Thursday, November 8, 2012

The New Place

Several people have asked about my new apartment.  It's small enough that taking pictures which convey its dinky-yet-adequate size is difficult, so I encourage you to take 4 minutes and watch this video that my roommate Mark made:

As you can see, saying I have a kitchen is almost an exaggeration.  Though I technically have just one mid-size room, I sometimes use the shower room as an extra sitting spot if it's early and I want to Skype someone while Mark is still asleep.

What the video doesn't show is that we are only an 8-minute walk from our main campus (Waseda), with a subway stop almost at our doorstep and a train station just 10 minutes away.  A department store where I got my futon and Internet router is right across from the subway stop, and close nearby is both a produce shop (only 50¢ per apple when I buy in bulk!) and a 24-hour grocery store.  Should I really need a quick snack or household fix, there are dollar stores only 4 minutes away in two directions.  And the post office with its ever-reliable ATM can be reached in under 7 minutes.  Fantastic!

Though I am endeared to Kunitachi because I spent my study-abroad time there, Nishi-waseda is far more central and convenient.  It's going to be a great year!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Back in Gear

The immediate focus of my internship is meeting and getting to know students.  This is a lot of fun, but isn't necessarily automatic; after all, there are clubs to be attended, jobs to be sought, regular friends to be surrounded by, and (a priority for some) classes to be completed.

Hanging out on campus is fine, but I personally prefer entering a student's world when possible.  They are the native experts, after all!  Going to someone's favorite hang-out spot also allows me to experience what's best about a place or menu together with them, sharing in their delight and creating great memories.

The first two weeks on campus weren't great times for after-hours fellowship.  Several nights were taken up in adjustment to a new apartment and team business; several more didn't work for new friends at the last minute.  I was frankly discouraged that repeated texts were bringing back evasive 'no's or--worse--no response at all.  

Finally, though, I got to have dinner with two recent pals in Mitaka's finest ramen spot!  Though the superb grub alone would have been worth the train ride, our great conversation about hobbies and cross-cultural experiences truly hit the spot.  One of my buddies spent several years in Germany and had to help his dad try to figure out an all-German washing machine.  (Their duds were almost ruined in the process!)


Feel almost adjusted to my new location and assignment.  And yes, I am wearing contact lenses these days.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Back to Normal

There is something distinctly enjoyable about revisiting your old stomping grounds after a long absence.  In everyday routine, familiarity sets in like a fog and prevents full enjoyment of your surroundings; on adventures, it's difficult to distinguish what is important amid the swirl of startling phenomena, each clamoring for your attention.  A return visit, though, after the memories have mingled with the environment and settled into proper perspective, lets you faintly inhale the memories and exhale into the present, aware and alive.

I went back to Hitotsubashi University (which you can see at last week, and my general feeling of the past few days was confirmed: it's good to be back.  I know where I am, where to buy milk tea and which spots on campus are most picturesque.  Conversation with students or needed requests for help are no longer anxious attempts to remember vocabulary, and I can now (thankfully) shift languages without much trouble.

The apartments where my team is staying are familiar from a summer trip 3 years ago.  Back then, however, I never took time to explore this particular suburb of Tokyo, so having regular spots for hot chocolate, almond jelly ice cream and animal-shaped doughnuts ( where I get to know the store owners is a wonderful blessing.  I don't want to take for granted the people that work so hard at even the small things around me.

I bought a cheap bass, just like when I was an exchange student, to complement my tenor ukulele.  They are both lying close at hand to rebuild my finger callouses and let me sing in ways I can't alone.  So far, though, my top hobby is keeping in touch with my fiancee!

Current book: Shiokari Pass (in Japanese)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

First Steps

The first time I set foot on Japanese soil, I was excited but exhausted; I ended up working much harder on luggage transport than necessary and making a complete fool of myself before I made it to my place & into bed.

This time, thankfully, was different.

I had the privilege of finding a new friend in my seatmate: Kohei, from a town near Tokyo, who had just finished his own study-abroad adventure.  We talked about Japanese dramas, sports and economic development for a good portion of the flight.  Between talking and enjoying said dramas from the plane's well-stocked movie collection, I only needed a few winks of sleep.

After the plane touched down, I prayed in the airport with seven friends & fellow interns, grateful to God that He finally allowed us to go--with no visa trouble this time!  (We're still waiting for the final member of our team, but confident that she'll join us very soon.)

A familiar staff face welcomed us to Japan and let me play a geography game on his iPad while heading to our apartments.  We took a minivan taxi, barely fitting all nine of us in the tinier seats, and I must compliment the driver on his superb Tetris skills--he managed to fit all of our bags and didn't even charge us extra!

After the ride and unloading, I used my Japanese to work out payment of our fare with the driver; we needed smaller bills in change so all of us could pay evenly.  Between the suddenly obvious time lag, general travel fatigue and long-unused vocabulary of payment I felt really tired.  The high humidity didn't help, but also didn't keep me from crashing asleep a few hours later.

Long, yes, but blessedly hassle-free.  Thank you, taxi driver.  Your efficiency and professionalism was wonderful.

Sneak preview: life in a palace

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Putting Life Together

Packing isn’t fun for me.  In fact, it has historically been the most annoying and stress-inducing part of my international travels.  I have consequently developed the unhelpful habit of delaying it as much as possible and cramming it into the evening before departure.

This time, however, I was able to break with that unfortunate tradition.  From the beginning of the summer I made a small stack of essentials: Bible, passport, description of how best to bike to a good soba [buckwheat noodle] restaurant.  I then commenced packing my clothes, selected with an eye toward a cold Japanese winter and Euro-style Tokyo fashion tastes, on the Friday before my Monday morning departure.

My sister and I had much more fun than I imagined picking out several fun new wardrobe updates, and for the first time as a grown man I went beyond tolerating or shrugging my shoulders at the thought of trying on clothes.  Some of the styles were simply fun to laugh at together (salmon colored shorts…for men?) and others fit me surprisingly well.  Very glad I had an objective eye with me in the store—thanks, T.

I know that Tokyo boasts a lot of options, particularly with regard to books and entertainment, and so the only real essentials were: clothes that fit me (sadly rare); fewer than 5 English books (an exercise in self-restraint + a spur to reading more Japanese); and basic starting toiletries, which I could safely replenish once in country.

I was able to fit all these desired belongings into two large luggage containers, with my computer, books and two card games in my single carry-on.  Oh yeah, and my “special item” under new airport regulations: a fine, soft-case-protected ukulele!

Overall, I’m grateful that packing let me bond with my sister & family and was not a huge source of stress for anyone involved.  Rather, it will not only relieve some of my in-country needs before I feel them—no need to hunt around desperately for more long-sleeve shirts after the chill sets in—but also helped me get excited for life in Tokyo again.  The Lord has finally allowed me back, and I get to get ready for it.

My packing night’s theme song: the evocative “Ships on the Ocean Floor” by The Autumn Film (

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hilo Writing

This post is dedicated to my friend Dave Young Kim, a visionary artist--see for yourself at taught me all I know about what I used to call "tagging" but now know goes by "writing" on the streets.

Some of these works are better seen by clicking the image for a full-size view.


Kinoole St. has quite a few murals. Starting with the most striking, which is on the side of Spencer's Gym:

This impressive piece of work features a tiki idol on the left side, an unknown water just to the right of some traveling Polynesians (the golden boat) and the often-seen Pele, goddess of the nearby volcano. This rightmost character has lava for hair and a hibiscus flower behind her right ear.

The mural's title.

Just in case you manage to step off a flight to Hawaii without catching some of the lingo: Mahalo = thanks. Vague words of wisdom courtesy of an island boy who's king of the unofficial state music, judging from the selection of FM stations.

The contributors, with a close-up of the aforementioned lava locks. 2 ladies and 4 gentlemen, but what really interests me about the list of artists is the fact that all but one (second from the bottom) have Japanese surnames.

On the side of supermarket KTA, you can find this version of modern food production, topped by a phrase which seems like a 1930s-era relic to my Bay Area mind. Just beneath it is the idyllic past of Polynesian fishing:

There's also a display of local flora & feathers further up the street:

And now for something completely different! Poi [taro root paste] is the one food that I have a hard time getting excited about due to its bland taste, library paste-consistency and expensive price. Hilo's no LA or Oakland if people have time to put up things like this (just add a few vowels if you can't figure it out):

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review #6: Return of the King

Sixth in a series of 8. The book for this review is courtesy of Amanda Sever: J.R.R. Tolkien's Return of the King.


The final film of the Matrix trilogy (remember when those set the cultural standard of cool?) carried this tautologous tagline: "Everything that has a beginning has an end." This has interesting theological implications* yet could have carried more meaning by speaking in terms of expectation. If a story grabs our attention, we want it to end in a satisfactory manner. And the more we are invested in the storyline and world, the more deeply we desire that the ending suits the story. Witness 8.3 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being sold in its first 24 hours of American release or diehard fans of the cancelled TV series "Firefly" demanding further material, released in movie form three years later as Serenity.

Tolkien's desire to create a believable world for the Elvish language he invented ultimately blossomed into The Lord of the Rings, the gold standard of fantasy writing (although if you are more devoted a Tolkien fan than me, you probably think that The Silmarillion is his pinnacle achievement). This is not the book to begin with--the characters get no introduction and most of the events, including the climactic War of the Ring, are long foreshadowed in the earlier two volumes--yet given that any proper reading of Return of the King must be in context of the other two, I cannot count these facts against the work.

I reread the entire trilogy last summer and fall, and it was quite rewarding on several levels. Since it was read to me by my father in childhood, I had forgotten the value the book places on true, unhurried conversation--clearly influenced, I think, by Tolkien's peer group the Inklings and their pub meetings. While not explicitly Christian in terminology, the author weaves Biblical material throughout the narrative. My personal favorite point of overlap was the "healing hands" of the prophesied King of Gondor, modeled on Jesus's earthly ministry and displaying this other King's humble, servant character.

In addition to intellectual and spiritual satisfaction with the story, I thought Tolkien continued his fabulous job of crafting a world consistent with its own rules and history. Indeed, he went beyond wrapping up the requisite plot threads and in doing so proved that his fictional universe is bigger than the mission of destroying the Ring of Power. Though at times I felt he was taking too long to get back to the action in Mordor pre-war, I had no such qualms about the extended denouement. Why? Life doesn't simply derive meaning from any particular task or even what we get to do in the time allotted to us, so I appreciated the philosophical statement about the value of 'regular life.' Though I don't fully agree with the political implications of the Shire's scouring, it makes sad sense in the story. And the final scene--how dare I spoil it?--is a very rare moment of authentic and satisfying closure in fiction, made all the sweeter by the momentous journey it took to reach.


Appreciated the clear Biblical worldview, imaginative milieu and satisfying end to the saga

Disliked its sometimes too-languid pace in the first half

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking true adventure, though starting here is nowhere near as rewarding as beginning with the first two books. It's worth your time and not replaceable with the filmed version.

Disclaimer: There are extended scenes of fantastic battle violence (not that meaning, though they are well written)

*God is the only uncreated One; everything else is by definition finite, and apart from His gracious sustenance will end (the world as tainted by our sin is the most obvious example). The Biblical teaching of eternal life for those who trust Jesus does not contradict this because He defined eternal life as both Himself and the knowledge of Him (John 14.6, 17.3), thus imparting His own eternality to those who are joined to Him by faith. This is completely different from one-with-God paganism or mysticism, which reduces God-likeness to an earthly experience and attempts to bring Him down to our level.