One of the first things I noticed while driving around the island was the omnipresence of the rather creepy looking “lion-dog”, or Shisa. Nearly every business, household, and restaurant has two of each – one on either side of its entrance or rooftop. One, with its mouth open in a vicious snarl, is the male shisa (despite the obnoxious assumptions made by certain males in my company), and the other is the female shisa (with its mouth firmly shut, thank you.) As it turns out, these shisas are protectors based in Okinawan and Chinese mythology, intended to shun evil spirits. The open-mouthed shisa wards off the evil, while the close-mouthed shisa keeps good spirits in (although, according to Wikipedia, these gender roles can be “variously assigned.) I am not superstitious, but in the spirit of cultural immersion, I will definitely have to get a petite pair of these guys for my new home! Besides, who doesn’t want good spirits?
The other item I’m seeing everywhere I go – though less frequently than the shisa dogs – is the Maneki-neko, or “the beckoning cat.” Usually made of ceramic, these cats are meant to bring luck to the owner. White cats bring general good luck all ’round, black cats bring good health, and gold cats bring financial fortune. There are a series of beautiful (sometimes heartbreaking) Japanese folktales tying the cat to good luck, which – as a crazy cat lady myself – pleases me to no end. In addition to my shisa dogs, I plan on getting a few of these feline talismans in smaller form, since I find the large ones a bit tacky and overwhelming for my taste. Maybe one in each color!
It’s only April, and while the heat is not yet unbearable here in Oki, the sun is strong and the humidity is apparent. My body and face lotion no longer absorb into my typically dry skin – it sits in a milky-white film before I grab a tissue to dab it. My hair has this new consistency that I don’t quite understand… it’s much more dense. Heavier, kinda flat, but feels thick…?
Besides cutting back on my moisturizing and conditioning habits, I am going to have to invest in a hat. I hate sunscreen, and will definitely have to find a brand that agrees with my skin better than the cheap stuff I usually use, but at least I can protect the more fragile skin on my face with a cute beach hat of sorts, that will go with most anything. This will be quite the search, because I’m not a hat gal. And I don’t think I’m quite up for the Japanese approach of toting an umbrella around like an early 20th-century parasol, even if it is pink!
Chuck and I spent Easter weekend gallivanting with new friends and exploring two of the beaches the island has to offer – Torii Beach, and Zampa Beach. Both visits were during low tide, so I’m not sure we experienced them at peak beauty (unless you find exposed seaweed and miscellaneous gooey stuff particularly attractive.) However, it was ultimately apparent that the water is clear, blue, and warm. I have already determined that I will keep a bikini in my car at all times, so that on any particularly hot, sweaty day, I can take a dip in the Pacific blue any time I would like (even though this is actually the East China Sea!)
I did have a preference for Zampa Beach, clearly more frequented by locals than Torii, which was mostly military. Since the tide was so low, we spent a good bit of time walking over the exposed reef, poking at odd critters and speculating at the more bizarre of them. We were especially fascinated (and somewhat disgusted) by what we dubbed “sea poops”, which were scattered literally every few feet across the reef. I can only assume they are some sort of sea slug – if that is actually a thing – but they seem relatively harmless.
Our Newcomer’s Brief did warn us of all the dangers these waters have to offer – box jellyfish, rockfish, fire coral, and more – but overall, I think it will be perfectly fun and safe, if we are smart. Chuck is the one who is more reckless with Nature – I’m gonna have to reel him in!!
… SEA POOPS!!!
So, remember the post I wrote earlier about our first authentic Japanese meal? Scratch that. We experienced it today, in the town of Uruma-shi.
We found this little spot after we accepted our housing offer, mildly depressed and famished. There was not a hint of English anywhere – not on the signage, the menus, and surely not spoken by the staff. I wish I could tell you the name of it, if only I read kanji. We removed our shoes and sat Indian-style on the bamboo mats, and the waitress brought us a strange beverage that I can only describe as really, really watered down coffee. Parched, I remembered I had downloaded my Babel Fish translator to my iPhone, and I hastily typed out a request for water. I also used it to ask for a meal recommendation, since we were hopeless in understanding the menu, and there were no pictures to guide us (as we had seen in other restaurants in the more Americanized areas of the island.)
The meal and the experience did not disappoint, though I had no idea what to do with the raw egg included on my tray. I REALLY need to learn some Japanese. I hate being that fool American. But seriously, thank goodness for smartphone technology!
“The most special times in a person’s life are not meant to last forever. They’re like bubbles rising from a plastic ring dipped into a soapy solution. The soap bubbles rise, with the sun flashing brilliant colors, then bursts into a showery memory mist.” — Julius Thompson, A Brownstone in Brooklyn
I actually stole this from my friend Wendy’s lovely blog, At | Home | Brooklyn. You can follow her here!
Today, the military offered us an apartment on our assigned base pictured above, near a town called Urumua-shi on the northeastern side of the island. It is a bittersweet moment in the process of getting settled. On one hand, it’s wonderful that we have a place and the ball is rolling. On the other, it’s disappointing that we were essentially forced to take it, and not granted the option to live off-base as we had hoped.
Earlier this week, we inadvertently tortured ourselves by visiting a few rentals off base, in the scenic and lively Yomitan-son area of the island that I have decided to fall in love with. Since we don’t have children and I am generally not involved in traditional military spouse activities, I figured we would enjoy the more independent lifestyle and cultural immersion that living off base would offer. Blissfully unaware of the intensity of the mandate to live on-base, I booked an appointment with an adorable agent named Reiko. My expectations were low, but I was blown away by the places she showed us that day. There was one apartment in particular that was just beautiful – and you could walk out on the balcony from every room!
The best I can say about our apartment on base is that it is recently renovated and reasonably spacious. Otherwise, it’s the same dull, no-personality utilitarian fare that I have come to expect of military housing (with a little extra mold I asked the Housing Office to take care of.) I am concerned that I will find base living rather suffocating, but it may not be so bad. We are right near the gate, outside of which a lovely Japanese residential area with a river walk begs to be explored. I have decided to purchase a bike and see what Uruma-shi has to offer. It doesn’t look as dynamic and cross-cultural as Yomitan-son, but it is more authentically Japanese! And really… Yomitan is only about a 20-25 minute drive west 🙂
Disclaimer: Photos are not my own. I will take far better ones of the area and of the beach… just wait 🙂
Earlier this week, our wonderful sponsors organized a group dinner at Yoshihachi, the area’s landmark sushi establishment. Apparently, Yoshihachi has been frequented by celebrities, athletes, politicians, and high-ranking military officials over the years, so of course we had to pay it a visit. Chuck and I had tried quite a bit of delicious Japanese food already, but this was our first authentic dining experience in many ways – most notably that we removed our shoes and sat on the floor before eating, and paid in cash yen at the door for our meal (no credit cards accepted.)
Our new friends insisted we try the blowfish. Rumor has it that it makes your mouth numb and tingly, and if you’re really lucky, it gives you some trippy dreams. Alas – Chuck and I experienced neither – but I’m still happy that we tried it. What was more interesting was the sea urchin. If there is anything that straight up tastes like the ocean, it’s a sea urchin. Delicious!
Mostly, my focus in trying all this amazing Japanese food is mastering the chopsticks. Chuck was already pretty decent, but I’m proud to say I’m slowly catching up to his expertise and may even surpass it! I’m kidding… I’m nowhere near there… but I am definitely making progress. In a land where you can’t just ask for a fork, you learn to work with what you’ve got!