Finding My Way to Aomori
In 1957, I was stationed at a little known United States Air Force base in Chiba Prefecture. Shiroi Air Base was located near Matsudo City, about a 30-min- ute train ride from Ueno station in Tokyo.
In the summer of 1959, our base mission was completed and the base was closed. I was transferred to an Air Force base in northern Japan: Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, close to the northern tip of Honshu Island. Prior to the Shiroi base closing, I had purchased an automobile–a 1951 Studebaker from a departing Air Force sergeant. I was granted permission to drive my automobile to Misawa; approximately 500 miles to the north.
A number of challenges were presented to me. First, there were no improved highways going to the north. Second, there were no road maps available in English. All maps were in Japanese, which I did not read. Third, my girlfriend, now my wife of 50+ years, could not accompany me due to family obligations; and fourth, I did not know where Misawa was located. All I knew was that it was within 15 miles of Hachinohe City, the largest city in that area.
But I had two things going for me: my youth and exuberance. On the day of departure, I loaded the car with my personal possessions and a number of five-gallon cans of gasoline and started my journey. I drove until dark, then pulled over to the side of the road and slept in the car. The next morning I was determined, I had spent the night in the Nikko Koen area, and from there planned to drive straight to Sendai.
What I thought would be a short vacation drive turned into a survival exercise, as it appeared that major highway construction was underway. Coming from a base in California, where the U.S. Interstate Highway system was under construction, I was used to short road delays where part of the highway was closed to traffic while construction was taking place. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that the highway flagmen were located on mountainsides some miles from each other. It was not unusual to wait several hours for the flagmen to wave the traffic on. Somehow, I passed through the cities of Koriyama and Fukushima. Finally, that evening, I reached Sendai where I found lodging at a small hotel near the train station, appropriately named the Sendai Inn.
Much to my surprise, I noticed photos in the lobby of the American baseball team the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was told by the hotel manager that each room in the hotel was named after a Dodger player–apparently the team played in Sendai during an exhibition tour of Japan in 1949, and was well received by the baseball fans in Sendai. I was booked into the Rex Barney room. Rex Barney was a pitcher known for his occasional wild pitches. I also learned that Sendai was the hometown of Japan’s top male vocalist Frank Nagai.
The next morning, I thought about the journey ahead and decided to ship my car by train to Misawa, or close to it. Unfortunately, nobody spoke English in the station, and my dictionary Japanese was not understood by any of the employees so the only choice open to me was to continue on. For about thirty miles, the road toward Aomori was paved and easy to drive. The paved road abruptly ended and I was on gravel again. Shortly thereafter, I encountered the road construction crews again, which added several hours to my driving time. I drove through the small town of Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture without any fanfare and headed toward that day’s objective–the city of Morioka. Darkness was soon upon me and I saw the lights of Morioka in the distance. But my energy was depleted, so I decided to spend the evening sleeping in my automobile, rather than enjoy the night life of Morioka. The next morning, I decided to drive straight through to Misawa. The paved road ended and I found myself alone in the countryside again. I continued driving north, looking for any signage pointing to Hachinohe. I started to become anxious, fearing that I might have passed it. I stopped along the way to ask people I saw on the roadside the directions to Hachinohe. This was my first encounter with the northern Japanese dialect, which was confusing, to say the least.
I really did not understand the directions, and continued north. Finally, in late afternoon, the gravel road ended, and a paved road emerged. I came to a T junction in the road and guessed the next turn. I turned left, and several miles later I stumbled into Misawa City. It took about five minutes to find the airbase. I was home. My journey was over.
As I reflect back on that adventure, I am amazed that I made it at all. The journey was based on a whim, an impulse. I figured that Honshu was a small island, and who can get lost on an island? I will admit I did.
Rather than look or plan properly, I just assumed that the only way to go was from town to town, village to village. I did not know about the National Route Three that ran to the north. If I had known, my journey would have been easier. But, given my character, I would have done it again. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #276 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.