To Naoshima Island

‘Red Pumpkin’ greets visitors at the port.

We began the day with another large breakfast. The buffet had fewer western options but did include an omelet station. This time I went for the miso at the end of the meal so it didn’t get cold. Before that I munched on umeboshi, rice, and fruit that included slices of apple, pineapple, orange, and strawberries. Also sampled two types of “smoothies,” one green with too much apple juice and a red pepper version without much flavor. Other people were eating salad, bologna, and scalloped (?) potatoes, among other nontraditional early a.m. items.

From Okayama, we took a local train to Uno and then a ferry to Naoshima. The $3 ferry ticket was the only time we had to pay for transportation except for taxis. The passengers hailed from France and probably Australia, plus other places as we learned later. The ferry transports everything the island needs, hence we boarded with trucks bearing lots of cargo, and cars loaded with people stocking up on groceries.

The weather proved far milder than Tokyo, but like most islands delivered winds that seemed to blow from every direction.

The place offers the charm and surprise of art at every turn. “Red Pumpkin” has a yellow sibling, which sits among other installations, including a man wearing bright yellow trousers reading a newspaper with a blue dog beside him, and an elephant that serves as a planter. I believe the term for these pieces is “whimsical.”

We stumbled around a bit looking for Seven Beaches, our ryokan, and found it with the help of three people, two of whom seemed to be visitors.

It felt delightful to stoop beneath the hanging flags at the entrance into the common area, which featured blue vinyl banquettes and immaculate counters with a container of heated water for tea (or instant coffee) and a canister of cold filtered water.

Our hostesses showed us to our room and even lugged my heavy suitcase up the stairs. The room had the traditional tatami mats and futons but a surprising amount of space.

We drank tea and then walked and walked and walked in search of Benesse House, a museum and hotel complex founded by an industrialist who wanted to rescue the island from poverty after the fishing industry collapsed.

The road climbed and climbed. The sidewalk disappeared. The shoulder dwindled to nothing, meaning we had no protection from the cars and trucks careering up and down. Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier the Japanese follow the British tradition and drive on the “wrong” side of the road, which meant that vehicles snuck up behind us. We decided to turn back.

The walk revealed a serious contrast: the obvious poverty of rundown unoccupied buildings with oxidizing corrugated tin and rotting wood  that sit close to large multi-story houses surrounded by perfect gardens. One lady was clipping her plants with shears not much bigger than nail scissors. To my untrained eye, there was not a leaf out of place.

In other spots, we passed enormous vegetable gardens lush with greens, surrounded by insect-repelling flowers. Olive trees attested to the moderate climate, and the persimmons, which we had spotted from the train, grew in profusion.

We returned to the port area and caught the local bus, an adventure in itself. Off the main road, the streets accommodate only one vehicle (or person) at a time. Kathryn described the protocol: “The pedestrian stands behind the vending machine. The car pulls into a driveway, and the bus gets to go.”

The museums were supposedly closed, though we learned when we arrived that the main Benesse Museum was indeed open. We had a chance to view works of Louise Nevelson, Basquiat, and Rauschenberg. Two stars of the place were “The Secret of the Sky”  and a pie wedge of mirrors that reflected multiple images of little red action figures.

Next up: Dinner at the mystery café.

To Okayama

The day began with breakfast at the hotel. It consisted of a massive spread of all foods American plus all foods Japanese. I opted for the latter: a hearty miso soup, burdock, tiny bits of piquant, lightly pickled cucumbers, umeboshi, a bowl of rice, and a small piece of smoked fish. The kelp had a peculiar flavor that I couldn’t identify and didn’t like. Otherwise everything lived up to expectations and nearly compensated for missing sushi at the fish market.

It continued to pour, so we made our way to the train station, hoping to leave the rain behind. At the main Tokyo station where we caught the bullet train, we encountered teaming masses including a large Australian group (family?) toting heaps of luggage who alighted at Kyoto, as did many others.

The Shinkansen lives up to its name, with the gleaming white trains that speed through the countryside and run on time. We had bought passes from Japan Rail, which gave us reserved seats. By the time we left Tokyo and environs, the sky cleared. The view became so magical I almost cried. Mist rose off the slopes, hillsides covered with evergreens of an intense shade of green that rivaled anything I saw in Ireland. I heard a voice, “Now, you’ve come home.”

Every few miles a group of ancient looking stones would appear, tucked into the hillside or in a field. Very occasionally I could make out a bouquet of flowers, but for the most part, these graves have been abandoned. Those tiny cemeteries did bring tears as I contemplated the centuries that some had stood with family to care for them. Now all the caretakers are gone, too.

Away from the hillsides, rice paddies formed a patchwork of yellow, green, and brown interspersed with the glint of water rivulets. Some fields stood bare. Others had with bundled tufts – mini teepees – in rows. It was many miles before I saw any people working or any harvest equipment. It appeared that a tiny workforce could manage large expanses.

The rail trip took four hours with a transfer at Kobe onto an even more luxurious train.

The toilets on these trains and in the stations are odd: Every one was immaculate with heated seats, a bidet and drying function, but no soap on the sinks, and in some cases, no towels or other means to dry one’s hands. In places where there are multiple stalls, toilets have a button that produces a flush sound to mask the actual bodily function. And we can’t even get to clean.

We knew we had left major tourist areas in Okayama because English-language signs disappeared.

The Crowne Plaza was across the street from the train station with an extremely helpful staff. Since the restaurant we wanted was closed, they made a reservation for us at Akari. We were supposed to walk fifteen minutes and cross a river, which we never saw.

We did stumble on a cute pedestrian mall with a vintage clothing store where the signs were all in English. The proprietor? clerk?, who spoke very limited English, directed us back the way we had come. We eventually found the restaurant’s tiny entrance by matching the phone number on the sign with the number the clerk had supplied. Without that clue, we’d still be walking up and down the street.

Akari proved to be utterly traditional. We sat at a low table (with a spot for one’s legs, thank heavens). Shoji screens separated the dining areas, a good thing because someone across the way was smoking a cigarette.

We ordered a dish with salmon, mackerel, and sea bream, plus veggies. After a pause of fifteen minutes or so, the waiter appeared with a cast iron pot above a propane cooker, a tray with the fish and piles of mostly cabbage plus broccoli, green pepper, tree ears, squash, potato. Two sauces added flavor: ponzu, the usual citrus flavor, or chili that snuck up but never became painful. We cooked it ourselves, though the waiter did check on the timing for us.

All in all an excellent meal. While it lacked the variety of breakfast, dinner at Akari offered subtlety and the contrast of scent, flavor, texture, sound, and color that defines the best of Japanese cuisine.

Tokyo, Abbreviated

After ricocheting around Narita airport, we took an efficient train to Shinjuku, west of downtown Tokyo. We crashed at the Hotel Sunroute, hard by the train station. We reconvened shortly before noon the next day (10/29). It was pouring so we limited our excursion to the immediate environs.

The lines for takeout were longest at McDonald’s and a couple of pizza joints. I flashed back to my disappointment in visiting France where I expected people to be drinking demi bouteilles of vin rouge and smoking Gauloise. There people were drinking Coke and smoking Marlboros.

A lady at a (traditional) restaurant directed us to a place serving vegetarian food where we had these amazing lunches: a small bowl of a clearish soup topped with a drizzle of chili oil. Next to it, an enormous bowl of flavorsome broth filled with noodles, a half egg cooked just beyond soft-boiled, a shrimp ball (not sure how that counts as vegetarian, but it was delicious), two sheets of seaweed tucked in the side, and some strips of what I decided later were marinated tofu. A separate little bamboo container held another shrimp ball made with rice noodles, a veggie gyoza, and a big lump of white dough, which I didn’t eat.

We sat at a “sidewalk café” under a highway overpass and next to a pedestrian walkway. Heat came from overhead lamps that actually made the place too warm. Some folks were sitting on the raised platform with low tables that mandated the removal of shoes. Another section had couches and chairs smothered in brocade along with tassled candelabra and big colorful designs on ceiling and floor, a touch of New Orleans bordello.

Next up, shopping. First stop was the local equivalent of CVS without a pharmacy where I bought a tub of Nivea and some Vitamin C. Impression: prices for those basics are cheaper here.

The building across the way housed Takashimaya, which might as well be Fifth Avenue, NYC, with Gucci, Hermès, L’Occitane, and so forth. We wandered out of the upscale area onto an escalator to shops that offered more realistic prices. Each level held different wares, ending with stationery on the eighth floor, which proved to be a cross between the Dollar Store and Staples in miniature.

One floor down, the gift cards and wrapping paper put American wares to shame. We took turns shielding each other from Christmas decorations, an unforgivable breach considering Halloween had not yet arrived. We found some truly beautiful bags, which felt more like cloth than paper, for the gifts we were giving our host in Nara.

We ate that night at the hotel restaurant., allegedly Italian. It served up dreadful overcooked overpriced fish.

Impressions:

  • Even though the Japanese never eat while walking, they consume entire banquets aboard trains.
  • I love that every place serving food provides wet towels (paper or cloth) to wipe one’s hands before the meal. I remained stymied throughout because no one supplies napkins.
  • Also, the toilet paper manages to be thinner than our single-ply.
  • Many women have donned high heels, up to four inches in some cases. Not a one of ’em knows how to walk without looking awkward.
  • Except for the French-style bakeries, bread has the consistency of cement or of Wonder Bread.

Line on the Color Bar

After reading my blog post on people asking about my race, one of the veterans in my writing group asked how often this sort of thing happened. Here’s a repost from 2008, written before the release of the 1940 census.

When I was a teenager, white folks often asked, “What are you?” Depending on my mood, I’d say, “Human. What are you?” “Black.”  “What difference does it make?” “Why do you want to know?”

People don’t ask as often any more – probably because people who look like me are more visible. I do  still get people talking to me in Spanish and looking shocked when I tell them I don’t understand – in standard American English.

Acceptance is a good thing, but it seems the census bureau is still trying to confuse the issue. The latest is a report that whites will be in the minority eight years earlier than originally projected, and that minority populations, with Hispanics in the lead, will outnumber people who identify themselves as white. (Adding to the confusion, of course, is that some Hispanics consider themselves white.)

Questions about race and color have changed in every census year. The first, conducted in 1790, had categories for free whites, slaves, and all other free persons. Until 1850 only heads of households were named and the broad categories stayed. From then on, the race designations illustrate changing attitudes.
1850 – black, colored, mulatto, white
1860 – black, mulatto, white
1870 – black, Chinese, white, mulatto, Native American, white
1880 – same as 1870, plus Mexican and Asian (separate from Chinese)
1890 (only a fragment survived a fire) – colored, mulatto, white
1900 – Asian, Black, Chinese, Colored, Filipino, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Mulatto, Quadroon, White
1910 – Omitted Asian and added to the 1900 list Arab, Greek, Hawaiian, Hindu, Korean, Malaysian, Negro (in addition to Black), Other Caucasian, Polynesian, Puerto Rican, Samoan and Spanish
1920 – Asian, Black, Chamorro (Guam), Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Latino, Mulatto, Native American, Polynesian, White
1930 – omitted Mulatto and Octoroon and added Portuguese

Not all the census takers got with the program. In 1930, someone changed the designation for people from Portugal from “Port” to “W” in the census for Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The instructions were clear about what races or colors were to be abbreviated and what were to be written out in full. The instructions also said that blacks and mulattoes were now all to be considered Negroes, a change from 1920, when Blacks were Negroes of full blood and mulattoes were Negroes with “some portion” of white blood.

Confusion reigned in most years for both sides of my family. My father’s father changed race from black (1860 slave schedule) to mulatto (1880) to white (1910) to mulatto (1920). Color him missing in 1870 and 1900, and dead before 1930. My father’s mother appears in 1880 as mulatto.

My mother’s father’s family in New Jersey were “free colored persons” in 1840 and then black in every census until 1910 when they became mulatto and then Negro in 1930.

The James family morphed from black (1870 and 1900) to mulatto (1880 and 1910). The part of the family that stayed in Hartford was black in 1920 and Negro in 1930, while my grandmother and her sisters, living in Old Saybrook were mulatto in 1920 and Negro in 1930. And finally my great-grandmother, Anna Houston James, was white in 1860, not to be found in 1870, and mulatto in 1880.

A columnist for an Ohio newspaper notes that the census bureau’s race designations may have initiated and contributed to the separation of the races and to our undying awareness of those separations. Or it may be that the bureau picked up on the division and that the designations just reflect what’s happening in society.

I would say the government in this instance is a follower, not a leader. After all, it took more than 200 years to have the option to check more than one box for race, even as the designations Mulatto, Quadroon and Octoroon had faded into the past (pun intended).

Now the bureau relies on us to define ourselves in as many ways as we want but still puts us in a minority category if we check white plus something non-white. For 2020, I’ll stick with the program and color myself Black or whatever is closest.

Hope for the Future

The ancestors are smiling.

The travel log is taking the day off so I can write about the morning I spent with Professor Jesse Nasta’s class in African American Women’s History. It was a privilege to contribute to the discussion of where we came from, beginning in the seventeenth century – and perhaps examine where we are headed.

As part of the study of the World War II and post-war eras, the class read Ann Petry’s “The Bones of Louella Brown” and the opening pages of At Home Inside.

I hope the students gained a better understanding of her work and of the family who produced her. I came away with a deep appreciation of how engaged and inquiring they were – before 9 a.m. on the day they were scheduled to leave for Thanksgiving.  It was a true honor.

Over the last weeks I’ve been talking about three folks under age 35 who give me hope that the world will be in good hands when we aging folks are no longer around. (Jesse is one of them).  After today I have a dozen more to add to that list.

Even though the class ends this semester, I have the feeling that their quest for knowledge will continue and that they will make significant contributions to society.

Thank you, Jesse, for inviting me to share my family’s story. You have given me a gift of untold worth.

Leaving Hawaii

We departed at about 5 p.m. on October 27 and arrived at in Japan at 8 p.m. or so on October 28. It took almost until we left and the help of English language newspapers to figure out what day it was, though I did manage to remember that the time difference to the East Coast was 11 hours.

Mark gave us advice that improved on the gas buddy prices, which were still at least $0.60 more per gallon than in Connecticut.

We had a messy check-in because of bomb-sniffing dogs performing maneuvers, thus shutting one of the two TSA stations. Eventually we settled in the Japan Airlines Lounge where we caught the end of breakfast, which included some excellent fruit and a croissant, along with lunch options of soup.

I bought copies of Swing Time by Zadie Smith and Song of the Lion by Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne. Once again I followed my practice of choosing books about places at complete odds with my surroundings. Previous excursions included reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii and getting furious with The Feminine Mystique in Mexico.

The flight proved ideal – what air travel should be with a smooth takeoff and landing, no turbulence, and gracious crew members who acted as though they really cared and didn’t yak at the passengers. JAL should hold training sessions for American carriers.

Our seats featured individual pods that reclined into beds. Amenities included a blanket, pillow, slippers, a robe made for someone about half my size, a moisture mask, earplugs that didn’t work to drown out the crying baby, and headphones.

They served little glasses of champagne before takeoff and then brought hot towels to wash our hands. My vegan meal had small helpings of a peas, carrots, and beans dish with just the right amount of flavor, white rice with cashews, tofu with mushrooms in a slightly spicy sauce, salad that had been frozen from which I moused a few slices of tomato and cucumber but left the lettuce covered with ice crystals, and a mélange of cantaloupe, a half strawberry, a slice of orange, and a couple of dreadful grapes. Dessert was a slice of papaya with a lime wedge.

I didn’t think I slept, but it seemed we landed much sooner than expected.

North Shore

Turtle Bay

On our last full day in Hawaii, Kathryn and I headed to the wilder north side of Oahu. The weather continued overcast, and the Pacific Ocean was sending plumes and spray across the beaches and rocks. Some of the parking lots had police tape around them to discourage access to the beaches.

Having left without eating breakfast we stopped at a place called The Spot, which was a series of trailers and shacks, one of which had souvenirs, tie-dye clothes, and hippie style jewelry.

When we arrived the young clerks were telling two guys who wanted to snorkel that they’d have to go to the western side of the point to avoid rough seas. The breakfast tacos with veggies filled us up, and the chickens looking for handouts drove us away.

Turtle Bay has become a private enclave – a pool surrounded by reclining white people being waited on by brown people. We learned from Mark that anyone may walk onto and use any beach on the islands. For the most part, though, the area offered rocks and a serious undertow. A couple of impressive blowholes erupted from the lava.

We drove back down to Kahuku where we found a somewhat sheltered area. Kathryn tried to rescue a crab that had stranded on the beach. It kept flipping onto its back and hadn’t made it back to sea by the time we left. We both got soaked to the knees by a rogue wave.

A misadventure at a roadside stand offering “cold coconuts.” The woman cut them with a machete that left blue discolorations. Plus they weren’t cold. We survived.

We took Mark to dinner at Hau Tree Lanai where we had hoped to view a sunset. Alas, the clouds hung on so we got just a tease – but a great view of the ocean with a few people braving the surf. In the middle distance lay a freighter that ran aground a couple of weeks before and is still awaiting removal.

We dined on the best fruits of the sea: crab cake appetizer, mahi in beurre blanc, salmon with a soy-ginger sauce. And we received magnificent service in an elegant setting.

On the return trip we talked about where Mother had lived when she taught at the University of Hawaii. I couldn’t remember the name, but as soon as Mark mentioned the Marco Polo I recognized the name. He said it had burned, that four people died, and some people are not back in their apartments.  It upset me and still does. She lived on the 32nd floor of that beautiful structure with the breezes wafting through the open air entry.  All I could think was – I’m so glad she wasn’t there when it happened.

Honolulu Exploring

The view from the lanai at Mark’s.


Our first full day offered cloudy weather, along with good coffee and a short walk, More coffee (tea for me) at Starbucks because of the opportunity to use the internet, followed by  a bit of shopping.

Not happy to see the name Bingham Street during our evening drive.  That family could be considered a destroyer of worlds. On our way to dinner we walked through the courtyard of Mark’s church where a group had convened to put the final touches on a mega fundraiser. As the chairperson of the silent auction portion of the event, Mark was busy for a good part of our visit.

The star of the location is a banyan tree so large it would take ten or more people to circle the trunk. It dominated the grounds around the church and could provide shelter except in the worst rain storms. It looked truly magical in the daylight bright moon glow.

We dined at a small Greek restaurant where the hummus, falafel, etc. excelled. The service faltered, though, because the young man saw himself as a writer, not a waiter, hence his lack of knowledge of the menu.

The highlight of the day featured a collection of covers from Time that Mark’s mother started and he continued.  Interesting to see that the image of Hitler included the swastika but that was in the 1930s. These covers could form the basis for a world history course that would engage rather than repel students.

Travels Begin

Had forgotten the declaration on entering Hawaii. At least no one sprayed the plane this time.

Blog went on hiatus because I took the trip of a lifetime and am ever so glad.

The voyage had an inauspicious beginning that rivaled the 2005 stranding over night in Charlotte, N.C. because of an ice storm. This time the plane from Bradley to Dallas left two hours late because of a flat tire. The delay caused me to miss the connection to Honolulu as well as a rebooked flight because there was one customer service rep who spent 35 minutes with a single passenger. A second rep strolled in from lunch and copped an attitude because the people at the gate didn’t rebook me. American Airlines should consider renaming customer service to “customer disservice.”

Eventually AA sent me to San Francisco and then via United Airlines to Honolulu where I arrived at 7 p.m. (1 a.m. according to my body clock) instead of 3 p.m. For unexplained reasons, my luggage showed up.

Indicator that the East Coast U.S. has evolved in ways other places have not: No one has asked me directly or in code “What race/ethnicity are you?” in years. Two people did it between Dallas and Honolulu. The first one started with, “Where are you headed?” and replied “Oh, that must be home” when I said Honolulu. He was a pilot who said, “God bless you” after I said no.

The second was a young woman aboard the S.F./Honolulu flight. She said, “If you don’t mind my asking, what race are you?” I almost said I did mind but instead asked her. Her parents are from India, and she was born in San Diego and travels the S.F./Honolulu route twice a month on business, stands up and wears compression stockings while drinking copious amounts of white wine.

My dear friend and host in Honolulu Mark Wilson greeted me with a lei. He was accompanied by Cousin Kathryn Golden, my travel companion for the next leg of the voyage who had arrived on time. The rain poured down as it can only in the tropics. A thunderstorm with ferocious winds blew the plastic coffee filter off the kitchen counter and upended a chair on the lanai.

The general idea was that the typhoon in Japan had blown across the Pacific. I was too exhausted to care.

Blame any typos or other errors in this and further entries on the fact that my body is in Connecticut, but my mind and spirit are still over the Pacific or maybe in California.