Friends, family, and followers,
I would like to begin this post with heartfelt gratitude for all of the donations, prayers, and thoughts during the past few months preceding and during the Japan global team trip earlier this month. Without all of you, it could not have happened as it did, and I am so happy that you were willing to come alongside our entire team and participate in the trip with us.
Now, realizing that the readers of my blog include people of many backgrounds and faiths, from readers of Beneath the Tangles, to my YouTube followers, to my friends and family, I’m going to attempt to provide a rather broad recollection of the events of the trip with this in mind.
As of the time of writing, it has now been about a week since we all returned to Liberty University from Japan, and most of us (myself included) are still trying to fix our internal clocks from jet lag. The entire experience was amazing, though it feels like a blur now, and so in an attempt to overcome my inadequacies in presenting all parts of the trip fairly, I am going to try to approach my retelling of the events of the trip in chronological order. So, without further ado, here we go!
Wednesday, March 5:
The afternoon of the Wednesday before spring break is when the entire team from Liberty met up to leave for Japan. After meeting on campus, we boarded a small university bus and headed to Charlotte to meet up with our team leader from SIM, Bob Hay. Once getting there rather late in the evening, we met briefly to receive instructions on how the trip would play out in the next day or so and then hit the sack since we had to wake up early to catch our flight. Well, I’d like to say we went to bed at that point, but the guys on the trip ended up spending a few hours eating a late dinner and playing cards until finally conking out in our respective guest rooms.
Thursday-Friday, March 6-7:
At 4AM, we all awoke (mostly) and headed to the airport. After struggling to obtain our boarding passes for a while, we all finally managed to grab a quick breakfast and then board our 2 hour flight to Dallas, Texas, at our one and only layover. After a rather uneventful few hours, we arrived and then boarded the plane for the main event of the day: the 13.5 hour flight to Narita, near Tokyo.
Although all of the group had met a number of times before the trip through our briefing meetings over the previous months, this was about the time when we first began to truly “meet” each other. I had the chance to sit next to Tyler for the entire trip, and learned pretty quickly that he is perhaps the only person I know who is even more sarcastic than I am. Needless to say, while it was a long journey (seriously, 13.5 hours is a long time to be sitting in one place), between brushing up on my Japanese (日本語！) Tyler and I kept ourselves occupied and formed a friendship that would be the butt of many, many jokes over the next ten days.
Adding our 17 or so hours of travel plus layovers and waiting, we were absolutely exhausted upon arrival at the airport in Japan… only to realize that we still had customs and three train rides before we were even in the area of the church where we were staying. After moving through customs rather quickly we actually bumped into a small film crew who asked us what we were doing in Japan, having noticed us quite quickly to be foreigners (or, gaijin in Japanese). After Bob humored them for a few minutes using his Japanese, we headed to our first public train ride, which took us to the station where we boarded the world famous bullet train (the shinkansen). This we rode for about two hours until we arrived at the local station where we met up with Robert, the Asian Access representative that worked on staff at Shiogama Bible Baptist Church, the church where we were staying. After a 20 minute train ride yet again, we finally arrived in the local area of the church and the guest house right next to it, which we then walked to from the station and, after a few minutes of debrief, we promptly fell asleep.
Which, again, I would like to say but was not quite true. In true Japanese style, the beds we had were actually futon (a Japanese word in case you were wondering) which were folded up in the closet. After setting up the futon, including the folding mattress, cushions, and sheets/blankets, we finally took a much-needed rest.
Saturday, March 8:
On Saturday morning, we began with a briefing by Robert in the church just a few yards from the guest house and went over both our schedule for the week and some general cultural notes on what to do and what not to do (where to wear and not wear your shoes, how to use and place your chopsticks, how to operate the crazy toilets, etc.).
After this we broke up into various groups performing various tasks for the day. At different points, some of us were helping with English lessons held at the church (an enormous ministry they hold at SBBC), some of us helped out with cleaning different areas of the church. We had the chance to eat some Japanese bento (lunchboxes) from the local grocery store for lunch. Additionally, most of us were assigned to various “host” families, who took us out in groups of 2 and 3 to special events around town, a restaurant, and/or their home for either a meal or just some fun time to experience true Japanese culture. This is when Rachel, one of the members of the team, and I had the chance to meet Keiko-san and Reika-chan (san and chan are honorifics that are almost always applied to Japanese names in order to be polite and mean different things depending on which one you use). After a nice dinner at a casual restaurant, we headed back to their house and had the opportunity to just talk and spend some time with them for a few hours (thankfully Keiko-san, Reika-chan’s mother, is an English teacher, so we were able to communicate).
After a rather full evening, we met back up for dinner, debrief, and then bed.
Sunday, March 9:
On Sunday morning we split into two groups: one large group that would attend SBBC’s 3/11 memorial service (March 11 was the three year anniversary of the tsunami that heavily affected the Miyagi prefecture where we were staying) and a smaller group that would attend a small house church plant being facilitated by an Asian Access/SIM representative named Garrett. I was in the latter group.
With a congregation of something like about 7 people, attending the house church was an interesting experience. The church met in the first floor of a small house around a table in a remodeled tatami room (something of a living room with traditional bamboo weave flooring). There we sang a few songs together, listened to (and participated in) a sermon by Garrett (the Japanese pastor was not there that particular day) and then bonded over lunch (tea, coffee, curry rice, and snacks).
Much of the rest of the day was spent helping in various capacities at the church again, between random tasks and assisting with English classes. We also took a trip to the local grocery store where many of the members bought more candy and snacks than you would normally think a college student would be interested in eating. I also discovered there that, at 6’3″ and with blonde hair and blue eyes, I stand out considerably from your average Japanese shopper. We also went into the city of Sendai to walk around for just a little bit.
Monday, March 10 (My Birthday):
That’s right, I was in Japan on my birthday! お誕生日おめでとうございます…私に。
Since Monday is the church staff’s regular day off, we were on our own for the day. So, we took a ferry (where I took the footage at the beginning of the video) to Matsushima to visit a few shrines and a temple, walked around for quite a while, picked up some souvenirs, and ate a traditional ramen lunch. After a lengthy train ride back to the church (we accidentally took the express train and missed our stop on the way back), we prepared for an evening at the guest house (by the way, since I don’t think I’ve explained it, our guest house was essentially two rooms: one for the guys and one for the girls, each with a small bathroom).
At this point, everyone else besides Rachel and I began to work on props for some of the outreach we would be doing later in the week while Rachel and I got ready for another outing with Keiko-san, Reika-chan, and Keiko-san’s other daughter Ai-chan. We discovered a few days prior that both my birthday and Reika-chan’s birthdays were on the same day, namely Monday, so we planned to go out for dinner to celebrate both of our birthdays. This time, though, we had the chance to go with Robert’s wife, Roberta (yes, their names are Robert and Roberta).
We went out for what is called “shabu shabu”, which is essentially a Japanese buffet that provides a pan of boiling water on a burner in order to cook some of your own food. It was a very fun cultural experience, especially since I had the chance to try this weird green gooey stuff that looked and felt like snot (it tasted good, though!). I was very happy to be able to spend more time with this family, although we were unable to meet Keiko-san’s husband, and to be able to invest in their lives. We have since exchanged Skype information and I hope to be able to maintain the relationship we formed while there.
Tuesday, March 11 (3-Year Anniversary of the Disaster):
Particularly because of the importance of the number “3” in Japanese culture, the three year anniversary of the tsunami was a very somber day. To start off the day, we briefed and then embarked on a prayer walk with Roberta leading us (Reika-chan tagged along as well!). One of the most significant moments (and scariest), though, was in the morning when Andrew, a team member, stepped out of the briefing room in excruciating pain. We found out soon after that he had a kidney stone and had to go the hospital (he was fine and ended up not passing the stone until after we returned to the US, but it was still a scary time).
While he was in the hospital, the rest of us left the church and began our prayer walk our Shiogama, ending up at Shiogama Shrine, where we continued our prayer walk (you will see this shrine in the video below about halfway through the video or so). Although cold, it was a beautiful day, and the scenery around the shrine, as well as the ancient architecture itself, was all quite beautiful.
Afterwards, Andrew met back up with us and we met at a Japanese-Italian restaurant (you’ll see a tiny bit of footage from it in the video right after the shrine). Since it was both Japanese and Italian, there were a number of very unique mixtures of foods. Tyler and I both, for example, ordered Squid and Anchovy pizza, which is a taste I will not soon forget.
That evening, a number of team members helped out with English classes both at the church and at a local Buddhist school. The rest of us went to a local park where we had the chance to play with a bunch of elementary school kids and also speak with one of the local leaders about his experiences from 3/11 and how much he appreciate Hope Miyagi, the organization run by SBBC that assisted in tsunami relief and has been helping for the past three years. Hearing direct stories of the disaster was a quite sobering experience.
Wednesday, March 12:
Wednesday was the first day we did hard labor in the conventional sense. For a bit of context, I should first explain the area and circumstances of where we went to do this labor and why.
Near the city of Ishinomaki, there is a tiny fishing village called Oginohama. This village has historically been run primarily by one major family and the oyster farming business that has run in it. When the tsunami hit three years ago the village was completely wiped out, every single house but one was destroyed, and that one house was the home of the major family (and it only stood because it was built in the modern style). One of the sons of this family, Jun-san, survived the tsunami by seeking refuge with many others at the top of a bridge at Ishinomaki while he was traveling either to or from Oginohama. Since then, he has taken charge of trying to re-establish the family business and, consequently, the village. SBBC and Hope Miyagi have been investing in Jun-san’s efforts to get the business and village back on their metaphorical feet, and in doing so have been showing the love of Christ.
We spent several hours (probably about 5 or so) working here at the oyster farm, performing various tasks that the small staff is unable to do by themselves very easily. Between the 14 of us, plus the 2 from SBBC (Robert and Hiromi-san, a Japanese staff member at SBBC), we were able to move and clean hundreds of buoys used in the farming process. A small group of us also branched off to help clean up from a memorial ceremony held the day prior for 3/11 as well as punch and string up shells (I wasn’t helping with either of those groups).
After this, we spent some time with Robert and Hiromi-san hiking around the outskirts of the village, looking at the devastation from the tsunami still left 3 years later (you can see part of the hike at the end of the video). At the end of the trail we stopped at an old lighthouse that overlooked the surrounding area and prayed for the village.
Later that day we also stopped at a place called the Nozomi Project. This is a business that was formed to provide women affected by the disaster find a stable income. They retrieve washed up pieces of pottery from the disaster and then cut them down and re-purpose them as beautiful pieces of jewelry. They also re-purposed ruined kimono as bracelets. I bought a pair of earrings for my mother and a bracelet for my grandmother to support their mission. You can find their site, where you can order pieces online, here: NozomiProject.com
Thursday, March 13:
Thursday is the day we began our ministry at the temporary housing units in the area, which is what the props were for that I mentioned earlier.
Again, I’m going to take a moment here to explain where exactly we went and why. After the tsunami, many people were displaced when their homes were destroyed. Those especially affected were the elderly, especially elderly women, who were rendered homeless and were unable to work to undo their situations. Some of them even lost family in the disaster and have been alone ever since. In order to help these people, the Japanese government set up temporary housing units that are essentially tractor trailers set up to be lived in. Consequently, there are many elderly people living by themselves who, for three years, have been with little hope and have been extremely lonely. If I remember my statistics correctly, our team leader, Bob Hay, told us that about 270,000 people are still displaced in the main prefecture hit by the tsunami even three years later.
In order to help these people, Hope Miyagi began a program of providing some entertainment and social interaction once a month at each of the housing units. On Thursday and Friday we performed for these programs and then sat and talked with the displaced people for a while, loving on them and giving them hope.
We went to two units on Tuesday, each unit taking a few hours plus transit time between them. Our program consisted of singing a group song with hand motions (that the audience joined in on), a quiz game about a few of the students in the group and their hobbies, a testimony by a member of the group that coincided pretty closely with the timing and pain felt by those afflicted by the disaster three years ago, a Bach violin solo by one of the members, and then a singing of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with animal puppets through which we taught them the English onomatopoeia for each animal and compared it with the Japanese ones (pigs: oink vs. bu, cats: meow vs. nyan, etc.). After this we spent about 45 minutes drinking tea and eating snacks around tables with them and just talking about our lives, our families, anything that they wanted to talk about really.
After two of these, we visited the house of one of the Japanese ladies in charge of putting on the programs whose house was hit by the tsunami. It was incredible in the darkest sense seeing the destruction around her home. Her house was one of the few still standing, to the extent that before the tsunami you couldn’t actually see the ocean but afterwards it almost seemed like ocean front property (all the houses and trees obstructing the view were destroyed). Afterwards she and her family moved out, not feeling safe living there anymore, and gave the building to a church that converted it to a house church after renovating the ruined first floor.
Friday, March 14:
Friday played out much the same as Thursday. We visited two housing units and performed the same program each time with a few differences. For instance, after the first program a few of us played a little improv song at the end after everyone was in the process of leaving using Tyler on the ukelele (he had been playing chords for our group songs in the programs), Victoria on the violin (playing it like a fiddle), Andrew scatting, and me singing bass. People liked it so much that we ended up swapping the violin solo with that improv song at our last location.
In the upcoming article for my column at Beneath the Tangles, Anime Today, in a few weeks, I will be mentioning our experiences in the temporary housing units a little bit more.
After both locations, the Japanese pastor who had been facilitating us for the day took us to school building where he was when the tsunami hit. The damage was almost unbelievable, yet what was intact was almost just so. You could see exactly when the tsunami hit because the clock on the wall was still stuck (30 minutes past the time because of the backup battery that turned on when it was hit). The pastor and many others took refuge on top of the school building as the water settled covering the entire first story. He also shared how he was forced to abandon his elderly uncle because of the speed of the wave just outside the building, and he ended up passing away, which still caused much grief in the his heart.
After this he showed us the hope they had for the future as they were constructing a new house church nearby, with plans to use part of it as a 100 yen cafe to build relationships within the community (100 yen is approximately 1 dollar). It was amazing seeing the contrast between heartbreak and hope that he had because of his faith in God.
After all this we had our final goodbye dinner with the staff of SBBC that had been working with us closely throughout the week.
Saturday, March 15:
In the morning we met up with Roberta and Hiromi-san (Robert was feeling sick) and debriefed for the week (we had been doing debriefs each note, but only within our Liberty team, not with the SBBC staff). We talked about the struggles each of us had with the trip, our favorite our most impacting moments, and then we prayed out. At that point we ran to catch the train to the station to transfer over to the shinkansen and head to Tokyo (we were running late).
In Tokyo we visited the Sensouji Buddhist temple in Asakusa, as well as the shrines within it. The sheer size and popularity of the temple was incredible. Additionally, there was a large line of shopping stalls lining the entrance of the temple (Bob referred to it as one of the oldest shopping malls in the world). Here we did our last souvenir shopping, where I bought myself my first item of the trip: a yukata (summer kimono) and sandals.
After this we stayed our final night in Japan in a hotel.
Sunday, March 16:
The long, sad journey back to the United States. Nothing very notable happened on the way back (although Tyler and I drew some entertaining pictures on the plane). Sunday night we finally arrived at Liberty after about 25 hours of travel, after which we promptly had to prepare for school the following morning (some of us also had to write some papers, but thankfully I did all my work ahead of time).
That about sums up the chronological explanation of the trip, so I’m just going to touch on a few general things that I neglected to mention in order.
We ate SO much food. Seriously, I’m pretty sure everyone gained a little weight. Every time we had a mealtime, we took it as an opportunity to “experience” a different type of Japanese cuisine. I’ll try to recall all the different foods and places we ate: bento boxes, convenience store snacks (a staple of everyday life), ramen, shabu shabu (for Rachel and me and anyway), a buffet where you grill all your own food at your table (I can’t remember the name), a bakery (Japan has so many different kinds of specialized bread), a sushi bar with the stereotypical conveyor belt (you pay per plate), a Japanese Big Boy (I had never been to an American one), and probably a few other places that I’m forgetting.
Also, there were vending machines EVERYWHERE.
Christianity in Japan hovers somewhere between 0.3% and 2.0% depending on what you define as “Christian”, and Buddhism and Shinto both hold as the most followed religions in Japan. Buddhism and Shinto are not mutually exclusive, thus many hold to both. Many of you are probably familiar at least to an extent with Buddhism, a religion imported centuries prior from China, but perhaps not Shinto as much. Shinto is less of an organized religion and more of a set of traditions and basic beliefs more akin to that of the Native Americans. There are special ceremonies and festivals, but not written set of beliefs. If you noticed, throughout this article I mentioned temples as well as shrines. They are different things, namely that temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto, although you can have shrines and temples at the same place (exemplifying the combination of the religions).
According to Bob, statistics have shown that from the first time a Japanese person hears the Gospel to the point where they make a decision either positively or negatively, it takes approximately ten years. This makes Japan a high investment country that is very relationship-driven. That is why our trip was so focused on relating with people and displaying love and not focused as much on what is generally seen as “evangelism” (although my general method of “evangelism” is to build relationships and share what I believe, but not force the decision on them, making my natural tendencies a bit similar to what we were already doing).
Again, I just want to thank all of you so very much for everything you’ve done for me. Whether you donated money, prayed for me, thought about me while I was gone, or even only read this article, I appreciate all of it. This experience would not have been possible without you!