Thursday, February 06, 2014

Okinawa vs. Iwakuni

Note: This is the third and final installment of my first visit to Okinawa. If you haven't already, I encourage you to read the first and second posts so that more of what is written below is in context for you.

No matter where we have been stationed in the Marine Corps, we have found things to like and dislike about each place. When we ask people what they think of their current duty station, people seem to either love it or hate it. This seems to be amplified when talking to families stationed overseas. Either you love it or you hate it... a lot.

Those stationed in Iwakuni and Okinawa love and hate their temporary homes for both similar and different reasons, which I will try to address here. Now, I realize I was only in Okinawa for four days in the month of February and I have lived in Iwakuni for 18 months. These are just my first impressions, so don't take my opinions personally, I am not attacking you or your island, and remember you can stop reading this at any time.

First off, for those people who suck at Japanese geography (ahem, Americans not ever stationed in the Pacific) here are some maps for your reference. Below is a map of Japan... Okinawa is in the red box. Iwakuni is about where Hiroshima is on the main island of Japan. It took about 2 hours to fly from Iwakuni to Okinawa.

Below is Okinawa. Picture it as a lower ankle and foot bone kicking that square box with the yellow Japan. The bottom of the foot says "Kadena," with an airplane. That is roughly where I stayed while visiting. We also visited Nago, which is on the underside of the heel of the foot of Okinawa. It takes about an hour to drive from Kadena to Nago on the tollroad highway.

Weather in February

Um, yeah, this was no contest. We hopped off our C-130 aircraft from Iwakuni and stepped out in to a warm breeze. I had to take my London Fog coat off before I overheated on my way to the car. The ladies who live on Okinawa and greeted us at a military spouse function that night wore long sleeves and some of them went so far as to wear jackets. I'm sorry, but after coming from 40-degree weather two hours ago to a balmy 65 degrees, I am going to raise my eyebrow at your puffy coat.

It was the tail end of Cherry Blossom season there, and we enjoyed the last of the blooms in Nago, at the site of a former shrine and castle that are long gone.

Winter Weather Winner: Okinawa

And that leads me to my next item: Beaches

Beaches and Tanning

Iwakuni's beaches are on the industrialized side of Japan, meaning we swim with plastic bags and tires if we decide to swim. Radioactivity resulting from the Fukushima disaster is up for debate, as well. You can see my trash-riddled beach experience near Iwakuni here by clicking this link. In comparison, Okinawa's beaches were gorgeous:

The tanning was superb. Except this was my first tanning for months, so I burned first because, having come from WINTER it did not occur to me to put sunscreen on my face the first day we were there. I subsequently put on 30 sunblock every morning after, but the damage was done and I had a perpetually red face through my entire time in Okinawa. However, now, a week later, my face is a gorgeous tan color that naturally gloats to the poor, pale people of Iwakuni. Ha, ha... I was somewhere warm and you were not. Well, except for these two, my Iwakuni partners in crime. That is, if relaxing on a beach is a crime.

Tanning and Beaches winner: Okinawa

Shopping on Base

Now, if you stay on the Marine Corps bases, their exchanges and commissaries really aren't that much different than the ones we have in Iwakuni. However, there are also Navy and Air Force bases very close by. Kadena is a U.S. Air Force base that boasts both a huge exchange and a huge commissary. They even have a tiny craft store, like a small Michael's or JoAnns:

I purposely did not take a photo of the Kadena exchange and commissary. I did not want residents of MCAS Iwakuni to drool on their laptops and ruin them. I'm sure you can Google for a photo. They have a scuba shop and a portrait studio and their salon stays open until 7 or 8 p.m. I was able to find my brand of hair highlighting dye (which I usually have to ask my Mom to send me) and prices were cheaper than in Iwakuni. Oh, hey, wipe the corner of your mouth before that drips on your keyboard!

On-Base Shopping Winner: Okinawa

Big OK: Shopping and Restaurants off base

Two of the restaurants that I thought were quite tasty and a good value were The Rose Garden for breakfast and Bovinos Brazilian food for lunch. For those of you military members visiting the island, the bases also have Chili's and Macaroni Grill, both of which we ate at... and savored every bite!

Now, switching gears to shopping, I want to start this off with this bit of information: I am a large adult by Japanese standards. By American standards, I wear the average women's clothing size. That means I cannot find any clothes or shoes outside the MCAS Iwakuni base gates that fit me, with the exception of a tank top I bought in Miyajima that was on the clearance rack. I even have to buy men's fuzzy socks because my feet are about a half-size too big for women's socks.

In Okinawa, we headed to a place off base called American Village. It is famous for its ferris wheel, among other things:

Yep, you read that right. There is Climax Coffee in the shopping center. I did not drink anything there, so I can't tell you if it lives up to its name or not. We had some tasty burgers and crepes with ice cream while we were there. And then we walked around to shop. I found something I just couldn't resist:

The spouse and I have an ongoing battle: He is a master sergeant in the Marine Corps and I have a master's degree. We both claim to be "the master." I figured that once I had a sweatshirt with the title, I would win the argument. I just had to have the sweatshirt displayed in the doorway of the Okinawa clothing shop.

I walked in and checked out the sweatshirt. It looked like it would fit me just fine. The little Japanese man shopkeeper hurried up to me, smiled, pointed at the sweatshirt and said, "Big OK." Um, OK, yes, it will fit, I see that. I smiled back and said, "OK, thanks." He smiled, pointed at the sweatshirt, then pointed at me and said "Big OK." Uh, yeah, I get that I am big, but that this sweatshirt will still fit me. I pulled the zipper down to make sure it worked before I bought it. From my right I hear, "Yes, big OK." I looked at him and stifled the remark I would have laid on an American salesperson... I didn't need to start an international incident in a place where there were already people protesting about American military presence. If I didn't absolutely need to win the spousal argument, I would have walked out without the "Big OK" sweatshirt. But my competitiveness won out over my pride. I said I'd buy it and then headed to the checkout counter, which leads me to my next topic, currency.

Shopping Selections Off Base for "Big OK" People Winner: Okinawa
Politeness of sales people about not pointing out "Big OK" People Winner: Iwakuni (by default)

Ways to Pay for Stuff

In Iwakuni and outlying areas, cash is still king, And when I say cash, I mean yen bills and coins, not U.S. dollars. For those of us who automatically reach for a debit card to buy stuff, this can be quite a challenge to get used to... especially if you have already driven away from base and need to get some yen. But in Okinawa, everywhere we went, from stores to restaurants, accepted debit cards, yen AND U.S. dollars. In fact, when I went to buy my "Big OK" sweatshirt, the shopkeeper gave me a 10 percent discount because I paid in yen. It sort of made the sting of the "Big OK" go away, but not really.

Ways to Pay Winner: Okinawa

English and American Influence

Many of the Japanese restaurant waitstaff and store clerks spoke excellent English, some of them even without an accent of any kind. This is very rare in Iwakuni. Most Japanese know some English, but struggle with grammar, or simply don't feel comfortable speaking it, so they don't. This was not a problem in Okinawa. Even the toll booths gave you automated instructions in English, as well as Japanese. On mainland Japan, these same instructions are completely in Japanese, so all I can confirm is that the high-pitched voice says is "kudasai" and "arigato," which is please and thank you.

Mainland Japan does have quite a number of things in English, road signs for instance, but nothing like in Okinawa. One thing I heard from Okinawa base inhabitants is that they hardly knew they were in a foreign country. In fact, I had a flashback to my high school days in Southern California when we were at the beach. It was a similar mix of ethnicities, wearing very similar fashions. Apparently the 80's and 90's are back when it comes to Okinawan fashion.

There are a ton of restaurants and stores that have American names. I was surprised how "cool" American stuff was there, considering the mainland Japanese seem to like French things more than American ones. There were American Grills, where you could get hamburgers, tacos and Campbell's chicken soup. There was A&W. There was a Tony Romas.

English off Base Winner: Okinawa
Feeling Like You Are Actually Living in Japan Winner: Iwakuni


Sadly, I never got up early enough to see the protestors outside of MCAS Futenma in the mornings. That base is where the controversial Osprey aircraft are based. There are two different kinds of protestors: Ones who you meet first on your way in that basically say, "G.I. Go Home!" and, a little bit closer to the base gates, the protestors who support the American military with signs that say something to the effect of "G.I. Stay Here."

Iwakuni has had maybe three groups of protestors since I moved here. They are all scheduled through the local government and we are warned not to go through the front gates of the base because they are closed. Other gates are open for us to travel through. Yes, there are some signs, and usually a bullhorn involved, but for the most part, it is very rare for us to see protests against American presence.

Good Will Towards American Military Members Trying to Get To Work Winner: Iwakuni
Protest Entertainment Factor Winner: Okinawa

Salsa Dancing

Like the spouses here, the Okinawa MACS-4 (my spouse's squadron) wives get together once a month or so for an activity. This month was salsa dancing, and the Iwakuni wives (Nilce, Amy and I) were invited to go along. Who would have thought I would be salsa dancing in Okinawa? But there is a local salsa band, which was very entertaining... with the exception of the trombone that seemed to have it's horn right at the level of my right ear drum. That's what you get for going to the bathroom at the wrong time and getting the seat closest to the front of the stage area. The restaurant/bar hosting the hour-long salsa lessons and the band was Mil Beso. Of course, we were lacking male dance partners, so we made do.

My friend, Stacey, who I originally met while living in Pensacola, is stationed in Okinawa with her husband, and is a ballroom dancing enthusiast. Poor thing was partnered with me... I have little rhythm and even less grace.

Stacey is British and I love it when she says "bloke" and "rubbish."
While the dancing and band were fun, I must say a few words about the "beverages." Below is a picture of my 900 yen margarita (about $9). My hands are fairly normal-sized, I promise.

For 1050 yen, I can get a margarita three times that big at Mike's Tex Mex, not far from MCAS Iwakuni. And it tastes better.

Salsa Dancing Winner: Okinawa (by default - I have not salsa danced in Iwakuni)
Margarita Quality Winner: Iwakuni

Fun Cheesiness

Something I am not sure I will ever get used to in Japan is the "cheesiness" of some things. Cheesiness has been defined as "unsubtle," "unsophisticated" and "trying too hard," at least by American standards. Now, I do not mean to insult the people of Japan. For the most part, they lead very serious, conservative lives, wearing a lot of black and gray. They work six days a week and don't believe in babysitters. Only family members watch children while the parents are away. And if you don't have family members capable of watching your kids... well, you take your kids with you. I think the Japanese should get their fun and splashes of color wherever they can. And usually those can be found at tourist destinations.

There is always something set up as the perfect prop for a "selfie." I sent this one to the spouse:

This is the Nago Pineapple Farm and Museum. Another perfect setup for a group selfie:

And complete with pineapple golf carts that drove themselves:

I have no idea how they drive themselves. There weren't any tracks, cables or power cords around. My guess is GPS mapped automation. Someone else suggested magnets.

Bananas at the pineapple farm.
Flowers were in bloom all around the park, which you could see from the golf carts. After the gray and brown surroundings in mainland Japan, it was nice to see bursts of color like this.
A baby pineapple is pictured below. Al least I think it is a real baby pineapple. It was clearly not pineapple picking season. There were a few random ripe pineapples, but they had been placed out in the small fields on stands, made to look like they were growing. Maybe it's the American in me, but I would rather have seen nothing than "faked" pineapples ready to harvest. We did see a number of pineapple blooms.

The activities available at the Pineapple Farm and Museum. It took us about 45 minutes to complete it all. Oh, and if you are military, ask for the military discount. We each got in for half price.

And, of course, there a gift shop about the size of the pineapple field. We sampled pineapple wine (both sweet and dry), juice, baked goods, candy, and, of course, pineapple fruit. I bought some juice and candy to bring home. More than half our time was filled with snaking through all the pineapple treats.

Clearly, Okinawa attractions follow suit with mainland ones when it comes to bright colors, cartooning and, well, cheese. And it's just something you come to expect as an American tourist. But the number of Okinawa attractions is limited, simply because of the size of the island. There is so much more to do and see on mainland Japan, that we certainly won't get to all of it in the three years we're stationed here.

Cheesy Winner: Tie

To Sum It All Up

In conclusion, I would have to say that Okinawa is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. I want to experience the Japanese culture, tainted with as little American influence as possible, and I think I've been able to experience that on the mainland, better than I would have if we were stationed in Okinawa. Also, while the weather in Okinawa is gorgeous in January/February, several months out of the year Okinawa inhabitants are preparing for and experiencing typhoons. The architecture on the island reflects this, as many of the buildings aren't much more than concrete bunkers. Even the oceanfront properties have small windows and tough-looking balconies.

On-base housing is similar, but with interesting differences: The towers are nine stories tall instead of six, and residents who live on the bottom floors are allowed to have dogs. In Iwakuni tower residents are not allowed to have dogs, which is why many four-legged friends have been left behind with family or friends in the States. I am not sure why the policies are different from one Japanese Marine base to another, but I think having your furry family member with you might help some families transition better.

This was my view from our WestPac hotel room on the USMC's Camp Foster. The two large beige buildings are family housing towers.

Overall "Where I Want to Live" Winner: Iwakuni.... Because the grass always seems greener on the other side of the ocean, but there is so much more to explore and experience on mainland Japan.

I want to thank Erin and Rebecca for being our escorts and tour guides while we were in Okinawa. Thank you so much for making us feel so welcome and making sure we could always get to wherever we needed (or wanted!) to go, even at 4:30 a.m.!

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