Monday, July 30, 2012

Tokyo Drifting 3: Fleeing Sumida

The Tokyo tokkyū limited express train is a splurge. Good thing I’m made out of Yen, right?

At last… I present the breathless (for me, anyway) final hours of last month’s quick trip to Tokyo. Will this live up to the melodramatic teaser ending from my previous Tokyo Drifting 2: Senso-ji Temple post? Let’s pretend it will.

A friend from the journey recommended that I seek a peaceful contrast to my previous evening of Tokyo nightlife craziness. Sumida Park fit the bill.

In about four hours, my flight home to Portland would depart from Narita airport. Being mindful of the time, I followed up my tour of Senso-ji Temple with a walk down to the Sumida River. The nature park that stretched alongside the river banks would be a relaxing place to unwind before beginning my train connections to the airport.


A young Japanese gal rode up to me on her bicycle as I gazed at the flowers growing along the footpaths of Sumida Park. She must have assumed I was interested in the bike-friendly aspects of the area. We walked over to the specialized bicycle tire grooves carved into the stairway of a nearby underpass, and she enthusiastically demonstrated for me the ways of a seasoned recreational bicycler.

At some point, it finally dawned on me how long I had been standing there, struggling to understand her. In less than 10 minutes, my train was scheduled to depart from Asakusa Station. The problem: Ever since I left my capsule/hostel that morning, I had been walking AWAY from the direction of the train station.

I abruptly excused myself and began to run as though my life (or at least my job back home at Delta Airlines) depended on it. The beautiful scenery of the park blurred past as I frantically sprinted through it for several minutes. No way would I catch that train.

I leaped down the stairs of Asakusa station, clutching my small backpack and gasping for air. There was still time to catch a number of local trains to my next stop, but I had blown my connections to Narita airport. Painfully resisting my budget backpacker traveling sensibilities, I slapped down the big Yen at the kippu jidō hanbaiki kiosk to purchase a premium express train ticket, direct to Narita Airport.

The tokkyū limited express train [photo at top] sped to Narita Airport in just under an hour, which put me back on schedule.

My friend Kevin, flying home on standby from the Philippines, was waiting at the airport gate when I checked in for the nearly full flight. His boarding priority dwarfed mine. Despite shrewdly (or foolishly) using one of my S-3 low priority seating requests I was assigned one of the last seats in the Business Elite cabin before the flight doors closed, with Kevin and I onboard.

CameraZOOM-20120612145530670_orig_1.jpgAfter nearly 3 days overseas with virtually no sleep, I flew home from Tokyo in Delta's Business Elite cabin. Somehow the traditional Japanese meal course that I ordered on the flight home managed to be even better (Fresher ingredients from Japan? More irradiated?) than the one I ate on the flight over to Tokyo.

With a belly full of French caviar, crab, scallop quenelle, grilled chicken, cod roe, wasabi tofu, and marinated tuna… I slept.

Bonus pic:
DSC_0423.JPGOn Kathy's birthday, Lena plays with the Japanese toy I bought for her in Tokyo’s Nakamise-dori street fair. I hope that Lena will come along with me for my next visit to Asia this year.

Lena can pick out her own souvenir toy next time!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Intermission: Banks Lake, WA Wakeboarding (from the road)

DSC_0807_edited-1.JPG by gkhamilton
DSC_0807_edited-1.JPG, a photo by gkhamilton on Flickr.
Catching a little air with my wakeboard at Banks Lake, WA.

Sorry for the delay, folks. The conclusion to my “Tokyo Drifting” blog miniseries will be posted after one last on-location interruption. I’ll add more pics from Japan on Sunday (or Monday)-- I promise!

From last Tuesday: Another year, another annual family boating/ camping trip to Banks Lake, Washington (link). Spread out over the last six days, this vacation is coming to a close as my mom gives me a ride back to my Jeep in Beaverton.

The Hamilton and Sorensen families have had a roller coaster ride of wild weather this week in Coulee City, but hot sunshine/wind/rain/lightning are all par for the course during any extended weekend in Eastern Washington. My solo ride over to Banks Lake was no less tumultuous:

Portland: A series of unrelated mishaps on the Portland MAX rails delayed me so much that I had to sprint across Chinatown to just barely catch my train to…

Seattle: During my train layover at Zeitgeist Coffee, I received some tragic news regarding the drowning of my friend Shawn's son, Caleb. I was so distraught that, back at the train station, I apparently blocked out the final boarding announcement for my train (it left Seattle 10 minutes ahead of schedule) to Ephrata. Out of options, I schemed with a couple of girls who also missed the train about bumming a car ride with three complete strangers to race the train to…

Everett: By recklessly weaving our way through Seattle’s rush hour traffic, my new friends and I managed to beat the train to Everett by eight minutes and climb onboard. My train car was the wildest, most out of control frat party on rails I’ve seen since our “Sound of Music” tour in Salzburg, Austria.

Ephrata: My brother-in-law Mike graciously picked me up that night and drove me the rest of the way to...

Coulee City:  The fam vacation was already in progress!

Sadly, I had to say goodbye to Kathy, Lena, Mike, and Summer when they left Coulee City on Sunday afternoon. It was also unfortunate that we had to miss our annual visit to the local First Presbyterian Church. One Sunday each year, we’ve always looked forward to mixing it up with the locals and hearing an inspired sermon from local Pastor Clifford Bresee. We’ll catch you guys next year!

Before most of the gang left us on Sunday, our 10 month old Lena had a couple of lifetime firsts:

DSC_0770.JPGLena looked stiff as a board (and oddly disabled, in some of the other shots from that day) when trying on her very first life jacket.

DSC_0745.JPGLena giggled uncontrollably as she played on a swing set for the very first time.

Summer had a few good runs on the wakeboard before heading home with most of the gang...DSC_0778_edited-1.JPG… leaving me the water toys all to myself for the rest of the vacation.  My dad drove the boat, my mom spotted from the back seat, and I played.

I wakeboarded to my heart’s content.

I went old school with the slalom waterski.

I even dusted off the old knee board!

Miles of glassy smooth lake water, solitude, hot temperatures, and the friendly community of Coulee City all add up to make each Banks Lake vacation worth the long, dusty drive.

Let’s do it again next year!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tokyo Drifting 2: Senso-ji Temple

The Grand Kaminarimon Gate to Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple), in Tokyo's Asakusa district

My on-location attempt to upload this BlogSpot post directly from the Hostel Kawase Tokyo and Capsule failed miserably.  Just BEFORE at the 10 A.M. checkout time, I heard the Japanese woman from the front desk stomping up the stairs towards my floor. She all but beat me with her broom when she caught me loitering in the hallway, sucking up their WiFi to post a draft to my blog.
I hastily piled up a small armful of my things and hurried down the stairs with my bag, with the lady in pursuit.  She loudly offered some stern Japanese phrases in my general direction as I apologized my way out the door and onto the street.  I confess, this wasn’t my first run-in with the hostel management.  As a favor to my fab capsule mates before we went out the night before, I was happy to take one (or two) for the team whenever things got out of hand.  That’s what friends are for.  But I’d like to think that my endless supply of easy-going friendliness smoothed things over a bit with this lady.  Or not.
After collecting the remaining sidewalk-strewn clothes back into my bag, I dusted off my pride and ducked into a nearby café for a funky Japanese-curry hybrid brunch.

Before we go any further, a reader commented yesterday about the Tokyo capsule bed that I mentioned in my previous post.  This is how it looked:
CameraZOOM-20120611194854080.jpg My capsule was worn down, but it was much roomier than I expected.  A personal TV, radio, reading light, and full sized locker were all part of the deal. 

Back to our story... There were still a couple of hours to kill before my train left the Asakusa district for my connections to Narita airport.  I jogged up the street and veered into the nearby Senso-ji Temple, considered by many to be the spiritual center of Tokyo.

The main hall of Senso-ji Temple itself, near the Shinto Asakusajinja Shrine that contains the Shaden structure, is the centerpiece.  

Other sites also dot the temple grounds:
The Grand Kaminarimon Gate [see photo at the top of this blog post], with its huge paper lantern honoring their god of thunder, is definitely the most impressive of the entrances to the temple complex.

The Nakamise-dori street fair stretches from the Kaminarimon Gate to the Hozomon Gate, with around 90 stores dating from the Edo era.  Those gifts and souvenirs I brought home to the U.S.A. for family and friends?  I grabbed them all here.

Further in, a shrine was erected on Senso-ji Temple grounds for Kume Heinai Do, a Samurai from the Edo period.

The Five-Storied Pagoda stands next to the main hall of Senso-ji Temple.

Video:  Poke the “Play” button above with an incense stick to brave this shaky cell phone video that I shot in front of the main hall.

Buddhists at Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple gather around the incense burner to breathe in and wave smoke over themselves as part of a purification ritual, for good luck.

And finally…
CameraZOOM-20120612114729394_orig_1.jpg  Inside the Senso-ji Temple, Buddhists bow down and worship near the inner sanctuary.

I found it interesting that a predominately Shinto and Buddhist nation such as Japan would have 84% of respondents claim “no personal religion” in response to a census questionnaire.  Over half reportedly don’t even believe in God, or in Buddha.
If those numbers are accurate, why would so many people bother to make the journey to worship at a temple like this?  During my visit, the only answer I heard was “good luck.”  A good Buddhist friend of mine in the U.S.A. simply told me, “tradition.”
Religious traditions aren’t necessarily bad.  But if we’re talking about sincere spirituality, does it matter to whom or what we pray to and worship?  As a Christian, I believe it does.  I’m not preaching here, or making self-superiority claims… just keeping the dialog open.  I’m only asking questions.

Coming up on BlogSpot, whenever I reach the next reliable WiFI signal (or when I get a spare second-- I’m kinda rural at the moment)… the action heats up again as I seek a brief time of peace and quiet in Tokyo’s beautiful Sumida Park. 
It did not end so peacefully for me.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Intermission: IYC Denver (from the road)

We’re all in Denver through this weekend, but check back here next weekend for the conclusion of my Tokyo travelogue.  I’ll throw in some pics from the touristy part of my quick visit to Japan.

We made it!  Since Monday, a small group from our E.P.I.C. student ministry has been breathing mile-high air here in Denver, Colorado.  International Youth Convention 2012 officially kicked off last night, but we flew in a couple days early for a little fun.

A wet and wild day at Elitch Gardens water/theme park got our adrenaline pumping on Tuesday.  Aggressive water slides like the mind-scrambling Tube Top and the various speed slides kept us cool for most of the day.

That evening, our bravery was tested on the rickety wooden roller coaster Twister 2 (seen in the background of the photo above, which, if you look closely, features me and Will hanging on for dear life in the 6th car)… and especially on the up-down-forward-backward-upside down-sideways G-forces of the notorious Boomerang.  I lost all feeling in my face.  Is it possible for internal organs to liquefy?

The opening session of International Youth Convention was last night.  Thousands of teenagers sang along with Matt Papa’s passionate worship set, followed by a message from skater/boarder/surfer Zane Black. My conversation with Zane after the late night Group 1 Crew concert convinced me that he is a man of authentic faith who has truly been called to speak into the lives of teenagers.
Zane’s message led into an intimate time of reflection, response, and sharing with our students outside of the auditorium last night.

This morning, our students selected various breakout sessions to attend while the adult leaders were encouraged by energetic former Denver Bronco defensive back Steve Fitzhugh at the Youth Ministry Institute conference.  The IYC High School Band led an unbelievably gifted time of worship before the session!

In a few minutes, we’ll be leaving the convention center for our Impact: Denver service project.  Partnering with some other youth groups from across the U.S.A., we’ll be restoring and beautifying an inner city playground and public park.  It’s time to do some good!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tokyo Drifting, Part 1

The 2,080 foot high Tokyo Skytree in Sumida, Japan’s tallest tower and the 2nd tallest structure in the world, was just opened to the public in May. The Azuma bridge stretches across the Sumida river in the foreground.

From last month’s Tokyo travelogue:

The late night scene is frenetically colorful here in Tokyo, even on a weeknight. I was out WAY too long last night, but no regrets! I’m finishing up this blog entry from the hallway outside my capsule bed in the Hostel Kawase Tokyo and Capsule. Checkout is any time now, so I’ll be brief. Check back soon for the pics that I’ll upload from the U.S. when I fly home [Photos added 7/3/12].

Here’s how it all began:

Anyone quick enough to catch my earlier “Sumo Pipe Dream” blog post (on another platform, before I took it down) knows about my trashed plans to catch the Sumo wrestling championships here in Tokyo a couple weeks back. Basically, I left church on that Sunday morning too late to catch my flight from Portland to Tokyo.

This time around, I took matters into my own hands. Immediately before I flew out yesterday morning, I worked late at Delta and then stayed awake until sunrise to preach at Aloha Church of God for Pastor Tim (on Sabbatical for the month of June). Since I planned the worship service, missing another flight due to a church service that ran into overtime… would’ve left me with no one to blame but myself. Clever, eh?

The nine hour flight to Tokyo in Delta’s Business Elite cabin would have been the perfect opportunity to make up for more than a week’s worth of extreme sleep deprivation… if only the food, service, and comfort weren’t so extravagant!

CameraZOOM-20120611013308484.jpg I landed in Japan at Tokyo’s Narita airport/train station with nothing but a small backpack and my 7” Samsung Galaxy Tab containing a few Tokyo club listings that I had downloaded before my plane departed from Portland.

CameraZOOM-20120611190651871_orig_1_Greg_Vignette.jpgFor the entirety of the 70 minute Keisei train ride from Narita to Tokyo, my face was buried in a couple of city maps that I had snagged at the airport. I’ve visited Tokyo a few times before, but this was the first time that I had made even the slightest effort to find my way around without asking for directions.

My plan of attack for the visit was mostly developed before I even made my first connection in Aoto, off of the Keisei Main Line. I ultimately hopped off the Oshiage Line at the Asakusa district…CameraZOOM-20120611191913941.jpg ...and checked in at the Hostel Kawase Tokyo and Capsule with a Fistful of Yen-- if you didn’t get that reference, then you are a much better person that I am.

Would I find any unsuspecting souls to join me on my quest for the best live music and dancing in Tokyo? Not yet. It was early evening, and my hostel was still a ghost town.

Stalling, I killed an hour or two roaming the streets of Asakusa.CameraZOOM-20120611212317580_edited-1.jpgCameraZOOM-20120611191312589.jpgMy first act was to get booted out of a poorly visible, deep underground restaurant [Photo removed] that I discovered off the main strip. Apparently, they only cater to the menacing looking, well dressed Yakuza gangster crowd. 

I kid. Please refrain from marking me for death.

The more mainstream Japanese diner Watami accepted me with open arms and served up a steaming dish of extra spicy goodness, by request. The only thing missing from the menu, or from most of the neighborhood for that matter, was a single word of English.

Back at the hostel, I ran into a couple of college guys from SoCal (whom shall remain faceless and nameless, for the sake of their relationships back in the States- I feel so dirty now). I convinced them that heading out beats hanging out. They were less enthusiastic about the Japanese reggae/funk band that I planned to see, so we compromised and started talking non-live venues. I whipped out my nightlife breakdown from the train ride into Tokyo, and we narrowed our options down to a few of the most popular clubs.

The nightlife dense Shibuya district was a straight shot from a nearby train station. The unmarked, well hidden club would have been nearly impossible to find without my directions and my friends’ GPS iDevice thingy. The floor was packed solid, though, with a diverse crowd bouncing along to beats from an allegedly internationally famous DJ with an unpronounceable stage name.

Much later, we all parted ways (with different, ahem, opinions about an appropriate ending to a non-single guy’s night out in Tokyo) way too late for me to catch the last train back to Asakusa. As usual, I improvised.

I have yet to see either of those guys return to their capsule beds this morning.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

E.P.I.C. Student Ministry Update- July 2012

DSC_0050_edited-1.JPG by gkhamilton
DSC_0050_edited-1.JPG, a photo by gkhamilton on Flickr.
From Violetta Guthier’s camera: Brandon graduates from Beaverton’s School of Science and Tech!

International Youth Convention in Denver is right on top of us! Our Aloha Church of God students are excited for the upcoming IYC trip, and we’re thankful for the success that God has blessed us with through our fundraising efforts:
DSC_0189_edited-1.JPG   Our church and neighborhood families turned out in full force as we partnered with Aloha Christian Preschool for our spaghetti dinner night.

CameraZOOM-20120528114319675.jpgMost recently, our students helped welcome and direct visitors at Skyline Memorial Gardens throughout the three day Memorial Day Weekend. We also helped clean up the grounds by picking up flowers, etc. the following Saturday.
CameraZOOM-20120528125833850_edited-1.jpgDuring breakfast on Day 3, Will paid Lena a visit with “Porque Pig.”  Bueno!

Earlier this spring, our middle and high schoolers had an opportunity to showcase their hospitality and relational skills with families and young children during our Easter Eggstravaganza community outreach event.

Our students’ involvement in each of these events were all great examples of the unique talents that we regularly see on display in our church, bringing to mind the spiritual gifts that Garth preached about in “Big Church” while Pastor Tim was away on Sabbatical this month.

Garth’s “We Are the Body” sermon series, based on 1 Corinthians 12, highlighted how each member of our church family (including those of you who haven’t even visited yet!) plays a valuable role in the body of Christ. Our diversity makes us stronger. Our passion for Christ gives us unity. And our unique spiritual gifting enables us to boldly serve others in love.

Last, and most definitely not least… we want to send out a larger than life congrats to our graduating high school seniors!  DSC_0054.JPGDSC_0194_edited-1.JPG Several young people from the Class of 2012 have been involved in our E.P.I.C. student ministry throughout the years, but we especially want to honor graduates Brandon England from SST and Derek Gade from Aloha High School. Our church family has watched these two young men grow physically (now they’re both taller than Kathy and I!) and spiritually. We are grateful for their deep involvement and commitment to our student ministry over the years.

CameraZOOM-20120609112701055.jpg To all of our graduating seniors, we scream at the top of our lungs: