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!


Whale of a Tale

Call me Ishmael.  I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.  Actually, I took a motorboat, and just saw a small portion off the coast of Okinawa in the East China Sea.  But I did see whales.

Alright, so that isn't exactly what we saw.  That's a picture captured by photographer C. Kevin Fosse in 2003 in Auke Bay, Alaska.  We weren't lucky enough to see any whales breach quite as impressively.

Every year, humpback whales migrate from the chilly waters of the north to the warmer waters of the Kerama Islands, and island chain just off the coast of Naha, for breeding.  The season runs from early February until late March and whale watching tours are big business.  While there is no whale-sighting guarantee, we heard that the tours almost always see whales.    

We left the main port of Naha at around 9 a.m. and headed toward the Kerama's.  Seas were a mild that day, but the weather was slightly overcast and chilly.  As I was peering out to find whales, Fred and I spotted a flying fish that flew alongside our boat for a bit.  I had never seen one before and was quite fascinated with how long its flight was.

Finding the whales was more like finding the other whale-watching tour boats.  We saw a cluster of boats all hanging out in the same spot and headed right for them.  Right on cue as we arrived, a little whale began flapping his tail about.  When he disappeared, all the boats took off in hot pursuit of another nearby whale.  The tour continued like this - find whale, whale flops about, whale disappears, boats all move to next spot and find another (or maybe the same) whale.

While I was hoping to capture a dramatic shot of a whale breaching like Mr. Fosse did, all we got was some flapping tail and the occasional rolling around on the surface. 

It was still quite impressive to be so close to the huge mammals.  For more pictures of flapping tail and humped backs, click here.    


Moving Day

I haven't fallen off the island yet.  I've just been distracted by the huge mess in my house.  Our household goods shipment arrived just in time for the weekend.  This is what it looked like:

We managed to dig out from underneath most of it, but still have lots of odds and ends to put back in place.  Having the movers pack up our stuff in Jacksonville was much easier.  I just sat around and watched them put all my stuff in boxes.  Unpacking, however, can't really be done by movers.

Our team of Japanese movers arrived in the rain.  They were very fast and efficient with unloading everything from what I think could be the largest truck in all of Okinawa (parked in the middle of our extremely tiny street).  And they answered my question of whether or not Japanese movers keep putting their shoes on and off as they move in and out.  They do not.  But they did ask for permission to keep them on.  They put most of the furniture in place and took all the bedroom stuff upstairs.  We asked them to unpack the boxes so they could take all the packing materials with them (it's difficult to throw things out in Okinawa - that will be another post).  This just involved them dumping the contents randomly all over the floor and whisking away the packing materials.  Disaster central.

They also didn't put together the disassembled furniture.  I think they are supposed to, but then we'd have to instruct them on how to put it together.  This task is best left to Fred.

Overall, nothing was seriously damaged.  A couple tables and cabinets suffered minor dings and cracks.  The whole move has made me realize that we don't need half the stuff we own.  We already have a giant box of sell/donate items.  Minimalism is the way to go.  Cheers to a free move to Japan!

Pictures of the unpacked house soon to come.


Paris in Okinawa

Today we had a little slice of Paris in Okinawa. 

Friends of ours recommended a place for fresh, locally-grown produce just north of our house.  When we went to check it out, we found a parisian-style bakery upstairs called Boulangeries Cafe de Paris.  C'est magnifique!

They had an assortment of fresh pastries, pies and cakes.  It looked like you could order other items from the kitchen too, but we just picked out some yummy-looking pastries and ordered some coffee.  I selected what I thought was a chocolate-filled pastry.  Turns out it was filled with beni imo, the multi-purpose purple Okinawan sweet potato.  I've seen it used a lot in sweets here.  There's even a beni imo ice cream.  Although not chocolate, it was still delicious.   

Fred proudly (and slowly) translated a sign next to our table that said we could get coffee refills for only 100 yen.  It's a major accomplishment when you can figure something like this out. 

The produce shop downstairs was also excellent.  Everything was locally grown and priced very well.  The flowers for sale were also beautiful.  In addition, they sold some touristy odds and ends, and prepared foods from various venders.  I'm glad we were introduced to this place. 


Pizza in the Sky

While it pales in comparison to New Jersey pizza, Okinawa does have several pizza joints.  We had some pizza Okinawa-style at a restaurant aptly called Pizza in the Sky.

The restaurant is located on Motobu Peninsula, nearby the Nakijin castle where we went cherry blossom hunting.  It was a challenge getting to the restaurant, as it involved weaving through some steep, narrow roads.  I was certain we were on a one-way road because it didn't seem physically possible for another car to squeeze past us, but Fred assured me it was indeed two-way.  Fortunately, we didn't encounter any cars going the opposite direction.  Just some random dogs running around.

When we got to the top of the hill where the restaurant is located, we were rewarded with an amazing view.  Unfortunately, the weather was overcast, but I can imagine sunsets on a good day are breathtaking.

You wouldn't realize it was a pizza place by looking at the restaurant.  The interior was Japanese-style with floor seating.  Great views of the ocean all around. 

Along with some side dishes, you can either order a vegetable pizza or a meat pizza.  We had salad, veggie pizza and tea.  Ever eaten pizza with chopsticks before?  I have.


Nakijin Castle

With cherry blossom season lasting only a brief time, we had to go back for more before they were gone.  This time we ventured further north to the Nakijin castle site.

The Nakijin castle is located high atop the Motobu Peninsula with beautiful views of the ocean and surrounding valley.  Archeologists estimate the castle was built around the end of the 13th century.  Many wars and typhoons later, only the stone wall remains.  Items that have been excavated from the site over the years are on display at the museum next door.

Planted much more recently on the castle grounds are beautiful cherry blossom trees.  While the weather was uncooperatively rainy and windy, the blossoms were still breathtaking.  A slippery stone path led us through the expansive castle grounds dotted with cherry blossoms and other beautiful greenery.  It appeared the castle was designed on different elevations, with the highest level reserved for the King.  I must say, it's good to be King with that view of the ocean.    

If you can tolerate even more photos of Okinawan cherry blossoms, click here.


Barrel O' Fun

What's more fun than going to an izakaya?  Going to an izakaya shaped like a giant barrel!

Fred's friends invited us to izakaya "Tonneau" this weekend.  An izakaya is a popular type of establishment in Japan.  It's similar to a pub or a Japanese version of a Spanish tapas bar.  People come to hang out, drink and eat.  The food portions are smaller, so you can sample several different things while you drink.  I had been to a couple izakayas before, but nothing quite like this place.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me to capture this unusual izakaya.  Fred, however, had a photo of the exterior from the last time he went.  Behold, the barrel:

The interior was equally as impressive.  Lots of carved-wood details underneath the huge, vaulted barrel ceiling.  The menu was extensive and you order by picking up a phone at your table.  Fred's friend turned me onto a Japanese drink called chu-hi.  It's a carbonated fruit drink with alcohol - almost like a spritzer of sorts.  I had the grapefruit chu-hi with freshly squeeze juice.  It is my new favorite drink.

The food was delicious.  We sampled a variety of different foods - tuna sashimi, stir-fried eggplant with miso, stir-fried tofu with vegetables, and I even tried some sea grapes.  Sea grapes, or umibudo, are one of the million different types of seaweed here.  It is named for its tiny grape-like appearance.  Eaten raw, it has a crisp consistency as the salty "grapes" pop in your mouth.  I was surprised by how much I loved it.  It's available almost everywhere here, so I foresee much more umibudo in my future.


Street Legal

The streets are no longer safe.  I passed my driver's license exam.  I had been putting it off because it required me to wake up at 5:30 am to go when Fred left for work.  I survived, however, and can now drive on the island.  Have I mentioned they drive on the left-side of the road here?  Only thing left to do is find a car.

Unlike most parts of mainland Japan, Okinawa is much more car dependent.  While there are city buses and a monorail system that runs downtown, they don't go on the bases here, which is where I will need to go every day when I get a job.  Fortunately for me, used cars are extremely affordable here.  Fred took me around town Tuesday to some used car dealerships.  He had to go into work at 2 am that morning for a stateside video conference so we had most of the day to shop around together.  I love the Japanese cars here.  Hatchbacks and small cube-like vans are popular.  The roads can be narrow here and parking tight.  Most Americans seem to stick with their tried-and-true sedans and SUVs, however.  I know this because American cars are easy to spot.  We are issued a different license plate than Japanese nationals with the letter "Y" on it.  You often hear Americans refer to other Americans simply as "Y-plates" on the island.

After hours scouring various used car lots, I had a good idea of what I wanted.  I also knew I didn't want to pay dealership prices.  While they aren't outragous, you get a much better deal if you can buy from a private party who is leaving the island soon and needs to get rid of their car.  My requirements aren't much - I'd like a cute-ish car with relatively low mileage, doesn't stink, easily accessible cup holders, a mirror under the visor, an arm rest, a stereo, and a tilt-wheel.  Bonus points if the car comes in a pastel color.  Pastel is big here and I'm already a big fan.  For some reason, Fred laughs at my checklist of wants.  His car doesn't have an arm rest or mirrors under the visor.  Jealous?

My biggest dilemma in the Okinawan car-shopping world is this: I like the cars the Japanese people drive better than the cars the Americans drive.  This is a problem because I don't speak Japanese yet.  All the used car lots that speak english have all the cars Americans have driven.  The used car lots with the cool, pastel, Japanese cars don't speak english.  We went to one and I felt like I was in pastel car nirvana.  They were taunting me with their cuteness!  I was ready to sign on the dotted line, but the Japanese man came out, mubbled something in Japanese and then said something that sounded like he didn't want to sell us a car.  I waved goodbye to the little, purple Daihatsu that displayed a whimsical "Hello Happy!" when you put the key in the ignition.  One day, you will be mine.  Until then, I'll go learn Japanese.

    p.s. The Pokeman car, sadly, was not for sale.

This one is for sale, if you speak Japanese.