Japan farewell

Today is our marathon day. We are in Ueno, a northern suburb of Tokyo. Actually, it doesn’t feel suburban at all. It feels very much a part of the urban density and intensity of Tokyo. At any rate, we’ll go out and get some breakfast and we have all morning and part of the afternoon for sightseeing. We plan to visit a couple of close-by shrines and museums and catch lunch at a cafe or perhaps purchase some items from the many vendors who set up around the temples. At about 3 pm, we’ll board our train to Narita Airport. After checking in, we’ll have some time to wander around the airport before boarding our plane, which leaves at 6:25 pm. The flight is a little more than 9 hours, so they will try to simulate an overnight experience, serving dinner, then turning down the lights for sleep and turning up the lights and serving breakfast before we land. Hopefully we will be able to sleep a little bit on the airplane. We land in Vancouver, British Columbia at 11:45 in the morning on the same day. It is hard to understand how flying across the International Date Line means that we land before we take off in terms of local time, but the way we think of it is that we have this REALLY long day. After clearing Canadian Customs, we’ll meet our son for the hour and a half drive to his home, which includes a few minutes to clear USA customs at the border. We’ll try to stay awake though the afternoon, playing with our grandchildren and setting up our camper. I’ll probably make a little grocery run for supplies for our trip back to South Dakota and we’ll try to stay awake as long as we are able to make our bed time somewhere near normal for Pacific Time Zone USA.

So, in anticipation of a long day, and perhaps a skipped journal entry tomorrow, depending on what time I’m awake and how much energy I have, here are a few random parting thoughts about our visit to Japan.

Yesterday, we stayed at a hotel in Misawa that served a continental breakfast, which made us wonder what continent they were referring to, given that Japan is an Island. Is the continent Asia? When we visited our children in England, also an island, we decided that the continent in continental breakfast was Europe, since the breakfast didn’t seem to be a North American Breakfast, with cold cuts and pastries, so if England, which is part of Europe has a European Continental Breakfast, does Japan have an Asian Continental Breakfast. On the buffet were sausages, tempura, fried potatoes, breads and croissants, noodles with cabbage, rice with a lot of different sauces, including a good curry, several different soups, fried fish, juice, tea and coffee, and a few other things I’ve failed to mention. It was a good breakfast, and many Japanese people really eat big breakfasts compared with the choices we make. We are not, however, likely to cook rice for breakfast very often when we get home.

For lunch we had bento boxes on the train. Shops in the train stations sell lunch boxes made up with all kinds of fancy foods. You can get sushi, rice, noodles, fish, fried foods and more. It is kind of fun to have a fancy box with your lunch in little compartments as you speed down the rails at 180 miles per hour on a very smooth riding Shinkansen train.

For supper we at food offered by various vendors on the walkway leading up to the Bentendo Temple. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of fortune. We’re not sure if the goddess brings good or bad fortune or if it is a goddess of fortune as in wealth. The temple is fairly well maintained, but it has no particular appearance of being wealthy. It does appear to have been in this place for a very long time. Looking down the rows of vendors made me think that perhaps that is one way to raise money for religious institutions. Allow vendors to rent space for their stalls on the grounds of the religious institution and cater to tourists who come to see the building and have their pictures taken in front of it. We had crab and corn roasted over an open fire and a few little panda-shaped donuts for dessert. I know that the members of our church back home are very tired after a week of preparing for the rummage sale. Maybe just charging rent to vendors who are selling things to make their own living is another way to tackle the problem. (I’m just joking with this idea, it was just a silly thought that I had as I walked between the various vendors, listening to them calling out to customers as I smelled the incense of the temple and thought about the religious practices that are important to some of the faithful people who visit.

All around the temple are ponds filled with lotus flowers. The lotus is a special symbol of Japan. It has a similar meaning in both Buddhist and Hindu religions, where it is a sign of spiritual enlightenment. The Lotus starts underwater, often in mirky and dirty water. It has to overcome the depths and make its way to the surface. Then the flower bud needs to break through the heavy foliage into the sunlight where it can bloom. It represents the human will to survive dark and hard times and to emerge into enlightenment. We enjoyed looking at the lotus blossoms and enjoying our last night in Japan. Looking at the beautiful pink blossoms, I was reminded once again of how important nature is to the various religious traditions of Japan. The human spirit is nurtured by contact with nature, whether it be the ocean, the forest or the formal gardens. Caring for plants is seen as a spiritual discipline. It gives me a new appreciation for those who care for the plants that are in and around the church. A faithful volunteer waters the indoor plants and several different volunteers trim grass, care for shrubs and trees and provide for the natural space that surrounds the church. Our camp, Placerville is another reminder of how important nature is to our life together.

The peaceful gardens are in the midst of a very busy and vibrant city and not far from rushing crowds, speeding trains and traffic clogged streets. Perhaps those who live in such intense urban surroundings are especially needy of the peace that the lotus flowers give to all who take the time to ponder their beauty.

It will be a long day for us and a skip in journal entries for my regular readers. Before long, I’ll be back to my usual schedule and returning to my home time zone.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Love transcends

When you hold an infant in your arms, you have a sense of holding the future. This tiny person will grow into an adult who will likely outlive you, who will go places you will never go, do things you have never done, and see things you have never seen. Holding an infant is a reminder that we are all finite. We have limits. We do not go on forever. We can’t do it all. We can’t have it all. And somehow, holding an infant makes that reality acceptable. It seems right that this tiny person will reach beyond our limits.

I remember holding our children when they were babies and wondering what kinds of lives they might lead. Their great grandparents saw the world change from horse and buggy to humans traveling in space. They witnessed a revolution in transportation. The first practical automobiles came after they were born and they lived to themselves travel on jet airplanes. As I held our children, it seemed to me quite possible that they would live to travel into space and beyond. What I couldn’t imagine at the time was what a revolution in information technology and communications would come in their lifetimes. They are not yet out of their thirties and so much has changed in their lifetimes. Our children are the first generation to not remember life before personal computers. Our family got our first personal computer after they were born, but when they were so young that they don’t remember the event. Now we all carry complex computers in our pockets in the form of cell phones. I didn’t see that particular change coming as quickly as it did.

Now I hold our grandchildren in my arms and try to imagine the world they will see. I know that my imagination is insufficient to predict the wonders of their world.

We raised our children to be independent. We taught them to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. We encouraged them to go places and do things that we had never done. As high school students, both of our children traveled to Japan as parts of sister city exchanged. We stayed at home and didn’t make the grand trips with them, but felt the trips as investments in their futures and an extension of our family beyond its normal limits. We hosted an exchange student in our home for a year as a way of reaching out and extending family relationships beyond the limits of our own travels. I was not able to imagine, in those days, that one of our children would live in Japan for part of her life. I did not imagine that we might make trips to Japan two years in a row.

And now, here we are, nearing the end of our second trip to Japan in as many years. We have a grandson who was born in Japan and to whom global travel is just a way of life. He is five weeks old and he already has his own passport. It has a really cute picture of him, too. All of our grandchildren have their own passports.

I grew up not too far from the Canadian border in the days when no passport was required to travel between the two countries. I didn’t take a trip that required a passport until I was 25 years old. Our children got their first passports when they were teenagers. Our grandchildren got them as infants. That revolution in transportation that our grandparents witnessed is continuing. Global travel is an option for many people.

Of course there is a downside to having such independent children. We encouraged them to choose their own paths in life and those paths are exciting to us. They also take our children and our grandchildren far from the place we call home. We have the luxury of travel for only a brief period of our lives. As we age, health and finances will limit our ability to travel. We won’t be able to take trips across oceans every year of our lives. We will have to figure out other ways to remain close and to nurture our connections as a family.

Yesterday, as we were talking with our daughter about our trip home, she told us that she was concerned about the long drive we will make after the big flight to the U.S. She knows how tired flying long distances and changing so many time zones can make a person and she is concerned that we will be driving. Her advice about taking care of each other and making sure that we don’t drive when we are tired was an echo of similar concerns that we have expressed to her when she has traveled. Our children grow up to be adults who give us parental advice. Then she added that if we were to have a need she would hop on a plane with her son and come to help us. I have no doubt that she would. I know that her brother would do whatever he was able as well. Of course, we want to take great care so that we don’t make the kind of mistake that requires our children to rush to our rescue. Still, it is great to know that they will be there for us when we need them.

Sending our children off on big adventures when they were young was difficult. It wasn’t easy to say good bye. Even though we chose programs and adventures with care, we knew that they were traveling beyond our reach. We knew that they were spreading their wings beyond our scope of experience. We worried when they traveled and we were delighted when they returned home. Now both of them call places that are very distant home. We have had the great luxury of travel to visit them in their homes, but for now we cannot linger. This year we go back to South Dakota and to our work and to our lives in different places. Our love and our family has to be bigger than any one place. Our grandchildren will continue to grow beyond our reach.

Transcendence is no longer an academic term for me - an idea that is fun to study and discern. It is a reality. Love is bigger than the distances that separate us. As hard as it is to say good bye, it is the right thing to do. We will remain connected despite the distances.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Change is coming

Today in Japan, which is tomorrow at home, is my sister’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first earthquake that I ever felt. We had all gone to bed after a day of celebrating my sister’s birthday. She was eight that summer. The earthquake was big enough to wake us up. It turned out that it was a really big earthquake. The 7.2 earthquake caused what may have been the biggest landslide in the recorded history of the United States. The history of the quake reports that the shake lasted for 30 to 40 seconds, which either was long enough for me to get out of bed and make it down the stairs, or I felt an aftershock after I got downstairs. I was only 6 at the time and my memory is mixed up with stories that others have told. At any rate, the time after the quake was a busy time for our father. He flew a reconnaissance flight over the quake area at first light the next morning, taking pictures with his polaroid camera. What he saw was that the entire flow of the Madison River had been blocked by a gigantic landslide. He saw Hebgen Lake was rising rapidly with the flow cut off. A new lake was forming behind what turned out to be 50 million cubic tons of mud, rock and debris that had slid into the valley with such force that it created hurricane force winds - winds strong enough to have blown a car with 5 people in it off of the road. He saw broken and damaged roads. Old Faithful Inn had been evacuated due to damage to the structure.

A subsequent flight with a professional photographer and engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers produced large 8 x 10 black and white photographs of the damage. Over the next week, more flights were taken and the Corps made a plan to cut a spillway for the new lake. It took until September 10 for the emergency spillway to allow water to flow into the Madison once again and until the end of October for the new spillway to be completed.

At least 28 people were killed by the immediate effects of the quake, which was felt strong enough to cause damage in Idaho.

Those memories are reinforced by being in Japan where we’ve felt three strong earthquakes since we arrived, two of them in the last week.

So happy birthday, dear sister. You always knew how to shake things up!

It is also the day before we depart from Misawa and begin our journey back home. Our trip has been so wonderful on so many levels that it is hard to see it coming to a close. We have now been here for more than half of our new grandson’s life. We’ve seen him grow and we’ve watched our daughter gain confidence as a mother. We’ve held the tiny one as much as possible so that we will have memories to reinforce our regular video chats over the next few months until they are able to visit us in April next year. We have one more day to soak up baby cuddles and have conversations with our daughter and son in law. We have two more days to be immersed in Japanese culture and language and to enjoy what to us seems like an exotic destination.

Meanwhile, back at home, folks are in the midst of a big rummage sale at the church. The efforts of many people have combined for what is one of the biggest events of the year to raise funds for the Women’s Fellowship, who turn the dollars into mission and outreach into our community, supporting a variety of important projects and ministries. If we were at home, we would be doing what we are able to help with the sale and enjoying the fellowship of the workers.

Sunday will be the last of six weeks of being out of the pulpit. Three capable substitute ministers have each led two worship services in our absence. Before we left, I created drafts of the liturgies and worship bulletins for each of those services and so I have a sense of what is has been happening in the worship life of the congregation even though I haven’t been present in worship. I’m excited and ready to be back in the pulpit and sharing with the congregation on August 25.

It is always the nature of our trips away from the congregation, whether the purpose of the trip be sabbatical or vacation. I miss the congregation. I miss our particular style of worship. I miss the people. A lot happens in a congregation in a few weeks time. An important funeral occurred in our absence. The life of the congregation has gone on. Things have changed.

We have changed, too. We have learned more about Japanese culture, religious observances and festivals and traditions. We have been changed by spending quality time with our daughter and son and their families. We have been reminded that love transcends distances - even the distances of half of the globe. We have once again been reminded that we are not the center of the community. Life goes on in our absence. These are all important lessons that we understand in theory, but the living of them is important for the health of our congregation and the community we call home.

Our return will be a busy time. There is much to be done. A newsletter needs to come out. A church school rally needs to come off. The fall is a busy time of programs gearing up. Our congregation hosts the community Thanksgiving service this year and there are meetings to arrange and a service to plan. It won’t be long before we are in the midst of Advent and all of the special preparations for Christmas. Thinking of our return gives me a bit of anxiety about all of the things that need to be accomplished. Thinking of our return begins the process of preparing me for the plunge into the life of the community and the church that is important for the ministries of the year to come.

Like the earthquake of my childhood, we don’t know what all of the changes such a major event will cause. We do know that it is momentous. May we, like those who responded to the earthquake 60 year ago, give our energy to responding to the call.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

More shaking

Yesterday we were waiting for our daughter to come pick us up at our hotel. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and I had a bag of laundry in my arms. My wife noted that I was rocking the laundry back and forth. The notion gave us the giggles. I wasn’t holding the baby, but there was something in me that had me treating a small bag of laundry as if it were a baby. A few minutes later I was rocking back and forth once again. Even after my motion was brought to my conscious attention, I kept up with the rocking. We’ve noticed that motion in other settings as well. Somehow, from the time that our first child was born, we both developed a bit of a sway when we are holding something that is about the size or weight of a baby.

I remember making a trip during the time that Susan was pregnant. Being in a city larger than the small town where we were living, we went shopping for a rocking chair. We finally found a chair that we liked and could afford at an unfinished furniture store. We carefully loaded the chair into our car, which took a bit of thinking and arranging. When we got home I set to work, applying stain and sealer to the chair. That chair is still a very prominent piece of furniture in our living room and we both love to sit and rock. It was an important piece of furniture in our family story and both of our children were rocked for many hours in that chair.

A big wooden rocking chair is not a piece of furniture that either of our children have ever owned. When they had infants, however, both families have had an elaborate device that cradles the infant. The machine has a motor that can move the device in a variety of different patterns with adjustable speed. There is also a feature of the machine that makes different sounds. The device has been carefully researched and designed to mimic some of the motion that a baby experiences inside of the mother before it is born. We’ve learned to set our grandchildren into the device where they sleep peacefully as the machine gently rocks the baby.

Of course when we visit, we prefer to hold the baby. Adding two additional adults to a family gives more time for holding the infant and so we pick up the baby and rock it in our arms. There is absolutely nothing that feels as good as having a sleeping infant held against your chest. We’ve been soaking up the feeling as much as we can during this visit, knowing that we soon will be far away from our new grandson and not available to pick him up until our next visit.

Yesterday, the gigantic movements of tectonic plates deep beneath the surface of the earth provided us with another type of rocking. We felt two earthquakes. We later learned that the first was 5.4 in magnitude and that we were only about 15 miles from the epicenter of the shake. It was the biggest earthquake either of us had experienced. Susan was holding the baby at the time and we both were sitting in chairs, so there was no danger of falling. A pair of pots fell from a rack in the kitchen, which made quite a clatter and a canister of breakfast cereal fell from the top of the refrigerator scattering Cheereos across the kitchen floor. A few spices in the cabinet fell from their appointed shelves and some plastic bottles of baby lotion toppled from a dresser. There was no damage other than the cereal canister, which was broken in the fall. Our daughter had been napping and was awakened by the shake. She reported that it was the biggest quake she had ever experienced as well. About a half hour later a second quake, measured at 4.7 and just a couple of miles farther away than the first one, gave us another rocking.

The baby slept through both quakes. The baby is used to motion while he sleeps. A little rocking in his world is completely normal for him.

Later, as I walked the dog through the neighborhood, I looked to see if I could discern any damage, but found none. The trees kept all of their branches. The birds were doing their normal activities. The houses seemed to all be in normal states of repair. There were no cracks in the ground. I wondered what the quake felt like to those who were in taller buildings. Our daughter’s home is on the first floor of a two-story apartment building, but there are some apartment towers a few blocks away. I suspect the motion was a bit more intense on the 10th floor.

Japan is an area where earthquakes are frequent and the Japanese people have learned to take the shaking in stride. From time to time there is a really big quake, most recently the one in April of 2011 near Fukushima that caused a huge tsunami and resulted in the deaths of more than 15,000 people and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. There are mudslides and huge damage to buildings. More than 250,000 people were forced to flee their homes with many still being out of their homes four or five years later. That quake was the largest ever recorded in Japan at 9.0.

As a result the Japanese have developed engineering techniques for making buildings resistant. The famous seven-tiered pagodas are constructed in such a manner to withstand the motion of earthquakes and techniques based on that style of engineering have been employed in constructing office and apartment towers in the cities.

Having lived most of my life in a place where earthquakes are much less frequent, I doubt if I will ever get used to the motion. I’ve suffered no harm from the ones i’ve experienced, but doubt that I’ll ever get used to it. Our grandson, on the other hand, took no note at all. He’s used to the gentle rocking of his world.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Another festival

Misawa is about 15 miles from a larger town, Hachinohe. Hachinohe is on the Shinkansen or bullet train line that goes from Tokyo to Aomori. Misawa is served by the Aomori train line. You can ride the Aomori line to Misawa for about $6. That same train goes on to the city of Aomori. If you ride the Shinkansen past Hachinohe it will go directly to Aomori. The train then goes through a tunnel under the ocean to the island of Hokkaido. Folks who live in Misawa make trips to Hachinohe for shopping, medical care and a host of other reasons. They travel by train or by car, depending on the circumstances of the trip. We came by train from Tokyo to Hachinohe and then took the Aomori line to Misawa. We’ll return the same way. Yesterday we went to Hachinohe to make our Shinkansen reservations for our return to Tokyo for our flight home. While we were there, we took time to learn a bit about the city of Hachinohe.

When we came through Hachinohe on our way to Misawa, we arrived during the Sansha Taisai Festival. The Festival is celebrated between July 31 and August 4 each year and is one of many Japanese festivals that have been recognized by the United Nations as a World Natural and Cultural Heritage site. Like other festivals in Japan, the Sansha Taisai festival is marked by lanterns and parades with drums and flutes and elaborate floats. Unique to the Hachinohe festival, however, is a display of an ancient martial arts performed on horseback. Kagami-style Kiba Dakyu is held at the Chojasan Shinra Shrine as part of the festival. Kiba Dakyu is a form of traditional martial arts performed on horseback which has only three forms left in Japan. The Kagami-style Kiba Dakyu of Hachinohe is designated as an Aomori Prefectural Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Kiba Dakyu is similar to polo, two teams (red and white) with four riders each compete to score against the other team. Riders use sticks with a net on one end to hurl a ball in their goal to score.

While the big celebration and displays are held in Hachinohe, towns from around the area have riders who participate in the sport. In Misawa, we visited a place where some of the horses are kept. There are also small ponies kept in the same place. It was unclear to us whether or not the ponies are used as training animals for children to learn the sport.

parade model
The Sansha Taisai Festival dates back to 1721, when bad weather threatened the crops and livelihood of the region. Special prayers were offered at the Horyosan Ogami Shrine and a sacred procession of portable shrines, called mikoshi, was held. Over the years of annual observance, more people joined the procession and merchants began to create floats with decorative dolls. Somewhere along the line the tiger dance (toramai) was added to the parade. A pair of dancers wear a tiger costume and participate in the procession. The purpose of the festival is to pray for good health and successful crops as well as to express gratitude for the current harvest. In the late 19th Century Shinra Shrine and Shinmeigu Shrine joined in the procession, creating the contemporary Sansha Taisai festival of three shrines.

Japan is often described as a secular culture, but people give reverence to festivals and shrines and celebrate their spirituality as well as their cultural traditions with great care and joy.

Because the focus of this trip to Japan has been our new grandson, we haven’t done many of the tourist activities and adventures that we might otherwise have experienced, but just being in Japan is an experience of a different culture. Although many Japanese people speak English, just riding on the train is an immersion into the Japanese language. We strain to pick out a few words from the train announcements and to recognize the names of the stations as we ride the train.

Each visit to a cultural site or display gives us an opportunity to learn more about the place we are visiting. Last year we spent an hour or so touring the Hachinohe fish market. Situated right on the coast, Hachinohe is home to a significant fishing fleet and the market is part of the distribution network of fresh fish. There are so many varieties of fish and ocean creatures that are sold in the market that we were amazed at the size and variety of the trade. Hachinohe also is a place of manufacturing of metal goods. Among the locally famous products are musical instruments including trumpets and other brass instruments. The region is also well known for fruit production and apples are especially well known local produce.

We have learned, through our experiences of travel, that it is impossible to get a full sense of the lives of other people from a short visit. There are many things to see and do that we miss, and spending a large part of our time on a US Air Force base means that we are never far from the culture, products and traditions of our home country. However, we are far enough from home to have a sense of visiting another country. Because we are especially interested in religion, the religious and cultural festivals capture our attention and give us insight into the lives of the people.

dollwith flute
Because we did not see the horseback displays during this visit, other details struck us. We were especially interested in the many dolls that decorate the Sansha Taisai Festival floats. Each tiny figure has a unique expression on its face and care is taken to replicate the costumes and hats worn by festival participants. The bright colors and decorative lights add to the impact of the display.

Our time in Japan is growing short. Our day trip yesterday reminded us that we soon need to be packing for the long trip home. Each experience in Japan is an opportunity to increase our understanding and appreciation of the people who live in this beautiful and interesting land. We are collecting memories that will last us for the rest of our lives. How grateful we are for being able to make this journey.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!