Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nagano Christian Retreat!

Now to talk about my far more enjoyable trip to Kurizawa in Nagano Prefecture! I went for the bi-annual (or in the case of this year, tri-annual) Japanese Exchange Teacher`s (JET) Christian Fellowship conference! Since I`m the librarian, I packed a huge suitcase full of books on the morning of Friday, February 11th, (a national holiday) and began the long haul to Kurizawa. I ended up taking two local trains to Nagoya, a special tokkuu (limited express) train to Nagano city, a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kurizawa and a taxi to the retreat site, Megumi Chalet (Grace house). I started around 9:30 and got there about 4:00.

First, we played games to get to know each other. It was a pretty small group, only about thirty, but it was great to be with people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, passionate about missions in Japan, not to mention worship in English for a change. The songs are always so beautiful. I did wish we sang some verses in Japanese too, for the benefit of the Japanese who attended, but we only sang one in both languages, You Are My All in All. One guy was saying how he came to serve in Japan and had never heard it before, so he thought, “Man, what a great song. I wish we had it in English!”

Here`s a picture of the worship team, Adrianna Avery`s, not mine. Like I said last post, I lost my camera skiing so all these pictures are from my I-phone or someone else`s camera:



Our guest speaker, Jon Junker, had been raised as a missionary kid in Japan and had been serving as a missionary himself for at least twenty years. His theme was “what`s in your hand,” taking the story of Moses and using it as an illustration of how God can use the most unlikely people and things to make miracles. When God called Moses, he asked him, “What`s in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff. But God used that staff to perform amazing miracles that showed God`s power to the Egyptians and freed the Jewish people from slavery. Wow. So we should never underestimate what`s “in our hand,” or the small, seemingly insignificant resources available to us. We also talked about the importance of preaching the whole Gospel. Too often missionaries just tell people about Jesus, but the Japanese have to know WHY we need a Savior. We should start in the beginning, with Genesis, the Fall, and sin, our need to be put right with God. Otherwise Jesus`s death and resurrection doesn`t make sense, and people are likely to write it off as impossible, let alone necessary. I never thought about it that way before, but he`s absolutely right.

Then we had small group. There were only three in ours, me (the supposed leader), Lana (the REAL leader, a missionary who came to Japan at twenty-four, married a Japanese man, and spent the last forty years of her life serving here), and Junko (a Japanese seeker). We basically ditched all the discussion questions and focused on giving Junko a rundown of the gospel and answering all her questions. Or rather, Lana did that and I listened and learned, throwing in my two cents every now and then. I was so impressed with Lana! She knows the Bible backwards and forewards, can quote hundreds of scripture verses right out of her head and knows exactly where they are. She`s so patient, yet very persistent. She`s gentle but bold. She started from the very beginning of the Bible and explained everything so clearly and so well, in both Japanese and English. Junko was so blown away by the Gospel message that she wanted to go on learning. We must have talked an hour after small group was supposed to be done. She never put up a wall like I`ve seen so many others do. She was very engaged, asking all kinds of questions, and she didn`t get frustrated when she realized how much there was to learn. That evening after dinner, I saw her pouring over Matthew 13 that Lana had asked her to read, the parable about the seeds and which ones grew and which ones didn`t. The next day when Lana asked her about it, what soil Junko thought she was, Junko responded with something totally unexpected. She pointed to the end of the chapter. “Let him who has ears listen, and he who has eyes see.”

“I think God is trying to tell me something,” she said. “And I must pay attention.”

Wow! I`ve never heard a Japanese person say that before. I was really impressed by how open she was.

The next morning we woke up early for prayer, and after breakfast, I took a long walk around the retreat site. There`s a reason Nagano is called the “Japanese alps.”









That last picture is Michael Eastwood`s. Thanks, Michael!

We had worship again, and this time our speaker Jon talked about one of the things “in our hand” that God can use but we rarely think about. Our testimony. He talked about good and bad testimonies, how to make it short but specific, not use churchy language, how to put the focus on God, etc. I`ve written extensively about this subject myself and have given my own on numerous occasions, so instead of spending time writing during small group as he instructed, Lana and I talked to Junko again. We told her our stories, and she told us hers, how she came to be interested in God in the first place. Turns out, she studied/worked abroad in Australia and really liked it. But ever since coming back to Japan, she`s been in reverse culture shock. She`s disillusioned with Japanese society, finding it somewhat cold and impersonal. (It`s interesting when I go back to the states, I sometimes have the opposite feeling. I find people too open, too frank, and sometimes I just want to be left alone. I don`t want every stranger I meet acting friendly to me. I want to say, I don`t know you, why are you talking to me?) Most Japanese seekers turn out to be people who traveled extensively or lived abroad. I`ve met very few Japanese Christians who have never left Japan. And in most of those cases, their initial interest was in foreign culture, such as Gospel music. Our speaker talked a lot about that too in a later session. Christianity in Japan is still largely seen as “foreign.” Most Japanese categorize it under “possibly interesting foreign thing I might want to learn about later, but for now it does not concern me and I don`t have time for it.” What many don`t realize is that it`s not about “religion,” a purely cultural thing. It`s about having a relationship with God, loving other people, and having hope for the future. That`s not something that can be put off until we`re retired. It`s what we were made for.

After Saturday morning worship, small group, lunch, and group picture, we had free time to explore the surrounding area. Abidemi Bankhole (the group`s National Coordinator from Nigeria), Kristen Hanoka (the Japanese American prayer and encouragement coordinator), Rebecca Barns (from England), a Japanese English teacher (who`s name I can`t remember), and myself decided to go skiing. It`s funny how I thought it would be easy. We rode the chair lift to the top of the slope and I announced, “by the way, this is my first time. Is that a problem?”

They all gave me horrified stares.

“Oh, um, I`m sure it will be fine,” Abidemi assured me. “We`ll go slow, and we`ll help you.”

“Who knows?” Rebecca asked. “Maybe you`ll discover you have a natural talent and were born for skiing.”

I sometimes pride myself with the fact that I was born with a few rather nice talents. I like to think I`m a pretty good writer, a decent musician, and fairly intelligent, having graduated magna cum laude from a reasonably prestigious university. Apparently none of these make a lick of difference when balancing on two narrow slats of wood while speeding down a thirty degree incline at forty miles per hour.

I couldn’t go more than ten feet (3 meters) without falling, lost my camera, ended up sliding down half the mountain on my backside, and got snow all up my pants and underwear. I also didn`t realize how hard it is to get up after falling. Imagine your feet are no wider, but five times as long as they currently are. And why did I think this would be easy? I think my reasoning went something like, “Oh, church youth groups go on week-long ski trips all the time. No sweat!” I think I forgot that it`s also an Olympic sport. I might as well say, “Oh, the shot put, that`s easy! You just throw a giant disk through the air that weighs as much as you do and try not to break anything. A simple cake walk!”

Add to this the fact that I had chronic ear infections as a child, which has forever warped my sense of balance. (I`m the girl in the back row of the belly dance class who is still trying to figure out her left and right foot when everyone else has already finished the dance.) The other girls were wonderfully kind and patient with me. They told me I was doing a great job when it was obvious I`m the most ungraceful person on the face of the planet, ear infections or not.

About 3/4ths of the way down, they told me that if I bent my knees together, it would be a lot easier. Wow! That was a light bulb moment. I could use me knees to speed up, slow down, and steer! “It`s like riding a horse!” I cried, and promptly flew down the mountain and fell kurplop in a pile of snow. After that I was able to go down a fifteen degree incline without falling at all. Wahoo, accomplishment! The weather was absolutely gorgeous too. It snowed the whole four hours, crystalline, white fluffy stuff like falling glitter against pure blue skies.

Here`s some pictures that Rebecca took. Three of our group skiing:



Abidemi with a view from the top of the slope:



And the gorgeous sunset:



All in all I`d label it like my mother labeled most of her time in Japan: “an experience.” One of those things that are not necessarily enjoyable, but not terrible either. A fundamental error has been corrected and I now share something with millions of other people across the world. When church youth groups return from their ski trips, I can understand their exhilaration, exhaustion, and bruises. I can add it to an ever growing pallet of experiences that can be drawn upon for personal growth and artistic expression. I`ve been skiing. Yea.

We got back to the retreat center around 6:00. I jumped in the giant hot bath, then ran to worship. We talked about some specific issues facing Japan, including suicide and hikikomori, or social withdrawal. For those who don`t know, 1-2% of the Japanese population “doesn`t exist.” They are locked inside their rooms and never come out. Their parents or other family members feed them, but they are dead to the world. Physically, they are perfectly healthy individuals. Another huge percentage are called “covert” hikikomori, meaning that they go to school or work, but they just sit behind their desk, do their job, go home, lock the door, and never speak to anyone. After hearing about it, I thought of some of my students who are like that. They seem to be able to write sometimes, but if I ask them a question, even in Japanese, they freeze up. They won`t even look at me. They are always staring at their desks, and when they`re supposed to be doing pair work, they continue to just sit there, hands in their lap, totally impassive. It makes classroom management difficult, because if there are three of those students in a class, that makes six students who don`t want to do anything. Nothing I, the Japanese teacher, or any student can do or say will make hikikomori people snap out of their silence. On the contrary, it usually just pushes them deeper into their shell. They do nothing, and nothing is expected of them. At least ten of my three hundred students are like that. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education`s mandates, no student is ever held back a class and they always graduate on time even if they aren`t ready. I had never seen anything like it before I came to Japan, even though I taught in the U.S. for six months.

We saw an interview put out by a Japanese Christian broadcasting network about hikikomori. They interviewed a psychologist who had spent his whole life studying this subject. He believes that Japanese society is falling apart at the seams. Japan needs to reinvent itself, just as it reinvented itself after World War II. His prayer is that Japan will reinvent itself as a Christian nation.

We also saw a Japanese fictional video that addressed this. It was called “Jitensha” or “Bicycle” and was about a Japanese guy who never stood up for himself and hated the world because he was always being bullied. Throughout the film, parts of his bicycle were stolen, one by one, and there was nothing he could do to stop the thief. When the entire bicycle was gone, he got a letter that said, “This is your life.” It was signed “God.” It also included instructions for finding the missing bicycle parts and putting them back together. The guy was able to use the map and instructions to do just that. At first I thought it was cheesy and obscure in it`s message, but Junko reacted very strongly to it. She saw immediately how the bicycle represented the guy`s life and it was only through God`s help that he was able to put it back together. Just goes to show you what is strange for one culture really resonates with another. I often think about how bonkers my Japanese Christian friends go for the genealogies in the Bible. They think they`re really cool for some reason, and that`s what makes the Bible “real” to them. Here are the records, these people actually lived, and these are their descendents.

In small group, Junko also expressed her concern for Japanese society and asked us how a Christian society might be different. We weren`t shy about admitting Christianity`s historical faults, but also outlined the model given for a perfect society in scripture. Lana explained what it meant to receive Jesus as our friend and Savior. By now, Junko seemed to understand very well. Lana asked if Junko wanted to accept Jesus now or if she would rather wait. Junko said she would rather wait. I was so impressed with Lana`s patience! She wasn`t pushy at all. She didn`t try to press Junko like I would have been tempted to do. It is a really important decision that shouldn`t be taken lightly. But Lana`s also doing another very important thing. She`s following up. She`s staying in close touch with Junko and continuing to encourage, instruct, and answer her questions. Thank God for Lana! I want to be a missionary like her.

That evening, I talked to a wonderful lady named Pearl from the Philippines. What a story she has! She is so strong to have gone through so much. It`s very encouraging to me to hear other Christians share their trials. And now, she`s a part of my Monday night skype Bible study! Junko too stayed up late into the night talking to Deborah Ruth (another life-long Japanese missionary and good friend of mine), about the Gospel. I love how Deborah Ruth really knows how to be a friend to people. It`s obvious she doesn`t see them as a “target” for evangelism. She dressed Junko up in one of the kimonos she brought. Junko had said she had never worn a kimono before, but wanted to try. Here they are together:



They were still talking, laughing, and sharing life stories as well as the Gospel, when I fell asleep around midnight.

The morning of the final day when I woke at sunrise, there were icicles all over the window. It was like a postcard:





We had prayer early again, I took another walk through the woods, and attended our last worship session, with communion. Michael reminded us about what that special meal means, talking about the three most important meals in the Bible. At the first, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (which Michael joked must have been a world-famous Aomori apple from his prefecture), and broke the union between God and humans. The second meal foreshadowed the restoration of that relationship, Jesus`s Last Super with the disciples, when he talked about giving his blood and body as a sacrifice for our sins. The third meal is still to come, foretold in the book of Revelation, the marriage supper of Jesus and the Church, when God will make a new creation to replace the old one that human beings broke. I never thought of it that way before!

During the sermon, Jon talked about general issues and strategies with Japanese evangelism. That was the session we talked about the whole “foreignness” of Christianity, how to break that concept, and the importance of bringing in YOUNG MEN, specifically with families. The majority of Japanese Christians tend to me old women. There`s nothing wrong with those people, but they are not typically the one`s shaping Japanese society. More importantly, if they`re all we have, the Japanese church will die out in another ten years. If a Japanese woman becomes Christian, usually she is persecuted by her family, ostracized, and often no change or other conversions beside herself occur. If a man becomes Christian, his whole family becomes Christian, and it often spreads from there. That`s the way the society works. It`s not fair, but it would be stupid to try to work against the culture without first changing people`s hearts. As I`ve said time and again, all too often Christianity is used simply as a means to promote feminism, capitalism, and other “isms,” when in reality these things should take backseat to the far more important Truth. Once a people group becomes Christian, then and only then can they truly understand equality, freedom, and peace as a whole.

After that, we had our final small group. Junko had to leave early to catch the bus, but we got to meet another Taiwanese American living in Nagano, who only got to make it for Sunday because she has to work on Saturday. Following small group, we took our last pictures, said our good byes, and danced the chicken dance!



You see, at the beginning of the retreat, someone was given a “pig” as Sunny says in her New Zealand accent (or peg, for those of us from normal places), and they had to clip it to someone else in secret. If that person found the peg, they had to clip it to another person, and so on. Well, the guy in the middle is the unfortunate fellow who didn`t realize someone hid the peg in his bag until the end.

We also had “angels,” people we were supposed to be nice to. I won`t reveal who I was supposed to be an angel to, because I`m rather embarrassed by how little I did for her. (I basically just followed her around trying to help but was actually quite annoying, left her some sweets on her pillow and a poorly-spelled, most likely illegible note), but my angel was very nice to me. She gave me a small box of chocolate almonds and a cute little box of truffles! I ate them for the following Valentines Day. Yea! I wonder who she was…

To top it all off, we had warm fuzzies, notes to stick in people`s envelopes that they could read later and feel good about. Here`s Junko working on hers:



I really didn`t want to take the bullet train back to Nabari because it`s really expensive, and thankfully Hideki was there. Hideki is our Japanese retreat coordinator from Nagoya, which is the fourth largest city in Japan, (after Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka), about two hours north of my town by train. He helped me reserve a bus to Nagoya and I got a ride with him and some other folks to Motsumoto to catch the bus. We stopped by a really nice ramen (Chinese noodle) shop for lunch. Here are some pictures from the two-hour road trip:





Along the way, I accidentally bumped a Japanese car when I opened my door. It was just a tap and there wasn`t even a scratch, but I acted way too American. I should have gotten out, bowed to them and apologized profusely. Instead, I simply told them quite bluntly that there was no scratch and we drove away. They were shouting after us, “Shinjirarenai!” (Which literally translates to “I don`t believe this,” but the nuance is more “outrageous, unthinkable!”) Oops. I lose points in the “good ambassador to Japan” department.

But anyway, I caught the bus (just barely), got into Nagoya at 8:30 and got back to Nabari around 11:00pm. And I went to work the next day, Valentines Day, with all the proper presents for my co-workers. (In Japan, Valentines Day is a holiday mostly celebrated by families and companies, not lovers.)

This is what greeted me on my way home from work. Not quite as beautiful as Nagano, but still nice:



I taught double my normal class load Monday-Wednesday, had Bible study Monday night, had grocery shopping and lesson planning on Tuesday night, and Wednesday night went out for a three-hour karaoke English lesson with my adult students Saki and Miwa. We sang Carpenters, Beatles, and Gospel songs with nomihodai (all you can drink soda/juice/tea/soup and ice cream). It was absolutely amazing, but exhausting. After that, they come over to my place and helped me look up buses to go to a conference next weekend/week in Yokohama for life after JET and job hunting. There was no place for them to sit because I`m currently in the middle of cataloging and organizing the massive JET Christian Fellowship library. I have books stacked alphabetically by author and subject all over my apartment and you have to climb on my sliding door just to get from my bedroom to the kitchen. Sometimes I wonder about my sanity.

Prayer Requests for this Week: My sanity (just joking). Seriously, though, I have to take a night bus to Yokohama for the conference this weekend and I know I`m going to be spent when I get back. I would definitely appreciate prayers for the Eiken and Evangelism class on Thursday nights. Four weeks now we`ve had to cancel due to a lack of (in other words absolutely no) students. On top of that, Pastor Toshi`s entire family is sick with the flu. Please pray for Junko from the conference, that she will accept Christ in time. Also, my friend Katelyn from Bible study is getting married. Most importantly, as the Christian Japanese hikikomori psychologist said, please pray that Japan will reinvent itself as Christian nation. Christianity used to have a strong influence in this country before the ban. If you don`t believe me, look it up in the history books. It`s not from lack of trying that the Japanese are the second most un-reached people group in the world. But it might be from lack of prayer.

Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L. J. Popp

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sapporo Snow Festival

OK, I`m finally getting around to writing about the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo City Snow Festival) up in Hokkaido, the northern most prefecture of Japan. One reason for the delay is that I lost my camera, AGAIN, while skiing in Nagano. But that`s next week`s topic.

I have a tendency to do things on the spur of the moment. This trip was no different. I really REALLY wanted to go to Hokkaido to see the festival, since it`s the largest snow festival in the world and my last year in Japan. It`s famous for giant snow and ice sculptures, as well as all kinds of free winter sports and events like skiing, sledding, skating, free concerts by celebrities, etc. I had thought it impossible to attend, since I can`t take off work in the middle of the week and the following weekend I needed to go to the Japanese Exchange Teachers` Christian Fellowship Conference. So I had resigned myself to the fact that I could not go, until some friends told me they were going the weekend before. I can`t go with them, but what a great idea! I innocently thought. I`ll beat the crowds.

So I bought my extremely expensive package tickets for flights to and from Hokkaido, two nights in a hotel with free breakfasts and two days at the festival. I arrived Friday night all stoked, checked into my nice hotel and enjoyed an excellent first-class breakfast of smoked salmon, crochet, eggs, etc, I headed out to the first location of the festival, Tsudome (Sapporo Community dome). I beat the crowds all right. I also beat the festival. I got there just as they were beginning to set everything up. I couldn`t go down any of the free snow slides, go inside the snow maze, or go skiing, skating, sledding etc. I got to watch the beginnings of a few snow sculptures, but most hadn`t even been started yet. Quite a disappointment. At least I got to see the beginnings of the 100 snowmen in the field when I left; there were about twenty-five of them so far. So I headed on to the Odori park site, where I met up with someone I had talked to over the Internet, a graduate student named Tom. We wandered the park together, and fortunately there was more to see there. Most folks were about 3/4ths of the way done when we got there. Here`s a row of them, though sorry you can`t see it that well. Like I said, I lost my camera the following week, so all of these are from my I-phone:



None of these statues are by professionals; they`re all companies, organizations, and families who get together with a huge block of snow and chisel away at it until they get the image they want. Sometimes they just do cartoon characters they like. Here`s some of those:





Here`s Luigi, from the famous Nintendo game franchise, Mario Brothers:






This fellow is from the famous anime, One Piece. He also happens to be a rabbit (I think), so there were lots of sculptures of him, since the Chinese New Year was just a few days before and it`s now the Year of the Rabbit. (Say good bye to the tiger, my year.)



A Mr. Potato Head:



Sometimes the sculpture is made to promote the group that makes it. For example, here`s one by I think a parenting organization. You see the child is crying and the mother is comforting him:



Here`s one by a heart association:



Some architects from the local university:



Some students of a professor who got the Nobel Prize in chemistry:



They say anyone can make the snow sculptures, no matter how unskilled you are. Here`s some girls making flowers for one of them:



The largest sculpture, a reproduction of the Temple of Heaven in China, built by the Japanese National Guard, was totally complete by the time we got there. Now that was something to see! Imagine a giant building made entirely of snow. Not an igloo. An actual temple with all the detail of the original.



This is not my picture, it comes directly for the festival`s official website: http://www.snowfes.com/english/

Tom had to leave around 3:00, so I went into the oldest European-style building (the old courthouse, now a museum) in Sapporo by myself. Here it is:



There, seeing some pictures of the real festival, I realized I would really like to stay through Monday, the first real day of the festival with all the illuminations and fun stuff actually open, but when I called the Japanese travel agency I booked through, they said I couldn`t extend my stay. Oh, well. Inside the old building there wasn`t anything special, though I did meet a famous Hokkaido artist who`s name I can`t remember for the life of me. I also heard a practice for a concert by an erhu player (Chinese two-stringed violin). Musicians often say the European violin was invented to imitate the human voice. Not entirely true. The European violin was invented to imitate the WESTERN voice, just as the Chinese two-stringed violin was made to imitate the Asian voice. It has a very tight, warbly, nasaly sound, just as the European violin has a very open, precise, pure tone. I`ve sometimes heard people substitute the Chinese stringed instruments for the European versions and vice versa, and when the substituted instrument is used in a solo capacity, it works, sometimes to very good effect. (Five tunes heard in China for cello comes to mind, as well as a few songs that use a Chinese violin in the melody, with European instruments as the supporting framework.) But when incorporating them into a symphony, (Chinese violins among European violins for example), or mixing and matching for vocal pieces, it usually does not go over well due to tuning and style issues.

After that little concert, I headed back toward my hotel and saw the third site of the festival, Susukino street where all the ice sculptures were being made. It was around 5:30, so the sun had set. Very few were done when I got there. Here`s a pretty peacock, again not mine but a festival website picture:



A giant glass of the famous Sapporo beer:



And an aquarium full of fish:



They start out with a block of ice and use a chain saw to get it the way they want.

Then I wandered the colorful streets for awhile until I came to ramen (Chinese noodle) ally. There I ate some amazing salmon eggs and delicious miso ramen, famous throughout Hokkaido. I never liked salmon eggs or ramen before, but that was one of the best meals I`ve ever had in Japan. Unfortunately, some of the Chinese patrons were smoking, so I got a splitting headache and decided to go to bed early. I got to my hotel about 8:00 and crashed.

I was really surprised by the number of Chinese tourists, but I suppose I shouldn`t have been. It was their New Year, so they all had off from work, and Hokkaido is the closest place to Beijing that isn`t China, so lots of Chinese that want to travel abroad go there, especially to see the free, famous Sapporo festival. There were lots of snow sculptures celebrating the new "year of the rabbit" and everywhere I went I heard people speaking Madarin. I felt kind of bad for them, though, because the Japanese don`t really treat them very nice. There were a lot of them on the plane and they didn`t get a translation of anything. The flight attendants wouldn`t talk to them in Mandarin, only in English which they didn`t understand, and didn`t get them water when they asked for it. One Japanese guy I met in front of the Temple of Heaven sculpture who was married to a Canadian was grumbling to me about how many Chinese there were and how awful it was that the Japanese had to cater to them and for the sculpters to be making reproductions of their buildings instead of Japanese ones. (Despite the fact that some Chinese were standing right there listening and they might have been able to understand English.) Maybe the Japanese think the Chinese are loud and rude, but I find them refreshing. They don`t bow and act polite all the time; they`re friendly. I can usually strike up a conversation with them, even if it`s in broken Mandarin/English/Japanese. The following day, I met three guys from Taiwan (yes, I know that`s not China; they quickly corrected me about that, but they were nice about it) who were studying at Hokkaido university. They said they were Han Chinese in ethnicity, culture and language but just not politically. I can see why that`s an important distinction to them. I like everything about China too except the politics. That and they tend to smoke and drink too much in public places, but that goes for most Asian countries and some European ones too.

Sunday morning after a nice breakfast of eggs and curry, I headed for hitsujigaoka, or "sheep hill." I thought it would be lovely to see the snowy white mountains covered in sheep, but it was not to be. The sheep were all in their pens for the winter. The scenery was still nice, though, and I tried out some free cross-country skiing. It was really hard. The food was good, Hokkaido ice cream and pudding, and Genghis Khan lamb wrap. After that, I wanted to go to the world-famous Asahikawa zoo, but it was two hours there and two hours back, so I just went to the local Maruyama zoo, which was really bad. They had only two interesting things, a baby seal that liked to sit up in the shallow tank and watch passerby and some jack ass penguins (I`m not swearing; that`s their real name because they bray like donkies). You have to see it to believe it. Here`s a link to a video of them:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqDQwLd8RuU

But that`s it. The cages were too small, the animals obviously neglected, and it started snowing like nobody`s business. It was a total waste of money. Furthermore, I did something really stupid; I got the last bus to the airport, and didn`t realize it would take an hour and a half to get there. When I arrived, I had twenty-five minutes before take off. I had to rush through check in, security, and sprint to my gate. I got there just as they were closing the door. And that was my trip to Hokkaido.

So a word to the wise: If you think it would be smart to go to a famous festival a day or two early so you can beat the crowds, it`s not really worth it. And Hokkaido is very, very cold in the winter time, even wearing four layers of clothes, colder than Beijing was last year. If you don`t like cold, avoid it in the winter. You think I would have been able to figure that out without going there, but I can be really stubborn at times. I get an idea in my head and it`s very hard for anything besides another person to detour me. Next time I will seek out another`s advice.

Next time, I`ll write about my trip to Nagano last weekend, which was much more awesome!

Until then, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Problem Solved!

It`s amazing how easy the solution to seemingly huge dilemmas can be. I prayed, read my Bible, asked several of my good Christian friends for their opinions. The answer came during Monday night skype Bible study when one of the girls in the group spoke up.

"You know, Laura, you could just quit the job you have now like you were planning to do and apply for a job at a private company."

Silence. "What?" I asked.

"You said you don`t really like teaching high school. You don`t like huge classes. Working for a private company could solve that. In fact, you even suggested it yourself earlier, but you didn`t seem to think it a viable option. Why not?"

I thought about it. True, my Japanese pastor had also mentioned it before, originally putting the idea in my head. I also had a friend in Nagasaki who quit his public school job and switched to private and found the change an answer to prayer. But I hadn`t really considered the pros and cons of it for myself, because I had been so stuck thinking that my Japanese Exchange Teaching (JET) job was "it." Nearly everyone who wants to teach in Japan aspires to be a JET, because it has the highest pay, job security, and number of vacation days. But seeing as I really don`t care about the first two and I`ve already seen most of Japan that I want to see, those aren`t issues for me. I actually wouldn`t mind if I had a little less job security, seeing as signing the contract would force me to stay another year with no way out, but working for a private company I could pretty much leave at any time (depending on the company, of course.)

Another girl, also a very dear friend of mine, spoke up too. "If you didn`t work for JET, you could chose your own place. You could have a roommate. You could maybe even keep a pet."

Over the following day, all the pieces started to fit together. I thought back over my life, and noticed that God has always had an amazing way of closing and opening doors for me. Just take the JET job, for instance. Japan was not the first on my list of places I wanted to go. My dream was to return to Malawi Africa as a full-time missionary, possibly among the Muslim population, doing both humanitarian and evangelism work with AIDs orphans. But it has always been very important to me that I not be a burden on the church, so I always want to be able to support myself and never ask for donations for my own benefit. (There are too many starving and sick children in the world for me to be hogging funds like that. It wouldn`t be fair.) In missionary terms, we call this "tent making," because one of the first evangelists, the Apostle Paul, was a tent maker. There were no "tent making" opportunities for me in Malawi. I might have been able to work something out, to have found something that would give me just enough to live on, but I had my student loans to worry about. Another big financial principle that I try to keep for myself is that I never owe money to anyone if I can help it. That is why I don`t even own a credit card. I was bent on paying off my student loans before they accrued interest. So I looked for other opportunities besides Malawi. I sort of decided on Japan last minute. I went to the mission board of my church to ask them to pray for me.

"Oh, God must have given you a heart for Japan," they said.

I was surprised. "No," I almost replied. "I know next to nothing about Japan and it was the last place I ever imagined myself going as a missionary. I heard about the job, applied for it on the spur of the moment, and somehow got it." Of course, I didn`t say that. I smiled and accepted their prayers, hoping God WOULD give me a heart for Japan.

And He did. I fell hopelessly, madly, inescapably in love with the country and it`s people almost from the moment I stepped off the plane. I loved the mish-mash mix of traditional culture and the modern high-tech, the geisha walking down the street holding cell phones, the huge projections on the buildings portraying Samurai and ninja listening to their I-pods. It was the perfect combination for a fantasy and science fiction writer. Japan is a land of double worlds. In it, I have grown as a person, as a writer, and as a Christian. God knew what was best for my future, far better than I did.

And so, sitting in my apartment, one and a half years later, I decided to trust God once more. I rededicated myself to His plan, His timing, His love. I decided to apply for jobs both in Japan and the U.S., and God would open the doors He wanted me to walk through, and close the ones He did not want. I hadn`t been trusting God to be the Master of my life. He is so big and so amazing, how could one single little choice I make ever diminish His plan? It was arrogant on my part to think that I had such power. He will lead me where He wants me to be. I just have to let go of my fears. Ultimately, He wants the peace and happiness of His children. I am confident that wherever He leads, He will give me the strength and desire to follow.

In the mean time, I would appreciate prayers for my Thursday night class (particularly that people will actually come this semester and KEEP coming), for the many ministries of the church and that the Gospel would spread miraculously throughout Japan. Just when Japan is feeling like impossible ground, God surrounds me with a great cloud of witnesses, also eager to do His will and follow His plan. One friend told me she feels that trying to minister to people in Japan is like trying to plant seeds on cement. Who knows? Maybe what we`re doing now is slowly, gently, cracking the cement. The seeds are still to come.

Until next time, keep loving and keep praying, no matter what the cost.
L.J. Popp