Cherry Blossom Festival

I was looking forward to my first festival the moment I got here.  I had heard Okinawans are always looking for an excuse to party.  The blooming cherry blossoms seemed like a good reason to celebrate, so Fred and I headed up to Nago for the annual cherry blossom festival.  Nago is a leisurely 40 minute drive from our house.  We took the scenic route and made a few stops on the way.  The further north we went, the more tropical and lush the island appeared.  The coast was spotted with big name resorts along the way - the Renaissance, Marriott, and Intercontinental.  Definite vacation area.  But for good reason - it was beautiful.

Nago was a cute town on the ocean.  While I don't think many Americans lived there, they were out in full force for the festival.  The main street was closed for festival-goers and was lined with food vendors and carnival games.  Music blarred throughout the town.  I was starving when I got there so we hit the food vendors first.  Lots of fried foods and meats on sticks - not too different from the states.  Fred suggested the takoyaki - literally translated as fried octopus I think.  It looked like a soft bread ball with sauce on top.  It was hot, doughy and had a chuck of octopus inside.  Quite delicious and apparently a popular festival food.  After a few octopus balls and a couple beers, we decided to climb up the hill to see the cherry blossoms.  

The trees climbed up a hillside and were mostly in bloom.  Stone stairs ran up the hillside for pedestrians to climb along the trees.  It was quite a hike, but the trees and view from the top were beautiful.  A small shrine was set up at the half-way point.  Again, I almost felt like I was at Epcot because of all the Americans walking around.  The cherry blossoms aren't blooming in mainland Japan yet.  Okinawa gets them first.  Fred and I will be visiting Tokyo near the end of February, but I don't think their blossoms will be out until end of March.  

For more photos of the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival, click here.         


Smart Things Okinawans Do

There are a couple simple yet brilliant things I've observed in Okinawa that make me happy. In general, the Japanese seem very efficient with everything they do. Even at the airport, processes were much smoother and pleasant than in the states. I think this country is on to something.

Perhaps my favorite brainchild is the sticker system for cars. There are two stickers: the orange and yellow Ochiba mark and the green and yellow Wakaba mark. Ochiba represents fallen leaves and Wakaba represents new, budding leaves. It makes sense then that those with Ochiba stickers on their cars are elderly drivers and those with Wakaba stickers are new, young drivers - the two types of drivers you want to stay away from! Thank you, Japan, for developing a socially acceptable system of letting me know which drivers I need to avoid on the road. Someone should let Florida know about this system.

Toilets are also a work of pure genius here. They are much more technologically advanced than toilets in the states. I was overwhelmed in the Tokyo airport after using my first Japanese toilet. There were so many options other than flushing! I was afraid I would hit a button that would do something horrible to me, so I stuck with the one that looked like the flush button. I admit I was intrigued by the button that read "powerful odor relief." Maybe next time I will try it out. Sadly, our toilets at home aren't as advanced, but they do have two flushing options: one is a regular flush and the other is a more powerful flush. Who wouldn't love a powerful flush option?

Another thing I love is Japan's obsession with vending machines. They are everywhere. You are never far away from an iced coffee, an apple tea, or good old coca-cola. They even have some heated vending machines if you prefer your coffee hot. There are at least 1o vending machines within a short walk of our house. How do the Japanese concentrate with so many options are their fingertips every day? Maybe America shouldn't invest in this concept - we are lazy enough.


Pancakes and Castles

Of all the things I imagined I would experience in Japan, a pancake place did not make the list. But sure enough, there is a restaurant called the Pancake House just a few yards away from our house. I noticed the signs pointing down the street for the Pancake House on my first day here. I thought perhaps it would be some crazy Japanese twist to pancakes. I was pleasantly surprised to find out they have real, delicious, fluffy pancakes just like back home! The place is very small and the women who work there speak English pretty well. The menu has a variety of different pancakes (banana, berries, chocolate chip, etc.) and also had eggs and sausage listed. I had the chocolate chip pancakes and Fred had the rum raisin pancakes. The Pancake House is a suitable replacement for my old favorite breakfast place in Jax Beach.

After stuffing myself with pancakes worthy of being called dessert, Fred and I went to check out the Cape Zampa area. The cape is a beautiful area of Yomitan (our town) that juts out into the ocean with a lighthouse. The cliffs seemed to be a popular place for local fisherman and the perfectly curved waves just past the cliffs were popular with surfers. The area was nice. Across the street we stumbled upon a petting zoo with assorted goats and things. I learned how to say goat in Japanese. We finished up the tour by driving to the nearby Zakimi castle ruins. There is not much left but the castle wall after centuries of wars. Pretty views of the town and ocean from atop the wall. There was also a nice park in the area. I think next time we'll ride our bikes up there and explore some more.


Naha and Noodles

Today we explored the capital city, Naha. Naha is about a 45 minute drive south of where we live. Farther away from the military bases, it didn't seem like many Americans lived in Naha. While the city streets meander unpredictably throughout the area, one street in particular stands out as Naha's "main street." It is called Kokusai Street (meaning "international" street in English). I compare it to Okinawa's Miracle Mile. The street is full of restaurants, bars, shopping and tourist traps. Fred and I spent the afternoon strolling up and down Kokusai, stopping in various shops. There is also a labyrinth-like public market we got lost in that sold everything from fish to house slippers.

People watching is spectacular in Naha. We stopped in at Yogurtland for a snack (an amazing, self-serve frozen yogurt chain here) and plopped in front of the store window to people watch as we ate. We saw Japanese businessmen, suggestively-dressed young women, and even a guy wearing a track suit pushing a cat around in a cart. I could have sat there all day.

After our big day in the big city, Fred's friends Valerie and Mark invited us to a soba noodle restaurant in our neighborhood. We met up with them, two other American couples and their Japanese friend, and walked down to the restaurant. I like that there are a number of restaurants within walking distance of our house. While soba is popular all over Japan, Okinawa has their own signature soba noodles. Fred tried the seafood soba and I had the curry vegetable soba. Both were amazingly delicious. After stuffing ourselves with soba, we waddled back home.


Shopping and Eating

What better way to explore a new culture than by shopping and eating? It provides opportunities for practicing greetings in Japanese, counting Yen and observing fashion trends. The day started out at a very special place - the 100 Yen store. This is the equivalent of the dollar store in America. Fred told me about a large 100 Yen store he had heard good things about. That's where we headed first. It had a huge assortment of random stuff. Everything from Hello Kitty underwear to dehydrated fish snacks. While we could have bought the whole store, we only had 1000 Yen and settled for a couple waste baskets for the house, an ice cube tray and some Hello Kitty facial blotting paper that I will carry proudly in my purse.

Next stop was the Japanese equivalent of IKEA called Today OK. We didn't need furniture, but were curious what type of furniture they had in case our home goods shipment crashes into the Pacific Ocean on its way here. Prices were reasonable but the couches seemed better suited for small Japanese people. Next door was a home goods store that had everything you could desire for the home - rugs, decorations, curtains, kitchen stuff, etc. Almost like the home section of Target mixed with a little Bed, Bath & Beyond. I'm a big fan. This is where I noticed more "fashionable" Okinawans (in my American opinion) shopping, so it must be a classy place.

Last stop on the shopping tour was the good ol' American commissary on base for groceries. It literally has everything you could want from America, and at reasonable prices. Fred suggested that the produce at our local Japanese grocery store is far superior to the commissary, so we just grabbed a could staples there. They also have a small Japanese section where I grabbed some green tea, Apple Tea (my favorite new Japanese drink - picture iced tea mixed with apple juice), and a cold coffee drink in a can Fred told me I had to try. Coffee drinks in cans are popular here. It was so good that I began visualizing our Japanese house filled with canned coffee drinks so I could have one everyday! Shortly after, one of Fred's American friends here told us there's nicotine in the drink and they can't sell it in the U.S. Darn you, canned coffee! Why has your delicious taste betrayed me??

After all the shopping came the eating. Fred has two American friends that live a few houses down from us - one of the few American houses nearby. Mark is an officer in the Marine Corps and Valerie, his wife, is ex Air Force and stay-at-home mom to their 1-year-old son, Michael. They invited us to a restaurant in our neighborhood that does not have English on the menus nor an English-speaking staff. Fortunately for us, this is their second tour to Okinawa and they speak some basic Japanese. I no longer felt like I was visiting the Japanese pavilion at Epot - I was in Japan this time. All the diners were Japanese men - smoking, drinking and having an apparent good time. Valerie translated the foreign menu and we ended up with a platter of Kimchi Tofu, some wanton wrapped fried cheese things, some sort of a seaweed salad, and most importantly, beer. Valerie also let us try her Goya Champuru, which is a traditional Okinawan dish. Champuru is the style of cooking - similar to a stir-fry - and Goya is the local vegetable known in English as Bitter Melon. It looks like a bumpy cucumber and has a taste that is difficult to describe. Slightly bitter aftertaste, but good. The nutritional value of the Goya is rumored to be why Okinawans live so long. Almost forgot to mention we were served hot towelettes before dinner again. I love this country.


Early to bed, early to rise

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. And this is how I've spent my first days recovering from jet lag. It's not as bad as I imagined, but my internal clock is certainly struggling to keep up. I felt fantastic when I woke up my first morning, only to crash in the early evening and wake up before sunrise. The dogs are jet lagged too. I heard Frankie wake up and walk around the house at 2 a.m. He starting eating and then wanted to go outside. I feel you, Frankie. I wanted to do the same thing.

I made my first drive through the island today when Fred took me to one of the bases to get my ID card. The island is pretty. I'm not sure how long it will take me to figure out the lay of the land. The streets don't even have names here. Apparently directions are based on landmarks. Plus throw in the whole driving on the other side of the road thing and I'm thoroughly out of my element. I don't think the roads are ready for me yet.

The base looks like any other military base I've ever been on. After getting my ID card, Fred took me to the exchange. I forgot I was in Japan for a bit. It's like a giant Wal-Mart with designer hand bags and perfumes mixed in, complete with every American fast food you could desire. I was depressed and excited at the same time.

I also went to my first Japanese restaurant last night. Fred broke me in gently by taking me to a sushi place near one of the bases. Lots of Americans dining there. I almost felt like I was at the Japanese pavilion at Epcot and not really in Japan because of all the Americans. The menu was in Japanese and English, so pointing and smiling was completely acceptable. Per the photos on the wall, the owner of the restaurant is a childhood friend of Tiger Woods. Food was great and I got a hot towelette. I always appreciate a good hot towelette.

Tomorrow Fred is off work, so hopefully I'll get to explore more than the American bases. More photos to come!

False start

After a series of mishaps and false starts, I have finally arrived to my new home in Okinawa, Japan. Thanks to the great people at United Airlines, I was delayed a week in D.C. due to a cancelled flight. Somehow my bags made it to Tokyo without me the next day instead of being delivered to my hotel as was promised by United. Long story short, after talking on the phone to numerous United call center employees in Indian and the Philippines, I got my bags back 4 days later - damaged, of course. Fortunately my sister Carol lives in Richmond and came to my rescue, picking me and the dogs up and letting us stay there until my rescheduled flight the next week. I was so grateful for that. After an angry email, several more phone calls by me and my sister, and a visit to the Richmond airport, I was upgraded to business class on my flight to Tokyo. I thought the worst was over until I arrived for my rescheduled flight and was given the run around about whether or not my connecting flight in Tokyo would accept my dogs. Apparently my ticket agent had no experience shipping dogs or dealing with government travel orders. Again, long story short, the United employees were completely incompetent and nearly caused me to miss my flight...again.

After all the headaches and near misses, I am extremely grateful the dogs and I have made it safely to Okinawa. First impression of the island is better than I imagined. Our neighborhood is great and I can see the ocean from my bedroom. I spent the first day trying to catch up on sleep and spying on my new Japanese neighbors.

I hope to post more regularly than Fred has on his blog. He is gainfully employed and a productive member of society - I am not...at least for now. Stay tuned!