My haikyo adventure

I’ve just learned about haikyo, or ruin-exploring in Japan. You can read about it here and here. The pictures on the second site are fantastic–especially the old mining towns in the hills of Japan which remind me in a way of similar places you see in Colorado.

I actually learned in my preservation classes about Japan’s preservation policies which, unsurprisingly, are formal, strictly categorized, and top-down hierarchical. The national government largely determines preservation policy and institutes it all levels, from national to regional (in contrast to the States, where preservation is usually a local movement, and state and federal recognition is usually requested by a local entity). Also in the States, preservation policy usually only applies to buildings and sites, where in Japan, fascinatingly, it can apply to objects, people, animals, and landscapes. Traditional artists like kabuki actors and sword makers can even draw a salary from the government as “national treasures.”

Haikyo seems like the perfect complement to Japan’s formal, state-directed cultural management efforts. Clearly old amusement parks and smallpox wards are not yet seen by the government as representative of Japan’s cultural legacy, but they seem to resonate with the people who explore haikyo. Interest in the ruins demonstrates an authentic and organic curiosity about all aspects of Japan’s past, including the ones the government, understandably, might be hesitant to formally acknowledge (eg the suicide torpedo base). And though the ruins are not being preserved in the strictest sense of active conservation efforts, they are being well-recorded by those who are interested in them. Their romantic disintegration is also a perfect example of the Ruskin aesthetic  that, again, one doesn’t often find in officially sanctioned cultural legacies.

Haikyo exploring might not be the ideal activity to pursue with a baby strapped to one’s back, but last week Chip and I inadvertently had our own haikyo adventure. On a lovely afternoon, we went for a hike at Ikego, which is a Navy housing area in nearby Zushi. Ikego was used as an ammunition dump by the Japanese Navy until we took it over after WWII and somehow decided that a former ammunition dump would make a great place to house Navy families. Ikego is a little America, complete with American-wide streets, a mini-mart, gas station, pool, restaurant, loads of playgrounds, ball fields, a post office, a beauty salon, a grade school, and rows of apartment towers and townhouses. The housing looks pretty institutional, but contains marvelous inventions like dishwashers and ovens.

Anyway, Ikego also has hiking trails, and even some darling little rustic cabins in the woods that one can rent, if one’s spouse enjoyed rustic pursuits like sleeping in cabins without electricity and running water. As Chip and I were exploring the trails, we came across ruins in the woods.

Can anyone read this?

Knock, knock. Who's there? General Creepiness.

I’m not sure what era they’re from exactly, and if the wall was meant to keep stuff in or out, but the whole experience was rather unsettling. It didn’t help that I somehow got lost. I think I’ve seen too many war movies set in Asian jungles–I half-expected to find some ancient holdout of the Imperial Navy hiding out there. Now that I’ve started watching Lost, too (thank you, Betsy!), there’s no way I could go back there.

I might not be cut out for hard-core haikyo, but I look forward to all future glimpses of Japan’s past, especially those that aren’t in the guidebooks. And clearly someone needs to write a good history of Ikego…


Ca fait longtemps…

It’s been a while, sorry about that, but life has been pretty quiet lately. Chip had something gross going on with his right eye (which is fortunately clearing up) and his nap schedule, which was a regular and dependable as a Japanese train has now gone all Amtrak on me. Some mornings he has been taking a 3-hour nap, and then yesterday he didn’t nap until 3pm. Thus “Alden time” has been scarce.

Last weekend was fun–the theme was “eating.” Rob and I had another date on Saturday (I’m getting used to this) and we found a good pizza place in nearby Zushi. The veggie pizza came with radish and edamame which were delicious and gave the pizza that crunch that has always seemed to be missing. On Sunday we had a cookout with some of our neighbors who are German, Brazilian, Russian, another Navy family, and of course Japanese. I thought of my dad, a master griller, as onto the grill went a multicultural assortment of whole fish (one member of the party later ate the eyeballs), rice cakes called “onigiri”, hamburgers, and later marshmallows for s’mores. I thought of my grandparents as I looked around at the company. What would my WWII-veteran grandfathers have thought if they could know that I was standing around in Japan grilling with the enemy? I like to think that they would have been happy to know that it all turns out okay.

I have also been reading. Somehow I got through all of my education without having to read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, so I finally did that here (Dad, I have your copy). Needless to say it was very moving, and amazed me in the way it portrayed the horrors of the bombing so that they were simultaneously so vivid and so unbelievable. I then moved on to a book of Rob’s called Embracing Defeat by John Dower. The book is the first non-fiction (well, besides Hiroshima) that I have picked up since graduation last spring, and it is fantastic. It is very well-written; unlike most scholarly tomes I’ve been subjected to, it has a strong narrative and wonderful detail. The pictures are amazing. The book talks about Japan right after World War II, and answers all kinds of questions I’ve had about what old Japan was like, and how it got on the road from bombed and defeated nation to the marvel I see around me daily. The most burning question the book answered for me, however, is why Japan doesn’t have daylight savings time (the sun, and therefore Chip, rise before 5 am now). Land of the Rising Sun, indeed. I won’t spoil it for you–you should read it.

The problem with reading is that it sometimes leads to action, and now we are all booked to go to Hiroshima over Memorial Day weekend. We are taking the shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, which has been a lifelong dream of Rob’s. Japanese hotel rooms are notoriously small, so we’ll see where we manage to stash Chip for two nights. I might wish I had never read those books after all.

To tide you over, a picture of Chip. He and Rob went to Tokyo on Saturday to the Maritime Science Museum (I sat that one out, and enjoyed a lot of “Alden time”).

Lunch at Ma-ka-do-na-ra-do's

And the winner is…

Fungus! With his guess of 7390 yen, he came the closest to the actual total of 8100 yen, or about $90. Yeah.

To be fair, I didn’t disclose that half of that total was the cover charge, for the magnificent view I presume. So those of you who guessed around 4000 yen for the drinks were correct, too.

Thank you for playing! Kit Kat and M&Ms en route.

Incidentally, after our drinks we had a really cheap dinner in an underground Kirin beer hall at which one could order BOTH curry and pizza. It was perfect. The Kirin beers there were only 400 yen, a bargain in downtown Yokohama.



Candy is dandy but liquor is a quicker way to spend a lot of yen

Just yesterday someone was telling me how they have started to collect Kit Kats here in Japan, because they come in all sorts of crazy flavors. So imagine my delight when I heard an NPR story today (American NPR–I can listen online) about all the different Kit Kat flavors in Japan! You can listen/read here. The story also talks about the ubiquity of the convenience store in Japan, something I have really enjoyed. My favorite thing to do at the convenience store is to go pay my utility bills (just bring them to the cashier, any day, anytime, and they scan them and I pay) and then bring home a delicious bento box lunch. (The only thing I have failed at doing in a convenience store so far is buying baseball tickets. The little machine that dispensed them definitely didn’t speak English.) Well now, I will bring home Kit Kats as well.

In fact, I couldn’t wait for my next utility bill. Chip and I hurried down to the mysteriously named “Lawson’s Station” convenience store on the corner, and scoped out the Kit Kat selection. Banana! Green tea! Strawberry! Mini! Since I am a fan of the fake banana flavor, I went with that. While I was there, I also found…orange M&Ms!

Two servings of fruit.

Verdict? Not bad. I might not buy it again, but I don’t think that’s the point.

The banana, peeled.

And all for only 120 yen. For some reason, the Green Tea Kit Kat was 126 yen.

Speaking of yen, last Saturday night Rob and I went to Yokohama for a proper date. Chip we just left in the house–Japan is that safe. No, really we took him to the base day care’s “Saturday Night Out” session, which is a fantastic thing. Anyway, Rob wanted to get drinks at a bar at the top of Japan’s tallest (for now) building, the Landmark Tower. To get to the top, we rode the world’s second-fastest elevator. It goes so fast that it made my ears pop.

I ordered a scotch and the waitress asked if I wanted single or double. “Single,” I replied, not wanting to be extravagant, and so I was treated to maybe a half of an ounce of liquor pooled at the bottom of several flawlessly clear ice cubes. Rob? He ordered the “Guavacation” which, I’m sure you can imagine, had a flower and fruit stuck in it and was redolent of sunscreen. The view was the best part, overlooking a twinkling carpet of lights rolled out all the way to Tokyo. I took a picture with my phone, so you kind of get the idea:

Guess how much two drinks at this lovely establishment cost us? Really, guess. (Mama can’t, because I already told her.) To whoever guesses most closely I will send the craziest flavor of Kit Kat I can find (or a gluten-free alternative). Mama, I will send you a Kit Kat anyway because I know you like them. Contest ends Friday morning, Japan time. No purchase necessary.

Kite Update–they are demons

One thing I learned in Tokyo last week was that kites, the birds that have been attacking me since I moved here, are in fact demonic. I had suspected as much, but it was nice to have it confirmed. Apparently in Japanese folklore, there are creatures called tengu; I think that they are also somehow related to Buddhism (I learned all this through a somewhat awkward translation, so I might be missing some nuances). The tengu are portrayed are bird-beaked or long-nosed men, and they lurk in the forest doing evil, although I guess sometimes they do good, too. They are purported to steal children, but Japanese parents probably just say that to get their kids to eat their noodles and go to bed. I think these rather frightening statues that we saw in Kamakura when we went last month are tengu:

It takes three to Tengu

Anyway, it turns out that if a tengu loses his powers, he becomes a lowly kite, doomed to scavenge bread from the hands of foreigners for the rest of their lives. I wonder what the birds that have attacked me did to fall to such disgrace.

Despite their evil connotation, I was happy to learn about the tengu. It’s like I’ve lifted another shovelful of dirt from the great mound that is trying to understand Japanese culture. I think that it’s ultimately a Sisyphean task to attempt to know another culture, but every piece I learn makes me feel a little more connected to the Japanese. This experience has been so different from Peace Corps in that I do not have the mandate nor desire to integrate as fully into my host society as I was expected to in Mauritania. Nevertheless, I want to understand so much more than I do. Looking around the Tokyo Museum last weekend made me long to just be able to somehow download a repository of their cultural knowledge into my head. As Rob remarked, when looking around a gallery of fierce-looking wooden statues that adorned 16th-century temples,”I wish I knew what it all meant.”

On the other hand, I really enjoy being a spectator to another culture as well. I might not understand exactly what I’m seeing, but I can appreciate it in a way that someone immersed  in their cultural birthright cannot. It’s a strange sensation to live in the peripheries of a culture, “in but not of,” but I will enjoy the view for the next eighteen months.

So Chip, in the past short week, has learned two dangerous feats. The other day I found him at the top of our suicidally steep Japanese staircase, grinning at his achievement. A baby gate on the first floor has joined one already in place on the second floor. This protects Chip of course, but leaves me to almost break my neck several times a day as I hurdle over them both. Secondly, he learned that he can grab the spoon at mealtimes and get it into his mouth, sort of. I know I should encourage his independence, but it was just so much easier feeding him myself. Maybe I should feed him outside–the fallen-demon kites swooping overhead might be the motivation he needs to learn to eat quickly and efficiently.

Weekend in Tokyo

The Japanese hang carp windsocks for the boys in their family on Boy's--I mean Children's--Day on May 5.

It’s “Golden Week” in Japan, a string of  public holidays from April 29-May 5 that include the Pearl-Harbor-bombing-era Emperor’s birthday and Children’s Day, known until recently (and probably still mostly practiced) as Boy’s Day. Our bucolic little beach town is suddenly packed so on Saturday we woke up and decided to go to Tokyo, which is supposed to be empty this time of year. On a whim, we called the New Sanno Hotel, the Navy’s hotel in downtown  Tokyo, and they had one room available: the Japanese suite! So much for sleeping in a bed. At least we could still get room service, with all the American favorites like pizza with half pepperoni and half ham.

One room of the Japanese suite. At bedtime, they came and rolled out the futons for us to sleep on.

I’ve read other people describe Tokyo as like another planet. Driving in, that seemed to be the case. The elevated, stacked expressways wove through lots of tall and imaginatively-designed buildings. It made me realize again just how conservative American architecture, especially in a place like D.C., can be. Why can’t we just have more fun with buildings? Anyway, it looked kind of  like the Jetsons, minus the flying cars. Once on the ground, though, I thought Tokyo was more on the human scale. The weather was perfect, Golden indeed, and wandered around the Imperial Palace gardens:

On the subway.

Hello, we're here to see the Emperor please.

Azaleas galore. Take that Charleston.

And then we went to Ginza, the nice shopping district. I couldn’t afford anything, but I made a new friend.

The perfect man--silent but helpful.

Sunday morning, Chip and Rob walked around Roppongi, near our hotel. Roppongi is known for its neon and nightlife (if you want to marry an American sailor, go hang out there), but Rob found some other kinds of signs:

Meanwhile, I was back at the New Sanno, enjoying two cups of coffee, uninterrupted, and watching the Kentucky Derby on AFN. Bliss.

Sunday we wandered around Ueno Park, and went to the Tokyo National Museum. Ueno Park was beautiful and very festive. You could buy anything from octopus balls (fried dough balls with bits of octopus in them) to taxidermied sea turtles at the food stalls and flea market.

Sea Turtle

A wonderful weekend. I even drove home from Tokyo, something I never ever thought I’d do.

And now, the cutest picture of Chip from the weekend:

Little boy in the big city.