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.)
When we found out we were moving to Okinawa we weren’t even engaged. In fact, we were driving a U-haul cross country to move me out to Kansas, where I had just signed a lease for an apartment near Dane’s in Old Town. I’d spent the last 9 months living in a little, teeny, tiny apartment in the Upper West Side (that I look back on ridiculously fondly through my notstalgia-colored glasses) and all I could think about was sheepskin. Sounds weird, right? But seriously. I wanted fluffy, white sheepskin everywhere.
Perhaps I was so fixated on this because fluffy and white were the exact opposite of what I had in New York. Perhaps because I was so cold all winter that all I wanted was fur all around me, all the time. Who knows. All I know is that everything I bought, for the apartment I never got to live in, was white, grey, navy or gold. Oh and hot pink. There was a little bit of hot pink in there, but I digress.
My point is that about a year ago, after returning from Asia, I started wanting to nest in a way that I had never really felt before. I wanted an apartment that I could decorate however I wanted. I wanted to hang pictures and paint walls and sew pillows and make everything that surrounded me fluffy and white.
Most of my life I have prided myself on my ability to pack everything up and move it, quickly and easily. Which was handy considering all the moving I’ve done. Dane has teased me for years because I don’t own a single “good” knife. I always defended that as a calculated choice. You spend money on your priorities and my primary priority had always been experiences and traveling, never knives. Besides how sharp does a knife really have to be to slice a zucchini?
All of that changed when I returned to the States. What can I say? I guess my biological clock was telling me that it was time to start prioritizing pillows and a little bit more.
You know what’s great for a girl who wants to nest? A wedding registry. (And an overseas PCS sure sped that process up for us!) But do you know what’s damn near impossible when creating a wedding registry? Filling it with things you will need for a house you have never seen. We had absolutely no clue what kind of place we were going to be moving into. We knew it would be in Okinawa, but that was about it. We didn’t know if we would be on base or off, have two bedrooms or four, bathrooms with showers or tubs, a kitchen with cabinets or not, American outlets or converters. We shopped blind, we registered blind, we even packed blind… Oh, another thing that is not so easy is to shlep everything to the other side of the world before you even unwrap it (thank heavens for military movers). The whole time we just hoped that we would have enough space for everything we were bringing, and we were bringing enough to fill whatever space we’d have.
I write all of this to say, that instead of the nesting I was expecting a year ago, now we’ve become more of a homemaking-adventuring hybrid. I mean, sure, we got the mixer, the duvet, the Le Creuset… but we have no idea where in the world they are (somewhere in the Pacific we’re pretty sure) and no idea how they will all fit in here when they show up. We registered for a nondescript American house with white walls and fluffy carpet. We ended up with a hard wood floored beach condo that we like infinitely more– but I’ve certainly had to re-paint the picture in my mind. So sure, I expected to be a newlywed that nested, but as it turns out, some newlyweds PCS overseas instead– and we are lucky enough to be some of them! Nesting will keep. For the next three years, I’m pretty stoked to just keep adding pins to our map in the Far East. Our next house will have fluffy carpet. For now, I’ll be reusing a lot of the driftwood and glass buoys that decorated my place in Florida. As for my dreams of fluffy, white sheepskin… well, it’s already on its way.
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.)
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:
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.”
The “House” Interior
The “Flat” Interior
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.
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 :)
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:
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.
Highlights from Houses 4-10
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.
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!
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.
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.