Counting Bowls

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

wanko soba

Iwate Prefecture has many cultural distinctives and I happened to witness one first hand while eating my lunch and waiting to board a bullet train bound for Tokyo. I silently watched as a waitress in the restaurant hovered over one particular customer who was rapidly slamming down bowls of buckwheat soba noodles in front of him as fast as he could consume them. This bizarre scene continued for a period of time with the bowls stacking up until the man eventually halted his eating frenzy by placing a lid on his final bowl as an obvious indication of surrender.

I later learned that this unique custom is called “wanko soba” where wanko means “bowl” and soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat noodles. At a recent eating competition, the winner consumed 383 bowls of noodles in ten minutes. Apparently many people who visit Iwate are eager to experience the wanko soba challenge and even leave with a certificate verifying how many bowls they ate as a souvenir of their unique experience. While the whole scene was rather entertaining, I was not tempted to participate, but rather, quietly ate my own lunch of noodles at an unhurried pace before proceeding on my journey without indigestion.

No one is quite sure of the origin of this unusual custom, although several theories abound. Probably one of the most common is that of a powerful lord whom locals were suddenly asked to entertain when he passed through their territory. Embarrassed that their local cuisine was not up to their special guest’s usual standards, they served the nobleman just a small portion of their common fare of noodles in addition to other standard dishes. To their surprise, he demanded more noodles so they kept providing additional servings in small bowls until he was finally satisfied.

We don’t know if this particular account is historically accurate, but at least it is an entertaining explanation of why the locals count bowls of consumed noodles. Of course, it is human nature to keep track of things by counting them, but it is important to remember that God has a different perspective, and therefore a different way of counting or evaluating things in certain circumstances. For example, we are told that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (II Pet. 3:8). He is also the Good Shepherd who zealously searches for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) while our focus would more likely be on the remaining ninety-nine. God identifies trillions of stars by name and unerringly knows the number of hairs on our head and the grains of sand on every seashore. Yet, not even a sparrow falling to the ground escapes His notice (Matt. 10:29). God can amazingly see the vast whole and the intricate details of the most seemingly insignificant matter all in one glance without the constraints of time and space.

It is critical to bear such truths in mind when newscasters announce the latest numbers of COVID-19 cases. At the same time, we anxiously track the economic plunge of our hard-earned investments while worriedly taking note of our dwindling supply of goods needed for daily life. We are by nature prone to panic and anxiety about matters beyond our control, but God’s peace and provision in the midst of such extreme circumstances comes as we learn to lean into Him. We certainly need to count, but we would be wise to do so with a heavenly perspective. Like Moses, we should pray: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Rather than counting bowls, we are called to count each day for eternity and trust the God who knows the very hairs on our head and loves each of us as the one lost sheep.

Too Close for Comfort

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”               John 13:35

crowded train

Desperate for a distraction from my troublesome circumstances, and partially out of curiosity, I began to count under my breath. “One, two, three, four… eleven.” When I finished, I discovered that I was fairly close to my original estimate, but I was still off by two people. There were actually eleven people touching me in the jam-packed train, including the poor woman whose face was planted in my right armpit. Welcome to the Tokyo rush hour on severely overcrowded trains!

I chastised myself for not planning better as I usually managed to avoid this unpleasant press of people. Fortunately, I don’t commute by train to work, so I generally dodge such circumstances that many have to endure on a daily basis. But on this particular day, I had arranged to meet someone for an early appointment which required me to enter the unwelcome fray of rush hour madness. However, at the more crowded stations in Tokyo, help is available to assist desperate travelers like myself reach their destination on time. These special white gloved assistants are called “oshiya,” (押し屋) which means roughly “professional pusher.” Oshiya are employed part time during peak commuting hours to push people into train cars and ensure that nothing gets caught in the doors, thus enabling the train to depart on time.

The original oshiya were hired to work at the notoriously busy Shinjuku Station and were initially called “ryokaku seiri gakari” (旅客整理係), which meant “passenger arrangement staff.” A lot is certainly being arranged by these dedicated laborers as you can witness for yourself through the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7kor5nHtZQ. My most unforgettable train experience occurred when we were traveling through Tokyo as a family on a crowded train and I hoisted my youngest child above my head with outstretched arms to protect him. The train car suddenly became so packed with people that I was soon trapped in that awkward position, unable to lower my arms. However, my son didn’t seem to mind his lofty perch as he had a great birds eye view of the chaos below while I strained to hold him up for what seemed like an eternity until we finally reached our stop.

While we may not enjoy such close proximity with people when riding on a train, the Word of God teaches us that living in community with one another is actually an essential element in our spiritual growth. The New Testament repeatedly exhorts the people of God to practice the various “one another” commands that promote successful communal life. In so doing, we honor God, who calls us to abandon our natural inclination towards selfishness and beckons us to live together in unity. This is no small task.

Among the many “one another” commands are:                                                               Forgive one another                 Serve one another                                                                 Accept one another                   Comfort one another                                                                Pray for one another                Be kind to one another                                                             Bear one another’s burdens   Encourage one another                                                           Love one another

Like passengers on a crowded train, many of these injunctions seem a little too close for comfort as they demand actions and attitudes of us that run counter to our deeply ingrained sense of self preservation. But as Jesus pointed out in His final exhortation to His disciples, the implementation of these commands is what sets us apart from the world and its modus operandi (John 13:35). Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are rightly advised to temporarily practice social distancing to preserve physical health. But on the other hand, distancing ourselves from others long term invites other potentially deadly consequences. Only love for one another can bring genuine healing to a sick world.

My Hometown

“My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.”      Isaiah 32:18

Furusto

Our “choir” for that day featured no gifted singers, but what it lacked in ability was more than compensated for by the heartfelt participation of the predominantly older voices gathered in one of the many temporary housing areas scattered along the northeast coast of Japan. We were serving coffee, tea and homemade cookies to those who had been recently displaced by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake. A team of volunteers then led everyone in singing the famous Japanese folk song “Furusato,” (故郷) translated “My Hometown.” As my wife and I listened to the well-known words to the song, we were emotionally unable to add our voices to those who had lost so much.

I chased rabbits in those mountains
I fished in that stream
I still dream now and then about those days as a child
How I long for and miss my hometown

How are my father and mother?
Are my old friends okay?
Whenever it is rainy and windy
I recall my happy childhood in my hometown

Some day when I've done what I set out to do,
I will return to what used to be my home
The mountains are green there in my hometown

Described as a song that reflects the heart of Japan, Furusato* is traditionally sung as a wistful contemplation of bygone days with the slight hint of hope that those happier times will someday be recovered. But the words on this occasion seemed empty as they were being mouthed by people who had lost their homes, loved ones, jobs and even their way of life within the span of a few minutes on March 11, 2011. The mountains and streams from their childhood memories still remained, but there would be no returning to the furusato they enthusiastically sang about.

That single moment, among the many we experienced doing relief work, captured for us the uniqueness of the Japanese and their amazing, resilient response to unmitigated, personal disaster. All that remained of many towns and neighborhoods along that coast were vast fields of empty foundations that eerily resembled ancient archeological ruins. Those who remained continued to press on, clinging to the memories of their furusato with little hope of livelihood, and many were still struggling to pay off loans on houses that no longer existed.

Although the song “Furusato” is known by all Japanese, very few are aware that the tune and lyrics were actually written by Christians. As such, the composers used the metaphor of furusato to portray the people of God as sojourners on earth waiting for their eternal, heavenly home. This theme comes out clearly in the last verse where it says “Someday when I’ve done what I set out to do, I will return to what used to be my home.” It is good to keep this worthier objective in mind as we seek to point the way to our eternal furusato to others, while standing shoulder to shoulder with those who have lost their earthly furusato.

*You can listen to the song Furusato through the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcmcXrCihrA 

 

Tokyo Trains

“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.” Psalm 25:4

Tokyo Train

 

I stared intently at what looked like strands of multi-colored spaghetti thrown on the wall, which were somehow supposed to help me find my way through the labyrinth of Tokyo. I felt utterly lost and confused, and those feelings only intensified as I continued to vainly scrutinize the “helpful” map of Tokyo’s train lines.

Welcome to the world’s most extensive rail network, consisting of 158 separate lines, fed by 2,210 stations, running along 2,930 miles of operational track and servicing roughly 40 million passengers per day. And these figures don’t include Japan’s famous bullet trains that rapidly crisscross the Greater Tokyo area. Over 3.6 million people pass daily through Shinjuku Station, which makes it easily the busiest train station in the world, consisting of 36 platforms with over 200 exits to accommodate the masses of people. The Yamanote Line, which makes a giant loop through the urban sprawl of Tokyo, is one of the most important lines. It connects most of Tokyo’s major stations, operating roughly 20 hours every day with train intervals as short as two minutes during peak usage. Particularly exhausted travelers on the Yamanote frequently fall asleep during their commute, but they can easily disembark and head back in the opposite direction if they miss their stop.

This maze of train lines is also supported by an additional network of buses, trams and monorails, adding thousands of more miles to an already incredibly complicated transportation system. What makes it even more impressive is that it all actually works! Trains flawlessly run on time. Public and private train lines somehow seamlessly cooperate. Equipment operates efficiently with minimal breakdowns. Passengers move from one point to another with few complaints.

To facilitate this daily mass movement of people, most passengers use different variations of what is called an “IC card,” which stands for “integrated circuit.” These are prepaid cards that are simply scanned when passing through the turnstiles on one’s journey. Gone are the days when passengers had to rely on printed train schedules using microscopic print to guide them to their destination. They have been replaced (thankfully) by convenient cell phone apps that remove most of the panic for novices as they bravely venture into the Byzantine network of Tokyo’s rail lines as I experienced many years ago.

Even though it can be intimidating to grasp and utilize the complexities of Tokyo’s transportation system, this difficulty pales in comparison to the greater challenge of navigating through life. How do I determine the best response when presented with many options? What will be the most helpful recourse to take for myself and others affected by my decision? When should I make a commitment to a plan of action even though many elements continue to elude my complete grasp of possible outcomes?

Unlike the map of Tokyo’s train lines, the answer to this question is surprisingly simple: turn to God for guidance. It is almost embarrassing how little we actually do that when confronted by the complexities of life. Far superior to the most sophisticated transportation apps, God asks that we turn to Him throughout the day, and seek His counsel as we travel through life. He delights in showing His ways and revealing the paths that will bring blessing for both us and others. All aboard!

Live Food

Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”   Mark 7:15

ikizukuri2

I had previously eaten sashimi, which is fresh raw fish, or meat sliced into thin pieces, but the bizarre culinary creation that now lay before me was an entirely new experience. Artfully displayed on the table where we were seated was a live fish still opening and closing its mouth. Observing the reaction of my fellow diners who were reaching for their chopsticks, I soon realized that this was the centerpiece of our meal. Now, I am no stranger to live fish as a fisherman, but this was something altogether different from my previous forays into the wonders of seafood. I soon learned that this Japanese delicacy is called ikizukuri (生き作り), which is roughly translated as “prepared alive.”

We had actually chosen our “victim” when we entered the restaurant from several tanks containing live fish, octopus, shrimp, lobsters and squid. I had naturally assumed that the fish would then be sliced into traditional sashimi, fried or broiled. Instead, a specially trained chef deftly removed the edible portion of the still living fish, sliced it into tiny bite-sized pieces and expertly placed it all back into its original location. The obvious objective of this culinary dish is to provide the ultimate experience in feasting upon fresh sashimi. This, of course, is evidenced by moving gills, tail, antenna or tentacles, depending on the creature being consumed.

As to be expected, this unique practice has invited a certain amount of controversy from critics who consider the custom barbaric and cruel to animals. In reaction, a few countries have even gone so far as to outlaw food prepared in this manner. However, ikizukuri advocates claim that the muscle twitching observed in the entrée is merely the residual response of the dead creature’s nervous system, rather than the labored movements of a dying victim. As for me, I thought the sashimi that evening was particularly delicious, but I was careful the whole time to avoid eye contact with the fish that became our meal!

The Old Testament contains numerous prohibitions of things not to be eaten, or how they were not to be eaten, as part of its ceremonial law. For example, some types of meat were declared to be “clean” and others were considered “unclean” and, therefore, to be avoided under all circumstances. These ceremonial laws were rigidly adhered to and enforced by many of the religious leaders in Jesus’ time, but their zealousness to preserve such practices caused them to lose sight of far more important matters. Jesus pointed this out when He said to them, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” In saying this, Jesus contrasted the huge difference between ceremonial defilement (what is outside a person) and spiritual uncleanness (what comes out of a person). The latter is called “sin” and all of us are under its dominion as evidenced by our proclivity to lie, lust, slander, judge, hate, boast, envy, etc. Judging from outward appearances, we may look appealing, like the ikizukuri fish on a plate, but no matter what we do, we are still dead in our sins. Our attempt to achieve righteousness through our own efforts is mere twitching on the platter. Only God can resurrect the dead and truly cleanse us.

Gods on a Shelf

“How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?”                Psalm 4:2b

Butsudan2

We watched silently as the flames steadily consumed the butsudan (仏壇), or Buddhist altar that represented the gathered family’s dramatic break from the false gods they and generations before them had previously served. A butsudan is a shrine commonly found in temples and homes in Japan. It basically consists of an ornate wooden cabinet that typically houses a Buddhist religious icon and other accessories known as butsugu. These items are usually candlesticks, bells, incense burners and elaborate dishes where rice, tea or fruit are placed as an offering to deceased ancestors. A photo, memorial tablet (ihai), or ashes of a venerated family member are often placed within the butsudan, which represents a unique combination of traditional Buddhism and ancestral worship. Local Buddhist priests are usually called in to conduct periodic formal ceremonies in front of the butsudan, as determined by the date of the deceased’s death. Many households also maintain a simple daily ritual at the Buddhist altar of offering prayers, putting out food or burning incense; this responsibility usually falls on the wife.

Worship before the butsudan was traditionally viewed as an essential element in Japanese life, as it represented the center of a family’s spiritual faith and their historical heritage. While this practice is still quite common in the more rural areas of Japan, the responsibility of maintaining the family Buddhist altar is a burden modern Japanese are increasingly unwilling to bear as their religious convictions and lifestyles continue to evolve. The high price of these butsudan and the space they require in crowded homes are additional deterrents to owning one.

The butsudan is not to be confused with a kamidana (神棚), which is a Shinto god shelf and represents an entirely different religion unique to Japan. Many Japanese adhere to both Buddhist and Shinto practices. In contrast to the butsudan, kamidana are much more simplistic in appearance and are even sold as inexpensive kits at the local hardware store if you want to construct your own. The general purpose of a Shinto god shelf is to house a local Japanese kami or spirits, which are believed to inhabit all things. According to Japanese mythology, there are eight million of these quasi spirits who should be properly venerated.

Unlike a butsudan, a kamidana is typically placed high on a wall above eye level in a place where people will not walk under it. The Shinto god shelf contains a variety of items, but the most important one is the shintai. This is an object designed to house a particular kami, by providing a physical form to enhance worship. A shintai is usually a small circular mirror, but it can also be a stone, jewel or some other object with symbolic value. Worship at a kamidana is believed to invite success or good fortune, so is it is quite common to see Shinto god shelves on prominent display in places of business.

Idolatry actually comes in many forms and is not limited to images or objects commonly condemned in the Bible and currently present in Japan. The Ten Commandments begin with a prohibition of placing any other gods before the One True God where one constructs images of such gods or bows in worship before them. While very few of us place such obvious idols in our homes and worship them, our hearts are unfortunately inclined to value people, things, or objectives ahead of God and wrongfully give ourselves to them. Such “gods” should have no place on the shelves of our lives.

Protruding Nails

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

protruding nail

Many years ago I took a number of Japanese visitors to an event in the United States where the performers on stage tried to recruit volunteers from the audience to participate in the action. Everyone around us eagerly thrust their hands into the air begging to be chosen, but my Japanese guests shrunk back, doing their best to become invisible. I was slightly amused as I witnessed this contrast in reactions and obvious clash of cultures. My Japanese friends were equally puzzled by the circumstances and later asked me, “Why are Americans so eager to rush on the stage and make fools of themselves?” To which I casually replied, “It’s the American way!” While my answer was rather shallow and primarily intended to draw laughter, it did partially capture the vast differences that often separate us as different cultures defined by different values.

The Japanese have a famous proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” *(出る釘は打たれる), which succinctly captures the previously described scenario. Due to Japan’s centuries of intentional isolation as an island nation and its mono-ethnic makeup, diversity is generally not encouraged. This serves as a stark contrast to the melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups that typically characterizes the United States, where individuality and the expression of it is considered a high value. However, in Japan, deviance from the norm is often met with resistance, like a protruding nail that is routinely hammered in so it will match the others. Group mentality and the pressure to “fit in” encourages conformity on many levels in Japan, so few are willing to face criticism and risk being singled out. This mindset can be a powerful tool to mobilize effort and energy into a cohesive direction for a particular objective, but it has the drawback of shutting down independent thought and action that sometimes might lead to better outcomes.

Of course, there are exceptions to this trend and nowhere is this more evident than the variety of street fashions in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, where young people express their individuality through unusual clothing and makeup combinations. In addition, some public figures may shun conformity in order to achieve success and are ironically admired for their boldness and innovation. But among the general masses, the desire for safety and tranquility continues to drive responses and few are willing to take the risks that come from being a nail that sticks out.

Jesus, however, essentially called His followers to be that protruding nail. While this presents unique challenges for Japanese believers seeking to live out their faith in a non-Christian culture, it is a problem that all true followers of Christ must wrestle with as the Kingdom of God inevitably clashes with the kingdoms of this world. As the people of God, we are to be actively engaged in a spiritual battle where our good deeds and testimony bear witness to the greatness and mercies of God to others around us. This way of life, of course, leaves little room for shrinking back into a self-protective mode for fear of criticism or rejection. Our light must shine as we become protruding nails within the cultural context where God has uniquely placed us. After all, the ultimate hammer resides in God’s hand and it is His judgment that matters in light of eternity.

* The proverb originally stated, “The stake that sticks out gets pounded,” which doesn’t significantly change the current nuance.