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Japan Days

My Days in Japan

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Welcome to Japan-Days.info

On this web site, I will share with you some stories and pictures from the time when I lived in Japan as a member of the United States Air Force, and from various visits that my wife, Ritsuko, and I have made there since my departure from the military in 1978. I will add content to the site periodically in the "Articles" section, so please visit often. I hope that you enjoy the site.

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Travel to Japan

During the early part of my tour at Yokota Air Base, Okutama became one of my favorite places to escape when I had a day off from work. Okutama is a small town in the extreme western extent of Tokyo Prefecture. Geographically, the municipality extends far beyond the town itself, encompassing a large mountainous area bordering Saitama and Yamanshi Prefectures. Several waterways, including the Tama River, traverse the area, and nearby is Lake Okutama, a large man made reservoir that is an important source of water for Tokyo Prefecture.

Traveling by train from Fussa to Okutama in 1973, on the Ome Line

Back then, as is now, Okutama was a popular destination for hikers and fishing enthusiasts. I used to go there in order to escape into a peaceful natural environment, to hike, and to photograph. For me, the area was very accessible, either by car or by train. By car, the roads were well marked, and although few road signs were in romaji, the kanji for Okutama, 奥多摩, was easy to remember and recognize. However, with the town having train service via the Ome line, rail was the the most convenient conveyance. Japan Railways Ome line provides service from Tachikawa to Okutama, with Fussa (the city outside Yokota Air Base, being one of the stations on the line. The original line was built during the Meiji Period, providing service between Tachikawa and Ome. In 1944, it was extended to its current western terminus, Okutama.

The video in this article is a short film that I shot on super 8 during one of my visits to Okutama in 1973. You can see in the various scenes, a change in terrain from the flat, low lying plain where Fussa is located, to progressively more mountainous terrain as the train travels westward.

photography in Okutama 1974

Okutama 1974, composing a shot with my Nikon F2, demonstrating proper technique of simultaneously holding camera and cigarette

I loved going there to take pictures. Mountain trails and waterways were just a short hike from the station, and they offered great subject material for a photo hobbyist like myself. Shortly after arriving at Yokota, I took up photography as a hobby, and Yokota Air Base was definitely a good place for one to pursue such a hobby. Not only did the Base Education Office offer several courses in photography through LACC (Los Angeles Community College), but also Yokota had an excellent Photo Hobby Shop for military personnel stationed there.

For a price of admission that was comparable to buying a beer at the NCO Club, one could use the hobby shop darkroom. All chemicals and equipment were provided, although you were welcome to bring your own enlarger lens, developer, and other assorted accessories. The hobby shop store usually had a good supply of photographic paper in various sizes, finishes, and contrast characteristics. Of course, if one wanted photographic supplies that the hobby shop didn't stock, Shinjuku was only about 45 minutes away by train. Across the street from Shinjuku Station were a couple of large photographic equipment stores, where one could find anything. I was a frequent visitor to the Sakuraya store in Shinjuku, where I usually tried to keep from spending all my money so that I could enjoy a hot bowl of noodles at one of the nearby standing soba shops before boarding the train for home.

near Okutama Japan

One of my favorite pictures from Okutama 1974- shot on Kodak Panatomic X film, I was trying to expose for maximum grey scale

Bridge near Okutama Japan in 1974 - photo shot while wading in the river

Recently, I found some prints of a few of my favorite pictures from Okutama, that I took during 1973-1975. They were photographs that I had printed at the Yokota Air Base photo hobby shop, and were still in excellent condition. I have the negatives somewhere at home, and considered producing digital media by scanning the negatives in a film scanner, but instead decided to scan the prints using a flatbed scanner. My reason for this is that when I took the photographs, I did so knowing that I would crop the negative to fit the aspect ratio of either 8x10 or 10x12 paper in the darkroom. Therefore, the print better represents what was in my mind when taking the picture, and since I sure can't remember what I was thinking while standing in a river or leaning off a cliff 40 years ago, I'll just scan the print.

fisherman casting from the riverbank

A fisherman casting from the river bank, near Okutama 1974

calm water

Hazy sky reflected in calm water

looking out of tunnel

Light at the end of the tunnel - near Okutama 1974

new mountain road

Newly improved mountain road - near Okutama 1975

This concludes my trip into the past for today. I hope that you enjoyed the video and pictures.

 | Published by: Japan Days  logo
 | Date Modified: October 1, 2019

Japan Culture

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." -- Eleanor Roosevelt (from It Seems to Me: Selected Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt, editors Leonard C. Schlup and Donald W. Whisenhunt)

In the days leading up to September 7, 2013, I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation the impending announcement of which city among the finalists of Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo would be selected to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. I remember feeling intense joy and relief when, on that day, the IOC announced their decision to select Tokyo, Japan as the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Maybe?

Japan National Stadium

The old (1958) stadium was the venue for track and field and opening and closing ceremonies of the 1964 Olympics. I took this photo in early 1978 while Ritsuko and I were attending a soccer match.

National Stadium site in May 2016 -- original stadium has been demolished and the ground leveled, making way for the construction of the new stadium.

New National Stadium foundation construction May 2017

National Stadium near completion in April 2019.

Throughout my life, I have never been an avid fan of collegiate, professional, or really just about any form of organized sports. The exception is that from the time I was about ten years old, every four years the Olympic Games have captured and held my interest. I really don't know why; perhaps it is because of the variety of athletic events held during a short span of time within a specially built set of venues, or maybe it is because of my fascination over the aspect of an international representation of mostly amateur athletes transcending differences of ethnicity, religion, and nationality in a celebration of the true spirit of athletic competition. Whatever the reason or reasons, I really enjoy watching the events of the Olympic Games. Although Ritsuko and I both love watching the games, neither of us have ever attended an Olympics. Not being a cold weather person (yeah, I know -- we live in Iowa), I have never had a burning (no pun intended) desire to attend a Winter Olympics, preferring to watch on the television in the comfort of home, but there have been times when I would have really liked to have been at the Summer Games.

However, for one reason or another, in prior years the stars just haven't aligned in our favor to put together a plan to actually be there, but as soon as the IOC announcement was made, Ritsuko and I decided that we would put forth our very best effort to attend the 2020 Summer Olympics. After all, Tokyo is a city that we know and love, and in my opinion, it just made sense for Tokyo to be selected as the host city.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium - 1964 Tokyo Olympics

1964 Olympics sign at entrance to the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (photo taken Feb 2005)

Yoyogi National Gymnasium with entrance to Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park in the foreground, April 2012

Photo taken from Yoyogi Park April 2019-- you can see through the trees that the Yoyogi National Gymnasium is covered in scaffolding while undergoing a facelift in preparation for the 2020 Olympics.

Although Tokyo has a population of approximately 37 million people and is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, getting from point A to point B is amazingly easy. The extensive network of safe and reliable commuter trains and subways that make up their public transportation system provide a relatively inexpensive and stress free means for a person to traverse the city without having to rely upon a car or a tour bus. Additionally, there is a multitude of hotels all over the metro area, ranging from inexpensive hostels and ultra spartan capsule hotels to luxurious five star accommodations. Food -- yes, whether you choose a konbini bento, street food, a simple bowl of ramen or soba, or gourmet haute cuisine, a seemingly infinite variety of food is available almost everywhere. And while there will be many event venues built especially for the Olympics, many existing sports and entertainment venues can be used; venues such as The Ryogoku Kokugikan, Saitama Super Arena, and the Yokohama Stadium. Also, remember the 1964 Tokyo Olympics? Rather than falling into derelict disrepair as has happened in many other countries, venues and attractions that were built for the 1964 Games have been maintained, improved, and used throughout the decades by the people of Tokyo.

Japan used the opportunity of hosting the 1964 Olympics to showcase their capital city to the world, exhibiting their remarkable recovery in only nineteen years after the end of World War II. In addition to attending events held in venues such as the National Stadium, which had been built in 1958, and other structures that were built especially for use in the Olympics, such as the Yoyogi National Gymnasium and Nippon Budokan, visitors could be transported to and from Haneda Airport on the newly constructed Tokyo Monorail, and they could travel westward from Tokyo to Osaka on what was at the time the fastest train in the world, the radically new high speed, Tokaido Shinkansen (colloquially referred to as the "Bullet Train"), the first of many Shinkansen lines that would subsequently be built throughout Japan.

In order to transform the war torn capital city into a showplace for the world to see in 1964, it is estimated that the government of Japan spent the equivalent of the entire national budget for that year solely in preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games.

Martial Arts Venues

Nippon Budokan, April 2019; 2020 Olympics venue for Judo and Karate

Ryogoku Kokugikan, February 1991; 2020 Olympics venue for Boxing

Ritsuko and I have visited Japan several times since the IOC announcement awarding the 2020 Games to Tokyo. On each of those vists, we have watched the progress in preparation in the city of Tokyo and in surrounding areas. The old National Stadium was razed to make way for a new National Stadium, the construction of which was completed in 2019. New venues such as the Ariake Arena, built for volleyball events, and the Ariake Coliseum at Ariake Tennis no Mori are stunning examples of new structures built for the 2020 Games. An additional treat for visitors to venues in the Odaiba area such as the Ariake Arena and Coliseum is being able to access them on the new Yurikamome Line, a fully automated train that connects the Odaiba island to the mainland. Having been completed in 2014, the Yurikamome was not specifically built for the Olympics, but it is a example of Tokyo's commitment to continually enhancing their transportation infrastructure.

The city of Tokyo has also updated older subway and train stations throughout the city. A prime example is on the Ginza Line, the oldest of the Metro subway lines, most of the stations from Shibuya to Asakusa have been updated. A beautiful new station, Takanawa Gateway, was built on the busy Japan Railways Yamanote Line. This is the first new station built on the Yamanote since 1971, and provides travelers with easy access to Haneda Airport.

With each successive visit to Tokyo, we saw more evidence of preparation for the 2020 Olympics. New construction was evident wherever we went; from hotels to restaurants and updated shopping areas, it was evident that government and private enterprise were heavily engaged in the preparation, and it was also evident that all preparation efforts were on schedule to be complete by July 2020.

Our excitement was building as we watched the preparations and progress. Shortly after returning from our 2019 trip, I signed up for ticket availability alerts on the CoSport website. CoSport is the authorized reseller for 2020 Olympics tickets in the United States. I then began monitoring their website for event ticket availability. A few months later, we booked our airfare on Japan Airlines. We decided to arrive in Tokyo the day before the opening, and stay until 3 days before closing. As 2019 came to a close, we had not only booked airfare, but also had purchased a variety of event tickets, and we had prepaid our hotel bookings for the majority of our stay. Needless to say, we were really pumped in anticipation of our trip.

At the dawn of the year 2020, the World Health Organization began reporting about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. In subsequent days, news stories regarding the outbreak quickly developed with the revelation that a new and highly contagious Coronavirus strain responsible for the pneumonia like illnesses was being transmitted from person to person, and was spreading rapidly. By early March, due to the severity and rapid spread of the disease, the WHO had formally recognized COVID-19 as being a world wide pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared, the IOC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee held the position not to officially cancel or reschedule, and announced that a decision would be made in May 2020. Ever since January, when news stories began to emerge about the virus, I had a sinking feeling that there would be no Olympics in 2020. As the disease spread, fearing an even greater catastrophe if they tried to proceed, I found myself hoping that the officials in charge wouldn't attempt to hold the Games on schedule. Then on March 24, the decision came early, and the 2020 Olympics were officially postponed until July 23, 2021. I remember feeling disappointment in that the Games wouldn't be held; disappointment for the athletes who have trained for months, years, and in the case of some, for their entire lives; disappointment that after massive expenditures in preparing for the event, the economic impact of canceling would be a terrible blow to the Tokyo economy. But, I also felt great relief that in consideration for the threat to public safety, for once common sense had prevailed.

For Ritsuko and me our disappointment was simply that the chance to fulfill a dream had become ever more elusive, but put into proper perspective the pain of our disappointment was mitigated by the fact we have had the good fortune of realizing so many other dreams in our lives, and that the personal economic impact of the Olympics being rescheduled was minimal. The airlines and hotels were very cooperative, thus we were able to get a full refund on our airfare and hotel reservations. We had an option last summer of requesting a refund for our event tickets. CoSport was offering a refund on the basic ticket cost, but we would have lost the service charge. Instead, we decided at that time to keep the event ticket reservations in the hope of the Olympics proceeding in 2021.

For the rest of 2020 and into 2021, the pandemic rages on.

As is stands now, at the end of January 2021, the IOC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee maintain that despite the pandemic, the Olympic games will begin on July 23 of this year. Some changes are being made in reducing the audience size of the events, implementing proper social distancing, etc. But, the pandemic rages on. Vaccines are now developed and approved, but it will take months for enough people around the world to be vaccinated in order to be able to safely hold such an event. And now there are several new variants of the virus, challenging the efficacy of the vaccines in distribution. The pandemic rages on, and I just don't think that it will be sufficiently under control five and a half months from now for the Olympics to be held without putting the lives of millions of people in jeopardy.

We have, for years, dreamed of attending a Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but I just don't think that it is going to happen. Maybe there will be a scaled down socially distanced version, and if that can be done safely and becomes a reality, then I am happy for the athletes who will be able to compete and for those who have put so much time and money into making the Olympic Games happen, but for us, that type of a scaled down event will be something that we would rather just watch on television at home. So at this time we are not planning to attend.

Maybe the 2020 Olympics will never be more than a beautiful dream. As we get closer to the July 23 2021 start date, it is becoming ever more likely that the Games will be postponed again or just canceled altogether. If that happens, I can only hope that those who worked so diligently and relentlessly to turn the beauty of their dream into a reality will be able to carry that dream on perhaps a different path toward a bright future of happiness and prosperity.

UPDATE 3/20/2021: The Tokyo Organizing Committee and IOC today officially confirmed that as requested by the Government of Japan, international spectators will be barred from attending the Olympic Games and the Paralympics.

 | Published by: Japan Days  logo
 | Date Modified: March 28, 2021

My Air Force Days

Post Date: March 28, 2008

As a kid growing up in Dallas in the 1950's and 60's, thoughts of one day living in Japan never really entered my mind. It always seemed like a mystical, mysterious place of unfamiliar customs, ancient temples, and beautiful women. It was an intriguing place, but I never really thought that I would go there.

In the spring of 1973, I was stationed at McClellan AFB, CA, and was on TDY at Norton AFB, CA in order to attend NCO Leadership School. While I was there, I received a call from a personnel specialist at 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing HQ, telling me that I could have an assignment to Japan if I would agree to extend my enlistment by seven months in order to have enough retainability for a two year tour. Ever since I was in tech school, and learned that in my specialty field one of the five places in the world where I could be stationed was Yokota Air Base, Japan, I had been trying to get an assignment there. Now, although I only had about a year and a half left of my enlistment, I had the chance to go. I told the HQ fellow to please go ahead and prepare the paperwork, and that I would sign up for the extension as soon as I had graduated from Leadership School and returned to station.

The next couple of months were rather a blur, as I returned to work, took a TDY to Hawaii, went back to California, sold my car, took a short leave to Texas to visit family, and prepared to venture into another world. Finally, I was in the passenger terminal of Travis AFB, where I said goodbye to a few of my friends, and boarded a flying cattle car (military contract airliner) headed for Yokota AB, Japan.

The flight stopped in Honolulu to take on fuel, and to drop off and take on more passengers. Although US combat operations in Vietnam had ended a couple of months earlier, there was still a lot of US military moving into and out of the Asian theatre, and Hickam AFB/Honolulu International was a hub of connecting military contract flights, as there were a lot of troops from all branches of the U.S. military moving in all directions. I sat in the airport bar, quietly having a couple of beers when some Air Force guys at a nearby table said, "Hey Sergeant!! where are you headed?"

"PCS to Yokota," I said with a big grin.

"YOKOTA!!! JUST STARTIN' YER TOUR????" the heavy-set red haired two-striper bellowed. "You're hurtin'!!! I got three more months and then I go back to the world for good!!! I hope you like fish heads and rice!!!" He and his buddies then simultaneously burst into laughter and yelled, "SHORRRRRRT!" in some kind of a moron chorus.

With great difficulty, I resisted the temptation to demonstrate to them just how well I could combine a few choice expletives into a sentence. Instead, I just quietly finished drinking my beer, and tried not to listen as the knuckleheads went on and on about how much they hated being stationed in Japan. It would have served no purpose for me to tell them that I was looking forward to this assignment, and that I had wanted it so much that I actually extended my enlistment by seven months in order to qualify for it. So, I just sat back and smiled, remembering the words of my friend Joe, who used to say "for a lot of G.I.'s, the only good bases are the one they just came from and the one where they are going next." As usual, Joe had been right on target in his assessment of the human condition.

Finally, it was time for me to board the plane for the last leg of my journey. As I stood in line to board, a lady from PAX services approached me, and asked if I would accompany/assist a dependent family who were in transit to Yokota. I agreed, and was introduced to a young woman with a three year old and a baby who was going there to join her husband. She was a sweet young girl who looked barely old enough to have kids. I carried a couple of diaper bags and held the three year old's hand as we boarded the plane. After we got settled in, I found a coloring book for the three year old, and made sure that he was strapped in his seat. Aside from saying that she already missed her mom, the young woman didn't talk much; she just mostly looked out the window and cried until she, the toddler, and the baby were all asleep. Being single, I had never really considered how much of a hardship that an overseas assignment could be to a family, especially a young family.

Looking around the cabin, I saw in the faces of those on board that everyone there didn't share my zeal over going overseas. Figuring that I was the only person for whose happiness I was directly responsible, I decided that it was time for a shot of Jack Daniel's to put me into a happier state of mind. Retrieving my brief case, in which I had a few mini-bottles stashed, from under the seat, the bar was open.

Yokota Air Base flightline, looking toward the terminal on an overcast drizzling day, early 1970's, you can see a line of C141's and a C5A.

It was the last day of June, 1973. I never saw any landmarks as we flew over the Kanto region of the island of Honshu. Mt. Fuji was down there someplace, but this was monsoon season, and visibility was zero since the sky was a watery soup of drizzling clouds. I helped the young mother pack up the kids and all their paraphernalia, and walked with them in a line of passengers from the plane to the Yokota passenger terminal. I sweated in the heat and humidity as we walked, straining to see anything of the skyline beyond the base, but to no avail. The sky was too overcast. We reached the terminal, and parted ways. I don't know what happened to them after that; I never saw them again.

As a testament to the military mantra of "hurry up and wait", it seemed to take forever to process through the terminal. A customs agent went through every item of clothing in my duffel bag, meticulously inspecting each pocket, cuff, and lining. I really wanted to say something like, "give it up will ya pal, I smoked all my dope before leaving California". Figuring that this guy probably didn't share my sense of humor, and not wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon urinating into a beaker and being interrogated by the OSI, I kept quiet until I was instructed to pack up my gear and clear out. I just wanted to get out of my 1505's, take a shower, and get some sleep.

55WRS NCO quarter patch

55th WRS NCO of the Quarter
That was a surprise.

Exiting into the terminal, I was greeted by my shop chief who had been there patiently waiting while I got through the all the bullshit. We hopped into a flightline truck and headed down a long line of hangars. It was a busy flightline. Forklifts and pallet carriers buzzed back and forth from the freight terminal to a tarmac full of C-141's and C-5's. This was another transportation hub of the Military Airlift Command, and the main tenant organization at Yokota of that era was the 610th Military Airlift Support Squadron, a unit of the Military Airlift Command that was responsible for keeping the en-route transport planes, cargo, and passengers moving through the region safely and on schedule. I'd never seen so many C141's in one place before; on the taxiways, they were lined up to either take off or taxi in. The hazy sky beyond the runway revealed the glow of landing lights every few minutes as another plane came in on approach.

WB57F

Weather Reconnaissance WB57F

My previous assignment had been with the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at McClellan AFB, CA. There had been a similar squadron, the 56th WRS, at Yokota AB, but it had recently been deactivated, and the maintenance personnel were integrated into the 610 MASS. An operational detachment of 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing remained on base with 3 WB-57F aircraft along with the aircrews and basic operations staff. The WC-135's formerly assigned here had either been sent to McClellan or sent to the C-135 depot in Oklahoma to be reconfigured for other types of missions. Since the maintenance people supporting these planes had been integrated into the 610 MASS, I was now assigned there as well. A lot of the missions that the 56th had performed were still operating out of Yokota, therefore the 55th always had at least one WC-135 deployed there.

My part in all this was the maintenance of the weather and air sampling systems on the weather aircraft. I was an Airborne Meteorological/Atmospheric Research Equipment or MET/ARE Tech. There were less than 100 of us Air Force wide, and therefore most people were completely unaware of what we did. The weather aircraft of that era consisted of WC-130's, WC-135's, and WB-57F's. These aircraft were utilized to fly a variety of weather missions as well as special missions. The primary special mission for which they were tasked was sampling the emissions from nuclear weapons detonation tests performed mainly by our cold war adversaries, the USSR and China. These missions were run by AFTAC (Air Force Technical Applications Center), using Air Weather Service aircraft. Essentially the aircrews would fly into areas where it was predicted that the airborne debris from these tests would be in the airstream. A special equipment operator would detect radioactivity in the airstream through which the plane passed and gather whole air samples, which were pumped into pressurized steel spheres, and particulate samples on filter paper mounted in screen assemblies in pods called U-1 Foils. When the aircraft returned to station, the MET/ARE guys not only checked out the equipment, but also were responsible for downloading the samples, and getting them to the lab. Back then, the Soviet Union conducted underground tests, therefore the emissions and debris were relatively low level. China, on the otherhand, conducted mostly atmospheric tests, therefore the planes and the samples often contained dangerously high level radioactive material. Handling that stuff always scared the crap out of me.

1973 USAF photo

My 1973 official USAF mugshot

As we drove down the flightline and on to the enlisted transient quarters, Howard, my new boss, told me that they had been short handed while waiting for me and another guy to get on station, and that they were still running the last few missions in a series of "specials" due to a recent Soviet test. He was in a bit of a rush since a 135 was due back in about half an hour. By that time, with the travel, the time change, and all the bourbon that I had consumed on the plane, my body and brain didn't know what they were doing, so I told Howard to give me a minute to change into fatigues and I would help with the recovery.

So, there I was in Japan, or at least on a U.S. Air Force base in Japan. A base is a base, except on this one, we drove on the left side of the road, and there were a lot of signs for the Japanese civilian workers in a language that I couldn't read. I knew that eventually, I would get outside the gates to see where I was, but first and foremost I had to earn my keep by doing the job that I was sent to Japan to do.

 | Published by: Japan Days  logo
 | Date Modified: March 13, 2022
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