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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.

House Hunting in Okinawa, part 2: What Really Makes it “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 the two factors that make it so much a) fun and b) 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 400? 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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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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We’re Finally Feeling Foreign

There are absolutely conveniences to having access to an American base: salsa, cheap(er) gas, contract translators, language classes… and did I mention the availability of salsa? However, amidst all of the benefits of living in a mini-America, feeling fully immersed in this new culture has not been one of them.

We’ve been dying to get out and see the island, but have been so busy keeping appointments: medical, legal, finance, housing, etc. that we haven’t had the chance to get more than a few miles from base. We finally had the chance to change that yesterday. We took a drive along the Pacific side of the island looking for lunch. I had imagined we would discover tons of cute little restaurants, but as picturesque as it all was, restaurants seemed to be the only thing lacking.  We finally stumbled upon a building with a banner that depicted a bowl of soup. Seemed like a good sign.

We slipped off our shoes and stepped inside, waiting for the one woman who worked there to point us to a table. We sat down as she brought us menus. And for the first time, we finally started feeling the foreign. The menu was all in Japanese characters, with the exception of the word “drink” and the word “dolce”. No pictures. No translations. Ever the Americans (or maybe conditioned after being so close to base since arrival), we flipped the menus over, expecting some kind of clue, but there was no catering to non-Japanese speakers at this cute little joint.

When the waitress came back we asked if she spoke any English or had any English menus available. She shook her head and smiled. I will confidently say that, although my Spanish and French education is minimal, I can translate enough of a menu to at least order in any romance language. But when it comes to characters… there was no way. We just looked at the prices and tried to order in the moderate range.

“Soup?” I asked her, pretending to sip from a bowl. She pointed to the menu, but not to any specific item. I just nodded and gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up. “Shrimp” she said, pointing to another section. Then she said “Sashimi” as she pointed to the word “Dolce”.  Either dolce does not mean dessert here, or sashimi does not mean sushi. As confused as ever, we both just smiled at her and continued to nod. Without another word, she walked away.

We had absolutley no idea what we were going to be served, but both secretly hoped nothing would be alive. We aren’t picky eaters… but ordering blind is a risk anywhere. Especially on the coastline of Japan.

We got lucky. Dane got shrimp. I got soup. And we both got a new language app. I guess time will tell if it can really “detect” characters and translate them accurately, and until then, it’s all just an adventure.

 

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Dane’s meal actually turned out to be a little bit of several of our favorites: shrimp, soup, tofu, rice, and a seaweed/squid dish.
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Close up of the squid, seaweed, cucumber salad in miso vinegar.
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Mine was a perfect lunch portion of udon soup with two shrimp.

Oh.. and here is the menu we were going on:

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Giant Japanese Bats

We’ve been briefed. Kadena AFB is nothing if not thorough when it comes to their newcomers briefing. We’d been warned it would be a painfully long day, but as a brand new Air Force wife, I have to say, I actually found most of the day to be very informative. While others were zoning out because they have heard it all before, I was making connections. “Ahhhh, so they call it finance because that is who pays us!” I am still acronym illiterate, however. I smile and nod while people talk, using their airforcey acronyms like words. I know they are talking about important things, (some of the time) but all the acronyms just make it sound like teenage tweets to me.

During the briefing there was a quick rundown on all of the animals that can kill you on this island. Turns out, the number is not small. Some I would have expected. Box jellyfish are kind of an all-over-the-world threat. Habu snakes (of all kinds) are one of those things that common sense could tell you to avoid.  Others kind of surprised me. A sea snake? Not shocking, but glad they mentioned it. It can kill you. The blue ringed octopus? Wouldn’t have guessed that, but it makes sense. Also a killer.  The cone snail though… Seriously? Snails have never been high on my list of perceived threats as they are not known for being especially aggressive animals, however, step on one here, and you die.  By the end of the briefing, I felt educated and aware. Basically avoid anything that slithers and pretty much everything else you’re unsure of. Better safe than dead.

Then, early the next morning, right before the sun came up, Dane and I took a run. We had gone less than a mile when this huge animal flew over our heads.  I felt like I could hear it flapping from 30 feet away. We watched it fly, trying to decide if it was a hawk, or an eagle, or the world’s biggest crow. As it looped around and over us again, we got a view of its wingspan and guessed it to be at least 2 feet across.  I said I thought it might be a bat and Dane immediately teased that I didn’t know much about wildlife. Finally, it found the tree it must have been looking for and landed… upside down. I was about to gloat that I had been absolutely correct when it twisted its body around to look at us. That face, those eyes, its strangely shaped body, we just stood there and stared…

“Could it be a monkey?” I whispered. (I know, I know, I watched it fly. But, this has kind of always been my default hope when I see any kind of animal. Maybe, just maybe, it will turn out to be a monkey. I rescued a baby squirrel once that was about the size of a roll of quarters. There was something so cute about the way it covered its little eyes with its hands, that I couldn’t help but hope it was a monkey. Even if I had found it under a tree in suburban Florida, where they are not exactly known for a wild monkey population.) Dane whispered back, “I can’t make eye contact! I feel like its going to steal my soul!” Then it turned it’s monkey-like face away and flew off. We just stood there. Unless it was straight out of the land of Oz… that was no monkey flapping it’s wings. But there was no way it was a hawk with a monkey face, and surely no bat has ever been that huge?!?

“I feel like they should have briefed us on whatever the heck that was,” I said as we ran home to google it. Turns out Okinawa is home to a species of fruit bats that are so huge they are known as flying foxes. They can grow to have a wingspan of 5 feet. I will make it my mission to get pictures of these equally cute and terrifying creatures as soon as I can, but for now I have to steal a couple from online just to give you an idea of what we are dealing with here. Oh, and if I ever do the “Welcome to Okinawa, here’s what can kill you” brief, I will mention the flying foxes, just to be safe.

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Doggy Depression

We flew direct from Detroit to Tokyo on Saturday afternoon with 6 suitcases, 2 carry-ons, and 2 personal items, one of which was a five-pound yorkie whose ticket cost almost $300 and required that she ride under the seat.

Sydney is a travel champion. She routinely surprises people when she pops her head out of the bag at the end of a 2-3 hour flight. She can happily nap mile after mile on cross-country road trips. She adjusts immediately to her surroundings whether we’re in the country or a city. But 13.5 hours with a dog at your feet is not easy. I don’t care how perfect that dog is.

We had no problems for the first 5 hours. Then she got restless. We tried taking her to the bathroom so she could walk around and hopefully pee on one of the puppy pads we brought, nope. Then we tried to feed her while she sat in the bag under our feet, nope. I spent two hours with my leg twisted to fit inside her bag so that she could spoon with my foot, and that worked for a while, but when she started licking my toes, I had to say, “nope.” We finally gave up and I put her on my lap under a blanket, where she instantly fell asleep for the rest of the flight. She just likes to be near us. Like physically with us… all the time.

Four months ago when she started the quarantine process required of all dogs moving to Okinawa, I saw a poster on the wall of our Air Force approved vet. “Does your dog suffer from anxiety or depression?” On the table in front of me was a checklist of symptoms. I’d been waiting for a while for her lab results and I’ve always loved a good checklist, so I pulled out a pen and started answering questions.

  • Does your dog follow you around the house?
  • Does your dog become anxious at the sound of car keys or when you put on your shoes to go out?
  • Does your dog shake or exhibit other problem behaviors as you prepare to leave?

Hmmm. Yes to all. It seemed that my sweet Sydney was indeed suffering from a mild case of anxiety. I joked with the vet when she finally came in the room that I had always thought Syd just really liked me, but now I realized maybe she had a personality disorder. She didn’t think my joke was funny. She started asking me more questions about Sydney’s behavior. Don’t all dogs jump into your suitcase or purse or laundry basket, just to avoid being away from you for five minutes? I guess not. She told me that she wasn’t comfortable approving her for a move across the world unless we adequately treated her anxiety. I walked out with a $150 prescription for doggy depression medicine… and really wishing I had ever made the joke.

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You Don’t Bring Your Bed on Vacation

I keep waiting for it to sink in that in the last four days I have picked up my entire life and moved it to the other side of the world. Maybe it’s because so many months of red tape and planning have gone into this move that none of it feels crazy or spontaneous as trips have in the past. Nothing about this feels like traveling. It feels like moving. I’ve never moved out of the U.S. before. I expected it to feel surreal. I thought I would pinch myself on the plane.

Perhaps I have moved so many times in the last year and a half that I have become accustomed to the emotion that surrounds it and numb to the nerves. Perhaps I expected a move like this to feel like planning a trip would. But the truth is, you don’t bring your bed on vacation, and my bed is currently in a crate,  on a boat, making its way to meet me here.

In the last 5 days, I haven’t experienced any of my normal “traveling” feelings. I haven’t had butterflies or been particularly camera happy. I’ve been  neither nervous nor overly excited. I haven’t even experienced jet lag and we are talking about a 13 hour time difference here.

Maybe it will all hit me at once, but right now, I am sitting on a couch with my dog curled up at my feet, watching BBC news, while my husband searches online for used cars. Nothing could feel more normal. Well, except for the fact that if we were in the states he would be looking for a truck, NOT a Nissan Cube. And, in this very moment, as I look at the pictures of this hideous vehicle, whose steering wheel has been placed curiously on the passenger side, I suppose it’s starting to sink in that as normal as it all feels, we do live in Japan now. It really is today here while it’s yesterday at home. And all of this “normal” gets to be my reality for the next 3 years. I might not be overwhelmed by my typical feelings of excitement, but maybe that, in and of itself, is the most exciting part.

A blog about life being pretty magical

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