A View From Japan
This was an important step for my career as a stand-up comedian and an incredible opportunity to visit a foreign land. Here’s a look at my glimpse into Japan and the Marine Camps I visited. What a wonderful, yet exhausting experience as you will see.
Getting to Camp Fuji, Japan, from Charleston, SC, was no picnic, but that’s how world travel is. I left Charleston around noon on Saturday, got to Chicago a little over two hours later, then had a three hour layover. After that I boarded a huge jetliner for Tokyo which was a twelve hour flight; during the flight we had two meals. I noticed after the first meal, everyone closed the windows and settled down to sleep or watch movies. I watched a few movies, played some solitaire and tried to sleep as much as possible. I’m guessing about eight or so hours in we had our second meal, more of a breakfast. The lights had come on a little before this and it was now getting dark outside; it had been light almost the whole trip as it seemed we were chasing the sun. Something I also experienced on this flight was the warm, moist washcloths the flight attendants handed out twice during the trip. I took one the first time not knowing what to do and watched the other folks use them to wipe their faces and backs of their necks, so I did the same.
After we landed I was not sure what to do after getting through customs. Who would pick me up? Did I have to call the base? My first flight had been delayed which changed my arrival time. I walked around the entrance to the airport looking for someone with a sign that said “Brian T Shirley,” or maybe just someone looking like they were waiting to pick someone up. Then I spotted some phones and headed towards them. I stopped to get a sip of water at a fountain and was approached by an Asian gentleman with a clipboard in his hand. He said, with an accent, “Excuse me, are you Comedian?” and pointed at my picture on the flier he had on the clipboard. Wow, what a relief!
The headlining comedian I was working with, Jackie Fabulous, was there as well. She had arrived a few hours earlier. The young man took us to the transport van and we headed for Camp Fuji which took another three hours. It was a long trip and already 11:30 p.m. Japan time, Sunday. I had dozed some on the ride, but I did see some of the Tokyo skyline before trying to nap, and I woke up here and there along the way to watch our driver navigating the highway in the quiet darkness.
Camp Fuji is situated right below that great mountain of the same name. It’s impressive as I can see the snow-covered peak from my hotel room window. I woke up at 6 a.m. to a sunny sky that looked more like 10 a.m. as far as the sunlight goes. The sun was very high in the early morning sky and I was wide awake. I walked up to the PX after seven and got some snacks, then I checked emails and laid down again around nine. Our first show was that night and I wanted to be well rested.
We arrived at the club around 5:30 p.m., ate some dinner and hung out before the show at 7. Everyone was nice and thanked us for coming to entertain the troops. That night we performed in front of 50-60 Marines, mostly young men aged 19-24. I believe the oldest may have been a man in his thirties. There were very few women there as the base was made up of about 96% males. We had a meet-n-greet after the show with some of the audience and then headed back to our rooms.
Sleep came pretty quickly and that was good as we had to muster in the lobby the following morning to leave for our next base. The sun started its rise early around five-thirty as I could see the light through the sides of my window curtains. I dozed in and out until around seven-thirty and prepared for my eight-forty-five departure. I looked out of my hotel window one last time at the great snow-peaked mountain and wondered if I would ever gaze upon its magnificence ever again. Either way, I was happy to be here in the first place.
Jackie and I waited in the lobby for a few minutes and our very punctual transportation showed up. They were extremely nice and although our driver spoke very little English, he made us feel right at ease. We drove two hours to the airport and I signed a headshot photo for the driver as we said goodbye. It made him very happy and warmed my heart to know I could make him feel good.
Our layover at the Haneda Airport was two hours with a two-hour flight to the Naha Airport on Okinawa. Our point of contact there was Jennifer, a very sweet, blonde lady married to an Airman who is stationed nearby. Jennifer is the MCCS Entertainment Coordinator and the first American with whom we had been in contact since our arrival. She’s very enthusiastic about her job and got us checked in and settled at The West Pac Inn on Camp Foster, our home for the rest of the tour. Jennifer would pick us up each evening and take us to the camps where we performed.
This first show on Okinawa was right there at Foster. When we got to our hotels after the day of travel, we had two hours downtime and then off to the show. The Enlisted Club there was very nice and we had a wonderful dinner. The audience made their way in as we ate and almost completely filled the club. There were about a hundred Marine and Marine spouses/dates, and they really enjoyed the show. We met some afterwards and posed for pictures with them, then left the club for the five-minute drive back to our rooms. I went to bed shortly thereafter.
Now that I’ve had some time to rest and reflect on the trip so far, I feel thankful. I am thankful that I’m able to do this and thankful for these young men and women who are serving their country. In the end, this trip is all about them. They deserve the best and they also need us to bring them the gift of joy. It can’t be easy in a foreign land away from your families and conforming to the military way of life.
Next we met in the lobby at 4:30 in the afternoon for Camp Schwab. The club is called Beachhead and it’s about an hour’s drive from where we stay. This was the smallest club thus far and there were about 30 or so Marines in attendance. One of the club managers told me it was always hard to plan an event because you never knew when there was an exercise that took the Marines away from the base early in the morning. Also, this base has a small amount of permanent duty personnel and a lot of the people there were on six months deployment. This was a very interactive show from the audience, to say the least, and we had fun with these folks. I must say you can really feel the bonds that have been built between these young men, and it’s a testament to our military’s training. It’s also a testament to these people who choose to serve.
After the show, we talked with some of the Marines, then headed back to the van for our hour-long ride back to home base. The time passed quickly, however, as the three of us talked and joked about whatever came up.
The weather since we left Fuji has been rainy and overcast on Okinawa. This somewhat gloomy weather, coupled with getting some much needed rest kept me in my room for the first few days. I tried to do some filming for my “BTS On The Road” web series, but it was so humid outside my video camera lens fogged up. I also have to be careful about what I film as it is a military installation. I wanted to get to know our POC (Point of Contact) a little before filming at the club, so I will try to film Thursday’s club.
Thursday arrives and we are scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. lobby call for a 10-minute drive to Camp Furtenma and a club called Thirsty’s. Thirsty’s was thirsty for some comedy! It was a very nice club that had a solid restaurant on one end with a stage next to it, a bar in the middle, and pool tables with a karaoke lounge on the other end. The stage was well-lit, the Marines were packed in tight, and the show was HOT!! They were a great crowd and a lot of fun–this Marine Air Base (not a Camp per se) boasted a little more of a mix when it came to the women vs. men ratio. It was also our midpoint and I could tell we were starting to jell as comedians on this tour, audiences seemed to be getting stronger as the week progressed. We hung out for a while after the show talking with some of the troops, taking pictures and bonding with them, then it was time to get back. Jennifer, our very accommodating host, drove us back to the hotel.
Friday morning the sun broke and I had a chance to walk around the base. The walk to the PX was alright, the walk back was tough. Our hotel was situated on a hill, and I huffed it back thanking God that I had started walking around my neighborhood a few months prior. After my walk and a shower, I started getting ready for the night’s show. This time we had a show at Camp Kinser’s Clubside venue. This was by far the largest room we had performed in and there were at least two hundred people if not more. After the show we posed for some more pictures and talked with the service people and their spouses. This crowd was very laid back, fun, and had its interactive members. It really felt like a Friday night Comedy Club.
Our rides back to the hotel were becoming bittersweet as we only had one more show.
Saturday I did venture off camp, but not for too long. Every day I woke up early, between 6:45 and 7:15 to go and get some breakfast snacks from the lobby. They shut down the snacks, which were bananas, cereal bars, oatmeal packets, and fruit cups around 8 a.m., so you had to get there early. Because we usually got in around midnight and I had another show that night, once I got up that early, I knew I would be taking a nap at some point. I generally don’t do naps, but I hate being tired onstage so I knew one was in my future a little later that day.
By the time I ate, did some work on the computer and got a little packing done for the Sunday departure it was going on 10:30 in the morning. I figured I would do an early lunch and long story short, it got to be afternoon before I laid down. I woke up sometime after 1:00 p.m., checked some emails, and made my way to the front desk to see about catching a shuttle to the American Village, which was a mile or so off base. I was told this was a good spot to visit; there were shops, it was next to a beach, and seemed to be a good tourist spot. I also needed to settle my account for my in-room bar purchases, which took a little longer than usual, and it was 3:45 by the time I could get a shuttle as they only came at certain times. My plan was to stay an hour and get a cab back, but the trip was cut short. By the time we got there it was after 4 and I did not want to cut it close getting back to base, so I told the driver I would just go back with him. He drove me around the area for a few minutes, then we made our way back.
I got ready for the show and finished packing. Our last show was at Camp Hansen in the club there called The Palms. What a fantastic venue, and the manager treated us like royalty. He suggested the “Chariot of Beef” and I took him up on it. Wow, great food and a great club. A very nice way to end this exhausting, yet wonderful tour! The Marines packed the club and made the last show a ton of fun. One of them spoke with me at our “Meet & Greet” which we did after every show and told me he had seen me perform on a Carnival Cruise in 2012. He even told me which joke I did that reminded him of seeing me. Those are moments a comedian lives for and still blows my mind. Here’s an American who had seen me twice and both times were somewhere other than the USA.
The trip back to the hotel was quiet as I think the three of us were going over this week in our minds. We mustered in the lobby the next morning and Jennifer once again picked us up in the van which had become so familiar. Our trip to the Naha Airport would take about 50 minutes and I used this time to reflect on the Japanese landscape and muse over the amazing tour that I had just completed. The biggest thing that stood out for me was the Marines I was leaving behind as I started my 24-hour journey home. They, as I’ve already written, really appreciated the gift of laughter Jackie and I brought them. Between the restrictions on their freedom–most of them for their own good, and the separation from loved ones, they deserve to laugh as much as possible. Their attitude is amazing, their patriotic outlook inspirational, and I feel better about the future of America after being with them.
I learned some about the Japanese people themselves, what I could anyway, from this brief look into their world. They are a people who take pride in what they do for a living no matter what it is. There’s no shame in manual labor, or working a job one might find “beneath” them. They treat the elderly different as well, with reverence. They kneel down to get below the level of someone sitting in a wheelchair when conversing with them–I saw this time and time again. I think we could learn some things from their culture and I will forever be changed in some ways for having been there.
I’m now back and happy to be home. If you have never traveled halfway across the earth, it does take some time to get back to normal. I have a new respect for my fellow entertainers and other professionals who are world travelers; it’s not glamorous or easy! I do hope to turn this opportunity into more work and already have with a show in a few weeks at a casino near Shreveport, LA. I also appeared on a local TV show right before I left, and I’m doing the #1 radio talk show here in Charleston, SC, today .More work and publicity are always nice, but they’re not the biggest or best things I got from this experience. The phrase “Thanks for coming here!” that I heard many, many times from our service men and women stationed in the land of the rising sun are words I will always cherish when I think of this trip!!