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. As you browse the site, please note that clicking on any of the images will enable you to see an enlargement of the picture, clicking on it again will take it back to original size. Also, many words are highlighted to show the availability of a tooltip, which will provide you with more information about the word, and are invoked by hovering the mouse pointer over it.
I will add content to the site periodically, so please visit often.
On May 9, Ritsuko and I returned from our 2017 Japan Trip. Everything pretty much came together as planned, and aside from both of us coming down with colds in the last week, there were no unpleasant surprises.
At Chicago O'Hare, waiting to board our flight to Tokyo
Flying in economy class for 13 hours is not a pleasant experience, but it was tolerable. This year, we flew on Japan Airlines instead of ANA, on which we have flown on our previous three trips. JAL's widebody 777's are set up with a 3-3-3 seating configuration in the economy cabin as opposed to the 3-4-3 setup on ANA. Also, there is slightly more leg room on JAL. These small differences made for a huge improvement in overall comfort.
Improvements in comfort notwithstanding, by the time that we arrived at Narita, Tokyo International, I felt like I was some kind of creature that had been squeezed out of a tube, and was attempting to regain human form as I slithered into the jetway. Things got better after that. Immigration, customs, and the JR East office were not congested, and we were quickly processed, received our JR Rail Passes, and were on our way to Tokyo via the Narita Express train (NEX).
I'll try to fill in the details on some of the highlights of the trip later, but here is the a broad overview of where we went and where we stayed:
We spent the first night near Tokyo Station across the street from the Yaesu North Entrance at Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo. We also stayed here on the first night of our 2016 trip. The hotel is secure, clean, and well appointed. Although it might seem rather pricey for the size of room, given the location where most hotels in the area cost double or more, it is a bargain. If you need to depart Tokyo Station early in the morning, the convenience of being across the street from one of the entrances near the Shinkansen platforms is worth the extra expense.
The next morning, we traveled by train to Kagoshima, where we spent seven nights in Kagoshima city at the Silk Inn Kagoshima, about 2 blocks from Kagoshima-Chuo Station. Booking a hotel near the station for seven contiguous nights was a challenge this year. This was our first stay at the Silk Inn, and we were quite happy with the hotel. The location was good, the hotel was clean and quiet, and the staff was excellent. We will definitely stay there again. During our stay in Kagoshima, we traveled by train several times to the north into rural Kagoshima Prefecture, where we got together with several family members. We also visited the newly constructed museum on the East China Sea coast in the town of Hashima that is dedicated to the Satsuma Students and their voyage to England in the 1860's. Another highlight of our stay in the Kagoshima area was a return visit to the Uenohara Jomon Period Archaeological Museum and the Kagoshima Prefecture Archaeology Center in Uenohara.
Bob and Ritsuko with Osaka Castle in the background - May 2017
From Kagoshima, we traveled by Shinkansen to Kyoto, where we spent six nights, staying at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Kyoto-Hachijoguchi. This was our first time to stay in this hotel, and we were very pleased. It is a well appointed hotel located a couple of blocks south of Kyoto Station, and a block and a half north of the Karasuma Subway Line Kujo Station. The room was large enough so that we were not tripping over one another, and we had adequate space for luggage. The hotel serves a super breakfast buffet every morning that includes Japanese and western breakfast items. Last year, we left Kyoto a couple of weeks before the new Kyoto Rail Museum opened. This year, visiting the rail museum was on my must see/must do list. Our stay in Kyoto was during Golden Week, therefore, with the exception of the Kyoto Rail Museum and Nishiki Market, and other popular shopping areas, we avoided the more popular tourist destinations in order to avoid the crowds, opting instead for sites less visited or more remote.
Mount Fuji viewed from the Shinkansen en route to Tokyo
The last leg of our journey took us back to Tokyo for the last week of our trip. For the third consecutive trip, we stayed in Asakusa near Sensoji Temple at a small residence hotel, B:Conte Asakusa. Ritsuko and I love staying in Asakusa. Although it does get rather crowded at times, especially on holidays, it is a laid back area with a rich history and lot of great small restaurants. We didn't do a lot during this leg of our trip. We visited some familiar haunts, ate some great food, and mostly hung out and relaxed as we prepared for the journey home.
Overall, it was a great trip, and although we just returned, we are already thinking about our next Japan trip, whenever that will be.
"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.
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.
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. In my mind at the time, it always seemed like a mystical, mysterious place of unfamiliar customs, ancient temples, and beautiful women. It was an intriguing place, but actually going there was something about which I could only dream.
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.
55th WRS NCO of the Quarter That was a surprise to everyone, especially to me.
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.
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.
De-classified Air Force film (circa 1970) describing the mission of Air Weather Service aerial sampling and weather reconnaissance.
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 never many people in the MET/ARE specialty field (AFSC 302X1), but by 1973, there were probably less than 150 of us Air Force wide, and therefore most people who were not a part of the Aerial Weather Reconnaissance missions were completely unaware of what we did. That mission is best explained in the video posted on the left, which is a de-classified Air Force film, circa 1970, documenting the aerial sampling and reconnaissance mission.
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.
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.