Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Four years abroad

Yesterday, I flew back to Japan after spending Christmas vacation in the States with my family.  As I was waiting for my suitcase at Narita's baggage claim, I did the math and realized that it was my 19th trip across the Pacific.  Four years ago from this coming Saturday, I made that trip for the first time.

I flew out on January 4, 2009, and landed on January 5.  It was my first time to travel overseas, and in fact, my first time to set foot into a foreign country (Canada doesn't count, as much as my Canadian friends might plead distinction from their neighbors to the South).  Having hovered in roughly the same rural, Dutch-American CRC communities up until that point, I went through my own process of culture shock.  As I looked back through some of my first Facebook photo albums from my first month in Japan--and yes, there were several albums, as I took hundreds of pictures in those early days--I was reminded of the things, both little and big, that really stood out to me as a newcomer to Japan.  Of course, all of these things have become a normal part of life since then, which I never expected would happen.  Here's a tour of what I saw in those first exciting and intimidating days in Japan:

 1. Narrow, twisty roads.  I was used to the wide, empty country roads of the farming communities I'd lived in.  That first ride back from Narita in the big school van was terrifying, especially the detour through the rice paddies!  I avoided riding bike for the first month of living here because I was uncomfortable with how close the cars were to me as I was biking.  Also, I was struck by how twisty the roads could be--the first time I tried walking to school by myself, it took me more than an hour because I got lost.
 2. Orange trees.  I'd never seen an orange tree before.  I'd always associated oranges with warmer climates, so was quite surprised to be walking to school on a brisk January day and see ripe oranges on the branch!
 3. Temples EVERYWHERE.  I knew going in that Japan had strong roots in Buddhism and Shintoism, but I had no idea until I actually got here just how ubiquitous the temples were.  The architecture is beautiful and so unique, but seeing so many temples reinforced to me just how important mission-work is in Japan, and how vitally needed the Gospel is in this country.
 4. Fields in the middle of the city.  As a country-boy, my image of Tokyo before coming here was cramped rows of skyscrapers and high-rises, stretching as far as the eye could see.  Of course, there are parts of the city where that's somewhat accurate, but Higashi Kurume surprised me.  To see huge veggie fields in the middle of an otherwise suburban residential area was at once unexpected and refreshing.  I still like the fact that if the breeze is right, I can smell hay or cow manure (I don't expect my city friends to understand why that's a good thing).
 5. Vending machines, vending machines and more vending machines.  Japan clearly values convenience, and indeed, this is a country where basic amenities are often no more than several minutes away by foot or bike for those living in the city.  There are vending machines everywhere and I recall laughing out loud on my first walk to school as I counted how many I saw.
 6. Bike parking lots.  I come from the land of SUVs and Hummers.  A land where many people work sedentary jobs and because of their cars manage to keep physical movement to a minimum on a given day.  Of course, there are many cars on the roads here, too, but exponentially more bicycles than in America.  Strangely enough, there seems to be nearly as many bike brands as there are bikes.
 7. Strange signs and English writing.  I've taken many pictures of signs that made me laugh because of non-sensical or grammatically funky English, and have bought many shirts with such English.  However, the further I've gotten into my Japanese language training, the less this has amused me as I realize that I probably make even less sense than this when I speak or write in Japanese.
8. SUSHI.  My one and only experience with sushi prior to moving here was once in college, in Iowa, when a roommate talked me into trying sushi he'd bought at WalMart in winter of 2007.  There are so many things wrong with what I just wrote that it now makes me shudder to think of it!  Of course, I'd come away with a very low opinion of sushi, and had to be more or less coerced into trying it again.  I'm glad I did, though.  Sushi is high on my list of favorite foods, and has opened my eyes (and tastebuds) to so many kinds of fish I'd never tried before.  Also, this is a message to the state of Iowa: stop selling sushi.  Please.  You're thousands of miles from the ocean on either side, and what you call sushi is a dismal shadow of what ought to be a wonderful culinary experience.  Stick to what you know: meat, potatoes, corn, and those wildly unhealthy salads made with whipped cream and Snickers bars.
9. CAJ.  I expected campus to be cramped, cluttered and small.  How wrong I was.  CAJ is a beautiful place with a spacious plaza shaded by sakura trees, an athletic field and abundant facilities.  Not only that, but the community that inhabits that campus for the better part of each weekday is amazing.  I'm so glad that I followed the call to this place, and that I've been blessed with now four wonderful years living and working here, with these students and colleagues. Thank you, LORD!

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