Last Post in Japan: 10 Lessons I’ve Learned

Well, here it is…my last post as a program host and DJ in Japan. Hopefully not my last post as a writer, but I’m still mulling over what direction I want my next blog to go in if I have one. I have some great ideas, but also some other goals that may temporarily interfere with writing on a regular basis. That being said, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons while being over here that I wanted to share. Some are heavy, and some are light-hearted. My typical dichotomy. Enjoy the random pictures from my time over here!

Lesson 1) I have been taking precious relationships for granted. Sometimes it takes being separated from the ones you love to realize how much God has gifted you in that area. I even consider myself a very social and loving person, but for one reason or another, I tend to hold people at a comfortable distance so as to not be crushed if the relationship ends or even greatly diminishes. That fallacy leads to only nearly great relationships, and I’ve realized that no matter how I’ve been hurt by friends or loved ones in the past, I shouldn’t let the past have any sort of control over what may or may not happen in my future, especially in something as important as relationships.

Lesson 2) Anyone can learn to use chopsticks. I mean this literally and figuratively. Figurative chopsticks being ‘things we are unfamiliar with’, obviously. When being thrown into a foreign culture, for any amount of time, it causes a shift in the way you view the world and yourself. This may sound elementary, but you all of a sudden realize that the place you’re currently in isn’t just a spot on a map, but a place with real people and real customs, in some cases COMPLETELY different from your own. You get an insider’s look at how a person growing up in a certain place, views the world entirely differently than someone on the other side of the world does. After some time, you find a way to blend the culture you’ve grown up in with the culture you now inhabit. Basically you learn to use the chopsticks, or starve. For some this may cause a shift in their core beliefs and/or values, for others they may be even more strengthened in what they already believe and be even closer to being able to relate to others on a deeper level.

Lesson 3) Japanese television is REALLY hard to get used to. I’m not joking when I say that I spent a grand total of maybe 4 hours where I was intentionally watching Japanese TV. (Not counting when it was on in the background while I was eating in the cafeteria at my dormitory) At first, it was funny because it was so obnoxious, then it quickly lost its luster. They eat food on almost every show. Like…you’ll be watching the news, and one moment they’re talking about N. Korean plans to launch a satellite and the implications that will have on their society, and the next second they are all taste testing some Japanese delicacy and talking about how delicious it is. It’s hilarious! Don’t even get me started on the shock value of Japanese game shows. All that being said…the Japanese are hilarious when they want to be 🙂

Lesson 4) God is always pursuing us. I’ve talked with a couple of close friends about my faith journey while living in Japan, and I’ll give you the abridged version. It has been a rollercoaster. I have had some of my highest and lowest moments in my walk with God while living over here. Going from a society where I heard Christ proclaimed multiple times a week, was involved in student ministry, and had friends keeping me accountable in my faith, to living in a society where Christ isn’t proclaimed at all was much harder than I thought it would be and came with consequences. We aren’t meant to walk alone in our faith. There’s a reason Paul had Timothy. There’s a reason the disciples were sent out in pairs. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t know some Christians over here, or even that my friends didn’t encourage me from time to time. I’m saying that I didn’t seek out a dynamic of group growth that is needed in a Christian’s walk with the Lord. Going long periods without those needed interactions left me feeling numb among other things, which was my own fault. But God in His greatness still found ways to use me, even during times I was straying away from Him. On multiple occasions someone would blatantly ask me about my faith, and even make plans to grab a drink or a bite to eat and talk about God, faith, and purpose. I was baffled at the lack of knowledge of who Jesus is over here. One girl had never heard the two words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ put together, and thought that Christians had to spend years going door to door and selling books and pamphlets. There were far more misconceptions than that. There were times when I would hear myself professing Christ and wonder to myself why I even deserve to carry such an amazing message in my current wayward state. I finally realized though, that I will NEVER deserve to know, or even speak about Christ’s love. It’s by the Grace of God I even know what I know, and it’s the Spirit of God working inside me that yearns to love and speak truth to others. Once I realized I wasn’t even in the equation, and that I am just a vessel being used, it took the guilt and pressure off of me and I just spoke into their lives and prayed that God would reap. I have been constantly reminded that God is pursuing me even if I feel like I’m not worthy to be pursued, and that His love and grace far outreach our human expectations for what they should look like.

Lesson 5) When someone in Japan asks if you want ‘tako’, it doesn’t mean a Hispanic ‘taco’. Tako is the Japanese word for octopus. Write that down.

Lesson 6) God provides. This isn’t a new one to me, but rather one that repeats itself over and over again in my life, especially in times of trial. He gives me what I need, when I need it. He provided people over here that became amazing friends, and really even family. He provided a place to stay, where food was taken care of and there were people to help me with paperwork that I wouldn’t have had a clue how to do by myself. He provided a fun workplace with opportunities to travel around and see different parts of Japan and some other surrounding countries. He provided me a job that allowed me to explore my creative side and some free time to pursue other interests that I had put off, like writing, reading, or film work. I could go into great detail about how God has provided for me over here, but really if we all take a step back and look at our life like a timeline, it’s so apparent that God takes care of us. If you are a child of God, even parts of your life that are hard and messy, turn into good things on the other side. The most important thing to remember is that if God is so richly blessing us, we are responsible to unclench our fists and give back to others in need. The parable of the talents comes to mind.

Lesson 7) Japanese people are the most polite people ever. You might be saying to yourself…”Wow, that’s a pretty big generalization”, but I honestly mean it. I know they have a past (like every nation), but their current cultural expectations of how to treat others, is spread across the country in a way I’ve never seen. I’ve had a man in Tokyo walk 5 blocks out of his way to show me where I needed to go. I’ve been given gifts by two different Starbucks crews when they found out I was leaving the country. I’ve had locals come up to me and offer to show me where the most spectacular spots are in the area when I was traveling. Even amongst themselves, they give gifts to their family and co-workers after they’ve been traveling to other prefectures. Politeness is in their language, their postures, and in their greetings. I have been blown away time and time again this year by how these people show respect to each other.

Lesson 8) I can do WAY more than I thought I could. Those of you who know me, obviously know that’s only because of God working in me. God has gifted each of us in specific ways, and wants us to shine for Him in those specific ways. Moving to Japan, learning and performing a job that I had ZERO experience in, learning conversational Japanese, comprehending Japanese business practices, and being a world away from family and friends for a year were all things that I would usually shy away from in fear of failure and rejection.  For whatever reason, God granted me some gumption to say ‘yes’ with only a blurry view of what living in Japan might look like, and the results have been confidence, experience, and memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. What journey might God want to take you on, to grow you in very specific ways? Do you want to grow?

Lesson 9) Here’s a no brainer: Regular exercise and healthy eating will put you in good shape. I’ve always had a long and slender build, but it’s been interesting to watch how my weight fluctuates while being over here in Japan. Before I started biking 20 min to work at HFM, I actually gained some weight because I was eating baseball player sized meals (living in the Carp dorm) and only biking 5 min to work and then sitting all day. When my schedule changed and I started biking all the way across town to work I dropped several pounds. Then, my legs started to get huge because of all the biking that I was doing and my weight shot back up. When I started working out in the mornings a few days a week, I noticed another increase in weight, and when I started swimming a few nights a week, I saw a loss. I guess I’ll say it was more of a “weight re-distribution”, than a weight gain/loss. The only reason I watched my weight that closely is because there was a nice scale right by the showers and it was easy to step on and see what had happened, and Japanese people would allllllways ask me my height and weight in kilos. Eating foods with basically zero preservatives, which are fresh and well-balanced, has made me more conscious of what I eat… in a good way and I’m definitely in the best shape of my life. I’m used to working out, but I’m hoping to bring this habit of healthy eating back to America with me. I’ll need some accountability partners.

Lesson 10) I can’t remember where I heard this, but the quote: “You usually don’t discover what you love to do, you re-discover it” has really been on my mind lately. One good thing about being separated from a comfortable place for an entire year is that you can really explore parts of yourself that didn’t get a lot of exercise in your bubble of comfort. I’ve rediscovered my love of capturing a moment and telling a story in speech and writing, of meeting new people and making new friends (not a shocker), of traveling and experiencing different cultures, and finally of telling stories through filming and video editing. Now this last one might be a surprise to some, since I don’t talk about it a lot. I started experimenting with editing film at the end of high school and then took 2 or 3 classes in editing, directing, and storyboarding in college. I remember the first time one of my videos was shown in front of an audience (approx. 1,000 people) there were moments of roaring laughter and then almost everyone applauded at the end. It was my first time being a part of something that I liked to do and other people enjoyed too. Then…(here come the excuses), life happened. A mixture of different circumstances led me away from having the hardware, software, or time and really even the heart to pursue any projects in this field. But now, I can’t make those excuses…and I don’t want to, even if I could. I’m ready to take chances and see what happens. It doesn’t always have to be a big change all at once. In my case, I plan to do side projects to gain experience before jumping further into it. God will either bless it or close doors appropriately, but it’s my job to take steps and I have more confidence to do that now than I ever have. Is there something that you love to do that may be risky, but you’re more interested in making excuses for why you’re not doing it? Is living a safe/sheltered life actually living?… or is it just surviving?

For those of you who have read my blog and encouraged me to keep going, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing a little about this journey I’ve been on for the past year. Like I previously mentioned, I may start another blog, so stay tuned to see what direction I go in. I also hope that you were somehow encouraged or inspired…or maybe just got a good chuckle from something you’ve read here. If you hear nothing else, hear this: Take chances and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. God can do more with our messes than we can do by playing it safe, and it glorifies Him more in the long run when others see how He’s worked in our lives. Thank you again, and God bless!

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New Zealand Adventure: Day 4 (Hiking Fox Glacier)

Queenstown, NZ Day 4 (Hiking Fox Glacier)

Now, if you’ve been reading the past few posts, you’ve most likely seen a common theme of procrastination in getting to our adventures, which yields us putting our lives on the line during hours of driving at maddening speeds on winding two-lane mountainous roads. Today was no different. This time it was a little more miscalculating on our part than blatant disregard to the clock. We thought we had more time. When we finally hit the road and started doing math in our head, we knew we were going to be cutting it close. The thing you need to know about New Zealand, at least in our experience, is that no matter where you’re driving, every new turn brings with it magnificent scenery. Even though we knew we were cutting it close, we still peeled off the road at times, left the car running (doors flung open) and ran to overlook spots to snap pictures of landscapes that no iPhone will ever be able to fully capture. We tried anyway. After about 4 ½ hours of wild driving through some of the most beautiful scenery we’d ever seen, we arrived at the Fox Glacier tour center with 8 minutes to spare. Well done Jacob…and honestly if anyone is ever in need of a get away driver, he’s your man.

The girl working at the counter said something about there may or may not be a helicopter tour of the glacier today because of a cloud system moving in on the area. Not what Jacob and I wanted to hear, but moments later we were relieved when we heard that we would indeed be going up. We loaded up with a group of 4 other people and headed to the helipad. After hearing some history of the glacier and receiving some hiking boots, we headed to the chopper and took off on an 8-10 minute tour of the glacier. This was my first time in a helicopter and it was an absolute blast. We travelled through the air as the pilot told us a little about what we were seeing below us. Meanwhile the lush rainforest sprawled out and opened up to show us the beginning of the Fox Glacier. At the bottom of Fox, there is a cave-like opening where the glacial melt runs through. Had Jacob and I not sprung for the helicopter tour, we might’ve hiked the lower portions of the glacier and seen where the glacier meets the rainforest more closely, but both of us wanted to do it right and hopefully see some caves and arches closer to the middle/top of the glacier. The pilot brought us around and started his decent towards a group of people who were waiting for a ride down. We hopped out and hunkered down as the chopper took off with the people who were waiting just moments before. Bits and pieces of ice flew at us at alarming speeds and I was immediately grateful that I had sunglasses on.

Jacob and Me just being awesome in a helicopter

View of the Fox Glacier from a distance in the chopper

It's hard to tell how big the glacier is from this point, but it's way bigger than it looks

We strapped on our crampons and followed the guide single file up the ice and therein started our 3-hour tour of Fox Glacier. Within the first 15 minutes we saw our first ‘arch’, which would later be completely outshined by many other several times its size. We stopped at a few small waterfalls and streams to bend down and drink in the pure, crystal-clear, unadulterated glacier water. I’ve never tasted better water. Jacob was a little hesitant at first to taste of the streams of goodness as I remember, but group peer pressure gave way to heavenly water tasting victory for him. Not too much time passed and we started to see some legitimate arches and caves, and snapped some pictures in front of them. Arches form, our tour guide told us, because of tension between faster moving ice at the top and more sluggish ice towards the middle and bottom, much like the bump that happens when you put your hands on either side of a piece of paper and push one hand towards the other. The Fox Glacier can be equated to a slow-moving waterfall, because most of the glacier moves between 1 and 3 meters per day, causing new formations on a regular basis and making the tour guides change their paths often. We crawled through a few arch caves and found some pretty cool pools and even got to hear the glacier crack a few times, letting us know that it indeed was moving daily. It was a partly cloudy day, but the sun was out for a good amount of time. At one point, we were told to look behind us, as it was clear enough to see the Tasman Sea. This is probably the only time in our lives where we would be standing on a glacier, looking through a rain forest into a sea. Probably, but not definitely.

Me after climbing down into an arch that led down into a cave...

Our guide told us that the Fox Glacier is at a low point right now, but that the height of the glacier varied every decade or so. He said that there was a low point back in the 70’s I believe, and then a high point in the 90’s. It was somewhere close to the end of our hike that I realized how sunburnt I was. Neither Jacob nor I had bothered to apply one drop of sunblock. I know, I know…what’s the first thing you put on when you’re getting ready to hike on a glacier for 3 hours? Sunscreen! I knew that tomorrow was going to be rough, and instantly started beating myself up for not being smarter. Jacob didn’t look as bad as I did initially, but later in the day his shade of red darkened like mine had.

The clouds rolled in towards the end of our tour and the guides joked around that they had always wished that one time they would be stranded with a bunch of hikers so that they could finally use the emergency camp set that hadn’t ever been used. I didn’t know that the helicopter wasn’t able to retrieve hikers if there was a substantial cloud cover. The guide said there were crates full of awesome food and drink and even a box of chocolate to hold us over how ever long we needed to be up there. Unfortunately, the clouds didn’t roll in like that, and we sped away safely in the helicopter.

The ride back to Queenstown wasn’t nearly as rushed, but we had actually told our Brazilian friends that we’d meet them at a local pub for a few dart games, so we only stopped a few times for pictures. (one shown below) When we arrived back to Queenstown they were actually an hour late in meeting us, but when they got there, they were stunned to see how red we got and we got to hear a good Brazilian chuckle out of it. We talked about traveling for a few hours, and they completely talked me into going to Rio at some point in my life. Before sleep that night, we picked up some aloe lotion and applied it thoroughly before finally calling it a night. Tomorrow was yet another early morning as we had rescheduled our Dart River wilderness safari ‘Jet Boat’ tour and ‘Funyak’ adventure for that day. Many parts of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ were filmed in the area we would be going, and a large portion of the area itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

To be continued…


New Zealand Adventure: Day 3 (Glow worms)

Queenstown, NZ Day 3

This is another guest post by my good friend Jacob Matthews. Please enjoy and watch for more posts of this 8 day NZ adventure!!

After another night of being lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of techno beats we woke up bright and early for a 7:30 am bus-ride to the small town of Glenorchy on the north side of Lake Wakatipu for a full day of Jet Boating and Kayaking on the Dart River. A little sleep deprived and still jet lagged we make our way down the street to the shuttle. Upon walking to the bus stop we discover that it’s cloudy, slightly chilly and rainy out. A little saddened that the rain would possibly hamper our day 3 adventures we made the ride along side the beautiful Lake Wakatipu towards the Dart River. Once we arrived there we were given the option to reschedule due to the weather. So we opted to do that and hope for nicer weather later in the week. After rescheduling we took the bus back down to Queenstown and regrouped to make other plans for the misty day.

Not a good day for jet boating and canoeing

We caught a quick breakfast, some much-needed caffeine, and then headed back to hostel to rest a little bit. On the way back to the room we stopped by the travel desk in the lobby of the hostel to see what we could do on a rainy day…. and then it hit us: GLOW WORM CAVE! Yep! You read it right! New Zealand and Australia are some of the only places on the planet where you can explore underground caves that house thousands of glow worms that sparkle along the roof of the caves. So we booked a 2pm tour at some caves near Te Anau, another small town about 2 hours south of Queenstown. Once confirmed on the trip we went back up to the room. Our room was small, but had all the necessities like a mini fridge, bathroom and a small TV with about 4 channels. One of those channels was a movie channel. This was our first downfall. When we sat down we got sucked into watching… you guessed it…the new Karate Kid.

After watching the entire movie and loosing track of time, we realized we had exactly 2 hours to make a 2 1/2 hour drive to TeAnau. Running to the car, with the Justin Beiber song “Never Say Never” in our heads from the Karate Kid credits we pulled out the old school paper map and very quickly headed down to Te Anau. The clouds and rain had moved out, and it was turning out to be a pretty nice day. (Dear Parents – IGNORE THIS PART) Hurling & Winding through a two-lane mountain pass, down the length of 2 lakes, and across many sheep pastures we finally make it to Te Anau. By a minor miracle and by the grace of God we made it to the boat for the glow worm tour with 4 minutes to spare, even after a couple of picture stops along the way!

Now, just so you know Thomas and I sat several goals for the trip of things we both wanted to check off “the list.” Here are just a few:

*Skydiving – Check!

*Be the life of the party somewhere – not yet.

*Pick up a hitchhiker – nope.

*Practice our New Zealand or Australian accents – Constantly checking this off the list!

Smooth operator

With that said we hopped on the boat, which was to ferry us across Lake Te Anau and to the caves. We quickly grabbed a seat and started conversation with a few people seated around us from Australia. They asked where we were from. Thomas replied “The States… Tennessee to be exact.” And all of a sudden the Aussies gasped, said “No Way!” and started laughing. They yelled at this group of high school Aussie Girl Scouts (to one girl Haylee in particular), and told them we were from Tennessee. Immediately, this huge group of Australian Girl Scouts swarmed us and started chattering away. Apparently, this girl, Haylee, in their group has been infatuated with Tennessee, the southern accent and country music. She went on and on about how her biggest dream is to move to Nashville and live. She tried to speak in a Southern accent for us, which was really funny. It sounded like southern meets Australian with Aussie slang. Our loud and comical conversation was captivating all the attention from everyone on the boat, and we soon realized that we could check another goal off the list. We became the life of the party, there was no doubt about it. (pictures of this whole event were on Thomas’s iPhone which, as most of you know…was lost tragically while canoeing down the Dart River on Day 4…a moment of silence…..)

Tom taking pics from the ferry

NOT the boat we took 🙂

Cave exploring is no laughing matter

We arrived at the docks for the cave, disembarked the boat and made our way into the cave. First let me say our tour guide was the “tour guide nazi” type – super strict, extremely knowledgeable, and loved her job/caves. I could tell Thomas and I were gonna get into some sort of trouble. The cave was really dark and we followed the procession of our group into the dark depths. She pointed out several waterfalls and formations as we made our way to the glow worms. There was a river running through the entire cave system and the sound of moving water echoed off all the walls. Finally, we made it to this little boat near the rear of the cave. She told us to step in and have a seat. She also told us to be very, very quiet and just “take in and absorb the beauty, awe and splendor of the worms.” Thomas and I looked at each other and kind of chuckled. All the lights went out in the cave and our guide pushed us along the underground river to the worms. All of a sudden we looked up and it was like tens of thousands of little stars glowing and shimmering on the roof of the cave. It is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my life, but we weren’t able to take pictures which was a bummer. Here are some from the internet to show a portion of what it was like.

As we cruised through the dark admiring the glowing specs in silence I was immediately reminded of a scene from the movie “Euro Trip” where these kids go through a pitch-black train tunnel in Europe. A strange Italian man puts his hand on another guy’s leg, they emerge from the tunnel, where the kid has a perplexed look on his face and the Italian says “mi scusi”. (To watch the scene go here: http://youtu.be/ivSMNbaXRSE ) I for some reason felt the need to reenact the scene in the cave. So I did what any movie buff would do and quickly put my hand on Thomas’ leg and said “mi scusi!” We both died laughing. It must have been like a quarter of a second after I said “mi scusi” and our nazi tour guide immediately blinds us with this massive spot light and proceeds to “SHHH” us. Well, that only made us laugh more. Needless to say we “ruined” the ambiance and were on her bad list, but the cave was amazing and we had a good laugh out of it.

We took the ferry back to Te Anau, said good-bye to our new Aussie Girl Scout friends, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back to Queenstown making sure to stop plenty for random pictures. That night we met up with our Brazilian friends from Skydiving at the club at our hostel. We partook in a few Euro dance beats of our own with our new friends and retired for the night as we rested up for our big day on the glacier the next day. With it being another 4-hour drive we needed some rest, as we knew tomorrow would be another early morning and long day of adventure.

To be continued…


New Zealand Adventure: Day 1

Hey everyone! Because Jacob and I have so many pictures between the two of us (more so Jacob since I dropped my phone in the Dart River in the middle of the week), and there were 8 days of adventures and funny stories in New Zealand, we thought it would be fun to split the days between the two of us. This first day will be a guest post by one of my best friends, Sir Jacob Matthews. This is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Take it away Jacob… -Tom

Sir Jacob of the Matthews clan

So after watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy several years ago and seeing the epic scenery of New Zealand in the film, I vowed to one day have an epic quest of my own. It didn’t necessarily need to involve a ring, or me barely escaping dark forces, but it definitely needed to be filled with adventure. One thing I can say, is that New Zealand is known for adventure. In fact, Queenstown, NZ is called the “adventure capital of the world.”  My quest and dream to explore New Zealand came to fruition a week or so ago now as I met my buddy Thomas, who’s living in Japan for the year, “down under” for 8 days of awesomeness. The following blog posts are an account of our perilous journey across the South island of New Zealand.

Day 1: Getting there

First, to set the stage, let’s get acclimated to the Kiwi culture with some vocab words. We would hear the following words on a daily basis:

1. Kiwi – what New Zealanders call themselves, also the name of their national bird
2. Good on ya – good job/right on
3. Too right – sweet/cool
4. Sweet As – oh that’s cool
5. Mum – mom
6. Heaps – tons/ loads

Good… Now that we’ve all had our vocab lesson our journey was to take place on Dec 12, 2011. I was flying from Los Angeles. Thomas was leaving from Japan and we were to meet in Queenstown on the afternoon of Dec 14. First thing that blew my mind was the time difference. I left at 10:00 pm on the 12th from L.A. and landed 12 hrs later in Auckland the morning of the 14th. The fact that I completely lost a day was insane to me. Ironically the day I happened to miss was the 13th which, shout out to my mum, was her birthday. Oops sorry mum.

My flight was late arriving into Auckland and I knew it was going to be really close trying to catch my connecting flight to Queenstown. So I ran through customs in NZ, grabbed my bags, and started running the 10 min walk between the international and domestic terminals in Auckland. About halfway along my run I thought to myself that something was wrong. Upon looking around I realized that I had left my backpack at customs in the international terminal. Now, this backpack had my life in it…my wallet, my cash, my passport and my phone. Yep. Pretty much my entire identity. I freaked out and ran back to the customs office and knocked on their exit only door to beg for them to let me in and look for my bag. After knocking the officer came to the door and went and looked for my bag for me. About 5 long minutes later he opened the door and handed my bag to me. The only word to describe that moment was elation! Upon getting my bag back I began the 10 min run to the next terminal again…knowing at this point it was hopeless and I’d already missed my Queenstown flight. So I made it to the gate agent and they rebooked me for a later flight into Queenstown. I finally arrived into this small airport nestled in between lake Wakatipu and a mountain range called ‘The Remarkables”. I got my bags and walked around the corner and see Thomas sitting next to the rental car counters, looking as handsome as ever (edited by Thomas). We caught eyes, ran to each other, and had a nice little man hug. Very reminiscent of a scene from a movie…only there was no romantic Harry Connick Jr soundtrack. After our little moment, we got our rental car and proceeded out of the terminal to head to our hostel. The rental car was far more expensive than we had imagined, and we were feeling a little defeated and tired, but were determined to not let it ruin our day.

Driving on the left hand side of the Road:
Once we loaded all of our stuff into the bright red hatchback Toyota corolla we headed to check into our hostel in downtown Queenstown. Stepping into the car I knew this would be a very different experience. The steering wheel was on the left hand side of the vehicle. I drove out of the parking lot to hop on the road to downtown. I have to say I was doing quite well until we came to our first intersection. Which, by the way, isn’t 4-way stop intersections… it’s all roundabouts. Not quite sure who had the right of way I proceeded to go when all of a sudden I hear Thomas start screaming and bracing “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.” I look over at him and then back and quickly realize there is a massive truck headed at us. I sped up and we escaped death.

Checking in to our hostel:
Breathing a sigh of relief we parked the car and got checked into the hostel. Stepping on the elevator at the hostel the first people we met were these two Korean ladies. They looked at me and Thomas and thinking they are Japanese, Thomas tries out some Japanese on them only to realize they are Korean. She looks at us and says in English “are you togethaaa?” (in Asian accent) Trying not to laugh Thomas and I just look at each other, and Thomas looks back at the ladies and responds “yes, yes we are.” they got off the elevator and we died laughing. After dropping everything off, we headed to a local pub and played some darts for a couple of hours and Thomas slaughtered me. (edited by Thomas)

Finally, we made it back to our room… The adventure had definitely begun and it was beginning to sink in. We were jet-lagged and un-rested, so we rested up for what the next day had in store.

To be continued…

Special thanks to Mr. Summers for letting me be a guest columnist on his blog. Much obliged sir.


Beppu: For Lovers.

Have you ever longed for the feeling of being a kid again? You know what I’m talking about; youthful vigor and the sense of wonder for the world around you while being deprived of the cares of what responsibilities lay directly ahead of you. That place may be Oita prefecture on Kyūshū Island, Japan. What other place can you visit a town frozen in the 1950’s? How many places allow for an impromptu parade down cobblestone alleyways while two old men serenade you with ancient Japanese guitar and accordion melodies? Where can you see countless hot springs with billowing steam and water with colors ranging from blood-red to turquoise? Where else can you go shopping for your groceries one moment and then the next you’re steam cooking them using natural steam vents in a local woman’s backyard? The answer to those questions is: ‘Not many places’.

Pinocchio and Mrs. Claus' love child!

Well, this was my third weekend in a row to go to Kyūshū, and I was especially excited because we were going to be going to the hot springs capital of the world – Beppu.  My friends here in Japan had talked up this city, as had the travelling book I bought before I came, hailing it as a honeymooner’s destination. On my walk to my local train station early Saturday morning, the air was crisp and the morning sun smiled warmly on me, giving me good vibes for this approaching trip. When my local train arrived at the bullet train terminal, I grabbed a quick breakfast sandwich so I didn’t have to eat some variation of seafood or rice for breakfast with my coworkers. I’m still not used to that. Imagine my surprise when one of the most beautiful girls I’ve seen on my short time on earth, angelically (and in slow motion, somehow) passes right in front of me and shoots me a smile that seemed to say: “I have 5 seconds before I’ll never be in your life again, tell me why that should change”. Now, imagine my dismay when I smiled back like a chipmunk with 30 acorns in his mouth…a mouth full of bacon, egg, cheese, biscuit, and more bacon. Moral of the story…take small bites.

On the shinkansen ride to Kokura station, Taka-san and I reviewed some notes and studied briefly the legendary and historically monumental Usa shrine in Usa-shi that would be our first of many stops on this two-day excursion. When we arrived at Usa shrine, we met with our tour guide and started down a long pathway towards a Torii gate that looked very similar to the one in Miyajima. Much like the last trip, I fell into the quandary of needing to interview and banter with Taka-san while at the same time, try to get great pictures for the HFM webpage. If I lagged behind, the cord from my mic would become taut and befuddle our sound man Kusada-san.  We made it work with some give and take. From what we were told, the Usa shrine was founded somewhere near 708-714 AD, and was the first of over 40,000 Hachiman shrines now in existence. It is the 2nd most prestigious shrine in Japan and still receives Imperial patronage. This wasn’t the first time I was awestruck with the Japanese attention to detail and overall national pride. Everywhere I looked was like a flawless garden. Historical or religious structures are kept pristine, and it almost seems like every blade of grass knows its place…every bush, trimmed to perfection. Another standard I see is that the elderly citizens comprise most of the tour guide force. Almost everywhere we’ve been, our guide has been well over 65, and they take great pride in being able to serve their community and share information with visitors. After we toured the shrine, we took part of a tradition of buying a fortune…or the opportunity for a fortune (some were warnings or curses), and then tethering them together with others. Mine was a warning: “Your current love interest (crush) may be dangerous.” Which makes perfect sense, since my present crush is a Thai gypsy working for a local circus as a knife throwing expert. I mean…tell me something I didn’t already know! Anyway, we had many places to visit during the first day, so we moved on…

The next thing that we did was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is a giant part of the city we were in called ‘Showa no Machi’. ‘Machi is the Japanese word for ‘city’, ‘no’ is like an apostrophe + s, and ‘showa’ stands for an era of time (1926-1989 AD) where Emperor Hirohito reigned. Obviously many things happened during this period, including: the Second World War, occupation of Japan, the status change of the Emperor from a ‘living god’, and the transformation of Japan into a democracy with a constitutional monarch. As we walked down the cobblestone streets, everywhere I looked had store windows full of retro paraphernalia or movie posters ranging from the late 1920’s to the late 1980’s, mostly from the 50’s and 60’s. The stores were still open for business, selling newer equipment in the back, and displaying nostalgic treasures in the front. The store clerks stood out front to wave to and greet us as we walked by. All of the buildings were from the late 40’s and 50’s and the overall combination of all these things left a mood in the air of a more simple time mixed with an eerie Twilight Zone feeling. We toured candy/toy shops, where most of the candies were also toys, e.g. a bubble gum flavored mint-shaped candy that doubled as an annoying whistle (picture below). In the back of the shop, was a museum of old toys, comics, movie posters, and other collections, while outside the shop were old style cars, a glass bottle Pepsi dispenser and hoards of kids playing with hula-hoops and spinning tops in the courtyard, like they were being paid to be actors…but they weren’t. A little later, a refurbished old bus took us on a more overview-like tour of the area. I had a great time, and felt more like a kid than I had in a while. Showa no Machi was a blast.

That night we headed into Beppu and met up with a couple of tour guides right next to Beppu’s oldest onsen/hotel, which was across the street from Japan’s first, and therefore oldest, arched alleyway. What happened next, was one of those moments that I knew was so special and so unique, that I was intentionally focusing my mind to remember every detail. Pure, unadulterated magic was happening right in front of my eyes as two old men, one in his late 60’s and the other in his 80’s, emerged wearing captain hats holding a guitar and an accordion. A small crowd had gathered at this time and soon we were off. The two captains led the way singing their old Beppu songs down the narrow streets like they had been doing for decades, and I gladly followed suit and soaked up every moment of it.

Oldest onsen in Beppu

First arched alley in Japan

The next day was filled with exploring different parts of Beppu. We spent some time wandering the streets and snapping some pictures, and then around lunch we headed to the local grocery store. I gathered from Taka-san that we would be picking out food that we wanted to have steam cooked, using a natural steam vent from a woman’s back yard. We choose our food, and headed towards her house. When we got there, I saw that she had turned her house into a place of commerce and had drilled down to the water source to use the natural steam to run a steam cooking business. She showed us which food needed to go into which basket, and told us that each kind of food has a certain amount of minutes that it should be steamed. We separated the food into three baskets and put the first basket on the vent, and she pushed a timer. Two minutes later we did it with the second basket, and two minutes after that, we did it again, so that when the timer went off, all the food was ready. Now, being an American, I thought it only proper to choose steak as one of my foods to be steam cooked…but to be honest, I didn’t even know you could steam-cook a steak. As we removed the burlap sacks and wooden tops from the wicker baskets with the food, super hot steam shot up in our faces, and we quickly took the food off the vents. It was all incredibly delicious, except maybe for the banana that we put in for giggles, which had bloated and was literally sweating.

Our final goal of the day was to take the Jigoku (Hell) tour in Beppu. Several different hot springs are on this tour, and it was a little more touristy than the rest of the trip, but still beautiful, nonetheless. We saw hot springs that ranged from bloody colored to turquoise in color, rocks that naturally steamed and a geyser that went off for 5 minutes every 25-30 minutes. Both my manager and myself were snapping pictures like madmen to attempt to capture some of the beauty we were experiencing during this whole tour.

The bamboo stick and basket is someone boiling eggs.

Geyser!

Steaming rocks...

Well, this upcoming weekend will be another business trip to Kyūshū, but this time to Fukuoka. I’m looking forward to sharing that trip with you as well 🙂

Sun setting on Beppu as the steam rises from numerous residential hot springs


Dream Job

A little over a month ago the president of the Carp (baseball team) had a meeting with my manager, a few other employees, and me about a series of business trips to Kyūshū that he wanted us to go on to help promote travel to that area. This past March, Kyūshū added a bullet train line to Kumamoto, which is a huge deal for an area that already thrives on the tourism generated from Mount Aso and the countless springs and onsens located there.

Yamamoto-bucho, Taka-san, Kusada-san, Nii-san and I arrived at the Shinkansen gate early one evening and immediately Kusada-san started taking sound samples for our radio program special. Part of the job this time was for me to help in the taking of pictures for the HFM website that is going to be featuring this series of trips to Kyūshū, so I started snapping away on my iPhone. Now, I had done interviews before, very many times in fact, but walking and talking with a mic and creating witty banter out of thin air with Taka-san for the next three days was proving to be quite a daunting task, especially with the language barrier.

The first night was spent getting the rental car, eating and then settling into the hotel. 5:00am came very quick, and just like that, we were off on our tour of the Kumamoto/Aso area. The first thing on our ‘list of things to do’ was to visit the biggest natural spring around Mount Aso. On our drive to the spring, the morning clouds spread out like a blanket over the valley below and let the peaks of the mountains bask in the rising sun, while the valleys waited their turn. Our tour guide met us at the welcome cabin and we wandered through a winding garden path with a large stream to our left, and finally entered the fountainhead area…the source of 60 tons of fresh spring water every minute! There were numerous springs where the water burst forth, but one in particular was awe-inspiring; and while no picture could do it justice, we did our best to capture this picturesque spot. Below a few feet of crystal clear water I could see dozens of little volcanoes of gravel, as the water shot up from the earth displacing whatever was directly above it.  We got a few sound bites of Taka-san and I drinking the water directly from the source, and talking about how incredible it was. I, for one, was surprised at how pleasing the temperature was. It was crisp and cool and probably the best water I have ever had the pleasure to drink. I made a joke to Taka that my parents had once told me when I was a child not to drink water from streams, because I didn’t know what was put in it up-stream, e.g. someone adding their ‘water’ to the water; but now I was the one upstream, and in fact, there was no upstream…only a spring of water gushing forth from the earth. I could drink with confidence. I did just that.

We loaded back into the van and started driving directly to Mount Aso. On our drive up the mountain, we stopped twice because…well, the view beckoned us to do so. In stark contrast to my last volcano climbing experience (7-8 hour hike through the night), this time we were able to drive all the way to the top where there was a parking lot and welcome center. Our ‘climb’ up a cement ramp took about 25 seconds, and I we were immediately face to face with the crater of the largest active volcano in Japan. Toxic steam billowed out constantly, and when the wind was to our favor, I could see the pristine turquoise color of the water brewing in the crater. We did some interviews of some of the spectators and gave our own impressions and took a quick look around and were soon on our way to Aso Shrine.

The first thing I noticed was how many children were in Yukata. Yamamoto-san told me that at ages 3, 5, and 7 the children are brought to the shrine for some sort of ceremony. Our tour guide was a 70-year-old volunteer who told us that this shrine boasts a rare two-roof gate, instead of the traditional three-roof gate. It was hard to take pictures there because he kept motioning me to come over to where he was while I was looking for good shots. I’m still amazed at how many rituals there are in this culture. To enter the shrine, one puts 5 yen in a trough, bows, claps twice, bows and prays (or wishes) …the order might be different. At one point, I saw some priest waving a large gold-plated scepter type thing over some children. Pretty standard, really 🙂

Next, of course, was horseback riding at El Patio Ranch. This part of the adventure, I was stoked for. When we arrived, the smell of manure immediately reminded me of the farm where I grew up, as did the dogs who ran to greet us. Riding a horse with a cumbersome recorder strapped to me, while holding a microphone tested my multitasking skills. After my ride-along interview with one of the guides, she asked me if I wanted to get the horse into a run with her. Now, it had been years since I’ve had a horse in anything over a trot, but my manhood was on the line. I dropped the recording equipment off and followed her lead. Running with a horse isn’t a ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of activity, so I was trying my best to recall proper technique while watching closely to how she was riding. Luckily, I did alright and ran Cheyanne about 15 times around the ring. When I got off, I could automatically tell my thighs and lower back would be having a little talk with me later about that little stunt. Taka rode a horse for the first time ever, and did great. I loved seeing him smile from ear to ear. We did some wrap-up interviews and hit the road.

We left the ranch and headed back into town where we took on a new tour guide who showed us around the merchant district of town. I was very impressed by the fact that there were no major restaurant or business chains. Everything was private and had, in most cases, been in a family for generations. We walked into several shops and did interviews and, to my great joy, walked into an akaushi (Red cow) burger shop where the owners were more than happy to provide us with as many free burgers as we could eat. I had two, and I can honestly say this beef was on a different level of freshness than anything I’ve had before. Ever. These cattle roam on the steep mountainsides and drink fresh spring water everyday. A cow’s lifestyle couldn’t get much more healthy than that if they had a gym membership. The rest of the evening consisted of doing literally THE most awkward thing I’ve ever done…interviewing gentleman as they bathed in the onsens. I’m not joking, we would march in…Taka and myself with mics and Kusada-san with his boom mic, and Taka would interview them as they sat there bathing and looking completely sheepish. Apparently, it didn’t strike my co-workers as awkward, but I was acutely aware that I was interviewing naked Japanese men.

Awwwwwkward

When we got to the traditional Japanese hotel we were staying at, I was still stuffed from the two mammoth burgers I’d had a couple of hours earlier. I had no idea that the hotel had prepared a substantial spread of food, and that I would be eating and giving feedback on how it tastes for the program. It was at this point that I remembered that one of my dream jobs was to be able to travel and get paid to critique food and amenities. Never in my life did I imagine myself being able to do that. I guess interviewing old bathing men was my payment to be able to live out that dream. After dinner I went to the onsen in our hotel and later went outside and soaked my feet in a hot spring and read a book in my yukata. That night was filled with a symphony of snores as my three male co-workers and I slept in the same room on futon mattresses on top of tatami mats.

Another early morning, we had to be up at 5:40. We had a quick breakfast and then were picked up by a tour bus that took us on a tour of the Aso mountain range, which is really the remnants of the ring of the original crater left after the mega eruption thousands of years ago. Everyone in the bus had their own winter coat folded and waiting in their seat, and at first I didn’t know why, but later when the roof of the tour bus retracted to give everyone a better view, nobody asked any questions and donned their nifty blue coats quickly. We got a good view of the sunrise and Taka and I shared the view into our mics. Next on the schedule was going to a community festival at Kumamoto and then touring the castle. The festival was fun, and I got a chance to see what a Japanese marching band was like and we also got a private photo-op with Kumamon. (Japan’s most famous ‘regional mascot’) Japan has a mascot for almost everything. Some cities have them, companies, all sports teams… you might think I’m making a gross overgeneralization, but come and see for yourself.

Last but definitely not least, was touring Kumamoto Castle. One of the most famous castles in Japan. We turned a lot of heads marching into such a crowded area with a posse of people recording what we were doing. We had two tour guides during our tour of the castle and it took quite a while to get through the entire thing, but when we got to the main area on the other side of the main structure my heart skipped a beat as I saw men and woman dressed in samurai, ninja, and guard apparel. I HAD to get some awesome pictures. One of my mantras is to ‘never shrink away from an awesome moment’. Once we got our fill of incredible pictures and interviews we went into the main castle. It was magnificent, and one of the most interesting parts was the area where the lord of the castle used to sit while people would come to visit him, or to have tea. It was incredibly ornate, and there were several sections of tatami that one had to cross over before finally arriving to where the lord was. To end our tour, we were given special privileges to go to the level above where the dining area used to be and eat the same meal that used to be served to royalty there hundreds years ago. This area has since been reserved for wealthy individuals to have wedding parties, etc. to gain funds for further reconstruction. Since we are doing a series on promoting travel to this area they allowed us to partake.

Caught a ninja on camera. That's more rare than seeing a unicorn.

Japanese super hero friends

I had an absolutely wonderful time on this business trip, as usual. Since it’s Thanksgiving, it’s even more proper to give God thanks for allowing me such an incredible opportunity to be able to do so many cool things. He truly has blessed me beyond measure in all areas of my life. I wish all my friends and family a happy Thanksgiving, and I’m excited to see you all over the holidays. Take time today to take stock of what God has given you and tell those closest to you how thankful you are for them.

I’m looking forward to posting my most recent new experience of watching Sumo wrestling in Fukuoka as well as attending a home church there. I have another business trip this weekend, which will be my third trip to Kyūshū in three weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂


The Beach.

Last week, I got to take part in one of the coolest things I’ve seen here yet. Every year, people from all over the area meet together and go to a selected beach and clean it from all the debris caused by oyster farming. Now, I realize that sounds pretty dreary, and to be honest, when I was staring at this event on my calendar before last week, I was wondering what I had signed up for. I didn’t realize that I would see the true heart of Japan in the process.

Oyster farming is an important business along the coast of Japan, but it unfortunately produces some debris in the water from the equipment that is used. Styrofoam floats as well as plastic and rubber tubing in-between each individual oyster can sometimes come loose and wash to shore. It’s not just a few of these floating oyster harvesters but hundreds, if not thousands. On the ferry ride over to Etajima, the scenery captivated me. There were islands everywhere, jutting out of the water, towering over the docks below and forming a sort of maze. We arrived at around 7:00am and headed to the beach where this year’s ‘HFM Clean Campaign’ would be held. When I first saw the debris, I went white in the face because it was only HFM employees there at this point and the task at hand extremely seemed pretty dire. I knew that there would be others there eventually, but I didn’t know how many. We set up some equipment, and everyone, except me, discussed the schedule for the day, and everyone’s responsibilities. I was briefed a few minutes later that I would be speaking in front of everyone and that the event would start at 9:00.

Between 7:00 and 9:00 people leaked in from everywhere. Some took the ferry over, while others drove or walked from the island we were on. The beach was teeming with people ranging from young to old, and by starting time I was confident that this beach was going to get one heck of a facelift. Luckily, the ‘talking in front of everyone’ was only a brief introduction, and shortly after the introductions were given, we gave the teams of people their instructions, and they were sent to their section of the beach to start picking, sifting, sorting and bagging the endless amount of debris.

The children were given tongs to pick the trash up and most groups had sifters to rid the trash bags of heavy sand. It became clear to me throughout the day that these people take tremendous pride in the way their country looks. They realize that this oyster industry brings commerce to the area, and are willing to give of their time and energy to help do what needs to be done to clean the area. I feel like sometimes in America there is a dichotomy of people who clean beaches and protest the businesses that might negatively contribute the debris, and then there are the people who argue for the rights of the businesses but don’t feel it’s their place to clean the beaches. What I saw happen bridged that gulf; and they are training their children to take pride in not only their nation, but in cleanliness and order and responsibility.

When the time was up, and we had carried the myriad of bags to the collection area, I turned around and saw a different beach than the one I saw in the morning. A co-worker told me that we would now be heading to a Mikan orchard (Mandarin Oranges), where everyone would get their free pick of as many oranges as they wanted (I had four). It was the community’s way of giving back to the volunteers that helped clean the beach. I never cease to be amazed at the generosity, politeness, and overall respect that the Japanese show each other and me. For anyone who gets a chance to visit Japan, I strongly recommend following through. If every country had an ounce of class that the Japanese possess, the world would be a very different place. I strongly believe that.

I’m growing to love nature more and more. It helps that I’m surrounded with beautiful scenery 24/7. For those of you who know me well, know that I’m not a granola-eating tree-hugger or an activist in any capacity on this issue, however; being in Japan has shown me a glimpse of national responsibility. They recycle everything. I would go as far as to say, I’ve only seen a handful of trash cans that aren’t marked with what is supposed to go inside. Most of them say either ‘combustible’ or ‘non-combustible’ at the very least. People tear off labels of bottles, and put the label in one container and the bottle in another. If there is no trashcan in sight, or it’s not the right kind for the trash for the container they see, they will carry it until they find one or put it in their bag until they get home. People also clean their walkways in front of their shops and homes at least a few times a week. I’ve never seen cleaner streets. I guess last week I was reminded that a little bit goes a long way when everyone is giving that same little bit; and that goes for any issue.

The next four weekends, I am traveling for business, and then I am going to New Zealand for a week and finally America to visit for 4 weeks. I can’t wait to see my friends and family for the holidays!