Thousands of Christmas lights decorate the Christian conference center that TEAM founded in the mountain resort town of Karuizawa, drawing as many as 28,000 tourists each Christmas season.
People drive, walk, take taxis, and even ride tour buses to Megumi Chalet Karuizawa (MCK) after learning of the lights display from friends, tourist magazines, and even TV. “Megumi” is the Japanese word for “grace” or “blessing,” and this conference center has been a channel of God’s grace and blessing to Japanese, including thousands of non-Christians, each year at Christmas.
Always eager for the trendy and beautiful, many Japanese are drawn to the fantastic illumination display. Visitors enjoy singing along with Christmas carols performed by a choir on an outdoor "singing Christmas tree," a seven-tiered stage that looks like a decorated Christmas tree topped with a cross. They marvel at the lights twinkling in the darkness on the beautiful resort set in the mountains. Some visitors ask, "Where's Santa Claus?" because Santa IS Christmas in Japan. When they realize that there is no sign of him anywhere, they ask why. Then staff and Christian volunteers have the opportunity to explain the true meaning of Christmas.
Hot cider is provided for free, and volunteers make sure each visitor receives a Christmas present consisting of candy packaged with a pamphlet that carefully explains Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. Many displays, including the nativity scenes, the "Jesus Loves Me" sign, and the "Happy Birthday Jesus" sign, are all designed to encourage questions and open doors.
While holiday lights displays have become part of the December landscape in Japan these days, Megumi Chalet blazed the trail back in 1999. The idea started due to the buzz about Y2K and the coming of the year 2000. It seemed the whole world knew it was going to be 2,000 years since the birth of Christ – except the Japanese! Although owned by TEAM, MCK was by then under the management of Word of Life Press Ministries (WLPM), a Japanese publishing and evangelism ministry also started by TEAM that became independent in 2003. The MCK staff and TEAM missionaries were wondering what they could do to help make that connection of Christmas to Christ in people’s minds, and came up with the idea of a Christmas illumination display.
In December 1999, Megumi Chalet flipped the switch, a local TV crew put it on the evening news, and the people started coming. Since then Megumi Chalet passed from TEAM’s ownership to that of WLPM. Over the years, a church in Portland, Oregon, donated the singing Christmas tree; Candle light Christmas services began; and TEAM missionary Tom Sloan designed a computerized light show. Many TEAM missionaries, Japanese Christians, and missionaries from other groups volunteer their time each season to pass out the tracts and witness to the tourists. Even Christians from other countries often come and help.
The peak season saw 28,000 people come to Megumi Chalet. Since starting in 1999, 250,000 tracts have been passed out to the tourists who come to see the lights! "We never imagined it would get this big," said Aileen Selander, one of the TEAM folk involved from the beginning. "It is a blessing to pass out the tracts, chat with people, and share the story of Jesus with so many people."
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger and Tim Selander
-Photography by Tim Selander
-Video by Tim Selander