Posted in Japan, Okinawa, Travel, writing

A Belated Thank You to the People of Japan

At the urging of some friends, I am going to detail some of my experiences as a young Naval person, on my first experience out of the good ol’ U.S. of A., specifically the year and a half I spent in Okinawa, Japan.  This is a longer than usual post because there are just so many episodes that need to be told. I’ve so often thought about writing this up, I wasn’t sure I hadn’t already. This is just a big thank  you to all the wonderful people I encountered there, for helping me out of jams and just being so kind.

Being young and dumb as we all (or at least most of us) were, I have no doubt I did many things that furthered the image of the ‘ugly American.’ Not intentionally, but being as naive as I was, and knowing as little as I did at the time about Japan and its people, I don’t see how I could not have. :::sigh::: I wish I could apologize sufficiently.

During one of the summers I spent in Okinawa, a group of us took a trip up to the mainland to climb Mt. Fuji and bum around Tokyo for a week. It was an amazing experience, in the truest sense of the word. You can read more about the climb up Fuji-san here, but some of the most memorable stuff happened after the rest of the group had gone back to Okinawa, and I decided to take a side trip out to another base to see a friend of mine.

My friend Nancy and I had met at the AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station) in Newark, NJ where we had to report to take our entrance physicals. We then discovered we were going to boot camp the same day, and were in the same unit for the eight weeks in Orlando. After that, we both reported to Pensacola, FL: NTTC Corry Station for our ‘A’ School as we were going into the same rate (job). I went on to an additional school, but after that I got orders to Okinawa, and she had been sent to Kamiseya, Japan. So, how could I not drop by to visit after all that when I found myself so close?

Now, taking the trains around a foreign country where you can’t speak or read the language can be pretty intimidating. Luckily, the Japanese have very kindly included English on most of the signage in the areas where there are a lot of US service personnel, and in the larger cities. God bless ’em, I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. Now this is all well and good until you get out into the countryside away from large pockets of tourism. I think it was in the train station in Yokohama where the signs change to all kanji. Cue panic attack. I didn’t have the vaguest idea where I was going or which train to get on.

Knowing that the kids have to study English, I looked around for some likely prospects and found a group of younger people, probably high school age kids, and proceeded to approach them to ask for help. One thing they love doing is practicing their English. Again, God bless ’em. I walked up to one girl and said, “Excuse me, is this the train to Kamiseya?” Well, you would have thought I was a rock star, because in minutes I had a small throng around me trying to listen in and help. Naturally I was speaking at a normal pace, not thinking, and they had to keep asking me to ‘speak slower, speak slower.’ Finally I was able to be understood and much affirmative head-nodding ensued to assure me I had found the right train. Ok, well and good so far. I hopped on the train with my big blue Samsonite hardside suitcase that I was schlepping around. As the train was getting fairly full and no seats were to be had, I sat on the suitcase. That is, until some kind young man got up and motioned for me to take his seat. I tried to refuse, pointing at my suitcase, to say I was fine where I was, but he was not taking no for an answer so I finally thanked him and took his seat. He looked very pleased. I believe he was one of the kids I had been talking with. I know some of them were on the train.

As the train continued on through the various stations I kept looking around, trying to figure out where we were. At every stop, my hero would say “This not Seya.” Thankfully, he rode at least as far as I was going. When we pulled in to my stop, he told me “This Seya! This Seya!” I could have kissed him. So off I go, expecting Nancy to be there to pick me up. Nope. No sign of her. So I waited, I’m not sure how long, before I started getting a little panicky again. There was no one around, except the station master who didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t even know the phone number to the base to call and find out how to get there. At length I was reduced to tears, and the poor station master had no idea what to do. So there I sat, having no clue where to go or what to do.  After a few minutes I saw a nicely dressed young man walk up and the station master approached him, and the two of them spoke in Japanese, glancing over at me occasionally. Finally the newcomer walked over to me and said, “Can I help you?” I coulda kissed him, too. I explained the situation, that I was waiting for my friend who was at least an hour late by this time, and wanted to find out how to call the base. So he listened and nodded and then walked over to a pay phone and started making some calls. He came back and told me, “I’m sorry I couldn’t find out anything, but my friend will be here soon and we can give you a ride.”

Like the paranoid American I was (am), I thought, hmmm… get in a car with two strange men in a country where I can’t speak the language? I politely deferred and said I was sure my friend would be there soon, and that wasn’t necessary. Well, time passed, no sign of Nancy, but his ‘friend’ showed up. Turns out it was his fiancee. (Insert embarrassed face) I assume he explained what was going on, so she quickly got into the back seat of the car to allow me to sit in front while he drove. Also, he put on the local AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio & Televsion Station) on the car radio so I could listen to English. Color me abashed. I hope I thanked them enough. They drove me right to the gate of the base, and wouldn’t you know it, just as we drive up, there comes Nancy on her way to pick me up. I tried to offer my saviors some money for gas and the phone calls but of course they refused. I’m very sorry to say I did not get their names, but if Fate should somehow arrange for them to see this post, please know I have told this story many times over the years to anyone who would listen. The kindness you showed to a frightened, stupid, lost American woman has never been forgotten.

Even then I liked taking pics from the car!

But wait, there’s more. Back on Okinawa, I left a party one night around 3:00AM and while I wasn’t completely plowed, probably should not have been driving. No crashes, nothing tragic came of it, although it well could have. Again, I plead young and dumb (I was 18 at the time). So in my slightly inebriated condition, decided it was a nice night to drive down to the beach. And by that I mean drive ON the beach. Long story longer, I got the car stuck in the sand. About this time, a group of young Okinawan men came by. They watched me trying to rock the car out of the sand for a couple minutes, then they all gathered around the car, some in front, some in back, trying to push as I shifted from reverse to first. Nada. Finally one of them signaled for me to get out of the car. So I did. He hopped in and was clearly a better driver because they got the car out pretty quickly and up onto the road again for me. The young man hopped out, and they all waved to me as I thanked them and they wandered off down the beach in the night.

I don’t kid myself for one minute that if this scenario had taken place in the U.S. I would have been dead. Despite my black little atheist heart, they say the Lord looks after fools and children. I was a double threat, being both at the time. I can only surmise I kept my guardian angel hopping.

Then there was the morning I decided to walk back to the barracks from the operations building when I got off watch at 6:00 AM. It was a pretty, warm day, the sun was coming up, and it really wasn’t that far so I decided a walk might be nice. As it turns out, a very lovely Okinawan woman saw me walking along the road and stopped to offer me a lift. I don’t recall whatever conversation might have taken place, I suspect very little, but I took her up on the offer (I probably changed my mind about the walk at some point) and got in the car. I swear she looked like a china doll, she was absolutely beautiful, at first I wasn’t sure she was real. She gave me a lift to the intersection where the base was, and I never saw her again.

Another time driving up to the operations building there was a protest going on. It seemed some time back the Marines had dropped a trailer (they airlift these things sometimes) and it had fallen on and killed a little girl. So the next time they did it, the locals were out protesting against this practice. I was stopped by one of the local JPs (Japanese Police) just before we got to the protesters and was told I could go ahead and go through but don’t stop and keep the windows rolled up. We went through without incident. No one tried to stop us or get near the car. It was the most orderly protest ever.

I could probably talk all day about my time there. I actually felt homesick for Okinawa for a long time after returning to the States. Those people deserve a lot of credit for putting up with us and still being so kind and helpful to us. So to anyone this gal encountered there in the period of April 1979 to October 1980, I thank you for making my time there so memorable and giving me so many treasured memories, and for all your kindness. I wish I could repay it somehow. All I can say is Domo Arigato, about a bazillion times.Outside the barracks in Orlando

Me & Mom at Disneyworld after boot camp graduation
Posted in writing

Okinawa & Japan

Since a couple of people asked, here’s a bit about my time in Japan and Okinawa while I was in the Navy. I was stationed on Okinawa, part of NSGA Hanza (Naval Security Group Activity, aka, ‘spooks’), for 18 months but got up to the mainland on a short vacation, primarily to climb Mt. Fuji. My biggest regret at the moment is the lousy camera I had at the time. I’ve pulled a few pictures that seemed more interesting than others. Most of the photos I have are pictures of shipmates while I was there, and so not of much interest to anyone but myself.

Anyway, to start with, Okinawa was my first duty station after the various schools the Navy sent me to around the country. I have to say it was more than a little surreal as it was also the first time I’d ever been out of the country. I’d never so much as gone to Canada or Mexico, so it was quite an experience. Surprisingly, learning to drive on the opposite side of the road seems to come quickly to people. I don’t recall anyone having any real trouble adjusting. It was also where I learned to drive a manual transmission, so I learned to shift with my left hand. I had more trouble readjusting to driving on the right when I came back to the States.

Here’s a shot of the Army base I was quartered at, Torii Station:

The Navy had separate barracks (just there on the left in the photo) from the Army people, and strangely we really didn’t mix with eachother. The inter-service rivalry was alive and well. Humans have an amazing capacity to divide themselves into separate groups, we seem to find reasons to keep our little tribes away from eachother. Anyway, the entrance to the base was through these torii gates. Behind it you can see the South China Sea. I remember one time driving down the hill where I took this picture and seeing two water spouts (tornadoes at sea). That was quite a sight. Sadly I did not have a camera handy at the time.

One of the first things we all had to do when we reported there was to take a class on some basic Japanese phrases, to help us navigate out “on the economy” as we used to say. We were also briefed on how to dial phone numbers there (longer and somewhat more intricate than in the States). Then, when we had just enough knowledge to be dangerous, we were packed off on an Okinawan bus to the capital city, Naha, for the day. Once we arrived we had to use a local pay phone to call back to the base. A gaggle of my buddies and I somehow made our way to a shopping mall and spent some money. I set about testing my new-found Japanese skills on a girl who worked in one of the shops, and bought several items. I guess they were impressed that I’d embarrass myself publicly like that and gifted me with a little red glass bell windchime, which still proudly hangs in my kitchen to this day. The moral of the story is, they don’t care how little you know or how badly you pronounce the language. They’re so pleased that you’ve made an attempt to speak it, they will bend over backwards to help you out.

This is one of my favorite pictures that I took. It’s a group of schoolchildren, not sure where they were heading, but I thought they looked like a row of ducklings in their matching yellow outfits toddling down the sidewalk. I’m guessing they were kindergarten age, they were so cute. Their teacher is at the head of the line there.

This pic is actually a postcard that I was smart enough to buy of a cemetery filled with mausoleums. I have pictures of another one closer to the base that are more rounded on top, which at the time we referred to as ‘turtle-back tombs.’

And here are some ladies we met up with outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo who were kind enough to pose for pictures in their lovely kimonos.

And this is the moat around the Imperial Palace.

A group of us had gone up to the mainland for a week or so primarily to climb Mt. Fuji, and then I spent a few extra days on my own visiting a friend who was stationed at another base, Kami Seya. Wow, there’s a story and a half which I think I’ll save for another time. Instead, I will tell you about climbing Mt. Fuji. You’ve all see photos of Fuji-san from a distance, so here’s what it looks like on the trail. Honestly, I have no idea how high up we were at this point:

We’re above the tree-line here, above the clouds. It’s not really all that pretty at this height. It’s composed of volcanic rock, and the trail most of the way is several inches deep loose volcanic gravel. We all had walking sticks with the Japanese battle flag attached and bells that tinkled with every step (most of us removed the bells before too long). The sticks are branded at different stations on the way up, to mark how far you make it. There’s a station (8th? 9th?) that is the last before the summit climb where hikers stop overnight. Then, they get you up about 3:00 AM to finish the climb to the top to watch the sun come up. I skipped that part, believe it or not. Ok don’t yell at me, I was young and dumb. I remember sitting down to rest at one point on the climb, and as I sat there catching my breath a couple of older Shintu priests who were briskly making their way up started waving and smiling as they went by, saying “Come on! Come on!”, urging me on. What could I do? I got up and started walking again. I forget how many hours we climbed, at least four, possibly five. We didn’t start at the base, we were bussed to the “5th” station to begin the hike (which was good as a few of us had gotten hammered on sake the night before…I do not recommend climbing mountains with a hangover, for the record) You can see a hiking stick being carried by someone in the photo below. I still have mine.

While wandering around a couple days before the climb, we made our way to Kamikura, where we saw this enormous bronze Buddha. It’s said to have been housed inside a temple once. Then centuries ago a tsumani washed over the area and destroyed the temple, but left the Buddha in place.




Monument to Atomic bomb casualties






Typical street on Okinawa