Thursday, July 10, 2014

I'll show you 'free'...

So, this is my blog, so I can rant if I want, which I do about once a quarter. If you would prefer to read something more positive, may I suggest my last post about my first visit to an onsen? I talk about getting naked in it. Enjoy.

That said… I am going to get to my three main points of this rant, er, blog post:

1) Military “free stuff” entitlement

It drives me crazy when I hear active duty members and/or their spouses talk about how they deserve things for free. Like the military member doesn’t get a paycheck or anything like that. Or a housing allowance. Or food allowance. Or free medical care (although “medical care” can be a relative term.) I just shake my head. Aw, you poor things. Drafted in to the military and forced to do time at hard labor without any compensation. Oh, wait… you weren’t drafted? You chose this career path/job? Or, better yet, you, like me, were dumb enough to choose to marry a Marine instead of the real version of billionaire control freak Christian Gray? Oh, you get free health care, a housing allowance AND money for food? As well as a monthly salary??? And you work in a cubicle…? Wait…

Of course that military salary may not be of billionaire status, but, considering the gross majority of the military personnel only have high school diplomas, I’d say you’re doing better than most of your peers in the civilian world. How many of them have access to a free urgent care and are given money to eat with as part of their salary? Well, except for those on welfare… but that’s a whole other wasps' nest to poke at with a stick.

My point is this: You do not deserve anything for free. You haven’t even earned anything besides what your military contract says you earn. You should not get anything for free simply because you chose a job where you wear military issue camouflage to work. Or you married someone who does. You are not entitled to get anything at a discount. That free and discount stuff are privileges, special treats. These are gifts from kind people… and corporations who want good PR. Free access to national parks… thank you! 10 percent discount at Old Navy on Tuesdays… awesome! Free rental tents at the MCAS Iwakuni Outdoor Rec office… sweet! These are fun perks, that, sadly, some members of military community have come to expect and not appreciate for what they are: perks. Because of how military members are now perceived in many communities, I hate even asking if any business has a military discount. My Mom or kids ask for me (because my kids saw my Mom do it... thanks, Mom). If I want to do something bad enough, I am willing to pay full price for it. If there happens to be a discount or sale that day, bonus. Besides, the spouse is the one who wears the uniform, not me. Although, getting upgraded on United flights with a simple request would be much appreciated by this long-legged lady.

But, not everyone prioritizes or sees things the way I do. This is especially true in Iwakuni… and I didn’t understand it at first. Now, this is not everyone here, not by a long shot, but there are enough of these lovely people to make it somewhat toxic. When we were given orders to Iwakuni, Japan, my family automatically saw it as a way to live overseas in another country - a unique experience for most Americans. We were excited about the opportunity and realized that it might be expensive or limiting to the way of life we had been accustomed to. But, we figured that for three years, we could suck it up and make the most of it. We were getting a rare chance to have a potentially life-changing experience. Well, it took me about a week in Iwakuni to realize that not everyone had this mindset. Instead, they felt they were doing the military a favor by agreeing to go overseas to fill a billet. Not that they really had much of an option to agree, but that is how they viewed it. The military inconvenienced them, so they deserve compensation. They want free. They want discounts. They deserve it! They didn’t know they might be deployed or sent overseas when they enlisted! Uh... yeah, right. Nice try.

2) Don’t be that “friend”

But those military members’ expectation of “free” doesn’t just extend to government entities and corporations. Let me explain: I regularly use fellow home-based business owners for my personal products and services. Shannon is my massage therapist. Lily is my nail tech, I tan over at Heather’s place. Andrea made my fabulous camera neck strap cover, and I’ve made purchases from Lauren, Bryce and Keenya. I have NEVER asked them to do anything for free or at a discount. NEVER. Yes, there are trades in service that happen, that we all agree to and are fine with. But those are trades. We both get something we want out of the deal. But I have never asked for someone to do something for me where they receive nothing in return… a personal favor, so to speak… nor would I expect one. I pay full price. I even tip when appropriate. I realize they have a business to run, bills to pay, and I value and respect their time. Just as they do mine. Unfortunately, I know some of us have been “lucky” enough to have “friends” who think we owe them free and discounted products and services. You have no idea how often I am asked to “take pictures” … and I find out that I am expected to do it for free. Like my time, not only at the event, but in the time spent editing and post processing the photos, is expected to be given to them because I know them. Well, then, with that way of thinking, I should get a free massage, free pedicures, free tanning, free sewn goods… wow! I could save a lot of money here…

Yes, I donate and gift sessions… but that is me offering on my own terms and with a mind to what I can afford. So, please, don’t be that “friend” and put me in an awkward position to tell you “no” even though I consider you my friend. I still enjoy spending time with you and will be happy to help you out if you are in some kind of a jam, like true friends do. But this is a small community and everyone has a lot of friends… if all my “friends” got free photography, I would be paying you for my services (because I have subscriptions and equipment I have to pay for… there is overhead associated with my business, by the way, not just the value of my time and talent). As my friend, please have enough respect for me to understand that I need to earn a living, too.

3) How this parlays in to my life as a small business owner

I have two home-based businesses here in Iwakuni: I am a photographer and I am a scrapbooker. There aren’t any other scrapbooking businesses that I know of, but there are lots of people who call themselves photographers. There is a lot of competition and, lately, it has been getting… competitive. I love competition. I really do… ask anyone who has been in a room with me for five minutes. As someone recently said: “You can turn anything in to a competition.” Yes, yes, I can. But I also believe in a concept of “co-op-etition” that was introduced to me when I owned a scrapbooking business six years ago. Yes, we may be in the same industry, be competitors, but we are stronger when we cooperate as a group. There really is plenty of business for everyone. I’m competitive, but I play fair, I am still friends with people who I was in direct competition with years ago, and have learned to be a good sport when I lose. Which isn’t often, because I play to win. Why else would you play? For fun? Well, yes, but winning is more fun than losing, right?

All of the people in Iwakuni billing themselves as photographers-for-hire appeared to have a niche… newborns, kids, weddings and special events, high school seniors, etc. Some priced themselves cheap… some were more expensive. Some had gobs of talent… some were more impressed by their own camera equipment… some had reputations for having terrible customer service… some had raving fans... some no one had ever heard of. I wanted to set myself apart, so, for three months, I took all of my marketing and strategic training and examined my business, my competition and my preference for what I wanted to photograph. This was a huge project and my spouse blandly nodded and brought me margaritas and popcorn when I railed, cried, snorted in disbelief, laughed and studied… sometimes all at once. And, long story short, I figured out a few things. I love photographing families, couples and 1- to 2-year-olds. Yes, 1- to 2-year-olds. They are so much fun when you plan… or, actually, don’t plan, the session right.

The pure joy of being 1!
And I love photographing women, all women, and watching their confidence bloom. Yeah, honey, that’s you. You are beautiful inside and out. Every time you look at that image, I want you to remember that. Capturing that moment is so much more than simply pointing a camera at her. And I know how to do that.

"Just Gorgeous" is a type of session for women that came out of my months of examination.

 I did not want to be the Wal-mart, Portrait Innovations or JCPenney of portrait photographers. I am not going to lower my prices or offering fire sales (as in, oh no, I have no work, let me run a special). I care too much. My images are my babies and I don’t do half way. I never have, with anything I choose to do. Either I do it and do it well, or I don’t do it. That’s why I am not a runner, accountant or hairdresser. My talent and interests do not lie in those areas. At 37, I know where my talents and interests lie, have had the time and commitment to cultivate them, and I know that when I use those talents, I use them to their fullest, which takes time, energy and resources.

Because of these months of study and reflection, I have improved my business model. I am no longer offering half-hour mini portrait sessions. My best photographs, my best art, the pieces I am most proud of, came from sessions that weren’t limited by 30- or 60-minutes because I had more clients scheduled that day. Those amazing images were from the sessions where I got to know the people, the families, the kids, the women, and could really capture who they were. Coincidentally, these were, more often than not, the clients who valued great photography. I wanted more clients who valued great photography, who realize those images are heirlooms, who plan to enlarge prints and canvases to hang on the walls of their homes so they could remember their moments in Japan and spark guests to ask them questions and start conversations. I was no longer interested in trying to get the clients who, for $50, wanted a CD full of images to post on Facebook. I would not only be doing myself a disservice, with all the time I would spend away from my family working, but I would be doing my client a disservice because I’d be rushing through the sessions and edits to try and make it worth my time. I want to be able to spend quality time with my clients and their images, making the session as creative and beautiful as possible. To make it a reflection of the client and their time in Japan… not some cookie cutter place and pose that will mean nothing to them in five years, using it because it's easy to do. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

On more than one occasion, my spouse has shaken his head at me and said, “Jesi, people in Iwakuni just want some pictures taken and they don’t want to spend a lot of money on them.”

A lot of them, yeah, you’re right. In fact, they probably figure they can do just as well with their iPhone or Canon Rebel on the auto mode, so why pay more? But those aren’t my clients. Those are someone else’s clients. And I’m OK with that. Going to a highly qualified surgeon is a little different than looking up your ailment on WebMD. Going to a certified massage therapist is a little different than getting a back rub from a distracted spouse. Going to an experienced seamstress is a little different from asking someone who happens to own a sewing machine to make you a ball gown. You are either fine with what you're getting for free or cheap, or you find a way to pay a little more to get what you really want.

Making meaningful, personalized photographic artwork takes time, talent and commitment. So, yes, my photography requires more of a commitment and investment from my clients than other photographers’. But my customer service is worth it. My product is worth it. I’m worth it. When you have a huge gorgeous image on your wall, or a beautiful photo album on your table, the one that makes you smile every time you walk by it, it’s worth it. And the clients I want to work with know it, value it, and are willing to give up a Coach purse or two for it.

And, yes, they have military affiliation and live here in Iwakuni.

Imagine that.

I can't wait to work with them!

This is my canvas hanging in my house that always makes me smile.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Adventures in Osaka: Lying naked in the rain

I'm outside in the rain, lying naked on my back, on a waterproof tatami mat with a towel placed strategically across my hips. It's raining, with the the water falling steadily on the wooden rooftop of the gazebo above me, and my friend, Ashleigh lays a few feet away, also naked, also with a towel strategically placed on her prone body. The night air is the perfect humidity, the perfect temperature and seemingly bug-free. We are at Spa World, a huge themed onsen in Osaka, Japan, and the only two caucasian women in the place.

Many Americans tend to avoid Japanese onsens, despite the relaxing atmosphere, because nudity is the norm. Although my spouse was a bit disappointed to hear it, the genders are separated - in Spa World's case, by floor - but, as most American women have come to realize, the thought of being naked with a bunch of judgmental women can be just as unnerving as the thought of being naked with a room full of appreciative men. Thanks to the Puritanical roots of our country's society we avoid nakedness in public as much as possible. And those of us who don't end up with some indecent exposure charges, but I am not naming any names.

Going to an onsen was not on my bucket list. I'm American enough to have hangups about walking around naked in front of strangers, or, worse yet, people I know, so, since my arrival in Japan nearly two years ago, I did not actively seek out opportunities to go to onsens. Flower and fertility festivals, yes. Onsens... mmm... no. But, when I am presented with something directly that freaks me out a little, I make myself put on my big girl pants and do it. Well, actually, in this case, I took my big girl pants off, but you get the idea.

My friend Ashleigh, and I both went on one of the base-offered weekend trips to the cities of Osaka and Kobe. Both of our husbands were out of town, so having a bus buddy is a fun way to explore places. A week before the trip, I ran in to Ashleigh at the commissary (like you do with everyone here) and she wanted to know what I had planned for our evening of free time in Osaka and afternoon of free time in Kobe. My answer: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Type A planner in me was going on vacation. I was willing to wing it. But Ashleigh had done some research: she wanted to go to Osaka Castle and have a Kobe beef meal. Sounded good to me, I agreed. And then she dropped the bomb:

"How do you feel about going to an onsen?"

Immediately my mind went to my heavy thighs and stretch marks and finding a way to back out of this conversation gracefully. But then the Tenacious Brave Big Girl Pants Wearer kicked in. After birthing two kids in a room full of strangers, this would be much less painful. I just needed to remember to shave. After all, the spouse had been out of town for a couple of weeks. And the experience would hopefully make some good blog fodder. Ashleigh explained that she had gone before and knew the rules and regulations of such establishments.

I replied: "I've never been to one, but if you can show me the etiquette, I'm all for it."

Fast forward 6 days, 8 hours and 17 minutes... or so.

It was 9:30 p.m. in Osaka. We just finished our steak dinner after waiting for over an hour to be seated at Outback Steakhouse. I had had two margaritas, Ashleigh one, and we were both quite tired. We had used the complicated subway system and walked a few kilometers to see the Osaka Castle,

and then used a complicated subway system to get lost on our way to Outback only to give up and flag down a taxi.... whose driver had no idea where Outback Steakhouse was and kicked us out of his cab. Thank goodness the second taxi driver we flagged down knew where we wanted to go. In all, though, the afternoon hadn't been easy, but not terrible, either. But two tasty margaritas, a bloomin' onion and a medium rare steak made life SOOO much better... better enough for me to want to go get naked in public in a societally accepted way... even if it wasn't necessarily my society.

After all, I had shaved for this.

I sold it to Ashleigh that we wouldn't have to shower once we got back to the hotel, we could just crawl in to bed and crash. Ashleigh was game, so we headed off to Spa World on the complicated subway system, which was much less complicated now that we had already navigated it twice.

Spa World's claim to fame is that it is huge, six stories tall, looks like a department store on the outside, and features a "world" theme: Asia and Europe. There are 5 other continents, but they don't count, I guess. Although the Antarctica floor would have been interesting with my lack of clothing. Regardless, Asia is on the 6th floor, Europe on the 4th, and it swaps between the genders. Women had Asia this month. Just look for the red signs and curtains. Women are red, men are blue. Japanese men wear pink, so the usual American choice of pink for girls would not work here.

After going to a vending machine near the Spa World front door to buy a ticket to the spa for 1,000 yen (about $10), we go to the registration desk where we learn that after midnight we will have to pay another 1,300 yen late night charge. Mind you, Spa World only closes from 8:30-10 a.m. for "inspection." It is now 11 p.m. Ashleigh is very bitter that we have to pay a late night charge, but I'm fine with $23 for a potentially life-changing experience. I pay more to go to a terrible movie and eat some terrible popcorn in the States. Let's do this thing.

In the locker rooms, there are, of course, lockers, but also towels, ugly pink dresses to wear as robes so you can walk from one floor to another without having to get dressed, and every toiletry needed to bathe or shower. Of course, there were no pink dresses in "Big OK" sizes, but that's OK... I wasn't planning to leave the relative safety of the 6th floor and I hate pink, anyway. We picked lockers, tossed in 100 yen (which would be returned to us when we returned the key, which was on a waterproof scrunchy keychain like retail store managers have) and started to strip.

The inside of my locker when I am naked.
Now, there is an important detail here. Onsens generally do not allow people with tattoos to enter. Japan is still old school and tattoos are mainly associated with the Japanese mafia, especially if you happen to have one of cherry blossoms. (Don't worry Brittani with an 'i,' if you have one... as long as you aren't of Asian descent, you will be fine as far as the mafia goes. If you are of Asian descent, Brittani, well... good luck to you.) Most Americans get around this by covering their tattoos up with band aids, but, depending on the number and size of tattoos you have, this can be a challenge. Both Ashleigh and I have tattoos (sorry, Grandma, but it's just a small one, where no one sees it unless I am naked, I promise), that, fortunately, are small enough to be covered with band aids. So, between Outback and Spa World, we stopped by the convenience store, Lawsons, and bought two boxes of band aids, just for this purpose. We were covered. Literally.

My tattoo that doesn't exist as far as the onsen and my grandmother are concerned.
But this was also why we had our towels strategically placed on our bodies in the rain. By the time we were laying outside on the waterproof tatami mat, I was no longer concerned about being naked. I just didn't want to waste my $23 by getting kicked out for my excessive band aid use. In fact, being naked was quite liberating and relaxing. Yes, I know this sounds cliche', and I rolled my eyes when I heard that, too. But it's true. NO ONE CARES. While Ashleigh and I were clearly to tallest people on the floor at 5'9" each, there were much older and saggier Japanese women in there who wandered around naked with confidence. And damn it, if they could do it, so could I. And while Ashleigh is about 10 years younger and 70 pounds lighter than me, she appears to be refreshingly nonjudgmental and easygoing. I JUST DID NOT CARE. Plus, if I hear any rumors about my dimply butt on this tiny base, there are only two people here who have seen it and I know where to find them both. One of them lives with me and Ashleigh has been duly warned. LOL. (Rodney, Ashleigh... I ended it with LOL so you know that I am joking. Mostly.)

Before we relaxed in the rain, there were several rooms to explore, with different pool temperatures, health benefits, themes and more. There was Japan (wooden pools and tatami mats), of course, and Bali (bubbling spa with fake palm trees), and Persia (large stone area with statues of what looked like Egyptian gods). There was a 40-degree Celcius salt sauna we were able to stand for about 5 minutes before we had to leave. There were four outdoor pools that grew increasingly warmer and this is where the tatami mat gazebo was. Seriously, that 30 minutes of laying on that mat, listening to the rain fall was probably one of the most relaxing times in my entire life. It was just so calm and tranquil without any restrictive clothing. It almost convinced me to become a nudist. Almost.

And, since it was so late there were maybe 20 people in the whole place, where the floor was clearly set up for hundreds. And there were two schools of native people: The ones who would almost immediately vacate the area Ashleigh and I entered, and the ones who came in to the pool after we did and smiled and nodded with acceptance. It was fun to place bets on who would leave and who would arrive.

As you might have guessed, cameras were not allowed, but I did try to get a picture of the board outside Spa World, which had photos of the inside of Spa World.

Swim suits are required on the family floor... the one with the fun slides and stuff. We did not go there because, while there were swimsuits available for rent, I 1) didn't want to bother, 2) think renting a swimsuit is just asking for a some kind of rash, and 3) didn't want to deal with a possible non-"Big OK" sized swimsuit issue.

We spent about 2.5 hours in all at Spa World. We left around 1:30 a.m., taking a taxi back to the hotel. But that was after we used the showers, shampoos, conditioner, soaps, q-tips, brushes and more to freshen up. You truly do not need to take anything but yourself and some yen to an onsen. Everything you need for a good time is provided.

Well, everything except a couple of margaritas to make this sound like a good idea, and band aids to cover your jailhouse tats. But I will be sure to take care of that the next time I go. And yes, I said 'next time.'

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Eye Candy for Hydrangea Lovers...

June in Japan means the deluge of the rainy season... as well as the bloom of the "water flower," hydrangeas. The place to go and check out a variety of gorgeous hydrangeas is the Todaiji Temple Annex in the Amidaji Temple vicinity near Hofu (about an hour and 15 minutes from MCAS Iwakuni... Google maps pin compliments of Iwakuni Explorer).

When you see this tent, you know you are in the right place. Park to the left.

The entrance fee to the temple on the Wednesday before the annual weekend festival was 200 yen (about $2)... and the sights were well worth the price of admission. And, as the season implies, it did pour rain as we were leaving the temple, but not before we were able to spend an hour strolling and climbing through the area.

While bibs on this little statues sometimes represent the death of a child, that is only at certain shrines. Here, the hats and bibs are used as a way t pray for the protection of women and children. And each statue had a can bolted to it, for coins. This temple is also known for being a place to pray for happiness.

The main temple building... at the top of a few flights of stone steps.
And, here are the flowers and creatures I found along the way, up close and personal:

As you leave the temple, there is a small nursery full of different varieties of hydrangeas for sale. I bought a standard blue hydrangea (500 yen), and one of the more unusual varieties: the Dance Party hydrangea (1,000 yen), below:

There was also the Wedding Bouquet variety available:

While the majority of the bushes were not yet fully bloomed, the grounds were still beautiful, especially if you love green foliage like I do. Word of warning: wear sturdy shoes, as there are a number of stone steps and muddy areas.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Japanese adventures that are like peanut butter and jelly...

So, I realized today that I haven't posted in about two weeks. I apologize... I have been busy doing stuff away from home and my computer. And in the midst of doing stuff away from home and my computer, I have encountered some things that I never thought would go together like peas and carrots, to quote Forrest Gump. Or peanut butter and jelly, to quote my son. Or like beer and softball, to quote the spouse. Regardless, here is my recent list of things that go together like iced tea and Sweet N Low:

Okinomiyaki and Numerology

My Japanese friend, Chie, invited to me to a special event at the Otafuku sauce factory in Hiroshima. We had already been to this factory once, to tour the facility and learn how to make okinomiyaki. You can read about that here. This time, there was another little twist: Instead of a factory tour, we got to make okinomiyaki with the Harajuku no Haha, or Mother of Harajuku. She is a well-known Japanaese fortune-teller based out of the Harajuku district in Tokyo. While we munched on Hiroshima-style Okinomiyaki (yes, there is more than one style for this dish) we learned how to decipher what number we were, 1 though 9, based off of our birth dates. I am a 2... I am independent, direct, headstrong, intellectual and don't like to be restricted by unnecessary guidelines or rules. Yes, yes, yes, yes and absolutely, yes. I am definitely not the one who chose to enlist in the Marine Corps, which I am sure is not a surprise to anyone who knows me.

I'm number 2!

The little lady Haha went on and I made notes on the numbers that defined my immediately family members: The spouse is a 4. He has the personality of a man (I guess that is a good thing...), likes to challenge himself, and, once he gains confidence in his ability, he will absolutely succeed. The oldest son is a 7... he knows what the does and dosen't like, and doesn't do the things he doesn't like... like read. He needs something to focus on, and making a goal for the year is a good idea for him. Like reading a book a month, or something. The youngest son is a 1. He needs to make sure he networks and doesn't become too much of a homebody. And since he is already 8, we better get started on his networking skills... I don't want him to become a recluse cat man.

Shrimp and soybeans... as a potato chip.

A group of ladies toured the Calbee Chip factory (think Frito-Lay in the States) in Hiroshima last month. This free tour was a lot of fun... and tastier than I expected. We weren't allowed to take photos of the factory process itself, but we did get to taste a couple of the chips, most of them flavored with shrimp, among other things. I was surprisingly a fan of the edemame (soy bean) flavored chips, which were in the shape of bean pods. And, like any good factory tour, they sent us home with a bag full of tasty treats... which the kids consumed... except for the soybean chips, which I ate in one sitting. Don't judge.

Pizza and pottery

When Chie told me she had found an adventure that included pottery and pizza making, I was sold. Sounded like fun... albeit a little disjointed. I imagined spinning pepperonis on a wheel and turning them in to ninja stars, pelting people across the room with them. Immature, I know, but it made me laugh. But any time I can throw some mud around and eat pizza, I'm a big fan. So, we headed out to north Hiroshima to the home of a married couple who happened to be artists. She creates ceramic works and he is a painter.

And pottery and pizza were excellent compliments to each other... kneading pizza dough is a lot like kneading clay... but a lot tastier when you're done!

P.S. - The majority of these photos are compliments of my friend Chie... thank you!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cops, Lamborghinis and wisteria tunnels... all in a day's adventure.

So, you would think that getting to see this absolutely gorgeous wisteria tunnel would have been the big story for the day for the seven of us ladies who made a 6-hour round trip to see it... but it really wasn't.

And you might think that seeing a souped up Lamborghini at a rest stop could have been the highlight...

... but, while it was very cool, and we stood with a handful of Japanese men snapping pictures of it, it wasn't.

In fact, the big story of the day was that I was pulled over by the Japanese highway patrol for (allegedly) speeding. In fact, a few pictures even made it on to Facebook from my so-called "fellow military spouse friends":

While the evidence doesn't show it, there were actually two cops in the unmarked car. And note that the Japanese pull you over and park in front of you, not behind you. You can see by my body language that I was a bit stunned. And, as you can see, the road looks a lot like a highway and I had been passed by a truck a few moments before this. Apparently the speed limit drops significantly here. And since we were busy looking for the wisteria tunnel garden's exit, I guess I wasn't paying attention to how fast I was going. So I can neither confirm nor deny that I was speeding. But I can confirm that I had a van full of American women who were snapping pictures with their iPhones. Well, a van full of American women and one Japanese lady, who, as I will explain later, was not going to be helpful in this situation.

So, the two police officers greet me at my window, each with a smile. I give a little wave and say "Konnichiwa!" in my brightest, happiest, "I'm a dumb American and I'm really sorry about whatever I did wrong" voice. They asked me if I spoke Japanese (at least I think that is what they asked, which was later confirmed by the Japanese woman in the car after the incident was over) and I told them I did not. Meanwhile, I am wondering if they are truly going to "detain" me in the back of the police car while they write up my ticket and call PMO (cops on base), how awesome those photos would be for future employers to see on Facebook, how are the rest of the ladies going to get home when I am the only authorized driver on the rented van, and how much is this ticket going to cost me (rumor says between $300 and $400)? Oh, and will I ever be allowed to drive in Japan again and how is that going to affect the adventures I want to have, galavanting around the country? Can I get deported for this? How pissed is the spouse going to be?

Lots of things are racing through my head during this 3-second exchange.

After my cheerful greeting, Cop #1, the spokesman, looks at Cop #2 and then back at me. "Speed is 60..." his accented English trailed off and he looked at Cop #2 for help. "Kee... kel..." he started to say. Cop #2 looked baffled. I decided I'd help them out: "Kilometers?" Cop #1 says, "Hai. (Yes). Go slower." I pull the typical dumb blonde move, one I have pulled in the States and looked at my speedometer, and then for a sign on the road, and then back at my speedometer. Now, you may be thinking that this is an act, to look more stupid and pitiful than I really am. I assure you, this appearance is not intentional. Logically, I know that my speedometer will not tell me how fast I was going five minutes before, especially when I am stopped on the side of the road. But, the blond hair I have just can't seem to be controlled by logic when cops are involved. I spit out one of the few Japanese phrases I have mastered in my time here: "Gomen asi (I am sorry)." And then, because I guess the blonde thinks that it sounds even more sincere to say it again in English to men who don't understand the language that well, I repeat myself, with emphasis: "I am really very sorry." And I was. Yes, I tend to have a lead foot, but I try not to cause an international incident with it.

Cop #1 nods and starts to move away "OK... dozo." Dozo means, go ahead. I was set free! The two officers made their way back to the car, and turned off the cherry light... it dropped in to the roof of the car. And off they went, pausing for a break in traffic. Relieved feminine chatter filled the van, my own chatter included. While I waited my turn to merge in to traffic after them, I spun around to my Japanese friend, Chie, who was seated behind me. Her eyes were huge and she looked at me and quietly said, with awe: "You are lucky." Oh. Really? "You mean they aren't always this friendly?" I asked. "Nooo! No smiling. Very strict. You are lucky," she said.

When I saw Chie a few days later, we talked about the "incident."

"Well, I was going to ask you to translate so I could understand what they were saying to me," I told her.

She looked at me and shook her head, "I was going to tell them I was Chinese."

What?! Oh, thanks! Some help you are!

But, then again, by not being able to speak Japanese, I was probably more trouble for the cops than the speeding ticket paperwork would have been worth. Soooo... I did not waste my foreigner "get out of jail free" card, and was much more cognizant of the speed limit. So, if the officers ever happen to read this... thank you and lesson learned: Pay attention to changes in the speed limit even if the road still looks like a highway and other vehicles pass you. But I am still not sure if the ladies in the van will want me to drive on our little adventures any more. We shall see...

But once the excitement of being pulled over by the Japanese highway patrol was over, we were only about a half an hour away from our final destination: The beautiful wisteria gardens. Here is the info and directions provided by Iwakuni Explorer, which is where I got my information. And then I will let the photos speak for themselves:

Yes, lots of large bees, but they leave you alone.

And yes, this little shack below is the entrance to the gardens, where you pay 1,000 yen ($10) to enjoy this beautiful place. We happened to get there on a partly cloudy/partly sunny day, and leave just as storm clouds were rolling in. This park is blooming around the last week of April and first two weeks of May, but keep in mind that the first week in May is Golden Week and many Japanese have the week off and travel with their families... tourist attractions like this get very crowded.

And, I took portraits of the ladies, and asked them to snap mine, as well. I needed a new headshot for my modeling career, LOL. Or maybe for my mug shot the next time I get pulled over.

And no, I did not bring a fan with me to blow my hair back. It just happened to gust as the picture was taken... bringing those storm clouds with it. And yes, I wore the purple top intentionally... a good photographer always plans ahead. ;)