While I was stationed in Korea, I was accumulating vacation days at the rate of 30 days per year (as I remember). I must have some days accumulated already because, after about eight months, I had enough days accumulated to take a thirty-day vacation. Most of the guys were saving their vacation days for when they got back to The States but a fellow GI, Terry Upman, and I decided to use ours to go to Japan.
We had several reasons for this, but the over riding reason was that Japan was actually doable for a couple of neophytes like us. China was closed, Indonesia was convulsing and neither one really knew anything about it, and the same with Cambodia or Thailand (in the not knowing anything about it department). Of course Vietnam was out of the question, even then. But I had an actual travel book about Japan; Japan on Five Dollars a Day.
We found out we could hitch a ride on a MATS – Military Air Transport Service – plane from Kimpo International Airport near Seoul to Tachikawa Airbase near Tokyo for free and that it was only a four-hour, or so, flight. Another good deal was that, unlike Korea, we could wear civilian cloths in Japan, so we both wrote home and asked our parents send us some clothes. Japan on Five Dollars a Day in hand, we went on vacation. Or leave as the Army called it.
When we got off the plane in Japan, our clothes were waiting and for the first time in eight months, I was out of uniform. That lead to my first shock. Terry and I were good friends but we were from very different backgrounds and seeing each other in our civilian clothes added a level of information that left us both realizing how different our backgrounds were. And how much it didn’t matter.
(I want to make a pitch for National Service here. It is better for the country and it is better for our young people. First, it would also be much harder to send young men, and women, into the meat-grinder of – often unnecessary and even counter productive – war if the pool of citizens from which they were drawn was the whole country. Those people who didn’t pull military service, could work in hospitals, pick-up along roads, repair trails in National Parks, do something that would add to the community. Second, I never would have met Terry if we hadn’t been stationed together in Korea. I would never had met guys from Louisiana or Georgia or New York, my view of the United States – much like young privileged people today – would have been much more parochial.)
As soon as we got on the train to Tokyo, we realized that Japan was not Korea. From what I have read, we pretty much trashed Japan but it didn’t seem like it to us. Compared to Korea, Japan seemed very first world. We got into Tokyo late Friday afternoon – maybe early evening – and it was packed with young hikers going to the mountains.
In Tokyo, we stayed at a retreat center named something like Pacific Peace Foundation (the irony was not lost on us). It was a great place and it cost us about $2.50 per night – which was the top of our range – and the view from our room, of a peaceful garden, would probably make it a $500 per night room at the Hyatt today.
Our first stop was the world-famous – even then – Ginza district of Tokyo. The lights were nothing compared to now or Shanghai now, but we were very impressed after eight months in rural Korea and I probably would have been impressed in I had just flown in from San Francisco. Tokyo was in a heat wave of ten days over 35°C and we ate dinner at a German beer garden on the top of a downtown Tokyo building.
Being in Japan in the early 60’s was a little surreal. One afternoon, we just sauntered into a newspaper building and spent the afternoon figuring out how they printed the paper in characters (as I remember, they cast each page in metal rather than used movable type). I remember the keyboards being huge like 500 characters huge but I may be wrong here. Strangely, nobody questioned two American military looking guys just wandering through the building about 19 years after the end of the war.
We found the Imperial Hotel by Frank Lloyd Wright and wandered through. It loomed so large in my imagination and it was so dwarfed by the higher buildings around it. I remember the room doorknobs being really high and many years later found out that Wright did that to make the short Japanese women stand on their tiptoes to open the doors (he thought it was charming, or something).
Not my picture.
Our first trip out of Tokyo was a train ride up to Nikko in the mountains. Nikko is a very popular Japanese tourist town and it was packed. With good reason, it is a knockout. I need a disclaimer here, I was in Japan close about 50 years ago and I am not sure that all the buildings that are Nikkoesq are actually in Nikko, some may be somewhere else.
This building may not be in Nikko. The one thing that I do remember clearly is that the white things on the tree are not flowers, they are wishes that people made and then tied on the tree at this temple. I have no idea what my wish was but I do remember leaving one.
To be continued…