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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lighten up eh guys?

Here is a refreshing look at the two men who are competing for the American presidency. In their day-jobs, they're fighting in tough campaigns, but it's nice to see them roasting each other here, laughing, and actually looking human. Some of our favorite lines were "The One vs. That One" and "The Housing Crisis is effecting McCain 8 times as badly."

Obama roasting McCain

McCain roasting Obama

If those don't work:

After this is all over, we'll have a new leader for the States, and will hopefully press on into turning things around in a positive new direction. In the meantime, this gives us hope seeing that both men can let their hair down a bit even in tough times. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Grocery Shopping

Since moving to Setagaya-ku in Tokyo, Brad and I have tried to find a good grocery store that we can use regularly. There is a really expensive grocery store down the street with high end, international food. This can be fun occasionally, but we can't afford to shop there often. Then, there are smaller shops that each specialize in certain foods like fish, produce, baked goods, etc. There is one store that we have gone to several times and have thoroughly enjoyed each experience.

The man who is usually working behind the counter clearly loves being there. He seems to value his job and love the food that is sold there. (If any of you have seen the movie Amelie you might recall the grocery boy that softly spoke to the produce he sold. His behavior is comparable to what I am about to describe.) Rather than silently taking the items, throwing them in a bag, taking my money and saying goodbye, this particular grocer takes a different approach. He takes each item out of the basket, saying its name and gently placing it in the grocery bag. Without fail, he rearranges the produce in the grocery bag to ensure nothing gets bruised. Again, with great care, he hands over the grocery bag, trying not to jostle anything too much, and I am on my way home.

It is a much more fulfilling experience to go to these small stores rather than the large, over-commercialized grocery stores where you don't have time to appreciate the nuances the culture has to offer.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bradley Just Voted!!

After walking to nearly 500 homes in both Minnesota and Iowa in the winter cold, calling hundreds of voters in Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas (in Spanish & English), Minnesota, and several other states, hosting events at our home for neighbors and friends, distributing signs and leaflets around our neighborhood, helping with voter registration drives, being a "bouncer" at the Xcel Center for a large campaign event, and doing everything else we could to volunteer for what we feel is an incredibly important campaign, Brad just got his ballot and voted. What an amazing privilege. This is something we will try to never take for granted.

Rachael will get her ballot in a few days, and we'll celebrate that one when it's her turn. Now, YOU go out and please do the same. If you're unsure about your voter registration status, check out these handy sites.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The moon and vanilla Oreos

Tonight, I (Brad) got the chance to join the Tokyo Union Church Evening Praise Team. The service was intimate and exactly what I needed after a long and busy day yesterday.

I'll remember two particular things from tonight's service. One was a great metaphor, and the other was a hilarious, but meaningful introduction from a charming man from Ghana.

First, the guest speaker spoke about the importance of light in scripture, referring especially to the first bit of the Gospel of John and also to Psalm 119. She provided one metaphor that stuck out to me- that of Christians being akin the moon.

When we were out walking through the gates of our apartment last night, we could see clearly because of the moonlight shining through the trees, giving us just enough light to see our next step. When I was in Argentina, I daringly went white-water rafting at midnight during a full moon. During the few moments of peaceful drifting, we could see the Andean canyon in a totally different way than during the day before. However, the speaker reminded me, the moon does not provide its own light. Myths from many cultures and scientists for centuries thought that was so, but we learned that the sun is actually the provider and creator of that light. The moon simply reflects the light toward the Earth. The moon is not the origin, its more of a vessel.

In the same way, our lives, our reactions to those around us, our attitudes and choices, are reflections of God. God is the ultimate source of unending love, unconditional peace, and uninhibited Callie-like joy. The woman who sang next to me was from Ghana, and her frequent improvisatory praises and shouts of "Yes, Lord," absolutely reflected God to me tonight. I can only pray that my life in some way reflects the One that gave me this life, just like the moon and its light.

The second memorable moment of the night was when the leader of the service, who is also from Ghana, introduced me to the congregation. I had already met many of these folks in the weeks before, but this was the first time I had played djembe (a goat-skin drum from Ghana) with the worship team. In a voice that rang of the deep but benevolent voice of Mufassa (in The Lion King), he held up my hands to the congregation and made an announcement.

A slight grin began to grow on his face, and he said, "These hands may look pale and white to you. (pause) But they are black inside. (another pause) They carry the rhythms of Ghana. He is just a light-skinned African brother!" With this, he and his wife let out a belly-laugh, and the rest of the congregation joined in as well. They haven't had percussion in a while for their contemporary service, and people were very thankful to have someone playing their beautiful, hand-carved Ghanian djembe to give the service a little extra rhythm.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. It's amazing to worship with people from all around the globe, and I still thank God that he led us to Tokyo Union Church.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Take my gomi!

Well, it's a beautiful, cool, sunny Saturday morning, and I've been catching up and reading the news around the world while Rachael gets some ZZZZZZs.

However, a few minutes ago, outside my open window I heard the clanking of the trash truck downstairs. So I threw on some pajamas, slipped on my slip-on shoes (important in Japan), took out the bag from the top half of our two-part trash can, and ran down four flights of stairs, tying the stinking (literally) bag as I ran.

When I got out to our front gate, the truck was passing. I started waving and they all began laughing heartily inside the truck. One of them leaned out the window and yelled, surprisingly, "Throw it in the back." So, I started running alongside them (in my red plaid pajamas and t-shirt), and tossed the putrid bag in the back of the open section of the truck.

What a relief.

Keeping all your food scraps, paper, egg shells, and coffee grounds in one can makes for a smelly can after a few days, so missing trash day is not an option unless you want your kitchen to smell like a mixture of sweaty feet and rancid potato.

What a great way to start the day. We'll be heading to the bank soon, since Japanese banks close at 3:00pm on weekdays and we have to pay our rent for the month through the account. After that, there's a huge carnival/festival at our sister school, Seisen. Following some food and fun, we're going shopping for a few more home furnishings at our favorite store, Nitori. Since we only have about $100 each month for these purchases, our apartment is still simple, but will improve bit by bit, on a monthly basis this year.

Rachael is still working on her Master's and has a 2,000 word essay due in the morning, so we probably won't make it out for karaoke tonight. BUT, we are going out for Mexican food, margaritas and bull-riding tomorrow night. Should be awesome.

Have a great Saturday...when you get there...tomorrow.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Photos from Camping

Last weekend, we had our first adventure outside of the city of Tokyo. With some great friends, also new teachers at St. Mary's, we rented a van and the seven of us drove to the Izu Peninsula to camp on the coast. We left without a particular destination in mind, but knew we'd simply find a place we thought was pretty and set up our tents there.

We ended up finding a campground in a gorgeous inlet with massive cliffs jutting right out of the ocean...but cheated a bit and camped for free. From what we understood, we'd be charged between $20 and $80 a person to camp on their property. So, we walked about 30 meters down the hill, found a flat-ish spot by the beach and set up our tents.

Nobody bothered us, and since camping season was officially over (the Japanese are very particular about when things start and end), we had the beach to ourselves. We set up a bonfire, grilled chicken and fresh oysters, and sang songs with Triston on guitar, Brad on drums, and everyone else on vocals of some sort. We played frisbee, swam in the ocean, and relaxed on the sand. It was exactly what we needed- a true weekend away from the city, in a perfect spot by the sea.

If you're on Facebook, Rachael has an album of photos posted. We'll try to get some others up soon.

Just for fun...A look back

After unpacking all our stuff, we found these old photos of Brad from a few years back. Vote for your favorite by posting a comment eh?

1952/ 1958

1964/ 1968

1973/ 1984