Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Debussy Sonata

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

Last weekend was a concert weekend: Shino and I played two concerts in the Obihiro area. To follow up what I wrote last time, despite all my worrying, everything went fine. There have been several concerts recently that I was worried about for various reasons; each of them turned out to be far better than I had expected. The concerts themselves went well musically, a lot of people came, we enjoyed spending time with our colleagues, we ate some great food, and with beautiful sunny weather last Sunday, the mountains surrounding Obihiro were stunning. We went home with full hearts (and full stomachs).

First concert, in Otofuke
Hanging out after the concert
Second concert, in Nakasatsunai
Beyond the various blessings of the concert weekend itself, I achieved a small personal victory. I’ve written before about how being in Japan has made me a better musician; here’s another example.

Shino and I played the entire Debussy cello sonata for the first time this weekend. While practicing, I remembered a lot of unpleasant things about when I first learned this piece during my junior year of high school. That year I visited a number of highly regarded music schools and took lessons from a couple of famous teachers... one of whom told me that my Debussy sonata (and my technique in general) sucked, and I’d be better off giving up the cello.

Defiant, I kept at it, working through problem after problem and increasing my practice time. I made a lot of progress and passed the audition at my first choice university. Still, I was afraid of rejection; I developed a bad habit of crying when I was criticized.

I think I probably burned out in graduate school, so “being busy with theological studies” gave me an excuse to let my cello gather dust. Then, when we first came to Japan, I was delighted to discover that I was able to practice almost every day!

Although change of atmosphere may have helped, I think what made the biggest difference was the purpose of my practice. I was practicing to improve and to perform well, but I started praying while practicing Bach, and I started thinking that God enjoyed my cello playing—not so much my skill, but my heart. I play for other people, but I play for God most of all. Then I started enjoying practice sessions a lot more. (Not always… but it’s been a big improvement.)

Weekly rehearsals with Shino have provided motivation to practice. But more than that, I found myself remembering how much fun it is to play music with a friend, and how beautiful the Brahms sonata is. Then I realized about a month ago that the Debussy sonata is really, really fun. It’s full of character and spunk, and it’s such an interesting fusion of Western music with elements of Asian music that were popular among French composers of Debussy’s time.

I was able not only to take the Debussy sonata to a new level personally, but the challenging piano and cello interplay forced us to listen to each other even more carefully, which in turn helped us to make a huge improvement in the Brahms sonata and other pieces in our repertoire. Most importantly, I had fun. Shino had fun. I didn’t care anymore what a couple of music professors said about my playing in the distant past.

I’m thankful for Shino, and for chances to perform great music together. I’m thankful that God listens to my cello, even when I’m having a “bad cello day.” God’s love for me is not dependent on perfect performance.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Becoming a Dancing Panda

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

A couple of years ago, we visited a rural church where our friend is the pastor. After the service, we chatted with church members and visitors over tea. One person expressed his appreciation for western missionaries: “you’re the 客寄せパンダ (crowd-drawing pandas, or dancing pandas).” I could see the pastor and his wife face-palming behind him in embarrassment.

I’m in a bit of a slump.

Shino and I have two concerts coming up next weekend, and although the music preparations are going okay, I’m having a really hard time getting motivated to work on the spoken parts of the concert. To be fair, getting myself to work on concert talks and piece introductions is always a struggle; I am not a public speaker. Back in college, I used to come onstage with my cello, play whatever I was scheduled to play, and then leave the stage again, all without saying a word. Sometimes I really miss those sorts of straightforward concerts.

I think Celia the musician and Celia the missionary are locked in some sort of battle. Celia the musician wants to play concerts that the audience will enjoy, that Shino and I will be proud of, that we will enjoy playing—a good concert, with good music and a good atmosphere. Afterwards, I envision lively conversation over tea with guests. Hopefully the guests can make the first steps towards friendship with members of the church which is hosting the concert.

Celia the musician struggles with her own annoyance at requests to play popular music, or “songs everyone knows,” or just “nothing too long.” Most pop-songs aren’t suited to cello and piano. There is so much good cello repertoire, but most of it is longer than a 3-minute pop-song, and much of it no one has ever heard.

Celia the musician would not be upset if she never had to play Amazing Grace or What a Friend We Have in Jesus ever again. These are the two hymns that get requested for every concert, since they are the only two hymns that the average Japanese concert-goer will know. (Much to the frustration of Celia the missionary, the line in Amazing Grace that I was hoping to work into my concert talk—“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see”—disappeared in the Japanese version. I even checked three different translations.)

Celia the musician is feeling conflicted about using concerts as “bait and switch.” Celia the missionary is also feeling conflicted about this. Recently, there was a major evangelistic outreach in Sapporo, which was advertised as a concert. There was a lot of great music, I’m told. (I didn’t go; I was sick.) But some of the concert-goers were surprised that the main event of the evening was not the various musical performances, but the lengthy sermon by a famous visiting preacher. I wonder if some of the guests felt that they had been tricked?

Celia the missionary, while feeling conflicted, wants to do whatever is necessary for the spread of the Gospel through her concerts. Should I give up my desire to play what I think is a good concert? Should I play popular songs and then give a directly evangelistic talk (unadvertised and possibly unexpected)? Is that really what is necessary for the spread of the Gospel? Does it matter that guests who come expecting “just a concert” might feel that they have been deceived?

A friend of ours was explaining to a Japanese Christian friend his distaste for teaching English—an expectation every English-speaking missionary has placed on him or her. “Why do I have to be a dancing panda?” he asked. His friend responded: “I would gladly be a dancing panda if it meant that more people could be reached for the Gospel.”

I agree. But “if” is a very important word here. Is God asking me to be the bait in a bait-and-switch scheme? Should I embrace the role of dancing panda? Or is that just an expectation, because that’s the way things have always been done? I’m not sure. If becoming “bait” really is what’s necessary for the spread of the Gospel, I will certainly continue to do it, but I’m not convinced. I struggle to distinguish God’s voice and God’s leading for my music ministry from the pressures and expectations placed on me by others—or even my own faulty interpretations of what others expect.

I do know that God led me to play the cello, and he led me to study cello at university and in grad-school. Then he led me to Regent College, and to Japan. Keith and I decided on Regent in part because of the Christianity and the Arts program; I spent three years struggling through these very same sorts of issues: what is a musician’s purpose in the Kingdom of God? Where do I fit? This is what I concluded: my purpose, like everyone else, is to worship God and bring glory to his name. I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like specifically, but I think that’s the way forward for me now.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What we ate (and other Christmas notes)

Today’s coffee: New Year’s Blend

It’s raining today, which is annoying, since it makes some of the huge amount of snow that fell on December 26 rather slushy and gross. But this too shall pass; the weather will get cold again later this week.

This is our car, on the morning of December 26. It's hard to tell from the picture how much snow that is, but it's more than 2 feet...
Actually I was rather pleased with a quiet day indoors on December 26. I made sauerkraut, yuzu curd, and sandwich fillings for the Christmas tea party the following day. Then we sat in front of the window watching the snow fall. (Keith also shoveled snow.)

Tea Party menu:
Scones with yuzu curd, jam, and cream
Mini-quiche with ham and sundried tomato filling
Tea sandwiches: egg salad on pumpernickel, cranberry pecan chicken salad on pecan sourdough
Mini-fruitcake
Linzer cookies
Cardamom rolls
Chocolate banana pound cake (from Noriko)
Raisin pound cake (from Mina)
Sasakushi dango (from Kyoko)
Lots and lots of tea

Tea party table, complete with flowers from one of my concerts.
Tea party guests: members of my small group and some friends.
Being in Japan has influenced me in many ways, perhaps especially in the area of food. Taking pictures of food, thinking more carefully about color and balance and seasonal vegetables when putting together a meal, and considering the tastes of my guests, to name a few points. Also, just spending more time thinking about food, and planning menus. Today, I have food on my mind for various reasons, so that’s what I’m going to write about, mostly.

I think I’ve never been as well-fed as I’ve been in the last week. We have invited a number of Japanese friends over, thinking that they will help us to eat the mountain of food currently in the house. However, Japanese tradition dictates that when you go to someone’s house, you bring a gift, usually food. This means that the mountain of food did not necessarily decrease when our guests went home.

In Japan, Christmas is “over” on the evening of December 24. After that, it’s time to prepare for the New Year holiday. We deliberately invited people over after Christmas, since now that concerts and church events are over, we have time to relax with friends… and celebrate Christmas. There has been a steady stream of guests at our house since Christmas Eve, and this will probably continue until after New Year’s. (Meanwhile, Keith is trying to write a sermon…)

Christmas Eve menu:
Swedish Meatballs and gravy
Mash potatoes
Cranberry sauce
Green bean casserole
Dessert: Cardamom rolls
Drinks: Sparkling apple cider

Thanks to Costco, we had ham for our Christmas dinner; that’s the first time we’ve had ham since coming to Japan. I made a glaze with mikan (mandarin orange), and we roasted potatoes and carrots together with it. Uncharacteristically, there is no picture of the ham. Tonight the leftovers will become split pea soup, also a first since we’ve been in Japan.

Christmas Dinner menu:

Ham with mikan glaze
Roasted carrots and potatoes
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts
Stuffing, provided by Sarah
Dessert: Fruitcake with marzipan, mince pies
Drinks: Sparkling apple and grape juice

The reason I’ve got food on my mind is because I’ve started preparations for Osechi, the Japanese New Year’s feast. This year will be my fifth time making Osechi. Keith says it gets better every year. I wouldn’t doubt it; the first time I made Osechi, I could hardly read the recipes I was using. Most people make Osechi over the course of several days. Usually I just do it all on December 31, but this year I’m trying to spread it out a bit.

This, too, is part of my training. Keith and I hope that hospitality will continue to be a big part of our ministry in the future.

Other than the previously mentioned meals, here are some other pictures of various Christmas events.

Church potluck #1. Can you find Ultraman?
Christmas concert #1 at Hokuei Church
Church potluck #2
Playing for worship service at Wakaba
Christmas concert #2 at Wakaba

Friday, December 19, 2014

Imomochi recipe: a Hokkaido specialty

Today’s coffee: unfortunately not.

I’ve been sick the past couple of days, but to celebrate the fact that I have somewhat regained my appetite, here’s an awesome recipe that is both easy and a specialty of our region: imomochi (potato mochi).

Ingredients:

  • Potatoes
  • Katakuriko (potato starch), about 25% the weight of the potatoes. Or probably corn starch would work. I use katakuriko and corn starch interchangeably.
Directions:
  1. Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. My potatoes were medium sized, so I cut them into four chunks each to reduce cooking time.
  2. Boil the potatoes until they are tender, and then drain.
  3. Mash the potatoes. We used our Kitchenaid mixer. 
  4. Add the katakuriko or equivalent, and mix. (If you are using a Kitchenaid mixer, we recommend the dough hook.) Soon, the mixture will become gelatinous, or as we say in Japanese, mochi-mochi. And… it will be very hard to mix.
  5. Form the dough into one or more logs, about 1 ½ -2 inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap if you’re not going to use them right away. 
  6. Slice the logs into ½ inch slices.

Finished imomochi-log

How to eat:

You have lots of options. You can put them in a soup such as this one, or substitute imomochi for mochi in this one.

We made a simple soup with seasonal root vegetables, konnyaku, mushrooms, and mitsuba (the leaves on top). The broth was dashi with a couple tablespoons of saké and a bit of soy sauce.


Another option is pan-frying. My personal favorite is to fry some leek in butter and add soy sauce, and serve that over the top of the pan-fried imomochi. Or, more traditionally, you can make a simple sauce with soy sauce and sugar.

Pan-fried imomochi topped with leek
You can freeze leftover slices in a single layer.

Enjoy!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent: Trying not to be so busy.

Today’s coffee: Christmas Blend

We’ve finally achieved 根雪 (neyuki, meaning snow that doesn’t melt) here in Ishikari. It was late this year; we were wondering if we would get a green Christmas. This year will be my fifth Christmas in Hokkaido; I’ve begun to think that Christmas without snow is weird. Next year will be weird, I guess.

So far we’ve had three Christmas events at church: women’s group Christmas cooking class and lunch, middle and high school fondue party, and children’s party with cookie decorating. Three concerts, three potlucks, three worship services, and three or more house parties to go. Three Christmas boxes to send. Exciting, but busy.

Here's a few pictures of our "Christmas" so far.

Women's Christmas lunch. Keith gave a talk (which was actually about Thanksgiving) and carved the turkey.
I just ate. First time to eat turkey with chopsticks.
Not actually a Christmas event, but we had a movie night for the youth group, which also featured making bread (we watched Shiawase no Pan--The Bread of Happiness) and decorating the Christmas tree.
Admiring their creations. The bread on the orange mat is actually shaped into the Japanese symbol for onsen (hot springs bath)!
Youth group Christmas fondue party. "Silent Night" accompanied by Ko-kun on guitar, Ke-kun on cajon, and A-chan on piano.
The meal was 3 courses, but most popular fondue was chocolate, of course. We ate it with meringues and seasonal fruit.
The children's party featured Christmas story told by a ventriloquist with a puppet!
Keith will be preaching from Isaiah 40 tomorrow: a message about preparing the way for the Lord, and specifically, preparing our hearts to receive him. Keith and I both preach from our hearts; each message is first for our own good, and then we share with others what we have learned. Ironically, Keith’s message tomorrow will be a rather sharp criticism of busyness, since the temptation to fill all our time with various activities (and not listen to God’s voice) is something we both struggle with, especially in the weeks before Christmas. Keith and his Japanese teacher, still hard at work on the sermon at 8:00 last night, joked that neither of them were taking to heart the content of the message.

Feeling convicted of not spending enough time resting and reflecting, here I am at Tokumitsu, despite the house party later today, the concert tomorrow, and the cake I have to bake for tomorrow’s potluck. The weather is beautiful; cold and partly sunny, snowing a bit. I stopped to chat with a neighbor on the short walk to Tokumitsu, and then I admired a flock of fat, noisy sparrows perched in one of carefully manicured trees in his yard. Somehow I felt better, having done that.

Every morning and again before bed, I am reading and reflecting on one of the traditional Advent passages, using a devotional book written by fellow students and professors from our seminary. Before dinner, we light the candles of our advent wreath and sing a verse of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Immanuel.” It seems that we stay longer at the table when the advent wreath is there. It was at times like these that Keith and I talked through various points he wanted to put in his sermon. It’s times like these that are helping me remember why I’m here in Japan—and helping me keep my priorities straight.

I feel like a broken record, repeatedly bemoaning the fact that I have a “busy heart,” when what I need is a quiet heart that depends on God, even when circumstances beyond my control keep me busy. But sometimes the circumstances aren’t beyond my control. Sometimes I need to make a conscious choice to stop and listen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Ultraman's Photo Diary, part 2

Hello, everyone! Lately we've been having multiple Christmas events each weekend, making posting during the weekend a major challenge. So, I'm going to turn this week's post over to Ultraman, so he can fill you in on what he's been up to recently.


"Greetings, earthlings. It's been awhile. As you will see, the last few months have been very eventful. First, I made a new friend. We hung out quite a bit in September. 




Then for awhile, I went undercover on a secret mission. I can't tell you where I was, because it might put you in danger. But then something went wrong, and my memories are kind of fuzzy for a bit. When I came to, I was napping on the couch with this kid. I guess he rescued me?


I think my aura grew, though. Suffering builds character, I guess.


Then I was playing with some other kids, and there was a terrible accident...

Oh no! Will Ultraman ever walk again??

But never fear, I was hospitalized (at Keith and Celia's house) where my severed foot was carefully re-attached. (With superglue.) I'd better be careful for awhile, though.




So, for post-accident rehabilitation, I started with a healthy bowl of onion dip.


Then some push-ups (while also getting some spiritual nourishment)...


... and Christmas Tree climbing, of course.


While I was at it, I checked out some of the other Christmas decorations around church.


I also checked out some of the news from while I was gone.


Walking still isn't completely back to normal...


Despite being injured, I am still finding opportunities to help others.


I helped blow up some balloons to get ready for a Christmas party.


Well, that's about it for now! See you next time, and have a merry Christmas!"

-Ultraman

p.s. Fun trivia: the plural of Ultraman is not "Ultramen;" rather, it is "Ultramans." There you have it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks

Today’s coffee: “Autumn colored blend” (秋色ブレンド)

I’ve been drinking my Kyoto souvenir (Kona from % Arabica) at home for the last couple of weeks, and it’s almost gone… but so nice to extend our time in Kyoto for a bit even after coming back home! We also have been enjoying yuzu miso out of a cute yuzu shaped jar—it’s so delicious on stewed tofu and daikon! So in any case, today I’m at Tokumitsu to get my coffee allowance for the next two weeks.

Here are a couple of the yuzu miso jars at the shop where we got ours.
Today is Thanksgiving, but here it’s a normal work day. I started the morning with cello practice, and when I’m done writing here at Tokumitsu, I’ll make bento for supper, head to rehearsal, and then OMF prayer meeting. That’s a typical Thursday for me. Turkey will happen tomorrow, since coincidentally, my church is holding a turkey-roasting class at the same time as my family will be eating Thanksgiving dinner in Seattle. Technically, it’s the women’s Christmas event, but given the timing, Keith, who was roped into giving a short talk, will be speaking about Thanksgiving rather than Christmas.

So today, I want to take some time to be thankful, even if the day is full of appointments and work. What am I thankful for? In no particular order…

I’m thankful that there is world-class coffee down the street from my house. And that it’s a quiet place where I am welcomed to come, sit for a couple hours, and get work done. Yay!

My cello has returned home! It sounds better than before the accident—it probably needed some adjustments for climate, and it got them. I’m also thankful that I was able to use my baroque cello for the conferences and concert in October; that worked better than expected, and I learned quite a lot from playing “modern cello” repertoire on gut strings. And I also discovered (10 years too late?) that the height of my chair (and shoes) makes a huge difference for intonation. I will be dragging around my own chair to concerts from now on… Not an easy situation, but I’m thankful for what I learned along the way.

I’m thankful for 3 years in Japan, or 4 if you count our time as short-termers. I’ve now lived here longer than I lived in Canada. I love this place where God has brought us! The past 3 years have been full of exciting challenges as I learned the language, made friends, started work, and learned all kinds of things about my new friends, about Japanese culture, and about the natural beauty of Hokkaido. This is not to say it wasn’t hard… because it was, and it will continue to be. But I trust that God will continue to provide for us as he has in the past.

On that note, I'm thankful we could go on vacation to Kyoto and Tokyo.

Kinkakuji in Kyoto, in its beautiful setting. Thankful I could get this shot without a mob of tourists in it... :)
Pickles! We love them. We love many Japanese foods, but pickles hold a special place in our hearts. I'm thankful for pickles.
I'm thankful for beautiful gardens--this is in the garden at Hakone Museum of Art.
I'm thankful for tea, and tea ceremony. We went to an お茶会 (Japanese tea party) while we were in Tokyo. Part of the event took place outside!
I'm definitely thankful for this guy. He makes my life so interesting. (This was taken in the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.)
I’m thankful that my language level has sufficiently progressed so that I can now watch and enjoy the NHK Taiga drama on TV—that’s the year-long historical drama that the national broadcaster produces every year!

I’m thankful for new small groups at church! It’s been exciting to see the cooperation and excitement among the leaders, and the desire to see our church grow in maturity and in numbers. The synergy from working with like-minded people is exhilarating. I’m thankful for the youth-group leaders too—in preparation for our youth group Christmas party, we had a fondue taste-test. It was a blessing to have table fellowship with youth group leaders and their spouses, while considering the details of preparing for the Christmas party. (I’m also thankful for the awesome lunch after church last Sunday!)

I’m also thankful for a lot of other things, but it’s time to make bento now.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Trees, and peace in my heart

Today’s coffee: Kona from % Arabica (which we bought home from Kyoto!)

Our coffees last week at % Arabica in Kyoto
We just got home from vacation on Saturday—since my cello was ready to be picked up in Tokyo, we took the opportunity to spend some vacation time there; we also caught the beginning of autumn leaf season (紅葉, koyo) in Kyoto. A change of air and scenery was refreshing, although vacations to places like Tokyo and Kyoto do not tend to be very restful. There are lots of things to see and people to meet!

In some ways, spending time with Japanese friends has influenced my thinking. Last month was super busy; I completely missed autumn leaf season in Hokkaido. Of course, when we went out, I would see trees changing colors, but I didn’t get a chance to sit outside and quietly enjoy them (until it was just a little too late). I didn’t really think about doing such things before I came to Japan; leaves changing colors just meant it was the beginning of the school year, and a marker of the coming of winter. Now I feel that if I don’t spend time to enjoy each season, my year feels incomplete. That is why last Monday we made an emergency trip to Hakone, in the mountains above Tokyo. (Tokyo doesn’t have much autumn color just yet.) Now I have experienced fall. Bring on the winter… kotatsu, mikan, hibernation… and Christmas concerts.

At Hakone Museum of Art
Even more than the actual museum, the grounds were beautiful!
I've finally experienced autumn this year!
We made another attempt to see Mt. Fuji... and we saw more of the mountain than last time we were in Hakone... but we had another no-show.
A few weeks ago, after September and October’s concerts and conferences, etc. had finished, the weather was pretty good, so we headed for a nearby leaf-viewing spot. And… the weather was not as good as expected, the leaves were almost gone, the onigiri (rice balls) were too salty, and park staff members were using noisy leaf-blowers all around us as we had our picnic.

At Taki no Ue park (滝の上公園) in Yubari. Not many leaves left.
Of course, the picnic included tea.

Although I was disappointed, somehow the experience became an object lesson. Peace does not come from our surroundings. If it did, no one would ever know peace. Rather, it comes from a heart rooted in God.

I return time and time again to Psalm 1, which we read at our wedding. We read it a couple of weeks ago at our church Bible study. The psalmist encourages the readers/listeners to avoid the path that leads to destruction, but instead to be a person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”

At first, my image of this well-rooted tree was one of quiet serenity, but I imagine that like all trees, this one also experiences bad weather, drought, earthquakes, maybe even forest fire.

But it has its roots in the right place. Nothing is going to shake it. I want to be like that tree. I wish I had been a bit more like that tree during the busyness of the last month—to spend less time worrying about having too much to do and not enough time and spend more time rooting myself in God’s goodness and resting in him. Let’s hope I can remember this lesson during next month’s Christmas rush!

Here’s a couple of Kyoto pictures; more later! (Probably.)

With our friend, Sharon in Kyoto's bamboo forest
This is in the garden of the Imperial Palace--usually it isn't open to the public, except by application. But it was open for just a few days, and we were there at the right time!