Friday, April 28, 2006

Flying to Japan

When I was eight years old, the Air Force in its infinite wisdom decided to transfer the family to Wakkanai, Japan. Never heard of it? No-one has. Except those who did time, I mean served, there. Picture the island of Japan. See that little itty bitty part sticking up way on top, almost touching Siberia? That's it.

All I remember about the trip was being very confused when we got on what I thought was a pink plane in San Francisco and discovering that it was really silver when we landed in Hawaii. And a little arched bridge in the Honolulu Airport that spanned a fish pond full of koi. I used to think there was something seriously wrong with me, lke a brain tumor or more likely (knowing my two older brothers) a history of a serious head injury, because I never could remember more than little bits of our travels.

The mystery was solved by my second oldest brother, Mike, who many years later told me, "It was the cough syrup."

"Cough syrup?" I asked, a horrible creeping feeling coming over me. I had a sudden flashback of my mom and that big black purse she carried, the background noise of flight announcements, the brown glass bottle and the tablespoon, wrapped in tinfoil.

"The air on the plane is so dry," my dear sweet mother LIED to us, "this will help."

She drugged us. Drugged us with Robitusson, the good stuff with codiene. Real hard core narcotics. No wonder I'd thought the plane was pink! No wonder I never remembered anything. I spent half my travel time in a coma.

I had to forgive her though. Really. She was a sixties housewife with a sixties husband who did nothing with the children but expect her to keep us in line. There were four of us. Three boys, one girl. Aged thirteen to three. A trans-Pacific flight with at least four connections. I'd have drugged me too.

There was a custom in those days of hiring local women as maids and babysitters. We had a nanny back in Germany, the one who gave me my family nickname, Schatzie. Took me fourteen grueling years to kill that one. Yeah, I know you had a dog named Schatzie, believe me, every-freaking-body did.

In Japan, we had Tamatsa-san or somtimes, Obaasan which meant Grandmother. She was a tiny woman, even by Japanese standards. At eight, I saw eye-to-eye with her. She didn't speak much English and would yammer at us in high pitched rapid-fire Japanese, most often shaking a finger up in to my older brothers' faces.

Wakkanai was a wonderful place to be an eight year old tomboy. We used to go down to the beach and look at Siberia (well, not really the actual Siberia, but a lower region of it) with my dad's binoculars. It was cold up there. Tons of snow. The base was separated from town by several low hills. When the snow came, usually in September, we could go sledding or skiing, or in my case, get sent over the ski jump on a toboggan and crash through the ice of the man-made gully at the bottom of the hill. One guess as to who set me off on that particular adventure.

The "hills" before a good snowfall.

My father who was 6'2" providing scale for a snowbank.

But I had a lot of fun with Tamatsa-san. While my mom was off trying to be the perfect military wife and earn her husband a promotion by playing cards and drinking Mimosas at the NCO club, I would go downtown with Tamatsa whenever I could.

It was with her that I drank green tea for the first time. Shopkeepers kept it warm and ready for customers braving the 20 below wind chills. She also took me to the wharves where the fishermen would come back with their days catch. They would take the octopi by the tentacles and swing them, bashing the bodies against the concrete sides of the pier. Tamatsa rubbed her belly and winked at me when I asked why. I still don't know why. Tenderizing, I suppose.

It was Tamatsa who handed me a strip of what I thought was beef jerky, then cackled like a crazy woman at my reaction when I bit in to it. She nudged the little man behind the counter until he laughed too. It was dried squid. Considered a treat. It tasted like licking the inside of an aquarium would, I imagine. Not that I've ever done that, unless it was on an airplane, then how would I know?

You would think that after the squid incident, I'd be a little more careful about accepting food from her. But they looked so familiar, that warm brown chocolate, the round shape. Chocolate covered raisins, yummy. Except these raisins had a strange bitter bite to them. I spit out the remains in to my hand. It was an ant. Okay, the woman was evil. She had just fed me an ant. She yammered in Japanese, the held up a bag. I could see those weren't no chocolate covered peanuts, no sir, you could still see the bent legs of the grassphopper buried beneath the chocolate. After that I got in to a lot of trouble for picking at my food at the dinner table. But hell, I was trying to make sure it was safe. Woman was trying to poison me.

The Sapporo Ice Festival. It still goes on today. These are building sized ice sculptures, hand carved back then. For an idea of the scale, that black "line" through the picture is a telephone wire. Only a few pictures have survived the many moves between Japan and here and I can't find my favorite from the trip to Sapporo, which was a life sized crystal clear ice carving of Cinderella's carriage, complete with horses.

And thank you to the several local bloggers who have recently written about their travels/childhoods in strange lands. It inspired me to look to my own memories.


jaz said...

Awesome! I adore the snow pics...

Joan said...

What grand pictures and how fortunate you are to have lived a life of adventure. Have you ever gone back?

JanetLee said...

Joan- no I haven't. I would love to go back to Sapporo for the ice festival and maybe take a side trip to Wakkanai. The base was closed not long after we left. There is a website out there somewhere about the base and its people and how the little "town" has grown to a city. Some day!