Chureito and Mt. Fuji photo

My stay in the land of the rising sun

By Senior Airman Soo Kim
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of a life in Tokyo, Japan. I had a crazy fascination with the island country to the Far East: the people, food, culture and most importantly, visiting all the historical monuments and landmarks.

So when I completed my first assignment dream sheet for the Air Force, I left all the sections completely blank besides my number one choice: Yokota Air Base, Japan.

I was thrilled beyond words when I found out Yokota was selected for my first base, but I was a bit intimidated as well. Living in a land where I was the foreigner was a big change. Little did I know the move would give me an experience of a lifetime and broaden my horizons.

This fear of uncertainty quickly disappeared as soon as I took my first step outside of the base on a Saturday morning.

Using a small map I had printed out, I began exploring the immediate area by myself. Fussa City, located at the western edge of the Tokyo district, had very little to offer for tourism. Small shops and local shrines were all there was to see. However, at every place I visited I was greeted by a smile and “ohaio gozaimasu,” which means good morning in Japanese.

It was the locals who washed away all of the worries I had and made me feel welcomed in their nation. Whether I was on public transportation or simply ordering a meal with my wingmen, the attitude and atmosphere we felt were always full of kindness and respect.

Kimono Ladies photo
A group of Japanese women pose for a photo while wearing winter kimonos at Ginza, Japan, Jan. 2, 2013. Winter kimonos are usually worn to celebrate the new year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)

Occasionally, we would run into the inevitable language barrier. With the help of the basic Japanese language classes offered on base, and universally-known body language, we were able to communicate and become friends with the locals.

During these encounters I made quite a few Japanese friends, both civilians and Japan Self-Defense Forces members. Most had only a tenuous grasp of English, but they were more than happy to better my understanding of their country. Through my newly made friends, I studied their language, culture and history.

Masked dancers photo
Festival participants are getting ready to perform a traditional dance that circles around the center stage. Unique masks are worn on every participant’s head during the festival. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)

With my new discoveries, I also learned something I did not expect out of these gentle and mild-mannered people: Japan loves to celebrate and they do it big.

Matsuri, or literally a festival in English, was a very common way to celebrate the change of the season for the locals. Each season had a unique beauty that drew people into festivals. Spring comes and the magnificent cherry blossom trees bloom, leaving a shower of pink flower petals on the ground. Summer brought an unbearable heat, but also made the stars ever so clear in the night sky and always ended with breathtaking firework shows. Autumn made all the leaves change their color and brought forth a full-moon. Winter brought the cold, yet beautiful white snows to cover the world.

A cherry blossom tree is in full bloom at Tachikawa, Japan, April 5, 2014.  Japan has a long tradition of watching the flowers fall while enjoying the food and drinks with their friends and family members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)
A cherry blossom tree is in full bloom at Tachikawa, Japan, April 5, 2014. Japan has a long tradition of watching the flowers fall while enjoying food and drinks with their friends and family members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)

Usually the celebrations were held in a courtyard of a local shrine or at a local park. Street vendors lined up to create makeshift streets selling unique food or offering carnival games. Special stages would be set up for local groups of performers to provide entertainment, and traditional Japanese instruments could be heard over the speakers.

Yakisoba photo
A cook at a festival grills fried noodles with soy sauce. Fried noodles, Yakisoba in Japanese, is a popular snack during the festival season. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)

Most of my American friends were too afraid to try some of the Japanese dishes available at the festivals. This was understandable considering not many Americans had previously had the opportunity to eat minced octopuses covered in warm fluffy wheat-flour batter or Japanese omelets mixed with seafood and cabbage.

But, even for the weak of stomach, there were plenty of delicious Japanese dishes to choose from that were considered more “normal.” Curry, ramen and sushi were always popular with Americans living on base.

Ramen photo
This bowl of ramen uses a spicy miso (bean paste) soup base and is sold in Nagano, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released)

Most of the restaurants had English menus to accommodate the large population of foreign customers. Minor spelling errors and mistranslations were always an entertaining plus to perusing these menus.

Finding delicious food in the local area wasn’t difficult, but it was much more fun to try dishes in different areas throughout Japan while travelling.

Traveling in Japan wasn’t as difficult as many people may think.

The train system in the Tokyo region may seem intimidating at first, but once you get the basic concept down it’s the safest and fastest way to get anywhere in the region. Virtually almost every towns in the region has its own station, which allows travelers to visit without much effort. To make traveling by traineasier, there are several mobile apps that allow you to see the train times and fare. If you ended up missing a train it wasn’t too big of an issue, as there’s a train running almost every ten minutes.

Using this system to my full advantage, I traveled almost everywhere in the Tokyo region, visiting famous places such as Shibuya, Akihabara, the Imperial Palace Garden and the Meiji Shrine.

Traditional Weeding in Meiji
A traditional wedding is underway at Meiji Shrine, Japan. The shrine is one of the oldest architecture in Japan and many newlyweds made their vow here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Soo C. Kim/Released

Toward end of my two-year tour, I began looking back to all the great memories I made in Japan.

The kind-hearted people, my friends, delicious food and my travels through the country.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of a life in Tokyo. This crazy fascination I had with the island country drove me to reach that goal.

Now it is time to wake up and take on my next assignment, but I really wouldn’t mind dreaming once again soon.