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Returning to Tokyo after 60 years revives old childhood memories

Grant Heights sign circa 1974By Andy Yemma

TOYKO (August 2015) – August, the hot month. Seventy years ago this month the world’s worst war ended, 66 years ago I was born and 60 years ago my father, a U.S. Air Force officer, moved his growing family to Japan for four years. So when we had the opportunity to visit Tokyo this month, I naturally thought of my childhood and wondered if we could try to find some of my old haunts.

In 1955, my family sailed from San Francisco to Tokyo on a WWII military transport. The voyage took two weeks and everybody except me got seasick, I remembered. At six, I was the oldest of four kids, the youngest, my only sister, a baby. For the first year in Japan we lived at a small USAF facility outside of Tokyo – my father never told us what he did there although we always suspected it had something to do with electronic eavesdropping on the Soviets. The U.S. military had bases all over Japan during years after the occupation and by the time we came the presence of so many military families in the Tokyo area had resulted in the construction of several family housing areas. In our second year, we moved to a place named “Grant Heights” in northwest Tokyo. Hundreds of American service member families lived there – thousands of kids like me. I remember it much like a small town in America with its own elementary, middle and high school, a commissary, base exchange, movie theater, swimming pool, gymnasium and four little league baseball diamonds where I played ball every summer.

After Grant Heights closed in the 70s - view of the Runway

After Grant Heights closed in the 70s – view of the Runway

Grant Heights had lots of open fields where I would play with my brothers and school friends. We often played “Army” and when my sister was old enough, at 3, to join us she would be designated the cook. We made snowmen on rare occasion. We had a black-and-white TV, one channel, and watched three shows in English once a week – Superman, I Love Lucy and Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford.

Our exposure to the Japanese and their culture was limited although on occasion we would visit places like the nearby Toshimaen Amusement Park, where we kids loved the old barge that plunged into a pool or water not unlike Disneyland’s Splash Mountain today. We visited the Ginza in downtown Tokyo and ate sukiyaki at local restaurants now and then. Once we rode a train to a hot springs resort in the mountains northwest of Tokyo; another time we spent a day at the beach. But mostly we lived and I went to school at Grant Heights. I traded “Mighty Mouse” comic books with other kids in front of the BX; watched “Buck Rogers” serials every Saturday before a movie (“Davy Crockett” being my favorite), and rode my new Schwinn bicycle everywhere. Grant Heights was a safe and secure environment, and — because President Truman had integrated the military more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement – I attended school with kids of all races and nationalities. When, at the age of nine, we returned to the States and spent the summer with my grandparents in a small Texas town, I remember being stunned by the “whites only” signs.

Grant Heights and Japan soon became a faded memory, revived only through old home movies and photos. When I was in my late 30s and early 40s I traveled to Tokyo on business several times but it was a much different world around 1990 and Grant Heights was long gone, the land returned to Japan and the post-war military housing replaced in the mid-1970s by a high-rise residential area named Hikariagoka Park (the name means “Light Heights” in Japanese). On one trip I had a weekend layover in Tokyo and tried to explore the area on my own – I found four empty baseball diamonds (it was early spring so play had not yet begun) that gave me a sense of déjà vu.

Children playing in water at Hikariagaoka Park

Children playing in water at Hikariagaoka Park

On this trip, my wife (Eileen Ogintz) arranged a guide through Go Tokyo to take us back to Grant Heights and Hikariagoka Park. I was impressed how our guide, Nobuko Iwanami, who once lived in the area, visited the Hikariagoka Library, where they have a small area with materials and photos related to Grant Heights. She had a map showing the layout of Grant Heights, complete with the “Runway” – from a WWII Japanese airfield – that was the main street on which we lived. I quickly recognized the landmarks – the chapel at the north end of the Runway, the officers club at the south end, and the rows and rows of wooden duplexes that made up the military housing. I pointed to a spot on the map – “that’s where we lived, right about there.”

When we arrived at the end of the subway line – Hikariagoka Station – it was literally steps away from where the Yemma family lived in Grant Heights. Nobuko laughed out loud when I reckoned that our house was probably now a Baskin & Robbins. The Runway – it’s now a wide pedestrian promenade, flanked by a large shopping mall and retail shops and restaurants serving the residential high-rise buildings. And while it is a Japanese neighborhood with families on bikes, playing in the park, shopping at the market, American culture is everywhere—from the Disney toys in the shops to ice cream, coffee, pizza and fried chicken.

At the north end of the Runway is a pretty, shaded park with a children’s water playground – and on the hot, humid August day that we visited kids were running and splashing everywhere, just as I remember we did as kids here back in the 1950s. Then, off to the right of the Runway – the baseball fields – still there 60 years later, Japanese boys in uniform and taking batting practice. Nostalgia!

Rediscovering Toshimaen Amusement Park in Tokyo

Rediscovering Toshimaen Amusement Park in Tokyo

Two subway stops from Hikariagoka we got off at Toshimaen Station and visited the old park – a small but modern theme park with roller-coasters, water-slides and a quaint old carousel (Japan’s oldest) that once was at Coney Island in New York. As we returned to Tokyo, Eileen asked me what I thought about the visit. Did I find any ghosts?

Some things never change, I said, the kids riding bikes, splashing around in the hot weather, the baseball fields. You can go home again.

Destinations, Families & Groups, Travel Diary | , , , , , , | 29 Comments

29 Responses to Returning to Tokyo after 60 years revives old childhood memories

  1. Sall says:

    Hi Andy, I enjoyed this page. My father was stationed at Tachi and we lived in Grant Heights, PCS’d to Kadena in Okinawa in 1972.

    We have a Facebook page. Feel free to take a peek…and join if you wish!

  2. Hunter says:

    my family lived in the Army equivalent at Washington Heights, which is now Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo. I could identify with everything you wrote. We also came over in 1955 on a troop transport from San Fran. I am now back here and have been a Tokyo resident for 32 years. Umm, yes, it has changed!

  3. Lynn Ellis Miller says:

    I, too, lived at Grant a Heights, from Sept, 1961 til Nov, 1963, when we moved to Fuchu. And, I,too, have been back multiple times. I enjoyed your article and would invite you to join the Narimasu Facebook page and our web page. We have gatherings around the country and often reconnect with those we haven’t seen in years. And, it’s always very much fun!

    • Patti says:

      Lynn..where did you live on GH? What grade? I was in 2nd grade (2x due to illness)and we lived at 246A next to the theater

  4. I enjoyed reading your japan memories, sounds like many others I have come across over the years searching the internet. My family was at Tachikawa Air Base 2 times and I often think about my days growing up in Japan. Your welcome to come and join my Tachi group and if you search on youtube for tachikawa air base you will find lots of my photo slide shows I have posted. https://www.facebook.com/groups/377719578936686/

  5. Chris Hoppin says:

    Thanks for the memories. We lived in Grant Heights from ’54-’57 while our Dad worked at Fuchu, then FEAF HQ before they moved to Hickam as PACAF. I played Little League on those fields and my first team was the Dodgers. Then I learned about Jackie Robinson, and they became my lifelong team. On a business trip in 1979, my wife and I were able to visit briefly. Although we could not get into the main place, we were able to walk around the ballfields once again….

  6. Emmet Hawkins says:

    Thank you for the memory story! We left Grant Heights Dec of 69…I’m Narimasu Class of 70′. I love the fact that the 4 Baseball Diamonds are still there! I played on them once upon a time…3 of the best years of my life! I like to call it “Grand” Heights!

  7. Gwenyth Jett says:

    Our family lived in Grant Heights, twice. 55-57 and August 1970 until it closed. Loved your article. There are a couple of groups on Facebook where we share our memories.

  8. Roxanne Parsons says:

    I graduated from high school at Narimasu in 1961. What great memories! Met my sweetheart there, who was an air policeman. We’ve been married for 52 years. Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  9. Karen (Budney) DeMarsche says:

    Thank you Andy. My family was at G.H. ’66-’69. Reading your description and seeing your photos brought back many wonderful memories.
    Thanks again.

  10. Joan Walter Dutill says:

    Your story brought back so many memories for me. My father was in the Air Force and we lived on Grant Heights from 1960 to 1962. We live right across the street from the BX and the movie theaters and remember how fun it was to go to the movies for quarter and see previews,cartoons and the main feature. I was in fifth and sixth grade while going to school there and remember the preteen parties we had at the youth center every Friday night. We played ping pong, watched “Highway Patrol” and afterwards how hordes of us pre-teens would head back home on Fri nights running through the neighborhood back ringing door bells as we went. What a fun time!

    • Patti says:

      great memories sis. You should check out Japan Brats and the FB page of Grant Heights/Narimasu. You may see someone you knew there-if you remember! Lots of photos of us and others posted there.

  11. Thank you for the memories….I really enjoyed your story. We lived in Grant Hts from 1947 – 1952 +/-. My sister was born in Tokyo. I was there earlier than many, I remember when the swimming pool was built….before that we were bussed to Ueno park for swimming lessons. When they brought ice cream to GH they only had vanilla and strawberry. When chocolate came it was heavenly! I’ve gone back once about 10 yrs ago, traveled around for 4 was thought I was near GH once but not sure. I want to go back and see it again soon so your guide is a great idea. You’ve opened the floodgates so will spend some time with things that remain from our life there and all the old photos…thanks again what a joy to read!

    • Andy Yemma says:

      Wow, you were there during the occupation. As noted in posts above, there are a few facebook accounts of us old Japap-brats-now-approaching geezdom. One pointed to this post about Washington Height, which I remember too. It was one of the earliest returned to Japan and served as the Olympic Village for the 1964 Olympics. The 2020 Olympics are going to be in Tokyo and the locals seem very up with that. Although it will be in a different location, near the waterfront.

  12. Dick Elam says:

    Good copy. Enjoyed
    Back in Texas. In condo at Lake Ray Hubbard
    Suburb of Rockwall named Heath
    Putting travels on Carolina Waterway into a thriller
    Plan to take cruise ship there next year to revisit where I sailed
    In Knox, IN researching for historical novel. Best,Dick

  13. Judith Walter says:

    My fondest memory was the helicopter with the Santa Clause face painted on the front. Anyone else remember that?
    My sister also replied to this posting. We were there 1960- 1962, I was 5-7 years old
    I remember being on TV with the Japanese flower exchange program.
    And watching the first Flintstones episodes in Japanese

    • admin says:

      LOL. I remember that as well because when I saw that Santa helicopter at about age 7 I experienced that transcendental kid moment when he realizes finally that Santa Claus is a myth. — Andy Yemma

    • Patti says:

      wow Judith, I had forgotten about Santa. I vaguely remember you on TV now that you mentioned it. Being in Japan is the highlight of our travels.

  14. Whitney Broussard says:

    Great article. We lived there 1967-1971. My father was base commander. We had such a wonderful time and many great memories. Our housekeeper had visited us many times untill she passed. And I brought my children several times so they would love Japan like we all do. We are Japanese in our soul because of Grant Heights!

  15. Grace Evans says:

    I didn’t attend the high school but I did attend Narimasu Elementary School which if I recall correctly was adjacent to the high school from the second grade to the fourth, 1959-1962. Our house number was 35-B. It was 2 story. We moved there from Hawaii, being that my dad was in the army.

  16. Nancy Sally says:

    I really enjoyed your comments and pictures. We lived in Grant Heights from 1953-1955. I attended Narimasu Elementary School. My dad was stationed at Tokyo Ordnance Depot. There are many, many photos of our time in Japan and I will always remember it with pleasure.

  17. JACK ALLEN says:


  18. Patti says:

    Great article and great memories!

  19. Judy (Coleman) O'Betts says:

    We lived in Grant Heights from 1952-55. We were Army and our neighbor’s were Navy and Air Force. We lived in #287. We also traded comic books and swan in the pool. Sunday’s were dinner at the NCO club. We took a vacation at the base of Mt Fuji once, and also toured the Ginza. I remember parks, zoos etc on the roofs of high rise buildings. My brother was in a drum and bugle Corp for kids, and I learned Japanese dance. We met and played with the Japanese kids across the street from the base. Great memories. Oh, we had no TV, so listened to the radio. We had 3 different maids…young girls who lived in dormitories. It sure was an adventure full of wonderful and beautiful memories.

  20. Dan Tvarozna says:

    Lived in Grant heights from 1960-1964. We lived right next to the NCO club; the back door to the stage was literally right out our back door. I was the oldest of 4 children and I was only 5 when we arrived. My youngest sister was born there. Attended elementary school and recall the high school football games with a dragon mounted over a car frame that would come out at half time and blow smoke!My brother and I had great adventures there and as we got a little older I recall going off base and bartering at the neighboorhood stores.

  21. Mark says:

    This article was so enjoyable. My mother and grandparents were at GH 53-55. I am in Tokyo now on vacation for the first time, having visited the park today. I have overlaid old aerials with present day maps to try to find where their house was and I believe it was a success! I’ve done all this for my mother who is not on this trip with me. My grandparents were special people and always spoke fondly of their time in Japan, as does my mom. I will share these resources with her and hope she may reconnect!

  22. Roberta Taylor -Murdock says:

    I attended Narimausu High School from 1956 to 1959 when I graduated. My father was in the Air Force and we were stationed at Yokota Air Force base. so we were bussed to Grand Heights, what fun we had on the bus. I loved Japan and my high school days. I did attend a reunion in Las Vegas in the nineties. I am African American so anyone who attended during that period may remember me. I used to sing in school programs. Good memories.

  23. Bob Rhea says:

    A great read bringing back many memories. Our family was at Grant Heights from 62-65 during the Cuban Missile crisis and the assasination of President Kennedy but other than those sad times most of it was great memories. We arrived at the end of my fifth grade year and left at the end of my seventh grade year while at Drake Jr. Hi.

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