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.

Stuck.

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.

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Kawaii!

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.