Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Everything you never knew you ever wanted to know about the Iwakuni commissary...

At a luncheon today, the director of the MCAS Iwakuni commissary, Buddy Kolath, who arrived in Iwakuni in January, spoke about the current conditions and future plans for the commissary on base. For those of you non-military types reading this, the commissary is the grocery store. The very lifeblood of our existence. Well, at least our existence as Americans. Sure, we could go off base to shop for food... there are plenty of Japanese grocery store choices, otherwise known as "living on the economy," but many items on traditional American grocery lists are not available, or are much more expensive.

So, the commissary, especially since we are living overseas, is an incredibly important part of life here. It's where we get 93 percent of our groceries, run in to the people we have been trying to avoid all summer, and, most recently, get kicked out for wearing a spaghetti strap tank top (yes, this happened, no, it did not happen to me. I prefer my embarrassment to come from getting pulled over by Japanese cops).

 I have blogged about the commissary before. You can find the posts here:

Ahhh... the commissary from November 2013
Town Hall Takeaway from February 2014

Today's discussion moved around to various topics, returning to some, and, like all good Iwakuni discussions do, got off topic as well. The easiest way for me to touch on the important points made by Buddy is to simply provide a list... so here it is, in no particular order:


  • The new commissary building is now scheduled to be completed in September 2015, with a Grand Opening tentatively scheduled for the December 2015 timeframe. This was pushed back from Spring 2015 due to a lack of funds. (Yes, I was surprised by this reason, also... I was under the impression this had been planned and budgeted for for years... I think more budget-savvy military wives need to be involved next time. Just sayin'...)
  • If you have a problem with the commissary, go to Buddy. He said he has an open-door policy, his office is in the back warehouse area (think soda, paper plates and pet food) and he will fix your problem to the best of his ability as quickly as possible. When you submit an ICE comment, it actually takes longer to fix the problem, he said. His days off are Friday and Saturday.
  • Dairy shortages (and, as anyone who is friends with me on Facebook, cottage cheese famines) should become a thing of the past. Thanks to some governmental red tape, there was a year that DECA, the company that manages the commissaries across the world, could only use American shipping vessels (boats). This will soon change, and the more available vessels means more available dairy. Yay!
  • But there are still lag times. From when the commissary but in an order for items, it takes 6 to 8 weeks for that order to arrive in the Iwakuni commissary. Within that time frame, it takes our food 18-20 days to travel from the supplier in America to the commissary. This includes produces, which is why we often have moldy fruit and veggies. If there is any kind of delay in the hot summer, the shelf life of these foods is going to be much shorter. Plus, our food has to be inspected and fumigated (yes, fumigated for American bugs they don't want in their country, like... black widow spiders... if you just got to Iwakuni and haven't heard about the fight against black widow spiders yet, don't worry, you will) by the Japanese government and this takes time. I assume the fumigation chemicals are safe for human consumption...or it could be some kind of long-term payback... but the family and I seem to be OK so far.
  • Despite the delays and fumigation, produce from the States is imported because it is much cheaper than local produce. And, long story short, there is a lot of governmental red tape when trying to reduce imports and increase local purchases. But Buddy said he is going to try and bring in fresher local foods... which turn out to be not so local. All warehouses are in Tokyo, so regardless of where the crops are harvested, everything goes to Tokyo and then comes back to outlying areas. For those of you reading this who aren't aware, Tokyo is about 16 hours by car from Iwakuni. This distance costs money.
  • MCAS Iwakuni commissary sales are up 20 percent from this time last year. How odd... the base also grew by 20 percent, thanks to a new squadron being relocated here from Okinawa. ;)
  • Iwakuni residents use 14 percent less coupons than any other base in the Pacific. Free coupons are available at the commissary as you walk in, and outside the Information, Referral and Relocation office on the first floor of building 411 (library building). I save, on average, $200 a quarter (as in calendar quarter) using coupons. And trust me, I don't waste time clipping them. I spend an hour each quarter sorting them and then have them with me when I shop. Coupons overseas are good for 6 months after the expiration date. So give your great aunt Betty something fun to do: Ask her to send you expired coupons and let's get that average coupon use up! I hate being in last place. I'm competitive like that.
  • Want vegan ice cream or dark chocolate cocoa mix but can't find it at the commissary? Special order it. There are forms at the commissary, and they will try to find a vendor to provide your requested item. But be patient: It could take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to get the item in to the store. And that's if there is a vendor available to provide to the commissary. Again, more governmental contractual red tape is at play.
  • Buddy is aware of the lousy quality of the shopping carts, and the lack of two-seater carts for those families who need to corral their small children to shop. He is looking in to ordering more big carts and working on fixing the safety belts and wheels on the rest. The majority of these carts are only a year old and the company that provided them is contractually obligated to maintain and fix them... however, the company does not have any suppliers near us, so they can't be forced to fix and maintain the carts. Um... who signed off on that contract? Clearly it wasn't a petite mother of three having to live and shop here... and replace any of the broken merchandise her wayward cart decided to plow in to.
  • The commissary offers special services, such as deli party trays and fruit/veggie trays in various sizes. Just give them 24 hours notice. When we get the new commissary next year, there will be additional special services offered.
  • Did you know there was a meat department button you could push to have a butcher come out and do special cuts of meat for you? Yeah, me neither, but there is. I am going to hunt for the new button next time I am at the commissary. Supposedly they will provide the cuts of meat you want and ground your sirloin for you, all for free (with the price of the meat, of course). Oh, and ox tails will be back soon. But don't expect any fresh fish. This commissary doesn't have the facilities required for it.
  • All meat at the commissary must be USDA approved, per military order. So, yes, your chicken will always be sold frozen. Buddy is also looking in to providing more organic chicken and turkey choices.
  • Want to place a big order of turkeys or hams for the holiday squadron functions? Place your special order at least a week in advance. Want to roast a whole pig? Order it at least 8 weeks in advance... and then tell me how you plan to cook it because if there is a pit barbecue somewhere around here, I am crashing your party.
  • It's humid here and I already told you about the long shipping delays. Put your bread in the refrigerator to reduce molding.
  • Expiration/sell by dates on food is merely a suggestion provided by savvy marketers. You'll probably toss out perfectly good food and buy more. A marketers dream! Use common sense and, when all else fails, Google it.
  • The lumps found in Dairy Gold milk doesn't necessarily mean it's gone bad. It actually means that you need to shake the milk up because the company didn't do it well enough for you. Consider it an excuse to miss Zumba class tomorrow.
  • There will be a Fall Farmers Market and Sidewalk sale Sept. 27-29, 2014.
  • In celebration of Labor Day this weekend, there will be a 50 percent off sale on Bubba Burgers, Washington Beef and Oscar Meyer Sausage. Go get it, grill meisters!
So, if you have any questions about any of this, ask Buddy. I have given you everything I learned today. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Rules of Three...

Everyone has heard of the Rule of Three, or some version of it. It's either a writing guideline, the way well-known celebrities die (in threes... James Garner, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, anyone?) or a basic rule of photography (Rule of Thirds), not to mention other, lesser known rules of three. Seriously... some time when you're bored or writing a blog post, Google "Rule of Three." It's a whole new world out there.

For me, this month, there were three Rules of Three that guided my existence.

1) The Military Dependent World Traveler Rules of Three

I traveled back to the States to visit family for a few weeks this month and air travel can be... challenging. Even when you only have two flights to take you to and two flights to take you from your destination. Here are the rules and how I followed them:

Delayed in Tokyo
  1. You will be delayed somewhere along the line. It may only be a few minutes, it may be a day, or two, but when you travel between Japan and the States, you will be delayed. Every time I have traveled, whether it be commercially or with Space A, I have been delayed. Sometimes it is because I accidentally mail my passports to myself. Sometimes, like this time, TSA delays my flight from LAX to Tokyo because they can't examine some Marines' bags fast enough... try an hour and half delay, which meant my kids and I missed our flight to Hiroshima and spent the night in Tokyo... luckily at the airline's expense (and I think they should bill TSA, but poor customer service will be discussed later). So, as you follow this rule, remember to pack a full change of clothes and a tooth brush in your carry on. You never know where you might be spending the night.
  2. Take a copy of your sponsor's orders with you. Even if you have been stationed overseas for years, having a copy of these orders can save you time, money and a ton of hassle. Some of these savings are are in a "gray area"of what is "allowed" and I don't condone any misuse of anything ever and this is merely a suggestion from what I have seen and heard other people do... yep. But, because of these... stories I have heard... it's gotten to the point where I have the passports, military ID's, orders, itineraries and a pen in one easy-to-access pocket of my purse. And whenever one item is requested, I pull everything out and plop it down on the counter/table/kiosk. And then act blonde and helpless (which, depending on how long I have been traveling thus far and who I am traveling with, may not be far from the truth). Take what you want, official travel people. Whatever it takes for me and my kids to get where we need to go when we need to go here for as little money and hassle as possible. Oh, and the pen is because there are forms to fill out every time you leave and enter any country. Having your own pen handy saves a lot of time. Especially if you can write quickly, yet legibly and accurately, while winding through immigration and customs lines.
  3. Both Japanese and American iPhones are must-haves. This is strictly my opinion, of course, and I am sure it is not the cheapest/smartest/most travel savvy option. BUT, it was easy and I always had communication options. The spouse and I have our U.S. AT&T accounts held for us, as a specialized option for military members, so we don't rack up charges while we are stationed overseas, but we can turn our accounts on and off for a week or month at a time. We've kept our old iPhone 4S's as our "American" phones, and simply call AT&T to have it turned on while we are in the States. We have our same phone numbers, so our friends and family already have them, we have our same calling and data plans, and thanks to whatever "G" network is up and running that year, we always have Internet access. As a woman traveling alone, sometimes with two kids in tow, getting delayed and needing to find whatever hotel we've been assigned to for the night in whatever country we are in, this makes me very happy. And having access to my Candy Cush account at all times is a happy bonus. For me and anyone who is in my proximity when I've been told I've missed a flight.
2) The High School Reunion Questions Game Rules of 3

Ready to reunion!
My 20th high school reunion happened to be two nights after I arrived in the States for my visit. I graduated with a class of 500-800 people, depending on who you ask, and it was rumored that our class was the smartest, most ambitious class the school had had to date. Trust me, it sure felt like it. I was the dumb side of the smart kids... I was in the same classes as those smart kids, but the A's did not rub off on to my report card just by me passing the geniuses on the way out the classroom door. I didn't win any awards and all of the photos I am in in the yearbook, aside from the individual picture everyone gets, were in huge group photos, like Drama Club and Girl's League. And, I was terrible about keeping in touch with anyone from high school ... but I went to the reunion anyway, because that's tradition... a right of passage, so to speak, and I'm all about adventures. For this adventure I wore a blue maxi dress, flip flops and a top shelf margarita. Well, I didn't actually wear the margarita, (try explaining that to the cop on the way home) but I did carry it for a few minutes... until I drank it. The perfect reunion accessory, if you ask me. But no one did. Instead, everyone asked me the same three questions. I share them here so that you are prepared with interesting, witty answers... like the ones I thought up, but didn't dare say.
  1. Do you have kids? Yes. I do. I have two boys, they are 12 and 8. Beyond that answer, any details sound like bragging. For example: They are funny, intelligent and receive compliments about their behavior and attitudes on a regular basis. They both got straight A's or the equivalent (because second grade STILL doesn't get letter grades - Why, people why?!) and their baseball team won the base championship for their age bracket. Well, actually, the younger one played up a couple of years because the 7-9 year old bracket doesn't keep score yet (Why, people, why?!), and the poor kid couldn't stand it any more. Neither one of them have figured out rocket science or the meaning of life yet, but we expect that from them in the next 12 to 18 months. Follow me on Twitter and I'll keep you informed of their progress. (Jokes on my classmates, I do not have a Twitter account.) Some of my classmates just had their first baby this year. I smiled, congratulated them and thanked my lucky stars I wasn't one of them. I love my full nights of sleep and diaper-free life.
  2. Where do you live? I live in Japan. Really? Yes, really. I have no motivation to lie. If I did, I would come up with something even more exciting, like Fallujah, Antarctica or the Moon. I am pretty creative. Of course, I have to explain: My husband is a Marine and is stationed overseas. Yes, I am enjoying it. No, I don't want to live there forever. I'm too American. And I speak about 10 Japanese phrases on a good day. For someone who likes to communicate, that's frustrating. But not frustrating enough for me to want to try and learn the language, which has three different alphabets. The good news is that, despite the fact that I do not live on the moon, I won the bottle of wine for "the classmate who traveled the furthest," beating out a drunk woman who thought Tennessee was further than Iwakuni, Japan. I didn't remember her from high school. Obviously she wasn't in the "smart people" classes...
  3. What do you do? I breathe, eat, shower on occasion... oh, you mean as a job? Well, as I mentioned before, my husband is a Marine, so that means any traditional career path for me has been sliced apart by a Marine Corps K-bar (for civilians, that's a big knife) so, like my resume, my current means of earning money are splintered: I am a photographer, scrapbooker, an online adjunct instructor for the University of West Florida, I teach English, photography and crafting, I have owned/own some small businesses... I guess I am a bit of an entrepreneur. Of course, just when I am feeling good about my answer, in a room full of doctors, lawyers and financial analysts, a fellow classmate, with an air of skepticism, chimes in with: "Like, how are you an entrepreneur?" Like, I don't know... like, I like to start stuff from nothing and then maybe run it or sell it off. Like, follow me on Twitter and I'll, like, keep you posted. Turns out, she, like, just had her first baby... I will chalk up her lack of imagination to 'baby brain' and call it good. The good news here was that, while I wasn't the classmate who had been married the longest, 13.5 years put me solidly in the top 5 percent of those in the room. #winning #thankshoney
Wine winner... and geography knower... I know where both  Tennessee AND Japan are!

3) The Three Rules of Returning to the States After a Year Absence

I am lucky in that I have been back to visit my and members of my husband's family in the States three times in the two years we have been gone. They deserve much of the credit, as they have primarily bankrolled this ability. Thank you. But there are definitely three things to keep in mind when you go back to the homeland:



  1. You will gain weight. Despite the fact that I will be featured in the base magazine next month for having met a fitness goal, I consumed a lot of excess calories upon my return to the good ol' US of A. Wahoo's Fish Taco, Dave and Busters, Outback Steakhouse, Del Taco, Lucille's Barbecue, authentic Mexican food, Sonic Drive-in, Waffle House, Cheesecake Factory, the Donut Storr in Mission Viejo, Calif., ... which are the best doughnuts in the world. And these are only the restaurants I can remember without going back and checking my Facebook wall. I had 19 days to satisfy every craving I have had in the past 12 months. That also included a watermelon that didn't cost $40. Yep, my capris are tight right now. So I wear sundresses. Don't judge. I'm back to eating healthy and am trying to get motivated to start working out again... I have a ball dress to fit in to this fall!
  2. The customer service in America sucks in general... and they want money for it. Seriously... I am spoiled by Japan's customer service. I have heard it from others who have lived here and then gone back to the States, but I didn't believe it until I experienced it myself. I used to tip servers 20 percent most of the time, as long as there weren't any major issues, like our whole ordered being misplaced. This time, most servers were lucky to get 10 percent from me. And I am sure they complained to someone about it. Well... don't make me wait 15 minutes for you to acknowledge my existence in your section, bring me cold food that's supposed to be hot or vice versa, or let my tea glass go empty. In other words, do your job. The Japanese people do their job, do it with pride and don't get tipped. You should taste the McDonald's nuggets here. And the Big Mac arrives on your tray looking just like the picture on the menu board. No kidding. And I seriously don't have time to get in to my thoughts on TSA... but they could learn some lessons from the Japanese airport security.
  3. You will drive on the wrong side of the road at least once. And it won't be on your first day driving, or when there are a bunch of other cars on the road. It will be late in to your stay, and when there are no other cars on the road. That is because you will be 1) too conscious of trying not to be the cause of a head-on collision the first few times you are at the wheel on the left side of the car, and 2) if there are other cars to follow, it's a no brainer as to which side of the road you should be on. My mother, kids and I went on a week-long road trip around the Southwest, where I drove 98 percent of the time. It was not until the last couple of days where I was turning the wrong way on to a side street and then, again, in a parking lot. I had gone in to auto-drive mode, where I stopped worrying about which side of the road I was on and went with instinct, and there weren't any other cars in the proximity moving in the correct direction for me to follow to help me decide which country I was driving in. Fortunately, my mother was there to remind me - remarkably calmly - that I was driving on the wrong side of the road and to get over. Now, you will continue to screw up the turn signals/windshield wipers throughout the duration of your stay. Just accept it and act like you meant to do it by squirting windshield wiper fluid. No one will be the wiser.
Road trip! Tombstone was NOT one of the places I drove on the wrong side of the road.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

American Pickers: Iwakuni Housewives Edition



Yeah, so, anyone who has followed this blog for a few months or more knows how I like to go on day trips to experience different aspects of the Japanese culture. Cooking classes, historical sites, etc. With the help of my lovely Japanese friend, Chie, we planned a day in the historical city of Tsuwano with a half dozen ladies. We rented an 8-passenger van from the base car rental place and were going to learn how to make soba noodles and washi paper. But then the day took a brief turn to a tradition of my family's: sifting through junk for "treasures"... something we "Iwakuni housewives" did on this trip, much to Chie's shock/embarrassment/amusement. Let me set the scene...

I come from parents who, when they were first married, entertained themselves on weekends while they were still in college by going to the local trash dumps and digging for antique bottles. They have collected American antiques for years and my Dad, a history minor in college, is even a member of the Company of Military Historians, and collects helmets from the United States Indian War period... complete with real yak hair plumes. A lot of my parents' furniture is golden oak pieces from the 1800's. My father is especially enthralled with others' castoffs... he will pick up anything shiny he comes across on the street because it might be something worthwhile. Coins, jewelry... metallic gum wrappers... some things get tossed back down, of course, but some... especially when he breaks out his metal detector, are worth keeping. Like pennies and quarters. My youngest, Xan, has inherited this trait... he'll b]pick almost anything shiny off the ground to examine it for worth. This is definitely not learned behavior, as no one in our immediate family investigates shiny objects on the street. However, I did inherit this gene with a slight mutation: Stuff off the ground doesn't intrigue me, nor does yak hair, but I can't seem to resist stopping at flea markets when I happen across one. There is something about being surrounded by unwanted stuff that makes me happy. And, occasionally, I find like-minded people and we attack a flea market, thrift store or antique store like brides at a wedding dress sale. Hair pulling has occurred... but I will not go into detail in order to protect the (sort of) innocent...

I thought that being transplanted in Japan might curb my urge to collect unwanted things. The styles I find here don't really match my personal style most of the time... but the treasure hunter in me continues to look anyway. And boy, did that pay off this particular time.

But first, the cast of characters...

Yep, that's me. I never have been able to pull off any kind of headgear. But, bandanas are popular attire for Japanese cooking classes.
This is Chie.... she is smiling because she has no idea what real adventure awaits her. But we do know that she likes to pretend she is Chinese in times of stress. 
Nizar is a fellow photographer.. and, according to our soba noodle instructors, a natural noodle cutter... she's quick and cuts a perfectly uniform width of noodle. Good for you, teacher's pet. ;)  She also collects primate figurines... a fact that will be necessary to know later.
Heard of Iwakuni Explorer? That's Hyla's brainchild... and she enjoys adventures of all shapes and sizes. You might even find a future post about soba making in Tsuwano...
Amy is one of MCAS Iwakuni's two 6th grade teachers... which is a good thing, because her soba noodles were too thick, according to our instructors. Don't quit your day job, Amy.
Britt is an adventurer with a love for Hawaii... and a smokin' hot deal.

Ashleigh loves to travel and has a zest for life... as well as noodles. She, like me, is thoroughly enjoying her time here in Japan.
Stacy is the random Texan thrown in for good measure...  because any good treasure hunting story would be remiss without the random Texan to spice things up. Sprinkle in the fact that she works for an American distribution company for Japanese anime products and things get interesting. She's a friend and former co-worker of Ashleigh's who was visiting for the week.
Of course, we had our day planned out... first we had soba class...











A wasabe grater... who knew?



We had a great time and tried both warm and cold soba noodles, which did, in fact, taste differently with the temperature. And while I happen to be blogging about them, the instructors blogged about us, too: SOBA for the first time! If you open the link in the Google Chrome browser, it will automatically translate the page for you... but the translation doesn't make much sense. Of course, the picture they chose to use is one of me wiping my face. Yay!

Well fed and carbed up, we headed to the next activity on the agenda: Washi paper making. As I drove through the hills to our next destination, a couple of the ladies spotted a Japanese antique store and requested we stop back by on the way home of we had time. Antique store? Really? Sure! But, first we had some paper pulp to play with!




This vacuum systematically sucked the water out of the paper pulp in one swipe. Really fun to watch! 

And then it was time to head home... and past the antique store. We were actually 15 minutes ahead of schedule, so we had 15 minutes to check the place out... and it turned out to be a defunct shop of some kind, not an antique store. The store was no longer in business, but had many of its remaining wares outside on shelves. An elderly couple, friends of the store's owner, lived next door to it and gave us permission to "shop." And shop we did. What was going to be a routine antique store shopping trip turned in to an international episode of "American Pickers"... Iwakuni Housewives Edition. Digging though piles of cardboard, ceramic and spiders, we discovered dusty, dirty, grimy vases, figurines, bowls, cups and so much more. We had also had a "typhoon" come through the past week, so many of the vases and dishes had muddy rainwater in them. But, like any good "pickers" we looked past the dirt and grime to see the wonderfulness (is that a word?) underneath.

Amy runs marathons, so she is in great shape... we sent her in for the dangerous climbing and digging.
Nizar found a monkey to add to her collection.
There were plenty of tiny treasures in this cart... I could have spent a lot more time sifting through it all, but we did have a schedule to keep.
While I was in my flea market mind set, visually scanning one section of vases and bowls to another, I did notice Chie standing off to the side, chatting occasionally with the elderly couple or watching us scatter about like an army of ants on a mission, or both. She would try and translate the questions we all had, but when half a dozen ladies are all chattering excitedly and saying "Hey, ask him...," I am sure it can be overwhelming. I hope she just told the elderly Japanese couple the obvious: We are a bunch of crazy Americans and she has no idea what we are doing, but we are generally good people who just happen to like dirty dishes and are willing to pay for them.

Whatever she might have been telling them about us, Chie was definitely not looking for treasures herself, not at all interested in climbing through cardboard and spiders to see what interesting things she could find. Once we were done "shopping", I asked her about it on the way back to Iwakuni. Here are the facts as I understand them: Most Japanese people are not interested in things that are dirty and covered with typhoon water. Shop keepers work hard to make the merchandise seem clean and appealing, even if its second hand. This explains why Japanese thrift stores have such nice stuff, I suppose. Old things, unless they are hundreds or thousands of years old, are not really popular. "Vintage" isn't cool, it's dated. Chie had never heard of "American Pickers" or the reality show's overall concept. Shows like this do not exist in Japan. The fact that we were having fun and were excited about our treasures was a bit lost on Chie. She may not be hesitant to take us with her on another adventure. What else might we try and cram in to the rental van with us next time? Rusty Coca-cola signs, an old metal Batman lunchbox and an old Ford Mustang grill?

At the end of the day, here is what we all got... for a grand total of 10,000 yen... or about $100.


I took my dusty, dirty treasures home...


... and washed them up. This photo really doesn't do them justice, but you get the idea. The tall, teal vase is about 20 inches tall.


And, in all honesty, I have no idea what these things are worth. I know I paid about $25 for them, and, to me, these treasures and the memories that come with them are well worth the price of admission. Now, if I could just sell this TV show idea to the History channel...

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.'