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!


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 🙂


Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami: A First Hand Look

We arrived in Sendai station by bullet train the morning of July 6th. Initially, it didn’t appear to be any different that any other city in Japan, but upon close inspection while we were in route to our hotel, I could see traces of reconstruction after the 9.0 earthquake that rocked the area months before. It has been labeled as one of the top five earthquakes in history. Most buildings here in Japan are built to sway when there are earthquakes, and some were probably more ready than others as I saw sheets and tarps over some shop windows and groups of construction workers in different areas.

After we dropped our luggage off at our amazing hotel, we caught a taxi to the train station where we took a 10-minute train ride to an area called Shichigahama, which is about 20km to the northeast of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. As the taxi took us down the street, my heart sank and time seemed to slow down as I saw debris as far as I could see. Houses where they shouldn’t be, and automobiles spread around like toys on a kid’s bedroom floor. As I’ve explained it to some friends: “I’ve seen flooded areas, and I’ve seen areas struck by tornadoes. This is like a combination of the two, with one of the biggest earthquakes thrown in the mix.” There is still standing water everywhere, and the stench from the rotting wood and debris stung my nostrils and made my throat itch.

For those of you who are not familiar with science behind earthquakes, Japan is right by where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet. When one plate slips under another, in certain places, pressure builds up until finally the plate releases, or snaps back into place- shooting or displacing water to the surface at nearly 500 mph making, in this case, a wave 45 ft high once it approaches land. This quake was around 15 miles below the surface, but shallow enough to cause this tsunami. Scientists believe that there will be aftershocks from this quake for months and maybe up to a year, with at least another speculated to be in the 7.0-7.9 range. This quake was 100 times more powerful than a 7.5, if that gives you any indication of how the scale works. (I’m still fuzzy)

We arrived at the volunteer center that morning in the beating sun. People were scurrying to and fro with different assignments and we were finally directed to the main building. We walked in and found area maps, supplies, tables with lists and assignments. We were greeted by Moshi-san who was the director of the volunteer center. She was a delightful lady who loved to speak as much English as she could. I immediately fell in love with her and heart to help as many people as she could. She gave us a short tour of the building and let us know that, as of yesterday, the volunteers were released to go to the beach; which until just recently was closed to volunteers. This was the area where many of the bodies ended up, after the surge of water came all the way in, and then drug everything back out. There were over 14,000 people who died and still over 10,000 missing. As you can imagine, the thought of stumbling upon a body was lingering in the back of my mind the whole time I was in the disaster area.

As we walked down the curvy road from the shelter, the lower elevation came into my view, as did the destruction. I can’t go through every thought that raced through my mind, but one was ‘how could an earthquake 80 miles off the coast, cause this much damage?’ None of us said a word the entire time until we reached the beach, which was about a 20-minute walk in the sun, with disaster as far as we could see. There was nothing to say. I saw in the near distance- parts of houses, with cars littered around it, and if I looked closer to the road it was all smaller things. A sewing machine, a busted bike, a flip flop, bedding, a necklace…things that aren’t supposed to be laying by each other, now finally brought together by extraordinary circumstances. I saw groups of volunteers, both Japanese and foreign, working together to clear debris from the drains that are on the side of the streets.

As we got to the beach, the sound of the waves did nothing to sooth what we saw. Containers from ships, either at port or near enough to land to be capsized by the tsunami, now plagued this once popular beach. There were no sand dollars or seashells to pick up. They had become tiny bits of plastic, wood, metal, glass, and every other kind of debris you could think of. There were bugs everywhere because of the rotting wood and dank fabric. I looked out into the horizon and shut my eyes and let the waves sooth me…I imagined I was in a different place, even if it was for only a moment. We spent quite a while on the beach and they interviewed me for the program we will be working on for quite a while. I didn’t really know what to say, but I just described what I saw.

When we got back to the volunteer center compound we looked to our right across the parking lot and we saw temporary buildings that we later found out had been erected to house families for up to two years until they found alternate housing. We interviewed Moshi-san and also a Russian volunteer worker named Dee-dee. Both of them described how people have decided to just smile to each other rather than wallow in defeat. Dee-dee was a favorite among the people at the center and even put on Yoga classes and sang mantra music with her guitar to the class. During my interview with her, she exclaimed that she had given up her possessions and high paying job to come and give herself to people. She said that sharing herself and showing love to other people was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. My mind immediately reeled, because this woman who was not a believer in Christ was practicing exactly what believers in Christ are supposed to do, but seldom do. She had embraced Buddhism and yoga and mantra to spread love with others. If we have the Light of the World in our lives, and are not sharing it or loving our neighbors…then we aren’t doing what we are supposed to be doing, and may God have mercy on us.

That night we ate the regionally famous cow tongue. Despite how it sounds, it’s absolutely delicious. It took me a minute to get on board with the cow tongue sashimi, but I eventually yielded. I’m glad I did. The boys wanted to out after our meal, but I reminded them that I got very little sleep the night before because of my awkward situation in Aomori, and they told me to be in the lobby at 8:00am. While I was laying in bed at about midnight, the building started to sway. I experienced my 2nd earthquake in Japan and could do nothing but look out my 11th floor window while the building swayed back and forth. It was a 5.6 off the shore in-between Tokyo and Sendai. Not too shabby. It didn’t last as long as my first earthquake, but it felt like this one had more aftershocks.

The next day was filled mostly with riding bikes up and down the coastline in the Shichigahama area. We weren’t able to assist the volunteers in any great way because we didn’t have the boots and gloves and other equipment to grab and wade through the debris. I did get the opportunity to interview some Christian volunteer workers that were taking a summer vacation to help in relief efforts. It turns out that two of the young adults were actually born here in Japan and lived here a short time before having to go back to Texas with their parents who were missionaries. The other young lady was also a missionary’s kid from Cape Town, South Africa and her father was there with them. I interviewed Mr. Thomas first, and he used every question I asked him to proclaim Christ and the people’s need for him. I loved it. I interviewed the others after that, and then chatted with them in length after we were done. It feels good to speak English at a regular speed and have people understand you and speak back. They were great people, and I was happy to see people over here helping that were sharing Christ while they did it. It was refreshing to me, and the group of 5 of us was one of the largest congregations of believers I’ve been in over here.

I think this whole trip taught me a lot about life and myself. It showed me that God can take you from a job that you’re not sure why you’re in, to Japan interviewing survivors from one of the biggest earthquakes in history. All He asks for is trust. Trust is the hardest thing for me to do, I’ve found, but He has always been faithful which will make trusting Him in the future easier I think. This trip taught me that things out of our control happen, and that they are the biggest opportunities for believers to share Christ with a world that doesn’t know Him; a world that seeks for ANYTHING else to fill their lives with to make them happy…even if it’s for a few moments. Most importantly, it taught me that every one of us has the potential in them to change the world around them with the gifts that God has given us. Whether you’re musically talented and serve people through that facet, or you give your time to volunteer your self to others without the prospect of anything being given back to you. Each of us has been specifically made to shine. So let’s do that!


Interview with a Shamisen Pro

Another early morning as we boarded a flight from Hokkaido back to Honshu to the city of Aomori, and I continued to forget that I don’t need to take my shoes off during airport security. In fact, people carry lighters onto the plane as well. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the airport and dropped our things off at our hotel after a VERY crowded bus ride to the district we were staying. The initial feeling I got just from riding through the city was that it was an area that had stopped growing and was now just surviving. I gathered as we continued that this was one of the busiest areas in the country during certain festivals. Aomori is a prefecture filled with rich history and replete with festivals and monuments to a time in the past.

 

As we arrived at the hotel, I was surprised to see many foreigners. I gathered from their dress that they weren’t American and soon heard that they were all Russian. There were mostly guys, but also several girls. I couldn’t get a read on what they were doing in the area, and still have no idea. Little did I know that they would be paramount in my first encounter with a Japanese prostitute, really any prostitute for that matter; but that’s later in the story.

We hopped into a cab to go meet at the house of Susumu Yamagami, who is a famous Shamisen player in Japan. His particular style is called Tsugaru-jamisen, which is a faster varying-beat style of playing. We arrived down the block from his house, and he rounded the corner of the street energetically and waved us towards where he was with a smile that could melt a Tasmanian devil. We headed his way and entered his house. Yamagami-san had a traditional style Japanese home with tatami mats and sliding doors. He also had an area dedicated to ancestor worship where there was incense lit and portraits of lost loved ones hanging above. We were seated in what I would call his ‘play room’. He had different instruments strewn about and he had brought out his whole collection from what it looked like. He immediately pulled out two shamisens and gave one to me to attempt to play.

The shamisen is played using a hand-held plectrum called a bachi (which looks like an ice scraper used to clear windshields). There are no frets on the shamisen which makes it nearly impossible to play the same thing twice, and for the most part, it is tuned to play accented sharps and flats. We played a little duet together, and I was surprised that I was a little better at shamisen than guitar because using the bachi to make a rhythm is part of the playing style. He laughed heartedly and gave me nods to keep doing what I was doing. After showing us his shakuhachi (bamboo flute) skills, we eventually started the interview that lasted over an hour, and he played several different kinds of shamisen music and explained where each came from. It felt amazing to be in the presence of a professional and to catch a glimpse of him in his element. I have an amazing job right now, and I’m thankful to God for allowing me to do what I’m doing.

Susumu Yamagami

As we set up everything in the local Aomori FM station to get a studio session recording with Yamagami-san, I watched him play a little warm up music with the shamisen and the shakuhachi and realized something about both different kinds of Minyō I had seen in the past two days. Having no frets, or specific notes, and only rough outlines to go by, allow the artist to put some of themselves in each song, and also allows the song to evolve from person to person as it is passed down through generations. There are forms of American music that follow these same guidelines…rules…teachings, and most are also traditional music from the past.

After parting ways with Yamagami-san we headed back to the hotel to dump his recordings onto my laptop and take a quick snooze before meeting with a friend of Matsuda Shacho for dinner. (Shacho is Japanese for president) ‘Shacho’ is the president of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team, and his younger brother is the shacho of the FM station where I also work. We met Numata-san in the lobby and exchanged gifts and business cards with him before heading out. We left the hotel and arrived at what I was told was one of the nicest sushi restaurants in the area. I believe the hype! This place was all business, and extremely fancy. We spent the next hour or two exchanging stories and family pictures and eating the most amazing sashimi I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Towards the end, he asked me what my two favorites were (tuna and crab) and ordered me two of each. He, of course, paid and spent a pretty penny on the meal. From what he told me of his multi-generational family business…he was good for it; in fact, the two restaurants we went to that night carried his products. It felt good to meet a long-time friend of my boss, and hopefully I made a friend in the process.

Sakashit-san, Numata-san, and myself

Now, here’s where it get’s really interesting. Mom, if you’re reading this to Grandma, please skip to the end. Some of you heard a bit of this story because I had to post it on Facebook. I literally couldn’t help myself, because it’s so off the wall. Well, we had to get up the next day at 4:50am to catch the bullet train (shinkansen) to Sendai and I finally got to sleep at about 1:15. I was awakened suddenly by knocking on my door. At first, I thought I had slept in, but as I passed the desk I saw that it was 2:20am. I opened the door and a pretty girl in her 20’s wearing a short skirt with stockings smiled at me and brushed past me into my room. I stutter stepped backwards and blocked her saying: ‘whoa whoa whoa, sumimasen (pardon me) and led her back to the door. She attempted to explain to me something, but I had no idea what she was saying and didn’t know if she was a hotel employee or was mistaking me for someone else. After a minute I stepped back and started to close the door, apologizing for not understanding what was going on, and she walked away looking frustrated. As I returned to bed, in a stupor I was fading back into sleep and I was awoken by another series or knocking. Same girl. I cracked the door this time, and she handed me a cell phone where a gentleman spoke very slow Japanese to me. (which doesn’t help when it’s in the middle of the night and you speak pretty much only English) We went back and forth, and I would tell him in Japanese that I didn’t understand. I ended the conversation with a ‘gomenasai’ (I’m sorry), handed the phone to her, shrugged my shoulders, smiled, and shut the door. It wasn’t until the next morning that I pieced everything together and realized I had been talking with her pimp and that the Russians had probably given the wrong room number. Quite an experience, and the boys got a kick out of it. It was a reminder to me though, of how rampant the sex trade is, especially in Asia. Very sad for the girls caught up in it.

The next morning came in the blink of an eye, and I moved like a zombie to and from the train stations. I knew I had to pull myself together because we were getting ready to do a great deal of walking along the devastated areas near Sendai for the next two days. Good thing there is a vending machine around literally every corner in Japan. I loaded up on caffeine after my nap on the bullet train and was good to go. What I saw when we arrived…..I was in no way ready for.


First Japanese Business Trip: ‘Traditional Japanese Music’

After much deliberation and countless sleepless hours pacing back and forth in my room, I’ve decided to split up my blog post from my most recent trip into a trilogy. It would be too tough to pack all into one and people LOVE trilogies! Besides…it would be questionable who would actually read it, and I don’t want to sacrifice content on the altar of easy reading. So here’s a ‘condensed’ recap of the first day of my trip…

6:50am came soon that Monday morning, and after I made a couple last-minute substitutions on my packing, I was out the door and into my cab. As I watched from the back seat the city move and breathe at such an early hour, I thought to myself an all too familiar thought: ‘I could get soooo much more done in a day if I woke up earlier’. Oh well, somebody has to be a night-owl. As I arrived (early) to the Hiroshima station I waited for about 15 minutes for Sakashita-san and Morishima-san to arrive. I watched as hundreds upon hundreds of students passed through the station from different areas around the city. Moments later the boys arrived, and we hopped on a bus that took us on a 40 minute ride to the Hiroshima airport. Our first destination of the trip was Sapporo, which for those who don’t know is located in Hokkaido (the big island North of the main island Honshu). When we arrived, after a myriad of transfers from one form of transportation to another, I couldn’t believe how nice it felt. It wasn’t humid at all, and I wasn’t sweating like a weirdo. Very refreshing.

I'd be lost without these guys

First view exiting the Sapporo station

The point of the first part of the trip was to not only listen to traditional Japanese music and draw comparisons with American traditional music, but also to interview people who were noted as some of the best in their craft…the leaders of their peers. First on the list was Mariko Sasaki who was the ‘Nambu Ushioi Uta’ (Cattle Herding Song) singing champion after last year’s contest, which consists of singers from all over Japan. The first time Morishima-san translated this to me, he said: “We are going to interview the ‘Cow Chasing Queen’. Now, I don’t know how your mind works, but here’s where mine went. I imagined Japanese people greasing up a cow and smacking it with a stick and then chasing it for a prize, much like the infamous American subculture of chasing a greased pig at county fairs. No such luck.  Now, Sasaki-san has been singing for over 25 years and has travelled countless times for festivals and contests. I couldn’t wait to meet her and hear what her style of Min’yō sounded like. I was going to be in the presence of a true Japanese professional, and I was stoked.

We caught a cab at the Sapporo station after arriving from a train that took us from the airport. It took us across the street, literally a block and a half away. We looked at each other and laughed after we got dropped off; I think the driver could have told us it was such a short walk, but…you have to pay the bills somehow. The hotel was very upscale and smelled of rich mahogany, but the rooms were pretty small compared to American hotels. Honestly though, it had everything that was needed and showed that a person doesn’t need lots of space to be comfy.

Entrance to the hotel

Cozy little room

We entered the building where the Sapporo FM station was held and went to the top floor. We were greeted and ushered over to an area where we were brought drinks and asked to please wait for the director to brief us. A few moments later Sasaki-san joined us and we all did a series of bows and exchanging business cards and region specific gifts. There is a specific etiquette to exchanging cards(Meishi)/gifts and initial greetings in Japan and is a great way to see culture here displayed. We were then introduced to the director of the station and had another series of card/gift exchanges and bowing ensued. All of us headed to the studio that had been reserved for us and began setting up the equipment to record Sasaki-san singing the ‘Nambu Ushioi Uta’.

       

I was startled as she began to sing this song, and goose bumps immediately spread as I was transported to a time centuries ago where Japanese people would sing songs about work to pass the time while bringing fish from the coast back inland on carts being pulled by cows. I closed my eyes while she lulled me…the feeling was eerie and chilling, and seemed to drip with history. The song has 3 parts and is about 9 minutes in length I believe. I think one part is from the perspective of the cow as well, if the translation was correct. This form of Min’yō has been compared to African-American ‘call and response’ style music, for the simple fact that it was sung to pass time while at work. However, I believe it sounds more like traditional Native American and possibly even Middle Eastern, in that it focuses on sharps and flats rather than majors. Listen for yourself below:

   

We had a good time too, and I joined in singing a duet with her after being urged to by Morishima-san; even though I was already on my way to the microphone once I saw we had what we needed. I did my best impression and she was actually really impressed, or at least said she was. She did tell me that I was singing all from my throat and not my diaphragm, but I’ll leave the professional singing to her I think. Especially since the sheet music for Minyo has no actual notes, but just markings for high/low and for vibrato. The singing style reminded me of how an accordion works, because long amounts of words are sung within a breath. The diaphragm is used as the foundation and the throat is used to ‘decorate’ the notes with vibrato.

Duet with the Queen

That night we went to eat at a place that had the Hokkaido-famous ‘Jingisukan’ (Genghis Khan). It’s a mutton based meal where you grill your meat on a convex surface grill with a piece of lard melting at the apex and onion slices mixed around on the sides. There really aren’t words to describe how great it was. Maybe ‘scrumptrulescent’ will suffice. ‘It was so great that any other word employed would be woefully insufficient, and would serve only to limit the sheer magnitude of the greatness intended as a descriptor’. Thanks Will Ferrell and SNL, for that beautiful word.

Jingisukan

Fresh mutton just put on the grill

After a night on the town, it was back to the hotel for a short night’s rest and then an early flight the next morning to Aomori prefecture, Aomori city to interview a famous Shamisen player. It honestly only gets better. Prepare yourself for part 2 🙂

Downtown Sapporo

Happy guy