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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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.”


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.

Blues and Noodles

Last week my husband came home after two months away. The joyous homecoming, with an anticipated 3-day holiday weekend, was short-lived however, as less than 48 hours later the navy sent him back out again to avoid a “typhoon.” Not all the ships were sent out from Yokosuka, Rob just got lucky. So Chip and I were left alone to face the “typhoon.” I put “typhoon” in quotation marks because I was not impressed. Despite dire warnings issued by the base weather service, the only damage we sustained was Rob’s bike blowing over. Other than that, it was just cold rain as usual.

There was no way I was staying in the house with a 1-year-old all weekend, “typhoon” or not. I needed some cheering up, and as a long walk on the beach was out of the question, some comfort food was in order. As Japan has no Museum of Macaroni and Cheese or Museum of Bread Pudding, Chip and I went to the next best thing: the Ramen Museum in Yokohama. Yes, a whole museum devoted to noodles!

The Ramen Museum. And "typhoon."

Admission was only 300 yen but, as the guide warned me, all adult visitors are expected to buy a large bowl of noodles. No problem. I had no idea what to expect, but Tokyo in a basement was not it. There was a whole neighborhood of Tokyo circa 1958 reproduced underground.

Behold the City of Noodles.

Why 1958? According to the website: “Why did we reproduce the year Showa 33 (1958)? The mood from the good old days of Showa fills visitors with nostalgia and an appetite to taste ramen.”

Nostalgia always does make me hungry. It must have made the citizens of this neighborhood particularly hungry, too, because every shop in it was a ramen restaurant. I certainly hope the denizens of this quarter never had to buy bread, or tea, or clothing, or a broom or something like that.

Each shop served ramen from a different region of Japan. I wish I could read; all the descriptions were in Japanese. With that obstacle, not to mention Chip doing his best to get lost in the good old days, I simply looked for a restaurant that didn’t have a line and did have a high chair, which are probably not the best criteria for really choosing your ramen. Anyway, bingo, we found one right on the neighborhood square. All the ordering was automated; I recognized the word ramen, 700 yen, on the little ticket dispenser and managed to get that. To my delight, I also recognized gyoza which are these little pan-fried dumplings that I love.

Chip and I got to sit at the counter and watch them make the ramen, which is fun. The ramen itself was interesting; my best guess is that it was “taiho” ramen from Fukuoka in southern Japan. Wherever it was from certainly reveres the pig. The broth was very pork-y and there were thin slices of pork on top. The noodles were also very thin. It was good, but I like my Hayama miso ramen at my neighborhood noodle shop much better. The gyoza were small and wonderful, and I had to fight Chip for them.

Please, sir, can I have some more?

I wish I could have tried more (I have a pretty bottomless capacity for ramen), but Chip-chan was ready to go back to the 21st century. He had a rather spectacular meltdown on the train ride home, but time travel will do that to you.

And now maybe my husband will come home again, and we will get to have a re-reunion. If not, I always have the noodle shop just down the street.

Chip on a trip

Here’s a funny similarity between Japan and Kansas. As one goes through security at Narita airport, one sees this sign. Ha! No sword in aircraft, samurai-san! And in Kansas one sees signs on the doors of all kinds of public buildings that say “No guns.” Ha! No gun in school, cowboy!

I point this out because Chip and I just got back from a lovely long visit to Kansas. It was a perfect break from the Land of Rain and Pavement: clear air, sunny skies, bright foliage, and wide open spaces. It was funny to see Chip discover the wonders of America: Sesame Street, grass, backyards, playgrounds, grandparents, stairways with wide carpeted steps, dishwashers, Halloween decorations–particularly large inflatable ghouls in yards, homemade baked goods (Mama went on a bit of a baking spree), and the toy aisle at Target. It was fun for me to rediscover the wonders of America: daylight savings time, pumpkin-flavored everything, Chipotle, haircuts in which one has a good chance of leaving with the desired results, Mad Men live, reading things, eavesdropping, football on the TV all weekend (except the Chiefs start losing the minute I come back), wide streets, sidewalks, big maple trees, songbirds, train whistles, brunch, and old friends.

Some more highlights:

  • Accompanying Dad/Grandpa on a business call to Council Grove which featured two places of scenic and cultural importance: the Flint Hills and Dairy Queen.

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve south of Council Grove. All the grass! A site for sore Japanese eyes.

Chip and Grandpa at the Council Grove DQ. Note the new yellow "sport cast."

  • Several trips to the playground.

Hey cool guy! Uncle Andrew!

  • Lawn tractor wagon rides!

In Japan, this would qualify as a full-size vehicle and trailer.

  • A trip to the farm to pick pumpkins and learn that animals are real. I could literally see Chip’s little brain processing the mind-blowing information that chickens are not just pictures in a book.

They're real!

Chip was very brave around the cow. Until it mooed. Then he sat down in the dirt and cried.

Chip sticks the landing on the hay slide.

I'll take this one.

  • Visiting Grandma Betty at her school library and getting to play with an entire box of remote controls, watching her hermit crabs (from a distance), and running around the school gym.
  • Twice the doting: a visit from Grandma Elizabeth, too!
  • Playing with our new old friend Alex.

The trip was worth every second of plane travel it took to get there, which is saying a lot.

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?

Before and After

Here are some examples of Chip, just a few days ago: at 14.5 months, he finally started walking, and you can see the awe-inspiring footage here.

Here he demonstrates another new trick: showing his bellybutton while standing confidently.

And here he is today:

To celebrate Chip’s 15-month birthday yesterday we went to this place in Yokohama aptly named the “Anpanman Children’s Museum and Mall.” Anpanman is this uniquely Japanese animated creation whom Chip loves. I think it’s the face.

Chip and Anpanman, in happier times.

Anpanman is a superhero whose head is made of bread. One of his good deeds is to fly around the world and feed starving people by giving them bits of his head to eat. His nemesis is a germ (so Japanese) named Baikinman, or “Meanyman.” Whenever Chip sees Anpanman (and he is ubiquitous in Japan) he points and yells “Da-da!” (Still his catch-all word).

So, I thought it might be fun to take the newly-minted toddler to the Anpanman Museum/Mall. And fun it was, until still-wobbly Chip went down hard in the kid-sized sushi shop in the Anpanman Village. Five hours of intermittent wailing later, I noticed that he refused to put any weight on his left foot. I took him into the base ER yesterday evening, and we left well past his bedtime with the awesome thigh-to-toe blue cast.

Someone else has already pointed out that the cast is suspiciously close to Carolina blue, so don’t even bother. The only alternative was a K-State shade of purple.

Poor Chip! He was so fond of his new mobility and independence. Poor Mama, having to haul a 24-lb. 15-month-old with a 5-lb. cast around for another month or so. And poor Da-da (the real version, not the Anpanman version) who is missing all of the fun. Fortunately the doctor said that babies heal very quickly, and he should have his cast off in about four weeks with no lasting effects I, however, shall harbor a lingering resentment toward bread-headed superheros.

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