Living in a foreign country has been an adjustment for all of us. We knew it would be an adjustment when I chose orders to Japan, but we wanted to meet the challenge. Here is a little of what we have learned and/or experienced so far during our past two months on island.
Driving is different than in the United States. First off, the driver is on the right side of the vehicle, and one drives on the left side of the road, like in England. This is opposite what we have been used to in the states. I will admit I did pull out from a stop sign once during my first week behind the wheel and automatically went to the right side of the road…oops! Luckily it was on base and there wasn’t any traffic, so I was able to correct myself without any additional issues. In addition to the steering wheel on the “wrong” side, the levers for the turn signals and windshield wipers are on opposite sides. This has been a harder adjustment for us and both Heather and I have given the “Okinawa wave” as fellow service members call it by hitting the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal lever. This apparently is a classic American mistake. On the bright side, the pedals are on the same side as in the states, so the right foot is still the gas pedal, so at least we don’t have to learn to drive entirely backwards. The final major difference in the vehicles here is that the speedometer is in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour. The speed limits on island top out at 60kph unless on the toll freeway. This equates to a whopping 37mph. If you have a “need for speed” Okinawa is not really the place for you unless you happen to fly a jet. However, it does allow for some leeway since everything occurs at a slower speed. Instead of trying to figure out which lever to use for turn signals at 80mph, it’s a lower 37 mph.
In order to drive in Japan as U.S. service members we were required to pass a written exam on Japanese road laws and signs. We had a study guide to prepare, and both Heather and I passed on our first attempt. Once out on the open road one must decode the local road signs. The major signs are primarily in picture form along with Japanese and English text. This not to say that all signs are bilingual however, so there are plenty of signs and pavement markings that we have no idea what they mean. It has not caused a problem yet, but has made me more aware of the struggles foreigners living in the U.S. must go through if they are not proficient in the English language.
Another aspect of driving that is different is the use of emergency lighting by the police. In America if a police car behind you has its red flashing lights on, you had best pull over. In Japan flashing lights simply means the police are on patrol and can be completely disregarded unless they activate their siren which means to stop. One interesting note is that the lightbar on top of American police cruisers are typically mounted very close to the roof of the car. Sometimes this is for aerodynamics, sometimes to try and blend in with other traffic. In Japan the lightbar is mounted high above the roof on a fiberglass pedestal to raise the lights above the height of other vehicles for increased visibility. When stopped these pedestals extend upward with a scissor-type lift to further raise the lights for visibility. With these features it is probably apparent that the police do not really “hide” much. Another thing they don’t do much here is run speed traps. There are numerous speed cameras mounted over the roadway on metal pole structures which control motorists’ speed. The cameras are, according to multiple online sources, set to trigger around 30kph over the limit. While I do not have any first-hand experience with it, it is said that the fine if caught by these cameras is pretty steep. With these cameras positioned all over the place most drivers keep it within 10-15kph over the limit, which seems to be the normal speed of traffic in town. Those that choose to zoom around will receive a ticket in the mail as these cameras snap pictures of their joy ride.
Purchasing fuel on Okinawa is a little different than in the States. First, one must decide to purchase gas on-base or off-base. If buying on-base there is one gasoline option: 85 octane gasoline sold by the gallon. They also sell diesel on base, but none of our vehicles use it. The vehicles and our lawn mower all seem to run just fine on 85 octane fuel here. If purchasing fuel off-base there are two gasoline octane options, 90 and 98, however it is sold by the liter not the gallon. When compared in equivalent measures, off-base fuel costs around three times the amount of on-base fuel. Noting this, we make it a point to fuel up on base as much as possible. This has been fairly easy since the island is only about 7 miles wide and 70 miles long, so we can make it from our home in the central region of the island to anywhere on the island and back without refueling.
After watching such movies as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” one may have the impression that all the cars here are “rice” cars with loud mufflers, sit low to the ground, and are wide in stance. That is certainly not the case, at least on Okinawa. I have actually seen this style of car the most ON base and not driven by locals. Largely the vast majority of cars are small and narrow. We have one of the largest vans on the island and it could be described as a roomy minivan by American standards. Large SUVs and pickup trucks are simply not a thing here. We are glad we did not attempt to bring our Ford Transit van as it would not have fit well here. The roadway lanes are more narrow and parking is a significant problem here. In fact, to purchase a car in Japan one must provide proof they have a place to park it before being allowed to purchase the vehicle. The malls and larger businesses have plenty of parking (mostly on the roof and in parking garages) but visiting small businesses can be a challenge because there really is nowhere to park in the immediate area. When we were looking for a church to attend on island, one of the things we looked for was if they have a parking lot or not.
Those who have been around the military know that keeping a low profile and blending in can be of benefit to limit risks while overseas. While this may be the case, since US military bases occupy 25% of the island paired with the fact that our license plates actually denote that we are Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) personnel, this has proven more difficult on Okinawa. This of course, is in addition to the fact that I am taller than every native citizen I have come across so far. Luckily Japan is pretty U.S.-friendly and this is less of an issue than some other countries that come to mind.
Living on base we have cable internet that is provided through a vendor for the Armed Forces Network. We have 8 free channels along with our desired (paid) internet access package. The free channels offer a good mix of sports, entertainment, and news. I have actually been pleasantly surprised with the amount of baseball I have been able to watch this season. We could purchase an additional cable TV package, but we stream a lot via other media services so we do not have a large need for cable channels. I will say that watching TV here is not really the typical American experience though. As the programming is provided in conjunction with the military, there are not typical commercials. Instead the commercial breaks are filled with advertisements for on-base services such as the Officer’s club, the various pools on base, and infomercials related to water safety, Covid-19 vaccines, weather, and typhoon preparedness. On a related note, we have found exactly one radio station that is broadcast in English, and you know what? You guessed it, it is broadcast by the U.S. military from a station on one of the local bases. As far as media goes, even though we are living in a foreign country, we are firmly rooted in American media. If flashbacks to “Good morning Vietnam” with Robin Williams come to mind, you are probably not too far off track.
Another aspect of life we have had to adjust to is the money system. The Japanese use the Yen, which is roughly equal to a penny. Paper notes consist of 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen bills and coins for 500, 100, 50, 10, 5, and 1 yen. When calculating the rough cost in US dollars one just mentally moves the decimal two spaces, so 1200 yen is approximately $12.00. It is kind of fun going to the ATM though, because you feel really rich when withdrawing 40,000 yen (Approximately $400). For anyone coming to Japan in the near future, I would advise you to use ATMs off-base for acquiring Yen instead of on-base ATMs. Even with the 1% international fee my bank assesses the conversion rate between dollars and Yen is much better off base. We have found that we need to keep both dollars and yen on hand because on base transactions use dollars and off base transactions require yen. Yen is also important to carry as many businesses do not accept American credit or debit cards.
Vending machines are literally everywhere! As long as you have some yen in your pocket you will never be hungry or thirsty due to non-availability of refreshments. Leaving the pool after a refreshing swim? 3 vending machines along the sidewalk. Inside the military health clinic? 4 vending machines. Taking a walk around the abandoned old Navy hospital? You guessed it, 2 glowing vending machines positioned along the chain-link fence. Taking a drive through the sugarcane fields? Yes, even here one will find an operational vending machine on a pallet to keep it up off the dirt. These vending machines are packed full, but not full of just soda. They offer multiple coffees, teas, waters, juices, and a few select sodas. Other vending machines offer ice cream cones, eggs, hot food, beer (Japanese ID required), umbrellas, batteries, or facemasks should you have the need. While I have not seen one in person, Japan even boasts that they offer covid-19 testing swabs via vending machines, although I am not sure how the swabs get processed once obtained.
I think I could sum the weather up in two words: hot and humid. While Japan mainland has more changing of the seasons, Okinawa is pretty much hot and humid most of the year with winter lows only dipping into the 50s. Just yesterday by 10am it was 92 degrees with a heat index of 119. Needless to say during the summer many people spend the heat of the day indoors or engaged in water activities. The housing community is pretty empty during the day but in the evenings as the sun is less intense there is a flurry of activity. With this much humidity hanging in the air the chance for rain is ever-present so the daily forecast is pretty much the same: hot and humid with a 50% chance of rain.
Living abroad can be a fun experience trying new foods. The ramen here is fabulous! Even the pre-packaged ramen bowls are better than in the states. They come with multiple packets of both dry and wet ingredients that get mixed into the bowl. Heather has taken a liking to the Japanese curry. It is a more mild curry than Indian curry as it is based on the late 1800s British curry. It is served with some sort of protein, sauce, and white rice. It is simple, but pretty good. Out in town meat is more expensive and less available on island than in the states, with the exception of seafood which can be obtained locally and in quantity. Luckily, the military commissary tends to do a decent job of keeping us hungry Americans supplied with all the normal meats from the states, although it mostly arrives frozen due to the long transit time from the states. Due to things being deep frozen for transit there are signs on the freezer doors stating that the expiration date on food packages can be extended by 6 months due to being frozen.
So there is a small taste of the differences one may experience while living abroad. Stay tuned for more posts about our explorations around the island and beyond.