“To all those who remember me in Tokyo, be certain that there is life after retirement. You’ve just got to find your niche,” Joe Grace said.
Joe found his in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he teaches Japanese literature and history at Vilnius University. His students, he said, “are studying the languages and culture of Asia. As future entrepreneurs, diplomats, writers and educators, they are the generation that will forge ties with the Far East. How great it feels to contribute to their training.”
Many people in Tokyo remember Joe as a travel man. Some know him as a playwright, author and newspaper columnist. He speaks, as well as his native English, Lithuanian and Polish learned in childhood from his parents, Russian studied in Boston and Japanese acquired “through the kitchen door.”
The youngest of six children, he was brought up in Massachusetts. During the Korean War he joined the army and was seconded to the linguistics section and brought to the Far East. After he left the service and returned to the United States, he said, “a wonderful thing happened to me. Someone suggested travel. Just that word seemed to be right for me. I never had a second thought.” It proved doubly lucky for him, as he was able, once he began to travel widely, to indulge his love of theater in other countries, enjoying it especially in Russian in Moscow and what was then Leningrad.
Joe worked for a year for a travel agency in Kansas. In Japan again in the 1960s, he set up his own enterprise, the Travel Center of Japan.
“I hit it very lucky, as at that time the booming economy took off and I opened the doors to travel,” he said. As president of the subsequent Joe Grace’s Travel Center, he pioneered group travel from Japan to Outer Mongolia and Sikkim. He wrote travel brochures and itineraries, and published destination stories in American travel journals. Additionally, he wrote the script for the sound-and-light performances that ran for four years at Kyoto International Hotel. A play of his, “A Nun in the Family,” was produced on Cape Cod and by the Tokyo International Players in Tokyo. Joe frequently acted and directed for TIP.
Joe said, “My last 10 years in Japan, up to 1995, were spent in a variety of ways, gradually retiring from the travel business and turning my hand to new endeavors. I participated in Fuji Television’s grand venture to bring the famed Orient Express train to Japan, and was the interpreter/guide for the English-speaking tourists who boarded in Paris for the deluxe, 25-day, same-train journey via Germany, Poland and Russia to Hong Kong. Then I accompanied a group for a grand trip to the then new ex-Soviet Union, from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, following the Baltic Sea’s pine-studded shoreline.”
The Japan Foundation provided Joe with the opportunity to teach in Vilnius. “I arrived at an exciting time,” he said. “Lithuania, a newly independent state, was just five years into restructuring its economy. The flat I found then is still my home, in the heart of the baroque old town quarters. There’s a great variety of fine concerts, theater and ballet, and Vilnius is still a very affordable part of Europe.”
Three years ago, Joe had the unexpected honor of being offered the Lithuanian ambassadorship to Japan. “At my age I did not need that costly and onerous position,” he said. He continues to teach his “bright students, eager to learn about Japan.” He completely remodeled his apartment, and when that was in order he bought a plot of land outside the city. Now he has finished building on it Romuva Park, a country inn and restaurant. ” ‘Romuva’ is an ancient Lithuanian word meaning a retreat, and Romuva Park, on the bank of a placid river and sheltered by lofty pines, exudes a restful atmosphere,” Joe said. “I am happy to report that my inn, since opening in April, is doing well.”
He had further projects in mind. He is thinking of helping out at an orphanage, of driving himself to see more of the off-the-beaten-track areas of his new country, and of buying another flat that he would remodel. “It may be big enough to remodel into two flats, and I am toying with the idea of establishing in one of them an Asian arts and craft gallery. So you see there’s a lot still brewing in my brain,” he said.