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…


Heather said...

Laura, You are such a source of inspiration for me. Please tell your friends I am so happy that they have accepted Jesus. I was very worried about you, it is good to know you are doing so well. I kept reminding myself that God has a reason for you to be in japan at this time and it brought me comfort while I waited to hear your status. I love you, Heather

L.J. Popp said...

Thanks, Heather. I love you too! I hope to be home soon, at least for Christmas.