When Your Mission Field is a Tourist Destination

Granted, it’s not Hawaii.

But with an estimated 12.5 million overseas visitors in 2017, Tokyo ranked #6 most visited city in the world.

Just this month, I got emails from over 30 visitors coming this year. 3-0!

Half are short-term missionaries, the other half tourists. Not a surprise, as Japan is both the second largest unreached people group, as well as…really, really cool.

I remember my first trip to Japan in 2003 as a college student on a short-term missions (STM) trip. My first glimpse in a 7-Eleven was a vision of future glory – something American convenience stores will never achieve on this side of eternity. My first bite of okonomiyaki exposed the lie that the teriyaki chicken I had eaten for 20 years in America was “Japanese” food. My first step on a Japanese train awakened me to a concept I had only heard distant rumors of in LA: efficient public transportation.

Life has never been the same.

Now as a resident of the Land of the Rising Sun for six years, people ask me for advice as they plan their trips. Should I fly into Narita or Haneda? What omiyage do people in Japan like? Where is good for ramen and tonkatsu? Is Jiro sushi really worth 30,000 yen ($300)? Is life really like Terrace House?

Great questions, each worthy of a blog post (see below for brief answers). But with guests passing through faster than a speeding bullet (train), I rarely get to share my traveling tips.

So I thought I’d share just one – one sushi-sized bit of advice for all journeying to Japan, tourist and STMer alike:

Learn to look. 

Yes, when dodging a thousand pedestrians at the Shibuya Crossing. But not only then.

On the train, notice the suited up “salaryman” sleeping on his 10pm commute home, smartphone still in hand.

At the station ticket gate, see how friends and co-workers wave goodbye or bow to each other not just once, but multiple times until out of sight.

While drinking coffee at a Starbucks, marvel at how no one around you ordered a venti (minus the other tourists).

Absolutely fascinating.

Take the above salaryman for example. Why is he just leaving work now? How far is he commuting, that he has enough time to fall asleep? And how can he sleep with his phone out for the taking?

Take a few more seconds to look deeper. What would it be like to be married to someone who comes home every night at 11pm? What would it be like to be his son or daughter? What could drive him to live like this?

Walk down that trail of questions and you’ll journey far deeper into the soul of this country than any tour route on TripAdvisor.

Most tourists however sprint through this country like they do a theme park. Whoever hits the most number of attractions and scarfs down the most “must-eats” wins. We don’t see the sleeping salaryman. Heck, we don’t even realize we woke the poor guy up with our loud American voices.

And after huffing and puffing back to the airport, we smile at our passport stamp with a sense of accomplishment. Veni, vidi, vici.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I realized how little I truly understood its beauty and brokenness. After six years, I still have so much to learn. Too much vici, too little vidi.

Don’t get me wrong. I love playing tourist. (Especially the must-eats.) But we know touring a country and truly understanding a country are as different as forks and chopsticks. And in a culture known for its subtle gestures, flavors, and aesthetics, your trip will be so much richer by just taking a few seconds to look.

And if that’s true for tourists, it’s especially true for STMers.

I know there are as many opinions about STMs as there are people on a Tokyo rush hour train. But allow me to squeeze one more in (you can always fit in one more).

Our mentality for STMs can be like that of a military operation: get in, strike the target, get out. Victory.

I’m all for STMs. Without my first STM in 2003 I wouldn’t be in Japan now. But as missionaries, the most common mistake we make is assuming we know what the country needs without first taking the time to look. We accomplish the strike, but hit the wrong target.

Before we can be Christ’s hands and feet, we must first ask for His eyes. Or as one author puts it, the movement of love begins with looking. [1]

One of the best ways we can “look” is by asking questions. Ask your ministry partners on the field, “How can we serve you? What needs do you have? What can we do to not be a burden? How can we better understand your world? What are your struggles? Do you get tired of hosting us?” (Umm…ask that last question before arriving. And ask it three times if you want their honest answer.)

Perhaps they’ll say exactly what you were expecting. But don’t assume so. You might be surprised. I’ve seen requests for teams of 20+ people from Korea to simply spend a week praying here. Others have asked for a few people to come and just observe and understand their lives, their struggles. Or to put it another way, to learn to look.

“That’s great, but is that really worth the cost of roundtrip airfare and housing? Two weeks of precious vacation days just to observe or pray? What are we going to actually do?”

If the Son of God saw it fit to spend 30 years living amongst us before entering His ministry, can we not spend two weeks doing the same? Or are we more culturally aware, more efficient than Jesus?

I’m thankful the Messiah was willing to take the “inefficient” path of coming as a baby. I’m glad He was willing to “waste time” shoulder to shoulder with us as a carpenter (we’d demote Him “layperson” in our modern lingo). I’m humbled that He took the time to look at Mary weeping by Lazarus’ tomb, and weep alongside her (John 11:33).

And most of all, I’m grateful He promises to be with blind missionaries like myself “always, to the end of the age” so that we might indeed see. (Matt. 28:20)



Answers to above questions:

Should I fly into Narita or Haneda? Haneda is closer to the city center and more convenient, but Narita is closer to Tokyo Disney Resort if you plan to go there on the front or back end of your stay.

What omiyage do people in Japan like? Anything from Trader Joe’s will usually do the trick. Put it in an ecobag for even more points.

Where is good for ramen and tonkatsu? There are better places if you’re willing to wait, but Ippudo for ramen and Wako for tonkatsu does the trick for us.

Is Jiro sushi really worth 30,000 yen ($300)? Let’s find out on your next trip. Your treat.

Is life really like Terrace House? If by that you’re asking are five of every six people here a model, singer, surfer, actor, or professional athlete, well then the answer of course is, yes. [*door closes*]

[1] Paul E. Miller, The Love Course: A Theology of Love for Deeper Discipleship, Part 1 Entering the Compassion of Jesus (Telford: seeJesus Press, 2011), 22.

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  • Daryl Chan says:

    Your letters are always witty and observant. And fun to read! Yes Hilda and I have been both tourists and ex-pats and we know exactly what you mean.
    Take care good friend and hugs to both you and Chi.

    Love you!

  • Miyako says:

    Hi Ian
    I enjoy hearing about Japan from your eyes. Sounds spot on!

  • Katie says:

    Appreciate your words of wisdom and challenge for us to stop and look.

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