Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Snow, and Our Neighborhood Sports

Today’s coffee: New Year’s Blend

There was finally a break in the snow storm, so I ventured out of my cozy nest. I hadn’t been outside in three days, since Christmas morning, when we went out for breakfast at our usual Monday breakfast spot. The blizzard started that afternoon; I don’t think we had wind like that even during typhoons over the summer. Our trash can blew several blocks away (even when filled with pickle-weights) and somehow the lid of one of our compost bins unscrewed itself, blew away, and went missing. On the bright side, the tile on our chimney that looked like it was ready to fall has also disappeared. No more worries about having a tile fall on my head while walking around in the garden.

Although we have plenty of leftovers to eat, we ran out of milk, and our stocks of coffee and mikan (mandarin oranges) were dangerously low, so I headed out to the store. (The important things, you know.) Also, the compost pail was full.

But first, the snow had to be dealt with. It had drifted up in front of the door.

I took these pictures back in November... but it looks about the same now (except more snow)
Walking on unplowed sidewalk...
When it's blowing really hard, snow gets stuck to the windows. Definitely don't want to go outside when it looks like this.
Our neighborhood has two sports in which everyone participates, like it or not. One is snow shovelling. Recently there was a “snow shoveling for exercise” class advertised in the neighborhood news. I am not making this up.

I seriously don’t know how my neighbors live with their boredom over the summer when there’s no snow to shovel. At first snowfall, everyone is out there with their shovels, moving the dusting of snow into tidy piles. Then, on warm days, they dump the snow back into the street so that it melts faster and break up chunks of ice with pickaxes.

We are not quite as diligent about snow clearing as our neighbors, so they worry about us; we often open the front door and discover that the front walk has already been cleared by a friendly neighbor who got bored after they were done clearing their own snow.

The other neighborhood sport, of course, is complaining about snow shovelling. Even though our neighbors are bright-eyed and smiling as they clear snow, they are just as energetic in their complaints. For example:

Neighbor A: There’s so much snow this year!
Neighbor B: I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never gotten used to it.
Neighbor A: I shovelled snow two hours this morning! Living in Ishikari is hard, isn’t it?
Neighbor B: Isn’t it? But there was so much more snow when I was a child…

And on and on it goes, multiplied by the number of people you meet in a given day.

In our neighborhood, we put out different types of trash for collection several days a week, but in the winter, you can also request that a truck come and take away your snow once a week. This is really helpful, since the snow plow dumps all the snow from the road right in front of our house, and then we have to move it somewhere if we want to get the car out. Today was snow-removal day, which means we have to pile up all the snow one shovel’s width out from the garden wall. Then, a snowblower truck blows our snow pile into a truck in the space of about 30 seconds, and then off it goes to the snow dump.

Now I’m done drinking my coffee, so I’ll head home and see if there’s any more snow to clear off the front walk, or any neighbors to commiserate with.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Celebrating 200 Years

Today’s coffee: Christmas blend

I had been planning this party for at least the last five years. My cello, built in 1817, turned 200 this year; how could I not have a birthday party?

Since it would be my cello’s birthday party, it had to be a concert, so I searched for music to perform. Beethoven wrote two sonatas in 1816--close enough. When to celebrate? Shino and I were occupied with the Rachmaninov sonata until the end of October, so we picked Shino’s birthday on December 3, giving us just enough time to learn Beethoven’s 4th sonata and refresh Beethoven’s 1st sonata, which we played at our first concert together at Christmas in 2009. Where to hold the party? It’s a birthday party, not a formal concert. We decided to try having a concert at home. It would be a good test-run for future arts ministry, anyway.

And yet… a concert at home, especially in Japan, comes with a number of challenges. I invited probably 50 people, and expected about 30 to come; where would they put their shoes or hang their coats or park their cars? I quickly figured out solutions for shoes and coats, but the parking problem actually kept me up at night. We can only fit two or three cars in front of our house (if it doesn’t snow). Thankfully, a friend from church was able to arrange for us to use a local preschool’s parking lot in exchange for the promise of a mini-concert for the kids in the near future. Another friend from church agreed to help welcome guests when they came and direct them to the parking lot.

Then, of course, a birthday party needs cake. I made three: butterscotch cheesecake (since Shino likes cheesecake), a persimmon cake with dried fruit (seemed kind of festive and English, since my cello was built in London), and a classic rainbow chip cake out of a box (as I explained to non-American guests, this was the birthday cake when I was a kid).

As we got closer to the big day, I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake. This was a lot of work… and I’m still on leave for burnout. There were probably 40 party-related items on my to-do list. But part of being on leave has been a chance to remember and rediscover who I am--that God made me creative, and that he gave me a desire to make my home into a haven for us and for our friends. With that conviction, I kept on with the preparations, promising myself a very quiet December.

When we moved the furniture around and took the double-doors to the tea room and music room out of their frames, we discovered that if we set up for a concert in the living room, about 30 people could comfortably watch from all around. (I had lost count of who had said they were coming, so I gave up trying to remember and prayed for 30.) The kotatsu (low table with a heater underneath) ended up in the tea room; I was somewhat regretful that I would not be one of the people watching the concert from the comfort of the kotatsu. (Next time, perhaps.) Finally we brought lamps and candles from all over the house so we could avoid using the icky fluorescent overhead lights.

Clutter organized, furniture rearranged, atmosphere created, table set. Then we just had to wait for the guests to arrive. I forgot that in Japan, every concert invitation/advertisement will include the “open” time--what time guests can enter the hall. So some people came very early, and others came late. I made the mistake of having coffee during that pre-concert period, when adrenaline alone would have done just fine. The performance ended up being rather more… energetic than it otherwise would have been.

The event went over pretty well, I think. The guests seemed to enjoy themselves. There were even some old friends reunited who hadn’t met in years. The performance wasn’t perfect, but it never is (the problem being that mistakes in Beethoven are a lot more noticeable than mistakes in Rachmaninov). The general feeling seemed to be “let’s do this again,” because time spent together to enjoy art is time well spent. I’d say this was a successful experiment.

Now I’m having a very quiet December.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Fried Rice

Happy Thanksgiving!

We had thanksgiving dinner yesterday with friends, and among them were people with gluten, egg, and nut allergies. But Thanksgiving dinner just isn’t complete without stuffing, so we came up with this alternative. Rice, like bread, soaks up meat juices and flavors nicely. I was very happy with the way this turned out—it could be a festive side-dish even alongside traditional stuffing.

Thanksgiving Fried Rice
A gluten-and-egg-free stuffing or side-dish

(Notes: These are approximate measurements, but precision really doesn’t matter with this recipe. Please be sure to check the list of ingredients on both the bouillon and the sausages to make sure they are safe for whatever allergies your guests have.)

  • 2 rice cooker cups (320cc) rice, cooked according to package directions (I used Thai jasmine rice, which was a blend of red and white. Very fragrant! Brown rice would work great too.)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 8 breakfast sausage links, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 ½ large onions, chopped (red and/or white; I used both)
  • ½ cup celery, chopped 
  • 8 mushrooms, chopped (I used some white mushrooms and some shiitake, because that’s what I had)
  • 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon (I used “Better than Bouillon”)
  • ½ cup dried apple, chopped
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • ½ cup pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs: I used a mix of rosemary, sage, and thyme, since that was what was accessible in my partially-snow-covered garden.
  • Salt and pepper to taste (the amount will depend on how salty your chicken bouillon is)
  • (Other possibilities that I thought about but didn’t include: chopped pecans or walnuts if there are no nut allergies, tiny cubes of pan-fried squash, tiny cubes of pan-fried tofu, a splash of rum or brandy or apple juice instead of some of the orange juice, fresh apple, other dried fruit)

Melt half of the butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Brown the sausages. Remove to a bowl.

Melt the remaining butter in the frying pan, then add the onions, celery, and mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and stir-fry for several minutes until they are soft. Add the chicken bouillon, apples, cranberries, and orange juice, and continue to stir-fry until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Clear a space in the center of the pan; add the pumpkin seeds and allow them to brown slightly. Add the sausage back into the pan, then the herbs. Stir to blend, then add the rice. Stir-fry to mix and allow the rice to crisp somewhat, 2-3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with the rest of Thanksgiving dinner, or on its own. It’s delicious with cranberry sauce and gravy.

You can probably stuff this in a turkey or chicken… but I really don’t know, since we don’t stuff our turkeys. Let me know in the comments if you try it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Pumpkin Soup

Happy Fall! In Ishikari, fall means kabocha and other delicious vegetables. Recently we received lots of kabocha from friends:

We also received a gigantic nappa cabbage, grapes, apples, zucchini, tomatoes... Ishikari is a good place, especially at this time of year. I've been looking for creative ways to eat all this deliciousness!

One such cooking adventure was a simple pumpkin (kabocha) soup. I used a pale green kabocha like the one in the back row center of the picture above. I liked it a lot, so I decided to share the recipe here. "Recipe" might be a bit of an overstatement, actually... the measurements are approximate. Kabocha vary in flavor and sweetness, so amounts of seasoning will change from one soup to the next.

Pumpkin (Kabocha) Soup with fruit and nut topping


  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter (I used unsalted)
  • 1-2 tablespoons white wine
  • 2 cloves (roasted) garlic
  • Roasted pumpkin, kabocha, or other squash (I used half of a fairly large one--I would guess about 700 grams. Boiled or pan-fried would also work, but roasted is so nice!) 
  • Chicken or vegetable stock, approx. 3-4 cups
  • 3 tablespoons fresh herbs, minced (I used parley, sage, rosemary, and thyme); you will use half in the soup and reserve the rest for the topping.
  • 3/4 cup cream
  • Maple syrup to taste (I used about 2 tablespoons)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Melt the butter in a medium pot over low heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with salt, and stir to coat with butter. Add the white wine, cover, and cook for about 10 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook over low heat for another 10 minutes or so, stirring frequently, until the onions are medium brown (caramelized). Throw in a couple of cloves of garlic when the onions are almost ready.
  2. Add roasted pumpkin (kabocha) and cover with stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add herbs (reserving half for the topping) and remove from heat.
  3. While waiting for the soup, I assembled the topping (recipe below).
  4. Puree the soup. I recommend a stick blender, but use whatever method works for you. Add cream and more stock to thin the soup to desired consistency. Taste and add maple syrup, salt, and pepper as necessary. 
  5. Return soup to heat and bring it back to a simmer. Serve with topping, recipe below. I also recommend focaccia bread.


  • Pecans, small handful
  • Pumpkin seeds, small handful
  • 1 tablespoon butter, if you live in Japan and your bacon isn't all that fatty
  • 150g bacon, strips cut in 5mm pieces 
  • 1/2 cup dried apple, diced (Fresh apple would be fine, but add it later with the nuts and herbs and omit apple juice)
  • 1 cup bread cubes (on the dry side, 5mm)
  • Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, minced (reserved from soup recipe, above)
  • A drizzle of maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons apple juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Toast pecans in a frying pan over low heat. Chop coursely. Then toast the pumpkin seeds.
  2. Melt the butter (if you are using any) in your frying pan over low heat, then add the bacon. Fry it until it's somewhat crispy. (Japanese bacon doesn't get crispy… and those of you using super greasy American bacon may want to remove some of the oil at this point. The ingenious Japanese way of doing that is soaking it up right out of the frying pan with cooking chopsticks and paper towels.) 
  3. Add the dried apple and bread cubes, saute a bit to coat with oil, then add nuts, herbs, maple syrup, apple juice, and salt and pepper. Stir until the bread and apple absorb the liquid, and then saute on low until everything is somewhat crispy. Sprinkle over the soup.
  4. This would also be a nice topping for salads. Our Japanese friend who ate it with us also recommends trying it as a topping for rice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Unexpected Visitor

Today I offer a story. It's a true story, although it happened two years ago, so I've filled in some forgotten details. My mom may remember it differently. No picture included, since many of you would find a picture revolting... ;)

Mom’s cry of surprise brought me running. I found her crouched down, staring, eyes wide, at an unwelcome visitor: a large green slug with black spots had found its way into the sunroom. Perhaps it rode in on mom’s garden shoes, or perhaps it had stuck itself to the red bucket she uses to gather vegetables. Regardless of how it got in, it had now left a trail of slime across the doormat and had started to ooze its way up the wall.

Thinking quickly, I pulled a sheet of paper out of the recycle bin and set it against the wall in front of the slug. It seemed hesitant at first, but perhaps it sensed that I meant it no harm, and it slowly oozed forward onto the paper. I waited. Mom waited behind me, poised with a wet rag to clean up the mess. Keith waited, watching and snickering.

Once the slug made it fully onto the paper, I gently removed it from the wall and carried it outside, looking for a good spot for a slug to live. Not too close to the vegetable plot or the flower garden, but somewhere with some cover. I set the paper down amid some tall, late-summer grass. Slowly the slug oozed forward. And I waited.

Time stood still as I watched the small creature, transfixed. In the world, there was only me and the slug and the tall grass. Every tiny undulation of its slimy body, every change of its course, the iridescent pink of the trail left behind reflecting back the afternoon sunlight. The slug came to the edge of the paper, hesitated slightly, and continued into the tall grass. “Goodbye,” I whispered.

Suddenly time started up again. I stood up, dazed by the bright sun. I heard the clucking of our neighbor’s chickens and the distant barking of a dog. Glancing towards the vegetable garden, I wondered what was for supper. I remembered that I had been in the middle of writing an email when interrupted by the slug’s intrusion.

As I shuffled towards the house and my responsibilities, I turned once, gazing back into the tall grass.

As I write this story down two years later, I wonder why the slug in the sunroom remains so firmly fixed in my memory, when so many other stories and names and details have faded into the past. Perhaps I remember it because it was a serendipitous moment, a divine intervention, a space to breathe. I have learned not to let these moments go to waste. This moment became, oddly enough, one of the highlights of home assignment for me.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Matsu House update

Hi, everyone. We're still alive over here. And... exciting things happening at Matsu House!

As I write, this is going on:

That's right! Keith and Mr. Inoue are plastering the tea room wall with 珪藻土 (keisoudo). This is so exciting. They finished the floor back in December, just in time for Mom and Dad's visit (because the tea room is also the guest room). However, with everything going on at church, we continued on with bare drywall for eight months.

Meanwhile, a few other improvements have taken place.

All the finishing touches on the bathroom "vanity" cabinet. Dad made and installed the cabinet and cut the other pieces to size. Keith did the wiring and installed the mirror and the light fixture (which Dad made), then did the tiling and put up towel hooks and rings.

Dad made the over-toilet shelf, and after we painted the room, Keith installed it. I picked out the plant.

We also solved a design problem with art. Our house was made for short people. The doorways are short (anyone taller than Keith has to duck), and the original kitchen and bathroom counters were short. What's worse, there were windows in the doors to the toilet room and the bathroom--right at our eye level. Most Japanese houses have tiny windows in bathroom doors, so you can see if the light is on inside... but those are tiny, a lot higher, and have opaque glass. So... we commissioned our friend, Hannah Schmidt, so paint tiny pictures to put in the windows. The light still shines through (and the pictures look really cool backlit) and now we can pee in privacy. Hannah copied photos I took of aka-matsu (red pine) trees on the Tohoku coast.

Keith made me a nice shelf for the laundry room, and hooks to hang stuff. Before it was all out in the front hallway.

We now have a shelf in the kitchen for cookbooks.

Mr. Inoue made us some gorgeous stools for our bar counter back in December. Unfortunately, we never managed to sand and finish them, so they sat around for months... until July! This is my contribution: I sanded and finished them. Now our friends can hang out in the kitchen with us and have a cup of tea or something while we finish cooking the meal!

And last but not least, Keith put this up on our front door. In case anyone had any doubts as to who lives here...

More to come, after the tea room walls are finished!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The cup is half empty

Today’s coffee: Indonesian coffee from Tokumitsu

I did everything I could. A day off every week, life-giving hobbies, daily quiet-times, plenty of sleep, four weeks of vacation each year. We had people looking out for us, both colleagues and friends. And yet, it seems that even our careful precautions weren’t enough. Eight months into working in our church in an emergency state, I burned out.

Back in college, only once, I drank enough to have a hangover. Only once. Once was more than enough. On the bright side, I can now say with personal conviction, when talking to young people, that drinking too much is not only inadvisable, but the effects are downright unpleasant.

I bring this up now because the effects of burnout are very much like a hangover-that-doesn’t-go-away. Let’s call it a stress-hangover. Headache, queasy stomach, lethargy, brain in a fog. Back in college, the day I had a hangover, I aced a German test. Now, with stress-hangover at age 36, I’m not good for much of anything that resembles work, except perhaps a snarky blog post. Writing helps me process, after all. Even being able to snark about things is a decided improvement over where I was a week ago.

On the bright side, I can now say with personal conviction that working too much, especially in a stressful environment, is not only inadvisable, but the effects are downright unpleasant. Cheers for coffee, my caring husband, and colleagues who give me space to sleep it off and help us find a more sustainable pattern of work.

Note for the concerned: We are well cared for here. This was no one’s fault. We continue under the strong conviction that we are where God wants us, and we continue to look for the way forward in this situation.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

12 years!

Yesterday was our 12th wedding anniversary.

Here are some fun facts:

  • I was 24, Keith was 22. We’ve been married for one third of my life. I was born in the year of the bird, and we got married in the year of the bird.
  • We have lived in three countries, in eight different homes.
  • To go along with all those homes, we have attended and served in six churches.
  • When we got married, my side of the (immediate) family became five people. Keith’s side became nine people. Now, my family has seven, and Keith’s has eighteen (wow).
  • We had between us four grandparents, and now we have none.
  • We had between us two college degrees; now we have five degrees, and both of us have passed an important Japanese language exam.
  • I was intending to be a professional musician of some sort. Keith was vocationally challenged, but had some vague notion of wanting to become a teacher. Neither of us had any intention then of becoming a missionary or other full-time ministry worker. We’ll just comment that God has a sense of humor.
  • We started this blog to distribute wedding information. Looking back at my first post, it seems that blogs were called weblogs or web blogs, and you could only have one picture in each post. This post is #382. 

Since I am now part of a team that plans worship services at church, I (selfishly?) chose our wedding songs for yesterday’s service (All Creatures of Our God and King, Shout to the Lord, and Blessed Be Your Name). Of course, we sang them in Japanese translation. They fit well with the text, which was Genesis 22. This became a good reminder of the theme we chose for our wedding: to love one another and serve God, whatever the circumstances.

Yesterday turned out to be quite a bit nicer than our 10th anniversary: although we had planned to climb Mt. Fuji, both of us ended up sick in bed… and wondering if we would even be well enough to fly to Seattle for home assignment two days later. Yesterday was a full day at church, but we managed to go to a cafe we like for a slice of cake and take a walk on the boardwalk at the beach.

I wonder where our path will go next? Can't see around the corner...
Our garden produced an anniversary present... a reminder of what was in my bouquet. :)
But the past two years have been the hardest of our lives (so far…) I’m thankful that our marriage started with a commitment to love God in all seasons and in all circumstances. I’m thankful that God has provided a faithful traveling companion in all this mess--through challenges, we have become even closer.

And now, since I have learned through marriage among other things to have a sense of humor, here are a few of the sillier pictures from our wedding day. It's a pity I don't seem to have the one of Janet ironing my dress while I was wearing it on my computer. (We got married at a time when people were still using film.)

"I don't care how good they smell; DON'T eat my bouquet, Keith..."
This wasn't particularly silly, except that Sarah is sitting on Chris' lap.
Whose bouquet did Colin steal, I wonder?
Trying to look regal, I guess.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

When the Miracle-Wine Runs Dry

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m at the beach. That is to say, I’m at a café at the beach. I thought no one would be here, but apparently I am not the only one who enjoys looking at the ocean when it’s raining.

Today was one of the days when neither Keith nor I had to preach (which meant we were assigned for piano and vocal leader duty). The retired pastor of a nearby church has agreed to preach once a month, and today was the second installment in his series in the Gospel of John. The passage was John 2:1-12, the wedding at Cana.

One Sunday three years ago, Keith and I sat together with Pastor Takahashi at the head of a big long table around which were seated about 25 church members--more than half of the church. That day we read John 2 together, introduced the inductive method of Bible study, and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company as we worked through the passage. I had watched with delight as the Bible came alive, as each person was able to find how the passage connected with their own life.

So, I listened to the passage being read this morning with complicated emotions. Pastor Takahashi isn’t here any more. The idea of everyone sitting together around one table, laughing and enjoying one another’s company seems like a distant dream. It seems like we’ve run out of wine--but perhaps we had forgotten where the wine was coming from.

I’m eating a slice of a spectacular gateaux chocolate cake right now, accompanied by Darjeeling tea. All around the café, wild roses are blooming, and the ocean is calm. These things are like the miracle-wine in the story, which was so delicious that the master of the feast pulled aside the bridegroom to compliment him for saving the best for last. And yet, neither the master of the feast nor the bridegroom knew where the wine came from. Only a few knew--Mary, the disciples, and the servants.

I have been given a great blessing; I know where the wine came from. I must not forget who made the miracle-wine from which I drink every day, or become distracted by its exquisite taste. And when the miracle-wine seems to run dry, I must not forget that the giver is infinitely greater and more beautiful than anything he gives.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Treasures of Time

In Japanese tea culture, we have a proverb: 一期一会 (ichi go ichi e), which means “once in a lifetime.” Specifically, each time we gather for tea, in these particular circumstances, with these particular people, decorating the room with these particular flowers and using these particular tools, is meant to be treasured, because it will only happen once.

Last week I made a very-last-minute trip to Taiwan. Going overseas seems like a big deal, but when I thought about it, flying to Taipei from Sapporo is about like flying from Seattle to Minneapolis, a trip we often make to visit Keith’s family. The difference being that when flying from Sapporo to Taipei, for the same price as the trip to Minneapolis, everyone gets a meal and free luggage allowance (and the flight attendants are bilingual).

As for the reason for the trip, my brother, Colin was there for a friend’s wedding, and he had a few extra days before the festivities started… so off I went. Our hobbies are mostly the same (tea, hiking and outdoors, eating and cooking, etc.) so we make good travel companions. One purpose of the trip (other than the obvious purposes of time with brother and rest) was to sample and buy Taiwanese tea, visit tea farms, and learn as much as possible about Taiwanese tea culture.

In the midst of investigating Taiwanese tea culture, I had a definite 一期一会 (ichi go ichi e) moment.

Colin and I stayed in an Airbnb in 鹿谷郷 (Lugu). As we were waiting for breakfast in our host’s beautiful home, I noticed a Japanese-style (tatami) room adjoining the living room and some familiar looking tea utensils.

The front garden
The tea room--Japanese style!
Utensils for oolong tea. The scoop (left), tea caddy (top right), and cloth looked very familiar.
With Colin translating, I asked if our hosts, a young couple who appeared to be around our age, studied tea ceremony. I would certainly say they were students of the Way of Tea, but not in the same way I imagined at first. They owned a tea farm and were experts in preparing and serving the various oolong and black teas produced there. And although they did not practice Japanese tea ceremony, they were very interested in it. I pulled my tea ceremony travel set out of my backpack.

We spent the next several hours in their tea room, which was adorned with the characters “奉茶” (share tea) in a small frame. I made matcha first, then our hosts made two varieties of their home grown oolong and one kind of black tea. We talked about growing and processing tea and proper brewing.

Prepared for tea-culture-exchange!
Our host also wanted to try making matcha!
I watched with delight how tools that were almost the same as those we use in Japan for tea ceremony were used in preparing oolong tea. We talked about common roots in Taiwan and Japan and the ways in which each tradition had diverged and become unique.

A different use for what I would call the 茶杓 (tea scoop)
They asked why matcha is served in small quantities. (In Taiwan, you might keep drinking tea for hours.) I explained that if you drink too much, you’ll start shaking from the caffeine and won’t be able to sleep at night. They laughed. On that note, my brother asked their advice on giving tea to small children...

After we bought several packages of our favorites from among the teas we sampled, they sent us on our way up the mountain to the nearby 杉林渓 tea growing region, where they also had their farm. (I really wish I knew how to pronounce 杉林渓, but I don’t. It was like that for the whole trip: I knew the characters and their meanings, but not how to say them.) We had a beautiful hotpot with a wide variety of local vegetables for lunch.

Hotpot: a little bit of lamb and a lot of vegetables
High mountain tea farm!

Words (and pictures) don’t do justice to the delight of this experience, or to the regret I felt that we likely won’t meet these lovely people again. But I think I now know more fully the meaning of 一期一会 (ichi go ichi e): treasures of time to be enjoyed with thankfulness.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Faking it

Today was the day when my fake smile cracked. It has cracked before--last Tuesday, at the Hokkaido pastors’ gathering, in fact--but I managed to hide in the back stairwell, sniffling, dabbing my eyes with a wet handkerchief, and fanning my face until it turned back to its usual shade of pale pink. But today, the gentle missionary facade that I had been cultivating started to crack at the church leaders’ meeting… because I can’t fake it anymore.

Faking is a performing art. I was just talking to Shino about faking when we were rehearsing the Rachmaninov cello sonata last Thursday. The cello part isn’t too difficult… but the piano part is beastly, written by a man whose hands were twice the size of Shino’s. Thus she was bemoaning the difficulty of a certain passage. “Just fake it,” I said in English. “Just fake it,” she repeated, smiling. I continued in Japanese: “The left hand is all that matters; the right hand is just decoration. Even if you flub half the notes, no one will notice,” I suggested. She looked unconvinced. “Well, you should certainly try to hit as many notes as possible, but don’t worry about it if you miss a few.”

Faking well is part of the performance. All musicians do it. Even if I make an obvious mistake in the middle of a concert, my face must not give away any sign that I didn’t play that note on purpose. After the concert, I must smile and graciously receive everyone’s thanks and compliments, even if I feel like a hypocrite.

Faking is a part of the performance of life around the world, but especially in Japan. Here we call it tatemae. Tatemae can be a good and healthy practice; we consider the feelings of other and think before we speak. Tatemae can also be an unhealthy practice when we hide what is truly in our hearts and build an entirely different persona to face the world, or perhaps a different persona in every social situation.

Introvert that I am, in some ways I appreciate this aspect of Japanese social interaction. I am free not to talk if I don't want to. Interactions with others tend to be respectful and peaceful. I have never been pressured to spill my guts in front of strangers in some sort of intimacy-building activity. I can take my time making friends, gradually sharing more and more of what’s in my heart. Shino is a friend like that; I’ve known her for eight years now.

And yet, I fall into the trap of building personas. I want to be strong for the church right now. I want people to like me, to think well of me. Celia the musician, Celia the missionary. I’m even different depending on what language I’m using. Celia speaking English, Celia speaking Japanese. But no facade can hold up forever. The shock of finding out that a person you thought was kind and gentle is actually vindictive and angry, for example, is distressing, to say the least. One feels lied to and betrayed. And yet, it shouldn’t be a shock to discover the darkness in another person’s heart, because there is darkness in all of our hearts.

Last Wednesday, we read James 4:1-10 together at the church prayer meeting. (I have been leading the group through James doing a made-for-Wakaba version of Lectio Divina.) For some reason, I really like this passage. Especially this part: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” There’s something incredibly healing about grieving properly for things that ought to be grieved. Sin is grievous. It separates us from God and from one another. Here was an invitation to be real, to drop the fake smile, to stop pretending things were okay when they weren’t.

It wasn’t until after I went home that I realized how counter-cultural this passage was. As I observe the reaction of our church to our current challenges, it seems that the members instinctively try to patch things up quickly and move on, because we in Japan care about peace. But peace achieved by faking it--like covering a festering wound with a bandaid--won’t do any good in the long run. I need--all of us need--to grieve, to stop faking it. The road to recovery and reconciliation runs through the valley of grief. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Cherry trees in full bloom, and other things that help me stay sane

Today’s coffee was iced coffee at lunch time, when some friends from church came over for a visit!

I seem to be getting into a pattern of alternating posts between things that make me crazy and things that help me stay sane. Things are difficult right now in our church, as I have written previously. So, it’s very helpful, as a colleague of mine blogged yesterday, to find ways of dealing with grief and stress. I like to call them 命綱 (inochizuna), meaning lifelines.

One of my lifelines I mentioned in my last post. That would be my “quiet time” each morning. Another one is spending time outside, breathing fresh air, listening to birds, and looking at beautiful things. I’m really glad that it’s finally spring, daffodils and cherry trees are blooming, last week included three public holidays, and the weather has been fantastic.

So… I went on a 花見 (hanami, meaning flower viewing) picnic with Shino last Wednesday, keeping a 2-year-old promise, then went again with friends after church on Sunday at a different park, took a walk with Keith yesterday to visit our favorite cherry tree in the park closest to our house.

Shino and I promised to go on a picnic two years ago... but I got sick and couldn't go. Promise kept, two years late!
With my favorite cherry tree, at our local park
Goofing off with Keith under favorite cherry tree
I stole the camera back from Keith, so now he's chasing me around favorite cherry tree...
Close-up of blossoms on favorite cherry tree
In Japanese culture, cherry blossoms remind people that life is fleeting. I, on the other hand, think ahead to the cherries that I will eat next month because the trees are blossoming now. I saw an entire tree full of fat and contented-looking bees, pollinating the flowers. Most of the trees in the parks we visited are ornamental varieties, but my neighbors are growing fruiting varieties. Cherry blossoms are hopeful flowers to me.

A fat and contented bee. This kind is called "bear bee" in Japanese.

Today I spent most of the day working in the garden… because even though there is a sermon to write, the weather was perfect, and it’s supposed to rain the rest of the week. I can write the sermon when it’s raining. The birdsong, the sun, the gentle breeze… I couldn’t stay inside. Keith and I finally got around to making beds for our vegetable garden, and I planted carrots, beets, swiss chard, cabbage, lettuce, and radishes. I also moved around some chrysanthemums that got too big for where they were planted, added rosemary and thyme to my herb garden, and planted a 山椒 (sansho) tree! I also yanked out a whole lot of bamboo grass. Little by little our garden is beginning not to look so much like a jungle.

Yellow Katakuri lilies
Daffodils in front of our house. Keith planted hundreds of bulbs last fall.
Our sansho tree! It has fragrant leaves used in cooking, and (if it is a female tree) will produce a kind of peppercorn, also used in cooking! And it's so cute! I hope it likes its new home.
Flowers and herbs in the foreground, vegetable plot in the background
We also have trillium flowers in Hokkaido!
Despair makes me look down. But an entire park full of blooming cherry trees, a garden full of daffodils, a fragrant sansho tree, and the anticipation of many more plants flourishing in my garden definitely helps me to stand up straight, breathe deeply the fresh spring air, and remember who it was that gave me life… and remember that he continues to give life.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In the Right Place

Today’s coffee… is whatever Tokumitsu is serving with their lunch set. This morning I had Tokumitsu’s lovely 春色ブレンド (Spring-colored blend… but actually it’s coffee-brown like normal. Because spring in Ishikari is coffee-brown before the daffodils come up?)

I decided that I need to start writing again. Writing helps me to process what is going on in my life. Practicing cello and puttering around in the garden have also helped a lot.

Crocuses in our garden
God has a sense of humor. I told him, I think back even before I went to Regent, that I did not want to be a pastor (too much responsibility… I’m more of a team player). I also told him that I especially didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife (too many unspoken expectations, and I don't fit the image).

Well… essentially, due to our current circumstances, I have unexpectedly become both a pastor and a pastor’s wife. Of course, missionaries are somewhat different than pastors, but what we’re doing right now boils down to preaching, leading prayer meetings, providing training for church leaders, following up with church members and seekers, planning worship services, and sitting through (sometimes leading) lots of leadership meetings… that doesn’t look so different than what pastors do. Yep… God has a sense of humor. Mental note: be careful what I tell God I absolutely don’t want to do.

This really isn’t what I wanted to do, and I’m feeling completely inadequate to do what I’m currently doing. It’s kind of weird that people trust me and listen to me as much as they do. Japan is like that… I have a seminary degree, so that makes me “Sensei.” Perhaps this is what Moses felt like when he asked God to send someone else. There’s no way I would have said “yes” to this calling if it hadn’t happened seemingly by default. But people keep telling us that God brought us back to Wakaba “for such a time as this.” On good days, that’s encouraging. On bad days, I just want to run away from the pressure and the pain.

Still, shortly before we found ourselves in our current situation, God seemed unusually insistent in telling both of us that he was there, and he was walking with us. Both of us had an uncomfortable sense that something big was coming, so when it did, we weren’t all that surprised. “Ah, so that’s what it was.” That odd realization helped confirm in our hearts that we are in the right place, however difficult it might be at the moment.

I started doing an inductive study of the whole Bible last October. It turns out, that was a really good idea. I set a pattern of spending a lot of time on my “quiet time,” which has really helped me lately. I began to see that spending time with God was the only way I was going to survive, but beyond mere survival, I would even have something to share with others. (More on that thought later, probably.) That’s how I was able, despite never having preached in Japanese, to commit to preaching once a month--each sermon (so far) flowed out of my morning study/devotion times. From next month, I start a series in the Psalms! My very first sermon series!

Preaching on Easter Sunday
I still feel rather like I’m on a roller coaster riding between despair and joy… and there’s no end to that in sight. But I’m trying my best to find joy in remembering all that God has done for me, giving thanks for those little confirmations that we are in the right place, and God is right here with us.