Friday, August 28, 2015

August Newsletter

Keith and Celia Olson
Newsletter #29
August 27, 2015

With Celia's parents at Crystal Mountain summit
Dear Friends and Family,

We’ve safely arrived in the US, and things are finally beginning to settle down--it’s been a crazy 3 months since we started the process of disengaging and moving on from our work at Wakaba Church. Although we are excited to see people and places in the US that are dear to us, leaving behind the people and work that we love in Japan was not easy. We’re thankful for all of you who have prayed for us and supported us in practical ways through this time of transition.

We had quite the send-off on our last Sunday at Wakaba Church.
One last Hokkaido hike: Mt. Yotei. We had intended to climb Mt. Fuji for our 10th wedding anniversary… but we got sick. Still, we managed to climb Mt. Yotei, also known as “Fuji of the North,” as our practice hike. Mt. Yotei actually has more elevation gain (5031 feet) than Mt. Fuji.
We’re starting to reconnect with family and friends and to put the routines of our new/old life in Seattle in place. We have met up with several groups of people who pray for us regularly; we are encouraged as we see their excitement at hearing answers to their prayers. We also had our first church presentation last Sunday; we were encouraged as the attendees asked good questions and engaged with us. Again and again, we have encountered God’s goodness in giving us a network of people who pray for us and for Japan--we are filled with gratitude.

Over the next nine months, we will be based in Seattle, living with Celia’s parents. We are currently exploring how to best be involved in our church and community there. Home assignment is not a sabbatical or long vacation, although we will hopefully be able to get more rest than we typically get in Japan. We will be working during this time, and our task is to reconnect with supporters, to meet up with and mentor people in the Seattle area who are interested in missions, and to brush up on ministry skills.

Music is one such ministry skill. Celia made her first public performance on Tsugaru-style shamisen at Midsummer Music Retreat. Celia’s dad rounded up some  minions to support her.
We don’t have too much on our schedule for the year just yet; please let us know if you would like to have us visit your church, small group, Bible study, etc., or just catch up over a meal. Music and tea ceremony presentations are also options. We would love to see you and hear what God has been doing in your life over the past four years.

Prayer Points

  • Praise God for Mr. and Mrs. K’s baptism on August 9! Please pray for their continued growth as believers.
  • Thank you for praying for our preparations for home assignment and re-entry into US life. We have been adjusting well, and we are getting plenty of rest.
  • Please pray for us as we make decisions about how we use our time during home assignment.
  • One goal for our home assignment is to make friends close to our own age at our home church. Please pray that God will provide like-minded friends, especially those who are interested in missions.
  • Our designation for our second term is still in discussion. Please pray that God clearly leads our leaders and us to the work he wants us to do.


Home Assignment Schedule
  • August 30: Easter Acres Chili Cook-off
  • October 17-25: Vancouver and Victoria BC
  • Late November: North Dakota and Iowa road trip (tentative)
  • December 26-31: Urbana
  • … and we’d love to see you too! Please contact us.


New Life
Mr. and Mrs. K receiving congratulatory flowers from their small group leader after their baptism
For those of us who have been praying for Mr. and Mrs. K, rejoice with us! They were baptized on August 9. For their privacy, we are not sharing their story here; please let us know if you would like to read the story in our newsletter.

Language Corner

Cleaning up and packing is not our favorite of chores. However, one perk is finding lost treasures. We found this while packing.

Text reads: This is the french mustard with unique taste of plan sourness. Enjoy the taste with hot dog, hamburger, frank frutes.

Garden Update

Keith wrote in our last newsletter about our sorrow when we discovered that the garden of our Ishikari house would become a parking space. Thanks to helpful church members, we were able to move most of the plants into planters and a new flowerbed at the side of the house. Our friends from Wakaba are also looking after our houseplants. We are thankful!


... and after!

New Contact Information

As we mentioned, we are in Seattle until May 2016. Let us know if you need our phone numbers or mailing address.

Thanks again for your support through our first term—we couldn’t have done it without you! We look forward to seeing God at work in our second term and beyond!

Love in Christ, Keith and Celia

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Getting through the chaos

Today’s coffee… wasn’t adequate… so sleepy… I need another one…

It’s been awhile. I’m sitting in a hammock chair on my parents’ deck. This is rather surreal. I still don’t have a drink-coffee-while-writing place here; I think Starbucks is closest, but it takes about twenty minutes to walk there from here. I’m too lazy to move at the moment.

Things are finally starting to calm down after about two months of constant motion. Here are some stats, since June 30:
  • 3 countries (or 4, if you count layovers)
  • 5 US states
  • 9 planes (Keith: “I’d like to go for a week without getting on a plane.”)
  • 3 conferences/workshops
  • 5 suitcases+2 backpacks+1 cello+1 shamisen (and a bunch of boxes shipped, but I don’t remember how many)
  • 10 beds
Also: 1 lost debit card, 1 expired passport with delays in the renewal process, 2 illnesses, 1 failed attempt to climb Mt. Fuji due to the previously mentioned illnesses (although the weather was great), 2 typhoons in our flight paths… and a bunch of other stuff too. The little stuff really adds up.

We’ve been through lots of transitions already, and we were thoroughly prepped for this one through the Pre Home Assignment Workshop we did in January, but simply knowing that “chaos” is part of the process does little to alleviate the pain and exhaustion that go with that stage of transition.

But we are still alive. We made it through.

I’m quite happy at the moment to be sitting on the deck of my parents’ house. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything, really. That’s not to say I haven’t been getting stuff done. There’s a huge amount of catching up to do after the two months of chaos from which we have just emerged.

I’m thankful for signs that things are beginning to return to a new sort of “normal.” Yesterday I had my first tea ceremony class from my new teacher here in Seattle. Then I came home to find my parents and Keith around the table with some family friends. Then my childhood friend, Andrea came over to make tamales with me! (Tamale post coming soon!) Things are definitely looking up.

Note: Now that we’re settled, I’ll plan to resume posting on (most) weekends.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Finding some thankfulness in the middle of mess

Today’s coffee: Kenya

I’m tired. There is a mess at my house. I just want this to be over. I guess the fact that packing is horrible makes we want to be done and leave… I think I will need at least two months to recover from this one month.

So… four more days to pack up, then we move our stuff out, and clean the house. The end is in sight, but the next four days will be very full. I’m feeling rather numb.

I suppose the way to combat numbness (and crankiness) is thankfulness. As a spiritual exercise, I’m going to write some of the things I’ve been thankful for in the last week or so.

I’m thankful I’ve found a place to store the leftover canned goods—pickles, jams, and sauces made with vegetables from our garden. I thought we might just have to throw them out. This may seem like a small thing, but I dislike wasting food. Now to find homes for our houseplants and the herbs in our front yard…

I’m thankful for finished projects: matching bags for Shino and me made from leftover yukata fabric, a recording project, and 5 different photo books—that was a huge project which felt something like writing four years of prayer letters. To be fair, there’s actually a lot left to do on the recording project, but the recording and editing is finished. Probably. I still haven’t listened to the final versions…

I’m also thankful that the recording engineer, a friend of ours, lives (almost) in our neighborhood with his wife and adorable daughter. And we have so many other friends around us. But then again, this makes it hard to leave…

I’m thankful that we found a home for our car. It’s going to a good place, to support a ministry we’re excited about.

I’m thankful for all the sweets and snacks we’ve been “using up.” Chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, dried fruit, nuts… yes, we have been eating like kings. Using leftover azuki beans, old matcha powder, leftover stewed chestnuts and their syrup, I made cream anmitsu! Well, I had to buy some new ice cream to tie it all together…

I’m hopeful, too, thinking about the four days of holiday between a conference and flying back to Seattle. (We’re praying for good weather at Mt. Fuji!)

Yes. That worked. I feel a bit better.

As I mentioned, things are pretty crazy around our house at the moment. I will post if I feel like it/if I have time. Regular posts will probable resume sometime in August. Maybe. We’ll see.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Onsen Manjū

Sometime during home assignment I’m sure I’m going to have insatiable cravings for manjū, so I may as well practice now… and I’m putting off things I actually need to do by working on the all-important “cleaning out the pantry” project. There were beans that needed eating, also brown sugar. We’re moving, after all.

Onsen manjū are red bean paste filled buns which traditionally were steamed using natural onsen (hot spring) steam. They have a lovely molasses-like flavor from the 黒糖 (black sugar) in the dough.

Here’s my first attempt. I might post updates later if I have any better attempts later on…

Onsen Manjū recipe

Ingredients, for 12 manjū:
  • ¾ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 115 mL warm water
  • 175g flour, plus more for kneading
  • 50g “black” sugar (黒糖 kokuto) or muscovado sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 7g melted butter
  • 270g tsubuan (sweet azuki bean paste), chilled
Ingredient notes: I used bread flour, but the dough turned out too… bread-like. I think next time I’ll use all purpose. You can get tsubuan at Asian supermarkets, but it’s easy to make with the recipe I linked. (You need the tsubuan to be pretty thick for manjū.)

Measurement note: yes, it’s metric. Get a kitchen scale. Baking will become so much easier. (I’m feeling rather lazy…)


Put yeast, warm water (~40 C) and a pinch of sugar in a cup, let stand in a warm place for about 10 minutes until it is frothy.

Sift together flour, sugar, and salt. Add the melted butter and yeast mixture, stir until all the flour is incorporated. Turn out onto a well-floured board or mat and knead for about 5 minutes until the dough is smooth. (You may need a lot more flour.)

Let the dough rise in a warm place for about an hour, until it has doubled in volume.

Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and shape into balls. Let rest for about 10 minutes. (Don’t go longer, since the texture gets weird if you wait too long.)

Meanwhile, divide the tsubuan into 12 little balls.

Shape each dough ball into a disc, so that it’s thicker in the center than the edges. That way it can stretch without breaking.

Set a tsubuan ball in the center of the disc, wrap the dough around, and pinch shut. Roll around in the palms of your hands until smooth. This takes some practice… but once you get it, you will have awesome dumpling-filling techniques for all kinds of snacks!

Put each manjū on a square of parchment paper seam-side down, then arrange them in a steamer.
Place the steamer (with the lid on) over boiling water and steam the manjū for about 20 minutes. (I just put a bamboo steamer directly into a frying pan with about 1 cm of water in it.)

You can eat your manjū hot or at room temperature. They are nice with a cup of green tea!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Sparrow's New Home

Today’s coffee: Rwanda

Four years ago at this time, we were rushing around trying to get ready to move to Japan. Now we’re rushing around trying to get ready to go back to Seattle. Thankfully we finally managed to book plane tickets to Seattle, get a prayer letter out, and choose a moving company. But towards the end of last week, I was starting to feel numb from all the preparations, goodbyes, and lingering ministry obligations… and then the weekend happened. I can’t remember a busier Sunday. Monday afternoon we escaped to an onsen to recover for a couple of days.

Recently a family of sparrows has taken up residence in a vent on our neighbor’s house. Watching them come and go from the vent as they carried twigs and grass to build a nest, I somehow felt refreshed. Even these sparrows have a home; God has provided for them, and he will provide for us.

We’ve started dismantling our home; two boxes of things we don’t use at this time of year have been packed. Although I’m looking forward to spending 10 months in the house where I grew up, with its gigantic kitchen and lovely garden, when we come back here, we don’t know yet where we are going. But God knows. And somewhere there is a home for us.

Speaking of home, our friends have offered to come help us eat a lamb roast that has been lurking in the freezer. (I can’t begin to describe the stress of trying to eat up all the food we have accumulated without any waste.) So I’m going to limit myself to one coffee and go try to make some order of our partially dismantled home…

Friday, May 29, 2015

May Newsletter

Keith and Celia Olson
Newsletter #28
May 29, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

Well, this is it. We’re down to a month left of our first term… and we have no idea how we’re going to get everything done before it’s time to get on the plane. On June 7 we have our last ministry obligation, and after that, we’ll be packing and saying our goodbyes.

We’re thankful that over the last several months, we’ve been able to do seeker Bible studies with five people--2 couples (studies led by Takahashi-sensei) and A, a high school girl (led by Celia). One of the couples, Mr. and Mrs. K, confessed faith! Praise God!

We thought (a different) Mr. K would probably start Bible study sooner or later, but not just Mr. K, but his wife as well decided to read the Bible with us… and it was (the previously mentioned) Mr. and Mrs. K who encouraged her to do so! Please continue to pray for each of these five people, that they would grow closer to God.

We are thankful for these encouragements at the end of our training. God has provided us with many opportunities at Wakaba both to observe and try different ministries, and to see God at work.

Some photo highlights since the last newsletter:

Movie night and chocolate workshop for the youth group
Middle school worship band makes their debut for Sunday school
Keith's "Koinonia" small group
Hanami (flower viewing) picnic with Takahashi-sensei and his wife, Mina

Concert for kids at a preschool where our friend, Noriko works
Prayer Points
  • Please pray for our preparations for home assignment, for time with friends saying goodbye, and for handover of our responsibilities to go well. The stress keeps us from sleeping and gives us stomach aches.
  • We are thankful for Tsubasa and Kyoko Saito, a couple around our age who recently transferred church membership to Wakaba. They will join the Sambi Reihai worship team and take over movie nights with the youth. Keith’s small group still needs a new leader; please pray for wisdom as to who would be a good leader for the group.
  • Takahashi-sensei recently injured his knee (torn ligaments) and is recovering from surgery. Please pray for complete recovery, and that he will be able to get enough rest.
  • Praise God, Mr. and Mrs. K professed faith! Please continue to pray for their continued Bible study and spiritual growth, as well as for (the other) Mr. and Mrs. K and A.
  • The Wakaba Sambi Reihai team is leading worship for OMF’s 150th anniversary celebration in Sapporo on June 7. Please pray for all the details to be ironed out. Please also pray that through these anniversary events, many young Japanese will be led to serve God through missions.
  • Please pray for our “re-entry” into US life with minimal reverse culture shock. This was difficult after our time as short-termers. Please pray that we will be gracious and patient.
  • Discussions about our next designation continue. Please pray that God’s leading will be clear to everyone involved.

Home Assignment News

We just booked our flights to Seattle! We’ll be leaving the Sapporo area June 30, attending a conference and having a couple days of vacation for our 10th anniversary (July 9), then we will fly to Seattle July 11. We will be based in Seattle, living with Celia’s parents, until mid-May 2016.

We will spend the first month getting settled and spending time with family, and then we will be available from about mid-August for ministry and social engagements. We look forward to spending time with many of you and catching up in person! Please let us know if you would like to meet up for a meal or a coffee, or if you would like to have us share about Japan at your church, small group, Sunday school, etc.

We’ll provide more details in our next newsletter, including dates for any speaking engagements scheduled by that time.


Celia and I were locking our bikes in front of our church when the pastor popped his head out the window to remind us, “You shouldn’t park your bikes over there on the sidewalk; please park them here on the church property.”  I had forgotten that the church receives complaints any time the neighbors think we are taking up more space than we are allotted. I didn’t see how half a dozen bikes slightly encroaching on a rarely used part of the sidewalk could justify complaints, especially when it is only on a Sunday morning. But then again, the problem probably runs deeper, and it manifests itself in fastidiousness to the rules. Hairsplitting like this tends to frustrate me no matter where or what language, and at that moment while I was moving my bike, I confess that my frustration swayed my thoughts. I didn’t go so far as to put it into words, but I basically felt that when we finish our first term, I will be glad to get away from all this walking on eggshells.

A missionary‘s lifestyle is one of constant transition. I’ve read many books and heard several lectures describing these “settled-detaching-chaotic-resettling-settled” transition phases, but just as telling a person that he has pneumonia doesn’t make him any better, telling us that we are in the detaching phase doesn’t make it any less painful.  A person in the detaching phase starts to pull up roots, focuses on finishing things, and becomes painfully aware of what he is leaving behind.

As I write this, I’m looking up at the crawling plant that has spread halfway across our ceiling during these last 2 years. I’ve sat here staring up at this plant hundreds of times while I wrestled with sermons, emails, bible studies, and especially the Japanese language. There is no way for us to keep or even to transport this plant, since it’s stuck to the ceiling. It is so much like the relationships we’ve fostered here. Two years’ worth of tea lessons, youth movie nights, worship services, prayer meetings, gardening, and 4 years of concerts, shamisen and kimono lessons, and language study. We are starting to talk to people with unspoken understanding that we may not see them again.

For good or for ill, we don’t have much time to stop and contemplate this loss in the midst of booking travel, filling out forms, packing boxes, and saying goodbye. To manage this stress, one coping mechanism we might develop in the hustle and bustle of the detaching phase is denial. Denial is focusing on the negative aspects of our life, denying the positive, and pretending that we are glad to get away from everything. Before I knew it, I had done this to the church neighbors to whom I had been trying, along with the church members, to be a light for the last two years. Perhaps looking at the negatives of my life in Ishikari would make leaving less painful, but at the same time, it would also lessen the witness of my last month here. Ending a relationship on a good note and finishing well is a very important witness in Japanese culture. Now especially is the time I need to engage with my neighbors and friends, not run away from developing deeper relationships. 

We have been informed that the garden we’ve been tending for the last two years in front of this house will have a car parked on it after we move out. In an attempt to save at least some of our plants, I somberly cut down some trees, which had grown too large too close to the house, in order to make space for transplanting. As if in commiseration, it started to rain while I tied up the trees to bring to the garden waste disposal area. That was when a neighborhood grandma came out to inform me that I can’t tie up the branches with plastic rope. “But everyone else is using plastic bags. What’s wrong with plastic rope?” I argued, but she was resolute. During our conversation, the rain had intensified, so I told her I would fix it later. Stomping off back home half because of rain and half because of anger, I started to think “I will be so glad to get away from—” then I realized that I had started denying the good of living in this neighborhood and started focusing on just the negative again. So I picked up a ball of twine and went back out into the rain to retie my branches. The grandma saw me and came with her rope out into the rain too. Together we fixed it to her satisfaction. By that time, the rain had let up, and we were talking and laughing.

Language Corner
This is a local cement company, with the slogan, “Oops! Concrete Basics for Life.” I guess the sentiment is if you’re going to mess up, make it last.


Please continue to pray for us in this stressful transition time! We’re thankful for each of you.

Love in Christ,
Keith and Celia

Friday, May 22, 2015

Goodbyes and finished projects

Today’s coffee: Affogato, Father's day blend

Preparations continue. I checked another thing off the bucket list: my yukata is complete! The fabric was my birthday present from my mom last year, chosen while on a family vacation—batik dyed cotton with a pattern that looks like fireworks or chrysanthemums, both of which are very appropriate for a yukata. And if you’re still wondering what a yukata is, it’s a casual summer kimono which is typically worn for evening outings, in particular, festivals and watching fireworks.

In my sewing corner
I promise, it was perfectly ironed when I put it on...
While I suppose I could have packed the unfinished yukata up to finish when we come back, I received a lot of helpful advice from Fujiyama-sensei, our tea ceremony teacher, who also teaches kimono-making. Sadly, Tuesday was our last class. I definitely wanted to show her my finished work, so I hurried to finish it, and then I wore it on Tuesday… despite the fact that the “rules” state that yukata are only for July and August. Not to mention, it was cold, rainy, and the wind was blowing like crazy—definitely not yukata weather. Oh well. Sensei’s living room was nice and warm, so I didn’t get cold.

As a special treat for our last class, Sensei made us a delicious supper consisting of various dishes using 山菜 (sansai—mountain vegetables), including lots of pickles for Keith. We will miss her warm hospitality, her encouragement, the way she gets excited and talks on and on about Japanese history, the way she corrects us to help us make tea more beautifully.

Pickled cucumber, udo, tofu, and carrots, stir-fried fuki, udo tempura donburi, and miso soup with fresh wakame!
Thanks to her help, and the help of another experienced teacher in the area, I have been connected with a teacher in Seattle so I can continue my studies and start working towards certification.

Now I’m going to brag about my dad’s handiwork. I sent him pictures and measurements, and he copied a tea tray which is used for 盆略点て (bonryakudate), a simple form of tea ceremony, using gorgeous figured maple from our backyard. (I mean, he can make guitars and shamisen, so why not a tea tray?) Actually, he made two—we gave one to Fujiyama-sensei, and the other is waiting for us at my parents’ house… so be sure to come over for tea! Looking forward to seeing what other interesting things we can make in dad’s workshop to use for tea ceremony.

Dad used his bending iron (metal tube with a halogen light bulb inside) to bend the sides, just like making guitar sides.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Kuri Manjū 栗饅頭 (Chestnut buns)

Today's coffee: Spring-colored blend (春色ブレンド)

I have lots of things on my bucket list of stuff I want to do before home assignment. A few of these are cooking projects—making sure I can make from scratch certain foods that I can easily get here but not so easily in the US. (If you come over to my house while we are on home assignment, you will likely benefit from this.) Although it is possible to get wagashi (Japanese sweets) in Seattle, they are expensive and would require a special trip into the city… so I definitely want to be able to make a few simple sweets myself—wagashi are an important part of tea ceremony!

I’ve long admired Mrs. Haga, a church member, for her delicious kuri manjū, so I asked her to teach me to make them. Last Saturday, Noriko and I spent the afternoon at Mrs. Haga’s house, learning to make kuri manjū… and of course, taste testing! I have translated the recipe below.

Kuri Manjū 栗饅頭 (Chestnut buns)

Ingredients, for 15 manjū:
  • 50g sugar
  • ½ large egg, beaten
  • 10g butter, chilled
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 100g flour, sifted
  • 240g shiro an (白あん, sweet white bean paste), chilled (I'll try to post a recipe for this soon...)
  • 15 sweet stewed chestnuts (栗の甘露煮, kuri no kanroni)
  • For the glaze:
    • 1 egg yolk
    • 1 teaspoon mirin
  • White poppy seeds (けしの実, keshi no mi) (If you can’t find these, normal poppy seeds should work fine; they’ll just look a bit different.)

Remove the chestnuts from the syrup, and remove excess syrup with a paper towel.

These are the store-bought stewed chestnuts.
These are the ones I made.
Divide the shiro an into 15 equal portions, and roll into little balls.

Measuring the shiro an
"Make sure it's chilled. Otherwise it's too sticky."

We actually made 16, so we split the shiro an into four equal balls, which we checked with the kitchen scale. After that, we did our best to divide each ball into 4 equal portions (didn't bother to weigh those.)

Spread out each ball to form a little pancake shape, and set a chestnut in the center. Wrap the shiro an around the chestnut; roll around in your hands until the outside is smooth. Cover in plastic wrap and set aside.

Put the butter and sugar in a bowl; break up the butter with a wooden spoon and work it into the sugar. Add the egg and mix.

Put the bowl over a pot of simmering water (you can use a double-boiler if you have one). Stir continually until the sugar has melted somewhat.

Set the bowl in a larger bowl of cold water and chill it a bit.

Dissolve the baking soda in a bit of water; add to the butter-sugar-egg mix. Add the flour and blend. (It’s probably best not to over-work this dough.) When it’s just blended, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Now it’s tea time! Go take a break.

We were joined by enthusiastic taste-testers, Mrs. Suzuki and Mrs. Aizawa (Mrs. Haga's younger sister and daughter)
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F).

On a lightly-floured work surface, divide the dough into 15 equal portions. Roll each one into a ball; using your flour-covered fingertips, spread them out to little pancakes. You want the center to be thicker than the edges.

Put one of the chestnut-shiro an balls into the center, and wrap with the dough and pinch shut. Round the bun in the palms of your hands; the shape will somewhat depend on the shape of the chestnut, but generally you want to aim for an oval shape. Make sure the shiro an is completely covered.

Arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat. Brush with just a tiny bit of the glaze; really, just a little, since you want it only on the top, not the sides. Sprinkle with some white poppy seeds.

Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Now it’s tea time, again! Kuri manjū are delicious hot, or you can keep them for a couple weeks.