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.


Autumn in Kyoto

Maples and Ginkakuji Temple

So Rob came home eventually, and it has been very nice to have him. After months at sea, literally working all the time, I think that relaxation is somewhat difficult for him. So we seized our Veterans’ Day weekend to take the bullet train to Kyoto. Accidentally, we went at one of the prettiest times of the year: maple leaf season.

Good-bye, I'm going to Kyoto

Getting off of the train at the soaring modern Kyoto station, Kyoto looks like any other city in Japan: miles of pavement and plate-glass. Scattered all over the city, however, are pockets of transcendently beautiful places. I think it helped that we didn’t bomb Kyoto into oblivion in WWII. There are actually entire old neighborhoods, although not as many as one might think.

Hushed, elegant, exquisite, composed, contemplative, meticulous: my inner narrator groped for adjectives while I contemplated innumerable scenes of natural and architectural splendor tucked behind gates and walls and twisting streets (that is, when I wasn’t trying to keep Chip from scooping up the meticulously raked rock gardens and throwing bits of them around). Gazing over the delicate grace of a shogun’s jewel box of a house and zen garden built in 1485, one is acutely aware that one is descended from hairy barbarians who probably didn’t even get around to bathing that entire year much less creating such works of aesthetic perfection. Much better writers than me have described Kyoto, though, just pick up a Fodor’s. Here are some of Rob’s really nice pictures.

Of the Kiyumizu Temple:

This is the Kiyumizu "Pure Water" Temple. Its verandah is perched high on a cliff, and apparently there's a saying in Japanese that starting a big endeavor is like jumping off of Kiyumizu.

Not jumping off the verandah at Kiyumizu Temple.

In Gion, the geisha district:

Evening in Gion. Sadly no geishas were spotted.

Oh this old thing? This is just my evening chores kimono.

Stocking up for the evening at 7-11.

At Nijo-jo Castle:

This castle was built by the Tokugawas, the same shogun family that brought us Nikko. The floors inside are called "nightingale" floors: they squeak prodigiously to warn of intruders.

Giant mum display at Nijo-jo. There's got to be a homecoming queen in there somewhere.

At the Inari Fushimi shrine:

Chip runs the thousands of torii gates, just like in Memoirs of a Geisha!

At the Tofukuji temple:

Tofukuji, best place for maple gazing.

At Ginkakuji Temple (also pictured above):

Raking the zen garden rocks at the Ginkakuji Temple. I think that this would be a lovely job.

On the Philosopher’s Walk:

So named because a Kyoto University professor used to walk here daily. It just begs quiet contemplation...

...and fried potatoes. This is Rob's new favorite street food: the Potatornado!

This seems like an obnoxious amount of pictures, but we only scratched the surface. Three-ish days was not enough in Kyoto. We’ll just have to go back someday.

A day in the city

Chip is wondering why Mama is walking away and leaving him with this strange man.

Way before Chip-chan busted his leg, we had a tour to Tokyo planned for this weekend. Not about to let a little challenge to mobility get us down, I crossed my fingers and off we went. In the past week Chip has become much more resigned to life in his stroller, so I think that he actually enjoyed getting wheeled around Tokyo. There are probably few cities on the planet better for just taking it all in, after all.

Our day started at the Meiji shrine in Shibuya. The shrine was built in 1920 to honor the spirits of the Meiji emperor, the one who opened and modernized Japan in the 19th century. The shrine is set in a dense urban forest, and is open and understated. I think it is the most peaceful big shrine I’ve been to in Japan. It being a beautiful last Saturday of summer, there were lots of weddings going on, too.

A shinto wedding. I really like the bride's ensemble, but I love the men in morning suits.

Chip always doffs his hat while touring religious sites. Really he just hates wearing a hat.

Next up was Tokyo Tower built in 1958 and over 1,000 feet tall. The main purpose of the tower is to broadcast radio and TV signals, but it also is a tourist attraction. Shops and restaurants are located in “Foot Town” the appetizingly-named lower floors of the building. We had a nice lunch in Foot Town. It was a clear day and so there were expansive views of Tokyo and beyond from the observation tower. The city just keeps on going and going…

The view from below. Godzilla free.

Our last stop of the day was the Asakusa district of Toyko. I had been wanting to see “A-sock-sa,” which I had been pronouncing “A-sa-koo-sa,” because it is supposed to be a neat little slice of old Tokyo. I wasn’t disappointed. The center of the district is anchored by the giant Senso-ji temple. The temple site is the oldest in Tokyo. The temple itself, and much of Asakusa, was fire-bombed to nothing during WWII, and the temple has just recently been renovated. The ancient-looking structure is actually made of concrete and steel and its new roof tiles are titanium, which should last about a million years.

The new Senso-ji temple.

View from the temple courtyard.

The Nintenmon gate to the shrine, one of the oldest structures in Tokyo. And Chip. The gate was built in 1618 and somehow survived earthquakes and bombing.

From the gate to the temple hangs a huge lantern, and the street leading up to the temple has been a shopping area since the 18th century. It was crowded and charming, and full of street food. Chip and I couldn’t resist fried noodles with octopus (the octopus was a surprise) and peach soft serve.

The main gate and the lantern.

The main gate is at the right, and in the center is Tokyo Tower's new competition. The Tokyo "Sky Tree" will be Japan's tallest building when it's finished, and will take over broadcasting digital signals.

I think this was my favorite part of Tokyo I’ve seen so far. It just seemed to have everything. It was very crowded and touristy, but here and there I still saw older ladies in aprons taking their dogs for an evening walk and neighborhood people buying fresh pears from the backs of trucks. Best of all, Chip saw a monkey. There was a baboon in a pair of shorts performing outside of a shrine. Chip pointed and started making his monkey noise, which is a recent development. (For some reason, the monkey is the only animal he wants to vocalize…)

We also saw real, live sumo wrestlers. Asakusa is near the stadium where the annual fall tournament is being held and we saw two just waiting to cross the street, like anyone else. They were wearing their cotton kimonos and had their hair pulled up in topknots and no one else seemed to be paying them any attention. What does a sumo wrestler go out for on a Saturday afternoon? Noodles and soft serve?

Nikko, or how to bury a warlord

On Saturday, Rob and I decided we were sufficiently motivated to wake up before 4 am and make a 4-hour trip with a 14-month-old to Nee-ko. Nikko, way north of Tokyo, is famous for being the burial site of the first Tokugawa shogun and a place of great scenic beauty. We went on a navy tourism office-sponsored tour that included a cozy bus ride, which to me beat a three-hour train ride with lots of transfers even if it meant catching the bus a 04:45 (the navy does not mess around, even with “fun”). The bus stopped at a Japanese highway rest stop for breakfast, which was awesome. It had clean bathrooms, all these automated coffee machines where one could get a steaming hot cup of fresh-brewed coffee if one could figure out the buttons, and wasabi-flavored Kit Kats.

Anyway, Chip mostly slept peacefully as the bus rumbled north under the rising sun and, due to summer vacation traffic, we were in Nikko by about 9:30. Getting off the bus was like disembarking in the Pacific Northwest. The shrine is set in a forest of giant cypress trees, and stone surfaces are covered with a layer of moss and ferns. The air was clear and it was warm in the sun and cool in the shade with a nice breeze, which is definitely not how I would describe the Yokosuka environs right now.

Chip discovers moss.

The Toshogu Shrine, another World Heritage site (check!), was built in the 17th century by the grandson of the first Tokugawa shogun to honor his grandfather. The Tokogawa shogunate was the last shogun dynasty of Japan, and ruled until the 19th century. The lavishly ornate shrine took two years to build and, as my guidebook says, contains “everything a 17th-century warlord considered beautiful.” Add 1-year-olds to the list. Chip was entranced by the carvings of peacocks, lions, leopards, tigers, golden elephants, unicorn/lion/dog-hybrid things, ducks, and monkeys.

Gate of the Toshogu shrine.

This is one of the first visual representations of "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

This was actually my favorite part. Here is a brass candelabra that the Dutch gave to the shrine in the 1600s, which reminded me of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I could just picture Jacob tallying the candelabra in the account books, even though it predates him and he is, of course, fake. I don’t think it would look out-of-place in some Baroque church in Amsterdam. The preservationist in me wonders if it should be left outside in all the Chinese acid rain, but it seems to be fine.

After the shrine we got to go see lots of nearby waterfalls. They were very impressive, and it was lovely to stand in the cool mist of them. The Nikko area used to be a summer retreat for 19th-century expats. They were on to something. I’m sorry our quasi-imperial lifestyle no longer allows for summer retreats in cool places. Or servants.

Kegon Falls, 320 feet. This is apparently Japan's most famous waterfall.

Yudaki Falls. I'm not sure how many feet exactly.

Ahhh, the great outdoors. And a cigarette.

This was a beautiful meadow in the national park where, if I understood our guide correctly, a battle between the mountains took place.

Both waterfalls are located in Japanese national parks. Seeing them, and Hakone last month, makes me so grateful for American national parks. Thank you, National Park Service, for not boring elevators into pristine cliffs so that I can more easily reach the 4-tiered observation deck/souvenir shop overlooking the Yosemite Falls. Thank you, National Park Service, for not building ropeway gondolas over the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. Thank you, National Park Service, for not putting noodle shops on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

After the waterfalls we headed home. Except for a brief crying bout that earned us only one annoyed look on the bus, Chip was a champ. He slept until we stopped for dinner (ramen noodles at a highway rest stop!) and then slept again until we got home around 9:30. Totally worth the long day for the warlords and the waterfalls.

I'm Chip Watts. Nowhere is off limits.

Lazy Bones

In true summer vacation style, I have been very lazy about many things recently, including updates. Not that I had that much to do in the first place, but I still have a vestigial desire from my teaching days to just stop doing anything come real summer weather. The rainy season is suddenly over here, and it’s like someone just flipped a switch: the air is clear, the sun is bright, and there’s a breeze again in the evenings. It’s hot, but it’s that good kind of summer hot.

Last week Rob was able to take some leave and, jealous of my recent trip to Hakone without him, wanted to go to the mountains. We stayed in the same place as I did with Mama, but the exciting development this time was that we found the Chip-sized Japanese pajamas. He looked like the cutest little Maoist insurgent you ever saw:

After several baths and lots of Japanese food (Rob ate sashimi!), we ventured farther afield. Hakone is locally famous for black eggs, and we just had to  see that. The eggs are blackened from hard-boiling in the hot sulfur springs in the mountains. We took another terrifying cable car ride to a mountain called Owakudani, passing over fields of belching yellow pools of molten sulfur. It looked like a cross between Yellowstone and something out of medieval illustration of Dante’s Inferno. At the top we disembarked to the smell of rotten eggs lighting matches. The landscape was otherworldly; the winds were high and blowing thick clouds over the mountain ridges. When the mists parted, one could see steaming yellowish streams wending through scrubby plants and rocks. We took a short hike to the egg-boiling pool, where one could purchase the black eggs. In true Japanese style one cannot purchase one egg, one must purchase a set of five. Fortunately we found some nice Chinese tourists with whom to share. Chip seemed to enjoy his black egg but Rob passed. Somewhat disappointingly, they tasted just like regular hard-boiled eggs.

See? They're black.

This contraption conveys the eggs up the mountain for boiling. I guess it beats hauling them up there on one's back.

This is the view we could have seen, if visibility had been greater than 3 feet.

After our descent, we went down the mountain to Miyanoshita where we stayed at the Fujiya hotel, something I’d really wanted to do. The Fujiya is a Japanese institution, with buildings dating from 1878, and a long history of hosting relatively famous people. Several buildings make up the complex, and all are in varying states of genteel decay. The Fujiya shows its age a bit, but was still so charming. We stayed in the mod 60s-era “Forest Lodge” (I tried to channel Betty Draper traveling to Japan–after she reconciles with Don of course, not with the guy she ran away with), but there were lots of older Western/Japanese lodge amalgamations, and an annexed old Imperial summer villa that the Americans added to the place while they occupied it in the years after WWII. The best part of the Fujiya was the dining room, where Japanese takes on mid-century French cuisine were served in silent and lovely splendor. My rainbow trout still had its eyes, teeth, and fins, and Rob’s chicken parmesan didn’t actually seem to feature any cheese. They were still great, and even better was the French toast the next morning.


The Flower Lodge

The dining room at the Fujiya.

A nice escape. Now Rob is back to the 15-hour work days. Another reason I have been distracted recently is the fault of a wonderful book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It takes place in turn-of-the-nineteenth-cenutry Nagasaki, where Dutch traders are confined to one small island in the harbor and Japan is still largely closed to foreigners. The details are so vivid and the characters are so real. It is an incredible story.

I am in love with this book.

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.


The "A-Bomb Dome" in Hiroshima

Probably one of the last places on earth I would be expected to run into proselytizers would be standing outside of the “A-Bomb Dome” in Hiroshima. Rob, Chip, and I were looking at the ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the 1915 building near the center of the 1945 blast that has been preserved as a ruin, when two lovely-looking young Japanese women approached us, cooing over Chip. As I am quite used to this by now, I used my pidgin Japanese to explain that his name is Chip and that he is “1 year.” (I keep forgetting to look up the word “almost.”)

The ladies asked us why we had come to Hiroshima, which is a good question. Even if I spoke Japanese, I’m not sure I could answer that completely. Historical inquiry? Curiosity? Do I feel a need to atone? Why do the Japanese visit the USS Arizona memorial by the thousands?

I don’t think the nice ladies meant to prompt such self-examination. They very sweetly wished us a pleasant stay, and one mentioned that she would like to share some “good news.” She pulled out a brightly-colored religious tract, published in the U.S. and exactly like the kind one gets from proselytizers back home. I took it with an extravagant outpouring of gratitude that only an American standing next to material evidence of the most horrific act of war her country ever committed could muster. It was a baffling moment, one in which I felt overwhelmed by history and uncertain about whether 8:15 am, August 6, 1945 was so very long ago or not.

Hiroshima broke my heart a little. I thought the memorials around the Peace Park are all understated and beautiful examples of mid-century memorial design. We visited the Children’s Monument and this time I was overwhelmed by personal history–the memory of reading the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in the sixth grade. I was twelve years old, just like Sadako when she (spoiler alert) died in the book from effects of the bombing, and the details of her story are still vivid in my mind. Our sixth-grade teacher somehow even found a Japanese lady in Hutchinson, Kansas to teach us how to fold origami cranes and seeing the thousands of cranes draped around the memorial brought back those first unsettling realizations an otherwise sheltered young me had about the sadness the world might contain.

And this was before we even got to the museum.

The Peace Memorial Museum feels it has a very strong mission to convey the horrors of the bombing effectively enough to prevent it from happening again. The horrors were vividly conveyed. I found the tone of the museum balanced and neutral otherwise, although I am still trying to make out what I think of the Obama t-shirts for sale in the gift shop.

By the time we left the museum it was almost sunset, and it was a gorgeous May evening. The light was low and golden, and Hiroshima is surround by verdant hills. Passing banks of trees and shrubs, it even smelled a little like Virginia. The rest of the city looks just like the rest of urban Japan, although noticeably more spacious. (Hiroshima was rebuilt on a grid after the bombing, and the effect, after living in narrow and windy Japan, is noticeable.) Several wide tidal rivers flow through the city to the sea (Hiroshima is a port) and along their banks and over their bridges all the nicely-dressed Japanese were making their ways home from work and school.

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