Center) at 8:00pm, just in time to hear the speaker`s message. Her name was Pastor Toyomi Sanga; she and her husband serve at Grace Garden Assemblies of God Chapel in Koriyama. She said she never studied English much, but her English was pretty good! A few times she stopped to ask for a word, but someone was always able to supply it for her quickly. Here she is:

That`s actually a picture of session four. The theme of the retreat was “Being the light of the world” and the first message was “What is the light of the world?” She told a lot of stories about her church and her Christian life, mostly about the hopelessness many Japanese feel and how easy it is to reach out to them amidst that. For example, when she was in middle school, she asked her teacher why she should study so hard when all she really wanted was to be a punk rocker. The teacher said that she should study hard so she could get into a good high school.

“And then what?” she asked.

“Well, then you can study hard to get into a good college.”

“And then?”

“You study hard in college to get a good job or marry a rich husband!”

“That`s it?”

“What do you mean `that`s it?` That means you can have a good life!”

“But what if those things don`t make me happy? And even if they do, what about after that, if I lose my job or my husband dies or none of those things happen in the first place no matter how hard I try? Or even if against all odds I get them all and I become happy and stay happy, what happens then?”

“Well, I guess you die.”

And there it was. The way most Japanese people feel. This story inspired me. I had a conversation with my supervisor just the other day during lunch. I`ve been praying for her a lot lately, for reasons I`ll explain later. She asked me what my “purpose in life” is. I felt a little surprised, but rather timidly told her that my purpose was to bring glory to God and to serve His children.

“I don`t think you can support yourself doing that,” she commented.

I laughed, feeling a little emboldened. “No, I can do that in any job, wherever God puts me. In this job, as an English teacher, I can organize food and clothing drives to serve needy people. During the vacations I can go on mission and humanitarian trips. I can be a light to the students and teachers at this school. As long as I am serving God and others, I am fulfilling my purpose, no matter where I am or what job I have."

She seemed very contemplative. “I…don`t have so important a purpose. Right now I am just working so my daughters can get a good education. But after that…I don`t know. Maybe I will have no purpose.”

“That doesn`t have to be true,” I assured her. “You can learn what your ultimate purpose is. But in order to do that, I think you have to know the One who created you and gave you that purpose.” I took the tea cup I was drinking from and rotated it in my hands. “This cup was made with a very special purpose, to commemorate a festival and historical event. Everyone who looks at it will learn about that history and also be able to enjoy a refreshing cold or hot drink. Its purpose is distinct, but also pretty obvious. Humans are far more complicated. We don`t always know what our purpose is, so we must get to know the Potter, the one who made us. God.”

She thought about this very carefully. “I see why you believe this. I want to know my purpose too.” Then she abruptly changed the subject. I don`t know if I made an headway or not, but I will continue praying for her.

Anyway, after the first session, we got in our small groups and discussed some questions. We only had a short time, so we really only got through introductions. Here is my small group:

From the left is me, Rachel from the U.S., Abidemi (the JCF national coordinator) from Canada, Ying-Ying from Singapore, and Solveig from Canada.

Then we had communal shower and bath time (there is no other kind in Japan), and talked late until lights out at 11:00. I slept in a tatami (a mat made of rice straw) room on a floor futon with five other girls, what I like to call “Japanese dormitory style.” I`m used to that; the hard part was waking up at 6:00 in the morning to clean the public hallway, washroom, and bathroom! Because the place was really cheap, all who stay there must do “cleaning time” in the morning, and they designate a special place each group must clean. The place was full of bugs. But then, I`m used to that too. I clean a bathroom everyday at school along with a few students. I think that should also be a requirement in American schools. Maybe then kids won`t trash the school or write graffiti, and they could lay off the janitor instead of the teachers. Japanese schools don`t seem to be under budget, and they would never even think about going to a four day school week or anything like that, (some public schools also hold classes on Saturday too), and they always have plenty of paper. They just use resources a whole lot better than American schools. For example, the school buildings are a lot smaller, without central air or heating, so they are a lot cheaper to maintain. It`s not comfortable, but it used to be the same in American schools, and it keeps them from going bankrupt. Why do Americans always overspend tax dollars? In Oklahoma where I`m from, all the substitute teachers have to be volunteers. Then again, in Japan, they`ve never even heard of substitute teachers because teachers are only absent from class if they are deathly ill or injured, which hasn`t happened the entire time I`ve been here. Though there are such things as “relief teachers” that are hired if such a thing happens. I don`t really like that system either, since it makes the teachers so overworked that they can hardly take sick leave and I`m starting to realize why they get so frustrated with me when I ask for it, even when I had swine flu and it`s in my contract. There must be a happy medium.

Anyway, that was a rather long tangent. I`m just so impressed with how the Japanese conserve and budget so well in comparison to wasteful American culture.

After cleaning time, we had mandatory radio exercises, another aspect of Japanese culture that at first seemed ridiculous, but I have slowly learned its practical purposes. All over Japan, companies, schools, and basically anywhere people must wake early and gather, require that these ten minutes of exercises be done together. They are probably the reason why Japanese people stay so fit and limber up into their 80s. The only dumb thing is that they`ve been using the same record/tape/CD, every morning, since the 1950s. They could shake it up a bit with a few extra songs in their repertoire. But it`s quite a sight to see several hundred people doing these together. Here`s a picture:

The girl wearing black pants and a white shirt smiling really big in front is Sunny from New Zealand, one of my roommates at the retreat. We were roommates at the last fall retreat too and we became instant friends. I don`t think anyone who meets her can help but become her instant friend. Her real name is Sundia, but Sunny just suits her so well, because that`s how she always is! She just got married and her husband, Kevin, is kind of like the moon. Always shining and smiling too, but quieter and perhaps more shy than Sunny. So if she`s like the sun and he`s like the moon, then their children will be like the stars! They are both great examples of how to be a light in a dark world.

After that and breakfast, the leadership team had prayer. Here`s everyone on leadership who could make it to the retreat:

Top left: Jean-Marc, (webmaster) Hideki (retreat co-ordinator), Abidemi (natinoal co-ordinator), Kristin Hanoka (Prayer and Encouragement co-ordinator), Deborah Ruth (missionary liason) and me, the librarian/Nara and Mie representative.

Then I took some pictures of the mountains, forests and lake from the veranda just outside the worship space:

Then we had worship again and I helped serve communion. I always find it half amusing/half disturbing getting the blood and body of Christ from Welch`s grape juice and wonder bread. I think Protestants have lost much of the reverence that the Catholic Church has for the sacrament. I don`t believe in transfiguration, but it`s still a very powerful symbol. We do pray over the elements first, of course, but I still feel strange about getting it out of an ordinary Welch`s juice bottle, especially since Jesus wouldn`t have had one of those. But then, maybe I`m too much of a traditionalist. Jesus didn`t use projectors or a Japanese translator either, and besides, it is the memory of Christ and his sacrifice that makes the communion meal holy, not some special “chalice.” Still, I like the word “chalice.” It`s a really cool word.

For Sunday morning service Pastor Toyomi spoke about “What is the light?” She talked about the properties of light, such as how fast it is and how it cannot be stopped. This was very interesting to me, since I`m writing a Christian fantasy about beings made from light. But more interesting was the story she told about her daughter`s kindergarden. The daughter did not want to go to kindergarden because the teacher was very mean, never smiled and used a scary mask to get the children to sit down and shut up. The school felt like a very dark place and the students cried everyday. So the little girl didn`t want to go to school. Toyomi asked her daughter what they should do. The daughter said,

“Mommy, I want to march around the school for seven days, just like Jericho, and maybe then the walls will fall down!”

At first Toyomi laughed, thinking her daughter simply wanted to destroy the school, but the daughter was serious. “No, Mommy, the walls of Satan! If we pray, those walls will fall down.”

So Toyomi and her daughter marched around the school every evening, praying for the students, for the teachers, for the principles and parents. At the end of the seventh day, the mean teacher saw them and asked what they were doing. They told her they were praying for her and the school. The teacher was surprised and said, “Thank you, thank you very much for doing that.” This woman wasn`t a Christian, but she was still touched by the gesture. After that, she stopped using the mask and began to smile. Toyomi said to her daughter,“Well, the seven days are over and God worked.”

But the daughter insisted they continue marching everyday. So they did. A few weeks later, it was time for the school trip. The students could go anywhere they wanted in town: the police station, the fire department, the zoo, the park, the museum, anywhere. But one little boy raised his hand, pointed to Toyomi`s daughter and said, “I want to go to her church!” And all the other children agreed. Even some of the students in the other classes wanted to come. So, about thirty kids and ten parents/teachers walked down the street to the little church. Toyomi sensei was there, and answered all their questions. At the end, one little boy raised his hand and asked,

“Pastor Toyomi, can I become a Christian?”

“Well, yes, you may!”

And after that, the little boy`s mother came up to Toyomi and said, “Thank you for inviting us to the church. I was always curious to come inside but I thought it was just a place for people who were already Christian. Now I`m not afraid to come anymore.”

That story really moved me. God is teaching me many things in Japan, but one of the most profound is the power of prayer. Words are very powerful things. The Bible says God created the world through words. He said, “Let there be light” and “let the dry land appear” and it was. Oaths and vows bind people together in spiritual ways, when we form covenants, join churches, marry, baptize our children or make our own baptismal vows, promise to be God parents, give our lives to Christ, and in all kinds of other ways. In this day when words are so easy to come by, I think people tend to forget their power. Even conversations with ordinary people can have consequences we never imagined. Then how much more powerful are our conversations with God? He is the creator of the universe, after all. I am beginning to wonder…can God use our words to create? He doesn`t have to, of course. Christ himself is Logos, the Word; He doesn`t need us in order to do anything. But what if God enjoys using our words to create? What if that is the true power of prayer? By requesting something of God, He actually uses those words woven from a pure heart and mind to make the good thing a reality? Perhaps that`s why prayer is so important, even though God already knows what we`re going to say. Perhaps through prayer, we become participants in God`s creative work. Maybe that`s what it means to be "created in the image of God." We alone amoung living things on Earth can truely create. Maybe it`s a crazy idea, but it`s been plaguing me for a long time.

One thing`s for certain: Prayer isn`t just for the one who is prayed about, but also the one who prays. Through prayer, God can slowly transform our own hearts toward the person we are praying for. It`s like C.S. Lewis said: If you want to love someone, pretend that you love them. I think he was right, and one way we do that is by praying for them, sincerely, not just wanting them to change so they`ll be easier for us to live with, but because we really care about them.

It also explains why things like vudoo and black magic can be so powerful too. When you have extremely negative thoughts and ill intent toward someone, you bet Satan can take advantage of that. Maybe he can`t use them to actually destroy, the opposite of the creator (I love Orsen Scott Card`s term: the “unmaker”), but I think he can certainly twist and intensify them and cause things far worse than we ever imagined to happen. It doesn`t take a spiritual guru or geneticist to tell you that positive and healthy begets positive and healthy and negative and sick begets negative and sick, one way or another. Not always, but most of the time.

So I decided to give it a try. I often walk around my school at lunch time, but now I pray while I do it, quietly, under my breath. One day, on my third time around, the baseball students stopped me to ask what I was doing. I told them I was praying. They didn`t understand that word, so I told them I was talking to my friend, to God. “Eh?” They thought that was a bit strange. I kept walking but the next time around one of the kids started following me. He asked in Japanese what I was praying for.

“Anata ni,” I replied. For you.

“Bokuwa?” For me? He looked shocked.

“Mina gaksei tachi to sensei tachi.” For all the students and teachers.

“Nani?” What for?

I answered partly in English, partly in Japanese:“For your heath, for your study, and for your bright future.” (I was particularly excited about this last phrase because I had just learned it that morning: kagayaku mirai.) “And for your…faith,” I finished.

“Faith? Faith wa nani?” He asked one of his peers, who supplied the word, "shinpou." That surprised him even further. But before he could ask me anything else, another teacher walked by, and all the students ran to him. To my surprise, he started reading their palms! Now I`m not one to think that stuff is automatically “of the devil,” and mostly the teacher was just looking at their hands saying, “you should study more” “you should spend less time goofing off” etc. But I do think it`s a testament to how quick the Japanese are to run off to the newest spiritual fad or novelty. There`s a big thing now with stones; you see them in all the big department stores. They think the stones can give them power or something. Christianity has been in Japan a long time. It`s no longer a novelty, so many have lost interest.

But not all. I am convinced that God is not finished with Japan. I refuse to believe He would just abandon these people. So as long as I am here, I will be working. And I`m not alone. There are thousands of Christians, both Japanese and foreign, laboring for Japan. And I met many of them at the conference!

One of them was a Singaporean girl named Ying-ying. We really hit it off in the discussion time after Sunday morning worship. We were telling our testimonies and we realized just how much we had in common. She`s new to Japan and is looking for ways to serve in her local church and do evangelism. That`s one thing I really love about the Body of Christ/Family of God. I have brothers and sisters all over the world! I get so excited when I meet them. Deborah Ruth, another missionary working really hard in Japan, calls non-Christians “pre-Christians.” I love her outlook. They`re not “outside the family.” They just haven`t been adopted yet!

I was particularily excited to meet another Japanese Christian group there. They were huge! On Sunday evening, we actually shared a session with them entitled “How Japanese churches and ALTs can work together.” It was really exciting! Mostly I learned about a lot of useful resources like manga (comic books) and the Alpha course, available in both Japanese and English, which is basically a Christianity 101 class. Deborah gave me the textbooks. Afterwards, we had a meeting about upcoming mission trips. My friend Nate is organizing one to the Philippines, and I`m doing one to Pakistan in March! Nate asked me what dates would be best for the Philippines. I`m torn between Christmas and Golden Week in May. I really want to go home for Christmas! I think it will help me make a better informed decision about going home or staying in Japan for another year. Other people might feel the same, but they also might want to do both trips, and March and May back to back would be tough for most people, I think. Decisions, decisions!

I think that about sums everything up. There were two more sessions with worship and message. Here`s a picture of the worship team:

I don`t remember everyone`s names, but Sunny is playing the flute and her husband Kevin is playing the guitar. Janice is the girl on the far left facing the viewer.

And everyone worshiping together:

For the last two messages, Pastor Toyomi talked about how and where we can best be lights for Christ. We all took a “spiritual gifts” survey to discover what we`re good at. I lost mine before I finished, but I can pretty much already tell what mine are. My strongest one is probably expressing my faith. My second is probably teaching. Third is probably listening and counseling, and my lowest or six or eight is probably spiritual discernment. I always have a hard time discerning what path I should take or whether someone means ill or good. I just assume everyone wants to help me and be my friend and that I should help everyone who asks me to! But coming to Japan has taught me that this is not always true…there are some people I should avoid. I don`t think there are very many truly bad people out there or that most people lie out of a desire to hurt others, or even on purpose. But I am learning that people are very good at deceiving themselves.

Just before we left, I enjoyed a nice walk with one of my new friends through the forest, and I was blessed to get a ride back home straight to Nabari from Nate, so I didn`t have to pay for the shinkansen again! Five of us rode in his van, so we had some great discussions on the way back. I`m so glad I went!

Prayer Requests for this week: I organized a food drive, something completely foreign to most Japanese, at my school that`s running from October 15th-November 15th. The kids don`t seem very enthusiastic about it; I hope they participate! I gave them a goal: 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds. I told them that if each student brings one item, we will reach our goal! Also, November 27th, my church is hosting an international Thanksgiving night and we hope many people come. Most importantly, we`ve invited Japanese evangelist Arthur Hollands to speak on Sunday, December 5th, so please pray that many people`s lives will be changed by his powerful gospel message! Other than that, please pray for good health as the weather is changing and getting colder. I`m feeling really tired and am sneezing and coughing more than usual. About this time last year, I had swine flu, and I don`t want something like that happening again! Please pray for my school, that God will do great things here, and in Japan in general! Pray for revival!

One last thing, which isn`t really a prayer request. A friend of mine asked me why I write “keep loving and praying” at the end of my posts. I think I already explained the praying part in this entry. But as for the “loving,” God has taught me since coming to Japan that loving other people is more important than anything else. But sometimes it`s hard. Sometimes love requires us to do difficult things, like give up our time, admit when we are wrong, and change the way we think and behave. If we really love other people the way God wants us to, that love transforms us into the kind of poeple He longs for us to be. We become Christians in the true sense that we are imitators of Christ. And he loved so much that he died for his enemies. How many of us, if we were honest with ourselves, could do that? That`s what I mean when I remind people to "keep loving." Perhaps I should add the phrase "no matter what the cost."

So, with that said, until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost.

Laura Popp (L. J. Popp)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beppu "hells" tour

Hello, I just got back from a three-day Christian conference in Fukushima! But before I get into that, I want to write my final blog about Kyushu.

So Saturday September 25th, after packing up all my stuff and saying our goodbyes, I left Diana`s apartment for Beppu! That was probably the longest trek from Ueki station, about three and a half hours. I got there about 11:30. Once again I immediately hit up the visitors information center, and armed with discount coupons and English brochures, I set out to do the famous Beppu “Jigoku meguri” or “Hell tour.” You see, jigoku is the Japanese word for the Buddhist version of hell. It’s not exactly the same as the Christian understanding. They think it’s a place where bad souls go while they wait to be reincarnated. They are tormented in all kinds of awful ways, but if I understand correctly, many Buddhists believe that actually, such tortures are just a figment of the soul’s imagination. To reach enlightenment, one has to realize that these things are false and break free of the cycle of rebirth to become a Buddha. But the exact teachings are pretty wishy-washy, as there are so many different sects of Buddhism and only priests have access to the holy sutras, so common people don’t really know much about the afterlife and how it works (or from my experience with Buddhists, they don’t really care). But to put it in the simplest terms, for most Buddhists hell is a place with lots of fire and oni (demons) where bad people go (thre is no grace) and it’s pretty bad.

So Beppu has eight or nine (depending on who you ask)“hells” that can be reached by bus and walking. They cost 400 yen each, or you can pay a flat 2,000 yen to see eight of them. The first is called “Umi-jigoku,” umi meaning “sea.” I asked a young couple for directions in Japanese, not realizing they were Korean, and they answered me in English. (That seems to happen a lot at common tourist places. For some reason, I always unconsciously gravitate toward other foreigners.) I ended up tagging along with them for a few minutes to take pictures for them and them for me. In addition to Chinese people, I am always amazed at how well Koreans speak English compared to the Japanese, but again, I`m meeting the ones who like to travel internationally, so maybe they have above average foreign language skills, having a natural interest in foreign things and studying more in preparation for other adventures abroad.

Here is what umi-jigoku looks like:

Notice the hanging basket? They are using it to boil eggs over the steam! It takes about ten minutes, and you can buy them for lunch.

Here is a picture the Korean couple took of me at the Umi-jigoku:

I`m cringing because the steam is so hot! It was hard to stand there for any length of time.

There were a number of smaller boiling pools there and steaming rocks, as well as a red shrine and a “leg bath.” Here`s what that looks like:

But besides the jigoku, they are most famous for the giant lotus pads that float in a non-steaming pond. They are so large that small children (under fifty pounds) can stand on them and get their picture taken. They are able to grow so big due to the year-round warm water. This is what they look like:

I walked around the tropical gardens and then had lunch at a stand, which consisted of an Oita (the name of a nearby town) specialty soup and custard cooked in the jigoku steam, made of only egg, sugar and milk.

Next, I headed to Oniishibozu Jigoku, named so because the bubbling mud looks like the top of a monk`s shaven head. I didn`t really see a resemblance, but it`s an interesting connection. What do you think?

After that, I visited Yama Jigoku, or "the mountain hell." There were lots of steaming vents under piles of rocks, like this:

It also had a small zoo, where, as is usual for Japan, you could pay to feed the animals. Here is the hippo with its great mouth wide to receive the gifts:

Other than that, the zoo wasn`t too interesting, except that I`ve never been so close to an elephant without glass, less than ten feet. You could toss it a cookie and it would take it with its trunk. There were a lot of little kids doing that when I went, so I didn`t do it myself, but had fun watching them squeal and giggle.

The next one I visited was Kamado Jigoku, or “cooking pot hell.” This features a number of smaller boiling pools of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Here`s the “oni” or demon to greet you at the entrance, cooking a dragon:

Here`s some more bubbling mud there:

And one of my favorites, a bright cobalt-blue pool:

You might be wondering what causes the pools to be various colors. That`s from minerals that are dissolved in the boiling or close to boiling water. The red comes from copper, the blue, as I said, from cobalt, green from copper, etc. These minerals exist naturally in the soil, and frequently you will find colored pools of unpurified water in areas around the world even without hot springs, (reddish water, brown water, gray water etc), but the Beppu pools are much brighter and more colorful because the heat helps to dissolve the minerals better, so there`s more of them in the water. The white stuff on the rocks around the pool is calcium carbonate, I think, also dissolved from the heat.

I sat in the foot bath there for awhile to rest my feet, then walked on to Shiraike Jigoku, or “white pond hell.” They say it looks like milk, but I don`t really think so. Judge for yourself:

There were some tropical fish in tanks, like piranha, but nothing too interesting.

On the way to Oniyama (demon mountain) jigoku, I passed the Hinoki Sex Museum of erotic art. After spotting the giant brass relief of nude Hindu figures at the entrance, I quickly decided to pass that up. Ironic enough for a place so obsessed with “hell,” Beppu is the only city I have ever been to that has open public hot springs for men and women to share. I can understand private ones for married couples, or even families with small children, but in mass, where anyone can…ug. I`m pretty sure that`s illegal in the U.S.?

Anyway, Oniyama was interesting. First of all, it`s the hottest of all the jigoku, producing enough steam to power one and a half trains. (Most of Beppu is run on thermal energy, by the way, and much of the rest of Kyushu on wind power. At least it’s a very “green” place.) Here`s a picture of the roiling, frothing water:

Second of all, they breed giant crocodiles in the not-so-hot adjacent spring. I got there just as one of the staff members was feeding them chicken, dangling it over the cage with his whole arm exposed! The crocodiles jumped up, over ten feet, and grabbed it right out of his hand! I kept fearing they would take off his fingers! Here`s a picture:

I don`t really like how they have all those crocodiles crammed in that cage. They had to swim and climb over each other to get anywhere, and were constantly fighting, clawing and biting each other. Here`s a picture so you can see how many they stuffed into one small corner:

But, as I`ve said before, the Japanese don`t care much about animal rights.

That was the last jigoku I could walk to in the Kannawa district. For those of you familiar with Beppu, you may be wondering what happened to Kinryu Jigoku, or “the golden dragon hell.” Well, it wasn`t on my map and a lot of people don`t count it because it doesn`t have water like the others, just a dragon statue and green houses heated by steam. I`m pretty sure I passed it on my way to the bus stop, but it was connected to a ryokan (Japanese style inn) and cost extra beyond my eight jigoku pass. Oh, well.

So next I took a bus to the Shibaseki district, where I saw Chinoike Jigoku or “blood pond hell.” There was a pretty waterfall there, and, as the name suggests, a large pond filled with dissolved red iron that looked like a giant red blood cell, complete with a depressed, clearer center. Here`s a picture:

You could buy “blood pudding” there, and many other souvenirs. I bought some lime cookies for the other teachers, since it`s traditional to bring your co-workers back some “omiyage” from the place you visited if you take off some time to travel.

The last jigoku was a geyser very similar to Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but smaller and more frequent. I waited five minutes to see it spout, and a giggling high school girl took a picture for me:

Some people say Beppu is overly cheesy and touristy. I didn`t think so, though I did think it was a good example of how unseriously the Japanese take the issue of heaven and hell. Even though the brochure holds a quote from a famous Japanese author about how it will “put the true fear of hell into the unbeliever,” the corny statues of demons and atmosphere of pure pleasure and indulgence, (what with all the spas, some explicitly sinful), nobody really believes that. It`s kind of sad, but I don`t think it spoils the enjoyment of getting to see the beauty of God`s creation there. If you get a chance to go, the thermal activity is something to see that you can`t find anywhere in the states (I think), or hardly anywhere else for that matter.

So I finished with the “hell” tour around 4:15, just in time to visit the famous sand baths at 4:45. What`s that? It`s a place where you put on nothing but a yukata (cotton robe) and they bury you in hot black sand! It`s pretty rare, even in Japan, so I wanted to try it. The sand isn`t actually steaming; they scoop it up on a platform to cool it. As you lay there, you can look out over the beach. The sun was just beginning to set. Here`s a picture of the beautiful beach, and if you look closely in the dark foreground, you can see three people having their sand bath.

Here`s a picture of me having mine!

After they unburied me, I showered nice and good, then took a short bath in the big public (but ladies only) tub. Then they kicked me out at 5:20 because they were closing. I was just in time to catch the bus to the International Sightseeing Port for my boat back to Osaka. I waited in a long line with my reservation, paid, and took a bus to the boarding area. What a huge ship! They call it an “over night ferry” but it felt like a cruise to me!

As we came on board, we were greeted by a lady jazz duo of sax and bass in the lobby and I climbed the red carpeted and gold-gilded staircase to the upper deck where I watched us shove off at 6:35. What fun! The wind felt so good in my hair and the sea breeze smelled so fresh. I watched the sun finish setting over the wide blue and silver ocean, then had dinner down in the dining hall. It wasn`t included in the cost, but the prices were fairly reasonable and the food varied and good. I enjoyed some ice cream while the jazz duo finished the second half of their concert, then explored the ship with its many amusements and beautiful views, and soaked in the free bath. In the locker room, an old Japanese woman couldn`t figure out how to use her key, and I showed her, explaining in Japanese how she had to find the right lock, put it in the correct way, and twist it in the right direction. When the locker popped open, she turned to her friend just coming out of the bath and said,

“Yasashi gaijinchan des ne?” (What a nice little foreign person.)

“Neh! Soshite, cho kawai desho?” (Yes, and isn`t she just so cute?)

“Neh! Nihongo mo josu des ne?” (Yeah, and isn`t she skilled at Japanese?)

Suppressing a laugh, I finished dressing and left. I`m more than a little used to this sort of strange dialogue about me while I`m standing right there, as if, despite their words, they forgot that I can understand Japanese. But it became all the more hilarious since the women were both stalk raw naked as they continued discussing just how cute and helpful foreigners are in general. Something about the whole scene just felt so…Japanese. You couldn`t hear or see it anywhere else in the world.

Anyway, I went outside to let the wind dry my hair. We were moving so fast that if I stood into the wind, I had to hold the handrails to keep from flying away! I stood at the top of the stairs clutching the banister and let it beat against me, feeling almost as if I were soaring. I watched the city lights pass out of view, then headed for bed early around 9:30. I slept like a baby in a bunk bed with a curtain. Boy am I glad I paid an extra thousand yen ($10) for that! I saw some other people sleeping on the floor in the huge rooms, with only an inch-thick pad under them on the hard metal floor, no pillow, people stepping over them to get to the bathroom, and the lights on all night! I would have been so miserable in the morning, but as it was, I could get up early at 5:30 to watch the sunrise over the ocean and the giant Kobe bridge.

Then I packed up my stuff and had breakfast, skipping the more expensive cafeteria food for some yakisoba (fried soba noodles with a bit of meat and cabbage) from the vending machine. That was probably the only bad part of the whole trip; I learned that Japanese vending machine food, while cheap, is pretty gross. I guess you get what you pay for.

I watched us pull into port about 7:35am on Sunday, so the total trip took about thirteen hours. It was my first overnight stay on a ship. In fact, I`d never been on a boat for more than two hours before that. I was afraid I would get seasick, and while I did a little in the bath and when I first went to bed, when I closed my eyes it went away. Plus, the overnight ferry is a LOT cheaper than the shinkansen (bullet train), and only a little bit more expensive than the night bus, but apart from transportation, you also get a free concert, a beautiful, fun ride, and a good place to sleep for the night! I read about it in a guide book and have one of the English teachers at my school to thank for helping me book the tickets. Overnight ferries, when they`re available, are now my preferred way to travel long distances! They even have one from Osaka to Korea! Of course, that one takes about twenty hours and departs in the early afternoon, so it`s not practical if you only have a three-day weekend.

I knew I should probably head back to Nabari right away so I could make it in time for church, but I was feeling pretty dreamy and a tad lost, so I wandered around Osaka pier for awhile. I stumbled upon some pretty gardens, and this rather interesting spot:

The entire railing overlooking the ocean was covered in locks! After examining them for awhile, I dubbed them “love locks,” for they bore the names of boys and girls connected together, decorated with hearts and other symbols of love and fidelity. I guessed that couples must come to this place with their locks and link them together through the rail as a testimony to their love. What a great idea! It symbolizes how true love is binding and permanent, not fickle. Some of the locks were very old and rusty, the letters rubbed away by the waves. I wonder how long people have been doing that and if there is something special about that place? It`s where all the international ships come in, and many of the locks were covered in Romaji (Roman letters) and names from many different countries. I wonder if couples come to Japan on their honeymoon or maybe even to start a new life together and that`s why they clamp their locks to that particular harbor rail. I wonder if anything like that exists in America? Huh, what a great story idea…

I finally caught the train about 8:30 (unfortunately a very slow one) and made it back to Nabari about 11:00, too late for church. But I called Pastor Toshi thinking I could come for fellowship in the afternoon, especially since it was Miwa`s (one of my students who recently joined the church) birthday. But after lying down for an hour, I got up and felt really sick to my stomach and tired all over, so I called and canceled my ride there. But I went the following week to give Miwa her present and enjoyed hearing all about the party. They watched the movie Hachi and said it was very moving. I discovered that there`s a video rental place on my way home from school, so I rented it (in English with Japanese subtitles), and it is now probably one of my favorite movies. I cried so hard! I`ve never cried so much during a movie. I only cry at dog movies, which is strange because I don`t really like dogs, at least not as much as cats. I don`t want to ruin the plot for you, but if you get a chance to see it, watch it! The best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) part is, it`s based on a true story! I didn`t know that before I started watching it, and at the end when it said that, I started bawling all over again. I am such a girl…

Anyway, next time I will write about the Christian conference I went to this weekend in Fukushima!

Prayer Requests for this week: Please continue to pray for the International Thanksgiving night on November 27th at my church, and the December 5th revival service featuring guest speaker Arthur Hollins. I also have a Chinese friend who is really going through a tough time right now; please pray for her. For me, prayers for health as the weather is changing would be nice. I have a lot more, but as they`re connected to the conference, I`ll wait to list them until later!

Until next time, keep loving and praying,
Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kagoshima and Sakurajima volcano!

So Friday September 24th, Diana dropped me off at Oita station (she had to work) to catch the 7:15 train for Kagoshima! It was a two hour ride south on the limited express, but definitely worth it! I went straight to the information desk to find out about tours and bus routes. Kagoshima has so many siteseeing options! The area played a very important part in Japanese modernization in the 19th century and during the Meji restoration or return to political stability, so there are many museums of history and industry. The area is also rich in local culture and beautiful nature! I discussed in my last post how beautiful volcanic valleys are (another point: just think of Hawaii!) and Kagoshima is bursting with tropical gardens, gorgeous beaches, hot springs, and of course, the volcano. Plus it`s not as touristy or overpriced as a lot of other similar locations. One could easily spend an affordable week there, using a 600 yen all-day bus pass which also includes discounts for many attractions. It`s also foreigner friendly with plenty of English maps, brochures, English-speaking staff, and even English announcements on the buses.

After some deliberation, I settled on an afternoon tour of Sakurajima (the most active volcano in Japan) and a ride on the city view bus for a morning self-tour of the famous Senganen landscape garden. The staff at the front spoke fluent English and told me all about its history and importance. The Shimazu family who owned it used the waterfalls to power their glass factory and other industries, Japan`s first Western-style factory.

I`ve seen landscape gardens in the past and was never terribly impressed, but this one was by far one of the best gardens I have ever seen! Even though there weren`t many flowers, the setting was simply gorgeous. Here are some of the smaller waterfalls not used for powering the factory:

But what made Senganen my favorite garden was its shakkei or “borrowed scenery.” It is built in such a way as to incorporate the majestic Kinko bay and Sakurajima volcano island into its vista. Here`s what I mean:

That I-phone picture just doesn’t do it justice. I spent almost three hours walking around the garden, which is probably a good square mile or two square kilometers, enjoying the various views and smaller gardens. One of these was the poetry garden, a small stream were attendees sit and compose haiku (three-lined, seventeen syllable non-rhyming poetry). A saki cup drifts down the stream on a little raft, and when it reaches them, they must have finished their poem or they can`t drink. I think the Japanese have invented just about every twist to the drinking game imaginable. It`s no wonder they ended up with poems like this:

Oh my big toe
Stubbed against my chair
Throbs with unending agony.

OK, ok, so that`s one I just made up on the spot. Most of them are actually quite beautiful.

As I walked around, I noticed a number of students on their school trips. At first I hung out with these groups to see what I could glean from their guides, but I was always intercepted by a student or teacher who wanted to practice their English on me, usually amidst giggles and red faces and dares from friends and all kinds of comments about my physical appearance in Japanese, some flattering, some not so much. One curious math teacher actually followed me around with comments like “nice weather, isn’t it?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have volcanoes in Okurahoma?” (Oklahoma) until he was forced to return to his students. So pretty soon I started avoiding these groups and sticking to the less worn paths, only getting the occasional “Herro” (Hello) shouted at me from across a pond. I just wanted a nice quiet walk in the park, so I noticed that when I wore my big sunglasses, groups I happened to meet accidentally stopped shouting butchered English at me. I wonder if it`s because they couldn`t tell I wasn`t Japanese or because in Japan, you just don`t talk to strangers wearing sunglasses. In fact, apart from Japanese people driving or suffering from hangovers, I`ve only seen foreigners wear them.

One of the secret treasures I discovered was the cat shrine hidden away in the woods behind the garden. Apparently one head of the Shimazu family had a superstition that cats bring extremely good luck in business (a belief common in Japan, stemming from the prominence of the fisherman trade, and hence all the little white statues of beckoning cats in store windows). He took cats with him on all his trips, including to Europe, and imported a lot of different breeds to Japan. So he enshrined the remains of the family cats here:

I love cats myself, but that`s kind of creepy if you ask me…

Speaking of cats, it never ceases to amaze me how many gnarled cats I see whenever I travel around Japan. There are so many scraggly skinny strays with cut-off tails and even mutilated or missing feet. Who does that? Are they just getting in fights or are some mean, nasty kids up to mischief? I never see stray dogs running around. The dogs are so pampered; many Japanese dress them up in baby clothes!

The best part of the garden grounds was the forest mountain trail. The sign warned that it was a thirty minute climb one way to the top, so a total of an hour, but it wasn`t nearly that long. But then my mom tells me I walk pretty fast. Along the way, I met a Chinese family and greeted them in Putonwha (Mandarin), though they answered me in English and chatted for a minute because they wanted to practice. The father didn`t even have an accent! Why are Chinese people so much better at English than Japanese? I chalk it up to the fact that they start studying when they`re ten or even younger and high school classes are conducted almost entirely in English, instead of the Japanese who start at twelve. Yeah, there is “English” in Japanese elementary schools, but it`s just games. Even in high school, most of the English lessons are taught 50% in Japanese. (Some of my students still need me to translate “please listen and repeat” for them.) But maybe I`m getting a biased view because I only meet Chinese people who travel abroad. Of course their foreign language skills are going to be better. Maybe if I actually taught in China I would think differently.

Anyway, the trail led to a waterfall viewing area, along with spectacular views of the ocean and sakurajima. Here is my favorite:

If you look closely, you can see it`s “coughing,” which means a non-violent eruption of non-poisonous gases. Perfect timing! I sat there and stared at it for almost thirty minutes. It was just so peaceful. And on the way back, little purple flowers lay strewn along the path and the air smelled of fresh, clean cyprus and pine after the previous day`s rain. I just love nature, which is why I love Japan!

There was an old residence in the garden, but you had to pay extra to go in and I hadn`t the time, so I just checked out the free colored glass displays before catching the bus back to the station for my volcano tour. That`s when something really funny happened!

So I was sitting waiting for the bus. Two buses came, one red and one blue. The brochure said to take the red bus, but it had the wrong number, but the blue bus had the right number. So I got on the blue bus and asked, “Kono busu wa kagoshima eki ni ikimaska?” (Does this bus go to Kagoshima station?) I found out that it did, so I sat down. We were just about to drive off when a lady, maybe thirty-five or so, ran up shouting. She jostled her way onto the bus and asked the driver the same thing I had just asked. Then she shouted out the window.

“Okasan! Kochi, kochi! Kono busu yo!” (Hey, Mom, over here, over here! This is the bus, for sure!”

The mother, maybe sixty or so, fumbled her way onto the bus. “Eay? Kono busu wa aou desho! Akai busu dake Kagoshima eki e iku yo.” (Really? This bus is blue, see! Only the red bus goes to Kagoshima station!”

The two women sat down but continued to argue loudly in very non-Japanese fashion, the bus driver not knowing what to do, until I finally turned to the older lady and said,

“Kono busu daijobu des. Watashi mo Kagoshima eki ni ikimasu. Onaji koto o omoimasta, demo akai busu wa chigaimas yo. Ishoni ikimasho!” (This bus is OK. I`m going to Kagoshima station too. I thought the same thing, but the red bus is wrong, really. Let`s go together!)

“Hontoni? Ja, yasashi gaijinchan des ne?” the mother said. (Really? Well, what a nice little foreigner, isn`t she?)

“Neh!” her daughter replied. (Yeah.) (By the way, you could probably have an entire conversation in Japanese with just the word “neh” which can mean both “don`t you think” and “yeah, that`s right.” Some Japanese people use it, along with "yo" at the end of every sentence, it seems. It`s kind of like the Canadian “eay?”) Then she added to her mother, “Ima, daijobu?” (Are you OK now?”)

“Eh. Ikimasho!” The mother cried. (Yep. Let`s go!)

The poor bus driver, who had been waiting all this time to see what the two women would do, tipped his hat to me in thanks and drove out of the parking lot.

It was just like a scenario from! (I listen to the intermediate level pod casts every morning on my way to school, which are not exactly 101 anymore.)

So the daughter (Umeko) continued talking to me in Japanese and we figured out we were actually going on the same tour! I had thought we had to go all the way back to Kagoshima station, but Umeko found out we could get off at the ferry terminal and get the tour there for a discounted price! She helped me buy my tour and ferry tickets and find some good, cheap food for lunch. I sat behind them on the ferry and enjoyed my udon (thick white noodles) and tempura (deep fried vegetables) soup. I was so surprised by how loud she and her mother were! They exclaimed over everything, from my pathetic Japanese to the fact that I had the same information that they had, only printed in English. Many Japanese people shot them side-long glances and shook their heads. I found out that they were from Tokyo. I wonder if that`s it. They just seemed very…un-Japanese. Actually, Umeko especially reminded me of a lady from my church back home in Oklahoma named Diane Helt. She`s really fun.

Here is a picture of Sakurajima from the ferry:

And here`s the tropical bay:

I think my Japanese is still pretty basic, but I was able to have a conversation with them about global warming, which was interesting. All Japanese I have met think it is the direct result of human interference, rather than some in America who think it is a natural phenomenon. Either way, Kagoshima used to have a fairly temperate climate, but it`s getting to be more and more tropical, as is the rest of Kyushu. Climate change all over Japan is both a problem and interesting opportunity. I say opportunity only because of the booming tourism in places that are slowly getting warmer and extended beach seasons, but lots of people are dying of heat stroke too, more than ever before. They actually have a word in Japanese: natsubate, which means to be generally worn out by the summer, which is different from the specific medical term for "heat stroke." They also have natsukaze, or summer cold caused by the resulting weakend immune system. Next time another foreigner tells me the Japanese can handle the heat better, I`ll tell them they need to study more Japanese. Every other word out of their mouths is "atsui! Sugoi atsui des ne? Atsui sugimasu!" (It`s hot! Isn`t it so very hot? It`s too hot!) Of course, now that it`s getting to be fall, they say the opposite. "Ah, samui! Kyo hidoi kaze ne?" (It`s so cold! Today there is a terrible wind, isn`t there?)

While we waited for the tour at the ferry terminal, I went to get some ice cream, only to return and find that Umeko had already bought me some. (I have already written about the Japanese propensity for buying foreign guests ice cream, but I don`t like to take advantage of it so I tend to get some for myself so they won`t. Darn, not fast enough.) Oh, well, she simply ate it instead.

Finally, the tour bus came around 2:20. There were several other foreigners on board, so the tour guide passed out English notebooks with explanations. As we rode along, she would explain something in Japanese for five minutes, then say “Number two” or whatever the corresponding number was in the notebook. The explanation would be a few sentences long. Then she`d go on for another five minutes and say “number three” and the corresponding English explanation would be maybe a paragraph. Ever seen the movie Lost in Translation? It was kind of like that, complete with kareoke. (Our tour guide sang us several traditional Japanese songs written about Sakurajima. She sounded pretty good, actually.)

Our first stop was an outlook point of a mountain near the volcano. Here you are:

Also famous in this site was the hidden stone heart:

Lots of places have them, actually, including one I saw last year in Glover Gardens in Nagasaki. The game is to see how many you can find throughout Japan. Kind of like collecting stamps. Not postage stamps. The Japanese really like collecting big red ink stamps they get for visiting different places to fill their stamp books. There are always long lines to get your stamp, so I think it`s kind of silly and don`t do it, though if I did I`d probably have more stamps than just about any Japanese person. I use a version of this game to motivate my students in class. I have “stamp cards” with the flags of many English-speaking countries and territories. When a student volunteers to speak English, I give them a stamp. The stamps also represent points on their test. They get an extra point for each stamp. Some of the students are really into it and compare what they have. “Igirisu to Gebralta ga arimasu. Anata wa?” I have England and Gebralter. What about you?” Other`s couldn`t care less. But those are the students that don`t get motivated over anything. They just sleep through class.

Our next stop was a store to taste and buy (if we wanted) the famous sakurajima radish. Some of them were as big as my head! They hold the Guinness book of world records for heaviest radish in the world. They grow so well because of the fertile volcanic soil. And from the free samples, raw, pickled, salted, dried, candied, and sauced, I can tell you they taste pretty good too!

Next we stopped by the famous buried tori gate of a Shinto shrine:

Do you see it sticking up from the ash? The last major eruption was in 1914, and it covered a lot of the island. The people were told to evacuate, but only 30% did, so many died. After that there was one in the 1950s that wasn`t so big and hardly anyone died. By the way, statistically, volcanos have killed more people in the history of the world than any other natural disaster, nearly double that of earthquakes. Though many of the deaths are estimated numbers predating recorded history.

Here`s a testament to the power of the volcano, an old lava flow from 1914:

And our last stop, the closest point to the volcano and volcanic rock field. Here`s what that looks like:

The pavilion overlooking the bay:

And here`s me and Umeko (the “flying” pose was her idea) and a guy from Sweden:

And that`s all! The whole tour took about three hours and I finally got to see a live volcano spewing smoke! I took the 5:45 train back and got into Oita about 8:00. Diana picked me up and we had dinner at a nice Italian resteraunt. There she told me something really amazing. She`s Japanese American and didn`t request any particular place in Japan, but she happened to be placed very near her Japanese extended family. She often went over to have dinner with them and share her Christian faith. Then, suddenly, her great aunt died in a car accident! She was so glad she got to share Jesus with her before she died. The longer I spend in Japan, the more I am convinced that God is beginning a great work here. He just keeps connecting people together and making miracles! Just remember what happend with me and my little church in Nabari. I was praying earnestly for a spirit-filled, mission-minded church where I could teach an English and Evangelism class, and they were praying fervently for God to send a passionate Christian English teacher who would do that. And then Kae just happened to read my blog and took me to their church only a few miles from my house, and now three new members are being baptized this coming month because of the class! Who would have thought? Only God!

Ha, ha, speaking of such things, stay tune next time for Beppu, home of the eight jigoku, or “hells!”(Sorry, bad joke, but that`s what they`re really called!)