Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Okinawa and the Loadmaster

Note: This is the first installment of a 3-part series about my four days in Okinawa. At the bottom of this post is the link for the second installment.

"-ello, my name - Lance Corporal ---- and I will be your loadmaster for - evening." 

This is the first thing I heard over the C-130's engines from the friendly 6'4" bald black guy with a green flight suit, eyeglasses and noise-deafening earmuffs. I was standing on the tarmac, about 50 yards from the large cargo plane and, for some reason, the title of "loadmaster" made me chuckle. Apparently we would have one for the evening. But then I realized that this was the start of a "safety brief" and, just in case the plane went down over the Pacific, I should probably pay attention. This was not your normal commercial airplane ride:
I, along with three other Marine Corps wives from my spouse's unit, were heading from Iwakuni, on mainland Japan, to Okinawa, a Japanese island about two hours south across the ocean. We were going to partcipate in the squadron's Jayne Wayne Day (or Jane Wayne Day, or J. Wayne Day, depending on who is writing the event request), which is when military spouses get to try being a Marine for a day. More on that adventure in another post...
But, first, we had to get to Okinawa, as cheaply as possible. Which means Space A, or Space Available. Essential, with a letter from the spouse's boss, I get to travel on military aircraft when there are seats available... for free. And what was available to us to fly to Okinawa the day we wanted was a no-frills C-130.
LCpl Loadmaster (a.k.a. Babysitter of Civilian Females) gave us our safety brief, which briefly explained where the bathroom was (a glorified bucket with a curtain in the cargo hold of the plane), where the life jackets were (tucked in some cargo netting towards the front of the cargo hold we were seated in) and that there was no smoking or tobacco product allowed. It's a two hour flight. You should be fine, he said to any potential smokers. Does anyone get airsickness? If so, let Loadmaster know so that he can get you a bag. Obey anyone in a green jumpsuit, and ask those people the questions... Including if you can use the bathroom. LCpl Loadmaster disappeared about five minutes into the flight, for the majority of the flight, so I couldn't ask him anything. Hopefully I won't have to throw up, I thought.
We had to take our own luggage out to the plane. And up about six stairs to get inside the aircraft. I had my rolling duffle, purse and backpack... About 60 pounds of crap. I pulled the "girl" card: I acted like I was going to attempt to make the first step and then looked at LCpl Loadmaster with my best damsel in distress face. LCpl Loadmaster didn't hesitate... He grabbed my duffle and hopped up the stairs with it to put it inside. Good. Thank you. I don't think my knees could have handled that... After all, it is my 20th high school reunion this summer. 
As I embarked on the aircraft I looked around the dark cargo hold. Windows are tiny portholes, three on each side in the front section of the Aircraft where we were. Too high to be able to see out of, so window preference people would be in trouble.
I didn't have to worry about lost or stolen luggage. I didn't send any of it through an x-ray machine. At the terminal, we just stepped on to the big scale at the check-in counter and were weighed with our bags. Once we rolled it out to the plane ourselves, the luggage was piled up in the center of the plane and then got its own seatbelt across the middle.
We had to figure out our seat belts ourselves. Below is a photo of the puzzle that was. Thanks to my hours playing with Legos, I was the first wife to figure it out. Go me! No, I'm not competitive at all.
No flight attendants showing us how to wear the life jackets or blow in to the tubes if they don't self inflate. LCpl Loadmaster took care of that requirement. No movie. No beverage cart. No crying babies. Not as cold as I would have expected. 
But there was plenty of legroom.
We were not told to turn off electronic devices, in fact almost everyone was on one as we taxied out to the runway. I was still responding to Facebook notifications in between taking the random pictures you see here. There was no waiting on the tarmac... We slowly taxied out and then, without stopping, the jets got serious and we were accelerating and taking off. 
Light headedness. Loud. Lots of vibration. Really loud. Glad the spouse insisted I have ear muff things.
There were seven Marines in the cargo hold with us... who couldn't have cared less about the spousal presence. It was too loud to talk anyway. One was reading Henry Kissinger's "On China." Another had very unnecessary sunglasses on. It was pretty dark, since the tiny portholes let in just a little light and there were seven 3-inch lights above us, in a 18x12 foot space or so. Most of the Marines fell asleep, unimpressed by our chariot.
Right next to my right leg was a giant metal box the width of the cargo hold and about 8 feet high without any visible ties.
I remember thinking, "I hope it is locked down underneath somehow." It was in the center of the cargo hold and the only way to get to the back of the plane was over it, which LCpl Loadmaster did once. He had about 18 inches of space to crawl. 
A couple of times LCpl Loadmaster did visual checks out the portholes and then to two different shaped canisters on the inside walls of the plane, one of them above me.
I know this is probably a Vietnam-era plane, before such checks could be done from inside the cockpit, so I hope LCpl Loadmaster knew what he was checking for. He had headphones on with a really long cable attached, that he had to keep moving around with him, like I would do with a vacuum power cord. He seem to be an expert at flicking the cord around luggage, gear and my feet. I'm surprised they haven't figured out a wireless way to do that. Maybe they have, but just can't pull it off with this aircraft. Totally possible since the Marine Corps gets all the other branches' hand-me-downs. 

I kept busy writing this blog post and reading. Two hours was the perfect amount of time on a C-130. It was enough time to get the experience of a sore rear end and back from the lovely cargo net seats, but not enough time to get really uncomfortable and hate the experience, needing some Advil or a stiff drink or five afterward. It was a little chilly on the flight, but not nearly as cold as I thought it would have been. Fortunately it was about 65 degrees when we landed in Okinawa... a huge improvement from the 45 degrees we left behind in Iwakuni. And, luckily, the weather stayed gorgeous the entire four days were were there.

Landing in Okinawa was uneventful. I can now say I have flown in to MCAS Futenma, which, in a few years, will be handed back over to the Okinawans, and no longer be possible. After exiting the plane, thanking LCpl Loadmaster and the crew, and walking to the tiny, run down airfield terminal (complete with a disgustingly molded women's restroom toilet) I immediately took off my jacket and scarf and didn't look at them again for the remainder of my time in Oki. While the inhabitants of the island were wearing long sleeves and jackets, I enjoyed the lukewarm breeze... smelling slightly of jet fuel and exhaust.

Off to my next adventure!

Click here for part two of three Okinawa posts.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My adventure to an Iwakuni Love Hotel...

WARNING: This post is rated somewhat above a PG-13 rating. Please be advised that you should hide your iPad from your kids for the next few minutes as you read.

So, since hearing the phrase "love hotel" uttered a few months after I arrived in Japan, my curiosity was piqued. These are hotels where couples can go for a couple of hours or a weekend to... be alone. Some Japanese homes are multi-generational: The kids, parents and grandparents all live in one home... and Japanese walls tend to be made out of paper.... literally. So having fun with the spouse while his mother sleeps behind what is essentially some butcher paper held up by a thin wooden frame is not really ideal. Love hotels are also popular with college students and cheating spouses... as well as a carload of American wives who were trying to figure out a fun and different Valentine's Day plan for their spouses.

But love hotels, obviously, cater to the Japanese, so English instructions are not easy to come by, and understanding the mechanics of actually getting in to a room can be tricky for the uninformed. I, and five other military spouses, wanted to be informed. And, I figured you would be, too, so I thought a blog post would be in order. So here it is, in as much detail as I can remember, and can provide with tact:

We were led by a fearless Japanese national whom I have known for more than a year, and she served as our love hotel tour guide. To protect our fearless tour guide's identity, I will call her Yui, because I do not know any Yuis and it was the top name for Japanese girls in 2012, so, apparently, a very common name.

We went to the closest love hotel to the base: Hotel Secille, near the Kintai Bridge. It has a huge sign. If you live in Iwakuni and have been to the Kintai Bridge, you have probably seen it, but had no idea what kind of hotel it was. Here is a map for your convenience. Tell them Jessica sent you. Just kidding. Although Yui said there are "frequent shopper" cards for discounts and rewards if you frequent Hotel Secille often, I am not one of said card holders, and you will not see anyone to name drop to, anyway. In our whole two hours at the hotel we saw one car backing up in the parking structure, and the outline of one person exiting a room behind a screen. You can easily avoid seeing people.

What I knew about love hotels prior to this excursion was:

1) They are designed to maintain your anonymity.
2) You generally pay for them by the hour.
3) Some of them have themed rooms (Hotel Secille did not).
4) Special toys are available for purchase.

If you think about it, most American hotels that cater to pay-by-the-hour clientele aren't really somewhere I - or a carload of wives - would want to hang out, much less take a jacuzzi bath or grab some room service. Do those places even have room service? Doubtful...

But in Japan, Yui assures us these rooms are very clean. She just recommends spraying down the jacuzzi tub with the shower hose "just in case." Excellent. That suggestion put me right at ease, thank you!

So, you drive in to the hotel entrance and halfway down the building (which will be on your left) there is a tunnel in to the building. Turn left in to the tunnel and you will find a menu board of room choices.

In each square, there is a price in the colored bar, to the right (to the left is the room number). The top price is what it costs for 2 hours on weekends, or for five hours on week days. The bottom price is the cost for two days and a night. However, keep in mind: When you enter the hotel room, the room door locks and you cannot leave until you pay, so if you select the two-day option, you are in there for the duration. No leaving to check out the sights or go to dinner.

As one of the wives admitted, we have champagne tastes, so with our 850 yen each, we selected the most expensive room Hotel Secille had to offer... because it had a massage chair. See it on the left side of the photo below? Room 307 became our home for the next two hours or so. We found out later that it also had a few other bonus amenities, but I will get to those in a moment.

Beyond the menu board, there is a directional board to tell you which way to go to enter the parking spot for the room you have selected. If there is a car there already, you have to pick another room, so you may want to have a second and third room number choice in your mind before leaving the menu board. Room 307 was to the right...

... and to the next immediate right. Fortunately it was empty, so we parked and got out. That little menu board at the top left has the photo of the room so you know you have the right one, and, in Japanese, it said that it was the massage and karaoke room. When Yui translated that, everyone was excited... massage and karaoke?! Score!

There is one parking space per room, which is why we filled my car up to the brim with people, rather than taking multiple cars. Since anonymity is incredibly important, there are license plate concealers for you to lean against your car. I made sure to cover up my car's butt. Can you imagine the rumors that might be started about me when seven women pile out of my car and go up to the room?!

But I think my American university magnets might give me away. Whoops! Each parking space has it's own steep, private stairs up to the second floor, where the rooms are.

At the top of the stairs, this is what you see to the right...

... and to the left. I assume the frosted, wheeled dividers are for people to hide behind so they cannot be recognized. I could be wrong, but that's my best guess and Yui didn't really have an answer, either.

And here is the door to our room, which was just to the right as you got to the top of the stairs. Above the door, not pictured was a blinking white light... that was to tell us which room was ours.

Remember: Once you shut the door, it locks you in, so all seven of us had to get in to the vestibule and take our shoes off before entering the room itself. There are two pairs of slippers provided by the hotel. We did not use them. The vestibule is pictured below, with the front door being the one with the green lock, and the bathroom was straight ahead. I am taking the photo from the room itself. The slippers were hung on the wall adjacent to the front door.

And here is what the room looks like when you walk in, albeit a little used. I took this shot after we had gotten done exploring it.

There is our massage chair, which everyone tried to varying degrees of success. The remote control was in Japanese.

Here is what the bed looked like when we first walked in. Just like the picture promised. The room was in various shades of 1980's and 1990's pinks and light yellows.

That white box at the head of the bed controls the lights and various other things. It glows in the dark and you can choose what color it glows. We liked this purplish color.

With the glowing box were two complimentary condoms. Yes, I took one as a souvenir.

Past the large television was a door way that led to a shower/jacuzzi tub room. The tub alone would be worth the price of admission.

A fellow spouse, let's call her Betty, modeled the tub so you could appreciate how big it is. Complete with a television... just in case your partner wasn't entertaining enough for you, I suppose. In front of the tub, to the left of where this picture was taken from, was a traditional Japanese shower. I am not sure of the hose was long enough to spray down the jacuzzi tub.

Once we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the tub/shower room, it was time to check out the other amenities. There was what looked like three fridges in the room. This one, under the TV, had various beverages available for purchase, such as beer. Bottled water was free. You just take the item you want out and it automatically gets charged to your room. More on that in a moment. A couple of the ladies pulled out a non-alcoholic beer to see how it all worked.

These two "fridges" below were near the front door to the room. The top one was an empty fridge for you to put your own goodies in (after all, you might be locked in there for two days straight) and, the one below was a vending machine for adult toys... like stockings. And other things. The most expensive item was a gift box for 2,200 yen, which is about $22.

Under the glass coffee table (complete with ashtray and lighter, I might add... the room did smell faintly like smoke) was a booklet to help you figure out the room. While most of it was in Japanese, there were some helpful pages in English. These first three were not some of those, but it is nice to know you can rent fantasy costumes, use your frequent shopper points for fun things, and order room service. Yui said that many love hotels have a door that looks like a doggie door to the outside of the room, where hotel employees put your food and then signal to you that it is there. That way you do not have to see anyone. This room did not feature a doggie door, so we are not sure what the protocol would have been.

Costumes you can rent - I doubt they have one in my size.
Fun things to spend your pints, er, points, on
The two-page room service menu.
Next up on the list for exploration was the entertainment center. After all, we had the karaoke room! We sang a couple of songs, but, to me, it seemed kind of odd to have karaoke in the same room as condoms. Maybe I'm just too American... karaoke belongs in a bar. Condoms come later. ;)

The remote control directions were in English. Yay!

And, unlike American hotels where every On Demand movie you watch is another expense on your bill, this love hotel had a wide range of movies, all included in our room price. We could watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. Or Fast and Furious. Or Japanese "sexual education shows" (known in America as porn). We opted for Japanese sexual education shows because we had heard that the good stuff is pixelated and blurred out. We want to see if it was true.

So, with Yui's help, we navigated the movie selection menu. Here are some helpful hints:

See the characters below that look like "paint" or "pant?" That is how "adult movies" is spelled in Japanese.

Next on the menu are four choices. Yui translated them as, from top to bottom, "New" (meaning if you are a frequent shopper, you may not have seen these titles yet), "Beautiful Girls," "Wives"(which, as a wife, I am offended I can't be considered a beautiful girl) and "Technique." We chose technique. We figured that if we were going to watch sexual educational shows, we might as well learn something to take home.

Once you choose your genre, then you get in to the individual shows. They were all in Japanese, so we picked a random number - 8 - and picked the eighth movie down.

 And this is how the show started:

A guy showed up eventually, and then clothes came off. And, this may be TMI for some of you, so quickly scroll down past the rest of this paragraph... yep, the genitals were pixelated and fuzzed out. But the anus was clear as day. Interesting. Apparently it is against Japanese law to show genitals, but all other orifices are OK. Yui was surprised that American "sexual education" videos showed everything... almost as surprised as we were that Japan's are fuzzed out. Shoot, what we saw could have been on late night Cinemax. And "techniques" means anything other than conservative sexual acts. Unfortunately, there wasn't much education on actual techniques to go home with. No take aways. Except for the free condom, of course.

OK... if you were scrolling ahead, you can stop scrolling now! Below is the symbol for normal American movies, like Indiana Jones:

OK, so our Japanese-American cultural exchange time was done and it was time to pay. Inside the room, near the front door, is a kiosk on the wall.

There are instructions in English in the same book that had the costume rental and room service menus, toward the back.

To see your room total at any time, select the button I am pointing at. Our room cost, plus the non-alcoholic beer be bought came to 5,000 yen, or $50.

We inserted our money, heard the front door click unlocked, hurried to put on our shoes and then headed downstairs to the car. The ladies made sure the license plate concealer was removed so I didn't back over it, and then we were off... back to base. But, we were definitely pleased to see that, in English, we were invited to come back again:

Something tells me that the place might be booked on Valentine's Day! I call dibs on the karaoke massage room!

Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK Day Sled-a-bration Year 2

It's become tradition for the Guthries to head to the nearby mountains to go sledding the Monday of the Martin Luther King, Jr., three-day weekend, which actually is a 4-day weekend for many Marines, as they also get Tuesday off. The Americans from base choose to go to the ski resorts then because it is not a Japanese holiday, or a weekend, so the slopes are deserted, with the exception of a handful of Japanese die-hard snow people who don't have to work on that particular Monday. Everyone else there... the same inhabitants of MCAS Iwakuni who you run in to at the commissary, Crossroads Mall, theater, etc. On one hand, it's familiar and comfortable with these people around. You can understand what they are saying when they are yelling at their kids to stop throwing snowballs at the baby, or when they are telling you to get out of the way because they are about to sled right in to you. On the other hand, there is no escaping these people. Where it falls on the happy scale depends on how you feel about the individuals you encounter. Fortunately, the ones we saw out on the 100-meter sledding slopes  at Mominoki Forest Park (directions here - plan for a two-hour drive each way and make sure you have tire chains just in case - Japanese authorities require you to have them and can turn you away if you don't) were ones I either didn't know well or ones I liked, so it worked out for me.

Here are some of the views from around the park:

The hill across the valley from the resort was just powdered with fresh snow from the weekend.

The sledding hill was deserted, with the exception of a few dozen base inhabitants. 

The view of the lodge from the sledding slope, which had warm bathrooms, a restaurant and a small convenience store/gift shop. Our car is the white one all by itself in the center there.
My goal this year was to not get hurt while sledding. While it didn't sound so bad in last year's blog post, I basically twisted my knee back at a bad angle when my foot hit a clump of snow on my first run down the hill. I didn't know it then, but it would take about six months for it to heal to the point where I could walk up steps pain-free. I managed not to get hurt this year... because I did not sled. Instead, I took pictures from the sidelines and laughed at everyone else who face-planted and cracked their tailbones. Granted, it was a less courageous way to go, but no one can say I don't learn from my mistakes.

Here are sledding pictures of my family. Sure, you may find them boring, but this is my blog and I can post what I want. Feel free to click away at any time...

Xan was sledding the entire time we were there. Yes, I am a lousy parent and completely forgot that kids grow and need new boots each year. This was not realized until the night before we left on this adventure, so we made due with old sneakers. The kids did not care, and we made sure to bring a change of socks and shoes for them for the ride home. I promised to do better next year as far as boots went. I should get some points because I found that snow suit for Xan at the base thrift store for $10. Winning!

Poor Will is now 5' 6" tall and, while still an 11-year-old boy in my mind, he is not boy-sized when it comes to sledding. On top of that, Will's sneakers were so old we had to duct tape up the holes. I will really need to do better for him next year. But, he found some kids to play in the already-made igloos that were there, creating forts and ammunition for a snowball fight.

Rodney even got some runs in, finally borrowing an adult-sized foam boogie-board-ish sled from a fellow Marine. These sleds are available the Costco in Hiroshima for less than $20 each, for those of you who are interested. We got our little plastic ones at Nafco last year and outdoor rec on base also has them available for rental.

Rodney managed to do a complete barrel roll without missing a beat:

And then executed a "landing" for my photographic benefit:

And since that photo was just too scary to end with, here is one of a fellow Marine's daughter... in a Japanese snow suit. Kawaii!