Before my wife arrived, my parents decided to make a trip over and visit me. I had just taken possession of what was to become my family quarters so they had a place to stay while visiting. Since my dad was a retired Colonel in the Air Force, he had ‘space available’ transport on military craft available to him. He took advantage of this and they flew over to see me. We poked around the Misawa area for a while and then they decided to hit Tokyo.
You could get there in three ways: car, plane, and train. I advised against plane because they were small and the seats too cramped for Western fannies. Car was out because rentals were very expensive and you couldn’t rent one and leave it somewhere else. We opted for a train.
We went over to the base travel office and were told that all First Class train tickets for the next three days were sold out. My mom thought about it and then said “well, what about Second or Third Class?” This seemed to stun the guy because he’d never heard of an American wanting to take Second Class or Third Class transport before. Three Second Class tickets would be waiting for us that afternoon. The agent also tried to get us to stay at one of the hotels on the Ginza, but my mom was adamant about staying in a Japanese hotel. He found one for us but admonished that it would be primitive to American standards.
Train travel in Japan is very punctual. If it is supposed to arrive at 14:37 then you can set your watch to that time. At exactly the right time, our train pulled into the Misawa station and we boarded one of the Second Class cars and settled down in a pair of facing bench-style seats. Scores of giggling teen girls filled the car. They were headed from Misawa down to Sendai for a field trip. My folks and I sat three-abreast so we could make room for three girls across from us.
Not understanding a word, we were slowly drawn into the conversations. They spoke a little bit of English and, with the help of several of their chaperones, we got along famously. This was an express train, but did stop from time to time and at every stop there were vendors lining the station platforms selling everything from dried squid to Sake; fiery rice wine. Eventually, after several stops, we were topped off with all sorts of delicacies and rice wine.
Drawing pads came out and the three of us illustrated (crudely) the mountains of Colo-Rado for the girls. We also passed around some pictures my mom had taken of the snowfall two days before they left Boulder. That was impressive even to kids who normally had three feet of snow every winter. The men in the car, attracted by our boisterous laughter began to join in. Soon, the entire car was a huge party. My mom and dad wandered around the car being chatted up by people trying out their English. It was a great time. By the time we reached Sendai, and the girls and their chaperones left the car, they were being replaced by older persons with better English skills.
My parents wrote out their addresses to perhaps a hundred people while we traveled and talked about all sorts of things. They told me later that perhaps twenty of them had begun to correspond with them back in Colorado. We reached Tokyo and were met by a old guy who looked as if he were about to collapse. He picked up all our suitcases and trudged across the street from Ueno Station and down a small alley to our hotel.
The agent was right – and he was wrong. The hotel was very tiny, as Japanese hotels usually are, but clean and very friendly. The owner and his family lined up along the desk and greeted us. I’d already given my parents a brief rundown of how to meet and greet and such things like taking your shoes off and all that so they did a proper bow and we were off to a good start.
We had asked for a single room for three people. When we got to the second floor, we found two beefy guys sliding shoji screens around. They were ‘making’ our room. The entire second floor was a big, flat area with grooves in the floor and ceiling. To make a room, they just inserted screens and slid them to enclose an area. There were no such things a room numbers and the like. In ten minutes, we had a very cozy room with makeup table, television, telephone, and three low cabinets that contained our futons.
In the large, modern, hotels you tip everyone you see. In the smaller hotels, and especially hotels that don’t cater to Western trade normally, you just tip the owner when you check out. I’d pre-warned my parents about this but added that it was acceptable to leave some change in the little dish on the make-up table for the day-to-day help.
I’d also given my parents a short course in Japanese. Words like ‘where bathroom’ and ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘slow’, ‘fast’, and especially ‘stop!’. Our toilet was down the hall and a half-floor below us but the hot baths were also on a lower floor so when my mom, dressed in a kimono, headed down the hall to the bathroom she was intercepted by a maid. The maid tried to explain that the hot tubs were busy but wasn’t getting through. My mom solved the problem by saying the word for ‘toilet’ (Toire) and pointing to the stairs. The maid dissolved into giggles and let her pass.
Later that night, my dad and I went down to the hot tubs and soaked for half an hour. The water was extremely hot so we ended up looking like boiled lobsters but really relaxed. My mom went next. We spent a couple of hours scanning Japanese television (which they really loved – especially the Eleven PM Show.
This show, which started at ten PM, was in the format of a talk show, but had really funny skits, blackouts, and just plain slapstick in between visits by luminaries. At exactly eleven PM there was a strip show. Tastefully done, but nevertheless a strip show. Naturally, the American troops everywhere loved this show.
We visited a lot of places in Tokyo. I dragged them through Akihabara, the electronics warren, and my mom took us to see Tokyo University to visit a friend of hers who taught there. All travel was done by subway. The subway system in Tokyo is like none other. A lot of the lines run above ground but are still called subways. They are painted a distinctive color for their basic area of travel with numbers to fine-tune them. The color schemes were very much like the pastel painted airplanes of Braniff Airways on their ‘freedom flights’ back to the world from Vietnam.
To go anywhere all you needed was loose change and the color/number combination to take you there or transfer point. One of the great areas to shop (but not buy) was the Ginza itself. Enormous prices were asked (and received) for items you could by anywhere else for half price or less. Against my advice, my dad wanted to go into a bar and have a beer. We got hit with a ‘cover’ charge of 7200 yen ($20) on entering. A single Kirin beer was 1800 yen ($5). He had his beer and we retreated. If we had asked for table snacks we would have been hit with a ‘food charge’ of around 3600 yen ($10). As I said, very expensive.
Walking down the street we spotted a theatre showing the movie “Tora Tora Tora”. This was a new movie I hadn’t seen you but really wanted to see. We paid for First Class tickets (surprisingly cheap at about $2 each) and were shown to our soft reclining seats.
The movie was great. We all loved it. During some of the more intense battle scenes an old guy behind us chattered incessantly to a kid who could have been his grandson. Later, we felt that maybe he could have actually been at the raid on Pearl Harbor and was giving the kid a running commentary.
The movie was in both English and Japanese. When English was being spoken, Japanese Kanji characters appeared in the upper right corner; when Japanese was being spoken, English sub-titles appeared at the bottom. It wasn’t until we were walking out when I finally realized that while the battle was joined, most of the excitement by the audience was shown when the Japanese were attacking, not while we were defending. All in your point of view I guess. Nevertheless, it was a strange feeling to be the only Americans in a theatre filled with Japanese; and watching this particular movie.
My parents spent four days in Tokyo and then were slated to take a flight back from Haneda Airport. We said goodbye and I went back to the hotel for a last night. Before we left the hotel the final day, my parents settled the bill with a lot of smiles and bowing. They also made a ‘presento’ (gift) of some trinkets they’d bought around town for the maids and porters. They also gave a very good tip to the owner. As for me, I asked then for a single for the night so I could catch the morning train back to Misawa. They quickly reconfigured the walls and made me a single room.
The next morning I bid the hotel staff goodbye, took a few cards from the holder, and promised to be back down again. The porter insisted on carrying my small suitcase to the train station and putting it aboard for me. I thanked him, bowed, and went to get my seat. The trip back was not quite as eventful as my trip southward, but it did have it’s high points. I leaned out the window and bought a jug of sake and shared it with three teachers on their way up to Hachinohe. We swapped language phrases, tips on how to behave in areas not usually seen in the big cities, and generally had a great time.
In a couple of days, my wife would arrive.