A Work of Art

Japan is known throughout the world for their unique artistic styles. Historically, Japanese art styles have covered a wide range of distinctive media including pottery, woodblock, silk, paper and ink. When I moved to Japan I was introduced to another, more contemporary style that I am quickly growing to love. The medium is quite interesting and always unique to the person it is created for. Sadly, however, these works of art are only temporary, always getting chipped away by the hands of time. To me, this only adds to its allure. I am, of course, referring to the skillful craft of nail art.

Nail art is a pretty big deal in Japan. I understand they have conventions and competitions where nail artists get together to compare notes. Some of the designs I’ve seen online get incredibly elaborate, sometimes to a point where your hands are no longer functional. Don’t worry; I haven’t gotten that crazy yet. But when you get a manicure or pedicure here, nail art is usually a given and included in the price. For Americans living abroad here, I consider it a rite of passage of sorts.

Extreme nail art from 2009 Tokyo nail art expo

When you first arrive to the nail salon/art studio, you are given booklets with page after page of nail art designs to choose from. I’ve made some difficult decisions in my life before, but nothing as difficult as this. I usually spend far too much time seriously deliberating over the designs. They have every design you could imagine, and some that you probably couldn’t. Whether you are craving feminine flowers, over-the-top glam, or perhaps a smiling Hello Kitty, the design book has everything.

My favorite nail salon/art studio in Okinawa

Once you find the resolve to select a design, the real magic begins. The artist goes to work with expert precision and the end result is truly a work of art. I can barely paint my toes one color without getting nail polish all over the place let alone a design. But time after time, they turn out impressive toe masterpieces. 

Two of my most recent works of art

I hear nail art is becoming popular back in the States as well.  All it took was a couple of celebrities to sport the artistic style in magazines to encourage others to partake.  Hopefully by the time I get back, it will be widely available so I won't have to suppress my artistic side.   


Farewell, Summer

With fall weather settling comfortably into Okinawa, it seems summer has passed me by in the blink of an eye. I was so caught up absorbing my first balmy Okinawan summer that I left my blog simmering away on the back burner. Time to start stirring the pot again.

Summertime in Okinawa is marked by festivals, food, and fireworks. Despite the rising temperatures, it seemed there was always another festival or “matsuri” to attend. In fact, Okinawans are known as festival people throughout Japan. My kind of place.

I learned early on that for a festival to be rated highly on the enjoyment scale, fireworks must be included. Fireworks always seem to be the focus of conversation when discussing a festival with an Okinawan friend. “You went to the festival? How were the fireworks?” It’s unthinkable to not stay for the fireworks. People would think something was wrong with you if you didn’t.

Another highlight of summer festivals are the Eisa performances. Eisa is a type of folk dance unique to Okinawa and truly represents the summer. It’s not unusual to walk through the neighborhood in the evening hearing people practicing the traditional instruments used in Eisa: the sanshin and the taiko drum. In fact, for a few solid weeks leading up to Obon, I fell asleep to the faint sounds of taiko drums banging away.

Eisa performers with taiko drums

Okinawan Sanshin made with snake skin

Obon is an important religious holiday celebrated throughout Japan with Buddhist roots. In brief, it is a three-day period when families remember and honor their dead relatives by welcoming their spirits back for a brief visit. Eisa dancers and music guide the deceased on their journey. Other traditions include special family meals, visits to family grave sites, offerings and prayers. While remember the dead may be somber occurrence, Obon also celebrates life and the overall atmosphere is relatively upbeat.

Little Eisa performers

On the last day of Obon when deceased spirits must depart, neighborhoods get together for all-night Eisa celebrations. Everyone in the neighborhood comes out to celebrate in true Okinawan style. After hearing the singing and drumming outside our house, Fred and I wandered outside to check out the Obon party, uncertain of whether or not the neighbors would approve of our American presence.

Outside our house

It didn’t take long before we felt welcomed with the international gesture of beer. Even though Fred already had a beer in hand, an older man shoved another chilled Orion into his hand cheerfully laughing “motto, motto!” (more, more!). We were also treated to chilled noodles and fresh watermelon from the neighbors as we enjoyed our beer and watched the older men stumble around with their bottles of awamori, the other local spirit.

Motto, motto!

The night continued with more dancing, singing, and of course, beer, while meandering throughout the neighborhood. Finally, the crowd ended at a cleared area that had been set up with a stage. The older and seemingly more important men of the neighborhood made their way onto the stage with their sanshins and bottles of awamori while the younger dancers and drummers circled the stage below.

Eventually, it turned into a free-for-all with all the neighbors dancing around the stage. I tried to catch on to the dance, but after a couple beers it became too much for me to concentrate on. So I watched and drank, instead.

Party in the neighborhood



Tokyo is a city of dichotomies, lying somewhere between complete chaos and perfect harmony. While fashions and technology evolve at a frantic pace, deep-rooted traditions remain constant. It’s as easy to get caught up in the latest frenzy as it is to lose yourself in the city’s old-world charm.


Freakin' Fuji

As the saying roughly goes, you are wise to climb Mt. Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice. Don’t worry, wise man, I will not be a fool. What started as a simple whim to climb the highest mountain in Japan turned into a challenging adventure my body will not soon forget.

I can’t really explain why I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji. I didn’t necessarily expect the climb to be “fun,” but I did think it would make for a good story. Plus, I felt oddly obligated to see Japan from its highest point. Perhaps Mallory’s definitive argument of “because it is there” is the best reason of all to climb any mountain.


Big trouble in little Okinawa

Little Okinawa has been stirring up a lot of attention from some big players lately. For the first time, people in the states are telling me they see Okinawa in the new headlines. Not surprisingly, the story revolves around empty campaign promises and misbehaving Americans.

Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has had a significant military presence in Japan. Currently, the bulk of that presence is in Okinawa. While Okinawa represents less than one percent of Japan’s land, it hosts over two-thirds of the 40,000 U.S. military forces. This high concentration is due to Okinawa’s prime location. Known as the “Keystone of the Pacific,” the tiny island is equidistant to many hotspots in the Pacific, allowing for a faster military response in times of need.


Japanese Commercials

On my long list of things I love about Japan, Japanese television ranks pretty highly. While my Japanese language skills still leave much to be desired, I’ve found that Japanese television programs and commercials are entertaining even with the language barrier.

I take a particular interest in the commercials. It’s always very interesting to me to learn how goods and services are marketed to different cultures. In Japan, humor, beauty and lightheartedness seem to reign supreme. I very rarely see a scare tactic employed, as is not uncommon in the states. As you can imagine, this makes for some pleasant commercial-watching in Japan.


Dragon Boat Races

Right before rainy season dragged the clouds in, Fred and I ditched work early last week and grabbed one last afternoon of sun down in Naha enjoying the dragon boat races.

The dragon boat races, or haarii as they are called in Japan, are an annual Okinawan event that dates back to the 14th century. Teams of rowers race each other in dragon-shaped boats to honor the gods of the sea. The event caps off Golden Week celebrations and draws crowds from all over the island.


Happy Holidays

The words “holiday season” automatically drag my mind to the busy days surrounding Christmas and new year's eve. But here in Japan, we are in the midst of the biggest holiday season of the year known as Golden Week.

The first signs of the approaching Golden Week holiday appeared when I saw my neighbors mysteriously hanging fish-shaped windsocks outside their homes. At first I thought it was just an odd personal preference for fish waving in the wind, but as the whole island followed suit, I knew there must be an explanation.


Temples and blossoms and shrines, oh my!

Part 2 of 2

The next day in Kyoto we planned on taking a scenic boat ride down the river. After multiple bus and train transfers to get there, we found out the tours were cancelled due to a rise in the river from heavy rainfall. The woman at the tourist desk was nice enough to recommend an alternative “romantic scenic train ride.” Although in her broken English, we couldn’t quite figure out where this train ride was. We found a ticket counter and flashed our romantic scenic train ride brochure only to be told “sorry, full all day.” So much for romance. But we soon discovered you a never far from something cool in Kyoto. We found yet another


Temples and blossoms and shrines, oh my!

Part 1 of 2

When I first decided to move to Japan, it conjured up images of Buddhist temples, sprawling gardens, cherry blossoms galore, and kimono-clad geisha teetering through narrow alleyways. I discovered this romantic image does exist. It’s in Kyoto.

While Okinawa is amazingly beautiful, it has been shaped by history in a much different way than mainland Japan. Repeated wars have ravaged the strategically positioned island, leaving behind only small reminders of the castles and temples that once graced the land. The island was also once


Japanese 101

If I truly want to “turn Japanese,” I’m going to have to learn the language. Easier said than done.

When in doubt, point and smile

Before moving here, I knew how to say hello, thank you, goodbye, and dog in Japanese. As you can imagine, these four words will only get you so far. I spent a fair amount of worrying about how I would get my dogs through customs in Tokyo without knowing the language. My plan was to use the international gesture of crying while saying “inu, inu, inu” (Japanese for dog). Fortunately for me and the dogs, everyone I encountered in Tokyo spoke English.


I'd Rather be Boating

Living on a tiny tropical island surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see, I thought I should learn how to navigate the seas. Plus, boats are cool.

The Air Force marina offers low-cost boat rentals to military and DoD civilians. The only catch is you have to take (and pass) their boating class. They offer both power boating classes and sailing classes. Fred and I started with the power boats.

The marina

We heard while signing up for the class that the instructor


A Lot of Bull

The word bullfighting usually conjures up images of flashy matadors and red capes.  Not in Okinawa.  Here the bulls actually fight each other.

Mano a mano

Having studied abroad in Spain, I was familiar with traditional Spanish bullfights.  Matadors were big celebrities there.  They wore fancy outfits and stabbed weakened, helpless bulls to death.  I never thought it was very fair.  The Okinawans came up with a better idea to even the playing field - let bull battle bull.


Neo Park

Friends of ours told us about a park in Okinawa where you can, among other things, take llamas for walks.  Say no more - we are there.

The park is called Neo Park and is up north in Nago.  It's difficult to describe Neo Park because it is different from anything you'd find in the states.  I'd put it under the general category of zoo, but it definitely had a bit of a twist.

Upon entering the zoo-like park, you first find yourself in a giant aviary with a pond in the middle and bird poop all around.  It is filled to capacity with all sorts of birds.  There were flamingos, different types of cranes, and a multitude of large birds that I had no idea what they were or where they came from.  As Fred was stalking the birds to take their pictures, I felt I was being stalked by the birds as they swooped dangerously close to my head.  Alfred Hitchcock would understand why I had to leave this exhibit quickly.

These birds wanted to kill me

After narrowly escaping with my life from the bird exhibit, we entered the Amazon exhibit.  This too had some scary birds, but not as many.  It also had flying foxes (giant bats) and some fish.  According to Fred, the flying foxes can be seen all over the island.  I have yet to see one.

Finally, we made our way to the "petting zoo" area with the llamas.  You pay an extra 200 yen to enter this area.  It was the best 200 yen I've spent so far.  In the states, petting zoos are usually filled with goats, rabbits, and maybe a pig or two if you're lucky.  But at Neo Park, the petting zoo begins with dogs!  I've noticed that the Okinawans really like dogs, especially little dogs.  Probably because little dogs are cute, and the Japanese are all about cute things.  Fred and I laughed when a group of Japanese girls walked in and  squealed with excitement upon seeing the little dogs.  I'm not sure which was more entertaining - petting the dogs or watching the Japanese girls flip out.

On to the main event - the llamas.  There were three llamas wearing dog collars tied to stakes that you could walk around.  While this is amusing in itself, what made it more amusing is that tied to a fourth stake next to the llamas was a poodle.  Picture this - llama, llama, llama...poodle?  I sang the Sesame Street song to myself, "One of These Things is Not Like the Others...".  Furthermore, the lone poodle had Japanese katakana letters shaved into his poodle coat.  I'm not sure what it said, but I'm certain whatever it said was funny.

After the llama/poodle exhibit, we checked out the huge pigs.  I was disappointed the pigs were not available for walking.  However, one of the employees came over and gave us some hot dogs buns to feed to the pigs.  I learned pigs LOVE hot dog buns.  If only they knew what we humans use hot dog buns for...

It was hard to tear myself away from the petting zoo, but all good things must come to an end.  The park concluded with some wallabies hopping around, peacocks, more assorted birds, and finally a lemur exhibit.  Unfortunately, the lemurs were in cages.  I would have liked to pet them too.

Impressing the ladies


For more photos from Neo Park, click here.


Semper Fi

Even though I am a civilian living in Japan, the U.S. military presense is felt everyday.  The island has approximately eleven U.S. military bases, most of which are represented by the U.S. Marine Corps.  We enjoy many perks because of this, and one we got to enjoy this past week was a visit from the Commadant's own U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps and USMC Silent Drill Platoon.

The Commadant was also present on the island to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Their first stop had been Iwo Jima, followed by Okinawa, Guam and Pearl Harbor.  The guests of the ceremony included veterans from the battle, high ranking officers, the major general here on the island and Japanese officials.  There were even some women in kimonos.

Iwo Jima Veterans


The Battle Colors Ceremony took place on USMC Camp Foster (where Fred works).  The Drum & Bugle Corps began the ceremony by marching on the field in precise unison wearing their brilliant red uniforms.  They performed a number of different pieces including patriotic marches, some Frank Sinatra and a medoly from the musical Hair.  Then the Silent Drill Platoon took the field, also with exact precision.  With no verbal commands, the platoon went through a series of manuevers with their rifles, twirling them around and throwing them dangerously close to their platoon mate's heads.  With the power of my iphone, I snagged a couple videos.  As you'll see, I really need a proper video camera.

The Drum and Bugle Corps taking the field

A little Mozat

Marching off the field with color guard and silent drill platoon following behind
After the ceremony, we were fortunate enough to have dinner with two member of the Drum & Bugle Corps and I got to ask all my burning questions about military ceremonies.  I learned that the group as a whole does over 500 ceremonies every year.  Based in D.C., they are also the ones who perform at military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.  Interesting fact - the Body Bearers for the Marine Corps have to be able to bench press 225 lbs. 20 times and squat 275 lbs. 20 times due to the weight of the caskets.  I also learned that members of the Color Guard must be 6'4" or taller to bear the colors.

These guys are tall - a job requirement

The general on the right - yes, she's a woman

Whether it's stopping your car on base for evening colors, standing before a movie for the national anthem, or attending an event like this, you are always reminded here of the men and women surrounding you who are serving our country.


Vampires Beware

If I ever fear there is a vampire lurking about Okinawa, I now have a refuge, and it involves lots and lots of garlic.

Fred and I heard about a restaurant in town that specializes in all things garlic.  While the restaurant is named Arin Krin, most Americans simply refer to it as the Garlic House.  I felt pretty optimistic about this place.  I also felt confident when we pulled up and saw the exterior of the restaurant covered in graffitti-style cartoon garlic heads.  How could it be bad?

It was obvious when we walked in that this place was popular with Americans.  In fact, I think there was only one table of Japanese in the whole, garlicky place.  It was also obvious this place was serious about garlic from the aroma wafting about.  Definitely vampire-proof.

The menu was a mix of western and Japanese cuisine, all with garlic of course.  We went a little crazy and ordered four different dishes to try: garlic potatoes, garlic pasta, garlic pizza and garlic eggplant with tofu.  Holy garlic!  If you don't care for garlic, you would be disgusted with this establishment.  I, on the other hand, could have moved in and stayed for awhile.

A little bonus entertainment for the evening was Fred's trip to the bathroom.  When he came back, he was laughing and told me I had to go to the bathroom.  So I did, and took his picture.

As you can see, this bathroom wasn't exactly designed with people of Fred's height in mind.  Despite the vertically-challenged bathroom, I'm sure Fred and I will be back for some garlic delights.  



While it may not be totally Japanese, Yogurtland is quickly becoming one of my favorite places in Okinawa.

Yogurtland is a self-serve frozen yogurt chain that began in California in 2004.  Since then, two shops have popped up in Okinawa, of all places.  I'm guessing the large number of Americans here has something to do with it, but the Okinawans seem as equally excited by Yogurtland.

Fred took me to my first Yogurtland when we spent the day in Naha, Okinawa's capital.  I had only been in Japan for a week and was very excited to find out I could get frozen yogurt here!  The other Yogurtland is closer to where we live in a city called Chatan.  Below is a picture of American Village where the Chatan location resides.

Yogurtland is completely self-serve, from selecting the flavor or flavors of yogurt you want to choosing from a number of tasty toppings.  The toppings are a mix of good ol' fashioned western-style treats to some more traditional Japanese sweets like azuki beans.  Does anyone remember Koala Yummies?  I used to love these when I was a kid, and then at some point, they seemed to fall off the face of the earth.  Welcome back, my delicious little Koala friends.

I've heard several funny stories about "dumb" Americans trying out Yogurtland for the first time.  The price of your yogurt is determined by weight, not by the size of the cup you pick.  I heard of a family of four that was unaware of this pricing system so they generously piled on the yogurt and toppings.  When they went to pay, the total for their 4 frozen yogurts was over $40.  It is hard to control yourself, especially around Koala Yummies, but I still try to stay in the $3-$4 zone. 

Below is a quick video we took last time we were there.  Okinawans and Americans coming together for a tasty treat.  Yogurtland, you do rule.


Whole Lot of Shaking Going On

Fred and I jolted awake this morning around 5:30 a.m. thanks to an earthquake just off the coast of Okinawa.

Above and below are maps from USGS (click here) that shows the location of the quake.  We live north of Naha on the west coast near where you see the first peninsula jut out.  The orange square is the epicenter.  USGS is reporting a 7.0 magnitude, but I've seen other websites reporting it as a 7.3.  It is approximately 50 miles from us.

Being from Florida, I had never experienced an earthquake before.  Fortunately for me, however, I've done a lot of reading about earthquakes because they are my number one fear.  I blame this extreme fear on a ouija board telling me while I was at a childhood slumber party that I would die in an earthquake.  I actually briefed Fred on earthquake safety when I first arrived in Okinawa because I knew how seismic it was.  Yes, I am that afraid/paranoid.  Tip: don't play with ouiji boards.   

As I jolted awake, it only took me a split second to realize what was happening.  All I could think of was the ouija board prediction!  My immediate response was to leap out of bed and run downstairs, all the while yelling "earthquake! earthquake!" to make sure Fred knew what was going on.  

Once I was safely on the front porch, Fred was following behind me half-dazed as I called for the dogs to follow.  They didn't seem to understand what was going on, but followed anyway.  I would have liked to have seen a faster response time from the dogs.  We'll have to work on that.  And as suddenly as it began, the shaking stopped.

I had no concept of how long the shaking lasted.  News reports indicated it was approximately 15 seconds.  What I remember most specifically is the sound I heard.  It was an eerie, deep rumbling sound.  Afterwards, I asked Fred what woke him up first - the earthquake or me hysterically yelling "earthquake!!"  He thinks it was the earthquake first. 

As for damage, there is none to report at our house.  Our home, like most Okinawan homes, is constructed of reinforced concrete.  Apparently, concrete does well in earthquakes up to a certain point, after which it can become so stressed that it fails completely and breaks.  It's not like the wood-framed homes that are built to sway with the quakes.  But the main reason for the concrete here is to protect against typhoons.

I was amazed how quickly the American news outlets reported the quake as I got online to check it out.  I saw the AP was looking for someone in Okinawa to give an account, so I called their office in D.C.  They seemed happy to be talking to someone in Okinawa, but disappointed by my lackluster account of the event.  I think they were hoping for more carnage than actually occurred.  Sorry to disappoint you, AP, but I'm still alive. 


The Fast and the Furious

Meet Kuruma, my new-to-me Japanese car.

While I spent many hours at the dealerships looking at cute pink cars, I settled on this car when I saw it listed in the classifieds at a price I could not resist.  The previous owner is a fighter pilot with the Air Force and was leaving the island.  I am still amused by the thought of a person who is accustomed to Mach speed cruising around the island in this cute little car.

Kuruma (Japanese for car) is a 1998 Nissan March.  Not sold in the states, the March has been around parts of Asia since the 1980s.  It's funny how similar it is to my very first car, which was also a Nissan.  The major difference, of course, is that the steering wheel is on the other side of the car.

I've adjusted quite well to driving on the left side of the road.  It only took a day or two to feel normal on the "wrong" side of the road.  The roads here can be very narrow and challenging to navigate, and it seems perfectly acceptable to stop in the middle of the road if you want to jump out and grab something from a vending machine or whatnot.  I suppose this is one of the reasons the speed limit is so low here.  In residential areas and narrower streets, the speed limit is as low as 40 kph (about 25 mph).  On the major, multi-laned prefectural routes, you can go a "fast" 60 kph (nearly 40 mph).  This now, sadly, feels lightening fast to me.  I also found it amusing that we Americans were specifically told in our newcomer's orientation that "drifting," made popular by the movie The Fast and the Furious, is strictly prohibited.  Guess I have to go to Tokyo for that. 

I took a couple pictures of the roads with my iPhone on my way home today.  Not the best quality, but gives you a glimpse of what the roads are like here.  No cars or animals were hit in the process.

 A couple of  fellow "Y-plates"

 A major prefectural route.  Kadena Air Force Base to the right.

 Bridge across the "green river" (it looks green from the surrounding trees reflecting off it it)

Yes, there is a Starbucks in my neighborhood.  Note the ceramic dragon/dogs at the entrance (Shisa) - future post to come about these guys.

I was warned that the roads in Okinawa get very slippery when it rains out.  This is because the Japanese use a coral mixture in the road pavement.  While it may be cost effective to use coral, it does make for a slicker surface in the rain.  For this reason, you'll occassionally see red sections of pavement, usually on curves or slopes.  These sections prevent slipping where it's most needed.

 This section is a declined slope on the road.

While driving through neighborhoods, you'll encounter many blind intersections where you can't see to your left or right to check for traffic.  In this situation, you rely on the mirrors posted at the intersection. 

Two mirrors on the left corner on the intersection in my neighborhood.  Ocean is straight ahead.

I've observed a few things about cars and Japanese drivers.  First of all, a Japanese car doesn't seem complete without some sort of decorations inside.  The more you have, the cooler you look.  Stuffed animals seem to be popular.  They are displayed proudly on dashboards and rear windows.  And I rarely see a Japanese car without a tissue box displayed prominently.  Other options include curtains for your car windows.  Why not?  They can add a splash of color and keep the sun off of you.  I'm wondering if these have ever been blamed for a car accident before.  "Sorry man, I didn't see you with my curtains closed...I'm sure you understand.  Hey, nice tissue box!"  I don't have curtains or a tissue box yet, but I do have a small stuffed animal I got when I bought my cell phone.  I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to fit in!