Winter – 1965, More about Japan…
Most of the guys aboard my ship were more interested in whoring around and drinking then in visiting such a unique place as Japan. I had depleted my bank account with all the stereo equipment, dishes, and the ring I had bought so for a couple weeks I was stuck aboard ship, when I did go over it was a pretty low key thing and I’d nurse my drinks…pretty much staying sober. As a result, I wasn’t into doing anything stupid while on shore. But I did run around with my friends and was able to experience all the little joys of being in a foreign land. I bartered with the shopkeepers, drank sake, played pachinko, let schoolgirls practice their English on me, what more could you want? I also took those bus tours the Navy offered, since they were free, they took us miles inland, into the countryside and adventure.
The first tour I took was to Hiroshima. The site of the first atomic bomb blast in the world dropped on a hostile country. It occurred in Aug. 1945 and is said to have killed 140,000, mostly civilians. The war ended a couple weeks later, saving untold tens of thousands of American lives.
The bus left the base in the wee hours of the morning just around sunup. We traveled by some of the most picturesque farmland I’d ever seen. The land had been worked for thousands of years so the farms were well established with small rock walls surrounding each plot of land. By appearances, the valley floor had rice nearing maturation, and as the hills rose in the background it became increasingly difficult to discern the type of plants. But everywhere there was green. It was a landscape of intricate & tiny terraced farms, little farm trucks and sometimes harvesters. The farms perched on the sides and tops of each hill I could see. Every available acre was cultivated, or treed, or lovingly worked over, as far as I could see…each miles bus travel brought another picturesque, verdant, and bucolic snapshot framed by the buses tinted windows. It was impossible for me to be bored looking at a living ‘Japanese Watercolor’.
We arrived at ground zero on a weekday around 2 pm. While my friends buzzed around the ground zero park and then took off for a nearby bar, I was more reflective since I was a history buff and wanted a better look at the surroundings. At ground zero is a simple obelisk with a simple brass plaque engraved with a statement that directly above the obelisk a bomb exploded and the date. Surrounding that was a simple, elegant, and perfectly maintained park. I saw gardeners still carrying flash burns or missing limbs presumably from the bomb quietly caring for the park. (I was told later that the grounds keepers are all volunteers, who have lost someone close to them to the bomb, so their work is a labor of love and a show of respect for their missing families). The place was hushed and sadness lingered. Those who walked in this park did so with reverence.
Just 100 feet from ground zero is a small museum with pictures of some of the effects of the bomb. Then statistics of the dead. All items carried English translations. When I entered, I was the only American there, and the only person in uniform. Most of the Japanese there were mothers & fathers with younger children, older adults, some with flash burns, and schoolgirls taking a tour of the site. The girls wanted to practice their English on me so I was put at ease, before that it was quite uncomfortable reading the plaques and looking at the pictures with Japanese who may have lost family here standing nearby, some glancing uneasily or perhaps disapprovingly in my direction. Eventually, the girls turn to look at the displays and fell silent…attesting to the power of the pictures and the sadness that hung inside that pavilion like a thin, gray fog. To this day, most Japanese believe that the deaths of 218,000 to the bomb were unnecessary, that the war was nearly at a close anyway, and the people that died were civilians, not soldiers, so using the bomb here and at Nagasaki was inherently immoral. I felt sad that it had come to the decision to drop the bomb here, but I did not feel guilty.
After I had spent a couple hours looking at and over the site, I met up with my friends who by now were a little drunk. We piled back on the bus and headed back to base, while I told everyone in great detail exactly what they had missed and teased them for coming all this way only to waste their time in a bar.
As darkness fell, and the bus fell silent, I brooded over the looks I’d received from the Japanese at the museum, and recalled the details of that sad place, carefully turning each memory over and over in my mind to see again and again those shiny rough spots that stood out so starkly against the background of my velvet soft & safe American small town upbringing.
A few days later and I’m on the early morning bus to visit Tokyo. We arrived early in the morning and stopped for a break at a open air market on the outskirts of town. Not a surprise that the bus company would stop for a break at a local street market. It was said that the market had been there for a thousand years or so. “History and a donut”, not a bad combination I thought, as I disembarked. Only there were not any American style donuts here. Rows of shops with some of the weirdest foods and toys and clothes, I’d ever seen. We were allowed 30 minutes to wander around and I did just that. Not finding anything even near to a donut, I stopped at a candy stall just a few feet from the bus. There were hundreds of some of the neatest looking candies. I had no idea what they were for the most part, but I wanted to buy something so I settled on some red, jelly, turtle shaped gummy candies. Each one was enfolded with a paper wrapping and when I had the lady that ran the shop scoop up a half pound for me, I was thinking how those wrappers would help stop me from eating the whole bag too quickly. After I got my candy, I stood there waiting for the other guys and decided to have myself a candy or two. I pulled a turtle out of the bag and began painstakingly removing the paper wrapper. It was so delicate and intricately wrapped it seemed a shame to remove the paper, and a curiosity that it was even wrapped. This whole time I’d been noticing the shop keeper seemingly enjoying what I was doing. Enough so that she was holding her hand over her mouth while she giggled. I’m so dense that I didn’t have a clue what she was giggling about but noticed her dropping her eyes whenever I looked at her, so I kind of felt it was about me, and I looked at my uniform and promised myself to look in a mirror as soon as I could. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore, and waved at me to come back over to the shop. I wandered over still unwrapping the second candy. When she had my attention, she tried to show me that you just pop the whole candy into your mouth. I didn’t get it at first, then she finally tired of sign language and just picked a candy out of the bin and popped it into her mouth and chewed. AH HA! I got it! I dropped my chin to my chest and covered my eyes while she, and by now, several of her shop keeping friends, were laughing at me. Sheepishly, I pull another candy out of my bag and popped it into my mouth with a show, and then a bow, while all the shop keepers smiled approvingly. No more unwrapping the rice paper from gummy candies for me, I’d been shown the secret.
We all piled back onto the bus and continued into Tokyo. I can’t remember if we had a destination in the city or not, other then the electronic stores, but we wandered around downtown for hours, took cabs everywhere…they even had pull handles that the drivers could open the doors for passengers that I thought were pretty cool. It was in Tokyo that I saw a young woman with two little kids have them both drop their drawers and pee in the street. Kind of a shock.
We went to the shopping district and hung out for a while, went into a pachinko parlor and played for a couple hours, and finally, went to the 8th floor of the Tokyo Hilton. It was around 5 pm when we arrived and the 10 of us were there expressly for the view from the hotel, and what we understood to be excellent food, plus we had coupons. Spending a few extra bucks for dinner in an elegant place like the Hilton was very much on my list of things to do in Japan.
The Navy was always coming up with field trips like this one in order to try to reduce the perception of the ‘Ugly American’ in Japan. We were doing our part, those of us who didn’t need to go over every night whoring or binge drinking, and we really appreciated the expense the Navy went to to make our tours interesting and comfortable. Our cost for a tour was minimal and I went on several. The buses were plush, our guides knowledgeable and usually cute young women, and the tours always interesting. Every time I climbed on a tour bus I was amazed that there were so few of us from the base that took advantage.
Anyway, we’re all sitting at a large table in the Hilton restaurant, enjoying the view, and we order our meals. The tables all had impossibly white and pressed cloths, several linen napkins at each place setting, elegant silverware, sterling sliver candle holders, and heavy white ‘china’. The menus were in both Japanese and English and I felt comfortable ordering ‘fried prawns’, though that was about the only thing I recognized on the mostly seafood menu. We were all animately discussing the fun we’d had that day, when the waitress and waiter began serving our meals. My waitress reached around from my right and plopped before me a large plate with ONE PRAWN, with it’s head, tail and exoskeleton replaced before serving…I was so startled, I nearly fell backward onto the floor, catching myself at the last instant. I had misread the menu, it said ‘Fried Prawn’ not ‘Fried Prawns’. In central Washington, where I was from, the fried prawns we got were about twice the size of popcorn shrimp, breaded and deep fried. Not the least bit intimidating like the monster staring up at me from my plate at this dinner. No one had noticed my almost falling off the chair so I had a few moments to compose myself. I don’t care for lobster or crab or any shellfish actually, but I can tolerate the delicate flavors of shrimp and smaller prawns, especially after it’s breaded and fried. Well, I was able to fight my revulsion and remove and set aside the head, tail, and shell. But it didn’t seem to be breaded OR fried but rather boiled. So I just picked at the meat and left nearly all of it after I sampled a piece and found it to be exactly lobster like in flavor. Dessert and coffee were the only enjoyable part of that meal. But I didn’t regret an instant of that trip.
Days later, I wandered into town for dinner near the Navy base, with a friend. We did this about once a week, just wandering around town looking for unique or interesting places to eat. We would start on the street where all the sailors went when looking for liquor or fun and try to go as many blocks away from that area as we could get with the time we had. That’s not to say we never went into those bars ourselves, we did, and usually had a great time, but not every night. All the girls in ‘those’ bars would come and sit with you as soon as you walked in. They would have you buy them a drink, usually an expensive drink. And although they were just coke or sprite we’d have to pay full bore for them, like they actually had liquor in them. The girls would pay attention to you as long as you were buying drinks for them but would wander away if you said you were broke. You could also pay for sex if you had the money, and unlike being in Mexico, it was usually an easy routine, no pressure, no hassles, deals made up front. Much more natural.
But on this occasion, we were looking for interesting places to eat. And 4 or 5 blocks off the beaten track, in an area of town we had never been before, and where we had not seen any other sailors for quite a while, we found a pullman style cafe with a few customers, all Japanese. We had inspected and rejected several other places as ‘not unique enough’. In the back were the typical Japanese booths which are really more like small rooms, with a table about 18″ off the floor, a hot plate in the center, pillows to sit or kneel on, and the traditional china tea pot and handle free cups. And a curtain the diners could close for privacy. All those little dinning rooms were full and about half of them had their curtains closed. Up front, there were typical American type cafe booths with red vinyl seats, but unlike the US, there were hotplates right in the middle of the tables. The owners daughter was a cute and giggly girl of 16 or 17 who took an instant liking to me, gushing over me the whole time we were there. She ran into the back and made the cook, who appeared to be her dad, come out to attend to us himself instead of one of the other cooking staff already out in the main dinning room. She helped us with the Japanese menu, she spoke no English herself so it was all sign language or ‘moo?’ when pointing at an item on the menu. I’d never been in a restaurant that put on a show, or one that had a hotplate in the table for that matter, and this place, after we had spent 15 minutes deciding what to order, brought out these large bowls of vegetables and smaller bowls of fixings, sauces, and meat. The chef fired up our ‘table’ and when it got to the right temperature, drizzled oil all over it, then began slinging our vegi’s and meat onto the hot surface. It all started steaming and then he began tossing his knifes into the air along with the salt and pepper shakers and whatever else was loose in the place catching a knife with one hand while he occasionally would dice something and stir it around on the hotplate with the other. And occasionally lightly tossing everything on the hotplate to mix it. Quite the performance. And the food! Wow, those Japanese know how to spice & cook vegi’s. It was better then good, and the cute waitress who kept coming over to see how I was doing added an air of romance to the whole affair. If I could have dumped my friend, I would have, but he was directionally challenged and had no idea how we had got there and fool that I am, I felt responsible. Days later, when I tried to find the place again, I couldn’t.