The Longest Day

Monday was probably the longest day of my life, literally and figuratively. It lasted I think 38 hours (literally) and involved four flights with two babies across the world’s largest ocean (figuratively).

Leaving Japan, for now. Mata ne.

But we are home and there’s no place like it. We left Okinawa at 11 am and were back in Lawrence by midnight. The boys were troopers; Pete ate and slept and Chip didn’t break down until the flight from LA to Dallas, and I let him. He deserved it, and only spent about a half-hour sobbing on the floor (despite the fasten-seatbelt-light being on). People were remarkably tolerant, and for that I am very thankful. The China Airlines (just one of the fine carriers we flew) stewardesses lined up to take pictures with him and slipped him an extra roll and apple juice at breakfast. Our transpacific flight flew into LA, which I’ve never done before. It fulfilled my expectations of looking like the opening credits of “The Hills,” and we even flew past the Hollywood sign. The air was clear and bright and it was a random and sunny welcome back home.

Chip enjoys his last few moments of being a novelty.

Now I’m here I don’t know what to do with myself. There’s a mountain of navy paperwork to keep me busy, of course (today I had the novel experience of registering as an “evacuee” with the US government), but anything else has proved to be a challenge. It is so wonderful to be with my family and so strange to think about the way I left my life. I don’t even think I took the trash out as I left my house… I am so happy to be home and relatively free from worry, but I feel a little bit like I ran away. The Japanese can’t leave, after all. And I have no idea what the future holds. I want to go back to my little Hayama life, have everything just like it was, and say good-bye properly this summer as planned. And I would love to see my husband sometime in the near future. But things have changed and I don’t know if I can drag two little boys back across that ocean. I am, as they say, at sea.

It’s not like I have to decide tomorrow, I guess. The past few weeks have been so full of big decisions that I feel like I have to make another one soon. I should just stop and enjoy what’s left of March in Kansas, and be so thankful I have a home to which to go. And be thankful that that home is probably the least likely in the world to get a tsunami.


1 year

Today is my one-year anniversary in Japan. Needless to say, if you told me that this is what it would be like I never would have believed you. Never could I have conjured up such a situation, and I think if someone had suggested it as a plot for one of the worst apocalyptic movies ever I would have said, “Not believable.”

So we three are safe and sound in Okinawa. On Tuesday Rob, who thankfully is back in touch, e-mailed me very calmly and said it might be a good idea to go there. It’s far south, there are bases at which I can stay, and there is an American consulate who might be able to help with Pete’s passport (never did I think I would have an “anchor baby,” either!) since the Tokyo embassy is, understandably, overwhelmed. We got a flight and I was packing our bags when another earthquake hit Tuesday night–6.0 near Mt. Fuji, which is near us, and therefore resulted in some very noticeable shaking. Not waiting for the tsunami sirens this time (they ended up not sounding…) I bundled the boys up at 11:00 at night and took them over to my friend Lauren’s (who lives safely on the 9th floor on base) house. We caught the train to Haneda airport the next morning. It was crowded and quiet as usual; one would have never known anything was amiss. When Chip started fussing a businessman reached into his pocket and handed him grape candies. For the thousandth time in only a few days, I almost cried.

The boys were troopers and we made it to Okinawa, where out of the clear blue sky materialized a guardian angel/fairy godmother, albeit in a marine uniform. A friend of a friend of the Wattses is stationed here (until Sunday) and has been a godsend. He took us to get groceries and cash and has helped with getting Pete his passport. It’s the kind of generosity I can never repay, and for which I will be eternally grateful. His name is Pete (of course!) and he will live in family lore for a long time. He’s also a fellow Wahoo, so Wahoo-wah.

You might have seen on the news that they have begun the evacuations from all the Tokyo-area bases, including Yokosuka. I think I am going to try to get us out of Okinawa. We are staying on an air force base, so hopefully I can get a “Space A” flight out.

We are still very fine. Pete eats and sleeps, Chip continues to adapt like the good Navy baby he is, and we are so so so so fortunate to be in the circumstances in which we are. My heart breaks for all of the Japanese. If anyone can overcome this, though, they can.

Please keep Rob in your thoughts. He reassures me all is well at sea, and I trust him.

I just wanted to say that though I might not have been directly in touch with you lately, your e-mails, facebook posts, and comments on these posts have meant the world to me. I never dreamed I had such support, and it is what is getting me through all of this. I love you all.

We’ll keep you posted.

12 Days

March 2, 2011. At 10:19 pm, Peter Shields Watts came into the world. Rob was able to get home for the event, and we are beyond thrilled with our new little boy. Chip has been surprisingly tolerant. Pete looks a little like Chip did, but he is already his own little person and again I am amazed at the experience of creating a new life. While I was pregnant with him I wondered if the second time around would be as thrilling and meaningful as the first, and if I could possibly love another child the way I love my first. I found out the instant he was born that: it is, it is, and I can.


March 3-10, 2011. A blissful week chez Watts. Betsy, my sister-in-law, came the 4th to help with the baby and keep me company. Making up for his Christmas absence, Rob hung around for his sister this time and enjoyed the rare treat of actually getting to take some paternity leave. Chip had undivided attention from all the people in and out of the house (and a wagonload of new toys motivated by parental guild and friends’ enthusiasm), we ate wonderfully at the hands of Betsy and friends, and Pete did his best to earn the “Loveliest Baby Ever” award by sleeping peacefully and sucking his hands politely every three hours to let me know that he’d like to be fed, please. Just to prove he can, Pete cries whenever his diaper is changed, but only until he is decent again. (I know I’m jinxing myself by writing all this, and that there is plenty of time for the colic to set it, but I feel I owe it to Pete to write a truthful account of his first days.) We had nice weather and lovely walks in which Chip showed Pete our routes through Hayama, and the plum blossoms and  rhododendron bloomed. We celebrated Betsy’s birthday, eight days after Pete’s, all together. Kansas claimed another Big 12 championship. It was bittersweet to be away from everyone at a time like this. A new baby should meet all the people who love him as soon as possible, but our little family had such a wonderful time together in that early spring week in our little town on the Japanese coast.

March 11, 2011. After a nice morning together, Rob thought that it might be a good idea to show his face on the ship again and take care of some business on base, so off he went for a quick afternoon trip. As Pete and I nestled in for an afternoon nap and Chip snoozed in his crib, Aunt Betsy went for a run down the coast. “Nap time is a good time for the first-time-alone-with-two-children moment,” I thought, as I drifted off to sleep. And, as I often do when lying down in Japan, “I think I feel a tremor.”

I dozed for a bit until Pete reminded me gently that he would like to be fed, and while I was changing his diaper afterward, at 2:46 p.m., it hit. Out of nowhere the house shook like it never has before. I grabbed Pete and ran for a doorway and watched, nauseated, as every horizontal surface in my house heaved laterally. The sound of the earthquake was that of glass shattering in the kitchen and open doors banging in their frames. A houseplant fell and books tumbled to the floor. “Chip,” I thought, “how do I get Chip?” The floor just kept on moving, and every second stretched out interminably. I kept waiting for the motion to stop to get Chip. I think at one point I even said out loud, “Please, stop.” Finally, finally, it did. I dashed upstairs with Pete and found Chip still fast asleep in his crib which, thankfully, was not under a bookcase/heavy picture/china cabinet/mounted moose head.

I thought that was it. I went downstairs to sweep up the glass, tidy the books, and wait for Betsy to run in the door with news of the outside world. Then I noticed the power was off. Then I noticed my cell phone wasn’t working. I knew that I was supposed to do something with the gas valve but couldn’t remember what. I was shaking.

Betsy burst in the door about 20 long minutes later with a confused look. While running she didn’t feel the quake, but noticed that things were awry on the run home as people milled outside, stores closed, and traffic lights went out. Laughing, I told her she missed all the excitement. No sooner were the words  out of my mouth than an aftershock hit. Betsy heroically ran up the stairs for Chip and we all got under the table. Chip was bewildered, but brightened considerably when we started to sing “Old MacDonald.” We got out, and then back under as another aftershock hit. It was dawning on me that this was something big when the sirens went off outside.

My Japanese neighbor Yoshi translated for me–tsunami warning. All those living in flimsy houses across the street from beaches were advised to get out as quickly as possible. Yoshi loaded all of us and her two little girls into her van and drove us to her friends’ house up the hill. I had met Miyo, Riki, and their 2-year-old son Roi before, but they their welcome was still surprisingly warm for the clueless Americans with a toddler and a newborn. I sat in their living room and tried to call Rob and corral Chip, who was thrilled with the new toys, new friends, and the discovery that a cat could live indoors.

Day darkened into night. The sirens were still going off, and I still hadn’t heard from Rob. Finally around 5:30 he got through, saying he was on his way home. The usual fast toll road was closed and he was in a total jam on the local roads. He made it to Hayama by about 7:00. Our hosts made us Campbell’s clam chowder and we drank Kirin beer and the wine that Rob has the presence of mind to stop at home and save. Yoshi’s husband Dimitry, who worked in Tokyo, showed up after riding a scooter 3 hours to Hayama in the cold night.

The rest is a blur. The night wore on with no tsunami all-clear, and terrifying information started filtering in from Japanese friends and relatives as cell-phone service resumed. A 30-foot wave north of Tokyo. 8.8 magnitude.  A 6-foot wave washed up on our Morito Beach. The sea was heaving out in Hayama–no, wait, it wasn’t…

All five of us hunkered down on the futon to spend the night. Our Japanese hosts, who probably had no idea when they woke up that morning that they would be housing five American refugees overnight, could not have been more gracious. Blankets and reassurances were handed out generously, and the family cat even snuggled up with Betsy to sleep. “Funny,” our host remarked, “he doesn’t usually like visitors…”

Lying in the dark, with all of us (and the cat) together in a bed I had my first chance to reflect. Except for a brief comment, of which I am not proud, to Rob (something about “Whose idea was it to come to Japan?!”) what I felt was overwhelming gratitude that we were all together, safe, welcomed by a lovely Japanese family, and that the boys are too young to remember this.

March 12, 2011. The next morning we were all up before six and decided to just go home. We folded our blankets, patted the cat, and headed back to the beach to call all our family. They were relieved, of course, and Rob and Betsy’s parents passed on the news that Betsy’s 19-year-old cat had died the day before.

The power was back on, and brought with it the flood of frightening news and terrible images. It became very clear that this was nowhere near finished. A third terror, that of nuclear meltdown, materialized.

Rob got called back to the ship around noon. As sad as I was to be left at a time like this, I am still so glad that perhaps he can do something for the people of Japan. His ship and others headed north to do relief work and I hope that some good comes of it. I cried for the first time driving home from dropping him off at the ship. Partly because I miss him, and partly because this cheesy old Kenny Loggins song that my folks love inexplicably came on the Japanese radio–you know the one about “Pisces, Virgo rising is a very good sign, strong and kind,
And the little boy is mine./Now I see a family where there once was none, now we’ve just begun…And everything’s gonna be alright.”

March 13, 2011. The sun shone on Hayama, one could buy milk and bread, and most reassuringly, the Starbucks was open. I tried not to read the news about nuclear meltdowns, we kept moving to avoid feeling the aftershocks, Chip and Pete did beautifully, and our friend Lauren joined us for a feast of a dinner of several days’ worth of Betsy’s leftovers. I felt guilty having a relatively good day knowing how badly it was going for so many in Japan. I heard nothing from Rob.

March 14, 2011. As scheduled, Betsy went home today. I had to let her go, though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I feel horrible for dragging her out here to experience the worst natural disaster in Japan’s history, but I am inexpressibly glad that she was here. As soon as we got home from dropping her off for her bus to the airport, another aftershock hit. As the bookshelf quavered, I watched with sadness and pride as Chip headed under the table. To encourage such safe behavior, I joined him for a while, even though the shaking lasted only seconds this time.

Rob’s communication is down, but a friend on another ship let me know he’s fine.

Rolling power blackouts are supposed to start today. I will happily take them, especially if that is the only result for us of the awful situation at the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

We three are okay. We love you all and miss you so much. So far this has shown me so many important things: how lucky I am to have my family here and at home safe and sound, how lucky we are that maybe Rob can help out, how wonderful the Japanese are in times of crisis, how welcoming they are under any circumstances, and–to end on one of the greatest clichés in the English language–how utterly precious every single day is. (Please give my swiss-cheese brain a break–I just had a baby…)

No, that’s SAI-pan, not JA-pan

If you had asked me two weeks ago where Saipan was, much less to whom it belongs, I would have looked at you blankly. Now I can answer that the island of Saipan is: a 3-hour plane ride due south of Tokyo, and it belongs to us. Who knew?

Tank Beach, Saipan

The only reason I now know this is because we went there last week! Rob got some of his Christmas leave paid back and our priorities were to go somewhere 1.) warm, 2.) not a really long flight away (had enough of those) but definitely out range of the ship being able to call us. Saipan fit the bill. What’s more, it’s America! Being our nation’s easternmost territory (part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) Saipan’s cheery slogan is: “Where America’s Day Begins.” It’s also the first place America’s day ends, so think about that.

Chip storms the beach.

It doesn’t seem that belonging to our (non-)empire has done Saipan many favors. The drives we took around the little island (12 miles long by 5 miles wide) left the impression of hard times in paradise. The main north-south road is flanked with closed sweatshops, shuttered resorts, Chinese restaurants, and cinder-block markets with large signs reading “We take food stamps!” Not so cheery. I guess Saipan had some special immigration status in the 80s and 90s that allowed big clothing manufacturers to open sweatshops there with underpaid Asian migrant laborers and label their clothes “Made in the U.S.A.” The sweatshops, and the ill-gotten wealth that went with them have all vanished, but nothing much has seemed to replace them.

Two things that Saipan has in spades, however: beautiful weather and historic sites! Apparently Saipan holds the world record for most consistent climate, and every day we were there was a beautiful sunny 85-86 degrees with just a couple of charming tropical showers drifting through to make everything smell lush and green.

Yet another gorgeous tropical sunset.

The whole place was a cultural resources petting zoo, although of a somewhat tragic nature. Saipan has native populations, and since the 17th century has been alternately claimed by Spain, Germany, Japan, and now us (my next bet is China). We’ve held the island since we took it forcibly from the Japanese, with lots of casualties on both sides, in June and July of 1944. Anyway, there are Sherman tanks moored in the coral reefs offshore! Pillboxes on beaches! Japanese tanks still broken down on the side of the road! Bunkers everywhere!

Chip approaches the bunker, looking for any remaining Imperial army holdouts.

In the foreground, Sherman tank moored in the reef. Rob snorkeled out to it. In the rear, a U.S. Navy ship.


The American Memorial Park, a U.S. National Park, had an excellent exhibit on Saipan’s history. It was so wonderful to be back in a National Park Service site. Love you, N.P.S.

American Memorial National Park, Saipan. And frangipani.

By far the saddest historical sites were two sets of cliffs on the north side of the island called the Banzai Cliffs and the Suicide Cliffs. With such evocative names, you can probably guess what happened there. Rather than be captured by the Americans when they took over in July of 1944, over 22,000 Japanese civilians who had lived on Saipan threw themselves off of those cliffs. (How had I been a history major without ever hearing of this?) The N.P.S. had some good information on the site, including gut-wrenching firsthand accounts from some of the American marines and soldiers who had watched the proceedings helplessly. Standing on those empty, quiet, windy cliffs was as moving to me as standing at ground zero in Hiroshima had been.

Banzai Cliffs

Suicide Cliffs

Anyway, we stayed at a nice place called the Pacific Islands Club which had like a million things that you felt compelled to do all day during your relaxing vacation. Kayak! Sail! Surf! Eat! Wind surf! Rock climb! Eat! Swim! Tennis! Ping Pong! Eat! Badminton! Snorkel! Get massaged! Nightly shows! About the only thing I availed myself of was snorkeling and the Lazy River, but Rob did some extreme water-sliding with a lot of 9-year-old Korean kids on their New Year’s holiday break.

Although we were ostensibly in an American beach resort, I think that I saw only one other American family there. Everyone else was Japanese (what must they think about visiting there?), Korean, or Russian. (I could tell the Koreans from the Japanese because they had more stylish glasses and they weren’t so in to Chip. The Russians were completely indifferent to him.) Cultural differences were most obvious at the breakfast buffet which was strictly segregated by geographic region and saw little cultural exchange, although a couple of Japanese or Koreans would stray into Western territory for the occasional cinnamon roll. I was less diplomatic; I’m all for Asian food but was not about to squander my precious American breakfasts on fish and udon noodles.

The Pacific Island Club's fun complex. Site of Rob's water-sliding triumphs.

It was so nice to get away and be warm for an entire week, albeit on one of the most peculiar little outposts I could imagine.

Chip reminds us that sun protection is especially important the tropics. Always wear a hat...

...and eye protection.


Kawaii (which means “cute!” and is pronounced just like Hawaii with a ‘K’) was the first Japanese word I learned because Japanese women coo it every time I take Chip out of the house. He might think it’s his name by now. Hopefully we will be back home and he will just be a regular kid again before his head gets too big.

Anyway, I have been weeding through pictures that Rob has taken recently and found that he has well documented the phenomenon of Japanese ladies loving Chip. I thought some of these pictures were funny.

In Yokohama

In Kyoto

In Tokyo (more precisely, in the Tokyo Krispy Kreme--good find, Rob)

At the Hayama Starbucks

I often wonder what my life in Japan would be like without Chip (or any other non-Japanese child). I think 100% fewer people in this very reserved place would approach me, so in that sense it’s been really nice to have him around.

And turnabout is fair play. Emboldened by their unabashed attention, I have started uttering, “Kawaii!” when I see little Japanese babies, especially the ones that look like miniature sumo wrestlers with fuzzy hair which, in my opinion, are just about the cutest things on the planet. I’ve even taken (or asked Rob to take, he usually has the camera in his pocket) a couple of pictures…

In Kyoto, at the Heien Shrine celebrating "7,5,3 day"


Also Kyoto; note the mini Uggs with the Kimono!

Kawaii, ne?

Anyway, there was a funny article about Kawaii in a Vanity Fair a while back. As the article says, “cuteness and social misery seem to be linked.” I don’t think the Japanese are that miserable, really, but their economic woes of the past two decades have been held as a cautionary tale for the U.S. Perhaps we as a nation are just a few months of recession away from hollering “CUTE!” at the little sumo babies who make it to our shores.

Enter the Rabbit

Shinen omedeto gozaimasu! Happy New Year! So New Year’s has been a very big deal in Japan. I’ve never really been all that thrilled about Christmas, but I do love New Year’s, so I have enjoyed the festive air. The Japanese seem to really appreciate the ever-appealing idea of a new beginning. I’ve learned that on New Year’s they:

  • clean the house (I didn’t actually do this, but I really liked the idea of starting with a clean house).
  • eat a special meal with a lot of pickled things. Again, I didn’t do this, but I did make black-eyed peas.
  • bedeck their doors and gates with tasteful, seasonal decorations like bamboo, pine, oranges, rice straw wreaths, and paper. These are supposed to welcome the ancestors (don’t quote me on this) and ensure prosperity for the new year (I think). Anyway, it’s something I could really see Martha Stewart embracing.

Hayama being a fishing village(/resort town), people also decorate the bows of their boats. Fuji-san in background.

  • Then, after two weeks, everyone takes their New Year’s decorations down to the shrine and burn them. How cathartic is that? I would love to burn my Christmas decorations.
  • People exchange daruma dolls. Don’t be creeped out be their vacant stare–you get to draw the eyes on! You draw one on when you make your New Year’s resolution or wish, and the other when it’s fulfilled. The roly-poly shape symbolizes the ability to bounce back from difficulties on your journey to complete the resolution.

You can see that the daruma in our house has not yet been resolved upon. Its owner must be perfect.

  • Mail! The Japanese send New Year’s postcards, and I got one! I am thrilled but the problem is I don’t know who sent it…

Isn't it lovely? Wish I could read it.

Note the rabbits. This year is the year of the rabbit, and being the trend setters that they are the Japanese don’t wait until the lunar New Year to start celebrating it. Take that, all you other Asian nations still wallowing in the year of the tiger. You might be interested to learn that children born in the year of the rabbit are gentle, serene, diligent, elegant, tactful, and lucky gamblers.
And, finally, it is cold here, but that good kind of clean, clear cold that has yielded some spectacular Fuji days. Fortunately Chip received a lot of Christmas gifts to keep him warm.

All kitted out. It took me three tries to knit the hat, and Chip actually refuses to wear it.

Despite the cold, this morning I saw a man jogging down the beach in only a bright blue Speedo. Now there is someone serious about keeping his New Year’s resolution.

One more Christmas story

I know that Christmas was four days ago, but I hope that you have time for one more heartwarming Christmas story. All my friends trapped on the East Coast are a captive audience, at least.

So I am now at liberty to say that six days before Christmas, and just one day after his mother and sister got here for a week-long visit, Rob had to ship off to deal with certain rogue states in the western Pacific. I felt terrible for Rob, but I was delighted to have the company. Rob’s mom and sister were very understanding of the vagaries of navy scheduling, and we had a nice time together doing some low-key exploring: Kamakura, Tokyo, and the food section of the local Lawson’s convenience store, where I am a rather expert guide by now to the myriad flavors of onigiri rice balls and Haagen-Dazs.


The one night we were all in the same place.

Chip shows Aunt Betsy his favorite place to put stickers: other people's hair.


The family left the 23rd, and thanks to a Christmas miracle that kept the two Koreas from doing everything but actually firing on each other this time, look who walked in the door on Christmas Eve:


Chip eats Santa's cookies on Christmas Eve. Note Rob in background.


After that, it was your standard Christmas except that 1.) we missed everyone back home terribly and 2.) everything is open on Christmas in Japan! I almost had ramen just because I could, but it just didn’t feel right. Plus I had eaten a lot of Christmas candy. Chip was showered with toys by all of you who love him.


Chip's new wagon from Grandma.


But most importantly this season, I learned the true meaning of Christmas as expressed in the immortal words of Mariah Carey:

“I don’t want a lot for Christmas
This is all I’m asking for
I just wanna see my baby
Standing right outside my door

I just want you for my own
More than you could ever know
Make my wish come true,
Baby, all I want for Christmas is you.”

Poster Boy

Chip’s first (and likely only) modeling job has finally been published. In case you are not expecting the Combi late winter/early spring catalog in your mailbox, you can check him out by clicking here. For the grandmothers: he’s at the top, and you can scroll down and see a few more pictures. I think the funniest is him lying on the heart-shaped pillow. That will haunt him for the rest of his life. At least the camera didn’t seem to add ten pounds, like they say, because that would be almost half of his body weight. Very embarrassing.

You’re a Mean One, Kim Jong Il

You’re a mean one, Kim Jong Il
You’ve ruined three holidays
Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas
You have taken away
Kim Jong I-eeeeeeeeeeeeee-il
And whoever told you that your hair looked good that way?

You’re a monster, Kim Jong Il
They say you’re “schizotypal”
I’m not sure exactly what that means
But you have kimchi in your soul
Kim Jong I-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-il
I wouldn’t touch you with 39 and 1/2-inch platform sole.

You’re a foul one, Kim Jong Il
To your country you’re a dic-
tator, and now you’ve made
my husband quite seasick
Kim Jong I-eeeeeeeeeeeee-il
Seriously, just go pour yourself a Hennessey and watch a Bond flick.

E is for…

Earthquake! Early Monday morning, I felt my first earthquake. I was shaken awake at about three in the morning by it. The weird thing was that I knew immediately what it was, even coming out of a dead sleep. I did not enjoy it. It was a 4.7 with the epicenter north of Tokyo, so it wasn’t too powerful but it will do nicely for checking the experience off of my Japan to-do list, thank you very much. I think that earthquakes are really the bullies of natural disasters, the way they sneak up on you unexpectedly. At least with tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, plague, etc. you can see the enemy and might be warned before it hits.

Engrish! While going through my pictures recently, I found a couple of nice signs that I haven’t posted yet.

Yes, please only use your best handwriting for graffiti.

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