Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our last weekend in Tokyo of 2008

Part 1: Playing catch-up

We just finished the first semester with our students, but rather than leave to fly back to Minnesota immediately after school let out on Friday afternoon, we decided to put in a buffer period of two days to organize our life and get some R&R. So, that's exactly what we did yesterday.

I woke up early to take out the trash and, after getting my fill of the political landscape around the world and taking a short bike trip to the store for a carton of milk, began cleaning. Together, Rachael and I cleaned for several hours: scrubbing, mopping, wiping, vacuuming and organizing. See, we have the advantage of being foreigner observers in what has to be one of the most obsessively clean cultures in the world.

Just a few of the rules and regs: 1.) Remove your shoes upon entering a fitting room, a restaurant, or a home, 2.) Sweep up literally every single fallen leaf in front of your house or business...every single day, 3.) Cover your trash bags in a large mesh blanket so as to discourage naughty crows from disturbing the clean ground that you just meticulously swept of disobedient leaves, 4.) Dust and mop, inside and out, on a daily basis, 5.) Using a warm towel, wipe your hands (some their face and neck too) before eating, 6.) Take all your trash and recyclables home when you are out and about, because there are no public trash cans so your trash is your responsibility, 7.) Place cigarette butts in appropriately labeled smoking station depositories, and smoke in sealed rooms inside of train stations and shopping malls. Needless to say, the list goes on.

And on. Although the task of conforming to these new standards has not always been easily managed, we have begun to pick up on these disciplined habits and incorporate them, nearly full-scale, into our life here. Surprisingly, rather than make life more complicated and difficult, it actually ends up reducing stress, because doing a bit each day nullifies the need to have big cleaning sprees where we spend hours, or even days, cleaning up our messes from the days and weeks before.

Part 2: Masks

Since arriving in Tokyo, we have made several attempts to get a window into the Japanese culture- to understand its intricacies, its beauty, and the unique aspects of a guarded culture that one can only experience living within the coastal frame of Japan. We have gotten a peek through some of those windows, but up until last night, we realized that we haven't gotten to know Japan as well partly because we don't know many Japanese people very well. Our life is an insulated one, working at an international school and attending an English-speaking international church.

Last night, we visited a local onsen, or Japanese hot spring. For the first time, we actually saw and heard couples talking sweetly to each other, and saw families interacting with one other. They actually spoke! All right, I exaggerate, but it is incredible how people do put on very public masks and don't often allow them to be penetrated, especially by curious gaijin like us.

Like yesterday, for instance; I was out shopping and bought my grandmother a leaf-sweeper (a bit of an inside joke- she is equally as obsessed with sweeping leaves in her driveway in Iowa as are Tokyoites). The young woman at the checkout counter set the sweeper down and started counting my money. The sweeper fell. She picked it up, and apologized twice. Then, she began counting again. The sweeper fell again. She apologized again. There was no acknowledgment of the comedy of the situation. Just an apology, and she handed me my change. I chuckled a little, hoping to get the same out of her, but no reaction.

Part 3: The onsen experience

Anyway, back to the onsen. When you enter an onsen, you remove and store your shoes, pay a users’ fee, receive towels and a pretty stylish Japanese jogging suit, and have full use of the several different hot springs and bathing facilities for the day. After changing, we both wandered around our respective locker rooms, and came back out to the front, bewildered as to where to go or how to begin. I had read before that one must first bathe before entering the hot springs, but I wasn’t sure where or how to do that.

Immediately upon exiting the locker room was a small tub with ladles. It didn't look big enough to sit in, and I wasn't sure if I should take a drink with a ladle (like at a Shinto shrine) or spoon water onto myself. Next, in an adjoining large room, there were several buckets on the floor along the walls. Water spigots and bottles appearing to be soap or shampoo were placed near each bucket. That looked like a promising place to start. Next to that room, there was a large older man lying face down, getting a sponge bath from a pretty young woman. That was not so promising- especially for a happily married gaijin looking to keep things that way. :)

Luckily, a kind older gentleman could see I was pretty unsure of what to do, so he offered to show me to the outdoor pools. Rachael just had to fend for herself and try to find us. Eventually, we met back up on the other side of the bathing area, and walked in the direction pointed out by our new friend. Although it was in the lower 40s, we walked barefoot down a magical wooden path under an umbrella of red Japanese sugar maples, past statues and manicured bushes. Finally, we made it to the outdoor pool. We sought out this particular pool because swimsuits were required there. No, we weren't quite ready for the whole coed-naked approach to relaxing at the spa.

For the next hour or so, we sat in the corner of a seemingly ancient symmetrical stone pool looking out on the city lights. This particular onsen is located on the top floor of a tall building in our neighborhood, so it overlooks the city and even has a clear view of Mt. Fuji. It truly feels as though you're in a forest that happens to have a view of the entire city. The water was a pale green, stemming from the various minerals in the rocks and water, and steam skimmed and swirled across the surface. The combination of the frigid air and the 106 degree water worked wonders to put both of us at ease.

We decided that the onsen must be the Japanese fountain of youth. In rural and pre-modern Japan, the onsen was the method of bathing for entire communities. After working the fields all day, men, women and children would come to the onsen to bathe and relieve their stressed muscles in the scaldingly hot water. With the fast pace of Japanese work life, we can certainly understand why the onsen is still a popular spot today. Maybe someday we'll get up enough courage to go to a more traditional onsen; you know, the kind where swimsuits are not only optional but not allowed. Until then, we'll definitely be returning to this hidden jewel, just a three-minute walk from our apartment.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Weekend Fun

This weekend was a fun-filled one. After a week of doing something akin to containing a nuclear explosion with our bare hands (teaching classes of boys the week before Christmas break), we definitely needed some time to recover, relax, and hang out with friends.

Friday night started out with a farewell party for our friend from Lyon, France, Regis Philbert. First, we wined and dined at a nearby "izakaya" (like a local tavern with a nice variety of grilled and fried food: Then, we went back to see our friend "Noboru," who owns and operates another small izakaya with space for about nine people. Surely he wasn't expecting to fill six of those seats with gaijin, but we definitely enjoyed seeing him again, along with the three completely plastered Japanese that were there before us. With the degree to which Japanese people in Tokyo keep to themselves, it's always a treat to find an intimate atmosphere like one of these restaurants and try our best to communicate with the locals.

Noboru served up his perfectly poured Asahi beers (just the right amount of head on top, usually much more than we're used to in the States) and decided he wanted us to try two of his unique dishes. The first was a fried chicken wing that he had stuffed with the filling usually reserved for gyoza dumplings. Absolutely mouth-watering and delicious. The second was a bit more on the bizarre side. Like a cartoon with a lightbulb above his head, his kind and gentle face lit up with a great idea: serving us some specially prepared squid beak. As you'll see in these photos and videos, it was an interesting experience, and one which we both were brave enough to enjoy. We thanked Noboru and our kind neighbors and headed out to see another long time friend, the local karaoke joint.

Check out the videos below for a delightful window into the world of karaoke in Tokyo.

We called it a night after singing for an hour, and hopped on the train to lazily ride for one stop, rather than take the twelve minute walk home. Well, either hubris or karma came back to bite us because taking the train turned out to be a very bad idea. The train car was definitely crowded and stuffed to its limits, which under normal conditions is stifling enough. Even worse was the out of control heat that was blowing enough to simulate the feeling of being in the Amazon jungle. Worst of all, the train stopped, stalled and restarted for nearly 20 minutes in a tunnel. Talk about claustrophobia setting in. This was actually the first time we'd been on a train that was late, delayed or malfunctioning, and we certainly don't hope to repeat the experience anytime soon. Not cool Tokyo, not cool.

(haha. For the record, my lovely wife just said "Uno moment sil vous plait." Yes, in one sentence, she was successfully tri-lingual.)

This morning, we woke up without an alarm and Rachael made french toast, my favorite. Yes, I am spoiled rotten. The rest of the day consisted of meandering around retail Tokyo- in Shibuya and Omotesando- for Christmas gifts. It was one of the first Saturdays we've had in a while that actually felt like a Saturday, so we're both grateful for that. Now that our bellies are full of sushi and lettuce wraps, we're cuddling up to watch a Top Gun VHS that I snuck into our baggage.

8 days 'til we get home! Thanks for stopping by and please leave a comment if you have time.

Shibuya Xmas

Shopping in Shibuya


Friday, December 5, 2008

Japanland Joys

Now that I'm recovering from a horrible stomach flu that took out a couple teachers and dozens of 1st and 2nd graders this week, I planned on blogging today, but didn't really have much on my mind.

And then BANG, it hit me. Not an idea, but an email.

"Dear Brad
Please refrain from hanging beddings etc., over the Railings.because it spoils the image of the building.

Seriously. Since I've been so sick, and Rachael has so far avoided catching this, we bleached our apartment and washed all of our sheets and comforter. I hung the comforter outside for oh, about 2 hours, and got this email while I was at the bank this afternoon.

Once, Rachael parked a friend's bike downstairs overnight, which we had never done before and will certainly not do again. When we left for school the following morning at 7:45am and went to look for the bike, our wonderful neighbor was looking it over with his hands on it, and looked like he was going to move it out of the apartment property.

We really have tried to be good neighbors. No loud parties. No drunken foreigners spilling out of our place in the early morning hours. We take out our trash on time. We keep the place clean.

But for two hours, I put my comforter outside and get an email like this? Here's the worst part, though; I bet a dozen other people felt the same...or even more strongly and just couldn't tell us!

Thanks to Rebecca Cahill, I'm reading a fantastic book about the heart of Japan, called Japanland. It's by National Geographic filmmaker and writer Karin Muller, who lives in Japan for a year, fully immersing herself in this intriguing puzzle of a society. In it, despite her extreme efforts to file into the culture in which she is living, she eventually gets kicked out of her house. In this passage, she and her host mother discuss why she was asked to leave. It reminds me of the horrible sin of hanging bedding on the railings.

"I bow my head and ask what I've done wrong and if there's anything that I can do to make it right. There's a pause...I am, she tells me, a completely unmannered lout. 'Could you be more specific?' I ask without a hint of irony. I don't greet her properly when I come in the door, and I don't wash my bath mat often enough. She once found a stain on the underside of my cutting board, and the maid had to wash it off. I walk in at dinnertime and talk to [her husband] when she is ready to lay the table. I can't help myself. 'But I asked if it was okay- twice! You didn't say anything.' I should have known by her expression. 'Maybe it's a cultural misunderstanding.' 'Not culture. Manners. You have none.' The list goes on for forty minutes. When it's over, I'm curiously relieved. She said nothing that I would be afraid to tell my mother. I can live with her critique. I pack my gear and say goodbye to my beloved garden."

Now, we definitely still love living here, but it is a very difficult culture to understand. On the surface, there are only slight differences, but Japanese culture, like all others is an iceberg. The easy stuff sticks out of the water. But the many underlying differences below the surface are the ones that cause the shipwrecks.

The Fray returns

Our friends in the Fray have returned with what looks like a promising, new self-titled album. The album will be released in February, and they're playing a small tour in the States now. So, get your tickets quickly if you want to see them. We'll be waiting patiently until they launch their full tour and make a stop in Tokyo again. Until then, here's their newest video (1. Song alone, 2. Song for show "Lost").

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving with the Whites

Check out this video Brad put together to see our Thanksgiving Day as a whole. You'll also see our home, neighborhood, friends, and the adventure of cooking a 26-pound Butterball in Tokyo.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mamma mia!

That phrase makes both of us laugh tonight, for a few reasons. First of all, we nearly fell prey to a second "scam the foreigners" attempt, at the same restaurant where it happened last!

I felt like saying one of Mario's catch phrases, "Mamma mia!" when I figured out what these guys were up to. Both times that they have brought us our change, they have tried to give us 10 yen (cent) coins rather than 100 yen coins. I imagine they think we probably don't know the difference. However, since I sometimes border on the obsessive side when it comes to finances, I always total up the bill, and have luckily caught them both times.

The first time, I thought, oh it's just a simple mistake from the waiter. But it happened again, at the same restaurant. So, they've got to be doing it on purpose. Are we going to go back there? Surprisingly, yes. It's our favorite restaurant in Tokyo. And its name...

Mamma mia.

One more interesting tidbit about our restaurant experience and our observations of the "politeness" of Tokyo-ites (to the extreme). Our server hadn't come around in a while after bringing drinks and appetizers, so I grabbed the attention of one of the sous chefs who was walking by (I didn't know he was a chef until after what happened next). He stood behind me, as I stumbled through our order. By now, I'm ordering in short phrases that are 90% Japanese and 10% Engish. When he walked away, I noticed that he had written the entire order on his hand...since he wasn't carrying a paper pad...since he wasn't actually a server.

So, rather than saying, "hold on a sec" and getting a server or some paper, he politely took our exhausting order without hesitating. That's Tokyo for ya.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Brad's blog

Since Brad is feeling a void from only reading about politics, religion, and who knows what else, and not being able to discuss them often with friends, he has started his own blog about those kinds of things at:

Yes, Brad + 3 Ds, dot blogspot, dot com.

Check it out and leave a message!

Rebel without a cause

Just when I thought everything was "normal..."

I do have one admission for the "strange and unusual" category. On Saturday, while en route to our friend Danny's place for lunch with some friends, I got pulled over...on my bicycle!

Yes, a police officer, on foot mind you, stopped me to "ask a few questions." I muddled through some Japanese and he tried his best with English. Basically, from what I understood, he wanted to check the registration on my bike to see if it was properly registered with the city. See, in Tokyo, you have to file and maintain registration on a bike the same way we do with cars. So yes, a Japanese policeman basically said, "license and registration please." Except I was on a bike.

I was actually borrowing our friend Brendan's "extra" bike, which was a hand-me-down gift from another teacher this year. Since I knew I couldn't quite explain all of that in Japanese, I just said that I was a teacher at St. Mary's (pronounced "Saint-o Mary-zu"), and that the bike was owned by another "sensei." He knew the school, which was great news, and asked the name of the teacher.

I nearly said "Brendan Riley," but just then, the other teacher's name popped into my head: Mr. Ofstedahl. Yeah. Can you imagine trying to get a Japanese guy to say "Ofstedahl-san?" On the radio, he called it in, and instead simply asked if it was registered to a "gaijin," or foreigner, and gave up on actually pronouncing that good ole' Midwestern surname. They said, yes, it was indeed registered to a gaijin, and the police officer graciously let me continue on my way. I'm not sure what would have happened had I been wrong.

Later, when looking at the bike, I discovered why he pulled me over. There is a sawed-off piece of a former bike lock hanging below the seat. He must have thought that I'd stolen the bike and was actually pretty observant to have seen that from where he was walking. In any case, that was my second encounter with police in Japan. In both circumstances (the last was during our campfire on the beach), they were polite, courteous, and harmless. Let's just hope it stays that way.



The most striking thing about this week is actually its utter un...striking...ness.

Is it weird that life in Tokyo, Japan is starting to actually feel, well, normal? We are far from "home" and things are still quite different from most of what we've experienced the last 20-some years, but yes, things are settling in and feeling pretty normal.

We check for Fuji on a daily basis. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don't.

We are now used to walking, riding our bikes, or riding trains everywhere we need to go. We've only taken one taxi, when it was called for us by our principal when we first arrived. You should see my thighs. ha!

We've adjusted to the cost of food, and now know if something IS actually too expensive, or if it's just Tokyo-expensive.

We have finally put some finishing touches on our apartment. You know, curtains covering all the windows so we're now able to walk around our own home in our underwear. Amen to that. Also, we completed our dining room table set. It's comprised of a heated floor mat (similar to an electric blanket, but like a rug), a new, super-soft rug, six "floor pillows" for seats, and a beautiful wood table (about two feet tall).

This Saturday, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving at the Whites', with over a dozen of our fellow teachers from St. Mary's. Rachael and I have managed to scout out nearly all of the ingredients necessary for a "perfect" Thanksgiving feast. Am I nervous for Rachael to pull off all the delicious delicacies that she has planned? No way. Am I nervous for my first stab at cooking a Thanksgiving turkey? Oh yeah. Please pray for me, as I attempt to brine, prep, cook and carve these 26 pounds of birdie goodness.

Yes, life seems normal. So normal, in fact, that we're going to press pause on the whole thing and come home to visit for a couple weeks for the Holidays. We'll see all of our family, the Cahills and the Whites, and spend some much-missed time with friends in the Twin Cities.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Last night, Brad and I decided it was time that we would try our best to find and make an authentic Japanese seafood dish. There are many varieties of fresh seafood here that are quite cheap, so we had a lot to work with. I searched for some recipes and found one for Calamari Stew that sounded good on a cold night. So, Brad and I went on a search for the perfect squid!

Near our apartment, there is a narrow street lined with small fish markets, a meat market, and various vegetable stands. The first fish market we stopped at had two perfect squid ("ika" in Japanese)- the last two they had to sell that night. Since the fish is fresh from the morning catch, when they are "out," they're out). It was strange when I saw the squid's little black eyes looking up at me... yeah. See for yourself.

We brought the squid home and looked up how to clean them online. It seemed simple enough, until I tried to pull the head off the squid. Yuck. Brad did that. After removing the head, beak, and insides, we sliced the squid into thin pieces. The stew turned out to be really delicious, but I think next time we will ask the fish monger to clean the squid for us!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh Mt. Fuji, how we love you.

I had to go to school a bit early this morning to get some materials ready for a sweet new science experiment for the boys (syringe rockets...oh yeah), and got an excited call from Rachael a few minutes before school.

"Did you see that?!!!!"

"See what?"

"Mt. Fuji! It's perfectly clear out this morning and now it's all covered in snow. It looks like one of those classic pictures of Fuji where it's all huge, and white, and towering over the other mountains."

"Crap, I biked today." (different route than walking)

Sadly enough, I missed this wonderful sight, but at least Rachael got to see it. Hopefully Fuji-san will come back to visit sometime. I swear the mountain intentionally hides 3/4 of the year. That way, for the brief and infrequent times that we can see far enough to lay our eyes on it, we're absolutely blown away by its size and beauty.

We look for Fuji every morning on our walk to school, and sometimes, when we're lucky, we get a peek of this incredible sight that so perfectly represents the natural beauty and grandeur of this island nation.

Apparently today was one of those least for Rachael.

(Earlier this year, during one of those walks to school when Fuji came out to play.)

Fuji Info

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paying Bills

Grocery Shopping #2

Today, after our Japanese lessons, Brad and I rode our bikes to the grocery store. It started out as a completely normal shopping trip; we bought some veggies, tofu, and meat for some stir fry, then we went to the checkout. We noticed a lady at the register ahead of us trying to speak to the cashier. We had no idea what she was trying to say or do because we were too far away to hear. When it was our turn at the register, the lady came up to us and asked (in French) if we spoke French. Unfortunately, I have lost much of my French speaking skills so I was not much help. She was able, however, to speak English very well and asked us where the nearest pharmacy was. We did what we could to point her in the right direction.

We chatted for a while and found out that she was from Paris, France. After telling her that we spent a couple of days in Paris on our honeymoon, she asked if we planned to go back to Paris someday. We both replied with an enthusiastic "YES" and she immediately offered her contact information. She explained that she was in Tokyo visiting a friend and if we were ever in Paris again we should contact her. She was a beautiful, kind woman. Our encounter with her was a refreshing reminder that people from all over the world have the same struggles being in an unfamiliar country as we do. I was also reminded of how many wonderful people we have met during our short time living in Japan. We now have contacts in countries all over the world! It is truly humbling to be blessed as we have: we are healthy, happy, and surrounded by people who care about us (whether they are right here in Tokyo or an ocean away in the U.S.).

There are some other interesting tid bits about grocery shopping in Japan. Seasonal produce has a big impact on what we are able to buy. There are very few vegetables that are available to purchase right now because Japan does not heavily import from other countries. Pumpkins (not the orange kind, the green kind) are readily available, as well as mushrooms, leeks, cabbage, carrots and potatoes (including sweet potatoes). Importing can be nice because it makes a wide variety of produce readily available, but the impact it has on the environment is astonishing. It is a relief to know that we are buying food that is grown right here in Japan.

If it isn't the seasonal aspect making grocery shopping difficult, it is the price. We paid nearly $8.00 for a bag of shredded cheddar cheese the other day. Yikes.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fall Break

This weekend was officially our fall break at St. Mary’s, so many of our friends here traveled within Japan to places like Okinawa and Kagoshima, and others went to nearby hot spots like Guam to get some R & R.

Rachael definitely needed some R & R as she got over her third cold of our short time here in Japan. Rather than traveling, we spent time here in Setagaya-ku, and had a few fun adventures.

First, we continued our Japanese lessons with our tutor “Shingo-san.” Here is a photo of our homework for this week.

We’re working on phrases like: Whose pencil is that (Dare no enpitsu deska)? That’s Rachael’s pencil (Korewa Rachael-san no enpitsu des). This isn’t my watch (Watashi no tokei ja arimasen). I eat rice (Watashi wa gohan o tabemasu). etc. It’s definitely a difficult language to learn, especially with the complexity of the written characters and alphabets, but knowing a few phrases is already helping give us some much needed confidence in the public sphere. It is also reminding us of how incredibly difficult it is to learn another language- the amount of time, the financial cost, and the exhaustion of studying alien-looking letters and words for hours on end. It’ll certainly make you reconsider looking down on anyone else for not being able to speak a particular language, as is often central to debates about immigration in the States.

Later on, Brad and our friend Brendan went downtown to check out some thrift stores, and new/used vintage clothing stores. Unconfirmed sources have indicated that Brad also stopped excitedly at a Wendy’s and ordered a heart-attack-on-a-bun (Double cheeseburger with bacon). As far as cool new Tokyo clothes go, we’ve limited ourselves to one new clothing purchase a month, so here are the October purchases. Boots for Rachael and a sweaterish thing for Bradley.

Tokyo style is similar to New York, but bizarre in its own subtle ways too (women are often dressed in scandalous short skirts and high boots or frumpy, unflattering potato sack type shirts). We ended that night with a rich and hearty beef stew with a red wine base. My gosh this woman can cook!

On Saturday, we talked to the fam on Skype for a while and finally showed them our apartment (since Brad bought a 30m LAN cable for our internet). After chatting for a few hours, we went to the famous Tsukiji fish market. The market opens quite early in the morning (4am), so we just went to see the area and check out the outdoor market that surrounds the bustling fish market. Here are some shots of the area- fresh sea creatures of all types, beautiful knives, and various other food-related stands. After touring around a bit, we stopped for a delicious lunch at a sushi restaurant. Here’s the cool part: Besides having some of the freshest sushi we’ve ever had, we actually were able to read the word “sushi” in hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets)! Woo hoo! Guess the lessons have paid off.

In the afternoon, we stopped by our church to help out with a small event for kids from a local orphanage. There were games, treats, and even a magician that wasn’t half bad. From there, we met some friends at TGIFridays and went to see a fantastic documentary film about the creation of the Broadway production, “A Chorus Line.”

Sunday, we worked on grading and papers, and Brad played drums for the evening church service. All in all, it was a nice weekend to catch up on sleep, see a few new things, and spend some time with friends.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


We’ve largely avoided writing about politics on this blog, but when both of us have been brought to joyful tears by the events of a day, it’s probably time to reflect a little.

Watching John McCain and Barack Obama give their respective speeches tonight reminded us of how great our country is. We are lucky enough to be led by such incredible leaders as these two men, and to exercise the amazing privilege of voting for our chosen leader. Senator McCain showed his true spirit tonight, as a man of integrity that has given everything he has to the service of his country. And as McCain said himself, America “spoke clearly” to usher in Mr. Obama, a brilliant, energetic, eloquent, steady, inspirational new leader, as the 44th President of the United States.

"Canvassing" the streets of northern Iowa before the caucus/Our Obama "House Party"

For the last couple years, we have worked diligently on the behalf of this historic campaign, and couldn’t be more proud to have been a part of it all. Although no leader or president is perfect, this man will indeed bring a needed change to the United States of America. My third grade students perceptively noted last year that he “doesn’t look like all the other presidents,” and that is not insignificant. It is not by accident that this barrier has been shattered- America has been transformed, and this is merely evidence of that shift. America still has a long way to go, but it continues to advance towards the goal of being a more perfect Union. Tonight pushed that ideal several steps forward.

In the words of Hillary Clinton, “In quiet, solitary acts of citizenship, American voters gave voice to their hopes and their values, voted for change, and refused to be invisible any longer.”

Now, we will pray for this man, who literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders. We will pray that he makes wise decisions after seeking wise counsel. We will pray that he is kept safe from those whose hatred blinds them to attempt to hurt him. We will pray that Americans’ renewed passion and engagement will sustain us through the tough times ahead.

Senator Obama’s candidacy was guided by the phrase “Change We Can Believe In.” We do believe in the potential for this man to be a truly great president, and for him to turn around our country from the disaster of the Bush Administration. This is just the beginning, but what an incredible day this has been for our country. Simply amazing.

Waiting for primary results with Mayor Rybak. / Working hard for our country!

Emceeing a fundraiser in Minneapolis/ Meeting Barack in Iowa

Obama visits the Twin Cities/ Putting my arm around our next president

President-elect Obama taking time for a photo with volunteers

Thursday, October 30, 2008

House Guest with a Message to Share

Usually, in the early hours of the morning, I sit at my computer, opening 10-15 tabs of interesting news stories while music or MPR blares from the speakers. This morning though, I didn’t feel the need to do either one. That’s because Rev. George Kwame Koomson, a pastor and teacher from Ghana, was humming old hymns while he ironed his suit for church in our kitchen.

Reverend Koomson stayed with us for one night, and we talked for several hours over some delicious home-cooked goodness from Rachael Ray…I mean Rachael White. Along with about 20 others from all over Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, Rev. Koomson is living and learning at the Asian Rural Institute, a fantastic organization located here in Japan. Our church has apparently been supporting ARI for close to 40 years, so it was nice to be able to participate in a long-held tradition of hosting guests from around the world.

Participants in the ARI program come to Japan for nearly nine months to learn about rural leadership and organic farming. Then, armed with new knowledge and skills, they return to their home communities to implement more sustainable farming techniques, and teach others to do the same. In the end, they care for their communities and the land that sustains them.

The Mission of ARI:

The mission of the Asian Rural institute is to build an environmentally healthy, just, and peaceful world, in which each person can live to his or her fullest potential. This mission is rooted in the love of Jesus Christ.

To carry out this mission, we train and nurture rural leaders for a life of sharing. Leaders, both women and men, who live and work in grassroots rural communities primarily in Asia, Africa and the Pacific form a community of learning each year together with staff and other residents.

Through community-based learning we study the best ways for rural people to share and enhance local resources and abilities for the common good.

We present a challenge to ourselves and the whole world in our approach to food and life.


We learned a great deal from Rev. Koomson, but not just about farming and his stay here in Japan. He also shared about his family and home in Ghana, and we discussed politics, faith, and our plans to have children in a few years.

On faith, we talked at length about the meaning of the Christian faith around the world. In Ghana, most people are Christians, whereas only 1% of people in Japan are Christians. He talked about the difficulty of “winning a soul” in Japan versus doing the same back home in Ghana. Just like the verse that says it is more difficult for a rich person to have faith in God than a poor one, he believes that the incredible wealth and prosperity of Japan (referring mostly to Tokyo) makes it difficult for people to feel a need for God in their lives.

He also challenged us to be a “living Bible” to those around us- something I have been thinking a lot about lately. When we first got here, our lives weren’t that “different” from those around us. Lately though, we’ve been making different decisions, now that we feel much more grounded in our home and marriage, work life, and faith community. That in mind, we hope to live much more as we want to, not just as is convenient because of the people or opportunities right around us. Reverend Koomson said that the only reason anyone would want to know more about Christ was if they saw something different and better in that life. If there is no difference between our lives and anyone else’s, then what’s the point? That is certainly not to say that everything is hunky-dory as a Christian, but for me, joys are more joyful and struggles are less difficult with God leading the way.

Later on, he advised us to prepare ourselves now for having a family of our own. First, he stressed, we must learn to laugh together and pray together as a couple. Later, our kids can laugh and pray with us, and we will be stronger as a family. We’ll we be (more) prepared to share in the joys and hardships that come with raising children. His view of children is that they are not as much sons and daughters as they are his “brothers and sisters.” In this way, he says that his children come to him for advice and when they are struggling because he is their brother, or equal, and not a judgmental, superior father. As you can imagine, this was a great discussion and one we’ll remember for many years.

Here are some photos and videos of the ARI folks and Reverend Koomson at church the next morning. He was our first guest here in Tokyo and we even had to borrow sheets and a blanket to host him, but it was well worth it. What a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bi-cycle! Bi-cycle!

It’s about time that I upload a photo or two of my baby. This premium piece of metal doesn’t just get me from Point A to Point B. It gets there with a rusty clank or two, a couple sputtering, loose gearshifts, and barely functioning brakes.

Our favorite neighbor, Terry, gave the bicycle to me when I asked him where I could park a bike if I were to buy one. Instead, he said that there would not be a place to park a new bike, but that I should take his since he can’t ride it anymore (for being in his early 80s, he still gets around pretty well). What a nice man. So, it’s not perfect, but beggars certainly can’t be choosers.

Riding a bicycle in Japan is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we need to go grocery shopping often and don’t live super close to any major grocery stores. We don’t own a car, and not many people bring groceries on the train for a reason we haven’t yet discovered. So, bicycle travel is the cheapest, fastest, most eco-friendly way to travel and transport our goodies.

However, it’s also mildly terrifying having to dart in and out of traffic that moves in ways that are literally counter-intuitive. Even when you remember that the cars drive on the left rather than the right, it’s the turns that get you. You get ready for the car in front of you to make a wide turn when it puts on a certain turn signal, and instead, it turns right into the curb next to you or vice versa. I automatically veer right when there’s an oncoming person, bike, or car, but here, people tend to veer left. That obviously doesn’t make a great combination- especially on narrow sidewalks.

I’m learning to make these “natural” reactions and have made some progress. Part of this is simply slowing down all the time and being able to stop quickly when I can’t interpret how the person coming at me will shift their weight until the last second. I’ve also learned to navigate the right streets so that I can avoid having to bike in between cars as much as possible.

Before coming to Tokyo, I hadn’t owned a bicycle in almost 10 years. But biking is a necessary part of life here. Everyone bikes, so let’s just hope I get used to all the rules of the road eventually.

A great piece about bicycling in Japan

Our mini-Japanese-shrine-tastic state fair experience

This might look like any old stick, but oh it’s so much more.

Yes, on Sunday night, we had an experience that reminded both of us of the wonderful Minnesota State Fair. In that magical place called the Land of 10,000 Lakes, for less that two weeks a year, tens of thousands of visitors gorge themselves on fried everything, proudly shoved on a stick. We haven’t heard of anything like that here in our neighborhood of Setagaya-ku, but on Sunday afternoon we got the following email from our neighbor Terry, and decided to give it a shot.

Dear Bradley
This coming Week End(Oct 17/18)there will be a FESTIVAL at the TAMAGAWQA SHRINE.
Location: Walk thru the tunnel till you come to a dead end then turn right and walk up the slope. You will see a steep stair on the left side and climb up to reach the shrine.

Walking up the “slope,” this is what we saw first. We hadn’t been up here before, but a massive Shinto Shrine was apparently around the corner all along.

After the climbing the steep stone stairs (how’s that for alliteration?), we both lit up with huge smiles at the sight of hundreds of young and old Japanese walking around with chocolate-covered bananas-on-a-stick and fried octopus patties. There were carnival-type games smattered around, but we had no clue what to do, so we just went straight for the good stuff.

Rachael’s chocolate-covered banana and my cotton candy.

There was also some sort of karaoke and live music on a stage, and it looked like we’d missed the original parade where several men probably carried these large shrines.

We didn’t stay too long, but certainly got a taste of what these “festivals” are all about. So, the next time you’re in the mood for some deep fried artery-cloggers or something on a stick, remember that Minnesotans aren’t the only masters of this fine food genre.