Japan’s Disney parks (Land and Sea) had delighted me so much, I determined to visit Universal Studios before returning west for good. My hosts outdid themselves in arranging transportation and tickets for me – recommending a convenient bus route over the expensive, multi-transfer train; carving through the brambles of Japanese websites. I could have kissed them for gratitude.
On Wednesday morning, the younger sister and I embarked at 6am for three hours via the highway, eager for dinosaurs and wizards and “jet coasters,” as it’s said in Japanese. The mountains of Okayama fell away, then up sprang Osaka’s skyscrapers, as we rolled right to the theme park’s front gates.
Of the foremost quartet of islands that make up Japan, I have visited three: Hanshu (Tokyo and Kyoto), Kyushu (Kagoshima and Fukuoka), and Hokkaido (snow festival!). Yesterday I tripped across the bay to Shikoku, the daintiest of the four.
The ocean liner train sailed over a mammoth suspension bridge, opening up vistas of intricate coastline and miniature islets. Just an hour’s journey landed me in Takamatsu, home of the Ritsurin Kouen – one of Japan’s loveliest and most historic gardens.
A friend put me in touch with his friend here, whom he has only met remotely — and at last, after failing to synch up during my Kyoto trip in 2019, we arranged to meet.
She and her family rolled out the red carpet (and the sushi!) for me, gently folding me into their loving, erudite, serene domestic circle. A clan of academics, the mother met the father in graduate school as a visiting student from Taiwan. He still researches plant molecular biology. Now their elder daughter investigates Scottish missionaries in Asia, while the younger sculpts heteromorphic dogs as a professional ceramicist.
This weekend, they treated me to a cozy futon, Japanese cooking, and a tour of their hometown.
With a full heart, I visited my island haunts for the last time yesterday. My contract with JET ends with July, and the new Assistant Language Teacher for Tokunoshima High School arrives this upcoming week.
For the month of August, I am embarking on a multi-country odyssey — testing the skills acquired over my two years of solo living and solo traveling in Asia. More than that, I have committed to live my nomadic weeks in line with the principles that I want to govern my life: care for others before myself, worshipping God in his creation through my sub-creation, resting in his providence and care. As he has blessed me with bountiful opportunities to travel his marvelous world, I want to enjoy them in a spirit of faithful service.
Before venturing further afield, I am passing another week in Japan, gently parting from the place and people so dear to my heart. Of all my souvenirs, I will treasure most the farewell photos from the past few days, with my many teachers and friends.
After our race through Tokyo, my sister and I settled in for a week of life on a small island in the Pacific.
I had eagerly anticipated introducing her to what have become my everyday scenes: the sushi lunch cafe that’s hopping during business hours, the formidable sea walls flanking the coast, the memorial library where I delight in abusing the grand piano with my fumbling fingers.
From Tokyo, we caught a Pokemon-themed plane to the southernmost tip of the main islands: Kagoshima-shi, the city center of my home prefecture. We checked in to JR Kyushu, a suave business hotel set inside the train station itself.
Then I conducted my sister on a twenty-four hour tour of Kagoshima’s culinary champions: tonkatsu (the Japanese version of schnitzel, or breaded pork), cherry blossom pastries, chestnut cakes, and – of course – shirokuma: the iconic shaved ice of the region. Drenched in sweetened condensed milk, studded with fruit, it had topped my list since November 2021 for treats to delight guests. My sister opted for the red beans variation, while I bought the classic.
We scooted downtown for a late night stint at the nearest onsen, a public bath with piping hot mineral waters, powered by the city’s neighboring volcano. On the way home, we paused to purchase a bulk pack of frozen dumplings from a vending machine (a vending machine!) before retiring for a long-awaited rest.
Sunday morning brought us amidst a relentless downpour to my first English church home in Japan, the dauntless Calvary Chapel. As ever, the congregation welcomed us warmly – with a hearty brunch and many invitations to return soon. The assistant pastor’s wife even accompanied us back to the station, where she saw us safely aboard the bus to the airport for our final flight of the week: home to Tokunoshima.
We invested in recovering for most of the day following our Disney extravaganza. Stephanie foraged for breakfast at the FamilyMart convenience store around the corner, returning with a bag bulging with salmon rice balls and melon pastries. I tapped through maps and metro schedules, charting our course for the time remaining in Tokyo.
I had deliberately decided to revisit my tour of the year before, at the same time of year to minimize surprises, with many of the same destinations at mind. It didn’t try my imagination much to consider places I would willingly wander again, and SkyTree topped the list. A fabulously elongated mall, it attracts most for its city view, but that afternoon we sought its mix of unique treats and quirky shops.
After a day of grazing on vendor snacks in DisneySea, we decided on more substantive fare and booked seats at the Sherwood Gardens breakfast buffet. “Breakfast” seemed like a misnomer – besides the usual selection of pastries, eggs, and bacon (from the West) and rice, miso soup, and salad (from the East), the endless countertops offered noodles and canapes, egg salad decorated with a tomato rose, hamburgers and fries for littler guests, not to mention enough fish, meat, and cakes for lunch and dinner besides.
We launched into our tour of the flagship park with a few eclectic rides: Star Tours, a drone-populated airport terminal so realistic that it roused unpleasant flashbacks to hectic travel; and the Pirates of the Caribbean. This water-based ride utterly immersed us in a bayou-like landscape as we drifted past candlelit tables — other DisneyLand guests, in fact, dining at the attached restaurant. Next we sailed right through a exchange of cannon fire, with a pirate captain to our left firing on the beleagured town to our right.
My sister adores classic Disney even more than I do, which propelled the Tokyo theme parks to the top of our sightseeing wishlist. Expecting massive crowds for the national holidays later in the week, we arranged tickets for Monday and Tuesday — including a stay at the exquisite, art nouveau style Disneyland Hotel.
As I enthused extensively about DisneySea last year, I’ll recap only briefly before focusing on our maiden voyage to DisneyLand: a vintage park celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The first morning of our adventure, we rose early to savor a surprisingly gourmet buffet — never before has a breakfast menu offered me sashimi! We splurged on a taxi to the park, where the staff conducted us through the well-oiled machinery of depositing luggage and purchasing passes.
Emerging at last into the Renaissance harbor that so beguiled me, my sister and I plunged into the park’s kaleidoscope of imagined worlds.
In my 18 months of island hopping and jetting all over Japan, I have dropped in on half a dozen different churches here. Invariably, the congregations have showered me with affection and hospitality — inviting me to lunch, offering to guide my sightseeing, urging me to come again.
Our friend’s family church fit the pattern in all respects except one: it dwarfed every other Japanese church I have attended. Multiple services, Sunday school divided by age group, even a bookshop — we marveled at the ministry built up over the decades. During the service, we sang hymns accompanied by organ and pored over an English transcript of the sermon. Afterwards, I rejoiced at joining an English Bible study in person, for the first time in months.
We broke our fast with a bountiful buffet at our elegant hotel. The view from our window lured us into an exquisitely arranged garden, a tiny oasis separating the guests from a divided highway just beyond. The subtle infinity loop design deceived the eye; we wandered it happily, retracing our steps without feeling enclosed.
Golden Week kicks off with a visit from one of my most favorite people: my sister is spending the next three weeks with me in Japan!
After tracking each other down in Tokyo last night, we collapsed gratefully into our beds at a hotel strategically situated near the airport. A buffet breakfast, featuring a build-your-own-miso-soup station, fortified us for the train ride north to Tsukuba.
“Japan’s science center,” as the travel guides deem it, attracts few tourists. Outside a commuter town with a sprawling university, Tsukuba hosts rice paddies and the only mountains within striking range of Tokyo. We trekked there to meet with a Christian friend of a friend, who has hosted us bountifully for my sister’s first full day in Japan.
That’s not a spelling mistake – “tako” is Japanese for “octopus.” This week my friend Gabrielle trekked across the Pacific and down from Tokyo to share my island home. It struck me as the perfect occasion to claim an invitation from the friendly computer teacher here, Rena-san. Several weeks ago, she urged me to partake of a Japanese tradition: the “tako party.”
With curious anticipation, we accompanied my neighbor Shiho-san (our school nurse) across town to Rena-san’s tidy and warmly lit abode. A table decked with mysterious packages awaited us, like the ingredients for a magician’s potion.
For the first time in three years, our southernmost town Isen-cho celebrated a summer festival. (When you live on a semi-tropical island, November is the perfect season for summer festivals.) As Isen is the smallest of Tokunoshima’s three towns, we weren’t expecting much.
Instead, people turned out in force for an extravaganza. Lines for cotton candy and chicken skewers rapidly outstripped the foodstalls’ supplies, leaving ample opportunity to admire the ladies attired in yukata (summer kimonos). After marveling at this scene in countless animes, now I found myself living it.
Silhouetted against the ocean, the stage boasted a parade of traditional and contemporary music from drummer martial artists to a hip hop trio from Osaka. One of my fellow JET teachers performed with a group on the shamisen, a stringed instrument traditionally bound in snakeskin. The night ended with a bang: lasers painted fantastical landscapes across windswept smoke, a mesmerizing prelude to the fireworks concert. Synchronized bursts of color and sound drew shouts of delight from the crowd.
As we regretfully gathered ourselves to go, everyone agreed: Isen wins first place in festivals.