Late in 1968, I transferred to the U. S. Naval Hospital in Sasebo, Japan. As a first class petty officer, I’d been assigned to the pharmacy at the facility for the next year, preceding another tour in Vietnam. It was an opportunity to get my thoughts together and to decide what I wanted to do with my life from this point on. I was also excited to explore the historical aspects of the country.
I stayed at the barracks for senior officers next to the hospital, which allowed the relative luxury of only four senior NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers) to one large room. There were no special provisions for comfort other than a private toilet. The NCO’s had added their own extras, such as a miniature refrigerator, a hotplate, ironing boards and the like. I had a compact gas stove, complete with an oven in our collective kitchen area that I had shipped from my last duty station with me.
My bunk mates were career bachelors, focusing their off-duty hours on activities such as bar-hopping and carousing. Many times I would awake in the night, listening to the loud and boisterous racket of one of them with his girlfriend of the moment, whom he’d smuggled into the barracks. While no prude myself, it became difficult for me to go to work the next day without nodding off during quiet shift hours for lack of sleep.
The final straw for me came when a new petty officer was assigned to our quarters to replace one who had just been transferred elsewhere. This gentleman seemed to have an evil affinity for kimchi, a fermented Korean product of garlic, hot chili peppers, lettuce and cucumbers, which wraps a very potent odor around anyone who ate it. Waking up in the middle of the night in our room, with the windows closed up tightly against the night chill, I’d choke with the overpowering reek of sour garlic, chili and alcohol. I became determined to move out and into the local community.
Negotiating with the housing office on the base, I found a nice one-bedroom house not far from the hospital in a hillside community called Imabuku-cho. It was identical to many other hillside houses near the base, just a short hike to and from the hospital. It had no telephone, not even a telephone line, nor internal plumbing save running water.
The bathroom facilities consisted of an o’furo; a deep sunken tub in which to soak, a kitchen sink with cold running water, and an o’terai; or toilet, which was nothing more than an internal closet with an uncanny resemblance to an old American outhouse. The human waste simply dropped into a reservoir under the hole in the bench, which was then sucked up by a municipal waste disposal team early each Saturday morning, at least in my neighborhood. It was also the home of some of the largest spiders I’d ever seen.
Hot water was provided on an as-needed basis by small gas water heaters; one attached to the sink, the other attached to the o’furo. Next to the dining room area was a traditional room the Japanese called the Tatami Room. Tatami are rectangular, woven reed mats and are typically found inset into the floors of modern Japanese homes, usually occupying their own space. They are a remnant of earlier times when floors consisted of either compacted clay, or were made entirely of wood. They provided a much softer, cleaner area for the occupants to sit or kneel on for social activities.
The winding roadway that led to my house was not much larger than a wide sidewalk in the United States, both pedestrian and vehicles traveled upon it in abundance. The vehicles, which zipped up and down the cho’s, or neighborhoods, relied on two-cylinder, natural gas powered engines. We fondly referred to them as little ‘bim-bim mobiles’.