Leadership Lessons from Former President Reagan

Ronaldus-Magnus-724755Ronald Reagan is the first president I really remember.  He was sworn into office when I was 10 years old, and I vividly remember that day.  I remember the release of the Iran hostages that took place the day he was sworn in, and I remember that there was a sense of hope and excitement that filled the nation, much like there was the day President Obama was sworn in earlier this year.

By many accounts, President Reagan is listed among the greatest presidents of the 20th century.  During his two terms, the Cold War ended and the economy began an upswing that set the table for the incredible prosperity of the 1990s.  Reagan was truly a leader among leaders.

In his book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton,  David Gergen says, “Reagan wasn’t just comfortable in his own skin.  He was serene.  And he had a clear sense of what he was trying to accomplish.  Those were among his greatest strengths as a leader.”  Here are some of the other leadership lessons Gergen learned while serving on President Reagan’s staff:

Communication is key.

Even Reagan’s harshest critics agree that – at the very least – Reagan was a great communicator.  He knew how to put his listeners at ease enabling them to stop worrying about the man they were hearing and pay attention to what he was saying.  He was also a master at using humor at just the right moment to break the tension and lighten the mood.  During the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale, Reagan appeared in the first debate looking horribly old.  Afterward, the press had a field day with the photos and began asking if Reagan was too old to serve as president for a second term.  At the next debate, Reagan was asked point blank if he was too old to be president, and he was ready to answer.  “I will not make age an issue in this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience!”

Gergen also reports that when it came to giving speeches, Reagan knew – and practiced – every trick of the trade.  They are: prepare carefully, keep it short and brisk, use the language of the living room, look for a catchy fact, use the occasional prop, be positive, anticipate the critics, and have a good closer.  If you watch the footage of of any of the many speeches Reagan gave while in office, you’ll see many of these “tricks” in play.

Leadership requires great courage.

Even though Reagan was the oldest man elected president (69 years old), his broad shoulders, thick chest, and square jaw gave him the look of a rugged and courageous leader – one that you felt comfortable following. He personified the rugged, American tough guy – the real “Marlboro Man.”  Reagan not only looked like a courageous man, but he led with courage, and he even responded to great adversity with courage.

On March 30, 1981, Reagan experienced the defining moment of his presidency and of his life.  On that day, he was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin.  From the video footage, it was not clear that Reagan had been shot.  In the chaos, he had been forcefully shoved into his limo by secret service agents.  Cameras were waiting when Reagan’s limo pulled up to the hospital doors.  Climbing out of the car, he waved off help.  Instinctively, he buttoned his suit jacket (which was a small but telling gesture about his sense of the presidency), smiled and waved at the cameras, and walked through the emergency room doors.  Just inside the doors and out of the view of the cameras, he collapsed.  A bullet was lodged within an inch of his heart.

During the hours that followed, the president hovered close to death, and it was only later – after he had recovered – that the country found out how close to death he really was.  This was his defining moment as a courageous leader in the eyes of many Americans.  To a great many, especially working people, Reagan was now the courageous president who had taken a bullet – and smiled!

A great leader is one who is steady in his or her core beliefs.

One of the marks of a great leader is whether he or she has a sense of conviction and can hold to it.  The leader can be flexible in the means of getting there but must be firm about direction and outcomes.  Reagan held to a set of core beliefs that were not popular in the 60’s and 70’s, but by the end of those turbulent decades, Americans were ready to embrace them.

Agree or disagree, these were Reagan’s core beliefs…and he stuck to them over the eight years in office: America is a chosen nation with a special mission, America should be number one not number two, strength matters, freedom matters, and values matter.

In an age where our public leaders seem to waffle on their convictions and beliefs in order to appease the masses, Reagan’s steadiness related to his beliefs is refreshing, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them.  Gergen also reports that he witnessed occasions where some of Reagan’s staff members lied, but never did he see or hear of Reagan intentionally misleading anyone during his tenure on Reagan’s staff.  Reagan proved that a great leader is one who leads with integrity and conviction.

Being Missional…Even During A Robbery!

I’ve heard of crying to get out of a traffic ticket, but I’ve never heard of crying in order to get out of being robbed…until now!  Police in Indianapolis say an armed robber spent nearly 10 minutes on his knees praying with a clerk at an Indianapolis check-cashing business before fleeing with $20 from the register and the clerk’s cell phone.  The robbery took an unusual turn after the clerk starting crying and talking about God.

The gunman said he had a 2-year-old child to support and asked for prayer about overcoming his hardships.  So, the clerk invited the gunman to come around the counter for a time of prayer.  Police say the man removed the bullet from his gun and gave it to the clerk before kneeling for prayer.  All of this was captured on the store’s security camera.

After saying “Amen,” the gunman got up, took a twenty dollar bill, grabbed the clerk’s cell phone, and ran out. Later, however, the suspect, turned himself in after his mother saw him on television.

One investigator said this about the bizarre robbery: “I’ve been an investigator for three years now and I’ve never seen anything like this. Especially one where the robber reaches out to hug the victim and then the victim later on hugs the suspect. Very unusual.”

For sure, the clerk gets my “Missional Living Person of the Week Award!”

The Problem of Making Disciples Out of Consumers

IMG00777-20091024-1519I came across an article in the Washington Post that I want to share excerpts of with you.  If you’re concerned with how consumer-driven the church has become and how hard it is to make disciples of Christ out of church-going consumers, you’ll want to read this.

FROM THE WASHINGTON POST…

Concerned evangelicals gathered last week in South Hamilton, Massachusetts to search the soul of their movement and find a new way forward.  Among evangelicals, who account for a quarter of the U.S. population, the idea that they must focus their attention on shaping authentic disciples of Jesus has always had broad support. But how to do that in a consumerist society with little appetite for self-denial is fueling internal debate.

About 500 people attended a conference at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on “renewing the evangelical mission.” Leading thinkers called fellow believers to repent for a host of sins, from reducing the Gospel to a right-wing political agenda to rendering God as a lenient father who merely wants “cuddle time with his kids.”

“We are seeing the very serious weakening of American faith, even among people who profess to be believers,” said Os Guinness, senior fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York and author of “The Case for Civility.” “Yet an awful lot of people haven’t really faced up to the true challenge and still think they can turn it around with things like political action.”

“The church has lost its mission to go out and love the people,” said Steven Mayo, pastor of Elm Street Congregational Church in Fitchburg, Mass. “We’ve become useless in a society that desperately needs us.”

How to become useful again, however, is a matter on which there is no consensus. Cornelius Plantinga, president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan, urged pastors to talk less about fulfilling personal potential and offer more from the likes of Old Testament prophet Joel, who warns God’s people to wail and repent before the Lord scorches the earth.

But church leaders responded to Plantinga’s prescription with a reality check.  “For pastors, it’s very easy to lose a job by taking your advice,” said Rachel Stahle, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Carteret, N.J., after Plantinga’s 45-minute lecture. “It’s even harder to find another one by taking your advice. So what wisdom do you share with us to take what you’ve said back to the churches?”

Some evangelicals are taking little comfort these days in successes of the past two decades, which included hundreds of fast-growing megachurches and the advancement of a socially conservative agenda during Republican George W. Bush’s presidency.  Too often, they say, Christians came to display un-Christian behavior in the public square and did a disservice to the cause of making disciples.  Beware the escalation of extremism,” Guinness said. “Christian sayings such as, ‘Love your enemies’ — they’re forgotten. People are attacking their enemies, but they’re certainly not on the side of Jesus in this.”

Some church leaders say the drift away from traditional teachings has led evangelicals to neglect such biblical mandates as ecumenism and to organize around lesser principles, such as political preferences.  “We evangelicals have moved from a church grounded in solid theology to a church grounded in personal relationships,” said Neil Gastonguay, pastor of Bath United Methodist Church in Maine. “We don’t have a message anymore.”  But others say evangelicals have worried too much about doctrinal differences when they should have been joining forces on larger issues.

Richard Alberta, senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., said preoccupations with doctrinal purity help explain why he struggles to round up other evangelicals to join him at anti-abortion events. “When you get evangelicals among themselves, instead of addressing the social and moral issues, they get backwatered into some debate about dispensationalism or Calvin or Charismatic Renewal,” Alberta said. “There’s lots of suspicion, and those worries seem to act as filters that keep evangelicals from getting together.”

Similar frustrations were expressed by Travis Hutchinson, pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Lafayette, Ga. He said he routinely gets a cool response from other evangelicals when he asks them to join his efforts to minister among undocumented immigrants.  The problem, he said, is that the doctrine-obsessed have lost touch with the heart of Jesus.  “The missing ingredient is not the primacy of the mind and doctrine,” Hutchinson said. “It’s the willingness to suffer.”

Although renewal strategies might vary in the years ahead, evangelicals expressed agreement that their inspiration is to be found in their bedrock source: Scripture.  John Jefferson Davis, a Gordon-Conwell theologian, said today’s Christians “need a high-intensity experience of God” and should seek it through meditative readings of Scripture. Still, he conceded, even Bible-based worship will need to be “more attractive and more enjoyable than a trip to the shopping mall.”

“Unless we can experience God in a way that is as real and as appealing as what we see on a 60-inch, high-definition plasma home theater screen,” Davis said, “we are in trouble.”

The Hills of Japan

IMG00280-20091014-2206The main purpose of our trip to Japan was to see and experience firsthand the ministry of Leon and Cheryl Hill.  Many years ago, the Hills lived in Albuquerque and were faithful members of Foothills Fellowship.  As a young couple, they were sent to Japan from Foothills 24 years ago.  Over the past two years, Leon and I have talked monthly via Skype and his words and descriptions of the people and ministry taking place there served to heightened my desire to go and see things for myself firsthand.

The Hills have faithfully served the Lord in Japan now for almost a quarter of a century, and this longevity coupled with their relentless engagement in missional living has – and still is – producing great fruit among the Japanese people.  Michelle and I witnessed firsthand some of the fruit of their labors, and we heard many unsolicited testimonies of how they have – and still are – making a great impact on the people with whom they live and serve.

Incredible Language Ability

love-unframedI don’t care what anyone says…learning a foreign language is a difficult task.  I took six years of German in high school and college and have very little knowledge of the language to show for it.  The German classes I took were some of my most difficult classes and provided me with some of my lowest grades, in spite of the fact that many English and German words are similar.

What I quickly discovered with the Japanese language is that there are NO similarities to the English language at all.  The sounds, inflections, and symbols are very different.  Michelle and I found ourselves feeling mentally exhausted listening to the language being spoken because our brains had nothing to grab a hold of.  There was no framework or context in our brains for processing the sounds we were hearing.  Japanese is an incredibly difficult language for English speaking people to learn, understand, and speak.

However, the Hills have done it!  They are quite savvy with the language, especially Leon who often serves as a translator for poor English speaking saps such as myself!  Both Leon and Cheryl said that learning the language was an incredibly difficult process, but because of the great spiritual need in Japan, and because of God’s calling on their lives to love and serve the people of Japan, both have been passionate about learning the language, and both have become quite fluent and are able to clearly communicate verbally the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Japanese language.

Ministry to Those with Special Needs

IMG00736-20091016-2302As many of you know, the Hills adopted two precious Japanese children as infants.  Jeffrey is now 22 years old, and Abi is now 19 years old.  The bond these two share is sweet and a blessing to observe.  Jeffrey is autistic and has many special needs that Leon, Cheryl, and Abi lovingly and faithfully work to meet every single day.  And – as the Lord often does – He has not only given the Hills the strength they need to care for Jeffrey, but He has given them the strength – and the burden – to help others who find themselves in similar situations.

Once a week, Leon and Cheryl drive over to the home of a special needs young man in order to help his parents (and other volunteers) with his daily rehabilitation regiment.  Michelle and I were able to tag along with them and see them in action.  We watched as both of them rigorously helped this rather large young man with little arm and leg control crawl and walk.  Leon got down on all fours and lifted the young man’s legs back and forth helping him take wobbly steps across the family’s hardwood floors.   The way in which Leon and Cheryl lovingly interacted with the young man’s parents and sacrificially worked hard to help him was touching to watch.

IMG00088-20091012-2108The story of how the Hills connected with this young man is quite amazing.  14 years ago, Leon felt a burden to share Christ in a creative way with some of the young teenage boys in his community.  So, he invited several of them over to his home for games and Bible study.  There was one particular young boy who stopped coming, so after a few weeks passed, Leon did some checking only to find out that the boy had been hit by a truck on his bike and had been severely wounded.  Leon described him as going from a vibrant boy to a “blob in a wheelchair.”  Because of that “missional” connection, Leon and Cheryl were able then to offer their assistance to the boy’s family and be the hands and feet of Christ to them.  For the last 14 years, the Hills have faithfully served this family with the hopes – and prayers – of one day seeing them come to faith in Christ.

IMG00361-20091015-0103Another place where God is using Leon powerfully in the special needs community is at a group home for the severely handicapped.  Every Thursday afternoon, Leon visits a group home that is buried among several low income, poor homes and apartments.  He goes in with his bright smile and youthful energy encouraging the workers by helping them and encouraging the young people by playing soccer with them.  Leon knows that his son, Jeffrey, knows a lot more than he is able to communicate and has the ability to know and love Christ.  Because of this, Leon is confident that these handicapped children can know and love the Lord as well, and so he spends time with them weekly, communicating the love of Christ to them and praying for them. Leon is gifted by the Lord to connect with kids and young adults, and as Michelle and I watched him interact with these young people, we became confident that the Lord will use him to make disciples among them.

A Big Role in The Keisen Church Network

As I stated earlier, Michelle and I received several unsolicited rave reviews of Leon and Cheryl’s ministry from people – not just in their church – but also from the ten-church Keisen Church Network.  The people who spoke to us said that the Hills have been an incredibly valuable asset to them personally and to the building of the church network as well.

The Hills arrived in Japan in 1985, just months after their church, Midorino Chapel, was planted.  Shortly after they arrived, Leon connected with a young pastor named Masahiro Okita and offered his services.  Pastor Okita accepted his offer, and Leon has been serving alongside of him ever since, helping to bring people to Christ and discipling them.  Leon also has become a trusted adviser in the Keisen Church Network offering guidance and direction as other churches are planted and established.

The Hills role in their community is invaluable as they are fully engaged in missional living, looking for any and every opportunity to share the love of Christ with their neighbors.  Whether it’s counseling a young married couple, taking food to a sick neighbor, teaching English to children in order to build relationships with the kids’ parents, or filling the pulpit when Pastor Okita is away, the Lord is using the Hills mightily in Japan.

After spending eight days shadowing the Hills as they went about ministering to the people of Japan that God has called them to, Michelle and I are convinced – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that the Hills are right where they are meant – and sent – by God to be.  We wholeheartedly support them in their ministry there and encourage you to do the same by praying for them, supporting them financially, and considering the possibility of one day going to Japan on a short-term trip that – Lord willing – will be sponsored by Foothills Fellowship.

The Japanese “Missional” Church

IMG00166-20091014-0001I sat in awe during the Sunday service as I listened to Pastor Okita of the Midorino Chapel in Japan preach his message to his congregation.  Listening via a translator through headphones, I quickly discovered that Pastor Okita was preaching on the exact same topic and challenging his church in the exact same way I had with my church right before I left!  His message was taken from Acts 13, and he exhorted his small congregation to engage in missional living right where they live.  I could hardly contain myself.  A fellow pastor 6000 miles away, speaking a completely different language, and living in an entirely different culture was giving the same exact message to his congregation that I had just given to mine!  I was blown away.

The Keisen Church Network

100_7020Midorino Chapel is one of the more established churches in a network of churches called the Keisen Church Network.  The network had its humble beginnings 50 years ago when a man named Pastor Chida started a small church in the northern part of Japan.  He had a missional mindset and a vision for church planting.  Some 25 years later, he sent one of his star disciples, Masahiro Okita, south to plant a church in the Tokyo metropolitan area.  Pastor Okita, along with his son, Masatoshi (pictured above), now lead a vibrant congregation consisting mostly of first generation believers, many of who came to faith in Christ through the missional living of church members.

Michelle and I went to Japan just at the right time as the entire Keisen Church Network met for their annual festival and were celebrating 50 years of God’s faithfulness.  Over 300 believers representing the ten churches in the network gathered in the mountains of northern Japan at Pastor Chida’s church for two days of celebration, prayer, encouragement, and vision.

Everything was graciously translated for me and Michelle during the festival, so we were able to celebrate and pray along with them.  I was even invited to speak for a few minutes and was able to share how much my church (Foothills Fellowship) and the churches in the Keisen Church Network had in common the focus of missional living.  I closed my comments praying that God would make the words of Acts 11:21 true for them: And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. Please pray this for them as well as the network desires to  expand in order to bring God’s Kingdom to new Japanese communities.

Japanese Believers

Michelle and I were struck by how much our hearts meshed with the believers we met in such a short period of time.  We discovered that even though we live thousands of miles apart and speak different languages, we have much in common.  Maybe this is due to the fact that they are wrestling with the realities of living missionally in their local culture just like we are.  Maybe it’s due to the fact that they are people just like us struggling to live lives of holiness in a spiritually dark culture.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that the same Holy Spirit that resides in them resides in us!  Whatever the case, our hearts were moved by the brothers and sisters we met there.  Especially dear to us were the times of worship we experienced with them.  Knowing the difficult journey each one has taken to come to the place of surrendering their hearts to the Lord, to see them raising their hands in worship and singing their hearts out to the Lord was moving.

During our stay, two young believers approached me and Michelle to thank us for the ministry we’re doing in the states.  Both of them came to faith in Christ while visiting the states and wanted to let us know how much they appreciate the work of the church in the U.S.  This was so encouraging to us, and reignited my passion to continue to develop the ministry of Foothills Fellowship to the international students that come to Albuquerque each semester.

Highlights of Our Interaction with the Japanese Church

Interacting and worshiping with the Japanese church was such a rich experience for both me and Michelle.  Three highlights stand out in my mind:

1. At the close of the Keisen Church Network Festival, a choir consisting of members from all ten churches sang a powerful rendition of  “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  They sang in Japanese, and Michelle and I sang along with them in English.  It was beautiful, moving, and heaven-like.

100_7189100_70582. Michelle and I were able to meet several of the pastors from the other churches in the network.  In addition to meeting the founding pastor, Pastor Chida (first picture), we were also able to meet some of the younger pastors in the movement as well.  The man in the middle of the second picture is a pastor in the network who has a heart for taking the gospel from Japan to “the ends of the earth.”  He reported at the festival on the trip he and some of his church members took to Nepal.  How cool is it that the young and growing Japanese church is already going global?!

3.  The Hills invited me and Michelle to their home for lunch with Pastor Okita and his wife.  I had met Pastor Okita years ago when Leon brought him to Foothills but had never “talked ministry” with him.  We spent about three hours exploring the concept of our two churches partnering together in the years to come.  Both of us are unsure what this looks like, but it may involve members of Foothills going to Japan for short or mid-term trips and members of Midorino Chapel coming here to assist us with our ministry to international students.  Not sure, but the prospect of partnering is something that excites both of us.  Please pray for God to make clear what he would have us to do.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the incredible ministry the Hills have in Japan, including the ministry God gave them 14 years ago to an unbelieving family that is still having a powerful impact today.

The People of Japan

IMG00442-20091015-2148Japan is a country that is about as big as California.  In California, there are 37 million people, and if you’ve ever been to Southern California, you know how crowded the state can be in spots.  In Japan, there are 127 million people…and 80% of the country is mountainous.  That means that most of the 127 million people are jammed into 20% of the country.  To say that Japan is crowded would be an understatement.

Leon and Cheryl Hill live in the greater Tokyo area where 35 million other people reside, making it the world’s most populous metropolitan area.  They happen to live in an area where there are still some peanut and rice fields scattered around, making it feel a bit more rural than urban.  Nonetheless, where they live is still considered a part of the Tokyo metropolitan area and is connected to the heart of the city by the train line.

Because of the Hills’ many relationships, Michelle and I had a unique opportunity to interact with a variety of people including pastors and missionaries, several church members from the ten churches of the Keisen Church Network, and several non-Christian people.  Only 2% of the Japanese people are born-again Christians, so unchurched, non-Christian people were not hard to find.

Their Religious Beliefs and Practices

IMG00588-20091016-0057Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s two major religions. They have been co-existing for several centuries and have even complemented each other to a certain degree. Most Japanese consider themselves Buddhist, Shintoist or both, but religion does not play a big role in the everyday life of most Japanese people today. The average person typically follows the religious rituals at ceremonies like birth, weddings and funerals, or they may visit a shrine or temple (like the one pictured here from our Tokyo visit) on New Year.  They also may participate occasionally in local festivals that have a religious background to them.

With Shintoism and Buddhism so deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture, it’s not hard to see why so few people have converted to Christianity.  Michelle and I asked one Japanese Christian young lady how she came to faith in Christ.  She said that hearing the gospel message in college (yea Intervarsity!) was the first step, but she told us that she had to first be taught which God the Christians were talking to her about.  For most Japanese people, coming to faith in Christ requires a major transformation in their thinking, and this is one of the reasons why the process to faith in Christ is so slow and so rare.

Their Hospitality and Kindness

It didn’t take long to begin to benefit from the hospitality and kindness of the Japanese.  I’ve flown a lot over the years and never have I been treated as well as I was on the Japanese airline Nippon.  For ten hours, I was showered with endless smiles, service, sustenance, spirits, and shows.  The Japanese flight attendants were incredibly kind and worked tirelessly to make sure that the trip was as enjoyable as possible.  Unlike airlines in the U.S., this airline offered two full meals, desserts, and all the beverages you could drink (alcohol included).  Each seat was equipped with a personal television with over 30 current movies to choose from.  The “flavor” of the flight was just the beginning of the hospitality and kindness we would receive from the Japanese people.

IMG00085-20091012-2021Leon and Cheryl took us to the home of a young man who is confined to a wheel chair.  I’ll tell you more about him in an upcoming post, but he was hit by a truck on his bike 14 years ago.  Twice a day, volunteers come over to his home to assist his parents in several exercises designed to help him regain some of his mental and physical abilities that were lost in the accident.  When we arrived, Michelle and I discovered that the young man’s mother was in bed recovering from surgery.  Unbeknownst to us, she got up from her bed and prepared a traditional Japanese snack for us.  After the exercises were completed, the entire group sat around the table and asked us questions (with the help of Leon and Cheryl’s fine interpretation skills!).  This young man’s parents are not followers of Christ and are in daily need of being served, yet they insisted on warmly serving us.

When we arrived in Los Angeles at the end of our trip, Michelle and I were both shocked by the rudeness of the airport staff as they herded the plane’s passengers through customs.  The treatment we received was nothing like what we all received in Japan (and on the Japanese plane we had just stepped off of).  The Japanese culture of kindness, hospitality, and service impacted me and Michelle deeply.  Hospitality is almost a lost art here in America, and – for sure – the church needs to recover it in order to make a difference in a culture where kindness is not the norm because it just might set us apart and give us a platform for the gospel.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the Christians we met and how the Keisen Church Network is making a real difference in the spiritually dark Japan.

Burger Boy In Sushi Land

MollysI was raised on burgers.  My dad owned a fast food restaurant called Molly’s until I was 18 years-old, and during the school year, I’d go there almost daily for lunch.  Burgers, fries, soda, turnovers, and milkshakes.  These were my five major food groups growing up.  My mom tried to get us kids to eat fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately, I was hooked on fast food.

We rarely went out to eat other than to my dad’s restaurant, so I didn’t grow up trying different kinds of foods.  One time, my dad took us to a Chinese restaurant, and I remember being repulsed and angered by the non-burger menu.  This was the condition I was in when Michelle married me sixteen years ago, and slowly over time, she has exposed me to many different types of food.  My food horizons have broadened greatly over the years, but I am still a recovering burgeraholic. And as you know, once a burgeraholic…always a burgeraholic.

IMG00066-20091010-0258This is the backdrop for my food experience in Japan last week.  After a 13-hour plane ride where the flight attendants gently eased us into Japanese cuisine with endless rice balls and optional chopsticks, we arrived in Japan, and the Hills promptly took us to one of their favorite local restaurants for our first exposure to authentic Japanese food.  Having eaten at the Samurai Japanese Grill here in Albuquerque several times, I was confident of my Japanese food exposure.

However, it was clear early-on in the restaurant experience that I was not really prepared for what lie ahead.

Chopsticks, Seaweed, and Raw Fish

First came the chopsticks with no fork option, and second came Leon ordering what he called “noodles with guts!”  Not sure what that was, but I steered clear of that dish.  To my surprise, I did enjoy the other dishes that the Hills ordered for us.  However, I realized my chopsticks handicap was going to present a problem for me.  Thankfully, raising the bowl or plate to your mouth and slurping is acceptable in Japan.  Without this concession, I believe I would have starved!

IMG00104-20091012-2312IMG00106-20091012-2313

Along with lots and lots of rice, there is a common theme that runs through almost all Japanese food dishes: fish – and most of it is raw.  You walk into the grocery, and the first thing you see is a large fresh (raw) fish section.  You walk into 7-11 for a snack (I saw no Slurpees), and you’re immediately greeted by the smell of raw fish.  Yes, raw fish on sale as a snack at 7-11!  And to top it off, many of the dishes of rice and fish also contain a sizable portion of seaweed.  There are even snack crackers available containing shards of seaweed!  Raw fish and seaweed were the hardest things for me to swallow, and as much as I could, I avoided swallowing those two items.

Soup, Salad, Raw Eggs and Raw Fish – for Breakfast

Within 24-hours of arriving in Japan, we found ourselves on a chartered bus heading north for the Kaisen Church Network annual festival (more on this in an upcoming post).  We arrived at the conference in time for dinner, and we were treated to a traditional bowl of Imoni for dinner.  Imoni is a soup containing beef, potatoes, tofu, and cabbage and is quite tasty.  After the evening session, we retired to a local hotel for what turned out to be a comfortable night of sleep.

Jet lag woke me and Michelle up around 5:30AM the next morning, and we hungrily prepared ourselves for the hotel’s breakfast which began at 6:30AM.  The only thing we were told about the breakfast the night before was that there would be no bread served with it.  Other than that, we had no idea what we were in for.

100_7113Natto_on_riceWe entered the dining area just after it opened, and were met with – you guessed it – the smell of raw fish!  We grabbed our trays and proceeded to walk through the food line.  Once my tray was full, I realized that not only was there no bread, but nothing I had come to love and rely on for breakfast was on my tray either.  My tray included a bowl of rice, a cup of brothy soup with mushrooms, a cabbage salad, another bowl of salad-like substances that I had never seen or tasted before, and a slab of raw fish.  Raw eggs were also available at each table to crack and drain onto the rice, and to top it all off, there were packets of fermented soybeans called “natto” on the table that could be added to the rice for flavor and girth.  No Frosted Flakes.  No Pop-Tarts.  No Donuts.  This was by far the most difficult meal for me on the entire trip.

Burger Boy Meets the Sushi Conveyor

Overall, I really did enjoy the food we ate in Japan.  The Hills made sure we experienced authentic Japanese food while providing us with a nice mix of Western meals as well.  Michelle and I ate well and truly enjoyed our Japanese food adventure.

There was, however, the dreaded sushi meal.  I knew it was coming, and I knew Michelle was really looking forward to it, so I tried as hard as I could to act excited about it when it was announced that Thursday’s lunch would be at a sushi bar.  Praise be to the Lord as His face was shining upon me that day because we began the day with a hearty egg and bacon breakfast at Denny’s!  I made it a point to clean my plate that morning, and I also downed a large order of thick toast as a pre-sushi filler.

IMG00305-20091014-2225IMG00310-20091014-2235The sushi restaurant we ate at was quite fascinating.  Yes, the strong smells of raw fish were pervasive, but to see the way in which the sushi was served was worth enduring the smell…and even the taste.  Conveyor belts ran throughout the restaurant, and a constant flow of sushi, rice bowls, and desserts flowed out from the kitchen.  If there was something that looked good as it rolled by your table, you grabbed it.  If there was something you wanted that you weren’t seeing, you ordered it off of the computer screen on the table, and within minutes, it came to you.  Each plate was embedded with a microchip, and so the screen would flash as your plate approached.

IMG00306-20091014-2226The technology was cool, but what was a burger boy like me to do about all the sushi that rolled by?  What is a recovering burgeraholic to eat at a Japanese sushi bar?

Well, again, the Lord’s face was shining on me that day as around the conveyor belt corner came the perfect dish for one like me: a plate containing two rice balls covered with – yep, you guessed it – hamburger patties!