Thursday, February 13, 2014

Setsubun: Getting hit in the nose with tradition

There is nothing quite like a centuries-old tradition of getting smacked in the nose by a rock-hard rice cake. Really, there isn't, I assure you. But it was all in the name of warding off evil for the year. And I don't know about you, but I think the less evil the better, even if I have to endure some pain.

In all fairness, it was my own fault I took a hard rice cake, called a mochi, to the nose like an ill-prepared hockey player. When I had been invited to this event on the island of Miyajima by my friend Chie, she had said that beans and rice are thrown to the crowd to ward off evil in the coming spring. OK, sounds good. I am picturing beans and grains of rice raining down on the crowd, like confetti, or a really big send-off for a newly wed couple. I did not plan on small hockey pucks being launched at my face. I should have asked more questions.

But I didn't. So on a very foggy Feb. 3 Superbowl Monday morning (I know this sounds odd to some of you, but because of the time difference, the entire base gets the Monday after Superbowl Sunday off because the Superbowl is live at about 8 a.m. and it just wouldn't be fair to the Marines if they missed the big game. Boo-hoo. The kids still have to go to school, though) Chie, another friend of mine, Brenda, and I headed off to Miyajima island (about a half hour away from Iwakuni) to enjoy the Japanese tradition of setsubun. It was going to be at the Dai-Shoin Temple, which is at the top of a hill, at the top of a couple hundred stairs. Fortunately for us, there are some things to do as you climb.

On either side of those brightly colored banners are bells to ring. You also drop some yen in to a little wooden box as you ring the bell and bow three times. I am not sure what the whole significance is, but I try to be respectful and follow the mantra "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or however the phrase goes.

The steps are lined with Dai-hannyakyo Sutra. According to info Brenda found, these are 600 volumes of scripture introduced from India by a Chinese Monk named Sanzo. It is believed that touching these sutras will bring you enormous fortune. I touched them. I touched them all!
There was a large gong to ring on the way up, as well. I rang it. And dropped some more yen in a wooden box.

There was plenty of small stone statues... each with his own headgear. Again, according to some info Brenda found, these are 500 Rakan statues, and each statue has a different face and represent the disciples of Shaka Nyorai. Chie said that elderly women crochet and knit hats for them to wear during the winter. Other statues had hats and scarves.

Once we got to the top of the steps, about five minutes before the festivities were set to start, this is what we saw:

It looked pretty reasonable until we got past that big yellow sign. And then we saw this:

 And this:

 And this:

Yep... wall-to-wall Japanese people, with a handful of foreigners scattered about. I was one of said foreigners. We also caught up with our friend, Jessica and her husband. Brenda and I took refuge toward the back of the crowd, near a Japanese photographer's rickety ladder. It seemed to be as safe as place as any to avoid bumping in to anyone. And since I am "Big OK," it is not easy to tuck yourself away safely. The good news about being "Big OK" is that I am six inches taller than the average Japanese elderly person and could see everything very well. And those tiny, elderly Japanese people had no problems with bumping in to me. Sometimes with a friendly smile, sometimes not. Either way, they can pack quite a push when they are determined to get somewhere or something, as I was soon to find out.

I'm going to fast-forward through the next 15 minutes or so. This gentleman came out and introduced the festivities and entertained us for awhile by playing a flute-like instrument... all in Japanese. Well, the words were in Japanese. The music was in ... notes, I guess. A woman sang for us. Not being musical by nature, I entertained myself by taking pictures of people taking pictures.

And taking a selfie for Facebook so my Mom could see why I didn't answer her Skype call. Sorry, Mom... busy mingling with the short people.

Then they trotted out about 30 dignitaries. All of them were born the year of the horse, which is what 2014 is. So, these people were 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, 108, 120, 132 or 144 years of age. That's as far as my 12-times times tables goes in my head. Brenda and I did the "How old do you think that person is?" game as we waited.

There was some singing, and apparently the master of ceremonies was very funny because every so often the entire crowd would laugh... except for the handful of foreigners who looked around trying to see if any of the Japanese were looking at us. We might be the butt of the joke and not know. Well, at least that's what I was doing. No one was looking at me, so I figured I could stop being so self-centered and realize the event was not all about the lone blond girl in the sea of Japanese people.

And then it was time to throw some stuff around. You could tell because the dignitaries reached behind them for shallow boxes full of envelopes and flat, round things and small brown things. And the crowd started getting restless. After some kind of count, items were flung in to the air to the waiting hands and baseball gloves (yes, one guy actually had a baseball glove... I did not see him catch more than me, so I don't think it was necessarily a good idea) of the crowd below.

The lady on the left may have been the wife of one of the gentlemen on stage. She kept shouting and waving at him until he subtly waved back.
Of course, at one point I put my camera away for awhile so that it wouldn't get damaged. There were elderly people diving everywhere, tripping and falling over each other... I was really nervous about broken hips. I tried not to jostle these seemingly delicate people. But, after a couple of elbows to the back and stomach, and seeing how they bounced right back up after they got knocked down, I used my height for all it was worth. I did not push, I did not jostle, but I did reach beyond their reach in front of them to snag some bags of beans and a rice cake. I may be "Big OK" but it is paying off now!

Now, Kharma must have been watching because as I went to snag a bag of beans away from a particularly pushy 85-year-old, I didn't see the white mochi coming straight for my face. BAM! It hit me right in the nose, and dropped on to the front of my jacket. I saw some stars, and tried to wiggle my nose to see if it was still there. I felt for blood... none. Grabbing the mochi from my chest and shoving it in to my jacket pocket so I could chastise it later, I ducked behind some of the other people to avoid getting hit while I continued to access my injury (easier said than done when you're 6 inches taller than the majority of them).

At this point, since the Japanese are very fair and communal people, it was time for the front of the pack to go to the back so that the back people had a shot at the loot. How refreshing! Can you imagine Americans doing this at a rock concert or on Black Friday? Um... no.

I recovered from my injury free of blood (my nose was tender the next day, but it appears no permanent damage was done) and I ended up with four bags of beans, two mochi, including the offending white one, and a maple leaf cake. I'll explain the small white box in the photo below in a moment.

You are supposed to eat the same number of beans as your age. I ate 37 beans. Xan was disappointed that he only got to eat 7.
Some Japanese people had more than a dozen bags of beans. Who needs that many beans? Are you giving them to friends, family, neighbors? I mean, some of these people were elderly, but they certainly weren't THAT elderly.  Once the throwing was done, the dignitaries left the stage and people regained their sanity and got back with the loved ones they had shoved aside earlier.

I found Chie and she told me to open my bags to look for numbers. These numbers corresponded to the hundreds of prizes that awaited the winners under a tent. Wait, what? More prizes? I would have knocked down WAY more elderly Japanese people if I had known that. According to the posters I had somehow ignored earlier, I could win a toaster oven, a bicycle, a travel mug... not to mention a dozen other parting gifts. So, I looked through my four bags...

and found one with a number.

Of the five people in our group, three of us got numbers, all #3. We wouldn't know what prize #3 was until we got to the tent after standing in this line:

It only took about 15 minutes to get through the line. Meanwhile, Chie explained this massive yellow chart. Based on your age, it tells you whether or not you will have a good, bad or so-so year. Xan will have a great year, Will will have a so-so year, Rodney will have a good year and I am going to have a so-so year. I feel sorry for all the babies turning 1 this year. Their year is going to suck. Apparently, if you are over 90, you have no luck at all.

 Once we got to the front of the line, the tent looked like this:

When it was my turn, I handed over a number and I was handed a small white box.

A kitchen timer... that looks like an iPod knock off.... made in China... with instructions in Japanese. And, it's pink. Well worth the nose injury and 15 minutes of standing in line.

My pleather boots were a mess from people stepping all over them in the damp dirt. I say damp dirt because it wasn't quite mud.

Once we had all gotten our kitchen timers, it was time to head home, back down the hundreds of steps with the lucky scriptures.

Me, Brenda, Chie and Jessica
I took my loot home (along with some pastries from a Japanese bakery - yum!) and showed it to my family. I made them eat the appropriate number of beans. They taste a little like nuts.

If we had been a Japanese family, Rodney would have worn an "oni" - or demon's - mask and the kids would have thrown beans at him to chase the oni away.. And I, as the woman of the house, would have gotten to clean up the mess. So, we skipped that tradition. I figured the nose injury was enough of a sacrifice from me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Town Hall Take-Away: Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil...

Note: I attended the evening Town Hall meeting. Additional information is in RED below.

The biggest thing to happen in Iwakuni since they closed the second Pizza Hut location at the bowling alley was today's Town Hall Meetings, hosted by the base commanding officer Col. Robert "Waterboy" Boucher. I attended both the one at 11:30 this morning and at 18:00 (that's 6 p.m. for you civilians). This post is full of the information from the notes I took during the meetings (with some of my humor thrown in, because this is my blog and I'm allowed to do that). Now, mind you, this is my blog and you can stop reading it at any time. That said, let's get down to brass tacks. Or, actually, what the brass had to say...

If I could sum it all up, it would be: This base is going to be a construction nightmare until at least 2017 and, if you are squeaky enough (this is a metaphor, people), you might get some oil. You just have to make sure you are squeaking to the right person at the right time. The Iwakuni Classifieds and Info Facebook group isn't really the forum if you're serious about change. Although, it is one of the most useful, and entertaining, institutions we have here aboard MCAS Iwakuni.

I arrived to the morning meeting 5 minutes late, or so. I had a nail appointment, sorry... I have priorities. The spouse, who was on time (a feat to note because usually our roles are reversed) for the meeting said I didn't miss much. I do plan to go back and attend the 6 p.m. meeting (at the base chapel, if you're thinking about going) so I can fill in any details I may have missed. Like with cleaning the house, my "missing much" is a little different from the spouse's "missing much." Having arrived early to the evening session, I realized that my hypothesis was correct: I missed a little more than "not much" in the morning meeting, and those details are mixed in below.

So, here is the handout we got at the end of the hour-long presentation and Q and A session - click on them to make them bigger:

Just for reference, I live about where the "Strike" is in "Strike Zone" (bowling alley). I will live closer to the new gym, but I doubt I will go more often. But, then again, as you can see from the timeline above, most of the changes are going to be complete well after my family leaves Japan, slated for Summer 2015. I won't be going to any of the new buildings very often, if at all. But, I know that there are new people PSCing all the time, and coming across this blog for info about Iwakuni and the base, so I paid attention for your benefit. You're welcome.

While the handout above is better than nothing, it is far from complete with a summary of what was presented. Here are some more details:

The current population of MCAS Iwakuni is 7,972... until this morning... when a Lance Corporal took the ITT shuttle to the Hiro airport bound for the States on orders. Now we are at 7,971. Oh, wait, two more Marines checked in this afternoon. That's 7,973. Seriously, how did they get such an exact number? Regardless, with the C-130 squadron coming from Okinawa this summer and the Navy's air craft carrier aircraft squadron coming in in the next year or two, plus support staff, the base will swell to a population of 13,253 by 2017.

According to a Army Corps of Engineers representative, in the last year, Iwakuni has accounted for 75 percent of the government of Japan's construction. In case you hadn't noticed, there is A LOT of construction going on around here. If you don't believe me, here is the visual proof:

The yellow line is the perimeter of the base. The yellow shaded areas are areas currently under construction. Yes, there is a shaded area at the top, all by itself. It s the off-base housing community called Atago Mountain. By the time all of this is said and done, there will be 1,306 new structures, which means that 77 percent of MCAS Iwakuni will be "restructured." 

The Kintai Inn (the hotel-like place near Club Iwakuni) will be expanding, adding a building to the side closest to Crossroads Mall. This should be completed in Spring 2015.

Road closures are going to get worse. Just brace for it now. The current road closures near the schools are scheduled to go back to "normal" sometime in April. There will, instead, be construction in the awkward four-way intersection in front of Crossroads Mall. SOOOO much better! The good news is that this 4-way intersection will eventually disappear completely, when the Exchange expands and the road between the Exchange and Crossroads Mall becomes a footpath. The road that divides Club Iwakuni and Sakura Theater/the CDC will be closed for more "expedited" contractor passage, and will be closed through Spring 2015.

And speaking of contractors, the government building/bidding system runs a little differently in Japan that it does in the States. Where, in the States, the government puts out requests for proposals (RFPs) and then selects the lowest bidder... or the one who is the President's/governor's/mayor's friend, Japan "spreads the love." Instead of one contractor doing all of the construction on base, there are 14 - yes, FOURTEEN - contractors doing the construction. Col. Boucher described this as sort of a controlled chaos. And we Americans wonder why there are so many small differences between individual midrises and town homes. THIS is why! The base was smart this time and had the Japanese build model homes so they could be critiqued and streamlined before the Japanese contractors put their own "spin" on the designs. It turns out that future Iwakuni residents will get better doors and larger master bathrooms than the Japanese contractors had originally planned. Good for those future residents!

The new commissary will also be ready Spring 2015, expanding from the current 30,900 sq. ft., to 46,000 sq. ft. Currently, due to the number of personnel on base, our commissary is tiered so that it can only have 10,000 items on its shelves. While the additional number of items we will soon have was not disclosed, we were assured that the supply chain will remain the same. So, we will still get moldy bread, meat and vegetables, we will just get more of it, but maybe not for weeks at a time (I have been waiting patiently for the low fat cottage cheese to restock since Jan. 31. Just throwing that out there.) The new commissary will go behind the Kintai Inn, where part of the golf course used to be, for you Iwakuni veterans. Below are the sketches of what the commissary will look like without food. Hopefully this is not an omen.

There will be about a year-long period where we have more people on base, but the amount of food available at the commissary will reman the same as it is now. That means we may have to go off base more often to grocery shop, especially for fresh foods, such as bread, dairy, meat and produce. Items that were discussed during the evening meeting included: Remember you have COLA pay to offset the cost of Japanese groceries compared with American ones; Additional "field trips" to local Iwakuni grocery stores, possibly through the Cultural Adaptation/Information, Relocation and Referral Office, may be planned, especially during evenings or weekends, so that Americans can become more familiar with packaging and what is available in town. Yes, this year will not be fun, especially for those of us who eat cottage cheese every morning, but maybe I will learn to like eggs more. Or fish and rice. Who knows?

The main post office will be doubling in size, going from 6,000 sq. ft. to 12,000 sq. ft., with 100+ large parcel boxes. More keys to find in your mailbox... yay! Below are the sketches for the new post office (top), Town Center (middle) and Command Assembly Hall (bottom).

The Command Assembly Hall (ahem, movie theater, but don't tell the Japanese government that... they are footing the majority of the bill for all these new additions, to the tune of $4.6 billion to America's $275 million. These funds need to be used for official purposes, too. Watching the 3rd and 4th Hunger Games movies, sadly, is not defined as "official purpose.") will be located next to the new commissary and behind Club Iwakuni and is slated to open in 2015. There will be a 2-story parking garage, 400 more seats than the current theater, er, sorry, Command Assembly Hall, has now and will feature a 3D movie projector and state-of-the-art sound. I can't wait to hear about the 3D, surround-sound PowerPoint presentations all the commands show to the Marines during the annual STD (as in sexually transmitted diseases) safety brief! Ooh-rah!

The Command Assembly Hall building will also house the Red Cross, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and, hopefully, a potential USO. There was also talk of the now-defunct Boy/Girl Scout Shack possibly being housed there, or in the current M.C. Perry school building, but the CO "can't make any promises."

The Child Development Center (CDC, for those of you familiar, and for those of you civilians reading this, that's base daycare) will be expanding, with a completion date of 2017. Considering the CDC is already full in several age categories, this cannot come soon enough. An estimated 25 slots for kids will become available with temporary buildings this summer. Once the expansion is complete in 2017 (it will be built where the current theater is, so the new theater has to open before construction can begin... after all, the commands must assemble regularly!) a total of 112 additional slots will be available. This still doesn't seem like enough to me, but what do I know?

Family housing will expand: There are currently 734 family homes on base (10 mid-rises, 10 single family homes.... these are where the high-ranking people live... and 284 town homes. 400 families are currently living off base, and not all of them by choice.). A total of 1,054 homes will be constructed by the time 2017 rolls around, 156 in 2014 alone (130 row houses and 26 duplexes). Of those, 75 percent will be on what is currently known as MCAS Iwakuni, and the remaining 25 percent will be on a graded mountain top called Atago, a few kilometers away from base. The top of the mountain is what is now under the current base flight line. The remaining plateau is a new base community, seen in the sketches below:

The Atago Mountain community will not be ready until April 2017.

Bachelor housing (a.k.a. barracks) space is increasing, as well, more than doubling in capacity. A total of 3,898 rooms will be available as of December 2016. But I doubt too many single Marines are reading this 30-something's blog, so let's move on...

If you look at the map above, you will see a strip-mall-like facility dubbed the Town Center. This will be housing that has retail space on the bottom floor. This concept is also popular on college campuses across America. A new TLF (temporary lodging facility) will be there, with 78 rooms, 60 of them meant for extended stay (where families wait to be assigned a home when they first arrive in Iwakuni. They can be there weeks, even months.) Retail space will include a tailor, coffee shop, barber shop, beauty salon, bike/skate shop, video game arcade, and, supposedly a Chili's restaurant.

Entire squadrons and departments are also going to be moving, if they haven't already. MAG-12 will all move to their new facility by March of this year, and every jet will have it's own covered parking space. Jokes about carports aside, the covered parking spaces allow maintainers to do their jobs regardless of weather and increase the life expectancy of the jets. Or so I was told... but, it makes sense with cars, so why not aircraft?

New base bus routes to include some newly occupied buildings should be implemented by March 15. Drivers are in the process of being hired.

The first new squadron to arrive in Iwakuni from another base will be VMGR-152, a C-130 squadron with 15 planes, coming from MCAS Futenma in Okinawa. They should all be here by August, which is why you may have an empty house or apartment next to you. Some of the housing is being reserved for these families. The reason? Because housing LOVES ICE comments and can't wait to read yours. No - just kidding. Essentially you have to put yourself in a different Marine family's shoes: You got orders to Oki and had to wait 8 months to get housing on base. Then, six months later, you found out the squadron is getting moved to Iwakuni, where the on-base housing list is just as long, if not longer. Is it really fair to make them wait another 8 months for housing? The compassionate answer is "no." Be gracious, people, and Kharma may not bite you in the ass when it is your turn for orders and housing. This is a tough pill to swallow for some, especially those living off base uncomfortably, but the lady at the evening meeting who has been on a waiting list for 13 months took the news very graciously. I hope housing finds her a home on base soon. 

The Iwakuni rumor mill has been churning about how outdoor recreation rentals and the pools may start to charge fees. People are outraged and often mention random comments about a raise in the price of haircuts a few years ago. I know nothing about haircuts, but here is how the MCCS fees were explained: The local base brass and MCCS officers have little to no control over any price hike. These orders are coming down from Marine Corps Headquarters, who are implementing these policies across the globe to make up for a $40 million MCCS budget cut. Our local brass and MCCS officers are doing their best to go to bat for the overseas residents here, explaining to Headquarters that we have very few options. For example, if a junior Marine, without a car, chooses to not use the pool on MCAS Iwakuni, he or she must join a club out in town to use an alternative pool, using a taxi or public transportation to get there. If they have a tattoo, they are not allowed to join Japanese pool clubs at all. There goes pool alternatives for the majority of the Marine Corps. In the States, you could easily and affordably join a gym or YMCA. The Iwakuni brass and MCCS officers have had an ongoing fight over various budget items with Headquarters and it still continues. Col. Boucher said they are winning some battles, but may lose some, too. So far, nothing has changed with regard to fees as of this moment. "We are fighting it tooth and nail," he said. "We are creatively working on solutions." Only time will tell how creative their teeth and nails were.

Friendship Day is making a comeback. It is being descried as "Friendship Day Lite." Considering the popularity of the event in past years with the Japanese nationals, I was curious as to how this would be accomplished. Basically, the gates of the base open up for one day and the Japanese arrive in droves to see the static displays, air show and eat American food. I've heard as many as 200,000 people have been on base for one of these, but I have no verification of that fact. So, how do you make it "lite?" Instead of having the event on the first Sunday in May, they are having it on Cinco de Mayo (May 5, for you non-Spanish speakers, and those of you not from California or the Southwest), which falls on a Monday, when most Japanese are working or in school. Well played, party planners, well played. Note: I have been informed that Friendship Day is always on May 5, which is a Japanese national holiday celebrating boys. It was scheduled to be on a Sunday last year, but was canceled, hence my confusion. So, regardless of the day of the week May 5th falls on, nearly everyone in Japan has the day off. So the "lite" part may be referring to the fact that there may not be an air show component. No one is sure how that would affect the number of people in attendance compared to past years, so it will still be an interesting phenomenon to watch.

Fireworks is more than a song by Katy Perry here in Iwakuni. It is a bone of contention I still have yet to fully understand. Because it has rained 11 of the past 13 Independence Days, the $30,000-$40,000 MCAS Iwakuni fireworks displays have been moved to September, when the annual Japanese rainy season is over, as part of an evening concert. This grates on the local patriots, as there are very few activities planned to celebrate the birth of our nation. Personally, I say fire up the BBQ and have a block party, which some people do. But, then again, I can take or leave fireworks... sparkly gun powder isn't something I need to enjoy being American. Freedom of speech and hamburgers on the grill, definitely. But sparkly gun powder... meh. So, here's a Squeaky Wheel item: If you REALLY want fireworks on the 4th of July, despite the fact that there is no $30-$40K refund if it rains, and no "do over" rescheduling, notify Col. Boucher: "If the community says, 'we want 4th of July fireworks,' then I will support," he said.

Ways of reopening fishing (and possibly kayaking and canoeing, but not jet skis or pontoon boats) at the base Marina (on the other side of the flight line, which is a bit of a security issue) is being worked on, as is adding more fields to the Penny Lake area, once more of the lake is filled in with the ever-moving wall of dirt out there. Here's a diagram of the proposed fields:

Then there was a questions and answer session.

I am not shy and I had a question: If midrise residents in Okinawa can have dogs, why can't the midrise residents of Iwakuni? So, I raised my hand and started to ask it from my seat when I was called upon.

Apparently I should have stood, noticed and used the microphones in the aisles, because I was loudly told to use the mikes. Fortunately, I was not distracted from my mission. I moved to the microphone closest to me and asked my question: Will the policy on dogs in the midrises ever be changed?

Col. Boucher said he had not heard that this was something residents wanted. Even I am surprised by this, since I personally know of three people who regularly Skype with their dogs, which are living with the Marines' families or friends back in the States. Obviously the housing department hasn't informed the base CO that this is an issue, and the CO clearly does not frequent the Iwakuni Classifieds on Facebook. Not that I blame him.  So, here's a Squeaky Wheel item: If you REALLY want to be able to have dogs in the midrises, notify Col. Boucher. "No one has asked me to look in to it," he said.

After I asked the first question (I was later told by Marines that I should have gotten a challenge coin for this... people who ask the first question in his meetings often get one), others followed suit. Here is what was asked:

Will the clinic have a birthing center? Yes, there will be five labor/delivery/recovery spaces in the new clinic, but no high-risk pregnancies will be delivered there. They will continue to go elsewhere.

Will enlisted and officers' spouses ever be able to co-mingle in the enlisted/officer club of their choice? The answer to this was a politician's dream, as there was no real yes-or-no answer, but it sounded like a "no," because of the Marine Corps firm stance on fraternization. That's OK... just go to Nori's (actually called The Eagle's Nest) on the second floor of Club Iwakuni. Any rank can go there. Also, there are Club Advisory Meetings open to the public for people to bring issues like this to the forefront. Did you know this? I did not. And, unsurprisingly, the meetings are supposedly not very well attended. So, here's a Squeaky Wheel item: If you REALLY want to be able to, as a spouse, go to the club of your choice with friends of an opposite spouse enlisted/commissioned status than yours, got to a Club Advisor Meeting and voice your desire.

Other items in brief:

Military spouses will not ever get the COLA back that was revoked in August 2010 because they are considered a "local hire" and the active duty sponsor already gets COLA. Don't get me started on how that one could be argued in favor of COLA for everyone.

Yes, MCAS Iwakuni's overall budget will increase as more personnel arrives on station. They just haven't arrived yet, so neither has the money.

Col. Boucher will look in to the need for drop-in care and later hours at the CDC. An increase in caregiver wages will be considered "if it will help."

Yes, the base gate traffic sucks in the morning and again in the evening, with rush hour. The gates will all be modified by 2017, when construction will be completed. The reduction of contractors at that time will also naturally reduce the congestion. Until then, good luck, and don't drink too much coffee on your way to work.

The new Teen Center will be housed in the old M.C. Perry School Building. A total of 4 schools will be built on base. There will be a lot of "tenant swap," Col. Boucher said. Think musical chairs with whole departments and squadrons, moving from an existing building to a new one, and then someone else moving in to the old digs that were just vacated. It's going to be an IT nightmare, I can see it now.

There is a slim-to-none chance of MCAS Iwakuni getting it's own train station. It has already been addressed with the Japanese government and negotiations "didn't get far."

Finally, if there is a desire by the community to have more town halls, Col. Boucher offered to have one quarterly, as a forum for the community to communicate their wishes and needs. So, here's a Squeaky Wheel item: If you REALLY want to communicate your wishes and needs quarterly, notify Col. Boucher.

I have been asked how to notify Col. Boucher of your needs and wants. I have no idea. His contact information was not on the handout and he did not offer it up during the meetings. I am also not privy to his cell phone number or email address. I hear that all ICE comments pass over the base Sgt. Major's desk when you select "Sgt. Major's corner" under the Administration heading. And then he briefs the CO on items he's received. So maybe you could try that...? Or, perhaps, you could knock on the door of his house. It's by the school, near the construction. His name is on the sign out front. Just kidding. I'd go the ICE comment route, although he should have shared better contact info in the meeting. 

I hope you found this report helpful!

June 6, 2014 Update: Having attended a Partners in Command spouse meeting this afternoon, I have a few updates for you. Again, remember, I received this info at approximately 12:43 p.m. This info may have already changed in the past three hours. But I am doing my best here.

1) Housing: 26 new 3-bedroom homes are scheduled to be finished this month, with another 127 completed by the end of August. They are mixed-rank homes, but ranks will be split up in to sections. Yes, some of these homes, as well as existing ones, have been earmarked for the VMGR 152 squadron. The mid-rise to the left of the school is starting renovations soon and is slated to be completed in early 2015. That is housing for 43 families.

2) The construction near the thrift store: Housing for three high-ranking Navy officers. Perfect placement so that those of us mid-rise dwellers who shop at the thrift store (myself included!) can see how the other half lives as we buy our $1 jeans. The Navy is not slated to be here until 2015, 2016 or 2017, depending on the person you ask and the day you ask, but we have been assured that these homes will not remain vacant between their completion in early 2015 and whenever the two captains and one command master chief arrive in Iwakuni. If anyone important to the housing decision process is reading, I volunteer to live there in the interim to keep the place from being vandalized. I like to help out where I can. And it will be so easy to do my clothes shopping then, too.

3) Pets: The kennel is pretty much full for the summer, but supposedly sponsors can keep new families' pets at their homes as long as the sponsor does not live in a mid-rise. In addition, the issue of allowing dogs in mid-rises like they are in Japan was nixed. Apparently there is a big problem on other bases with dogs barking loudly, urinating and defecating in the hallways and people not picking up after their pets in the common areas. Considering I have already had humans both urinate and vomit in our mid-rise elevators without cleaning it up, in the two years I have lived here, this does not surprise me at all. Like in other facets of life, a few people's laziness and entitlement issues have ruined this for the rest of us.

4) The VMGR squadron is starting to trickle in, mostly families PCSing from the States. The entire squadron will be here by August 31. This is 362 Marines, 197 of them single and 165 accompanied. Remember: greet them with a smile... it is not their fault that they had to move here. Either they will appreciate the friendly face or it will confuse the hell out of them. The bases on Okinawa aren't nearly as friendly, from what I have witnessed with my limited experience.

5) The new row houses going in across from the Sakura Theater are, obviously three stories tall. I have not been in one, but Julie, otherwise known as Mrs. Boucher, was kind enough to describe the floor plan to us: Bottom floor is a combined living room and dining room with a kitchen behind it. A sliding glass door in the kitchen opens out in to the small backyard. There is also a half bath on this floor. The second floor is the master suite... bedroom, bathroom and sitting room (office and nursery were suggested uses). The third floor is the two extra bedrooms and a bathroom. The people who live in those should be in great shape from climbing up and down the stairs. Enjoy that. I will enjoy my stinky elevators. ;)

6) Urgent Care: Because of major personnel turnovers this summer, the dental and medical clinics are going to be a bit short-staffed though the summer months. So, it was recommended that, instead of immediately taking a child to the urgent care clinic for a 99-degree temperature (for new parents, 98.6 is normal), call the live human at the quarterdeck (the phone number is 253-5572) to see what is recommended for the symptoms presented. I am totally fine with this plan. The less time I have to spend sitting at the urgent care is a win for me. Especially at 3 a.m.

7) I did not learn this at the meeting, but I dropped by the school today, so I used my observation skills to report the following: Construction in the school zone is still going on, the traffic pattern is still less than desirable, and, clearly, the April deadline was not met. Well, actually, there wasn't much construction going on today, but it was still fenced off and that lonely Japanese guy was still there waving red and white flags around. So, ether he is on the Japanese drill team or the area is still not open.

8) I also did not learn this at the meeting, but I can read the Preview Magazine, and have noticed that Cultural Adaptation has added A LOT more grocery shopping tours to their calendar... and on weekends so more people can go. Well done! I plan to go on one ASAP.

9) Friendship Day Lite, did, in fact, happen. I have a post about that here.

Again, I hope you find this information helpful. While my humor may seem biting, I am enjoying my time here in Iwakuni, road construction and all, so, if you're just arriving, I hope you will, too! Well, maybe not the road construction... but the rest of it's not too bad.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

My experience with Japanese 6th Graders

So, I can't start this story without telling you another one first.

I went to El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., graduating in 1994 (Yes, my 20-year reunion is this summer. Yes, I feel old.).  This seems irrelevant until I tell you that I met a Japanese national at the base Easter Egg Hunt last spring who also attended El Toro High School, but graduated in 1993. Her name is Junko, and we have mutual base-related friends. Here is a photo of us last spring:

We got to talking and, it turns out, her parents still live just a few miles from mine in California. It's amazing how small the world really can be. Junko returned to Japan over a decade ago when she got married and is raising her four kids in Japan. Our high school graduates more than 800 students a year, so, while we did not know each other back then, this would not be unusual. Personally, I only keep in touch with two of my high school classmates. That should make the reunion either really interesting or really boring. I'm not sure which yet. I did find Junko's senior photo in my yearbook and she hasn't changed much at all.

I have remained friends with Junko on Facebook and a few months ago she let me know that there was a public school in Hikari, about an hour from Iwakuni, that was looking for a group of English-speakers to come visit the school for the day as an English enrichment project for 6th-grade students. Did I know anyone on base who would be interested? Uh, yeah. How fun!

So, I took on the responsibility of recruiting people for this day with 6th graders. These people had to be outgoing, couldn't really have a 9-to-5 "real" job (we would be doing this on a Friday) and might need childcare (kids were not invited.) I also had to be able to stand their presence in a car for two hours and they had to be friends with me on Facebook so I could easily spread the word. I could also only take seven because I needed to be able to fit them in the van I rented (which the school reimbursed me for). Fortunately, the school only asked for six, so the seventh would be a bonus!

I did get seven... and we met Junko at the school. There was also a male English teacher as the ninth English-speaker, and he was a wealth of information about how the school worked. Here is the group of ladies, with our oversized name tags, right before we headed to the school gym to engage with more than 80 6th graders:

Ashleigh, Donna, me, Katie, Jenny, Junko, Kelle and Jessica.
We were asked to bring photos of our families and home towns, which we did, either in printed form, or on iPads and laptops, since rarely do photos get printed any more.

I have been asked by the school to limit the photos I post online of the children; one of the children's parents had yet to sign a media consent form. So, I had to eliminate some photos, or fuzz faces out. Not the ideal situation, but you'll get the idea of what the event was like, anyway.

Upon entering the gym, the students were seated in neat rows on folding chairs. Our chairs were in the front, facing the students. There's nothing quite like 80+ pairs of curious eyes on you. We were welcomed to the event by select students, who spoke in Japanese, and then we introduced ourselves, in English.

Once we were done with introductions, we played a game called "Telephone." Basically, you write an alphabet letter on the back of the person in front of you and then they have to guess what it is and write it on the back of the next student, until you get to the end and the last person writes it down. We did this twice and each time it spelled something: the first time was "welcome" in Japanese, the second was "wonderful" in English.

The letter I was assigned for the second round of the "telephone" game.

We broke up in to smaller groups to show the students the photos of our families and hometowns. I showed them the Oakley sunglass factory headquarters, which is in Lake Forest, but they weren't all that impressed, not having heard of Oakley before. Each of the nine students "assigned" to me gave me cards with pictures they had drawn and information about themselves in English.

Although they were in the 6th Grade, like my oldest son, Will, they were all born the year before him, in 2001. Japanese school years end in March and then, after a 2-week break, begin in April. Students also get about three weeks off in August and another 2 weeks for the holidays  at the end of the year.

We played another game, similar to "Mother May I." I think it was "What Time Is it Mr. Wolf?" and it involved running and tagging. And we were in our socks, so that made the game even more interesting as we slid around and tried not to break our necks. The event organizers remarked on how competitive we all were. Uh, yeah... this was like an Olympics I could compete in... 9 adults versus 80 12-year-old? Bring it on!

After the games, the students broke in to teams and hosted a different cultural activity for us to try. I tried to hit them all because the kids were so excited and wanted us to try theirs. We did origami, played card games, drank green tea and ate mochi, or rice cake. The kids themselves cooked the rice cakes over tiny open-flame barbecues with little supervision. Can you imagine that happening in an American elementary school?

There isn't a cafeteria, so students eat lunch in the classroom. Lunches are prepared and provided by government workers. It is first cooked in a community kitchen and then delivered to the schools. We were given a traditional Yamaguchi prefecture lunch, I was told... complete with a crispy dried-out fish chip. The milk tasted amazing... there's something to be said for drinking it out of a cold glass container. The bottles are then collected to be sterilized and refilled. We also got a sweet egg cake, tofu soup and rice with strips of salty seaweed you could add to spice it up. I ate everything except for the head of the crispy fish. I just couldn't do it.

This was the group of kids I sat with. We talked about pets.

Below, in the foreground, is what is wheeled in to the classroom at lunch time. In the vat was more rice. Once the kids were given permission to start eating, a few of the boys ran back to get extra scoops of rice. Behind the rolling table is the students' cubby holes with backpacks. These leather backpacks are required and can cost anywhere from $400 to $700. One of the teachers told me that they are usually a gift from grandparents. The backpacks are used by the kids from first through sixth grade.

The figurines on top of the cubbies were made by the students and each month parents are required o send money in for project like those, Anywhere from $40 to $50 each month. Computers are also not used often in this school, which surprised me, although friends of mine who have children in Japanese public schools say that their children do have computer labs they use regularly.

Japanese schools generally do have a PTA, but fundraisers are limited to a fleamarket/garage sale once a year. One of my Japanese friends looked at me strangely when I asked if they sold wrapping paper or frozen cookie dough. All schools in Japan require school uniforms for the kids, both summer and winter uniforms. I know that one girls' dress for yochien, or kindergarten, costs more than $100. There is a lot more financial responsibility placed on Japanese parents (and grandparents, apparently) so, keep that in mind next time you buy school supplies and write that $5 check to join the PTA.

This was a unique experience that only a handful of Americans get to enjoy. I was honored to be a part of it and would do it again. The event was very well organized and the students were curious and eager, as were we. Thank you to the ladies who traveled with me - it was a lot of fun! And, thank you, Junko, for inviting me.