Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nebraska: The Good Life

Nebraska has welcomed me back with its loving arms.

A week ago today I stepped off the plane to greet girlfriend and family in the Omaha airport. It felt like home right away. The city, the streets, the food, the relationships. I was sleepy on the drive back to Lincoln, but my sweet girlfriend bore with me as I conversed through the fatigue, and the next day woke up in a town where everything was very much the same and familiar as when I'd left two and a half months earlier.

But even though it feels familiar, it doesn't feel the same because I don't feel the same. In fact, I feel profoundly different.

My first two days back I woke up at 6:40 am and 7:50 am. I remarked to friends how much I loved jet lag because I was getting up and being so productive. Two solid cups of coffee. A few chapters in a book. A little bit of writing. Cleaning the house. Unpacking. I've been nesting.

I've hardly touched my Playstation since I got home. I haven't been interested in video games or Netflix, formerly a daily pursuit of mine. I went on the library website and reserved a book instead.

My interactions with people have been different.. completely. In fact, I feel like I don't even recognize myself before.

I don't know what this all means, yet, but I think when you have an experience of rapid growth where you're challenged anew every day, looking back on your prior persona makes you feel foreign.

Not only was this an opportunity for me to travel and experience the world, but it was doubly meaningful to reconnect with my family. I've found resonances with Paul, Nancy, and Naomi that I didn't know existed, and these resonances have given me a greater sense of identity.

And they have changed me.

I hope you as my friends will bear with me to see what I'm about now. You might have a better insight than me into how I'm different. If there is one thing I did miss in Japan, it's you. Nebraska truly is the good life.

I've got some new irons in my fire. I'm excited, enthusiastic, and thankful.

To all those of you who came around me in Japan, I thank you. To those of you who received me back home, I thank you. I hope that it is as deep a pleasure for you to know me as it is for me to know you.

I have two homes now.

Michael out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Departures & The Impermanence of Things

The night before a departure is always a time of tension for me.

I often find myself anxious and under-prepared. So many tasks, so many people to say goodbye to.. So little time.

Tomorrow is the day I return.

I will be getting up soon, but it's important to me to type my thoughts in the moment of tension. Writing warrants a fresh 'word' from my feelings in the present, in the thick of things.

Sames and Differents
After everything is said and done, I am only curious. All this time I have felt like a foreigner in a foreign land. Now, will I feel like a foreigner in my own land?

I can't remember all that is different in the Midwest, but here is a short list.

Here is a list of things I know (I think).
1  I can't wait to see my friends and loved ones at home
2  I will miss my new friends in my Tokyo home
3  I will miss Paul, Nancy, and Naomi
4  I will miss Japanese food; ramen, sushi, yaki soba, udon, etc....
5  I will enjoy understanding what people are talking about and what signs say
6  I will miss public transportation
7  I will enjoy having my car
8  I will hate how far away everything is by car
9  I will miss my girl bike
10  I will miss having my own apartment 
11  I will enjoy sleeping in a real bed (if I have a bed when I get back...)

Time Travel
More than a week ago I knew my attitude was changing. I knew it was time to switch into leaving mode. And I wanted to leave well.

One of the problems I often run into is not wanting my experience to be over, procrastinating my departure procedures, and ending up incredibly stressed out on the last night. I needed to find a way of dealing with "letting go" in a healthy way.

The mentality I settled on was a dichotomy. On one hand, I would live in the present--not worrying about all the things I have to do when I get back, but simply enjoying the relationships and environment I have established in the last two months. On the other hand, I remembered that once I blinked my eyes, I would be on the plane. Time would move mercilessly, sneaking through the night and ransacking by day. Suddenly, uneventfully, my time would be over. Would I be ready?

That brings me to today. I feel like I am actually ready.

One of the values of Japanese culture is that true beauty lies in the "impermanence of things."

Maybe it was the delicate, beautiful, and short-lived cherry blossoms that helped the Japanese discover this mantra..  maybe it was the Tale of Genji (see earlier Shimonoseki post), or maybe it was ancient Buddhism. Either way, some of the highest art in ancient Japanese tradition has valued this recognition of the fleeting nature of beauty.

That's one of the reasons this trip has been beautiful. It is a glorious fleeting moment in my life. The magic of this first encounter of Asia, my long-lost family, and the things I've learned will be hard to top.

Like I said, I can't wait to be back, but I'm sad to be going. Friendships quickly made are not as easily dismissed. Goodbyes are difficult and best kept short.

But it is late, and sleep is also impermanent, and short. Tomorrow brings a new day. There is still more thinking and writing to be done in the future.

This is only the beginning.

Michael out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami

I find it hard to write about what I've witnessed.

Iwaki is located south of Fukushima on the eastern coast of Japan. A great wave, hundreds of miles long, hit the coast a little over a month ago. Thousands died. Thousands are still missing.

Several of us went northward to visit the province last Saturday. Buried in the rubble were homes, possessions, and families.

It is the worst thing I've ever seen.

The Wave
After the earthquake, the ocean itself receded hundreds of meters. This process, known as "withdrawal," is deceptive and often prompts people to pick up beached fish and shells. A few who have experienced this sort of thing before or have heard stories from their grandparents know that this is a classic sign of tsunami. In other words, "RUN." 

Ocean, seawall, piano keys
A tsunami itself is not a wave, but a flood. It is a wall of dense water that is stacked from the back, and hits with the momentum of an army of freight trains. Tsunami travel at more than 500 mph across the ocean without losing much momentum. The deadly Sumatran tsunami in 2004 originated more than 3000 miles away from its areas of impact. As a tsunami nears land, the water slows and stacks up on itself. The more narrow the obstacles in the chute, the higher the water rises, pushed from behind.

It was 2:46 pm on a Friday. Children were at school, parents were at work. Families were separated.

The tsunami measured up to 37 meters tall. Who could stand a chance?

Gazing at the wreckage, it was as if a monster had reached out of the deep and engulfed the city with its massive arms, and then, like a child with a sand castle, steamrolled it, back and forth until nothing made sense and everything was chaos. The reason? Cold, capricious fun, or maybe boredom.

In the Nebraska, we fear tornadoes. These devastating twisters wreak havoc on rural communities, and have even destroyed entire towns. But that doesn't compare to 13,000 dead and 14,000 missing. That doesn't compare to 160,000 living in shelters. That doesn't compare to thousands of homes and families destroyed. That doesn't compare to nearly 100 children now confirmed as orphans. That doesn't compare. That doesn't compare...

Throughout this process, I am amazed at the resilience of the Japanese. We visited a nearby relief shelter, stationed in a school gymnasium. The mood was almost festive. Thanks to some missionaries from the local church who showed up to do music and give back rubs, many people were smiling amid the devastating situation. 

The shelter was clean and organized. Incredibly so. Newspapers lined the floor and hundreds of people slept on mats with makeshift cardboard walls for 'houses'. Privacy was impossible, but at least they had each other.

Cherry "tree" and space heater, Iwaki shelter
The Japanese response in some ways puts hurricane Katrina to shame. Despite having little fuel, clean water, food, medicine, and shelter, the Japanese faithfully take care of themselves. There has been little looting, and even the homeless have been allowing refugees to take shelter with them beneath tarps.

But I do not write to indict the American mentality, nor to praise the Japanese response--only to paint a picture. People are trying to stay hopeful. The shelter we visited even has its own indoor cherry "tree."

I didn't feel right taking pictures of people--my own admission of weakness as an amateur journalist. I wasn't gawking, but I didn't want to look like I was, either. Though, many people came up to our photographer and wanted their pictures taken. They seemed eager for us to hear their stories.

Their survivor stories are their new realities.

We may have caught a brief moment of sunshine during our visit, but it is difficult for me to believe that it is like that all the time. The physical destruction is a calamity in itself--measuring 25 trillion yen ($300 billion), but how do you count human suffering?

The cost cannot be measured.

What is the actual cost of a 200-year-old family business that was destroyed? A child orphaned? An entire city demolished? History erased? What is the current exchange rate in dollars to tears?

It is imperative in times like these that those who reflect on the tragedy don't stop short of meaning. We shouldn't artificially construct tacky, pre-fabricated explanations, but we must also distill what few drops of meaning we can from this broken barrel. We are called to point the way. Even if it is inadequate, we owe it to ourselves and our God to try.

Unfortunately, I feel like I'm at the end of a Coen brothers movie, having watched something horrible, and asking myself "What was the point of that!? What did we learn from all this!?"

The simple, existential answer is, "nothing."

On the other side of the coin is the Christian storybook, saying "God has a reason, He will bring good out of this."

I find both of these instinctive explanations tempting, but foolish. They are both too trite and simplistic. It seems to me a vile sin to offer a trite answer to explain great human suffering.

I have wrestled with this ever since the disaster originally happened more than a month ago. It has only pained me more to see the site of the tsunami for myself, but I am glad I did. On one hand, I feel that the more pain you experience as you grow older, the more pain you take on, and the harder faith becomes. On the other hand, I hope that this loss of innocence will result in clearer vision, despite the burden.

In my mind, this calamity grieves God greatly. This is not "an opportunity." This is not a "tool." This is not "God's punishment." This is not "OH, well, gosh, if they only had Jesus they'd be filled with hope and joy! YA-HOO!" Let us not forget that whole families were buried by water beneath their own homes just a month ago.

On the other hand, God is not distant from this situation. God allowed this to happen. The love of Christ still pervades. We must wrestle with that by faith. We may never know why. But we must know our place when disaster is permitted to strike.

The Bear
While in Iwaki I saw several different "Pooh Bears" that stood out from the wreckage, and, whether in ironic memorial or in a desperate attempt at hope, someone had stood one up along the side of the road. As cars passed by, they could see this happy, loving bear smiling at them from atop the rubble.

He was no doubt the lost toy of some child. His smile was not mocking, but kind. And, most importantly, he was standing in the front lines with the best of them, amidst the chaos, as if to say "I see your pain, and I love you. I'm still here with you."

This picture to me symbolizes the admission of sadness and loss, and despite, hope.

Is that not our place in this time? To stand together with this deep loss, to step along side the Japanese and help carry the burden? To be a friend, and reach out to offer hope and a future?

Instead of seeing this as an "opportunity" to preach Christianity, can we instead show love, and make others ask, "why so much, why me?"

If no one is asking, then something is wrong.

The church we visited in Iwaki is a wonderful example of this. They have worked for the good of their community, and because of that they have earned an excellent rapport. They are allowed into the relief shelters, where they give foot & back rubs and perform live music. It seems to me that there is no difference between ministering to someone's physical needs, and ministering to their spirit. How simple is this? In fact, the latter demands the former.

Our place is with those who suffer. The tsunami reminded us that we are small, and our lives are short. I never thought I would be within range of a nuclear meltdown, but here I am. If it is all we can do, then can we be salt and light? Can we be a pleasing fragrance in the middle of this abyss?

Let us not pretend that we know why God allowed this destruction. Let us not pretend we have an easy solution. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pour out our spirits to help others in their time of need. Let us pray for their safety, prosperity, and hope.

Let us help the victims to face a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sakura Bloom, Fortnight Nigh

The cherry blossoms (sakura) are finally blooming, Spring (Haru) is here, everything is coming to life.

I have two weeks left today; one week to take pictures of flowers, and one week to say goodbye to this beautiful land of Nippon.

Sakura are no small wonder to behold. They're not quite in full bloom yet, but every hour of every day unwraps a little bit more timid splendor. I find myself taking pictures but opening the van door as we stop by the train tracks, like some sort of photo-sniper. The natural beauty within all this urbania is captivating. I want to steal it and take it back. I want to... but I can't. It will have to live with me here, not there.

No matter how many photos I take, I will always be limited in my ability to transmit my experience of the flower; the camera does not convey the visual awe; the smell cannot easily be captured; the unfolding of the delicate leaves day by day; the intricacy of the colors and shades of white, pink, and red; the touch of the gnarly trunks of giants, decades old; walking beneath the canopy. I am powerless to communicate the enjoyment of just one well-known Japanese experience.

I often find myself pre-processing how I will explain this journey. Sakura is only one of the concepts I will fall tragically short in my ability to truly express. How much more so will I be powerless to unwrap the rest of my box of cultural and personal experiences? What is different about Japan? Everything. Who did you meet? Literally hundreds of people. What did you learn? So much! What was your favorite part? Being there.

Don't be surprised if that is what comes out at first if you ask a blanket question.

The problem: where do I begin? Where can I?

This loss for words makes me feel powerless, and even alone--but not unhappy. I will always have these memories to treasure in my heart.

I don't know how these last two weeks will go, but I'm not going to worry. I will take life as it is given and squeeze what enjoyment and learning I can out of my time. As always, I live in the present, and I say yes to experience. That means every day is a surprise--sometimes magical, and sometimes tragic.

I have been grateful for all my friends, family, and loved ones who have cared for me with joy, concern, and interest during this whole process. I am eagerly awaiting sharing my opportunity to share with you..

The good news? I have been deeply blessed.

I hope to distance myself from the web as I become even more present where I am for the next two weeks. Your thoughts and prayers are always appreciated. I love you all so very much... Even though I am fully present here, I miss you dearly.

Michael out.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

[ haru : spring ]

A sweet wind blows as
Ducklings dive from grassy banks
Shy petals unwind

Friday, April 1, 2011

American Values

I've spent way too much of my life playing video games.

Not that there's anything wrong with video games, per se. In fact, I rather like them, or I wouldn't be having this problem.

I've probably even learned from them. After all, if I hadn't played Conquest of the New World growing up, I might not know the difference between a commonwealth and a liberated state today. If I hadn't played Civilization, only the Boss knows how little I would know about world history (I still remember ushering in the year 2000 with Civ 2 and a tiny glass of Arbor Mist.. good times). Sub Battle, Command and Conquer, and Age of Empires only built my fascination with historic figures. Frankly, I'm not sure where I'd be without video games.

Even now, Call of Duty still holds a hypnotic allure that is hard to stay away from indefinitely. Starcraft 2 is a game I intent to enjoy profusely upon my return to the states. I still intend to keep playing them, but I just think I've spent too much time on them; video games, that is.

And that is the real subject of this post: time. How do we spend our time as Americans.

I recently read an article detailing 13 characteristics that are very specifically American, and use of time was included in the list. The fact is, Americans are only pawns to those little digital dials that now line our cell phone edges... clocks. If we're not being productive, active, and progressive while that dial changes from one number to the next, we find ourselves feeling the weight of an immense amount of guilt.

It's odd, really. I do feel guilty when I'm not working toward something. Even if it's something digital, like a nice crop of corn on Harvest Moon, or that perfect college town, or an epic Angry Birds score. The very act of organizing and ordering itself gives me gratification as long as I'm working toward something that feels like a reward. Only, now, I'm starting to feel guilty, like some of my work has been all "smoke and mirrors"...

I think that's where video game makers have me figured out. They know that if every time I succeed in their game I get a reward, I'll automatically prefer that to succeeding in real life. Because in real life you don't get a reward every time you succeed. In fact, most of the time your reward is internal. Sometimes, that's just not good enough for me.

But we are trained to earn our rewards. From the ground up, through self-control, self-sacrifice, and having a good "work ethic," we are built to earn the rewards of our labors as individuals. And if we're not working, we're lazy. And this work ethic has enabled us to achieve some amazing things.

But some cultures value personal relationships over material rewards. In fact, many do. It's not just the reward system that has value. In the last few weeks, I've seen people work devilishly hard toward very good things, but, in the end, if you don't value people, the rewards (even self-less ones) become meaningless.

So I go back to video games--how far have these games actually advanced me in the realm of real life? How have they taught me to act in the scope of reality? How have they expanded my relationships? Have they taught me true skills that I will use in my every day? Or have they taught me that when I don't earn a play-by-play reward for every good action I take in the real world, that it's best to retreat to the digital one? When all human relationships are messy, complicated, and outside of my control, have I been running to something I can control? Consider this a coming out moment for me... not for being a nerd, but for retreating to an alternate universe.

And the worst crime of all is to retreat from loving people. Some things are harder than others.

I don't know why I chose to post this now, except that I've been thinking about my values. It's really hard to get a grip on your own culture. Sometimes it helps to get an outside opinion. That's what I've been doing. More on that to come.

Until next time...

Michael out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I've been really fascinated lately with culture, language, and the dynamic meaning of words.

It's a function of my situation, really; sitting in a room full of multicultural media goons and translators all day, the mind tends to focus on communication between languages. After all, I have some coworkers I can't even speak to, yet I need them to survive. I talk much less with my mouth here, and more with my hands. And I speak more slowly. I try to incorporate Japanese words and meanings as much as I can into what I say. For instance, "hai" (pronounced "hi") means "yes." No doubt when my Nebraskan friends next see me they will wonder why I'm so friendly.

I also recently stumbled across a list of words online that are notoriously difficult to translate into other languages because they express an idea, feeling, or both that no one else has quite figured out how to express. I've been writing them on the board daily to offer coworkers a bit of thought-provoking amusement to distract from their otherwise stressful lives. My favorite of these is "Tingo" – “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.” (Pascuense, Easter Island)

On top of that being an awesome word, with a meaning that is SO excellent and comical, it draws a unique picture. Another one I like is "Jayus"  – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.” (Indonesian) I'm guessing this is something that many of you will use to describe me in the future.

Do you notice how many words it takes just to come up with a way to describe it comparably? It's something we rarely ponder, but English has these, too. I ran into one today when I was having an intercultural conversation and tried to say something was "cheesy."

How do you describe it? Campy? What is that? Goofy? Still confused. Sappy? Nope, not ringing a bell.

This turned in to an office discussion where we finally settled on a translatable definition of "silly, and in bad taste."

Still, what is taste, anyway? Ways of thinking about taste aren't exactly the same here. After all, different is bad, here, so you might say that if everyone likes something it would be in good taste. By that definition, in America, Justin Bieber would also be "in good taste."

In Japan, there is a truly unique feeling when the cherry blossoms bloom and plants come to life. Tokyo is transformed in a couple days into a budding, green paradise. It is a very unique and emphatic time, and there is a word in Japanese that describes "the feeling that everything is budding and spring is coming." If you want to say that in English, of course, you have to at least say "spring is in the air." I doubt there is a quick way to say this in northern Russia, the Sahara Desert, or tropical rainforest regions.

How do we describe our world? Are we limited by the 250,000 plus words in the English language? The way we frame our language must tie in with the way we express and see it... The things we value, we come up with better words to describe. The words are like our tools to construct not just our communication, but our very way of thinking.

Jayus and tingo are just two examples. We come up with better words for what we value, better ways of expressing what we need most to express. We invent better tools to build a better framework for the things we think are important. This process truly reflects our own unique experiences as people.

What are some of your words that really don't translate?

Michael out.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earthquake! Volcano! Tsunami! Meltdown! Zombies! Vampires! Hot hail! APOCALYPSE!!!!!

Alien invasion! Fire-breathing bats! Wearwolves! Pirates! Zombie Pirates! Ninjas! Seismic readings! Body Snatchers! The Grinch! Radiation! Amoeba! Snakes! Hitler! Velociraptors! Voldemort! Gojira! Garlic Breath! The Loch Ness Monster! Moogles! Thetan levels rising! The Joker! Nanobots! Hippies! Holy Hand Genade! Alex Trabeck! Cloverfield! Waterloo! Birdmen! James Blunt! The French! HPV! The Bermuda Triangle! Bullying! Jennifer's Body! Killer Whales! Justin Bieber! Poltergeist! Gene Simmons! Frankenstein! Jean Claude Van Damme! Billy the kid! Leprechauns! Mech Warriors! Emperor Ming! The Candyman! Kryptonite! CCM! Nicholas Sparks! Dalecs! Necromancers! Pirrhanas! The twelve plagues! Global warming! Hurricane Katrina! Bodily functions! Ugly people! The Sheriff of Nottingham! Insane Clown Posse! The Black Death! Cannibals! Earwax! The Soviet Union! Cavities! High school dances! Tinnitus! Unplanned pregnancy! Mutant sheep! Ghengis Khan! Amelia Earhart! Original Sin! Fireproof!

But seriously. I'm fine.

Okay. So there have been a lot of disasters here, lately. We've had an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic eruption, and radioactive contamination. NBD.

None of these are things I had really thought about or expected to live through in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I am safe, and I am working hard to help people in need.

What a tremendous and opportune time for me to be here in Japan! I have been doing press and social networking for CRASH Japan, an organization created for disaster response. They mobilize volunteer teams to meet the needs of local communities in relief efforts.

Granted, there is an incredibly high level of stress around here. There is the looming shadow of possible (but unlikely) meltdown, an urgency of cause in helping those who are suffering, continued earthquakes, and twelve-hour work days. I am tired and stressed. But I am safe, and doing important work. I think that counts for something.

I understand many of you are worried about me. I discourage you from worrying, but I ENCOURAGE you to pray for Japan!! Not only that, but send aid. Here's how you can "love on Japan" through my organization:

1-Like the Facebook group Love On Japan | Crash Quake Relief
2-Donate by following instructions on the crashjapan.org website
3-Follow the @LoveonJapan twitter page
4-Let your friends know!
5-Pray. Safety and focus are absolutely essential to preventing more suffering.

Remember, kids.. this is where I spend most of my days from now on. Get connected. We can all help from where we are right now.

Seriously, I love you all, and I am okay; and if I wasn't, I would be on a plane tomorrow.

Stay tuned,

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Earthquake, Tsunami, Chain Reaction ... Mothera is scary when he's real...


First, I want to thank all of you who have shown an interest in this crisis around the world. As I have watched your responses on Facebook, Twitter, and news websites, the outpouring of emotional energy, empathy, and compassion has been tremendous.

Here's to hoping that your momentum carries over into international aid.

Friday was the first earthquake of my life. It seems it was about 3pm in the afternoon that I first realized I was bouncing. 230 miles away, the Pacific plate was making some serious progress in its quest to burrow beneath the North American plate. I didn't know it at the time, sitting in my closet-office talking to Alysondra on Skype, but I was actually moving. I moved a whole 8 feet East. I DO miss my friends in the states, so I guess it felt good moving a little bit closer to home.

In all seriousness, this quake is obviously no trivial thing, but a waking nightmare for thousands of people. On the other hand, here in Higashikurume my living room was not turned upside down. My train was not derailed. No mudslides or boats crashed into my house. At no point during the event did I feel afraid. I didn't know that, not far from me, offices and houses were being shaken like a child shakes a candy box, trying to get every last piece.

It began slowly at first. I looked around, confused. Why am I bouncing? I wasn't shaking my legs. No one was behind me grabbing my chair, and there was no jackhammer doing construction near my apartment. I took out my headphones and thought for a moment--then it dawned on me. Oh, yeah, Japan has earthquakes! I slid down to the floor underneath my door frame and waited.

The quake rolled in ambling, almost leisurely, as if it had plenty of time to make its point. At its climax, the building groaned and creaked like an old spinster on a hiking trip, then the vibration dwindled away, as if it was feeling lazy but didn't want to stay. At no point did I feel unsafe. If I could have guessed, in my infinite earthquake innocence, I would have given it a 6 on the Richter Scale--impressive, but not scary. In fact, I was exhilarated. I felt like I had just taken a roller-coaster ride for the first time. After it passed, I resumed what I was doing, and, later, checked my house to find that a book had been tipped over on my shelf. 

More than an hour later, I was shocked to find out via websearch that I had just sat through a 7.9. Then an 8.9. Then an 8.4. Then a 9. There didn't seem to be a clear consensus for about 5 hours. I was aghast that such a powerful beast had slipped by without me giving it the time of day.

Tuning in to the footage didn't take long to give me a different perspective on what was going on. The Tokyo Metro is shut down.. millions of people stranded.. a giant wave is crashing into the city of Sendai right now.. boats and houses and cars all floating around like playthings.. airports are flooded.. a refinery burns.. several nuclear power plants shut down.. My little quake caused quite a ruckus.

The destruction seemed so direct, definitive.. callous. How could such a powerful force be? How could a wave be massive enough to wipe out an entire city? How could a nuclear plant be in danger of meltdown? Can't we just have one disaster? It was as if nature wasn't satisfied enough yet, and kept saying "and NOW, THIS is gonna happen." It was a chain reaction of disasters outside of anyone's control. 

But it wasn't a matter of satisfaction. No one was getting anything out of it. The tsunami didn't hesitate in wiping out an entire city, despite the fact that it would cause immeasurable suffering and wailing. Why? And who could give such a callous force so much power to do its will, even if that means to mercilessly and relentlessly destroy without warning?

It is hubris to even continue living in the knowledge that such power exists. Tokyo is, reasonably, the largest metropolis in the world. Japanese architects have been making earthquake resistant buildings not for decades, but for centuries. There's no such thing as a "ranch" style home here. Japan has been preparing for years for a quake that would break records. It's one of the most earthquake-aware, earthquake-safe countries in the world, yet that didn't stop whole cities from being destroyed in minutes.

The Kobe earthquake of 1995 leveled most of a city, resulting in 6000 deaths. That quake was a 7.3, almost indiscernibly small next to Friday's on a scale of actual energy. Callous, wanton energy. The same earth that nurtures us also has the power to obliterate us.

Tokyo's tallest building for a long time was Tokyo Tower in Minato. Built exactly like the Eiffel tower (only 13 meters taller), this frequent tourist destination looks out over the entire city, and is a symbol of Tokyo. Or, if you look at humanity as a whole, it is a symbol of man's accomplishment. After the quake on Friday, the top of the tower was bent, possibly symbolically "bowing down" to the power that had humbled it.

In honesty, Japan is lucky if this was the "big one" of a century (which we hope it was). No matter how how well-designed the towers, if Friday's epicenter had hit Tokyo, casualties would not be in the hundreds or the thousands, but the millions. We would not have lost a city, but a metropolis. Even Tokyo's strongest and most-ingeniously built skyscrapers would have contorted violently at the hands of a 9.0 quake. The raw power of such an event could have leveled the skyline.

What kind of being would allow such power to exist? In times like this it is neither right to accuse our Creator, nor to thank Him. It may very well be that the hand of God prevented an obscene power from wreaking its evil in Tokyo, but evil was still loosed, and the tragedy is real. We are not grateful, but we are humbled.

The "why" is an unanswerable question, and therefore irrelevant. Our natural reaction to the callous acts of nature is to be callous ourselves. This we must not do. We must keep our hearts soft and accept the pain in order to empathize with and reach out to those around us.

A Chain Reaction
I remember what I did after I found out about the tsunami. I went to the store to get emergency supplies, and dinner. A feeling of fear and panic was obvious, as cars rushed by to pick up loved ones, and families flocked to the supermarket for emergency food and water. I had wanted to buy some to-go sushi from the supermarket, but all the onegiri (pre-made meals) were completely sold out. Disappointed, I came home and watched a movie. It was my anti-climax.

My feelings were of helplessness and powerlessness. Even as people were suffering just on the other side of my city, I could do nothing for them. There are no words to describe the feeling of helplessly watching someone else suffer, and wondering if you're next. I'd imagine that's how ancient Christians felt when they were thrust into an arena to fight lions.

Later that night, the tension overwhelmed me, and I had to get out to see and feel something. As I walked outside, I was drenched in the palpable solemnity. The stream that runs next to my house is lined with well-lit bike paths on either side. It is a rarity to see it empty on any given night, even late in the evening. Yet I heard and saw no one for minutes. I think others must have sensed this powerless tension, too. When I finally encountered others, there was a nervousness and a restlessness. Disorganization, chaos, and confusion are uncharacteristic of Tokyo. Sirens wailed in the distance. Trains, packed full of work refugees, howled into the station as family members waited anxiously in nearby cars.

As I write this, I feel even more aftershocks in the earth. The groaning. It is a reminder that the earth, too, is in pain, and will pass away like we shall. Maybe nature was unleashing its own pain on us that night. I continue to hope for a time of no more groaning. 

I love you all. Please know I appreciate your thoughts, prayers, and concerns. So far, I'm alive, and I'm carrying the fire.

Michael out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Club Asia & Angry Japanese Housemums

Hello, Nebraska!

I'd like to start off by saying that I know it's snowing there. I would like to continue by saying that I just finished a pleasant, 50 deg. midnight run. Conditions were perfect.

Club Asia
Friday night was bro night. Aaron Michael, Michael Aaron, and myself (Michael David.. it was an odd name-meld kind of sitch) put on our fancy pants and headed out to Shibuya to check out Club Asia. This is one of the best clubs in the city to play at for House Electronica artists, and, of course, Tokyo is a great hub of electronica anyway, so clearly this club is trump material. Dishner (Michael Aaron, goes by Aaron) was kind enough to invite me along for the ride.

Our train ride went smoothly, and when we got to Shibuya we wandered the streets for a little while in search of the club. I'm always amazed by the energy of Shibuya Station.. thousands and thousands of people wandering around this plaza, and yet this is only one of the many vibrant, hopping joints all around the city.

Y1000 per hour.. not bad!
On our way in, we passed by a love hotel. (Hotel "Elegance") Yes, this is the kind of hotel where you pay by the hour. If you have questions about what that means.. ask a trusted friend.

One important point is that this is not a brothel. In fact, the word is that many married couples use these when they want to "get out" since many houses are so small here. They even have theme rooms! I wonder what the American one looks like...

Feels just like home..
We also passed this guy in a cow outfit. There are tons and tons of people standing outside businesses doing advertising (yelling and wearing funny getups) in Japan, and this guy was no exception. But he reminded me of home just a little bit. I hate to ask for a photo-op, which he was MORE than happy to grant..

Once we got to Club Asia, it said no cameras.. but I wasn't worried. Always better to take a risk to preserve the moment, right? We were on the guest list because of a friend connection, and we only paid Y500 to get in!! That's six bucks (ordinarily more than $40)! Plus, we each got a drink ticket. We basically got in for nothing.

Once in, we stuffed our jackets in a rental locker and I found out what kind of show we were there to see. Cutie-Pai. That was the first artist we saw. And yes, she was a tiny Japanese gal. And, yes, she dressed like a life-sized doll.

Cos-play. They are a cos-play group. It's difficult to explain (explaining would require understanding), but playing dress-up is basically really popular here. It's like the Village People but with doll, video game, comic book, movie, and fantasy character costumes. Cutie-Pai is just one of many groups, and ordinarily there are six of them up there (all dressed like dolls).. it would be cool to see the full group. Sadly, it was just a lonely doll-girl.

She started out her show by saying something really funny, like "I am a doll robot from the future" or something like that. Dishner laughed, and explained a couple things to me, but I don't remember right now. She really got the crowd going. Then the music started. And everyone started dancing. They were all dancing JUST LIKE I DANCE.

This was epic. Yes, of course, most of them were a little more reserved than me on an average night, but I still had to smile inside and out. And the best part is that they were all doing it together, despite the absurdly varied demographic. There were old people, businessmen off work, teens, 20-somethings, all mimicking the artist's motions and dancing in between. The crowd was so unified! My favorite person was definitely a scrawny old businessman in glasses who looked like he was having the time of his life. There was also a dude wearing a polka dot outfit. It's Japan.

After the strongest kamikaze of my life, and a few more artists played, I realized I was having a lot of fun. All three of us were dancing and joining in just loving the show, which slowly got louder and louder. The visuals were awesome. It's the kind of scene that got America in trouble with cocaine in the 80s. I've never done hard drugs, but I'd imagine it would feel pretty great at something like this. (stay off crack, kids!)

Some of the artists did a live show like Cutie-Pai, but some were obviously just dancing to a track. I criticized this to Dishner, and he explained to me that recorded tracks were more popular than live shows here. Ashlee Simpson should reinvent herself as a Japanese Pop Star.

Cutie-Pai glamor shot
The last artist was definitely the best, and the loudest. After the crazy show, everyone went out and milled around the lounge area. I took this chance to scan some tables and pick up some merch. I also got glamor shots with some of the artists.

We three wandered the Streets of Shibuya briefly, and decided to hit a ramen place in Ikebukuro on the way home. It was really satisfying, as always, but probably some of the greasiest, oiliest ramen I've ever had (reminded me of food in the states, like a noodle-cheeseburger). We ordered our food out of a machine, which I had never done, and then took our ticket to the counter so they knew what to prepare for us. Interesting! Okay!

On the way home, sadly, we were forced to wait forty-five minutes on the train to leave Ikebukuru. This, of course, is the disadvantage of public transport. The bigger question in Japan (and sad commentary) is "did someone jump in front of a train?" It happens. Just does. In our case, no, we just got lucky enough to have to wait for no apparent reason. I'll still take that over the former.

All-in-all, that was one of the most authentic Japanese experiences I have had, to date, and I completely enjoyed myself. I'm exploring my J-Pop musical interests. I'll let you know what I find.

This is the part where I get in trouble with a Japanese lady..
The next day (Saturday) I was walking over to meet up with Nancy and some guests who she was showing around the city. I had just left my apartment on this beautiful day and was still in my neighborhood when I saw a balcony just FULL of clothes and laundry. Many people don't have driers here, and often just dry clothes outside or in special rooms of their houses.

I, of course, wanting to document this and many other characteristic sights of Japan, walked past the house and snapped a photo. I didn't see any unmentionables, and it seemed like a great shot. Well.. I must have overstepped myself. This small act has created an incredibly awkward situation with a neighbor.

You see, she was up on the balcony still putting out clothes, and she caught me taking my picture. I know, I know, carelessness. I should be perfecting the art of Gaijin-Cam, not getting caught in my shots. But alas, she did, and it led to an incredibly awkward interaction that lasted about 5 minutes.

Basically she repeatedly asked me questions in Japanese that I couldn't understand. I tried to explain that I was sorry and immediately had deleted the picture, but I don't know if there's a universal hand gesture for that. She seemed to be angry. I was flustered. She asked me my name, which I told her was Michael. And of course she understood I was in the TEAM housing. After a couple minutes of this humiliation, she let me go.

I thought I was off the hook and we could just forget about everything, but, tonight, while I was walking home from the station, she came up BEHIND ME ON A BICYCLE while I was walking down our street!!  ASDKJLFH %*$@)(#... how awkward. She asked me if I was Michael and again mentioned the photo, which I again unsuccessfully tried to explain to her that I was sorry and had deleted it. I understood absolutely nothing of what we spoke to each other, and then carried on to my house. It was so uncomfortable. I have no idea what to do about this situation except try to avoid her, but it is funny and embarrassing, and my own dumb fault. But, if this is the most embarrassing thing that's happened to me since I got to Japan, I guess I'm doing pretty good...

Anyway, wish me luck. Your prayer and encouragement means everything to me. Thank you everyone for reading this.

-Michael Out-

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Will someone help a humble Gaijin!?

Just yesterday, I was lost in Tokyo...

Okay, I'm exaggerating. I was under the impression that one of the buses in Mitaka station would take me home to Hibari-Gaoka.. but, unfortunately, none of the buses have even a little bit of English on them.

So I just went up to the drivers.. "Hibari-Gaoka?" I asked.. One shook his head and pointed to another bus across the circle. Relieved, I sprinted over there and asked the same question. The driver shook his head no and waved me away. Confused, I tried another bus... "No, no!" The driver explained.

By this time I felt like I was going on a wild goose chase. I tried a bus that had just pulled into the station. The driver again, shook his head no, said "gwleen bus, gwleen bus!" and pointed.. he was referring to the second "green" bus I had already tried. I furrowed my brow in frustration. Are they just messing with me, now!? I thought. Did they get on their walkie-talkies and conspire to keep me running around in circles?? I'm just some white guy wearing a backpack, looking lost. I ended up taking the trains home. Won't someone help a humble Gaijin?

Gaijin, as far as I can tell, just means "white person." I have yet to figure out if it's derogatory or not (possibly like "gringo?"). But, a gaijin I remain. Honestly, we stick out like sore thumbs. Even if it was derogatory, it would probably be understandable.

No one wants to sit next to a gaijin on the train. I frequently find I will only have someone sit next to me if the other seats are full. It makes sense. There is a strong probability that I will ask you a question if I am confused or lost. Citizens of Tokyo consistently would prefer to zone out.

And who can blame them? Rubbing shoulders with other people all day. I would shut people out, too. I already find myself, doing so, in fact. Most of the time, people just sit on the train looking at their cell phone. It seems to be instinct, in fact.

Every train ride looks something like this. Breathing masks. Cell phones. Hats, coats, iPods, Playstation Pockets.. No one wants to acknowledge the fact that they are surrounded by other human beings. No one cares. It's better to just try and get to your station in peace..

People Watching, Camera Games (Gaijin-cam!)
I've been playing a game lately where I take pictures of people as sneakily as possible. Getting caught in my gaijin-tourism photos is pretty much what a Japanese person would want to AVOID. So I do it without asking, and, hopefully, without them noticing. I'm like Google.

I call this game Gaijin-cam! I hold my camera in my hand by my waist, covering it with my fingers in the front, just letting the lens peek out.. then I snap a picture with my thumb. I try to do this while I'm walking, or I pretend to stop and be thinking about something, looking the other way. I'm trying to snag photos of fashion mostly.. Japanese people in their natural environment. Too obvious, and it's awkward. Yes, I'm a creeper.

I've gotten pretty good! Not great. I still get a lot of blurry shots, but there are a few you might be interested in:

In general, Japanese fashion among young people looks like you took the entire century of the 1900s and smashed it together into one decade... 80s, 20s, and all. I'm still working on finding pictures of some of the bizarre and rare fashions... but I will find them. OH YES. I WILL find them *maniacal laughter*.. check out this article to see what I mean.

One note on fashion is that, while many young people may display this "century-hodgepodge" of fashions and designs, most people over 35 look exactly the same. Seriously. Greys, browns, suits, turtlenecks, pleats. It is not cool to stand out in Japan. I can't illustrate this enough. Architecture, clothing, behavior--it is all part of the collectivist culture. The nail that sticks up gets pounded down. You don't want to stand out.

Case-in-point: Burberry scarves. You know those plaid scarves that are so hot in the states this year? Guess what.. everyone has one here. Everyone. I'll see groups of girls all walking around wearing the same scarf. Businessmen. Moms. Schoolkids. Boys. Girls. Doesn't matter. (I'll try and Gaijin-cam this, soon)

One of these days, I may stab someone with chopsticks for wearing a Burberry scarf. Or claw my eyes out... And, as a gaggle of bicycle cops are chasing me down, taisering, and restraining me, I'll just smile, knowing I freed one person from the tyranny of Burberry... Collectivism apparently makes me crazy.

Girl Day
Apparently Feb 3 is Girl Day in Japan. May 5 is Boy Day. It's just for kids, really, but hey! I'm all for celebrating gender. In honor of this, my language tutor gave me a delicious treat, which I photo-documented.

It's sweet bean dip filling wrapped in cherry dough. The leaf you see on the outside is a sakura (cherry) tree leaf! And yes, it was oishii (delicious)! I'm not sure what boys get on their day.. maybe squirt guns?

I have had lots of other great experiences here so far this week, but I'll have to cut this short, and tell you about them when I get back. Simply put.. I'm getting hungry right now. And it's too beautiful here to stay inside any longer! Oh, is it 39 deg. in Nebraska right now? I'm sorry to hear that. Really. I'm crying in my stir fry.

Alright, everyone. Going to Shibuya tonight with some friends to do it up! Let's hope I see some craaaaazy fashions. Wish me luck!

Michael out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nothing to see here.. Just a bunch of guys taking a bath together..

(Photos not included)

Hello everyone!
I made it back from the ski trip alive, but bruised and mangled. I want you all to know that.

The Scenery
The great thing about Japan is that there are mountains everywhere. I took a ton of pictures as we were driving up into the resort town of Karuizawa (near Nagano, where the 1998 winter Olympics were held) to our cabin. I was like a child in a candy store.. remind me, again, why my state doesn't have mountains..

The drive was breathtaking. The Japanese interstate system is, at least, a little bit familiar.. it sort of looks like the states, except that everyone is driving on the left, but that's nothing new. Oh, and there's tour buses everywhere.. full of tour guides dressed like flight attendants.

Did I mention I saw an active volcano? Asama Volcano (not with an "O".. sorry US Forces) is basically over the mountains and through the woods from our cabin on the way to the ski resort. It is an incredible sight that commands the entire area. I was staring at it for the whole drive. Photo engage in 3..2..1..

It hasn't had a MAJOR eruption in 120 years, but it sometimes will dump ash on the countryside. And later in the day I saw smoke pluming from the top. Sleeping giants...

Bathing with Strangers
Our cabin was very comfortable. Once we got settled in, I experienced something I never would have guessed I'd enjoy so much.. taking a bath in the nude with a bunch of other men. (no, I don't have pictures for this entry) It's not weird. It's Japanese style. It's called an onsen.

Okay, to be fair, it's not really a bath.. you shower outside the pool, sitting down, at one of a dozen or so shower stations, and it's rude not to fully bathe beforehand (or worse, to get soap in the pool water). It's also generally considered dishonorable to "cover" yourself (according to my travel book), but lots of people still do it.

The funny thing is, nothing is weird about it. Just a bunch of guys sitting around enjoying a pool together. Most, if not all, onsen are separated so there's not interaction between men and women (unless it's "European Style?"). First, you undress in locker rooms. Then you shower next to the pool. Then you relax and soak in the steaming hot water. It's really cathartic.

The best part is the feel of the water at a good onsen. The one we went to was a natural mountain spring. I may never sit in a hot tub again (or wear swim trunks?). The feeling of non-chlorinated, natural mineral water without chemicals is truly wonderful and healing. It's hard to describe, but you can definitely tell the difference, and you don't feel like you just walked out of a radiation scrub afterward.

The onsen we attended in Karuizawa was incredibly nice. It was rustic looking, with a "mountain cabin" feel, but very clean and classy. There was an outside area with large boulders to recline against, and even a small waterfall. A sauna was at the far end of the outdoor walkway, and there was a cold pool separated by rocks to use as a cool-down area. One old, scrawny, but astute looking guy spent 15-20 minutes in the sauna, then promptly walked out into the cold and plunged himself into the (near freezing) cold pool. He then proceeded to hop up and down on one foot, tilting his head side-to-side, to get the water out of his ears. He must know several things I don't know.

One unusual event that happened while I was there is that one of the double doors separating the inner and outer pools were broken by someone who slipped. That is extremely unusual. There was broken glass everywhere, and I had to wait for them to clean it up (since I was outside at the time) to meet up with Paul. Oh well. More pool time for Michael.

Onsen are a really significant, and ancient aspect of Japanese culture. These natural springs are all over the island (though not all onsen are natural, some are artificially heated), with heat fueled by volcanoes (has anyone tried harnessing THOSE for energy yet?). The various minerals are advertised for their different healing properties, so if you need sulfur for your skin condition, you know which onsen to find. Business deals are conducted at onsen. Friendships are made, and broken. Laughter can often ring forth among friends. Or just quiet relaxation after work (with 12 hour work days quite common, I can definitely understand).

It would be super awkward if I tried to do this in the states. "Hey! Guys! After work, want to go over to the YMCA and shower together and chat!?" ... good thing I'm not in the states.

My travel book mentions that tattoos are a public taboo in Japan because they are often a sign of Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Generally, this can make problems for many westerners who try to attend onsen and have tats. Fortunately, yours truly doesn't have to worry about that.. but, if you're planning on going to Japan, you might want to hold off on that mega-siiick butterfly tattoo until your next birthday.

Okay.. I've never skied before. Unfortunately, we weren't really on a beginner's slope.. and let's just say I didn't have any ski lessons. But, I'm a good sport! Paul and I rode the lift up the mountain.. When I got to the top and awkwardly shuffled off the lift, I saw this:
THAT'S skiing!? Isn't this supposed to be fun..

Yikes.. That doesn't look good.

It didn't feel good either. Turns out most people can't just "pick up" skiing on the first try. Oh well. I got down the mountain by skiing back and forth across the slope and turning myself by jamming my canes into the ground (never did figure out that whole "turning" thing..). Note how Paul is totally "Aspen Extreme."

Hooray for life!
In the end, both Naomi and I made it safely down our harrowing mountain rides without dying. We each had bowls of ramen and took a photo to celebrate (life's too short, guys).

This photo was taken in the so-called-lodge-cafeteria-whatever you call something that is uncomfortable and reminds you of sitting in the airport.

In the end, I'm more about the image than the sport.

Soon after, we took a long gondola ride up another side of the mountain, and it was quite a sight..

After the gondolas, Naomi and I made the mistake of "trying" snowboarding. The lady at the lodge was "kind" enough to switch out our skis for snowboards. She then even went the extra mile and had a friend of hers "teach" us how to board down a tiny snow mound by the lifts. This was difficult since we didn't speak the same language. In the end, I think we got the idea.. snowboarding involves falling down a lot for fun.

So we took it to the bunny hill. After three or four bruising attempts, I quietly succeeded in making it all the way down without falling.. (until I had to stop, then I fell). No one witnessed, no one cheered, but I walked away vindicated and empowered and bruised.

All in all, it was a successful trip. I think I did surprisingly catch the winter sports fever. I see a trip to Colorado in my 365 day calendar right now.. It would be fun to be able to actually snowboard. I know it.

Today, I'm sore, exhausted, and back to the rat race. But what a great weekend with my Japan-family! Thanks so much to Paul, Nancy, and Naomi for having me on your family vacation..

I'm just getting warmed up, kids! More stories to come..

Michael out.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Church House = House Church?

Hey friends!

On Thursday, Paul and I traveled to Ome to pick up some books. Ome is only about an hour down the road northwest of Tokyo. The great thing is that Paul has really interesting friends, so it turned out to be an awesome day trip.. The first place we visited was a house.. church. Let me explain.

Japanese often have very ambiguous religious ties, and may often mix and match different rites and traditions, namely Buddhism, Shintoism, and even sometimes Christianity. This hodgepodge has led to some interesting trends. The saying goes that Japanese are often "born Shinto, get married Christian, and die Buddhist."

Even though few Japanese claim any association with Christianity, they often like to have Christian weddings. No one I've talked to knows exactly why this is popular, but it's in demand to the point that special chapels are often built for the wedding business (much like Las Vegas). In our case, they built THIS one:

Some of Paul's friends actually turned this former chapel into their home. It's spacious, and it has a commanding (and beautiful) view of the countryside. This kind of space generally sells at a premium here in Japan. But the church's location was so poor and business was so lousy that the company sold the chapel for the same price as a tiny Japanese house would sell for (still expensive, but you see why they chose the chapel).

Not only that, but the place has real marble floors! It's basically a mansion. I wish more people would do this sort of creative stuff with their houses. The only downside is that utilities are fantastically expensive in Japan, and this chapel is expensive to heat. The Paul's friend informed me they were surviving the winter by "wearing lots and lots of blankets."

Worth it? I think so.

Later that afternoon, we visited Paul's other friends Graham and Yasuko. Graham is an artist and Yasuko is a dance instructor, and they live in a comfortable house in Ome with their three children. They were very kind to us, and, more importantly, Yasuko made us homemade sushi. Yum! Just another example of the awesome stuff I'm doing that it's impossible to do in Nebraska. You're welcome for the reminder.

In other news, my Japan family and I are going skiing tomorrow! Woo-HOO! I can't wait. Major thanks to Paul, Nancy, and Naomi for including me in this experience.. I know I'll love it. I'll be out of touch for a couple days, so don't miss me too much.

We're also getting very near the completion of our first major project, a fund raising document for Persimmon. I'm getting pretty excited for this to be finished and to move on to something else. Also, my Japanese is coming along swimmingly. Watashi wa Michael des. Watashi wa ni joo yon! (My name is Michael. I'm 24!) Baby steps.

If you're praying for me (if you're the praying type), please pray that I will be determined to immerse myself fully into my work here. Also, please pray that I'll make connections with people. And pray that my support comes in. Let's stick to those three for now.

I don't want you guys to worry about me. I can take care of myself.. mostly.. Also, if you see Alysondra, give her a big hug for me and tell her "Mike says thanks for the care package!" But don't kiss her. Too far, guys, too far. Josh.. I've got my eye on you. >8-|

Welp! The stew's up! Until next time...

Michael out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now hold on just ONE Shi-mo-no-sek-ond!

I broke my land-speed record the other day. I'm going to have to go faster than 200 mi/hr if I ever want to do THAT again.

That's right, I rode a shin-kan-sen (speed train) all the way down to Shimonoseki in Western Japan. These intense trains are expensive, but they are a super-smooth ride that feels sort of like you're riding a ground airplane. It looks something like this when you really get going.

It's a 5-hour shin-kan-sen ride from Tokyo to Shimonoseki, but we stopped at a very special castle along the way.

It's called Himeji Castle, the White Heron, or the White Eaglet. The castle gets its name from its many It was build in the 1300s by feudal warlords, and has been expanded upon and gifted to various shoguns ever since. By the time of it's glory days in the 1700s, this place was MASSIVE, and it looked something like THIS:

Three layers of gigantic walls and moats line the fortress. The ramparts are lined with hundreds of tiny holes for archers to shoot down, and offered a commanding view of the countryside.

There is only one path up to the keep. Gatehouse after gatehouse protected this winding path from attackers. As we walked up the winding pathway to the top, crows circled overhead, cawing at sightseers below. It definitely added to the warlike menace of the place.

Every inch of the castle was inscribed with elaborate and artistic designs and emblems. Each roof tile was made of clay, and actually had its own insignia engraved on it. The elements of design were astounding and artful. 14th Century Japan was way ahead of 14th century Europe in technology, sanitation, and organization.

It was truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, in the most disappointing tourist event of my life, the main keep was actually closed off. Yes, they build a scaffold around the entire castle to do renovations. I really couldn't see any part of it or go inside.

Bummer, man...

I'll recover.. but I'm going to be sad for a while. And I don't like how that little steamy-bun is so smug about the whole thing. Who is he kidding!? Where are my castle hat and cherry blossoms!? How come HE gets to look so stylish.. >_<

I guess you could say we visited during the Hi-MEJI RESTORATION. (Gyaa ha ha ha! History joke mixed with a pun.. major kudos to myself) At least they were nice enough to paint a picture of the original castle on the side.. thanks guys! That really helps my imaginary view of this historic monument!

After the Hi-MEJOR excitement (lawlz), we moved on to Shimonoseki, where I attended a lovely Valentine's Day dinner that was graced by a Japanese Gospel Choir (Yes, "Gospel" as in Sister Act, not as in the Gathers). There was one boy in the choir. He was actually a Buddhist priest. I guess he knows 'where da ladiez at.'

The choir was talented, no doubt, but my more distinct memories of the town include seeing Akama Shrine.. a very famous shrine dedicated to a young emperor who died in the battle of Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185. This was one of the most significant events in Japanese history.

I have too many pictures of this shrine to post on this blog, but it looks something like this:

These guys are pretty neat.. they are carved out of solid stone, and the ball locked in their mouths is carved out from the inside and cannot be removed. They may look like lions, but they're actually 'guardian dogs'.. AKA guard dogs. They watch both sides of any given gate, so where there's one, there's two. Oh, and they only obey commands from the spectral plane, so don't even try to get them to do a trick. Trust me, I tried.

Sometimes one pup's mouth will be open (ah) and one's will be closed (mmh). This is because in the Japanese syllabary "ah" is the first sound and "mmh" is the last, signifying the "beginning and the end."

Oh, and did I mention these crabs (sold as "good luck charms") have faces on their undersides?

Yes, those are real crabs. Yes, they're creepy, but you have to admit.. they're pretty cool.

I also found out the "spirit world" has doorbells. You learn something new every day.

What I mean by that, is that when you come to consult a "spirit" at this very functional Shinto-Buddhist temple, you're first supposed to "wake him up" if he's sleeping. Once you do that, he enters the mirror at the back of the room and you can walk up to the box behind the bell, clap, bow, and drop some coins in. That is the word on the street, anyway. I didn't ring it... I was out of girl scout cookies that day.

After that, we went to the harbor nearby and explored some local delicacies. The following photo shows me taking a LIFE THREATENING RISK:

Yes. That's pufferfish sashimi. I also had pufferfish soup! Shimonoseki is sort of known for pufferfish, so it would have been rude not to at least try some, right? Pufferfish is poisonous if not prepared correctly. I was playing a dangerous game of life and death.

Needless to say, I am no longer with us.

But I didn't die. I'm just in Japan for a while.

The pufferfish was okay.. not really anything spectacular. Some of the OTHER sashimi, however, was quite good. This includes the eel in the lower left corner of the picture to the right (it looks like a banana slice.. kind of tastes like it, too).

 After I ate the pufferfish, I made sure to have a chat with the rest of his family.

Ugly buggers, aren't they? Don't worry, some of them are cuter and more cuddly.

After the pufferfish sushi, my friends and I enjoyed some sea urchin ice cream (no joke!)...

Sea urchin ice cream... tastes like ocean, coral, and blueberries!
All in all, I'd have to say it was a pretty good trip. If you're ever in Western Japan, I recommend dropping by Shimonoseki..

Well, friends, I guess the time has come once again for me to sign off. To those of you who've made it this far, thank you! In return I would like to offer you the following words of advice:

Read the sign. Do what it says. That strategy has worked pretty well for me so far.

Michael Out.