Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hasedera and God`s continuing work in Japan

So we left off with Hisai and Junko leaving my apartment on Wednesday night. Thursday, I taught my English class at the church, and the two new people who came last time came again: Hideki, the son of an older lady who came a few times, and Haruka, one of Miwa`s family friends. (Miwa was the lady who was baptized last year.) We talked about lonliness and how we never have to be lonely, becaue God is always with us. Miwa spontaneously shared her testimony and everyone was very moved, but I sensed they still weren`t ready to accept Christ yet.

Saturday I enjoyed a restful morning, then headed to Hasedera temple in Nara for some sightseeing. What a quaint little town! Here`s a picture of the sloping, narrow streets:



On the way to the temple, I stopped by a little shop for lunch. The obaasan (old lady who ran the shop) told me all about when the local flowers bloomed. I wrote the dates down in my calendar. She gave me free sweets, green herb rice cakes (mochi) filled with red bean paste (anko) and talked to me a good while in Japanese. Country folks are so kind. Here`s a picture of how they make the rice dough:



Unfortunately I was too late for the plum blossoms and too early for the sakura (cherry), but the temple itself was quite beautiful. In contrast to other Japanese ancient monuments, it was quite ornate. Here`s a picture of some of the small, outter buildings housing statues:







Here`s the ceiling of that one:



Here`s one of the smaller, side gardens. At the time all they had were a few year-round tsubaki trees, but I took a picture because I didn`t know you could make a tsubaki bush into a tree. I suppose it`s kind of like a rose tree. The more I think about it, the more I come to consider the Japanese tsubaki to be like the Western rose:



There was a smaller museum I went in and I took a lot of pictures, but I won`t post them because I`m not sure it`s allowed. It was mostly just old statues, scrolls, and paintings, which I don`t find all that interesting anyway. I`ve never been a big fan of art museums unless I`m with someone who can explain the history and significance to me. I like living things and stories.

After that I climbed to the top of the long stairs leading to the main temple. Here`s a picture of the stairs; they`re quite famous:



I met this Shiba there. I`m not sure if he belonged to a priest or a caretaker, but he sure wasn`t a guard dog. What a friendly fellow!



I called him Hachi of course, even though he wasn`t an Akita, but I`m pretty sure Shibas are descendent from Akitas. I didn`t use to like dogs, but since coming to Japan I like them very much. Little dogs are so cute and fun!

I also found these unusual statues, but what a sad story behind them. They represent dead babies. The parents clothe them in red scarves and hats. The idea used to be that it keeps them warm in the next life, but today it`s just a ritual without any belief behind it.



Near the statues you could look out and see a view of all the mountains:



Imagine my surprise as I stood there, gazing out at the bleak but beautiful landscape, when I heard a young man say in clear English, “Beautiful, isn`t it?”

I turned to him, trying to gauge his nationality. He didn`t…look Japanese. Maybe Chinese? Japanese American? There was a certain “ivy league” air about him; I`m not quite sure how to describe it. Maybe his plaid scarf or black leather shoes too worn to belong to a business man.

“Hai, kirei des,” (yes, beautiful) I answered, testing to see if he spoke Japanese.

“Doko kara kimashtaka?” he asked without an accent.

OK, so he probably is Japanese, I reasoned. “America, Oklahoma-shu kara kimashta. What about you?”

“Tokyo,” he said. “I`m a refugee.”

“Ah. Is everything…all right with your home?”

He laughed self-consciously. “Not really. But I still have a job and an apartment, if that`s what you`re asking. But I suppose I`ll be here awhile.”

“Where did you learn English?” I asked. “You`re quite good.”

“No, no,” he of course denied. “I studied at Stanford.”

Turns out, he studied Buddhism. So we spent the rest of the day walking around together, him explaining the various aspects of the temple to me. I was very fortunate that they had also just opened the most ancient statue to the public. No pictures allowed of course, but you`re honestly not missing much in that department. The statue is spectacular to be sure, but if you`ve seen pictures of the big one in Nara, this one didn`t come close to that in size or ornateness.

As we walked, he taught me about the history of Buddhism, how it evolved from its original form in India as it traveled through China and finally Japan. Funny thing, though, it no longer exists in India. It was always a minority, and when the Muslims invaded they destroyed all the temples and slaughtered the worshipers. So it really only exists in Eastern Asian now, very different from its original form. To sum it all up, though, classical Buddhism believes in the cycle of reincarnation which is basically undesirable. They strive to become a Buddha, or someone who is enlightened and cut off from the cycle. This is done through good deeds, prayers, and following the “middle way,” denying the self sometimes but not to extreme. But they never got around to answering the real question: what does that mean? When one of the original Buddha`s disciples asked this, he told them it was an irrelevant question. Reincarnation is bad, so you want to be cut off from it. Period. But what if something worse happens? Some Buddhists believe that when you reach the state of Buddha, your consciousness merges with the universe. Which in some interpretations means you cease to exist. Who could want that? Regardless, Buddhists believe in eternity after death same as Christians. So the most important question is actually the question they never answer. What happens in that eternity? Wait, let me revise that. That`s the second most important question. The most important question is who or what made us (where do we come from) and what is our relationship with those beings/that being. That`s another question they never answer, that the Buddha said had no significance. So the man was right in concluding that Buddhism has absolutely no meaning or significance in the modern world. It`s no wonder the Japanese don`t believe it anymore.

Yes, the man was quite proud in declaring to me that “we Japanese are a scientific people now so we don`t believe such silly superstition.” Yet he stopped and prayed to all the statues during our walk.

I didn`t say anything. I just raised my eyebrows when he finished.

His face turned a little red. “I guess it is a little silly. I just…it`s respectful. It`s part of being a good Japanese person, you understand.”

“I don`t understand. Please explain.”

That launched us into a discussion about being a “Christian” in England. I explained that it was quite a different concept in America. He found that fascinating. He said he`d never met a “real Christian” before. We must have talked for four hours. We had lunch at the little roadside shop I had stopped in before. The obaasan (old lady who owned the shop) asked the man on his earthquake experience. She served us free tea and sweets again. I don`t know how these shops stay in business. Japanese old people are always so kind. You try to give them something in return and they won`t take it.

The young man and I finally ended up in a little teahouse with a lovely garden. Here it is:



And here`s the tea set we ordered, anko jelly on the left, fresh green tea in the middle, and roasted green tea (so it looks brown) on the right.



We talked about travel and books and movies until 5:00, then I caught the train back to Nabari. I was just in time to meet my missionary friend Deborah Ruth at the train station. (She`s from Ibaraki near the nuclear power plant. She escaped and was taking the opportunity to meet her friends all over Japan. She stayed with me two nights.) We made dinner together, talked and prayed late into the night. The following morning, we skyped my mother, then went off to Jesus Life House church together.

I was a little worried that Junko and Hisai wouldn`t show up without me to take them (they were in Kyoto applying to the government for aid, you might recall). Jesus Life House doesn`t have a building, so we all meet at the train station before and walk to that week`s rented venue. The system works really well as outreach in and of itself, because some people see the church sign and a bunch of young, excited kids waiting at the train station and they decide to come on the spur of the moment and eventually join the church! Junko and Hisai weren`t at the train station, but when we got to the venue they were there!

What a service. The “sermon” was actually an interview of two married couples in the church who answered questions members had written on cards the previous week. The questions were everything from “how do I ask out a girl without being rejected” to “how far is too far physically before marriage?” All their answers were very practical and scripturally based. I really liked one of the guy`s advice: Just don`t be alone or in the dark together. You`re going to be far less tempted to be “smooching it up” (must be an Ausi term) in public. If you want some quiet time together where you can talk just the two of you, go to a park in broad day light. You`ll be “alone,” but you`re certainly not going to be taking your clothes off when some granny could walk by with her dog.

After the service, Junko and Hisai stayed for awhile to study and pray, then left for their appointment in Kyoto. I wish they could have stayed for the baptisms! Since Jesus Life House doesn`t have a building, they have to borrow another church`s baptismal font in the afternoon. So the baptisms were around 6:00 as part of a mini service. Here`s the opening with singing:

Here`s a picture of four of the five girls who got baptized. Luke (the pastor) and his Japanese wife Izumi are speaking in the background.



And here`s the only non-Japanese girl getting baptized:



At first I was really shocked that the pastor didn`t do any baptizing. Usually, it`s the Life Group leader who brought that person to Christ. That urked me at first. These weren`t ordained Bible School graduates, they were just ordinary ladies doing the baptizing. (On a side note, they have it so men always baptize men and women always baptize women.) But then I thought about what the Bible says. When Jesus gave the great commission, he said, “Go into all the world and preach my gospel to every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” These three commands: to evangelize, to baptize, and to disciple, are given all together. It doesn`t say, “you preach and then you baptize.” We were all commanded to do all three. And in all the examples of baptism in the Bible, the person who did the preaching also did the baptizing, beginning with John. When Philip met the Ethiopian eunic, there was no ceremony about it. The Ethiopian believed, and he was baptized right there by Philip in a puddle along the side of the road. There may or may not have even been witnesses. There`s also the idea of the “priesthood of believers.”

Now I`m NOT saying that ordained Bible School pastors are pointless. God chooses “some to be teachers” and “some to be apostles” and any group needs a leader. Every group in the Bible had a leader and the Bible encourages all leaders to attain wisdom and knowledge. But we shouldn`t rely on or expect those people to do our work for us. That`s when the church dies, because one person can only do so much. There are some duties that all Christians have. It varies from church to church, and that`s OK. The early churches didn`t all follow the same model in how they did things; that depended on their culture, context, size, and resources, as well as the kinds of spiritual gifts God had blessed them with. All I`m saying is we shouldn`t get lazy with letting our leaders do all the work. We should take on our Biblical, God-given responsibilities whenever and wherever possible and be open to unfamiliar ones even when they might make us uncomfortable at first.

OK, end of sermon. I won`t get into infant baptism versus adult baptism right now. To make a long story short, I basically think both are OK, because the Bible doesn`t specify. There are places where it says “he/she and his/her entire household were baptized.” It doesn`t say “except the babies.” Since Paul compares baptism to infant circumcision, as a mark and sign of God`s grace and claim upon someone`s life, I see no problem with using the same metaphor in modern times. From historical records and art, we know infant baptism was practiced in the early church and none of the apostles ever corrected it. So it seems, from my humble understanding, that both are good and pleasing to God. But I`m always willing to revise my opinions if someone presents me with logical, Biblical evidence.

Afterwards, we had a celebration dinner. There, I learned more about Jesus Life House. I definitely want to work with them too in the future if (perhaps I should say when?) I come back to Japan. Deborah Ruth and I got back to my apartment around 11:00, where we talked and prayed some more, and she left early the next morning.

Nothing of important happened Monday-Wednesday except for Bible study and prayer meetings. Thursday, I taught my class at the church, and three people came: Hedeki, Haruka, and Miwa again. We talked about friendship, including friendship in the Bible, and ended talking about how Jesus wants to be our friend. Both Haruka and Hideki accepted Christ, and they`re coming on Sunday! I`m so happy! That`s four people in less than two weeks! Of course, it`s not about numbers. It`s about the people! Now they know their true purpose in life and will live forever with God in heaven! Yea! The angels are having a party! No earthquakes gonna shake us! It`s a chain reaction! Japan`s reaching out to God! Our prayers are being answered! I can`t think of anything that could make me happier!

This is why I came to Japan. God prepared me for this time, this place. I`m doing what I was created to do. Now if only I could publish my Christian fiction and find a missionary husband to partner with. One thing I know for sure. God`s got plans. And I`m part of them! (By the way, you are too, in case you`re wondering.) Let`s have a party! Actually, we are having a party, on Easter, at my church in Nabari. We got two bands coming in for an earthquake charity concert and an Easter egg hunt and it`s gonna be awesome!

Prayer Requests for this week: Please pray for Junko and Hisai, both that God will provide for their physical needs after the disaster and for their faith to grow. Pray for Hideki and Haruka who were at the Thursday night class to also grow and get plugged into a body of believers. Pray for the five girls who got baptized at Jesus Life House last Sunday. Pray for my planning the JET Christian Fellowship mission trip to the Tohoku area; it`s hard finding a time when everyone can go. (Guidance especially for me in making planning decisions, as well as decisions in how to spend my last few months in Japan, and finding another job.) Please pray for the events around easter; my school band is playing and so is another group and we hope we can be a great witness to them. Please continue to pray for my Thursday night class. Please pray for the chain reaction to grow all through Japan! God`s gonna do amazing things here!

I also want to say thanks to John Knox, my church family in America for all your kind letters and prayers in these trying times. And of course to my family, who`s love transends oceans!

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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fun with Refugees (everybody needs a little cheer)

So, you`re probably sick of hearing all about the nightmare of disaster going on here in Japan. So let`s switch to a positive note! Saturday, March 19th-Wednesday, March 23rd I had the pleasure of hosting two refugees from Fukushima (where the nuclear reactor is) in my apartment. How did I meet these fine ladies? As you may know, about six weeks ago, I went to a Christian conference in Nagano. In my small group there was a seeker named Junko, and I learned so much from listening to the life-long missionary to Japan, Lana, explain the Gospel to her in English and Japanese. After the earthquake hit and the reactor started leaking (and they still don`t know how to fix it), Junko and her sister needed a place to escape. Our mutual friend Pearl, who shared a cabin with us at the retreat, sent out a mass mail to everyone in Kansai she knew to see who could take the girls. I knew right away I should volunteer. So to me they came!

What a journey! Their first overnight bus was canceled due to the terrible roads and lack of gasoline. They had to drive their car to another town, all the time hoping they would not run out of gas because the lines at the pumps were 6 hours long with no guarantee there would still be some left by the time they got to the front. They made it to an old town where they got a bus to another city to get an overnight bus to Osaka. I met them at the station near the bus stop on Saturday morning. We actually arrived at exactly the same time, which was a miracle because their cell phones were dead. We might have never found each other!

Junko speaks very good English. She`s the secretary at an English language cram school, and is also certified to teach Kindergarten English. (Honestly, though, she speaks better than one of my high school teachers.) Her grammar is sometimes a little off, but that`s not what matters. She knows lots of vocabulary and is very good at getting her point across and expressing herself. Her sister`s English level is about where my Japanese is, so between the three of us, we were always able to understand each other.

To my surprise and delight, the girls were quite the travelers. They wanted a little vacation after the horror of the quake to forget their troubles. I was able to get us some discount tickets for the long weekend, only 4,000 yen ($50) on all the Kintetsu trains for three days. So Saturday afternoon after they got their things settled, I took them to Tsu Yuki Jinga, or "the plum blossom shrine” as it is often called. At the front of the shrine, they prayed, and I asked them what they prayed for.

“For our situation,” Junko said. “And our families.”

“Well, does it have any meaning for you?” I asked. “Do you think there is a god there who listens and fulfills your request?”

They thought about that for quite awhile and discussed between themselves in Japanese. Junko giggled. “I guess not. It`s just a habit.”

“So why do you do it?” I insisted. “If you want to pray about your situation, you should pray to a God who is real and who listens.”

“Yes, I suppose you`re right,” Junko agreed. “Can we pray to God later?”

“Of course!” I said. “You can pray to God anywhere, anytime.” I wanted to ask if we could pray then, but realized it would be better not to press them. I didn`t want to make them uneasy.

So we continued into the beautiful shrine. So many plum blossoms! Here are some pictures:

The entrance to the shrine with hanging branches:



Junko (left) and her sister, Hisai:



Me under the branches (that was Junko`s idea; she`s quite the photographer):



All three of us under a weeping plum tree:



Close up:



Bara mitai (Looks like a rose bud):



Full shot of weeping plum tree (sorry it`s sideways; I can`t figure out how to fix that):



Darker color:



Large section of garden:



Believe it or not, when we stopped to rest we met a group from abroad studying seismic and volcanic activity. They had actually come some months ago having no idea what would happen during their stay, but they sure came at the right time to study that! They were from many different companies and countries: the Philippines, Venezuela, Pakistan, Taiwan and others, through a program at Nagoya University. We talked for quite awhile; what nice people! Here`s a picture of us with them:



There was also a children`s garden nearby with a Heidi theme:



The Japanese really love an animation called Heidi, the classic story about the little girl of the alps and her grandfather. I`ve never seen it, though I probably should as part of my education on the Japanese people. I think they relate to it so well because of the snowy mountain rural setting. It kind of reminds them of their own old, rustic days. I just finished reading the Nobel Prize-winning novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. It`s certainly a lot more depressing than the story of Heidi, but the setting is similar and strikes a chord in the heart of the Japanese people, just as reading tales of the old prairie settlers strikes a chord in me. There`s a bit of the rustic in all of us, a yearning to reach out to our past and ancestors, to older, simpler times. The appeal of reading such tales from other cultures is even deeper for some, if the story can strike the delicate balance between the familiar and the foreign.

When we got back to Nabari, we went shopping for groceries and such. I was planning to go grocery shopping for them before they came, but had second thoughts, and I`m glad because the Japanese idea of what is essential and the American idea are very different! I would have gotten all the wrong things! They wanted seaweed and natto (fermented soy beans), soymilk, tofu, and lots and lots of onions!

For dinner that night, Junko and Hisai taught me how to make ebi tempura (shrimp deep fried…stuff.) You take vegetables such as onion, cucumber, carrot, and celery plus shrimp, put them in a bowl with flour and water, mix it all together, form paddies and spoon them into the oil. I also learned that the proper way to make asparagus or broccoli tempura is to soften the vegetables in the microwave or toaster oven first. No wonder mine were always so tough! And one proper way to use seaweed is in salad with broccoli and olive oil. I had no idea! It tastes so much better that way than in soup. Now I know where the Japanese get their fiber.

That evening, we prayed for Junko and Hisai`s situation and their family. We talked casually about faith in God and what it means to have hope. We went to bed pretty late, Junko and Hisai in my room on the bed, and me on my futon in the living room. Thank God it`s starting to warm up! I was worried that since I had the room with the heater, they wouldn`t be warm enough, but the weather cooperated quite well and with the electric blanket they said they were quite toasty!

In the morning we skyped my parents together so Hisai and Junko could meet them. I also met their parents and grandparents, and Hisai`s husband. Then, as things tend to be when you have guests over, we got off to a late start. I tried to make pancakes, but we had to run. At least we got to church on time! I took them to Jesus Life House, where my friend Christy goes. I don`t know what prompted me to do that; I`d only been to their street band myself. It`s a young three-year-old church associated with Hill Song mega church in Australia. They started a branch in Tokyo about eight years ago, which has since planted churches all over Japan in Yokohama, Hokkaido, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and in other Asian countries like Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. In just eight years, the whole Japan network of sister churches has over 2,000 members! Amazing, huh? From the moment you step in, you can see why. All their outreach is to young people. Older folks are welcome to join and do, but the core group is 18-25, the future of Japan.

At first I was a little skeptical because it starts off feeling like a big party. Everybody comes up to the front, there`s a loud rock band with lights and everybody`s jumping up and down like crazy. But all the worship songs are right in line with scripture and often quote from newer, easy-to-understand translations in both Japanese and English. (Usually we sing a verse in Japanese/English, and then repeat it in the other language.) There are ushers to make sure nobody gets too wild and that everything remains “decently and in order” as the Bible commands. The pastor is a young Australian guy and his Japanese wife, and he reads the Bible from his I-phone. To someone from the outside it might have a sacrilegious feeling, but that sort of intimacy with the Word is exactly what the Japanese need to see. The Bible is not some golden book to carry around and open only on special occasions, you can have it right on your I-phone and read it anywhere, anytime. They also encourage people to pray anytime in very simple, unchurchy language. They don`t speak “Christianese” at Jesus Life House. Though they sometimes use words like “sin” and “salvation,” they usually translate these as “all the junk you do” and “friendship with Jesus.” The pastor could easily be some dude on the beach just talking about his best friend and boss. He has that feel about him in his jeans and T-shirt and the way he calls everyone “mate.” He actually prefers not to be called “Pastor.” People just call him by his name, Luke.

After the music, there is offering, announcements for the good of the community, and a five-minute testimony from a leader in the congregation. All these things, including the announcements and offering, are centered around scripture verses. Nothing is done apart from the Bible.

That week the sermon was about the earthquake, of course. Luke talked about how much God loves Japan, how He cries to see it so devastated, and has great plans for bringing it back up. He briefly described how God loved Japan so much that He died for her. Then he invited people to know Jesus. Imagine my surprise when Junko and Hisai`s hands went up! At first I thought maybe it wasn`t real, that they were just moved by his emotional speech, but afterwards they were so excited to learn more that they totally forgot about the appointment they had made with a family friend that afternoon. We all went to Life Group together, which is the center of Jesus Life House. The more I study the Bible, the more convinced I am that small groups are essential for people to really grow in their faith. Of course worship and being part of a greater body of believers is important, but in small groups everyone knows everyone else personally, can point out our strengths and errors, and we can really help each other tackle our practical and spiritual problems. Jesus himself showed this when he limited his inner circle to only a few disciples. He shared his teachings with all of them, kept nothing from them, and helped all who were in need, but when he had something really important to do, he took only three or four with him, like at the Transfiguration. And in the case of the seventy disciples, he sent them out in small groups to help people and tell others the good news.

And lo and behold, that week`s Life Group was about baptism! After studying what the Bible has to say about it for an hour, Junko and Hisai declared that they wanted to be baptized! I was almost in tears I was so happy! It was at that point that they remembered their appointment with a family friend but asked if we could please come back the following week.

“Mochiron, of course!” I said. I was eager to come back myself, for I met a woman in the Life Group named Megumi (Blessing/Grace) who was from Nabari. She visited me the following day to talk about ways I could help my church in Nabari grow, and visited again on Tuesday to bring Junko and Hisai sweets. Now that`s hospitality! That`s what Christians should be about!

For dinner, we ended up meeting the family friend for Osaka`s famous okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake filled with meat like squid and vegetables like cabbage and egg plant and topped with seaweed, plankton flakes, mayonnaise (the Japanese all-purpose sauce) and BBQ sauce. The plankton flakes crackle and move around from the heat, so the first time my mom tried it, she thought they were still alive! Here`s what it looks like:



We must have stayed in that restaurant for three hours! Junko and Hisai were eager to discuss their situation with their friend. He advised them to seek aid from the governments of Osaka and Kyoto. I agreed that was probably the best course of action, since they didn`t have jobs.

That evening, we went to Spa World and didn`t get home until midnight. The next day being a national holiday, we slept in. I wasn`t feeling well, so Junko and Hisai went by themselves to the grocery store while I rested. For dinner we made fried gyoza (hamburger and onion fried dumplings) and soymilk gyoza soup.

Here is the gyoza:



After that, Junko and Hisai went to their friend`s house in Osaka so they could be there early in the morning to apply for aid. Tuesday, I went to work as usual. They were not able to get help from the Osaka government, so they decided to try Kyoto. They came back to my place on Wednesday night to get their stuff and we made pancakes (from the batter I made on Sunday), potato chips, lasagna, butter and sugar vegetable stir fry, tamago yaki (egg pancake), and tofu hamburgers. I had leftovers for the rest of the week!

Stay tuned for part II…

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

hackers, earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, fire, nuclear explositions, radiation poisoning, and volcanic eruptions

How many disasters can one country suffer in a week? I think we have a world record here.

First of all, I would like to apologize if anyone got an email from me saying I'm in Spain and need money. A hacker took over my google account, changed my password, and sent out an email to everyone in my address book. Since my blog account is through google, I couldn't blog about it to warn everyone. I got it back today, only to discover that this hacker deleted all my emails. All of them. Just goes to show you, don't keep important information there. Fortunately, I at least had the intelligence to have copies of all my important stuff on my computer. But suffice it to say, I will not be using Gmail anymore.

Now on to far more important things. To save time, here's the article I wrote about it for more reliable paper media (The Owasso Reporter):

Japan is a land of contradictions. It seems so strange that only two weeks ago I was enjoying the first hint of spring with the plum blossoms and proudly singing the Japanese national anthem at an International St. Patrick`s Day celebration. Of course, I had always known the possibility of disaster, and since my second day in Japan nearly two years ago when I felt my first tremor, I had an “earthquake plan.” It involved a safety kit, hiding under my table, and hurrying to my church as soon as possible to help distribute food, supplies, and hope.

But when the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history struck Tohoku area 350 miles north of me so that I barely felt it, at first I was paralyzed to do anything. Though I was thankful for my life, I worried about my suffering friends. How could I possibly help them? As the after shocks continued, walls of water over 30 feet high swept away entire cities, infants and elderly became frozen corpses without electricity, fires raged, nuclear reactors exploded, and the death toll rose from 1,000 to 10,000 in days, I nearly despaired.

Thank God for organizations like CRASH Japan! Within hours they prepared rescue workers, supplies, donations, and havens for refugees. China and America responded immediately with Special Forces, and all over the world, politicians and celebrities have been donating money, advocating Japan, and asking people to pray. In my area, many people are eager to help because they survived the Kansai earthquake of 1995 that killed 6,000 people. The entire city of Kobe was leveled, but with the help of thousands of volunteers, it was completely rebuilt to safer specifications in just a few years.

Most surprising is the reaction of the victims. While natural disasters are often followed by panic, crime, and severe shortages caused by greed, the Japanese have handled it with their characteristic peaceful attitude. They form organized lines in supermarkets, wait patiently for transportation to leave affected areas, and extend helping hands to neighbors in need. At every train station, students stand outside in the snow with signs and donation boxes, chanting “Let`s help our people!” Things are not as bad as the Western media is portraying. Even the nuclear reactor leakage, while terrible, is nothing close to “the next Chernobyl.” Recently we held a meeting at the church to discuss what we could do to help the disaster victims. One man expressed the Japanese spirit perfectly when he said, “We must stay calm and positive to set a good example for the children. Someday this will happen again, and when it does, they will remember the actions of their elders and be ready.”

You too can help. Many refugees who lost their homes need temporary places to stay. If you would like to host, please join Japan Crisis Housing-US at http://www.couchsurfing.org/group.html?gid=39809. For donations, some reputable organizations are the Japan Red Cross: http://www.jrc.or.jp/english/index.html and CRASH Japan through JEMA (Japan Evangelical Mission Association) http://www.jema.org/joomla15/index.php/ ... -donations. Currently, material donations and non-specialized volunteers are not being accepted from abroad due to difficulties transporting them to affected areas. Please DO NOT send supplies to Japan yet or go to help until it is safe. For updates on relief efforts, visit http://crashjapan.licquia.org/index.php. With everyone`s help, the Land of the Rising Sun will rise again.

End of article.

Please pray that the earthquakes will cease. Pray also for the buildings that survived the initial shock, but are being hammered by the aftershocks. Many buildings still stand, but were weakened, and because of this strong aftershocks are very dangerous.

Pray for those who have lost their loved ones. Pray for those who are trapped and injured, as well as those who are missing friends and family.

Please pray that relief teams will be able to reach these areas and help those who are suffering before more death occurs. May God grant them safety, strength and stamina.

Pray also for the weather. With radiation being diffused into the air, wind or rain could carry it into populated areas and expose people. Pray that any wind will carry radiation out to sea rather than into populated areas. What's more, bitterly cold night-time temperatures could prove life-threatening for those who are trapped.

Pray for those who are stranded away from their loved ones at this difficult time.

Pray for the power plants and water facilities to be able to resume their work, and pray for those who do not have these essential supplies.

Please pray for those who had to evacuate far from their homes, and all who are having to stay in public shelters.

Pray for the Christians of Japan, that we would be able to mobilize relief efforts and provide for people's needs, both physical and spiritual.

Please pray also for the other countries affected by the tsunami.

Praise: Three friends I worried about, girls I met at a Christian conference in Nagano just last month who lived near the Fukushima nuclear power plant, are safe. Two are coming to stay with me and one is returning to the Philippines. Thank God!

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

L.J. Popp

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ise St. Patrick's Day Celebration!

Oops, I made a mistake! Lent doesn't begin until THIS Wednesday. Oh, well. I got an early start. With my new diet, I already feel healthier with more energy to do God's work.

This past weekend, I went to the St. Patrick's Day festival in Ise! A bit early, but because ours was the first in Japan, the Irish ambassador came all the way from Tokyo with some consulate members just to see it (and Ise Grand Shrine, but we like to think we were the main reason)! We started off with free kaki (oysters) pulled fresh from the ocean. We had quite a bit of time just to mill around, so here are some pictures of the attendees:



St. Patrick and a power ranger, very anachronistic. Every year some foreigner dresses up as St. Patrick. As for the power rangers...many people (including myself until last Saturday) don't realize that the "American" show was actually Japanese first. In fact, the American broadcasting company simply took all the fight scenes where they got in their giant robots from the original 70s/80s Japanese version, and just re-filmed the story scenes with American actors. A really cheap, lazy way to create a show. Hence why it was so bad.

Anyway, these power rangers are sort of the mascots of Ise. I talked about them last year. Each color represents a different area of Ise-Shima county. They promote tourism and eco-friendliness. I know nothing else. They might be a local high school drama club, or some board city office workers for all I know. They might even try to keep their real identities secret just like in the show. Whatever. I just couldn't resist getting a picture with them:



I also saw St. Patrick on his cell phone while taking a picture with his I-phone, but didn't get a good photo of that.

This is Ashley, my Irish dancer friend (who's actually Canadian without a drop of Irish blood) with the creepy leprechaun:



They wanted us to look more "festive" for the parade, so the event committee let us borrow their hats:



Then the opening ceremony began. The Irish ambassador made a short speech in English (poor guy can't speak Japanese despite the fact he's been here over a year), and a Japanese opera singer sang the Irish national anthem in Irish. (Not Gaelic. I was sternly corrected on that, though even after looking it up on Wikipedia I'm not sure why. They appear to be the same language.) Anyway, here she is singing in whatever word you prefer to use for ancient Irish speech:

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She also sang the Japanese anthem a Capella. I found that pleasantly ironic, that a Japanese woman sang the Irish national anthem, and then sang the Japanese national anthem which has music written by an Irishman(though the words are based on an old Japanese poem). Maybe "ironic" isn't the right word. Connected culturally in an unexpected way? We don't really have a word for that in English. I shall invent one. I shall call it "cultural irony."

Next, we had our parade from the outer Geku shrine to the main train station. Honestly, it was a pretty lame parade. We didn't seem as excited as we were last year, though perhaps more people came out to see us. At the train station, we got a bagpipe performance, which was nice, even if it was a Japanese woman playing Scottish bagpipes while cross-dressing in a kilt. (Because truth be told, the kilt being a man's garment, I was told I was cross-dressing too. I like my kilt, though. I bought it in Edinburgh, Scotland. The only difference between it and the skirts they had on sale on King's Street was that the kilt was longer.)

Anyway, here's our piper:

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And here is the Irish ambassador standing beside St. Patrick, listening:



There were a lot of really cute little kids there. Here's a girl wearing a hat and four-leaf clover stickers. (They were passing out the stickers.)



Speaking of cute little girls, the Ise baton twirlers performed in the street on the way back. Here's their Irish tribute. The little girls in back are waving pom-poms the color of the Irish flag: orange, white, and green.

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And here is their rock 'n roll dance:

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I don't know who that Japanese lady with the green wig and horns is at the end. She was there last year too. I guess it's just like the rest of this crazy celebration. The Japanese aren't Irish, but like everyone else in the world they'll use any excuse to party. And wear crazy clothing that would normally be culturally inappropriate.

When we got back, the power rangers had their silly little show about defending the tourism of the Ise area and how they get their power from Ise's awesomeness:



The yellow one was funny. Being a girl, her weapon was "love." Somehow, whacking people over the head with a giant heart that says "love" just...need I comment?

I really enjoyed the next performance as always, Ashley's dance. Here she is in all her non-Irish Irishness:

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My apologies that I tipped the camera for the last part. I got the "brilliant" idea that if I turned the thing you could see more of her. No. Now she's just sideways. The next dancer really was Irish, and her dance was more of a jig, in soft shoes (as opposed to Ashley's hard), so I want to include that too. Again, my apologies for my "brilliant" idea:

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Finally, an Irish band from Osaka and Kyoto played. Ashley taught us a bonfire dance, and then the party moved to the community center for more dancing and refreshments. Unfortunately, it conflicted with my scheduled writers' meeting, so I had to leave early. But people were starting to get drunk on the green beer, so that's OK, and the meeting was really productive.

One last thing. People often ask about my "real" life." You know, the job as an English teacher I'm supposed to be doing when I'm not gallivanting off having cultural enlightenment and other adventures on the weekends. Well, now that the weather is getting (slightly) warmer, I've resumed my walks at lunch break. I get to school around 8:30, work until 12:15, take my walk for 30 minutes, and go home at 4:15. The park where I walk is quite lovely, with a nice pond, pavilion, and trees that turn brilliant scarlet in the fall. (I posted those pictures last November.) Here is a picture of the pond I walk around everyday:



Nothing special, but I like it.

Prayer Requests for this week: The Japanese Exchange Teacher Christian Fellowship I'm a part of is planning a trip to the Philippines to build houses there with Habitat for Humanity. The guy in charge is having some trouble getting enough people together. I really hope it works out and we can go. But may God's will, whatever it is, be done.

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Returners Conference and so much more!

Last week Wednesday (February 23rd) I got back from a three-day job conference in Yokohama It was put on for the Japanese Exchange Teachers returning to their home countries looking for jobs. Great stuff! The night before, I made the mistake of staying up past 1:00 in the morning to finally finish cataloging and boxing the Christian Fellowship library. The next morning, Sunday, I caught the 5:00am train for the shinkansen (bullet train) on Sunday, February 19th to make sure I`d be there on time, all settled in and hopefully not exhausted. Here is Mt. Fuji out the shinkansen window:



I got in around 11:00am on Sunday and dropped my single backpack off (I travel light) at the apartment I was staying at. A really nice Japanese lady I met on couch surfers let me rent the extra room in their apartment complex for only 3,000 yen a night. Yea, much cheaper than a regular Japanese hotel! I was totally spent from lack of sleep, but I decided to go to the famous Yokohama Sea Paradise anyway. It was OK. Wakayama Adventure World is better, I think. But here`s some cool videos:

Walrus eating, I like the whiskers. Kind of looks like an alien. I had never seen one before:

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Feeding the penguins. Check out the end with the little guy who wants a special hand-feeding. He was so cute and funny! Every time the keeper pushed him back into the water, he would jump right back out again, nipping at her leg in hopes of his very own fish. He must have done that at least three times! Persistent little fellow.

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Dolphin flip and the marine mammal show:

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Dolphins showing off for the trainers in their pool in hopes of extra food:

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Here`s a cuddle fish. They communicate by glowing and flashing lights inside them (a kind of bio-luminescence). I accidentally flashed my camera at them and this is what they did in response:

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Oops! That was one angry cuddle fish!

Baluga wale during "friendly time." I got to touch it for free!


This was something I had never seen before, a mermaid`s purse. It`s a protective sack that forms around the eggs of rays, skates, and dogfish. This isn`t picture in the world because it`s so dark, but it gives you an idea:



One cool thing they had at the aquarium was a “magic sardine light illusion.” They put on music and did something in the sardine tank (maybe manipulate the currents) to make them swim in really cool patterns and shimmer in the light. Here it is from a distance so you can see the patterns:

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And here it is up close so you can see them flashing in the light, and the “illusion.”

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I guess the illusion is that they`re swimming through each other. Cool, huh?

I found out from my land lady that evening that there was a free plumb-blossom festival with koto (Japanese harp) and other traditional performances in the park right next to my rented apartment. Oh, well, you don`t know what you don`t know. But now that I knew about the park, the next morning I went to see it. On the way, I saw this cool building:



I think it`s an old court house. Now it`s the city museum. They were filming a TV show on the inside. Being a film major, I asked if they needed an extra, but they glared at me, not answering my English or Japanese (they were a foreign company) so I left.

The flowers were just starting to bloom. Here`s some pictures from my new camera. It's nothing fancy. Cost me about $70. The secret is that when I want a detailed, sharp shot, I change the setting to facial portrait/close up. Then it doesn't blur.











I just love plum blossoms! I like them even better than cherry blossoms because they smell better and there are more colors. For lunch, I had some juicy delicious dumplings in Chinatown.

Monday afternoon, the conference started. There were about 200 Japanese Exchange Teachers there. I saw my friends Diana and Patty. The first day was just about reverse culture shock, strategies for re-entry, life goals, and general tips of job hunting, resumes and interviews. Good stuff. The session on North American resumes was particularly helpful. Afterwards, the guy in charge offered to look at our resumes for free. I emailed him mine and am still waiting for a reply.

Monday for dinner we went to this really cool restaurant called Amazon. It`s in the basement of some building downtown and you have to push a secret button to get in and then the wall swings open. (To get in the bathroom, you have to wave your hand in front of a sewing machine and then a fake bookcase opens.) We ate under a full-scale reproduction of the Creature From the Deep while discussing zombie movies. I had spicy Tai soup. Yummy!

Tuesday the conference was about specific jobs. I went to the panels on journalism, media, graduate school, tourism, and ESL teaching. Each session was about 1 1/2 hours. ESL was probably the most interesting. We talked a lot about the myths surrounding ESL and some of the political issues such as “inner” and “outer” countries, former British colonies and American territories. Do former British colonies like Kenya have a legitimate form of English, or must they be taught the old, “proper” British standard? What about people from the Philippines, should they be considered “native speakers?” If someone is born in Japan to Japanese parents, but learns English from an early age, can they reach a status of “native speaker,” or do you have to be born into it? (In other words, is there a sort of aristocracy when it comes to language learning?) Very hot topics. One huge myth is that the primary purpose of English is for non-native speakers to be able to communicate with native speakers. Increasingly, English is becoming a Lingua Franca. It is used by Chinese to communicate with Koreans, by French to speak to Germans, by Pakistanis to write to Indians, etc. This is one reason English has so many words and so many forms, and why I often have to translate non-native English for native English speakers. Of all the languages that have ever existed in the entire history of the world, it has the highest number of speakers, in the most amount of locations, from the most varied of language backgrounds. Hence, it is bound to change the fastest and have the most dialects of any language ever in existence so far. Interesting, huh?

Tuesday night, I was going to go to a Circ du Sole performance with some friends, but they ran out of tickets. So I went back to Chinatown to do some shopping, check out Mazu temple and the trick art museum. Here`s a picture of the temple before it was lit up:



After it was lit up:



And the pretty lights outside:

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Next, I bought a beautiful blue and silver Chinese short dress/shirt. It goes great with black slacks! Then I ended up in the trick art museum. Here are some neat, mind-bending pictures. Can you figure out how they work? Answers at the end of this section.

Here is a really cool statue:



From the other side:



In the middle:



Some fish for my mom:


This may not look like trick art, but this trick is that all the old men are exactly the same size! Can you guess how?


Answers to trick art:
The statue is carved at an angle. From one side you see the violinist, from the other the pianist, and from the middle you see both.

Fish jumping from picture frame: The picture frame and wall are actually painted onto the REAL wall. The whole thing is one big painting.

Old man who stays the same size: He only appears to get bigger because the door is actully getting smaller. Also, the picture slants up, giving him the appearance of increased height. Finally, the human eye expects things to get smaller the further they are from the viewer, so when in this picture the old man doesn`t, the mind translates it into increased size. he`s actually getting bigger.

If you want to see more cool trick art and figure out how it works, you`ll just have to go to the museum yourself! If you can`t make it out to Yokohama, Osaka Tempozan Harbor Village has one too. Riddley`s museums all over the world (such as the one in Branson, MO) have similar things on display.

For dinner I ate at this super nice all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant. It was about $20, but worth it I think. I had Peking duck, stir fries galore, peach cakes, coconut and sesame steamed balls stuffed with anko (red bean paste), and what all else I can`t remember. Why is it that the Chinese are such better cooks than the Japanese? Sorry, just my opinion.

The final day of the conference, Wednesday, was mostly about the various consulates. The American embassy did two long presentations, first on the Japanese Exchange Teacher Alumni Associations in our various areas, Japanese culture clubs, volunteer ambassadors to schools, and other ways to stay involved with Japan after we return home. The second presentation was on jobs available with the embassies/consulates. Totally not interested. That`s something you have to dedicate your whole life to. I`m a writer. That`s my life. Everything else is just part time and hobbies.

We wrapped up around 11:30. I had lunch with Diana and Patty at subway, then caught my bus to Nagoya. From Nagoya, I took the train to Nabari and got home around midnight. Totally worn out, I took off the next day from work. And boy am I glad I did! Friday I spent the day giving and grading tests, and Saturday I went to Spa World again with Christy, this time for the Asian spa zone. (Still just 1,000 yen ($10) for the whole day until April.) We worked out and took a bath in green tea afterwards. Not kidding.

That evening, I went with her to Osaka Namba to see her church street band play. They`re called Jesus Life House. They`re an international church with worship on Sundays and Tuesdays, street band Thursdays and Saturdays. They sing worship songs in both Japanese and English. Lots of people stopped to watch the band and ask who they were and within five minutes we had a huge crowd of people singing and dancing and wanting to know what it was all about. Until we got broken up by the police. It`s not illegal to have a street band; they just didn`t like us in that location on the bridge. So we moved to the other side of town and our audience followed. These guys are good. See for yourself:

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The girl dancing and clapping is my friend Christy.

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I got home about 11:00 and went to church the next morning. During the service, the right-winger nationalist party started driving around the block in their vans, blaring hate messages at us over their loud speakers. They were telling us to get out of Japan and that they want a pure Japan. They worship the emperor and were shouting stuff about him, like how they want him to live forever. It was hard to continue the service; poor Pastor Toshi with his influenza had to shout over them with a hoarse voice. I think that should be illegal. What right do they have to scream hate messages for everyone to hear? They kept driving around the block for a full hour. It was such a contrast to what I experienced the night before. The street music wasn`t bothering anyone. We weren’t near anyone`s house or business, just a fixed spot on the street. If someone didn`t like it, they could walk away and didn`t have to listen to us. We were singing about love and joy and peace. The right-wing nationalists screamed about hate and war. Of course they have a right to voice their opinions, but over the loud speakers on top of their cars? It`s really disturbing. Sometimes it wakes me up in the morning. Not something I want to be waking up to. If they want to say stuff like that, they should hold a meeting people can choose to attend or not to attend, or print it in a newspaper people can choose to read or not to read. That`s the way democracy works.

Why haven`t I mentioned the nationalists before? They`re not all that common. It`s an extremist group in Japan, very much akin to the Fred Phelps group (the “God hates fags” people). When you mention him to Americans, most either hang their head in shame or get angry and start spouting obscenities about him. Same goes for most Japanese and the right-wingers. They`re not a good representation of Japanese society and shouldn`t be counted as such. About once a month I hear them blaring their loudspeakers, but this was the first time they`d done it in front of the church. Why worry? They can`t do anything to us. If they tried to burn the church or something, they could be imprisoned. So go ahead, march around with your stupid megaphones. We`re not going anywhere.

After church, we had a meeting to discuss the church budget and strategies for further growth and evangelism. We divided into three teams: the housewife team, the businessman team, and the English team. Each team will plan outreach events that will appeal to people in their area of focus. Good start!

Tuesday was graduation. I felt very Japanese. Some teachers helped me put on my formal kimono and I ate the sushi lunch with everyone else with my green tea and chop sticks and spoke Japanese to everyone. When we sang the Japanese national anthem, I felt somehow…patriotic. Japan is my country too. The church members even say so, and some of the teachers I work with. “You`re more Japanese than we are!” they say sometimes. I know that even when I leave this country, a part of my heart will always belong to Japan, just as a part of my heart will always belong to Malawi, Africa. I`m really glad I went to that conference in Yokohama, because even if I didn`t benefit from the job advice, it gave me ways I can stay connected with Japan for the rest of my life.

Prayer Requests for this week: For my pastor and his family who still have the flu. Also, Lent started yesterday. I`m giving up junk food because I think I`ve been spending too much money on it and I`ve noticed a drop in my overall health lately. I think if I give it up, I can serve God better both with my money and increased energy. I need strength to see it through; already I have to resist my cravings!

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

L.J. Popp



(This is the teacher`s room where I spend most of my working days, typing at the computer behind me.)