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Madeline Goes to Japan

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 1998; Page E01

   


Since cryogenists haven't figured out yet how to suspend children in a little frozen haze -- and since our pediatrician refused to prescribe a sleeping aid -- we wondered whether we were crazy to consider dragging a 5-year-old halfway across the world.

How would we weather 16 hours and two airplanes just for the first destination -- Tokyo's Narita Airport -- knowing that at the other end there would be lines for luggage claim and customs and immigration with all of us jet-lagged and still nearly two hours from downtown Tokyo?

And after we'd endured the first leg of the two-week journey -- which would include an overnight to Mount Fuji, a flight to Hong Kong and a jetfoil to Macau -- how much could we really see, do and enjoy with a kid in tow?

The answer to the second question, I'm glad to report, is lots. We adapted our activities to accommodate our small companion, but much less than we anticipated. In return, we got to see part of the world through the eyes of a child.

For Madeline, our Maddie, the trip provided the mind-expanding, broadening experience often attributed to travel. I don't know what she will remember 10 years from now, but I know that on this trip she realized the world is a wondrous place.

Time, for example, meant nothing to her before our trip. It began looming large in her imagination when she realized that time is fluid, that the sun does not disappear when she can't see it, but shows its light to other people in other places.

At least several times a day she'd ask what time it was in Japan, and what time it was back in Washington. She marveled that while she was eating dinner, her friends were getting up for school. When we moved on to Macau and she asked her father what time it was in Japan, he made the mistake of putting the time an hour ahead. She corrected him to say it was an hour earlier in Japan.

She now pretends she can speak all the languages she heard on the trip. She asks people to request a song and tell her the language they'd like to hear it in. She has captured the accents and intonations so well that if you have only a passing acquaintance with Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese, you'd swear she'd learned them all and mistake her gibberish for linguistic genius.

The ordinary struck her as most extraordinary: She asked, for example, that we take photographs of a car with the steering wheel on the right side, and pictures of a Japanese-style squat toilet. While using the latter, clutching her slacks in one hand, she observed, "This only works good if you're wearing a dress."

But before taking off we didn't know what to expect. I couldn't get past my dread of getting through the square one of getting there.

Maddie has trouble sleeping in a warm bed in a dark room with quiet music, so my husband and I figured a long and whining journey was in store unless we got some help. After our first idea -- drugging her -- was thwarted, my husband, Bruce Alpert, offered to be the hero and give me the one first-class upgrade he'd procured through frequent flier programs. But we both knew Maddie would be begging for Mom, and Dad would end up being the one sipping champagne with his legs stretched out.

I suggested using the upgrade to put Maddie in first class. The airline rules allow for kids to fly unaccompanied, so why not?

The image of Bruce and me chatting and napping while rich businessmen dealt with Maddie was delicious, but our sense of basic decency prevailed. Even two journalists between them don't have that much chutzpah. We booked coach and packed a bag of tricks -- books, toys, games and a supermarket rack full of snacks. The first rule of travel with children: Suspend all pretense to nutrition and stuff them with junk at the first sign of crankiness.

Even so, after half an hour in the air I was ready to concede a mistake, get off the plane in Detroit, and catch another one back home. Wait until the weather turned warm in Bethany and take the kind of vacation God meant for families to have.

We hadn't even taken off when we began troubled negotiations about how many chapters of "Ramona the Pest" I would agree to read aloud at one sitting. It's not fair, Maddie said, that I could read as much as I wanted whereas her inability to read left her dependent on my whims -- pretending like she'd been allowing me to wallow in thick novels for the past five years while she'd quietly played a solitaire version of Candyland.

By the time we were crossing the Potomac, I was dipping into the bag of tricks I'd planned to first reveal somewhere far over the Pacific.

The owner of Barton's Child's Play in upper Northwest Washington had helped prepare the bag, and strongly suggested everything be new, never before witnessed. I should have listened. The Wicki Sticks -- bendable wires covered with wax -- had given Madeline hours of uninterrupted entertainment the day she found them in my closet two weeks earlier. On the airplane, they fascinated her for approximately 20 seconds.

I pulled out the cross-stitch kit, and was delighted to hear she'd learned how to do that all by herself in Ms. Mitchell's kindergarten class. I settled back to read a weird book about aborigines lent by a friend. By the time Maddie had dropped her plastic cross-stitch needle between the seats in a passive-aggressive display of boredom, I had read six paragraphs -- and I used to teach the Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics course.

Since coach seats are specifically designed for the bodies of humans under age 6, you'd think she'd at least be comfortable. But no. Her parents' arms on either side of her seat were in her way if they so much as touched the armrests. When we scrunched our arms close to our bodies, our shoulders bothered her.

Then a strange thing happened. Maddie settled in. I think it's a common phenomenon; it happens to me on long car trips. At the start I'm always chafing at the bit, bringing to the task of sitting my usual desire to get things done. Somewhere along the line -- for me on a cross-country drive it's usually about mid-Kansas -- you suspend normal expectations and find the rhythm.

The "Scratch Art" pads were new to Maddie, and provided about an hour of entertainment. She worked for long stretches on the kindergarten workbooks I'd found at Border's. She surprised me by entertaining herself for a couple hours with music piped through the airline earphones.

She even slept for a few hours, although that, too, was painful for her parents.

Bruce had managed to get bulkhead seats by calling the airline early in the morning 90 days before takeoff -- the first day seat assignments can be made. That gave us the saving grace of leg room. But the middle armrest on bulkhead seats is stationary, which meant Maddie could not lie between us as planned without hoisting her legs over an armrest. It caused lots of complaining and, once she fell asleep, thrashing. If I so much as twitched to relieve muscles cramped by holding her head and torso, Maddie would thrust her toes between her father's ribs.

We straggled into Narita at 5 p.m. -- or 3 a.m. according to our body clocks. I fell in love with a customs official who saw Maddie and immediately pulled us out of a very long line, ushering us through a special diplomatic exit.

Bruce and I were exhausted, cranky, fixated on how to exchange money and get transported downtown. The excitement of the adventure had rejuvenated Maddie. I realized that kids can find pleasure during periods in which we find pain, because like kings and presidents, they don't have to haul luggage or figure out exchange rates or worry about prices or getting ripped off.

She was still wide awake and ready to play when we arrived in Tokyo hours later at the home of a friend who'd been posted to the American Embassy and given living quarters large enough to accommodate guests. Having a home with a built-in playmate and a family room with toys was one of the secrets of fun travel, but at the same time, it was a two-edged sword: Children inevitably quarrel, especially when they've known each other so long and intimately they are more like sisters than friends.

We all dropped off to sleep about 10 p.m. At 2 a.m., Maddie sat up in bed and announced: "I'm awake and I'm starving." That was the last she slept until that evening. But it's not as annoying as it sounds: I, too, by 2 a.m. was awake and starving.

Each morning, she slept one hour later. By the time we were ready to leave Japan a week later, we were functioning on Japanese time.

There is no doubt Maddie was stimulated and delighted by the sights and sounds of a foreign country. The same child who has to be dragged from one store to the next at the mall walked for miles along the streets of Tokyo without complaint. The vending machines with peach and mikan and coconut drinks delighted her as much as the temples, museums and department stores.

Our visit happened to coincide with 3-5-7 day, when Japanese children of those ages dress in traditional clothes and are blessed at Shinto shrines. Our host's child -- Julia Dohner -- let Maddie try on her kimono, hairpiece and patterned clogs after returning from the Hikawa shrine.

The shrine, near the embassy compound, included a playground beneath the fan-shaped leaves of gingko trees. Both kids loved pulling a long robe that rang a bell that awakes spirits who grant wishes.

Tokyo surprises with the many delights it holds for children -- things specially designed for them, and things of general interest that capture their imagination. Maddie amazed us by turning down a day's outing to Tokyo Disneyland. She said the characters would be speaking Japanese, and it would feel weird.

We saved lots of yen substituting the nearly free National Children's Castle, an utter delight built in 1985 by the Ministry of Health for $32.3 billion yen -- or about $240 million. It combines the best of America's Discovery Zone, Jeepers, Imagine That, the Children's Museum and more.

In the music room, girls in white shirts perform children's songs, and guests keep time by beating on the many drums around the room. An indoor "Play Hall" offers climbing and sliding structures, games and storytelling. There are a pool, a gym, a roof garden and playground, a computer center, live performances, an audio/visual library.

At the Sensoji Temple, Bruce and I enjoyed the stunning architecture from a structure dating to A.D. 628, while Maddie loved the colorful stalls operated by descendants of those who cleaned the temples in ancient times. After considering geisha dolls, washi paper boxes, origami mobiles and the like, she chose a pair of Disney Dalmatian tennis shoes.

At the Tsukiji Fish Market, where the shrimp and octopus were still swimming and the frogs still hopping, Maddie accepted a shopkeeper's gift: dried minnows. They smelled like swamp, but Maddie claims they tasted like popcorn. Maddie and Julia endured visits to pottery stalls in exchange for a reward of candy and a lacquered tray of their choice.

Later, at lunch in a market tempura restaurant, the girls filled their new trays with chocolates and began offering them to other patrons, saying "Dozo," or roughly translated, "Please have this."

We were about to intervene and control our offspring, but it was clear they were a hit.

It was another case of what seems an under-reported patience and love that the Japanese seem to have for children. Western children seem to hold for them a particular draw.

During our two-day trip to Hakone, a resort area with fabulous views of Mount Fuji about an hour by bullet train from Tokyo, strangers took many more photographs of Maddie than we did. The moment she paused, someone took her picture. I imagine her in photograph albums on coffee tables all over Japan -- the American child on a rock along Lake Ashi, the American child feeding the carp in a pond outside the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita, the American child doing nothing but posing.

It may have been too much for a shy child, but Maddie thrived on the attention. She is, after all, a child I recently heard describing her own brown hair as being honey blond.

The Fujiya, incidentally, is not to be missed. The 118-year-old hotel is, in a word, majestic. Arising early in a jet-lagged fog, Maddie and I wandered the hotel's gardens.

The hot springs pool and separate indoor communal bath soothed us after a long day traveling the mountainsides on small trains that crisscross and backtrack to scale the heights and a cable car that passes over steaming volcanic springs. The circular trip is completed by a boat ride across Lake Ashi and a bus back to the hotel.

The hotel's main restaurant is so elegant we decided it wouldn't be worth the price with a child along. We instead walked to a simple tempura restaurant -- one of the few examples of having to temper our own pleasure to accommodate a child. Even then we didn't miss the pleasure of dining in the hotel's world-class restaurant: We simply ate breakfast, complete with silver service sets and hovering waitresses, the next morning.

Then, while I sipped jasmine tea and ate scones in the hotel's Orchid Room, Julia's parents and Maddie's dad took the kids to the Hakone Open Air Museum. From what I hear, it is a fabulous museum of 20th-century sculpture. The kids reportedly loved getting lost and found in the Garden Maze, and climbing all over the Castle of Nets -- a huge rope sculpture with hidden tunnels.

On the trip back to Toyko from Hakone, Maddie and Julia amused themselves by drawing on small pieces of paper they called "tickets," and passing them out to other passengers. They were hot items, with passengers showing them to each other, laughing and putting them into their wallets to save -- perhaps to add to the albums with photographs of Maddie and Julia.

After a week in Japan, we boarded an evening flight to Hong Kong. Six hours is not enough time to settle into the rhythm, and the flight confirmed my belief that the proper ratio of adult to child is two to one, at the very least.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived in Hong Kong. Customs officials did not rush to our aid as they had in Japan. But after standing for half an hour in a line that barely moved, I approached an agent and requested special treatment. He took one look at our bedraggled child and accompanied us straight to our baggage and out the door.

Once again, the excitement of a new place -- and the neon lights -- invigorated Maddie. When we arrived at our hotel in the wee hours she asked, "What can I do now?" We calmed her down with a dose of "The Age of Innocence," the only English-language show on television.

The following day, we boarded a hydrofoil to Macau. A friend's husband had been dispatched there to prepare for the Chinese takeover of the longtime Portuguese territory. The tiny nation butts against China, which can be visited by passing through a simple gate.

Aside from some playgrounds, little in Macau is built specifically for children. In fact, gambling is the biggest tourist attraction. But it quickly became one of my favorite places, and Maddie's, too.

At the Jardim Municipal de Lou Lim Iok, we watched elderly women practice tai chi and hide among the rock gardens. As the name suggests, the garden combined the best of colonial Portugal and Asia, as Macau is wont to do. In a marbled courtyard ringed by red lacquered benches carved with dragons and lotus flowers, we watched a Chinese symphony orchestra perform..

In the Senate Square, where finely restored colonial buildings in pastel colors surround a tiled courtyard, we watched people and pigeons and shopped the nearby streets for hours. Maddie could more easily endure my looking at clothes and furniture knowing that the next stall might hold live songbirds or frogs or perhaps some of the Indonesian or Portuguese pastries she'd come to love. She was as taken as I by the sight of Macanese taking their songbirds for walks, holding them aloft in gilded cages.

On a day trip to the island of Taipai, she endured without complaint visits to museums, temples and historic homes. Our visit to the Taipa House Museum was typical. While we sat beneath grape arbors on a cobblestone street, enjoying the view of colonial homes in one direction, and across the fields in another direction a view of mainland China, Maddie happily collected bits of shiny paper -- the remnants of spent fireworks and burnt spirit money.

Perhaps her finest hour was her visit to a public school. The family we were visiting sends one of their children to Jardim de Infancia D. Jose Da Costa Nunes. When a teacher heard an American was visiting, she invited "Madelena" to spend the day, or even the week. We dropped her off with some apprehension, wondering how she'd fare in a class where she knew only one child, and only one child spoke English.

We came by at lunchtime to rescue her, but she and her pal Josephina Prince had been chosen to set the tables for a school lunch of wonton soup, fresh broiled fish, fried rice and chocolate croissants, and she wasn't about to leave.

While Maddie is no shrinking violet, she has a streak of timidity, and her sense of adventure surprised us. She simply rose to the occasion of travel, again and again.

I heard her asking a friend the other day if she'd ever been to a foreign country. Told yes, Maddie asked where.

"New York," answered her friend, Mattie Wruble, a 5-year-old from Bethesda.

Maddie accepted the answer without question, and the two began exchanging information about the strange and wonderful things they'd seen and done in those marvelous foreign lands.

For more information about travel to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, One Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, N.Y. 10020, 212-757-5640, http://www.jnto.go.jp; for travel to Macau, contact Integrated Travel Resources, 5757 W. Century Blvd., Suite 660, Los Angeles, Calif. 90045-6407, 310-568-0009, or check the Macau Government Tourist Office's home page at http://turismo.macau.gov.mo/.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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