Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November Newsletter

Keith and Celia Olson
Newsletter #34
November 30, 2016

Newly completed bar counter at Matsu House!
Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings from snow-covered Ishikari. The snow came early this year, and we are still trying to prepare our garden and house for winter. Keith has been busy plastic-wrapping windows to conserve energy and researching the least-stinky kerosene heater for use in our bedroom. We hope to get the first floor rooms completed in time for welcoming friends for Christmas meals and other holiday gatherings.

Meanwhile, Celia has been practicing the fourth Bach cello suite for her Christmas Day concert at Wakaba Church. Sambi Reihai (our informal afternoon worship service with music and scripture readings) stopped while we were on home assignment, but we hope that this Christmas “concert,” which will involve participation from many church members and include some of the same elements as Sambi Reihai, will be a step towards getting it started again.

Prayer Points
  • Christmas events at Wakaba include women’s Christmas tea (Dec 3), children’s Christmas party (Dec 11), Celia’s small group Christmas tea (Dec 17), youth Christmas party (Dec 23), Christmas Eve worship, and Christmas Day worship, lunch and Celia’s concert. Please pray for those who will invite friends and family. Please pray also for us, as we hope to have friends over for meals; pray for wisdom for whom to invite and when.
  • Please pray for first floor house reforms to be done in time for Christmas hospitality.
  • Keith’s small group is hoping to start “Kodomo no shokudo,” a ministry in which they hope to occasionally provide supper for children in our community whose parents work late. Please pray for a clear vision for how to get started and what they hope to accomplish.
  • Please pray for more energy. We have been feeling tired and unproductive, which is discouraging. Please pray for us to depend on God’s strength, not our own, and to get enough rest.
  • A number of our friends are facing serious health issues. In particular, please pray for David Ferguson (OMF Japan field director, blood cancer), SL (our close friend and OMF colleague, recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes), and KS (Wakaba church member, cancer).
  • Please pray for our ongoing preparations for teaching at HBI (Keith) and arts ministry (Celia). Please also pray for Keith’s safe travel to and from HBI classes (in winter, the trip takes about an hour each way on icy roads).

Decisions, Decisions
In the process of discussing our second term ministry with our pastor and with OMF leadership in September and October, we discovered that it would be impossible to continue in all the ministries we were involved in during our first term. We therefore decided that we would continue training small group leaders (and take part in each of our groups’ activities), preaching (mostly Keith), and worship leading. Celia plans to start a small Bible study group for the benefit of a new Christian, with hopes that the members of this group will become more confident in their faith and that perhaps they would be able to lead Bible studies with seekers in the future. Keith has started auditing classes at Hokkaido Bible Institute (HBI), where he will teach, and Celia is in the visioning stage for her new arts ministry. Thus we decided to step back from youth ministry for the time being, since we already had many other things on our plate.

Preparing to Teach at Hokkaido Bible Institute
I (Keith) have been studying Japanese for 7 years, and some of my well-meaning Japanese friends have hinted that my Japanese level must be somewhere around a 7-year-old’s. Using this logic, when I turn 8 in Japanese next year, I will start teaching Isaiah to graduate level students. Now imagine a third grader walk to the front of a class of pastors in training, call everyone to order, and open his briefcase to take out his class notes. Give that third grader a beard and tweed jacket, and that is not entirely unlike the position in which I imagine myself to be in one year’s time.

Keith's first day auditing classes at HBI
As intimidating as it feels to teach Isaiah in Japanese, I am equally excited to see how God has been equipping me for it, and likewise, excited to see how this next year will unfold as I brush up my Hebrew and Greek (among other things) by taking classes at HBI. Since coming to Japan, reading the Bible with Japanese people has always been one of my greatest joys. This passion is perhaps the main way God has guided me to this position at HBI.

As I look back on my life before Japan, another piece that has fallen into place is my desire to teach. In college, I took several teaching classes (before I escaped via music degree); I’ve enjoyed many teaching assistant positions and tutoring jobs along the way; and during seminary I even started to pursue various Bible teaching positions at private schools. I have found that if I really want to own what I have learned for myself, I must teach it, and even while teaching, I learn with the students and come to a deeper understanding. Basically, I teach in order to be a better learner.

And finally, a passion I have that connects a core value of OMF with HBI, is to see churches planted in areas where there is no church, especially in towns and cities of rural Japan. During our camping vacation in September, Celia and I experienced first hand what it is like to attend church in rural Japan. After much searching, we found that the closest church to our campground was over an hour away by car in Bihoro, and we passed several towns to get there. The closest town, Teshikaga (population 8,680), had a church a number of years ago, but it since closed.

Even now, our friends at the church plant in Nayoro (population 30,920), where I preached and Celia played a concert in 2014, have been waiting several years for a full-time Japanese pastor or evangelist to partner with them. At the same time, churches without pastors are increasing as the church, with the rest of Japan, ages. In order to see more church plants, we need to see more pastors trained to fill the vacuum of pastorless churches and unchurched towns, and to fulfill the role of the Japanese church in global missions in those ways in which the Japanese church is uniquely gifted.

HBI Quick Facts
  • Started in 1964.
  • Has a three-pronged approach to Bible training: study, life, and service, which is reflected in their motto, which, roughly translated is "Know Christ in order to serve the church, the world, and this generation." (Sounds cooler in Japanese.)
  • Has around 15 full time students as well as other attendees. Right now, we are praying for 5 new students to start next year in April. 
  • Offers a 1 year “Believer’s Course” and a 3 year Pastor’s degree.
  • If you are interested in supporting the work of HBI, please use this link.

Matsu House Update
Thanks for praying! Since the last newsletter, Keith finished painting both sides of the bedroom and build bookshelves in the “hallway” between. He also painted part of the roof to enable snow to slide off. Mr. Inoue (Shino’s dad) completed the bar counter in the kitchen, which Keith coated with finish. Mr. Inoue and Keith then moved on the the next big project: the dining room. Keith stripped the wallpaper, put additional insulation in the floor, enlarged the doorway to the kitchen, and painted the trim, while Mr. Inoue installed wood flooring. They are currently in the middle of applying keisodo (a traditional plaster used for tea rooms) on the walls.

Keith models his new bookshelf (and tweed jacket).

Installing the last strip of flooring in the dining room

First dinner party in the dining room! (Walls yet to be plastered...)
We have discovered that a house that needs work improves our relationship with guys of our acquaintance, since many of them are eager to help us out and work together with Keith. We’re very thankful for helpful friends. Please continue to pray with us as we continue to work towards a home in which we can show God’s love through hospitality.

Enjoying Hokkaido Autumn
Remember Mr. and Mrs. K who were baptized last year? Guess what? Mr. K is a hiker! God brought us a hiking friend!

Mr. K is in the center, between Keith and Celia. Behind him is Noriko. The others are co-workers and friends.
We also went on an onsen expedition in early November. Thankful for new friends!

Mrs. K is next to Celia. In the background are Noriko, Miki (Takakashi-sensei's daughter) and Mina (Takahashi-sensei's wife)

Language Corner
The owner of our house left us two tiny electric heaters, which heat tiny spaces in our house through the Hokkaido winter. They came with the added benefit of interesting English.

The box reads: “Mini Fan said, ‘I will give you a petit hot, and clean air.’” Thanks, Mini Fan.

The fan itself also promises that it's a "clean pet" and it includes "air remover." Oh my.

Thanks for praying! May God bless you with his presence this Advent.

Love in Christ,
Keith and Celia

Remember me? I'm the grapefruit tree. I'm glad to be in my new home, and not outside... it's cold out there! (I had a haircut.)

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Leaning into joy

Today’s coffee was a long time ago. It’s a little too late for coffee now…

I’m sitting in our kotatsu, serenaded by the sound of a hand saw--Keith fitting a frame around the newly-enlarged dining room doorway. Now taller-than-Keith friends will not bonk their heads on this doorway, at least. All the other doors… sorry. Yeah… the doors are exactly Keith’s height. I guess this house is a perfect fit? In any case, I’m really excited that pretty soon we will have a dining room. Flooring is going in Monday, and at some point later on, we’ll plaster the walls using a traditional Japanese method. (Living in a house that needs a lot of work has been great for our relationships with guys at church, and Shino’s dad, too. We have received much cheerful help. Very thankful.)

This week I had one of those days that confirmed over and over again that we are in the right place. It started as an invitation to go hiking. (We now have hiking friends at church!) We said we would go, if the weather was okay. The leader of the expedition insisted it would be fine. We started asking around at church to see if anyone else wanted to go.

The night before, the weather started to look iffy… so the outing changed to “maybe hiking, but definitely lunch and onsen.” Expedition-leader’s wife (who doesn’t like bugs or cold) decided that if there was onsen, it might be okay to come along. In addition, Takahashi-sensei and his wife and daughter, our friend, Noriko, and our colleague, Aaron would join the group.

The morning started with everyone showing up 10 minutes early to our house, and rushing around trying to get ready. Then we picked up two more people and headed into the mountains to take the scenic route to Jozankei onsen… and oh, Hokkaido, how I love you, especially in the fall. The colors! I never experienced fall colors like this, even when I lived in New England. Mist and early snowfall high on the mountainside, providing a contrast to the orange birch trees and larches and brilliant red maples.

Meanwhile, chatting in the car, I discovered that expedition-leader’s wife played violin and piano in her childhood, loves to sing… and loves Bach. She is a new Christian, and she shared how her understanding and experience of St. Matthew Passion changed when she came to faith. (We’re planning to study the Bible together… Matthew’s Passion narrative is definitely on the reading list!)

First stop: onsen manju! At Jozankei, you can get them fresh and hot… and so delicious! Manju are steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste. The dough is flavored with dark brown sugar.

Then lunch. Noriko figured out where to go and what to eat. I didn’t have to do anything or figure anything out. Lunch buffet at an onsen hotel with some of my favorite comfort foods on the menu. (I have Japanese comfort foods now.) As we talked and ate, snowflakes drifted lazily around the bright yellow birch tree outside the window.

After lunch, onsen. Sleepy, satisfied, happy...

Since we got in the car outside our house, I had been suggesting that we make onsen eggs. At Jozankei onsen, there is a special onsen bath for eggs! I wasn’t entirely sure everyone else was interested in sitting around waiting for eggs to cook… but it turns out they were. While the eggs took a 70 degree (celsius) bath for 15 minutes, we took a walk along the river.

Boys' team sat with the eggs. Girls' team went for a walk.

Looking up the river from a very picturesque suspension bridge

The egg bath was really popular, since it was a holiday.

Eggs are done!

This was dinner.
I can really even explain properly why this particular day was so special. We didn’t even get to go hiking. I guess it was the uninterrupted time with people who are special to me and time to slowly enjoy Hokkaido’s natural beauty. While we were on home assignment, we felt like God was inviting us to “lean in” to frustration and pain and not to brush difficult things aside, but on this particular day, I felt like God’s invitation was to “lean in” to joy and thankfulness, because friends, colorful trees, snow, onsen, Bach, and even onsen eggs, are all gifts from God.

It’s taken more than five and months, but I think I’m finally starting to get back into my groove again.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sauerkraut recipe, and the Wakaba Bazaar!

Today’s coffee: East Timor and Ethiopia (because I wish Sharon were here, and that’s what she would drink)

Tomorrow is the Wakaba Bazaar! (Saturday, October 15 at 11 a.m. Please come, Sapporo area friends!)

Which means I will be busy this evening baking cookies and putting things in little bags. Keith will be busy eating the rejects. I’m also making Keith’s favorite cake (pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting) and sourdough walnut bread. I’ve made a couple batches of sauerkraut this year, so I decided to try selling a bit of that too. After all, naturally-fermented things and “slow food” are rather popular here in Hokkaido.

In honor of the bazaar (and at the request of a couple of friends), I’ve decided to write out my method of making sauerkraut. It’s easy, and good for you, too!

Sauerkraut recipe


  • Cabbage: plain old green cabbage is traditional, but lately I’ve added some red cabbage and nappa cabbage to the mix. Straight red cabbage sauerkraut is also nice. You want it to be fresh, or you won't get enough brine.
  • Optional: garlic cloves, apple slices or minced apple peel, shredded carrot, onion slices, peppercorns, etc. Be creative!
  • Salt: pickling salt or sea salt (not iodized), 2-3% of the weight of the cabbage and other optional vegetables. I use 3% in the summer, and less after the weather gets cold.
  • Caraway seeds (traditional, but optional)

Slice the cabbage as thinly as you can. You can throw in the heart as is. Slice any other vegetables or herbs you want to add.

Weigh the vegetables, calculate how much salt you need, and weigh out the salt. In a large bowl, combine salt and vegetables and massage the salt into the vegetables. They should start releasing their juices. Pack everything into a jar or crock. (Make sure there’s no bits stuck to the sides of your crock, since those can get moldy. You want everything to go under the surface of the brine.) If I still have some kraut from a previous batch, I add a bit of the brine, which has live kraut-germs in it, to get the process going more quickly.

This batch has a blend of red and green cabbage with some carrot, just for fun!
Put a plate or… whatever the plastic thing in the picture is called in English… can’t remember… on top of your kraut to hold everything under the surface. Put pickle weights (twice the weight of your vegetables) on top of that if you have them, or you can use a plastic bag filled with saltwater or smaller jar filled with water. (Thankfully in Japan, we can get pickle weights in all different sizes at our local hardware store.)

Argh! Forgetting English...
Cover the whole thing with a plastic bag to keep fruit flies out. They love sauerkraut. I use a (new) shower cap. Those are perfect. Keep an eye on it; the brine should rise above the top of the vegetables within about 36 hours. At this point, you can reduce the weight somewhat--you just need to keep the vegetables under the surface.

Keep watching and waiting. Sauerkraut can take between about 6 days and a month, depending on how warm your kitchen is. When it starts bubbling (see photo), give it a taste. Bubbles mean that the microorganisms are busy!

When it is as sour as you like it, store it in the refrigerator or other cold place (we kept ours in the unheated entryway of our previous house) and be sure to share it with your friends! It keeps for a really long time--6 months or longer if you keep it cold.

That’s all! Easy, right? Japanese version coming soon!

Back to the subject of the bazaar, I still remember my first time to the Wakaba Bazaar, when I was a short-termer, back in 2009. I thought it was the best thing ever. Little did I know how involved I would be at Wakaba in the future! My first Wakaba Bazaar makes an appearance in this post. 懐かしい!

Here I am, waiting in line at the 2009 bazaar with friends and teachers from language school.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Today’s coffee… I mean tea: some really old tea that spent a year in storage. Waste not, want not…

This month, we’ve been focusing on catching up on various things and doing house projects. The bar counter is finished!! Half of the painting in the bedroom is finished, and Keith is currently putting the second coat on the other side. In just a few days we will be able to move some furniture that goes in the other half of the bedroom out of the dining room, so maybe we can start work there next… replacing rotten tatami with wood floor and flaking wallpaper with the traditional plaster wall that tea rooms have! One step at a time… there are many other projects too.

This is the talented Mr. Inoue who built the bar counter and helped us and advised us in many other ways.
All done!!
We’ve also been enjoying lovely early-fall weather by working in the garden. Keith invited a friend from church for a “concrete party” to break up a slab of concrete that was unfortunately slanted towards the house. He used some of the broken concrete chunks to make a path, where before there was only weeds and mud.

Concrete-bashing relieves stress.

I have spent most of my outdoor hours weeding. Although we have been somewhat successful removing weeds from the front of the garden, the back of the garden, where there are a lot of trees and shrubs, has been a challenge… untangling the roots of persistent weeds from the roots of plants we actually want growing there.

I thought at first that the bamboo grass would be the hardest weed to get rid of, but now I don’t think so any more. Our entire garden is infested with dokudami (Houttuynia cordata, which is sometimes known as chameleon plant in English). When we started digging beneath the surface to pull them out, we discovered an thick web of roots. “It looks like medusa down there,” Keith commented. Leave even a tiny bit of dokudami root in the soil, and it will grow right back.

Dokudami roots growing through a random block of styrofoam we found buried in our garden
But the funny thing is, dokudami isn’t really a weed. It’s a very pretty plant, with deep green heart-shaped leaves tinged with red, with lovely cross-shaped white flowers in July. It’s also an herb, prized as a detox-tea in China and Japan. I heard recently that if you rub the leaves on a mosquito bite, the itching goes away. Dokudami also keeps your compost from stinking… but we’ve found that the composting process doesn’t kill the roots… yikes.

See all those cute white flowers? That's them...
In the hours and hours I’ve spent carefully removing dokudami and bamboo grass roots from my around rhododendrons, I started to think of weeding dokudami as very similar to what is going on in my life right now. I have two jobs--I work at Wakaba Church, and I am also a musician with dreams of starting an arts ministry. There are many very worthy tasks and ministries and causes that I could be spending my time on, but if I tried to do everything, I think I would burn out very quickly. I need to make space in my life for the most important things--the things God has specifically given me to do. It’s just difficult sometimes to discern what those things are. Which “weeds” (which are actually very nice plants) in my life do I need to say “no” to in order to make room for other “plants”?

Please pray with us… we have some big decisions to make… and we need to make them soon!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Three typhoons and a camping trip

Today’s coffee: Costa Rica

Yes, you read that correctly. Three typhoons. Typhoons don’t usually come to Hokkaido; we often get the outer fringes, but not direct hits. This year at the end of August, we got three direct hits in one week… global warming? Actually, Sapporo wasn’t right in the middle. Eastern Hokkaido got the worst of it, with torrential rain and landslides and flooding. In Sapporo we just got heavy rain.

View from our campsite. Katoributa (anti-mosquito-incense-pig) hangs from the canopy.
But Keith and I had our heart set on a camping trip to eastern Hokkaido. Great hikes, gorgeous caldera lakes, delicious food… not to mention “Sunayu” (砂湯): the beach on Lake Kussharo (I’m going to call it “Kussharoko,” since “Lake Kussharo” sounds weird) where you can dig a hole in the sand and ONSEN WATER FILLS THE HOLE. We had to try it. Bad weather kept us from our Kussharoko camping trip early last summer, so we weren’t giving up this time, even though the typhoons had done a fair bit of damage to the area…

Keith is eyeing the debris piles for potential firewood. The shore of the lake should be behind the fence in the background...
Oh no! Sunayu!
… for example, Kussharoko’s water level was rather high, which meant that the famous Sunayu beach was completely underwater… sad face. Some parts of the campground were flooded. To get to the toilets, we had to cross three streams. I gave up keeping my feet dry, and wore flip-flops at all times. We won’t mention the number of bug bites I had on my feet.

But on the flipside, camping right next to the lake! Sunsets! Morning fog! Birds! (And crows. Stupid crows…)

Sunset over Kussharoko
I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to hike because of landslides or downed trees, but the trails were clear and dry (except the flooded part next to Kussharoko). The biggest problem was fog over the peaks. The locals said the fog hadn’t lifted since the last typhoon. But the fog made for some interesting and dramatic scenery.

Our first hike was Mokotoyama. The fog lifted for a bit right when we got to the peak. We couldn’t see the lake, but we saw the sea of clouds covering the lake. We enjoyed watching a large number of hawks soaring around the peak.

Almost at the peak, and the fog lifted!
Under the clouds, there's this really big lake...
There were probably 15 hawks circling the peak. (Do hawks eat bugs?)
The second hike was around the rim of Mashuuko (Lake Mashuu) to the peak of Mashuudake (Mt. Mashuu). It was a lovely, pleasant hike… it’s just that the peak was so swarming with bugs that we couldn’t stay there more than the 15 seconds it took to snap a picture of the sign as is my custom. Also, it was foggy. I’d love to do this one again on a day with less fog (and bugs).

Late-season wildflowers!

Peak obscured by fog (and trees)
Yeah. Not much point in staying here... possibly an all-time low for summit experiences.
A bit of an autumn feeling...
Finally can see the lake!

Finished! Our destination is in the background (still obscured by fog)
Camping culture is in some ways quite different than in the US. It’s rare for anyone to stay more than one night in the same campground. A lot of people travel alone by motorcycle, go to sleep when it gets dark, and leave as soon as it gets light, around 4 a.m.These sorts are pretty quiet and keep to themselves. But over the weekend… lots of families and big groups and loud parties. The campground was packed. I was glad to have earplugs. But it was nice to see families enjoying time together.

One group of guys occupied the space next to us for two nights. The first night they were up late… taking pictures of their kayaks by lamplight. I am not making this up.

Keith engages in his favorite hobby: making campfires.
Our campsite. The nearest onsen is right on the lake at the foot of the hill on the left.
Kussharoko, being a caldera with an active volcano on one side, has lots of little onsen all along the lake, in addition to Sunayu. We could see one of them from our campsite. Unfortunately, we were not able to bathe in that particular onsen, because it was barely obscured from public view by a hedge, and even then it wouldn’t matter… because it was a mixed bath. We’re not quite that bold. Thankfully there was another onsen nearby--a rustic outdoor bath in the middle of the forest, with perfect temperature.

Foot bath in Kawayu Onsen town. So nice after a hike!
Mt. Iou volcanic area
The sign in English reads "Hot Spring!" (Yay! Let's get right in!) but the Japanese reads "Beware of burns." Hmmm...
I’m happy to say that by the last day of our camping trip, the lake water had gone down somewhat, and we were able to dig our own onsen at Sunayu beach. I think most people just dig a bit, put their feet in the water, say “Sugoi! (Wow!)”, take their pictures, and get back on the tour bus. (Boring!) We, however, put on swimsuits and dug a hole big enough for both of us to sit in. Keith got all the way in. And we got some weird looks from the tour-bus crowd--two adult gaijin playing in the muddy water in the rain. “Metcha yogoreteiru!” (“That’s so dirty!”) said one. Lots of snarky replies went through my head, but I ignored her and pretended not to notice…

Yep. Water: very hot. No pictures of us sitting in the water, since my camera would have gotten dirty.
Eastern Hokkaido is a magical place for food. Did you know that Hokkaido is the only prefecture in Japan that is self-sufficient for food and even exports to the rest of Japan? We ate many delicious foods, but I think my favorites were butadon while passing through Obihiro and the pizza with soba (buckwheat) flour crust.

Soba crust pizza with fresh local vegetables! I'm getting hungry again just looking at this picture...
On Saturday night, we were in a bit of a bind. Missionaries don’t skip church, even when they are on vacation. After frantic searching on Google, we realized that the closest church was about 45 minutes away, over a mountain pass in Bihoro… and that our friends were serving in that church. And surprise! We got to witness their newborn daughter’s dedication! We headed back to their place a few days later for food and fellowship, including breakfast out in their favorite cafe, which a church member runs. I went home with an omiyage (souvenir) of two coffee seedlings.

I could eat this breakfast every day!
I named them Kona and Sharon.
All in all, I would highly recommend Kussharoko. Great place, lots of fun! But maybe don’t go right after three typhoons.

Did you know that there are horses in Hokkaido? (Our Japanese textbook constantly reminded us.) Keith is riding a "Dosanko," which is a breed of horses from Hokkaido!