Oh Odaiba!

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day here in Japan as well as at home. The day is celebrated differently here, however. It’s a day on which women give gifts of chocolate or other sweets to men, coworkers as well as husbands. A month later on March 14th, which is known as White Day, the men reciprocate.

Our Valentine’s celebration began with a marriage dinner at the church on Friday evening. The sanctuary was transformed into a beautiful dining room where approximately 45 couples gathered for a catered dinner. It was a wonderful evening.

Yesterday, we spent the day exploring Odaiba, an area in Tokyo that we hadn’t been to before. Odaiba was formed when massive amounts of landfill were used to join several small islands together. A spectacular development project aimed at turning the area into a futuristic residential and business district was started during the extravagant 1980s but the downturn in the economy in the early 90s significantly slowed its development. Despite setbacks, several lavish developments have materialized in recent years giving the area a very modern look. We accessed the island via monorail across the double decked Rainbow Bridge.

Our first stop was Tokyo’s very own Statue of Liberty, a smaller replica of the one that stands in New York! Next we enjoyed a walk along the harbour side where we were fortunate not to be accosted by any walking cigarettes!

Oh, how I love the Japanese use of English!

After enjoying lunch in the food court in one of the area malls, we visited the futuristic Fuji TV building, home of one of Japan’s national television stations.

Fuji Television Broadcast Center

Next, we walked over to Palette Town where riding the 115 meter high ferris wheel was the highlight of my day! Though several have now surpassed it in height, it was the world’s tallest when it was built in the late 1990s.

Telecom Center and Tokyo Big Sight from the ferris wheel

A walk through Venus Fort, a gorgeous shopping mall in the style of an 18th century European town brought our visit to Odaiba to an end. Rather than leaving the island the way we arrived, we took a 20 minute ride on a sightseeing boat that took us under Rainbow Bridge as darkness settled and the city lights began to shine.

We returned to our home area of Kita Narashino for Valentine’s dinner at our favourite sushi restaurant. From there, we headed ‘home’ for the night, walking from the train station to Steve and Shelley’s house in slippery slushy snow! I have given Richard official notice that my next visit to Japan will not be during the winter!

Shaken!

I recently read that if you spent two weeks in Japan it was pretty much guaranteed that you’d feel an earthquake. We’ve been here two weeks and the earth has shaken at least three times! We slept through the first one. It was our first night in Osaka and we were so tired and jet lagged that we didn’t notice a thing. The earth shook again last Saturday morning while I rested in bed and then last night while I was brushing my teeth. I’m not sure if I would have noticed that one except for the furious rattling of the shower doors.

We experienced lots of these tremors when we lived in Japan and they really don’t frighten us at all. We toured the Edo Tokyo Museum yesterday though and learned about the devastating effects of the major quakes that hit this part of the country in 1855 and 1923. We’ve also visited Kobe in the past and seen the results of the 1995 quake there. Though construction standards have improved significantly since that time, I certainly wouldn’t want to experience a shake of that magnitude!

 

Reconnecting with Rie

As we planned our trip to Japan, one of my great desires was to reconnect with a former student with whom I’d had a special friendship during our year here. It was Rie who invited us to spend a weekend at her second home at Onjuku and it was she and her classmates that I sang karaoke with. Unfortunately, she doesn’t use the internet and I had failed to get her mailing address before returning to Canada so we’d lost contact with one another.

Several weeks ago, I decided to email our supervisor at the English school where we taught to see if he could assist me in getting back in touch with her. He responded right away but, for privacy reasons, was unable to give me her contact information. That was perfectly understandable. What he did do, however, was let me know that she still attends the same Monday afternoon class that she did when I was teaching her. Reading between the lines, it was easy to see that if I showed up at the right school at the right time on a Monday afternoon, I would catch her there!

I couldn’t remember if Rie’s class met at one o’clock or two so the day before yesterday, we made sure that we were at the school by 1:40. The receptionists were happy to inform me that she’d be arriving soon for the 2:00 class. We decided to go for a walk around the area and come back in time to see her at the end of her class but as we left the school, who should be walking toward us but Rie! The moment she spotted us, her face lit up and within moments she had invited us to her home for dinner the following evening! After class, she also invited the other two ladies who had shared the class with her to join us.

What an evening it turned out to be! Rie is a multi-talented but genuinely humble lady. In her early to mid sixties, she continues to work as a tennis instructor four days a week. When we entered her livingroom two things stood out, a cabinet filled with tennis trophies and a baby grand piano! Urged on by her classmates, she played a bit of Tchaikovsky for us after dinner. What a dinner it was! We knew from past experience what a wonderful cook she is. This time, the main dish was vegetable tempura but there were also many delicious side dishes. Tennis, piano and cooking are but a few of Rie’s talents. She also paints watercolours, does Japanese flower arranging and has taught the tea ceremony.

We had an absolutely wonderful evening with all three women. It was so much more than I had ever hoped for when I wanted to reconnect! It was also a delight for me to see how much their confidence in English has grown over the past two years, especially Satomi’s.

Satomi, Elaine-sensei, Yoko & Rie

 

The house that Richard helped build

When we came to Japan to teach English, helping build a house was the farthest thing from Richard’s mind but when the call went out for volunteers to work on the house that was about to be built for our pastors, Steve and Shelley, he jumped at the opportunity. Because we taught during the afternoon and evening, he was able to spend several mornings at the building site working with other fellows from our church as well as teams of volunteers who came from the US. Truth be told, he enjoyed the experience so much that he would have preferred to continue working there instead of having to teach!

When we left Japan, the house was a long way from being finished. The last time Richard worked on it, they were erecting the second storey walls. Now, I’m sitting in the livingroom! Though we’ll be spending short periods of time with other friends in the area, we are very privileged to call Steve and Shelley’s beautiful house our home base while we’re here.

Much bigger than most Japanese homes, this house was designed not only for family living but also as a place where various groups from the church could gather. Here’s a tour of the main floor:

the window to the left of the front door is our room

our beautiful room

the livingroom

the kitchen with Richard at the coffee maker, of course!

the formal dining room

the great room which also boasts a large flat screen TV, a full sized pool table & a kids' corner

There are several bedrooms, an office and a laundry room on the second floor.

The construction materials, cupboards and even the appliances were all shipped to Japan from the US. Apparently, that was less expensive than buying locally. That does have some disadvantages, however. The dishwasher has never worked and the dryer isn’t functioning well but the people who know how to service them are an ocean away! When our dryer isn’t working well, Richard takes the back off and cleans out the lint that inevitably accumulates. He tried to do that with this one but it didn’t help.

Unlike most Japanese houses, this one is well insulated but like the rest of the homes in this country, it doesn’t have central heating. They could have brought in a furnace along with the rest of the building materials but they realized that without the availability of service and parts, that would be foolhardy. Instead, like most Japanese homes, each room has a small heater. Rooms that are not in use are kept closed and only those that are being used are kept warm. Each night before we go to bed, we turn on the heat and warm up our room.

Also, unlike most Japanese homes, there is space in front of the house to park several vehicles. I’m sure the neighbours appreciate that when groups gather here! All in all, this house is a blessing from God. Richard was blessed by the opportunity to work on it’s construction and we are truly blessed to be able to stay in it!

Communicating Drew’s way

When our grandson, Drew, was diagnosed with a severe phonological disorder last month, it was suggested that Melaina make a picture book for him so that when he wanted to ask for something, he could point to the appropriate picture. Being the diligent and creative mom that she is, she went to work on Drew’s picture book the very next day. When she gave it to him, he began to use it right away and was so excited that he carried it around with him for the rest of the day.

I had to communicate in a similar manner today. A couple of days ago, I was hit by a stomach ailment of unknown origin. If I was in many parts of the world, I’d attribute this to drinking the water but Japan’s water is perfectly safe and no, it wasn’t the raw chicken because too much time had passed for that to be the cause. We’re not sure if this thing is viral, bacterial or stress related but I ended up spending most of Saturday in bed. Fortunately, by yesterday I felt much better and my strength had returned but I’ve been left with a nasty case of diarrhea. By this morning I’d decided that a visit to the pharmacy might be a good idea but how would I explain what I was looking for? No problem! Out came my trusty Japanese phrase book. I simply looked up diarrhea and pointed to the Japanese script for Do you have any medicine for diarrhea? Through gestures, the lady behind the counter was able to ask me if I was also vomiting or suffering from headaches which, thankfully, I’m not. She quickly produced a package of pills that even have English instructions on the packaging.

During all the time we lived in Japan, we seldom had to use our phrase book but it sure did come in handy today! Now, if only the pills will work. They are little black spheres and have the most vile odor and aftertaste imaginable but if they do the job, they’ll be totally worth it.

Home to Funabashi

We came ‘home’ to Funabashi yesterday travelling from Osaka to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Ever the frugal travellers and having plenty of time to make the trip, we chose a less expensive train that made many stops along the way.

Our train pulling into the station

Though we’d been to both Osaka and Tokyo before, we hadn’t seen much of the countryside in between. Near Maibara we saw something we hadn’t seen in Japan before; snow! Apparently parts of the country have had a lot of it lately.

Further along the way we were blessed with a close up, almost perfect view of Mt. Fuji! What a sight! It was very cool to look at it in it’s shining glory and remember the morning in July 2008 when we watched the sunrise from its summit.

Fuji-San

 

Lost and found

Imagine trying to meet a friend in West Edmonton Mall on a busy day, perhaps during the Christmas shopping season. Now imagine that you’ve never been there before, you don’t know exactly where you’re supposed to meet and you can’t read any of the signs that surround you. That’s pretty much what our experience last evening was like!

We were supposed to meet Matt and Robin’s friend, Kumiko, for dinner. She suggested that we meet at the South/North gate of Namba subway station. South/North? That doesn’t make sense, I told her when we made our plans over the phone a couple of days earlier but she assured me that such a gate existed. I’ve seen enough of the crazy use of English in this country to accept that that was, in fact, a possibility. Namba station, like many others in Japan is a huge shopping complex as well as a train station but it doesn’t have a South/North gate.

When it became obvious that we had no idea where to find Kumiko, we tried calling her on a public phone but couldn’t figure out how it worked; another disadvantage of not knowing the language! We did find a helpful English-speaking lady in an information centre who assured us that the elusive South/North gate did not exist. She suggested that we might go to the station master’s office and ask to have our friend paged. That sounded like a great idea. When we got there, I tried to ask the young man who served us to do just that but his English was extremely limited. Through gestures, I tried to explain. “Oh, you want me to phone your friend?” he asked. That was even better than we hoped for! He made the call and Kumiko, who was actually running a little late, showed up a few minutes later!

She took us to a little restaurant nearby and treated us to an amazing assortment of Japanese dishes. Chicken is the restaurant’s specialty and, in addition to miso soup, seafood sashimi, vegetable tempura and rice, we enjoyed chicken in a variety of ways; raw, deep fried, in mini wraps with avocado, and grilled on little wooden skewers. It was all delicious and we were absolutely stuffed by the time we finished.

It was great to reconnect with Kumiko who was, in fact, our first tour guide in Japan. On the first day of our visit with Matt and Robin in 2005, they had to work and Kumiko spent the day showing us Kyoto.

Ryokuchi-koen

Joel and his parents left for a pastor’s conference yesterday morning and Kelly had a meeting to attend so we were on our own for awhile. With map in hand, we set off by bicycle to find Ryokuchi-koen. Koen is the Japanese word for park. Ryokuchi is huge and includes tennis courts, ball diamonds, playgrounds, flower gardens and many other attractions. Our main reason for going was the Open-air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses.

The museum features 11 traditional country homes and other structures that were brought here from all over Japan. All have been painstakingly reconstructed and filled with period era tools and other displays.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the buildings was the giant thatch roofed Gassho-zukuri from Shirakawa, Gifu Prefecture. Gassho refers to the steep roof which is said to look like two hands pressed together in prayer. An excellent volunteer interpreter who spoke reasonably good English spent considerable time showing us around and explaining not only the architectural details of the house but also the lifestyle of it’s occupants. The extended family of 20 to 40 individuals lived on the main floor while the two upper stories were devoted to the raising of silk worms. The occupants of the house included the parents, the oldest son, his wife and their children as well as the daughters of the family and their children. Their husbands didn’t live in the house with them. The communal bedroom shared by all the house’s occupants had a small door to the outside through which they would enter for night time visits with their wives!

Many of these houses are still in use in the Shirikawa region, predominantly in the small villages of Ogimachi and Ainokura which have both been declared Unesco World Heritage sites but I suspect that the lifestyle of their occupants has changed somewhat over time!

Gassho-zukuri from Shirikawa

A few of the other structures in the museum:

Return to Osaka

We first visited Osaka, the second largest city in Japan, in 2005 when our son and daughter-in-law lived here. Robin planned a busy and exciting itinerary for us. Looking back, it’s amazing how much we managed to fit into the nine days that we were here. In addition to seeing many of the sights of Osaka itself, we travelled to Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima. We saw castles, temples, shrines and palaces. We tried all sorts of interesting foods and I fell in love with Japanese gardens.

This visit has been entirely different. While living in Funabashi and attending Hope Church, we met Joel and Kelly who were preparing to plant a church here in Osaka. We’ve been staying in their home for the past few days and yesterday we attended Life Church with them. What a joy to see what God has been doing here! In less than two years, the church has outgrown its first venue and, with an average attendance of approximately 50 people, the second is bursting at the seams!

Sharing our visit with Joel’s parents who are also here for a couple of days has been an unexpected pleasure. Leo and Phyllis Kaylor came to Japan as missionaries 60 years ago. Settling on the southern island of Kyushu, they have devoted their lives to God’s work in Japan. Three of their sons now pastor churches in this country.

We’ve been enjoying wonderful meals together, having fun times with the three Kaylor kids and engaging in many great discussions. Last night, we were introduced to yaki niku. Gathered around tabletop braziers in a tiny crowded restaurant, we cooked and ate a variety of meats and vegetables. I was amazed to discover that my favourite part of the meal was the paper thin slices of beef tongue! Right now, Richard is taking part in another Japanese tradition. He’s at the public bath with the men of the family.

This afternoon, our return to Osaka overlapped with our previous visit for the first time when we went to Todai-Ji temple in Nara. After walking amongst some of the thousands of tame deer that inhabit the park surrounding the temple, we entered Daibutsu-den Hall, the largest wooden building in the world. The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) housed within is one of the largest bronze figures in the world, cast in 746 AD. Standing just over 16 m high, it’s made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold. It’s impossible to really capture the size in a photo but to give you an idea, there’s a wooden pillar in the temple with a hole through it that is the same size as one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils. Today we watched a grown man squeeze through it!

 

Daibutsu-den Hall

Deja vu

We’re on our way to Japan again! Tonight we’re snuggled into the same hotel that we stayed in three years ago the night before our year long adventure began. This time, though, there’s wireless internet in our room so I don’t have to hang out in the lobby and wait for my turn to use the one public computer!

Tomorrow will be a very long day. We have a wake up call scheduled for 6:15 a.m. and the airport shuttle picks us up at 7:25. Chances are we’ll run into my sister and her oldest son at the airport. Believe it or not, they’re flying to Vancouver at exactly the same time as we are but on a different plane and different airline! When we reserved our flights, neither of us had any idea that the other was doing the same!

We have a 3 hour layover in Vancouver so our daughter-in-law, Robin, and grandson, Sam, are meeting us at the airport for lunch! Then it’s onto another plane for the ten and a half hour flight to Tokyo. By the time we touch down, we’ll have been awake for over 20 hours unless we manage to get some sleep on the plane which I don’t usually do. Unlike last time when we had to find our way by train, however, we’re being picked up at the airport this time. Thank you, Shelley! You’re such a blessing!

Our travels won’t be over when we arrive in Tokyo though. After spending the night with Pastors Steve and Shelley in the house that Richard helped build (more about that in a later post), we’ll head to the other Tokyo airport for the short domestic flight to Osaka where we’ll be spending a few days with Steve’s brother, Joel, and his family. They were part of Hope Church while we were there but shortly after we returned to Canada, they moved to Osaka to plant a church there.

Once again, I hope to use the blog to share our adventures with friends, family and anyone else who’s interested so I hope you’ll follow along! For now though, I’m tired just thinking about what tomorrow holds so I’d better get some shut eye!