Church, Mussorgsky, and more new friends – Kumamoto (day 2)

If you’ve ever traveled abroad you know that feeling of weariness that sets in after a few days.  My attitude has always been that I could sleep when I get home.  Who knows when I’ll be back in Japan?  So, I need to see everything. Today it felt like I accomplished a great deal and yet I am (thankfully) back at the room by 8:30 pm (6:30 am on Sunday CST).

I began my Sunday by meeting Kevin Axton in the lobby of the hotel.  If you didn’t read previous entries, Kevin is a Bethany alum and was an RA in Deere Hall when yours truly was a bright-eyed freshman living in the now demolished residence hall.  Kevin is an Associate Professor of English at Kyushu Lutheran College in Kumamoto.  KLC is one of two Lutheran colleges in Japan, the other being Japan Lutheran College which I visited when in Tokyo.  Kevin has been instrumental in setting up communication for me with Matsumoto-sensei, the leader of the cross cultural practicum and with whom I will speak. More on that tomorrow.

Kevin was kind enough to drive me to Goshi (Lutheran) Church in Koshi City, about 30 minutes away from my hotel.  The reason I specifically wanted to worship at Goshi Church is because it is the home church in Japan of Tom Nelson.  I wanted to bring greetings to them from Tom and also wanted to surprise Tom by using technology to allow him to personally visit with the members with whom he grew so close during his many years in Kumamoto.

IMG_7762 Goshi Church is very small but very beautiful, and the people are extremely kind.  To say my large American frame stood out in the church of around 30 worshippers is an understatement.  Tom had written them in advance to let them know I was coming, so a few members approached me using broken english and invited me to sit with them.


I had been warned that it would be different from services in the US, but I found myself able to follow along easily.  It didn’t hurt that a nice local woman who had gone to college in the US helped me.  She told me what scripture was being read and helped me follow along with the liturgy.  When we sang hymns I hummed along since I do not read Japanese.  A young woman played an organ to accompany the singing and she did a fine job.


Now, I knew there may be a possibility that I would be invited to sing a song for the congregation but I had not officially been invited to do this so I hadn’t prepared anything especially.  You can imagine my surprise when the nice lady with english skills said, “the pastor just told them after the service you would play something on the organ.”  If you know me at all you should be laughing after reading that last sentence.  I had to think quickly in order to not be rude so I said I could sing something rather than play.  What was I going to sing?  I didn’t have any accompaniment and I hadn’t prepared anything.  Luckily, I could draw upon my experience singing with Jim Ruble and Tyler Johnson as the “Three Swedish Tenors” for the July 4 celebration in Lindsborg.  I pulled out my iPhone, got on Youtube and found a Karaoke accompaniment for “You Raise Me Up.”  The next thing I knew I was in front of the church holding my iPhone with the pastor holding the microphone up to the phone and for me to sing.  For 5 minutes notice, I would say it went quite well if I do say so myself. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there is no video footage of this 😉

The members of the church had prepared a traditional Japanese lunch for me after the service.



Iced Tea, Sushi-rice, salad, and noodle soup.  And yes, I did use the chopsticks. I have become quite proficient for a Gaijin (Japanese word for foreigner).

Then came the surprise.  I had told Tom to be ready to FaceTime me at around 10 pm Saturday night CST so I sent him a request for a video chat while we were at lunch with all his old friends.  It was great to see their faces (and his) as they chatted from across the world and could see each other.  Even Tom’s mother was able to video chat.  She had met many of them when she visited and when they visited Kansas.  As is Japanese custom, afterwards they were all invited to share their thoughts and so very many of them recalled wonderful memories of Tom teaching them conversational English, or being on a Japanese TV program, or when some of them visited Kansas.  One man wanted me to make sure to tell Tom’s mother he still remembers when he visited Kansas and could not eat American food. Tom’s mother made him noodles and it was a generous act he has remembered to this day.


We ended out time together by singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” they in Japanese and me in English.


Before traveling I had had a number of Dala Horses made by the Hemslojd and painted with names.  These were easy to pack and also were meaningful because of the connection with Lindsborg.  I was also happy that my home congregation of Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church had given me very nice table runners depicting the church and other places in Lindsborg.  I was happy to be able to have time in front of the congregation to give them these gifts, along with a card from the Small World Gallery and a short explanation in Japanese of why a Swedish horse is an appropriate gift from a small town in Kansas.

This is a picture of me with the Pastor of Goshi Church.


After saying sayonara my new friends from Goshi Church, Kevin drove me to the Kumamoto Prefectural Theater where I had a ticket to a special concert featuring one of the hottest young conductors in the world, Kazuki Yamada, a student of Seiji Ozawa and the Chorus Director for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus.


They were premiering a new version of Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition, an arrangement by ITO Yasuhide that included a VERY different instrumentation.  As fate would have it, the person who arranged to have the Messiah Lutheran Church table runners given to me as gifts for my trip was the first person to introduce me to that work.  I highly doubt Marla Elmquist remembers it but when I was in the fourth grade she took our class on a trip to the Sandzen Gallery.  I remember thinking it was just wonderful.  To make it even better, when we returned we spent (what seemed like) the rest of the afternoon drawing and painting while she played Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  I was reminded of that experience from over 30 years ago today when I sat in this beautiful hall and heard the new Yasuhide arrangement.

Also before the concert I was approached by a number of men who introduced themselves to me and knew my name.  They were members of the Kumamoto men’s choir Demeter that Tom Nelson sang with.  They were taking part in the concert and recognized me from Tom’s emails to them which evidently featured videos of me conducting Messiah with the Bethany Oratorio Society! They asked me to meet them after the concert and I agreed.


My seat was smack dab in the middle of about 50 Japanese schoolchildren, so I did what anyone in that position would do. . . I took a selfie!


The first portion of the concert featured a wind ensemble and piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, featuring pianist Benjamin Nuss.  The wind ensemble was comprised totally of high school students, and I cannot emphasize this enough, they were AMAZING.  I may have never heard a wind ensemble of any age level play as well.  I wish I could have recorded it because it was as surprising a performance as I have ever heard.  I found out later that they were a nationally selected ensemble that had been rehearsing all through summer break.

The conductor, Kazuki Yamada, was as entertaining as the musicians, stopping in between each selection to narrate.  He interviewed some of the high school students and was generally a cut-up.  His conducting gestures were somewhat over the top but they were what this specific performance called for.  To begin the second half he introduced a surprise when two young ladies rushed onstage along with a “mascot” named Kumamon, an asiatic black bear who represents the prefecture (state).  It was mayhem, and the audience of more than 1000 all clapped along.  It was very exciting.


Note that the empty seats in front of me were only because they were vacated by choral singers who were performing later in the second half.

Then began the featured performance.  I was lucky enough to procure a score in the lobby before the performance.  Notice the instrumentation:


2 pianos 8 hands, Saxophone Quartet, Mixed Chorus, and Wind Band.  Other than the Wind Band this is Claudio Re’s nightmare 😉

I should mention that there was a marvelous visual presentation (I don’t know what else to call it) projected on the back wall and utilizing the features of the existing structures.  I obviously could not take pictures or video record it but it added another level to the performance.


After the performance I met the guys from Demeter for coffee in the attached cafe.  They were so generous with their time and we had a wonderful conversation.  Their 24 member group is touring to Vienna in January and they were excited to tell me about it.  Of course I invited them to Lindsborg to be part of the Real Men Sing festival some year.  I gave them each small Dala Horses as a thank-you gift.


Funny sidenote:  Sometimes things get lost in translation.  For instance, I was showing them pictures of my family and the guy on the right told me “your wife is sexy!”  I’m pretty sure he meant to say “pretty” or “beautiful” but it was pretty funny hearing him say that.

As we were having coffee, the maestro came into the room for a reception. One of the singers was nice enough to introduce me to him and suggested I give him a copy of my business card (which said in Japanese that I was also a conductor).  I bowed to him and told him “bravo” and gave him my card.  He smiled and said he was also the conductor of a choir.  The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus.  Let’s see, Bethany Oratorio Society and Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus.  Perhaps there is a joint project in our future? This picture doesn’t show his smile but it was a very pleasant meeting.


After coffee I took a taxi to the hotel to relax.  It is now two hours later than I began this blog post and I have had supper and done two loads of laundry.  I am ready to meet with the administration at Kyushu Lutheran College tomorrow.

Rockar Stockar!



4 thoughts on “Church, Mussorgsky, and more new friends – Kumamoto (day 2)”

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  2. I’ll bet number one or two on your list of songs as you racked your brain for something to sing was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And I’m happy to see the incorporation of a mascot into the educational routine as I think you would look really good in a giant Meadowlark outfit. Keep up the good work making these important relationships and enjoy yourself.

  3. I’d like to see you compile all the days’ blogs into a booklet that you could sell to the BOS. I’d like to see you put on even more pictures! You’re doing an incredible job representing Bethany and Lindsborg–and you’re writing about your experiences beautifully. Of course, I was so happy to see the people from Goshi Church again. They’re wonderful people, and now they can count you as one of their friends.

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