Friday, January 25, 2008

Travel Memories: Flying to Japan and the LA Riots

To be 22 again! This story occurred in November 1979. My wife at the time and I, both recent college graduates, were heading to Japan to visit my parents (They'd moved there when I was in college). This was my second commercial airline trip, her first. It was also the first time I’d ever rented a car on my own. I was young, naive, excited and had a bit more hair and a little less weight. The photo is of me (at age 22) in Japan.

We got into LA about noon, rented a car and took off for Long Beach. We had a little over of 24 hours to spend in the city and I was dead set on touring the Queen Mary. We spent the afternoon on the ship, being in awe of its beauty and grace and astonished at its size. That night, we ate in Long Beach to avoid the traffic, and then after dark headed back to our hotel near LAX. Our bodies were still on Eastern Standard Time, so we went to bed early and it seemed, got up even earlier. We caught the early edition of the morning news. Everything was about the Iranian crisis. Hostages had just been taken in Tehran. The Shah was in America, being treated for a fatal disease. The world markets were in turmoil and oil supplies were being threatened. The local news told about a planned protest by Iranian students against the United States allowing the Shah into the country. As they already had their permit, the protest was going on even though other groups weren’t too happy with the Iranians protesting while hostages were being held in Tehran. We didn’t pay much attention; LA is a big place. It was November 1979. We showered, packed out bags, walked around the neighborhood and got some breakfast. We brought matching “Los Angeles” t-shirt in a local shop.

Our plan that morning was to head north, drive through Hollywood, then head to the airport and catch the daily JAL flight to Tokyo. We got out our maps and talked to someone in the hotel about our plans. I don’t remember exactly how we went, but we drove down Hollywood Boulevard and at one point, we were on Wilshire Boulevard. As we drove, our attention was drawn away from the sights and to a grouping of helicopters hovering over the highway ahead of us. There was a crowd of folks on both sides of the road. We wondered if they were filming a movie. As we got closer, I saw that one of the helicopters was the police and the others were for various news channels. Police cruisers were parked all along the side of the highway. As I drove through the hostile crowd, I realized we were in the wrong place—that this was the protest we’d been hearing about all morning. We crept along, angry protestors on each side of the road shouting obscenities at each other. The crowds were being contained for the moment. We quickly turned on the radio; all stations were reporting what was happening…

We got through just in time. I noticed the two groups moving out into highway just after we past by. We quickly took off to the airport, thankful for if we’d been a minute or two later we’d been caught up in the mess and would have no doubt missed our flight. The protest turned into a large enough riot that after landing in Japan, we get to read all about it in an English newspaper.
Our riot troubles didn’t stop in America. My parents had planned to meet us at the Narita Airport, which was still relatively new then and being pestered by Japanese farmers who weren't too happy with its location. In protest, they blocked the train tracks that day. We spent an hour wandering the airport, wondering what we should do, while my parents tried to get to the airport. They finally showed up, after having transferred to a bus. We headed into Tokyo. It was getting very late and we were hungry. All the fast places to eat at the Tokyo station where closed and we didn’t have time to sit down and eat. We caught the train to Kamakura and had our first meal in Japan in the only place open, at a McDonalds across from the train station. So after flying half-way around the world, having had two close encounters with riots, my first meal in the orient was a McDonald’s fish sandwich.
Even though the world was at nervous during our sojourner in Japan, it turned out to be a great time to travel. Because of Japan being so vulnerable to the loss of oil, the yen nosedived to record lows. I’d exchanged fifty dollars in LA, just to have some cash when I got to Tokyo. The rate was something like 160 or 170 yen to the dollar (remember, the dollar has fallen a lot since then, it's I think it's closer to 100 to a dollar). A day later, when I exchanged money at a bank in Japan, the rate was something like 260 yen to the dollar. We felt rich!

In another post, I’ll tell you about my experience of a riot in Berkeley… What is it about me, California, and riots?


  1. Sure makes me not want to follow you around. Reading the world events in '79, don't sound so different from today.

  2. I don't know whether I should say you were lucky to avoid the worst of the riots or unlucky for being there at the wrong time! I remember the Iranian crisis quite vaguely. I was only 10 at the time and obviously didn't pay much attention to the news.

  3. What is it about you California and riots ?:)

  4. sage - you must have been driving by the Federal Building on Wilshire in Westwood - there are protests there EVERY Friday! Sounds like this one was more energetic than usual, but you shoulda been here for the real riots in '92!!!

  5. My close call in a car and the wrong place at the wrong time involved a semi loaded full of lumber and the interstate. I should tell that story sometime.

    I've told this one before but on my first trip to the Philippines anxious to eat local cuisine, one of my first meals was sauteed hotdogs.

  6. I love reading about your travels, Sage, and the photo is a definite plus! Such hair you had (nice)!!

  7. I live in LA, but in 1973, I was in Florence, Italy, when a riot broke out. I was 10 at the time, and my parents hustled to get us out of there. Unfortunately, we didn't get out of the crowd soon enough as my young eyes had to bear witness to paramedics carrying some poor guy away on a stretcher who was stabbed in the belly.

  8. In Delhi, I have seen more riots than I can remember. I was in midst of it twice. Like they say, saved by the skin. Once I escaped a bomb blast by sheer intuition.

    37 people died. Truly terrible.

    This time I did get here via Michele. Otherwise you would have been missed.

    But, you know I would have been back.

  9. You have led an interesting life. At 22 my big adventure was being newly married and living an hour away from my parents. That was hard for a country girl like me. In 1979, I was in third grade and my adventure was having my collar bone broken by a horse...not as exciting as riots and Japan!- Jennifer

  10. Pat, come along, we'll have fun. You're right about the world being not much different.

    Smiler, I was lucky--it also gave me a framework for remembering the hostages.

    Pia, "I swear, I didn't have anything to do with starting 'em."

    Diane, that's nice of them to have scheduled riots--helps the tourist industry. No, I didn't want to be in LA in '92, but I was in NYC (one of my few trips to the Big Apple) that weekend of the riots and there was a little action there, but I didn't see anything.

    Ed, flying lumber and highway speeds are a scary combo

    Kenju, thanks, and I don't know where all the hair went... I should dig up some pics from '75 and '76, when I had a real head of hair!

    LA, thanks for stopping by. Your name is so appropriate for this post! I saw my first riot when I was in the 9th grade, 14 or 15 years old

    Gautami, although I've witnessed a number of riots, I've luckily never witnessed a bombing... that's scary and I know that India often expereinces such tragedies

    Jennifer, thanks for stopping back by--I don't think of my life as that interesting, but I do remember lots of little things that are fun to look back on.

  11. Hi Sage...Michele sent me and I am glad she did....I well remember 1979...lived in Houston and waited in line for gas hoping no fights would break out since everyone was armed but me..a transplanted Yankee.

    I'll be back to hear more.

  12. Michele sent me back to see your hair again, Sage! I really like it, but you should know that I don't see anything wrong with a bald (or nearly so) head either.....LOL

  13. Didn't I see you in the "Little Havana" section of Miami when the whole Elian Gonzalez things was going on? ;)

    I've never come close to a riot, and I don't even plan to parade the streets and celebrate when we hear Castro's dead like other Cubans. I'll be home eating McDonald's.

  14. Sage: I felt like I was in the backseat of your car just reading this journey! Wow! Dangerous!!

  15. Wow - fascinating story and excellently retold. It was easy to feel in th moment as you described the various rel-world events and great it was also from the point of view of someone there as it unfolds and doesn't all make immediate sense.

    I'm glad Michele sent me today to say Hello!


  16. Gemma--I remember the gas lines--in both '74 and again in '79-80. I think it was in '80 that I first paid over a buck a gallon.

    Kenju, I really liked my mop too!

    Scarlet, you know, I've never stopped in Miami for the fear of getting into something like that--I kept on driving straight to the Keys. Next time, I'll have to stop and seek some legal advice.

    Michael, thanks, it didn't feelt hat dangerous at the time

    Rashbre, thanks for your kind words

  17. Here I am again, Sage. Michele wanted me to see your pic again!

  18. Hi! Good story! I stopped by without the aid of said Michele. :)

    Oh, I would say more but hubby is back from a house fire...

  19. Oops, not sure if my previous comment "stuck". Word verfication vexes me.

    Anyway, long story short, I remember the Narita demonstrations clearly, even though I was just a wee one at the time.

    My passion for journalism was taking root at this time, and this was an early example of how protesters were not, by definition, "bad", of how little voices needed to be heard and discussions needed to happen.

    Michele sent me to thank you for awakening this powerful memory.

  20. Look when it is good, and when it is possible to link, I hope travel happy.(

  21. Unbelievable. It's apparent that there is a link between you and unhappy, outraged people....that's obvious, right? (Just kidding) Wow. What an amazing story and I'm loving the irony of that filet-o-fish sandwich from Micky-D's at the end!