Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Dumb American's Guide to Living on Okinawa Part 1: How NOT to be Bored

When I was but a wee child, my family had a dog named Goldie. (Stick with me, there's a point to this)

Goldie was a mix of about twelve billion different breeds of dog, but one thing was certain: she had some sort of sheltie or collie in her. A herding dog, anyway. Now, the backyard shared a fence with a horse pasture. That pasture ran parallel to two other pastures, each occupied by one horse. Goldie could spend hours every day running along the fence, trying to get the horses to run up and down the hill.

After years of running along the fence, Goldie carved a path in the lawn. It was ridiculous: the dirt was like 3 inches below the roots of the grass on either side of it. It ran the length of the fence, then at the bottom of the hill, made a loop (apparently Goldie didn't turn on a dime, so she made a loop at the bottom). From the air, it probably looked like a noose, so I can only imagine what any pilot might have thought if they happened over our yard.

Anyway. This path was Goldie's little thoroughfare. A somewhat less pronounced one extended from the top of her trail to the deck, since she didn't make that part of the journey as often or as violently. The rest of the grass? Pristine and untouched.

You're probably wondering what on earth my dog and her silly little path have to do with Okinawa, boredom, or anything remotely relevant to, well, anything.

You see, my loyal blog minions, I have heard many people complain about how boring Okinawa is. There's nothing to do. It's so small. It's sooooooo boooooooring.

Now, I can understand why some people have a difficult time adjusting, or just plain don't like it here. The food is different, the climate takes some getting used to, the language barrier is intimidating, the place is isolated, etc. But what floors me every time is the number of people who say they were bored.

On Okinawa.


Upon further questioning, I've found that most of the bored Okinawa-haters have a few things in common, and I'm passing these things on to you so that, should you ever find yourself here for 2-3 years, you will not be bored.

Much like my crazy lawn-carving dog, the extent of these people's exploration of Okinawa is the roads connecting one base to another. Back and forth, from gate to gate, until they've worn a path between all the bases. Anyone who lives on Camp McTureous (myself included) knows the roads to Kadena, Courtney, and Foster like they know the hallways of their own cramped apartment. Those who live on bases that actually have stuff besides housing stay on their own bases unless they absolutely have to go anywhere else. If they leave the base at all, they go to American Village, which is a few kilometers from Kadena and right across from Foster. Not exactly branching out, you know?

Day in and day out, for their entire tour, people simply flit from one base to the next without exploring the rest of the island. Folks, there's more to Okinawa than what you see from the roads between bases! You want to enjoy living here? GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH AND EXPLORE THE REST OF THE YARD.

And when you do, here are a few pointers, rules, tips, and hard-earned pieces of wisdom:
  1. American Village doesn't count as leaving the base. Okay, it's not on base, and it is run by local nationals, and you use yen, but it's almost 100% geared toward Americans. They even have a Tony Roma's, for heaven's sake. If American Village is the extent of your off-base exploration, you haven't done any exploring.
  2. Neither does Gate 2 Street. I can't tell you how many people who've complained about "getting bored and seeing everything Okinawa has to offer in the first month" have eventually admitted to spending the majority of their time on Gate 2 Street. This is the street just outside Kadena's Gate 2 (hence the name) where everyone goes to drink and party (and, to a lesser degree, shop...for American-targeted merchandise). Folks, you're living on a tropical paradise surrounded by palm trees, 14th century castles, WWII memorials, and more culture than a lab full of bacteria. You can drink in the States. Get thee out to the rest of the island!
  3. Always carry yen and dollars. Visa is everywhere you want to be unless you want to be on Okinawa. It's very rare to find establishments off base that accept Visa, especially places where it's worth actually spending money. This includes McDonald's, A&W, and other American fast food need yen. Some places will accept American dollars, but expect to get screwed on the exchange rate. Yen is your friend. Carry it. Always. If you find yourself always being able to use your Visa and never needing yen, you aren't exploring enough.
  4. You'll get used to driving on the left. Really, it's no excuse for not leaving the base, since you have to drive on the left on-base too. This intimidated me and was part of what kept me from getting my Okinawa driver's license for an embarrassingly long time, but I promise you, you'll get used to it.
  5. It's okay if you don't speak Japanese. I've lived here for almost three years, and my Japanese vocabulary consists of "arigato" (thank you) and "gomenasai" (I'm sorry). I understand three or four other phrases if they're spoken to me, but hell if I can remember them and say them myself. Honestly, the vast majority of people here speak enough English to help our dumb asses, and where language leaves off, gesturing and drawing pictures bridges the gap. Just be polite, be patient (remember, you're the one who doesn't speak their language), and you'll do just fine.
  6. It's okay if you don't read Japanese. Most of the major streets are numbered. Restaurants generally have pictures on their menus. There are English subtitles on a lot of signs, and if not, they're not too difficult to figure out. I know precisely one bit of Kanji (the ones that spell "Okinawa"), and I've had very little trouble finding my way around. And really, even when a sign is a bit baffling, it's half the fun of exploring a foreign country. If you find yourself encountering nothing but signs that are in perfect English, you aren't exploring enough.
  7. Go where the "Y" plates aren't. Okinawan cars have a little symbol on the left side of the license plate. Japanese-owned cars have Kanji, and are referred to as "K" plates. American-owned cars have a "Y", hence..."Y" plate. What this means is, you can tell at a glance if the driver in front of you is Japanese or American. Now, the further you get from a base, the fewer Y plates you'll see. I don't mean just a smaller concentration of them: I mean once you get more than 10 km from a base, you might see two or three. Get north of Nago or south of Naha, you'll be lucky if you see one. Why? Because most Americans don't explore Okinawa. If you are surrounded by "Y" plates, you're not exploring.
  8. Get in the water. You haven't lived until you've seen what lives below the surface of the crystal clear waters around Okinawa. Dive, snorkel, whatever, just get in the water.
  9. You're not allowed to say you're bored until you've been to at least 4 castles. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who have only been to Shuri or Katsuren Castles. Those are worth visiting, of course (you haven't lived until you've seen the view from the top of Katsuren), but there's like 9 castles on this island. If you haven't put in enough effort to cart yourself to at least four of them (especially when two are spitting distance from Kadena), then you haven't done enough exploring to complain about boredom.
  10. People, a decisive battle of freaking WORLD WAR II was fought here. The Himeyuri Peace Memorial, the underground headquarters, the countless monuments and battlefields...even if you aren't a history buff like me, it's fascinating. And there is something incredibly surreal about not just reading about the war (which all my American blog minions can probably recall reading about in school from a geographical as well as chronological distance), but standing right there where it happened.
  11. My parents were here for 10 days, and we still didn't see everything. I ran my poor parents ragged while they were here, trying to see as much as humanly possibly in 10 days. I took them everywhere from Cape Hedo to the south end of the island, the aquarium, Kouri Island, Ikei Island, beaches, WWII monuments, Kokusai Street, three separate castles, and most of our favorite restaurants...and we didn't come close to seeing everything. Not even all the highlights. If you've seen everything? You aren't exploring.
More tips to come, but there's a pretty basic rundown. This is only the beginning...more to come, I promise. The point is, Okinawa is bigger than it looks. This place is unbelievable. If you don't mesh with it, and it's just not your cup of tea, fine. Not every

But if you're complaining that there's nothing to do?

Well, Goldie, try getting off the beaten path and exploring the rest of the grass.

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled across your blog and it really brought back some good memories. As a young Marine, Camp Kinser was my first duty station out of school(1985-86). A few of us got into scuba diving and we logged hundreds of hours under water. To have had a GoPro back then! We found some "hidden" dive spots to frequent and I totally agree that you have to get off the beaten path to really see the sights. Anyway, thanks for stirring those memories. I will have to dig out the photo album tonight.