The best picture of Chip, ever

This is worth way more than a thousand words. Grandma Betty caught him in mid-sneeze.

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Hot Springs and Hydrangea

I have never been so clean in my life. That’s because during Mama’s visit we went to an onsen, a hot spring, in a nearby lovely mountainous area called Hakone. There I took three baths in twenty-four hours, a new record.

The Hakone-Tozan railroad heads back down the hill from Gora.

Mama, Chip, and I took several trains to a little mountain town called Gora, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. The most fun train was the Hakone-Tozan railway, whose bright red cars slowly but surely chug up an 8% grade with several switchbacks. We stayed at a beautiful place called the Tokinoyu Setsugetsuka which was a combination of a traditional Japanese ryokan and modern inn.

Chip inspects room 210 to see if it's baby proof. Once the tea set is out of reach, Japanese rooms usually are.

Open-air balcony bath!

In addition to our in-room bath, the inn had gorgeous public baths. After donning my yukata (a cotton robe that everyone gets upon checking into an onsen and is encouraged to wear at all times), and my geta (wooden sandals, approximately two sizes too small for my big American feet), I was ready to go experience my first Japanese bath.

Chip was upset that they do not make yukata in his size.

You might have guessed, but the yukatas (and everything else) come off in an onsen. Everyone is Daihatsu Naked. This is one thing to conceptualize and another thing to do. Much hemming and hawing went with the discarding of the yukata; it probably would have been better to treat it like a band-aid and just rip it right off without much thought. At any rate, the cocoon was finally shed and this butterfly jumped into the baths (after the mandatory pre-bath shower, of course). Okay, not so much jumped in as went in tentatively and super self-conciously because that water was really really hot.

The baths themselves were lovely. There were indoor baths with stone and tile floors and walls and an open-timbered Japanese roof, and outdoor baths with rocks strategically placed for sitting and a bamboo screen overhead so the birds can’t see. (You can understand why I couldn’t take pictures…)

I had the outdoor bath all to myself until an older Japanese lady wearing nothing but a shower cap joined me and started to speak to me like I knew Japanese. Not sure whether to make eye contact, I just nodded and smiled and repeated three of the approximately ten Japanese words I know. “Hot! Yes! Much hot! Yes!” I couldn’t stand the heat for more than about 5 minutes so I got out, intensely aware of the jiggling as I bowed awkwardly and apologetically explained to my new friend, “Bye bye! Much hot!”

Inside, I found the less hot, pleasantly warm, and cool pools, all of which I enjoyed much more. After the baths one goes to these little sit-down shower stalls and washes with all kinds of strange products (Green tea peeling gel!) and rinses off with a bamboo bucket. After that one can return to the safe embrace of the yukata and sit at a little vanity and use even more fun Japanese beauty products like “cream which cleans the horny layer of the foot,” and Japanese make-up which made me look like a kabuki understudy.

Dinner was another experience. Mama and Chip and I sat down to seven courses, most of which involved using open flame to cook at the table, which is an awesome idea with a one-year-old. The courses that didn’t use open flame involved raw fish or unidentifiable jellied things, which Mama was a great sport about. I’m not sure what I ate, but the two-hour meal was lovely. My favorite part was the plum sake.

After another round of baths on the balcony, overlooking the mountains and the first stars I’ve seen since moving to Japan, Mama and I slept beautifully on our futons. Breakfast was another experience: fish, rice, miso soup, salad, green tea, and grapefruit vinegar juice all of which, inexplicably, tasted really good at 7:00 am. Number of open flames needed on the table for breakfast: two.

Guess what we ate for lunch when we got home from the onsen: McDonalds!

Gora itself was a nice little mountain town that reminded me a bit of an Asian Estes Park. Mama sat with Chip while I explored early in the morning, and I was charmed to see all of the sewer grates steaming from the hot springs and hear rushing water wherever I went. What I thought was a small forest fire on the hills above me turned out to be a waterfall obscured by the steam it was producing.

Steep street in Gora.

It was a lovely trip. All of Mama’s visit was. Completely accidentally, she came at peak hydrangea time which is quite the spectacle. Who knew Japan had hydrangea? Apparently they’re native. They’re all over Hayama and were planted on the mountainsides above Hakone. When we visited the Hasedera Temple at Kamakura last week with Mama we found it breathtakingly awash in the giant blossoms.

Hydrangea Heaven

Miss you Mama. Thanks for coming!

Grandma and the Blow-up Doll

Not in Kansas anymore.

Chip is thrilled because his Grandma Betty has come to visit. That means he gets to get up nice and early and play with his  jet-lagged friend. Grandma also happens to be very generous when it comes to things like sharing ice cream.

Grandma, can I eat this?

My mama and I have always loved beach combing. When we would go to the Outer Banks in the summer we would walk for what seemed like miles up and down those clean, wind-swept beaches exclaiming over fragments of shells or bits of sea glass that we found. So Mama was delighted when she saw our not-so-clean Morito Beach, with its heaps of detritus coughed up by Sagami Bay.We have scavenged the flotsam and jetsam and found innumerable treasures: shells and sea glass, and two starfish, crab parts, interesting dead fish, bits of china, little plastic toys, half of a set of dentures, a blue boot and a black high heel, and her:

Where did she come from? How did she get thrown into the ocean? How long was she in there? She has barnacles in places that no woman should.

If only the blow-up girl could talk. Being Japanese, I’m sure that if she could she would wish my mother the pleasantest of stays in Japan.

Chip on a Ship

The Fightin' Fitz

On Sunday, Rob had duty which means he had to spend the whole day and night on the ship. There are few things sadder than Sunday duty, so Chip and I went to visit and brought supper. This was our first time on the USS Fitzgerald, DDG 62, and we were duly impressed.

This is Rob's (and his roommate's) stateroom. It is small but tidy.

The great thing about a ship is that everything is “secured for sea.” This means that most things are also then “secured for baby.” The furniture is bolted down, the drawers are secured shut and despite the paint chips, ammunition, radiation, and asbestos, it is the ideal place for a youngster to frolic. Of course, Chip still managed to fall and bite his tongue which, like a true sailor, he got over without too many tears.

Chip explores the wardroom.

We ate–guess!–pizza with Da-da and got home in time for bed.

In other Chip news, he had his one-year check-up today and is the picture of infant health. He is 20 pounds and 30 inches, nice round stats. His noggin’ is still in the 90th percentile. He got the chicken pox shot (among others) today, and I was kind of nostalgic for the days when everyone got chicken pox. I remember my preschool shut down and I got to lie on the couch, scratch, and watch all the TV I wanted.

Today is also a great day in sports. Japan unexpectedly won its World Cup game last night (I saw somewhere it was ranked the 3rd worst team in the tournament, ahead of only New Zealand and North Korea), and the Big 12/now 10 has lived to play another day. I never thought I would owe Texas a debt of gratitude, but I do. At least until they can find another way to make more money off of their football team. For now I am very happy without Colorado and Nebraska, who haven’t done many exciting things in any conference sport recently. And hopefully Mizzou has learned its lesson not to go poking around in other conferences, lest curiosity kill the Tiger. Is it basketball season yet?

To Chip on his first birthday

Dear Chip,

Yesterday you turned one year old. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a year go faster in my life. This is strange because I was awake for so much of it. Looking back through rose-colored nostalgia, though, I would not trade a minute of that time with you for the extra sleep. There’ll be plenty of sleep in my future, but not plenty more moments with you in my arms. Or more moments with you playing peekaboo behind the living room curtains, or sneaking off to climb the stairs, or playing with the bathtub drain, or putting things that you found on the beach in your mouth, or dragging Where’s Spot over to me with that gimpy crawl of yours, or dropping your Cheerios off of the side of your high chair and watching them fall to the floor, or sleeping peacefully all wedged up in the corner of your crib clutching George Washington. You’ve done so much in one year.

Then again, I did get the best baby in the world. Really–what other baby in their first twelve months could have lived in three different homes in two different countries, braved journeys by train and plane and automobile, and said good-bye to the best families a grandson and nephew could have as graciously and sanguinely as you have? As long as you had your snacks, your travel crib, and General Washington, you did beautifully. Much better than your Mama, especially on that transpacific flight.

Yesterday you ate your first cupcake, which you didn’t like nearly as much as the banana pudding our neighbors brought over. You shoved it in your mouth as fast as you could, so excited that your little legs were kicking the whole time. One of my favorite things this year has been watching you try something new. I have to thank you for that because it’s like getting to live life over again in a way, without all the growing pains. Unfortunately those will be all yours my little man, but know that when life isn’t all banana pudding your Mama and Da-da will always be here for you.

Chip, darling, I can’t express how much I love you. Thank you for the best year ever. I hope that we have many more trips around the sun together. Happy birthday baby.

love,

Mama

Summer in Hayama

It must be summer in Hayama machi, because it is taking me longer to get everywhere, by car or by foot. It now takes about 5 minutes to cross the road to get to the grocery store, whereas I am usually able just dash across (not making eye contact with anyone, because jaywalking is seen as a major threat to the social order). The cars are smaller, but so are the streets so I think it all averages out to American beach town congestion levels.

Other signs that it is summer include:

They are building bars on our beach! Is there anything better than drinking on a beach on a summer’s night and then just stumbling back to your house? They’re so close that I think the baby monitor would still be in range.

Building bars by the beach.

I had to buy a Japanese lawn mower to take care of our little weed patch. It’s red and makes a pleasant whirring noise and I love it. It’s my favorite thing I’ve bought in Japan.

When can babies start doing lawn work?

I also bought a little Japanese grill. I had my first major grilling failure last night when I couldn’t light it. Humiliating–I think this might be the first time in my life that my father will be really disappointed in me. My chimney starter is either in storage in Virginia, in storage in Rhode Island, or still in the basement of the house in Newport. The Japanese only use hardwood charcoal and I could not get those suckers lit with an entire book of matches. Rob even went and bought more matches, but no dice. Not finding a chimney anywhere, today I bought something called “lighter cubes.” We’ll see how those work.

Chip has an inflatable pool. While it is not as awesome, thrifty, and green as Alex’s pool, it does exhort “Let’s Enjoy Summer.”

I think you forgot something.

Yes, let’s!

Miyajima and the Shinkansen

The rest of our trip to western Honshu was much cheerier. Last Sunday we went to the island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima, in the Inland Sea. The whole island is sacred. No one is allowed to die or be born there. I think that this kind of restriction could only work in Japan, where mass transportation is so reliable. The ferries to Miyajima and back are frequent, punctual, and comfortable (though perhaps less so if one were in labor or the last throes).

Miyajima is famous for the torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is set way out in the water. Torii gates are set outside all the Shinto shrines in Japan, and mark the boundary between material and spiritual space. This gate in the sea is considered one of the three most scenic views of Japan, as determined by someone. (It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, something a preservationist likes to collect.) There’s been a gate like this at Miyajima since the 12th century, but this one dates to 1875. We arrived at high tide, when the gate appears to float. By the way, the people you see in the boat are not picturesque peasants heading out to fish with handmade nets. They are tourists on a boat ride that forces you to wear the rice paddy coolie hat to enhance other tourists’ pictures.

We stuck around long enough to be able to walk out to the gate at low tide. Up close, one can see that the posts of the gate are gigantic tree trunks. I read that they are from camphor trees, which sound terribly exotic.

The shrine itself is also set over the water. The day was beautiful, and the light off of the water reflected on the ceiling of the shrine, making the whole building shimmer.

Miyajima is also famous for its brazenly fearless dear. I was warned by my friend and Japan veteran Anastasia that they can open zipped backpacks and eat the contents. They certainly were merciless in pursuit of Chip’s crackers and juice. Chip didn’t seemed fazed by them at all.

The view from the top of the island can only be reached by an arduous hike or a cable-car ride. Although such conveyance induces white-knuckled terror in me, it beat hiking. The view from the top was astounding, and looked not unlike the Caribbean. At the top, Chip and I ate noodles at the cafe and Rob hiked around.

The mountain itself is full of very unique sites like a monkey sanctuary, “scabies rock,”  an always-wet cherry tree (now destroyed but still advertised), and phantom tengu. You can read about it all yourself.

Back in Hiroshima on Monday, we had some time before our train left so we went to Hiroshima Castle. As you can imagine, it is a reconstruction, built in 1958. At Hiroshima Castle I fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a samurai. It was surprisingly easy.

Goodbye, darling. Mama has to go and fight for family honor

Ah, the shinkansen. It was so lovely. So smooth, so fast, so quiet, so clean. Chip slept, Rob and I had cocktails, and the sun set over Japan outside our window. Six hundred miles and three-and-a-half hours later, we were home.

The ride is that smooth.

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