17 October, 2017

Tokyo's unexpected green tinge

In this huge metropolis that's one and half times the population of my home country, it amazes me how much green there is. There seems to be a compulsion to grow stuff in the smallest of places. Tiny garden beds seem to be regularly included on the side of houses or built into property walls these days (not so much in the older buildings like our house). 

Here's a house we've driven past quite a lot on the way back from cross-country meets these last few weeks. They've got a tree growing in that tiny garden! Plus something that looks like it could be a bonsai plant on the other side of the front door.

Of course not everyone has a green thumb (for example, yours truly, who mostly only grows geraniums because they are really hard to kill). Some of the garden beds seem to be wishful thinking: put in at entrances that are on the northern side of a building, and hence get almost no sun except in mid-summer. One building near us must have had pine trees planted there when it was built, on the north side of the building. We've watched them gradually die and finally, fall over into the street.

I passed this house on the way to Costco a couple of weeks ago. No one's grabbed the opportunity of that garden bed, but at least it's not overflowing with weeds.

I found this small ornamental chilli bush in full "bloom" on my way to the doctor last month. I passed it again yesterday and it wasn't looking so healthy. But I want to include the photo as an example of the little bits of nature that lie all around us here. This bush is in a long raised garden bed in, essentially, the central business area of our suburb. In the background you can see another one (which had mostly weeds at the time). These public areas are generally looked after by local citizen groups, who often have work days where they get out and tidy up, often planting annuals.

It's not what fits my mind's eye with what a big city will look like. 

16 October, 2017

Keeping it real today

Keeping it real—this was what the last few days looked like for me.

Saturday held another cross country meet. The second-last one for the season. The alarm went off at 5.30 as David was one of the drivers getting runners to the meet and I was riding with him. This season we've had the joy of having our two boys run in the first and last race at most meets! No arriving late or leaving early! 

It drizzled on and off and was quite cold, more than 10C colder than last Tuesday when I was wearing shorts! So I was layered up. I copped the usual flack from my teenagers, but it was my comfort I cared about, not their opinions of my fashion.

We had the fun of cheering CAJ's high school boys on to great success. It was their regional finals and the top 15 got medals. One third of those medals went to our boys and gave us the team award! Notable when you realise that the schools that came second and third have student bodies more than twice the size of our school.

But I came home very tired and still had grocery shopping to do and an evening meal to cook. I think that was the night that my Kindle fell out of my hands onto the floor while I was reading in bed and David suggested I should call it quits for the day.

Sunday was church as usual in the morning and resting for a couple of hours after lunch, but for some reason I wasn't able to nap. 

The upcoming fortnight is extra busy. This week is CAJ's giant bazaar, Thrift Shop where I volunteer for four and a half very intense days. 

Preparing at home for that time means getting all the stuff that we're intending to sell with price tags on them (which we write by hand and include our PTA number so that we can get a percentage of the sale price returned to us as income). 

For me it also means making sure my menu for the coming week is light on work for me because two nights I won't be here at that time and the other three nights I'll be very tired. And it also means that I'm working hard on Monday and Tuesday to make sure that as far as I can predict, I'm able to take a few days off from my editing jobs. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On Sunday I spent time baking for these coming couple of weeks (snacks for our family as well as Thrift Shop volunteers) before heating up our usual left-over Sunday night dinner.

I also worked on the menu for the week after Thrift Shop because David will be away in the US that week and I try to be kind to myself. So in the last week we've had some large meals and yesterday I frozen portions for the upcoming fortnight.

Looking at the upcoming temperatures, I also asked David if he could get the big heater out and buy some kerosene to fill it up. Today, that already proved fortuitous. It's been grey and drizzling all day and barely made 14 today. Really quite chilly for this time of year.

I was still feeling rather tired last night and had boys needing stuff from me at 10pm, which is pretty much my Cinderella hour most nights, but last night even more. I do believe I said something like this to a boy who was occupying the bathroom and preventing me from cleaning my teeth and going to bed:
"Please get into the shower [i.e. out of the sink area] so I can clean my teeth before I collapse. I want to collapse after I've cleaned my teeth and I want to collapse in my bed." 
Today I've been working hard along the lines of what I wrote above, checking where I'm up to and trying to get ahead on as much as I can. I also walked over to school in my gum boots for a ninth-grade parent's prayer meeting at school mid-morning. 

After that I walked through the drizzling, chilly rain to the doctor to get asthma medication for the next three months (hopefully, if I don't get a cold). That was a mildly anxiety-inducing affair. There's nothing like someone with a full-blown cold in the waiting room to make me feel as though my chest is tightening up, especially when it's a cold day and I'm thinking about asthma for starters. I'm not super fond of the rule that they can't give you repeats on prescriptions here, so that I can stay away from the doctor's waiting room for up to a whole year! But thankfully my timing was great and the whole thing, including getting the meds from the pharmacy, only took 40 minutes. Not bad with no appointment!

Then I walked to my local coffee shop and spent the next four hours there. My happy, productive place! I figured home would be cold and miserable (I never cope well with these pre-Thrift Shop days and a cold, wet, grey day wasn't helping my mood). And knowing that I usually get a tonne done when I'm at a coffee shop on my own with work in mind, I headed there and had a more upbeat day than I would have otherwise. There speaks the extrovert in me?

As a small aside—to give you an idea of how close all these places are to our house, I walked to all of the above places today and have only walked 1.7 km! Our house is crazily convenient to so many  places, and yet, not in the middle of commercial or high rise buildings. It's hard to believe, even after we've lived here for nearly seven years.

At 4.30 my computer, that I hadn't plugged in, had almost run out of battery power, so I came home. I got little more non-household work done at home, though, as the rest of the household gradually returned home also and I cooked dinner. Now I've had a shower and am just trying to finish off this blog post before I'm going to relax in my chair in the lounge room and watch another episode of the West Wing with David.

13 October, 2017

Risk-taking, or not

I don't see myself as a great risk taker. I like to plan and the prepare for possible risks. I don't like taking physical risks (and less so as I get older). I don't like taking financial risks. I've never taken out a large loan, never bought property. I like stability. I like predictability, within reason. I like Japan because it feels safe. Even though we have the threat of earthquakes and  volcanoes, of nuclear missiles, it still feels pretty safe compared to many countries God could have sent us to.

But some people, looking at me and my life would consider that I am a risk taker. After all, living on what people give is a risk, isn't it? Choosing to raise my family in another country is a risk, one would think. Deciding that I'm willing to follow where God leads me, that's risky too—on the surface. But I don't feel this so often. Maybe because God's led us to a place where he's kept us for a lengthy period of time (in missionary terms, we've been at CAJ for twelve and a half years and in this house for eight of those). Maybe what we're doing has become so normal to us that we don't notice that others might feel the risk.

Really, the biggest risk factor I feel regularly in this lifestyle is investing in friendships. They are one of the least stable things in my life and one of the things that I value highly. Investing in friends is risky because I don't know how long I will have that friend. I know the pain of having many absent friends. Leaving Australia the first time was hard, but leaving it again and again is, possibly, harder. Then the friends I make here also have a tendency to leave!

I really enjoyed camping with friends this week. We've only known them for 2 and a bit years, but I was tempted to think, "Wouldn't it be great if we could go camping with these guys when all our kids have left home . . . " but I nipped that one quickly. That's about 11 years away, and I can't count on them still being here in 11 years. It seems as though we might be here in 11 years, but only God knows.

However, I've been reminded several times this week that I don't need to be afraid. That really, it is just from my limited perspective that things are uncertain. Nothing catches God by surprise, nothing is out of his control. Though we might question what he's doing, that's a human perspective problem. And God is with us through whatever things we fear that come about. But fearing them is not drawing us closer to go, in fact it does the opposite.

These words from the hymn Amazing Grace were brought to my attention in a sermon this week:
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,And grace my fears relieved;
When we know God (and 'fear' him in terms of being in complete awe of him), our fears of anything else are taken away. I know that that's never completely true till we're in heaven, but —as we grow in our faith and fear of God—our fear of other things gradually dissipates.  
There is no fear in love. But perfect love [i.e. God's love] drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18 NIV)
This post was inspired by the theme of Risk on Velvet Ashes' prompt: The Grove and this article specifically. And here's another post on risk in relationships on the mission field, though differently slanted to mine.

12 October, 2017

Strange orange and black season

This is a strange season for us, in Japan. No, not autumn (or "Fall" as I keep hearing), but Halloween. It wasn't a part of my growing up years and is not a part of our family's traditions. Until recently it wasn't a part of Japan's traditions either. But in the last few years it has appeared everywhere in the shops.

But there is a strange mixing in of the American Thanksgiving traditions too. Yesterday I saw two traditional style pumpkins with the sign (in English) inviting people to buy them and carve them themselves.

A couple of weeks ago we went to biggest local shopping centre for David's birthday and found a couple of big displays. One was a purple and orange Halloween balloon sculpture about three metres high that was stylised as a photo booth (with costumes provided). Just near it was another that included these fake pumpkins. Strangely, they also have Bible verses on them.

And yesterday at a grocery story I came across "Herbs for Halloween". They look like baby spinach. I haven't heard of Halloween being associated with herbs or salad before!

Japanese love seasonal celebrations, even if they don't understand what the season means. December will be full of Christmas decorations, even though few people actually know what it means or celebrate it personally. Easter is also starting to show up in shops. So it doesn't surprise me that Halloween has become big here, at least in the shops. I haven't heard of "Trick or Treat" becoming popular and this post predicts that it will remain an adult-only, commercial event.

Here is a video from 2014 at a popular spot for big street parties (Shibuya crossing):

Japanese also have a tradition of celebrating ghost stories, more so than I've seen in Australia. This page lists ten famous Japanese ghost stories. 

11 October, 2017

October camping trip

We came back yesterday from our first ever October camping trip. It was also the first time we'd camped in Nagano Prefecture, though not the first time we'd stayed overnight in that prefecture (the OMF holiday house we stay in at Christmas is in Nagano Prefecture, but on the other side of some significant mountains).

So we weren't quite sure what to expect. October has quite variable weather in this part of the world. On Friday it was grey, rainy, and cool (under 20C) in Tokyo. Plus, it's not that long since we camped in the snow last November and so we were determined not to be caught unawares regarding cold.

We caught some amazing weather, though. Blue skies and warm weather. Yesterday was so warm that I was wishing I'd packed shorts and another t-shirt. Jeans and a 3/4 sleeve shirt was too warm.

It was so delightful that it was difficult to come home. I've struggled to get into work today, longing to be still out there camping!

Here are some (actually quite a lot of) photos for your enjoyment.

We camped down the road from a small lake (or big pond) called Lake Tateshina.

Two tents, two cars, and a common dining shelter.

The camping area was surrounded by cabins, unfortunately. I prefer a more natural outlook when camping! It also turned out more expensive than we're usually happy to pay. There were a number of charges that weren't on the website.

The facilities weren't fantastic, either. This is the edge of the ablutions block. Not showing the toilets here, they were horrid. Thankfully we discovered a nicer toilet block further up the hill, but not until our second night.

Our youngest enjoyed hanging out with the two youngest children of our friends. They spent a lot of time searching for golf balls in the adjacent bush which separated us from local golf course. They found about 40, but kept only about 15. Here two of them are enjoying hanging out on our friends' hammock.

Sun setting over our camp kitchen.

We found this large fern near the showers.

This is Lake Tateshina.

Adjacent to the lake was an Art Park. We ran out of time to explore it fully, but it was pleasant to stroll through (if you didn't spend much time looking at the naked women statues).

We discovered that the art park was illuminated at night time, so we went back after dinner on Monday night.

In the morning, most of our party got out on the water for a while in various boats.

Autumn colours are appearing here and there.

Lots of dragonflies!

I've got no idea what this is, but I found it on the edge of the car park at the campsite.

Lots of campfires! One of my favourite parts of camp.

On the way home we stopped at our favourite apple farm and bought cheap, but utterly delicious apples.

07 October, 2017

Secret struggle of women

One of the secret struggles of most women is comparison. It's a struggle for missionaries too. I wrote a bit about it here (though the main issue talked about was struggle with David being absent when the boys were younger) and here, when I wrote about discovering my "sweet spot" and how that came out of a period of negative comparison with other missionaries.

I struggle with it often, especially in the area of Japanese language ability, but other areas too. I think I've probably improved a bit over the years as I've discovered how God's gifted me and he's given me roles to play in Japan that have been satisfying, but it's still there. Indeed, the mini retreat I did a couple of weeks was partly dealing with the toxicity of comparison that I'd allowed into my thoughts recently.

When you first become a missionary you have your own ideas of what a missionary is like and you also look around at other missionaries to learn what they are like and, presumably, what you should aim to become. It's both a helpful and a toxic activity. Yes, it's good to be inspired by those around us and learn from them. But too often we get skewed one way or the other: either to pride (I'm doing much better than her) or to being down on ourselves I'm so bad compared to her or I wish I was as good at her at...

I edited an excellent short article about this for the Japan Harvest magazine earlier this year. You can find it here.
Comparison tempered by humility gives us a proper view of ourselves in relationship to others, which can keep us from falling into sin. (From the JH article just mentioned.)
Recently I read another article by a missionary about a time she particularly struggled with this, it turns out to be a fairly old article, but still oh so relevant: Frumpy, grumpy, and useless.

I need to keep my eyes on Jesus, remembering that he made me and nothing he makes is bad. Indeed he made me for a reason and with a purpose in mind. One that is different to every other person I meet.
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverancethe race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith". (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV).
But now I need to go and pack my bag for camping tomorrow. It will be so good to get away from this computer and all the tasks that it holds!

06 October, 2017

A mid-autumm camping trip

Last time we packed up our camping gear in July we wondered if we would have another chance to camp before we go to Australia next year. And, we threw away our big, well-used tent, because it had too many holes to mend. We bought another, smaller one, because we thought the chance of the five of us all camping together in Japan again soon was slim. But then we realised that there was this weekend in October, with no cross-country meet and two full days off school with no responsibilities. So we decided to run away for rare mid-autumn camping trip.

However, this tent trial showed us that the new (secondhand) tent we'd bought was in good shape, but too small for five to sleep in comfort. We did have a second tent, but the tent trial showed us it was actually in really bad nick and also had to be thrown out.

So, for this trip we have borrowed a large tent which is similar in size to what we've used before. 

We're also going camping with friends this time. This is our third camping trip with these friends, we really enjoy camping with them. It's really great to camp with others sometimes. Here are some reasons why:

1. Even if our children are not exactly the same ages, they'll help entertain one another, which (hopefully) frees up the adults to relax.
2. Cooking and washing up gets shared, so there feels like there's less work.
3. It's great fellowship time. In the busyness of life, it isn't easy to find time to sit and be with others. Camping provides that time (as long as you don't try to overachieve by cramming your schedule full or camping for too short a time).
4. And the secret ingredient: it helps us all to be on better behaviour! Adding in not-family, and people step their game up a little (not pointing any fingers to any teenagers here...).

Maybe you've guessed, but we've pretty much decided that camping at the end of November is too difficult with the gear we have. It's too cold. We've been there and done it, and I think the snow at last year's late November camp did our resolve in on this family tradition. It makes for good memories, and we've called a halt to making more such family memories!

This will be a new campsite for us in a newish area for us. Yay, another chance to explore a different part of this gorgeous country. It's a bit further down the valley than the camps we did in November for a few years, so should be beautiful. But instead of being on the side of a mountain, it's on a highland area, about 1,200m above sea level. Thankfully the weather forecast is showing dry and fairly warm temperatures (low 20Cs during the day and low double figures at night). So I will be packing warm clothes, but it won't be extremely cold.

We're leaving after church on Sunday and will be back on Tuesday, so keep your eyes peeled for a post mid-next week to see how it all went.