Dane Gets a Tramp Stamp. Car Buying in Okinawa

“Okinawa is where Japanese cars come to die.” Those were the exact words our sponsor used when he was giving us the lay of the land on our drive from the airport to base on the night we arrived. “They are going to run you between $2,500 -$5000, but if you spend $5,000 we will definitely make fun of you behind your back.”

Noted. Love the honesty.

One of our first priorities upon arriving in Okinawa was to purchase cars. We were still staying at the TLF (temporary living facility) so we were on base and close enough to walk to and from the initial briefings, but there is something to be said for the freedom of going to the grocery store without needing to ask for a ride. After about 36 hours, Dane needed wheels more than Dane needed anything.

Luckily, the “Lemon Lot” (aka the Auto Resale Lot if you refer to the map) is within walking distance of the TLF. I doubt this is a coincidence. On our first full day in Okinawa we scoured the lot, taking in all of the “creative” shapes and colors of the Japanese vehicles. For a culture that doesn’t value individualism, these cars would not seem to communicate that.  On our second visit to the lot, we were ready to buy a car. We found a cute little Mini Cooper, listed slightly under the tease-worthy price point, and called the number in the window (with our new Japanese cell phones).

The owner met us at the lot later that afternoon, we drove it around the block a couple of times, and made him an offer. Much like house hunting in Okinawa, car buying moves fast on the island. In order to officially transfer the title, the three of us went to the on-base legal office, where we provided them copies of our SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) drivers licenses, a copy of our orders, and our military IDs. It really was just about that simple. We wrote the guy a check, he took a picture of it on the spot to deposit into his account, gave us the keys, and we drove home.

Freedom at last. So we went grocery shopping. (It’s a theme in our lives for celebrations of any kind!)

With one car down, Dane felt he could really take his time picking out the perfect vehicle for himself… And his heart was set on the most hideous (but practical) car he could think of: a Nissan Cube. There’s a sentence I NEVER thought I would say about my Michigan-bred, truck-driving husband. But there you have it. When in Japan, I suppose.

He spent the next couple of days visiting the Lemon Lot, checking Okinawa Bookoo (which is the Craigslist of the Far East), and searching the surrounding car dealerships. We’d already bought a vehicle from an individual, so to get the full Okinawan-car-buying experience,  we thought why not try a dealership?

Like so many other things,  car dealerships in Okinawa are a bit different than they are in the States. There’s no chance of getting swarmed by a flock of overly helpful salespeople the moment you step onto the lot. In fact, I wish you luck finding an employee at all. The cars fill small parking lots where they are all left unlocked, parked mere feet from one another. You just kind of open the doors and hope you can squeeze behind the wheel.

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Another difference, is that they all have a price in the window, but none of them have the year or the mileage listed. You have to specifically ask if you want detailed information like this while making a decision. After walking around the lot for a while, and sitting in several smoke-stained Cubes, a little Japanese man finally came out of the building next door and approached us. “You want car?” He asked us without bothering to remove the cigarette from his mouth.

We walked around the lot, as Dane pointed at vehicles asking how much, what year, how many miles. I was mostly concerned that we find one that wasn’t going to leave me smelling like smoke every time he gave me a ride. We finally settled on a white Cube that was backed up against the wall. It smelled the freshest (though I wouldn’t go straight to “fresh”) and it was a 2007. Believe it or not, that was actually the newest car we had looked at. Most were 2002-2005’s. They wanted $4000. Dane offered $3000. They refused, and we left. A few hours later, they called us back and said they would take the $3000 if we paid in cash that day.

Another super fun experience is visiting an ATM a dozen times (because we don’t have a bank branch) to pull out $3000 in twenties. $3000 in hundreds looks normal. $3000 in twenties looks like you are about to get arrested for something. We thought it would be fun to throw it all up in the air or spread it on bed and roll around on it, but we were on a time crunch, so we postponed those fantasies for another time, and drove back to the dealership with what felt like drug money tucked into my purse.

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We sat across the table from three Japanese car dealers as they counted our cash, spoke quickly to one another in a language we couldn’t understand, and then started stamping papers furiously. Dane might have just bought a car. He might have just sold his wife. It was really hard to say. But in the end we signed some papers (in English) and they gave us the keys to our brand new Cube. We walked around the building to pick her up where we were greeted by seeing the back side of the vehicle for the first time. I groaned, Dane could hardly contain his glee. His “brand new” cube, had a tramp stamp. And not just any tramp stamp… but a diaper-clad baby wearing sunglasses and sucking a binkie.

I knew the answer to my question before I even asked, but I had to appeal to the side of him that used to hand wash his truck because he didn’t trust the people at the car wash to “do it right”.

“You are going to take that decal off the car when we get home, right?” I asked him. He just smiled and said, “I would have paid extra for that.”

I could see the wheels turning in his head the whole drive home, for how he might be able to make his tacky Japanese Cube just a little bit more colorful. Later that night I went on Amazon to find furry dice, a hula girl, and a steering wheel cover were already in our cart.

IMG_0205IMG_0207Hysterics. Agreed. I couldn’t have said it better, Japan.

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Celebrating at Awase Fish Market

I’m very lucky to have a husband that can turn almost anything we have in the kitchen into meal that’s instagram-worthy. But even with his knack for pairing spices with unlikely ingredients, you can only do so much without a decent pan. One of the hardest things about our first month in Okinawa has been trying to cook with the loan-locker kitchen. Even butter could find a way to stick to the pan we’ve been using.

So we were thrilled last week when they told us that our unaccompanied baggage* had arrived on-island. Although the majority of our stuff is not due to arrive until mid-November, our essentials are finally here! And by essentials, I mean things like:  four place settings, silverware, two pots, two pans, four pillows, and two coffee makers. Yep. While packing with a very strict weight limit I guess we decided we needed both the Keurig and the coffee maker. We were surprised to unpack both, but we aren’t complaining.

So what was the first thing we did? Actually the first two things we did were make coffee and wash dishes. But the third thing was to celebrate with a trip to the Awase Fish Market. We’ve been told it’s  best to get there in the mornings when the fish is fresh off the boat, but, let me tell you, even an after work trip will not disappoint!

Our diet was pretty fish heavy in the States, but after just one visit to this Okinawan fish market on the Pacific coast, I’m sure it’s a drive we’ll be making at least once a week.

I thought he was a pretty remarkable chef even after a quick trip to Dillons in Kansas– I can’t wait to see what he comes up with all of this as inspiration!

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*Unaccompanied baggage (For my non-military readers) This is the first set of luggage that was shipped separately to arrive on-island faster. It is usually supposed to take about 2-3 weeks to arrive after it leaves a port in California. Given that ours was coming from Kansas we had no idea how long it would take, but it arrived just shy of a month after we did. Not too bad all things considered.

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Ice Cream Colored Cars

Before we moved out here, a friend suggested that I write down everything that seems surprising at the beginning. “Pretty soon, all of those things will feel normal and you will forget that they ever seemed foreign,” she advised me. As usual, she was right.

Yesterday while driving, I looked over at Dane and said, “People don’t drive orange cars like that in the States, right?” We’ve been here for a little less than a month, but already I’m having trouble remembering if something seems normal to me because I am getting used to it here, or if it seems normal because I’ve seen it at home.

That experience inspired this post, because I never want to forget that these ice-cream colored cars were not normal to me several weeks ago. In fact, it was not so much the shapes (although that has taken some getting used to as well) but the colors of the vehicles that I found most shocking when we bought cars in Okinawa.

I think the best way for me to describe the color choices in Japan is by using “flavors” rather than “shades”. In fact, I imagine you would have better luck asking for a mint or bubblegum colored car if you asked around than you would looking for something in dark green.  So rather than wait three years until “Easter eggy” cars seem normal to me, I thought I should snap a couple of pictures now. And suggest that today, we all be the strawberry ice cream colored car among a sea of silver. (What, too much? Okay, just look at the pretty colors.)

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House Hunting in Okinawa, part 2: Why It Really Is “Fun”

As I know I have made abundantly clear… I really loved house hunting here in Okinawa. After talking to some friends back in the States about it, I’ve been told it was my use of the word “fun” while referring to the process that was so surprising to them . So I thought I would write a second post about why it really is fun, and the two factors that make it so different than house hunting in the States.

The first is that entire process moves very quickly. No military members are coming to Okinawa to buy property. We all need to rent and the housing agencies know that. For the most part, we are all also living in “TLF” or Temporary Lodging Facilities on our respective bases until we find something, so we’re naturally anxious to get a move on. Also, properties move fast here. Really fast. Remember that first penthouse-style apartment that I loved in part one? Well, we saw it at 1pm and someone else saw it at 3pm. They signed for it on the spot, and that was that.

I’m not sorry we didn’t take it right away (I love, love, love the location of our new place) but it was the first place we had seen and there was no way that we could have predicted that a house would literally go in two hours. We all have to find somewhere to live and we are all in a hurry to do it. It just moves fast. (Kind of like my apartment hunting debacle of 2013 in NYC, but that is another story for another time.)

The second thing, and probably the primary reason that the house hunting experience was fun and not stressful, is that the housing agencies know your budget and don’t show you anything you can’t afford. One of the first questions the agents asked when I called to set up appointments was if I was in the military or a civilian. As soon as I said that my husband was military, they asked his rank– because they have our housing allowances memorized.

It felt kind of weird at first. I’ve always tried to go in low when making big purchases, while having a more realistic number in the back of my mind. But not here. They know exactly how much we are allotted, down to the exact number that we are given for utilities. Turns out, that even though it feels strange at first: it’s amazing for your agent to really know your budget. One of the things I have noticed in my vast experience of watching House Hunters International, is that they always seem to show places that are “just a little bit” above the house hunter’s budget. They fall in love with the expensive places and decide, what’s another 10 grand when we are already spending 400k? This simply doesn’t happen for military members who are house hunting in Okinawa. Not a single housing agent suggested that we even consider going above our allotted housing budget. And I loved that.

For an overseas PCS like this one (at least in the AF) Housing allowances are a use it or lose it system. You don’t get to save anything that you aren’t using for rent, so you might as well spend it.

Three years from now, when we are back Stateside (most likely) and  are actually looking to buy a house, I’m sure I will have plenty to say about the stress and frustration of the house hunting experience… But I guess we got lucky looking for our first house together, because Okinawa is not the States– and after three days of looking, we signed on the stamp. (Oh yeah, stamps. That’s another Okinawa difference. They are the most stamp-happy people I have ever met. They stamp everything. But we will get into that another time.)

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House Finding in Okinawa

After three days of Oki-style house hunting, we had narrowed our options to two places. One was a house on the far north corner of the Sunabe Seawall, the other was on the far south corner. And when I say “on the seawall” I mean it. Both were across the street from the water facing the seawall. (If that doesn’t get me out and running- Nothing will.)

House number one was a true stand alone house:

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Next door is a cute little coffee shop- and that’s where the seawall ends on the North side. This place was everything that people had told us we could not find. A house, with a yard, and a view. We loved it. There was a balcony off of our bedroom and five huge windows. We’d be able to see the waves from our bed and go to sleep listening to them every night (that we kept the windows open). Because it is on a small one way street at the very north corner, there wasn’t much traffic either.

Here’s the rub, though. It was a three bedroom house, with one bath. And the bath… was downstairs. Call me high maintenance (Dane did), but I couldn’t imagine having to go downstairs in the middle of every night! The only other downside was that the kitchen was already equipped with a Japanese oven and stove-top. I mentioned this in a previous post, and I wish I had a picture to share with you, but imagine a three burner stove top, with a small drawer under it. Smaller than your silverware drawer… think the drawer that you use for pot holders. That “drawer” is the oven. You can make toast. But that is the extent of the “baking” that I would have been comfortable with. I love to bake. I have been planning on starting a little cake decorating business on the side while I’m here. This oven was going to be difficult. However, that being said, we’ve all heard that the first rule of real estate is location, so we were prepared to make this work. We looked into large toaster ovens, I told myself I could stop drinking water at night. We were ready to move on it. Until I saw the second house.

This one is more of a “flat” style. There are three units in the building and each has its own floor. I really liked the layout: It has a huge guest bathroom, a good sized kitchen, a private balcony off the master and a large balcony off the living area and one of the guest bedrooms. It’s a full 3 br, 2 ba, so we wouldn’t have to share one bathroom with guests (when you all start coming to visit!) The layout was great, but again we were trying to focus mostly on location. And that’s what made this place different than the first 15 houses we had viewed. It was also directly on the seawall. Although the view is not as uninterrupted (there are trees that have been planted between us and the seawall to give us more privacy) you can still see the water between the trees, hear the waves, and walk across the street to get to the seawall.  I voted for this one, which we called “the flat.” Dane voted for “the house.”

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The “House” Interior

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The kitchen was small, had little enough counter space that Dane was trying to figure out how he might be able to build a second counter, and that Japanese stove might have been a deal breaker
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But, this was the view from our bedroom window. Downside: people could look right in. Upside: EVERYTHING else.
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The view downstairs was pretty much just the seawall, but there were doors that opened (not pictured) along the entire wall of the living area, as well as this one in the dining room. The fact that it opened up into a yard was pretty amazing and another one of the huge selling points of this house. Not to mention, if you look at the right side of the yard you will see a vending machine. Vending machines in Okinawa are EVERYWHERE, but Dane loved the idea of having one IN our yard.
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It might have only had one bathroom (and the toilet might have been off the hallway) But it was a Japanese toilet and the heated seats, bidet, and sound effects are a huge plus for any house we looked at.
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We liked the look of the place. The layout felt very authentically Japanese.
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There was also something really appealing about having a house with multiple stories (although the four story house from the day before had been a bit too much) this one felt just right.

The “Flat” Interior

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The kitchen in the flat has twice the counter space, not to mention an American-style gas stove and oven.
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I also fell in love with the floors here. One bedroom and the living area both open up to the balcony you can see Dane standing on. The master opens up on a private balcony.
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The view, as I described earlier, is a lot of tree (which I kind of like, for privacy-sake) but you can see the seawall and the water through the trees. We are still close enough to hear the waves when the window is open, and because this is on the opposite corner of the same one way street that the “house” is on, traffic is still not an issue.

You can probably tell from the way I have written each of these captions which one we chose. The tricky part was that we both loved both places, but since we didn’t think there was any chance the Air Force was going to let us keep both of them, we had to make a decision. We went back and forth 4 or 5 times over dinner before we decided to go check out the seawall and the “neighborhoods” by night, and let that make the decision for us.

The south end of the seawall opens out on the harbor that American Village sits on and the lights are out of this world. We also discovered that the “flat” was less than a block away from several great restaurants that we hadn’t noticed earlier that day. The “house”  is next to a coffee shop, that we will definitely still be frequenting (have I mentioned that these houses are less than 2 miles away from one another) but the scene on the south end was infinitely more appealing to us… Not to mention it also meant the second bathroom and better kitchen.

And so, after three days of house hunting, we did some house finding and decided on this gorgeous little flat. Move-in is this weekend, and while we still don’t have our furniture, we can’t wait to finally have a place to call home.

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House Hunting in Okinawa

Almost everyone stationed at Kadena has to live on-base unless they are at 98% occupancy for your rank and number of dependents. You can hardly complain about this, given that it’s a huge air base with plenty of housing available at no cost to the service members who live in them. So from the moment we started preparing for this move, I had accepted that we would almost certainly live on base. A little part of me held out hope that somehow the numbers would work in our favor, but I tried to look at the whole situation as a win-win. On base we would certainly have more space and the convenience couldn’t be beat. Off base we would have a more authentic Japanese experience and maybe a little water view.

We went to the housing brief on Thursday, the week we arrived in Okinawa. After about a half hour of explaining to the group, what size house and how many bedrooms each of us was entitled to (3 for us) and how the housing options worked (2 random computer generated offers) she finally looked at the numbers to see if everyone was going to be living on base, as we had heard happened last week. You could almost feel everyone in the room holding their breath.

“The only housing category that is currently at capacity is accompanied CGO.” (As I have discussed earlier, I still don’t understand half of the lingo and acronyms used in this military world, so I didn’t really know what this meant for us.) She continued talking.

I looked around to read everyone’s faces. They all seemed disappointed. Dane was smiling. “Is that us?” I whispered. “Did we get it?” He nodded. I realized I hadn’t worded my question well enough to really know what his nod meant. “We get to go off base???” I said again, trying to conceal my growing excitement and go unnoticed by everyone else in the little conference room. He nodded again.

And our off-base housing adventure began! I stopped listening to the rest of the brief, and afterward we were asked to please sign up for the off-base housing brief. (There is nothing these people seem to enjoy more than a good a brief, and it’s rarely as brief as the name might imply.) Several hours later, we left that room with a two-page list of Okinawa housing agencies and little else. Still had no idea what to expect from the Okinawa housing market.

It exceeded everything I imagined. Okinawa is a small island, which means a lot of coastline. Kadena Air Base is close enough to the East China Sea that you have sea views from certain spots. Right outside of Gate 1, the main entrance to the base, is a district called Chatan-Cho. If you drive for a few minutes toward the sea, through Chatan, you reach the water, which is lined by the Sunabe Seawall. This was where we wanted to be. Five minutes from base, on the water, with a view. Oh and throw in three bedrooms, two baths, a balcony and an American kitchen. (Japanese kitchens have a stove that you can toast two pieces of bread in, but little else. No exaggeration.)

Were we asking for too much here? Yeah, probably. But that was the dream, so we figured we would shoot for the dream and see what we could really manage.

The next day I lined up appointments with several Okinawa housing agencies.  To me one of the easiest things about house hunting in Okinawa, was the website: totalokinawa.com, where all of the main housing agencies feature links to their sites and picture a lot of their best properties. Information often includes size, location and price, among other details. I searched through what felt like a hundred links that afternoon, before setting up appointments with Seaside Housing, Dynasty Housing and Sky Housing.

After our first day of house hunting, I texted my best friend in the States and said, “House hunting in Okinawa might be the most fun thing I have ever done.” She asked if I was kidding. I was not. I LOVED house hunting here. Every minute of it. And because I loved it so much, and most of my readers will likely never be moving to Okinawa, I have decided to share the experience with the picture tour below. Enjoy :)

House 1

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Obsessed with this kitchen and the two full walls of windows on either side of it.
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The view from this 4th story apartment was all of Chatan, with the seawall a few blocks away. Because you have the whole 4th floor (the elevator opens up into the mudroom, very NYC penthouse style) the balcony wraps around the entire apartment.
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Sea view from the balcony of apartment 1.
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Huge bathtub with a Japanese shower (the whole room is waterproof and meant to get wet)

We loved this place. Like- loved. But it was also the first thing we had seen, so we weren’t ready to pull the trigger. We told her we loved it, but did she have anything closer to the water?

Then she took us here:

House 2

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View from the balcony of the second apartment.
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View from the bedroom, looking out at our balcony.
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View from the light pink bathtub. Can’t really beat that.
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Another (strangely long) bedroom view.

We liked this apartment. It had tons of storage and was pretty much directly on the beach, but the kitchen was small and it just felt a lot like an “apartment,” very different than the flat we had seen before that had its own floor.

She was definitely listening to our feedback though, because after we told her it felt too much like an apartment, she took us to this rather European-looking house.

House 3

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This house was four stories, with four bedrooms, though the two bedrooms on top were more like studio spaces than full bedrooms. The garage was on the first floor (as it should be) kitchen and living areas on the second, and two bedrooms each on the third and fourth floor. Every room had a balcony, which we loved. We were one block from the seawall. Also loved. But we had no view and the house felt very… Umm… mature. And by mature I mean it had grandma wallpaper on each and every wall.
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We loved the storage in the kitchen! (Who said we’d have nowhere for our mixer?? :)
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Love the nine head shower and the fact that the whole room isn’t a part of the shower area.
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But let’s get real with this wallpaper. I can’t imagine decorating around it…
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One REALLY nice thing about this house was that it had a very little yard, for our very little dog. However, with the rate the grass grows, we were afraid we might need to buy a very little goat.

Highlights from Houses 4-10

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This was a small sitting room (that was bigger than my bedroom in NYC) off of the master suite in one house.
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This bedroom-sized walk in closet, with it’s built in shoe rack is the thing little girls dreams are made of. Or is that just me?
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Another closet in the guestroom made me think I might start collecting purses. (Maybe that’s why Dane didn’t love this one)
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I imagined this bedroom a craft room the minute I walked in. Shelves lined with paint, canvases, ink, brushes… or books. Maybe books.
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The floors throughout this house were amazing, and I could picture all of our furniture fitting perfectly, if it ever arrives!
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Many of the houses require that you supply your own appliances… but that little box you see in the left hand corner is a Japanese drier. Apparently it turns your clothes into Japanese-friendly sizes, but dries them ridiculously quickly.
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This place also had a yard, one of the largest we have seen on this very small island. We also loved the painted walls. So many houses here (like House 3) have wall paper.
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Here is the kitchen area of the same house. Very open, but not a ton of storage.
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This won’t seem like a big deal to anyone in the States… but to have an American bathroom like this is actually pretty rare here. Most of the full baths are kind of like giant shower rooms. They will have a sink and such, but the whole room can (and does) get wet.
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Another spacious bathroom. I think I only took pictures of the bathrooms I liked… because as I have gone through I realize there aren’t many traditional bathrooms pictured.
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I stand corrected. Although this is definitely the biggest bathroom we saw… does it remind anyone else of a public bathroom??
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Like the shelved room earlier that screamed “craft room” to me, this one was screaming “writing room.”

Okay… and now our favorite place… (Not the place we ended up with, for the record.)

The third housing agent we went out with, Dynasty Housing, asked if we would like to see a place that was not in Chatan, but had everything we were looking for. I was having so much fun looking at places that didn’t even meet all of our criteria that, of course, I said yes. We drove across the island for about 30 minutes on the expressway, which cost approximately 400 yen, or 4 USD (each way).

By the time we got to the building, Dane and I joked that we would need our own infinity pool, overlooking the ocean (we were on the Pacific side of the island at this point) in order for us to even consider it. What we saw when we walked inside changed our minds. Even with the 16USD (if we are both making the drive) and hour-long daily commutes, this place tempted us. The apartment was 4br, 2.5ba, with tons of storage, great closets, full laundry room, and a huge kitchen… But all of that was nothing compared to the view. I realized later, that I didn’t take a single picture of the apartment itself (which was beautiful).  I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of along the balcony long enough to focus on anything else.

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This is the view from the kitchen sink. I’m not kidding you I might do dishes twice from here.
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Could anything beat this view? Yes, actually. A similar balcony with a view of the Sunabe Seawall in Chatan.

House Hunting International-33 House Hunting International-34 In the end, practicality won out over balcony views and we decided to go back to our side of the island to continue looking for the right house to make our home.

Hope you enjoyed this little taste of the Okinawa house hunting experience as much as I enjoyed the process! Tomorrow, time-willing, I will let you in on the house finding. Which was JUST as much fun!

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Two Weeks, Two Typhoons

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. When a storm is making headlines here, it doesn’t get a name like Ivan or Sandy. Nope. Phanfone and Vongfong are the names of the two typhoons that have pummeled Okinawa since we arrived exactly two weeks ago. In the three years that Dane was stationed in Kansas he never experienced a tornado (much to his chagrin) but so far we are averaging a typhoon a week over here to make up for it.

Phanfone was the first and came through last weekend. It didn’t impact us directly. Obviously we had some wind and rain and the waves were definitely up, but until we saw on the news that there had been 4 casualties, including three airmen on temporary assignment here at Kadena, we hadn’t given the storm a lot of consideration.

Less than a week later though, the whole base was on high alert as we stood in a line that wrapped around the commissary to buy bottled water, canned and packaged goods. Let’s be honest, I never hate having a legitimate excuse to buy my guilty pleasure: boxed macaroni and cheese. Okinawa went into lock-down on Friday night and as of Sunday evening, while the base is technically in the recovery stage, we are still camped out on our couch, eating Dane’s fame-worthy soup, and listening to the winds howl by.

From Sydney’s perspective: typhoons are the coolest thing about living in Okinawa so far for three reasons.

  • Fuzzy caterpillars somehow keep making their way into the hotel room despite her mom’s effort to keep them out.
  • Mice or some other kind of small rodent seems to be taking shelter in the tree right outside our room which has made for a lot of exciting smelling opportunities.
  • It’s kept mom and dad home all weekend. They’ve been camped out on the couch, binge watching 24, which has provided prime puppy cuddle opportunities.

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A blog about life being pretty magical

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