Zao Onsen: Snow Monsters!

This past weekend we headed out for the inaugural ski trip of the season. Our destination: Zao Onsen, a ski town about 400 km north of Tokyo. I heard of its famous snow monsters and hot springs and decided that we should check it out for ourselves.

We set out on Thursday morning heading for Tokyo Station, and our ride: the Yamagata Shinkansen (bullet train). Our ski gear left before us via the miracle that is Yamato Transport Ski Taq-u-bin, as chronicled in a past martayaki post.

Because shinkansen selfies never get old
Assorted Chicken Bits Teriyaki Bento–pretty tasty, except for the not-my-cuppa Chicken Liver Teriyaki


Late that afternoon we arrived at our hotel, Meitoya Sou.  We arrived to our Japanese room as you see below, with two beds in place and a low table in the center of the room. Before bedtime the housekeeping staff pulled the futons out of the closet and made them up for the kids, then restowed them (the futons, not the children–though wouldn’t that be great?!?) in morning. We settled into our room, enjoyed the onsen bath right in the hotel, grabbed some dinner, and got ready for skiing the next day.


Daytime room, futons in closet

IMG_8506The next day we rode up two ropeways to the very top of the mountain to check out the famous juhyo, or snow monsters. As this Japan Times story helpfully explains, juhyo are trees covered in layers of snow and ice, and only certain parts of Japan have the right combination of conifers, high winds, and icy snow to produce them. My iPhone photos don’t really do the juhyo justice. (Aside: Juhyo Justice is an excellent name for a rock band). We oohed, we aahed, we skiied between them. They were incredible! IMG_8481IMG_8455IMG_8449IMG_8464IMG_8467IMG_8461Japanese ski resorts usually offer a basket of slippers in the dining areas, which is absolutely fantastic. I love taking off ski boots for an hour or so, and it’s pretty much the only time I’m happy to wear vinyl slippers that have been on hundreds of feet before mine. The tatami seating area is also a nice touch, though honestly I choose the regular tables and chairs myself–I get more than enough sitting on the floor thanks to the floor chairs in the hotel room. IMG_8475IMG_8476IMG_8477That night we boarded a snow cat for a night tour of illuminated juhyo–because lighting up things in colored lights a Thing in Japan. Winter illuminations. Cherry blossom (sakura) illuminations. There’s pretty much an illumination for every season. IMG_8505IMG_8483IMG_8484IMG_8485IMG_8486IMG_8491IMG_8489IMG_8492IMG_8495IMG_8493

Illuminations aren’t limited to the snow monsters themselves. Walking through town we saw several spots where the stinky, sulphurous spring like this one were lit up by LED that changed color every few seconds.

The next day was a little snowier and colder, but still fun. We enjoyed our second day of skiing, followed by dinner at a local shabu shabu and barbecue joint with a dirt floor.IMG_8470IMG_8469IMG_8508IMG_8511IMG_8478IMG_8479

IMG_8519IMG_8520IMG_8524IMG_8525With two great days of skiing under our belts, the time came to board our shinkansen home. See you next time, Zao Onsen! We’ll be back for sure.IMG_8536IMG_8538


Let’s Go See an Embalmed Communist Leader and a Notorious Prison! Or, Our Last Day in Vietnam

I have to give the kids a lot of credit. When I announced that we were heading off to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and embalmed remains, I expected cries of protest. They merely shrugged and set off. We queued up, surrendered our big cameras, and snapped only two forbidden photos with the iPhone while waiting in the Don’t Take Any Photos line.IMG_8401IMG_8399So how did Uncle Ho look? I’ll let you do a Google image search on that if you’re really curious. But basically–very waxy. I’m not exactly a huge Ho Chi Minh fan, but I suspect that I’ll never visit another Communist capital with an embalmed leader on display (Lenin, both North Korean Kims, Mao) and it seemed like a good opportunity. For those of you curious about this practice, I highly recommend this fascinating photographic guide to the world’s embalmed leaders compiled by The Washington Post. After our visit the kids admitted that they didn’t expect to actually see Uncle Ho under glass.

With our first grim stop of the day complete, we headed off for more fun: the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. This infamous prison was first built by the French during their colonial rule to house Vietnamese revolutionaries. During the Vietnam-American War it held American POWs, most famously now-Senator John McCain, a naval aviator during the war. The prison was demolished in the 1990s for development; only the gatehouse remains as a museum and monument.IMG_9367IMG_9370IMG_9364IMG_9348IMG_9335IMG_9334I had no idea of the origins of Hỏa Lò prison–only its role in the American-Vietnam War. Like many colonial powers, the French brutally cracked down on dissent among their Vietnamese subordinates. The museum’s exhibits described cruel punishments and revolts by prisoners, calling it “hell on earth.” And I believe them.

Then the guidebook shifts tone. Once the French lost power and left Vietnam, Hỏa Lò became a prison for criminals. And the guidebook defines criminals as American pilots who bombed North Vietnam. That got my attention.

I read on, expecting some sort of rationalization. I knew that Americans were tortured, deprived of medical attention, and starved at Hỏa Lò by their Vietnamese captors, which led to the tongue-in-cheek nickname among the Americans, The Hanoi Hilton. So I anticipated some explanation along the lines of “Sure, we weren’t so great to those American captives, but here’s what the Americans did during the war….”. And frankly American troops did some pretty terrible things. Carpet bombings. Napalm. The massacre at My Lai.

But that’s not what the guidebook says. Here’s an excerpt:

During the wartime in Vietnam when people faced numerous shortages in their everyday life, US prisoners of war including pilots were humanely treated by the Vietnamese Government which gave them the best possible living conditions. Captured American pilots were given sufficient personal belongings to meet their daily needs. 

In the prison, captured pilots were created favourable conditions for entertainment, cultural and sports activities, chess playing listening to Voice of Vietnam (English broadcasts), watching films, and enjoying music. 

And from a display:

No more flights on B-52s and carpet bombings, only a serene time for these American pilots to think about what happened and feel the beauty of peaceful life and warm humanity in Hoa Lo Prison. IMG_9346Cy read the displays, looked at the photos showing holiday parties and smiling POWs, and said, Wow. It looks like….camp.

You know that this isn’t true–the American POWs were tortured, I said. Yes, he replied.IMG_9354IMG_9359I felt angry. Spinning the truth is one thing, but there was no truth there. I imagined generations of Vietnamese children visiting this museum and believing that their benevolent government really made a summer camp for prisoners.

I’m not saying that the U.S. is perfect in its treatment of wartime prisoners. There are many examples–and recent ones–of shameful behavior toward prisoners, such as Abu Graib in Iraq. While many Americans demanded accountability at the time, ten years on very few of the Americans involved have faced consequences. So really, truly, Not Perfect. But still. At least there’s hand wringing, and dialogue. And hopefully, maybe, lessons learned for the next time.IMG_9353

McCain visits Hỏa Lò in 2000

John McCain, now Senator from Arizona, figures prominently in the exhibit. He appears in several photos, and his flight suit at the time of his capture is on display. But the most confusing photo for me shows McCain visiting Hỏa Lò in 2000. Given the complete fabrications in the displays, I can’t imagine how he could muster the courage to visit, knowing the falsehoods presented as fact. In May of 1973 he wrote the story of his five brutal years in captivity. It’s painful reading, and long–but worthwhile.

I wish we had visited Hỏa Lò earlier in our trip, and not on our last full day. We loved our visit to Vietnam, and I still hope to return to see more of this beautiful country.


Vietnam: Halong Bay and First Thoughts of Hanoi

After our wonderful visit to Siem Reap, we boarded a 90 minute flight and landed in Hanoi for the second country of our vacation. We spent the night in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, then met our van the next morning for the three hour drive to Halong Bay.

The view of a typical Old Quarter winding street from our hotel room’s balcony

Most foreign visitors to Hanoi take some kind of Halong Bay cruise. The short, one-day cruises stick to the closest, most crowded areas, so several months ago I researched longer tours that offered more time to see less-visited areas. I ended up using Vega Travel, recommended by the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook. (And obviously so did everyone else on our boat, because every single traveling group pulled out the Lonely Planet guide at some point, and I joked about labeling our copy so it didn’t get mixed up. But I digress.)

We got underway and immediately enjoying breathtaking views. The first day’s activities included kayaking and visiting a cave.IMG_8932IMG_8947IMG_8357 copyIMG_8890IMG_8350IMG_8987IMG_8982IMG_8940IMG_8921IMG_8918We spent the night on the boat at anchor, then got underway in the morning and headed for Ti Top Island. When we landed at the dock I immediately noticed the giant statue–and that he didn’t look Vietnamese at all. The statue depicted Ghermann Titov, a former WWII Soviet Union hero and cosmonaut who visited the island during the height of the Vietnam-American War. We started climbing the surprisingly steep stairs and enjoyed the stunning panoramas from the top.IMG_9075IMG_8947After Titop Island we headed to Cat Ba Island, where we rode rickety rental bikes to the Viet Hai commune. We enjoyed a lovely hike through the forest, then pedaled back to the boat. Our second evening took us to Hung Long Harbor, where we spent the night in a hotel that is most accurately described as a communist’s idea of a resort hotel, down to the fluorescent lighting in the rooms.IMG_9179IMG_9175IMG_9154IMG_9211IMG_9241IMG_9054IMG_9118IMG_9111IMG_9104IMG_9016The final day we sailed back to Halong Harbor and drove back to Hanoi, where we started exploring the street scene in the Old Quarter.

Coming up: our visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, more commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton that held American POWs during the Vietnam-American War.IMG_9403IMG_9402IMG_9319IMG_9296IMG_9288IMG_9418IMG_9417IMG_9400IMG_9376IMG_9307IMG_9308IMG_9407IMG_9305IMG_9297IMG_9292