Living on an Overseas Military Base

A very small percentage of Americans currently serve in the US military, which means that there is also a very small percentage of Americans who know what it is like to live overseas as an active duty military family. Obviously, everyone has a different experience with living overseas and has a different outlook on it. Maybe this will give you a little bit of insight as to what it is like to have this unique experience.

If you wanted to, you could stay on base for the whole tour

A military base is essentially its own little city and most things that you would find in the US you will also find here.

Schools, a grocery store, shopping stores, a gym (with a 50 meter pool!), a church, a firehouse… we have it all. We even have a skateboard park, movie theaters, multiple restaurants and fast food places, a dog park, athletic fields, a Christmas tree lot, a used car lot… and the list could go on and on. If you didn’t want to, you really wouldn’t ever have to leave (and some people don’t). But as you would imagine in a relatively small place, there is only one of everything and sometimes you aren’t going to be happy with what is available or find what you want. Want to go furniture shopping? Well on base there is just one place to go. Want to see a movie? Better hope it is the one the theater is showing that day. Commissary out of canned pumpkin during the fall? Grab your pitchfork and complain on Facebook with the rest of the villagers (this actually happened last month).

There are also numerous activities to do on base – running races, kids sports teams, cooking classes, woodworking classes… sometimes it begins to feel like you are at the worlds longest summer camp. This base really does do a nice job of trying to make sure people are happy and have things that will remind them of being in the US. The Harlem Globetrotters just came last week and musical artists (mostly American Idol runner ups and 90s pop stars) come around to give free concerts. Even if you did choose to never leave, you would have things to keep you busy.

Having everything so easily available on base is certainly nice in the first few days that you have moved here. However, as you get more comfortable with living in a new country going off base to do errands and do activities on your own seems less and less intimidating. Off base markets have much better meat and produce anyway!

It can be isolating

When we tell people in the US that we live in Japan, this is probably what they imagine…

img_0179
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. A very fun day trip from Yokosuka.. but not what Yokosuka Navy Base looks like!

The reality is that a military base is pretty plain looking and if you did not know where we lived or had never been here, you would really never be able to guess where this is.

img_0614
Home sweet home! 

As you can see, it doesn’t look like you are in Japan (I can see Mt Fuji on a clear day by walking down the street though), yet it doesn’t look or feel like you live in the United States either. You very often have the odd sensation of being neither here nor there, not in Japan or in the US. That is why it can be isolating, the feeling that you are just kind of in this other place is strange, and while it is starting to feel like home here, it still doesn’t feel like I entirely belong.

Technology and social media has made it much easier

FaceTime, Facebook, smartphones… these things have made moving halfway around the world so much easier. I talk to family just as much as I did when we lived in the US and sharing pictures and seeing people on FaceTime makes it seem like you are just as close to people as you were when you lived in the same country as them. It really is amazing that I can talk to people instantly who are thousands of miles away from me.

Social media has also made it easier. There are tons of Facebook groups for people here. Everything from pet owners, foodies, officer spouses, to runners. These groups can be really helpful in trying to learn about your new host country and people are (usually) very helpful in sharing knowledge, mistakes, and tips with others who share their same interests. As with all social media, drama does sometimes pop up and people aren’t always there to be helpful, but overall they are great to belong to (just ignore the people looking for Yokosuka Facebook fame).

The internet has also made the physical separation from my favorite stores much more bearable. Thank goodness for online shopping! Most things get shipped here in as little as ten days. Even though I can’t get Trader Joe’s shipped here (umm they would make a fortune if they shipped non perishable goods), it is still possible to do online Target runs and get Amazon prime items (minus the two day shipping).

There is a language barrier (duh)

When we got orders to Japan one of the first questions everyone would ask was whether or not we knew how to speak Japanese (no). The next thing people would say was “oh well, everyone there speaks English”. I can say for certain this is not true, and really why would it be? Of course there are some people who speak English, but people speak Japanese… because we are in Japan.

So, how do you live with the language barrier? Well for one, I have lessons with an absolutely awesome, amazing teacher who has made me feel way more comfortable with day to day things like running errands and asking for help. I am very, very, very far from fluent but I hope to eventually have a fairly good vocabulary that will allow me to have easy conversations with Japanese speakers.

Technology has also made it significantly easier to live with the language barrier. I seriously do not know how people got around before smartphones. Need to know how to get around on trains? Google Maps can help!

img_0639
Google Maps will tell you exactly what train to take and usually the platform to wait at, so much help!

Unfortunately, when it comes to driving, Google Maps is not as helpful…

img_0618
Ohhhh thanks Google, I will just stop on the road I am driving on for ten minutes while I figure out which directions this is. 

This is so frustrating because signs actually are usually also in English…

img_0619
Come on Google! If all of my settings are set to English surely you can change your directions to English also!

There are also lots of apps you can use to communicate with people. Google Translate is usually fairly dependable (I think). Just type in what you are trying to say and either show your phone to someone or try to say it out loud. Although Google Translate did lead me to accidentally buy my mom kelp tea instead of green tea (sorry mom). They are both green I suppose.

img_0638
Cross your fingers and hope the app is working correctly!

There are also apps that you can hover over Japanese writing and it will translate it in real time. These work some of the time, but shouldn’t be relied on for accurate translations…

img_0620
This is a bag of green tea (I think). For some reason this app always defaults to saying something is fatty tuna…
img_0622
This is a sauce for meat (I think), but apparently it is flavored with chewing gum, eggplant, and fatty tune, yum sounds delicious!
img_0624
These are ziplock bags, which I assume can go in the freezer, so it got it mostly right on the top box. However, the bottom box was the exact same thing and I was being told it was a box of small intestines and mushrooms… yikes!
img_0593
Oh my, a meal at this restaurant would surely be the climax of any visit to Japan!

So, overall the language barrier is sometimes hard. However, it is not impossible to get around and definitely not overwhelming on a day to day basis. If you have a smartphone and know a few key phrases then getting by is easy (well, easier).

You have great opportunities to see amazing things

It really is pretty awesome to live someplace that people in the US consider a once in a lifetime vacation spot. In the few months that we have lived here we have taken quite a few really fun day trips to close by areas. Here are some of the examples of things you can do near Yokosuka:

6176652848_img_0557
See sake barrels at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
6176652848_img_0534-1
Go shopping in Harajuku in Tokyo
6241686480_img_0650
Enjoy the neon lights and an izakaya in Shinjuku in Tokyo
6241696480_img_0687
Check out the beautiful shrines and temples in Kamakura
6174662896_img_0765
Cross Lake Ashi on a pirate boat in Hakone (arrrr)
6174662896_img_0744
Go over the volcanic fumes of Owakudani in a gondola 
dsc01758
See the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
6174631056_img_0841
Eat delicious food and have fun shopping in Yokohama’s Chinatown
6174617056_IMG_0933
Explore the island of Enoshima with its various shrines and caves

Hard to believe but all of these things are within two hours of Yokosuka and seeing them is for sure a perk of living here. If you are willing to leave base for a day you can see things that you would never see in the United States.

So, overall living overseas is an amazing experience and I am really happy we made the decision to come here. Does it occasionally have some challenges? Absolutely. Do I get homesick? Of course. But I also love doing something that growing up I never imagined I would be doing.

 

 

 

Finding a House

As I was writing this post over the weekend the terrible accident aboard the USS Fitzgerald happened in which seven sailors lost their lives. Although I am very new to the Yokosuka community I can say with certainty that this is a tight knit place and the loss has been felt by everyone here. Please keep them, and their loved ones, in  your thoughts. 

Have you ever heard that everything in Japan is smaller? Cars, streets, houses… well that rumor is true. This was first made very obvious to me our first night in Japan when we got to our hotel. We had been awake for so long by the time we landed in Yokota, and then we had to take a two hour bus ride to Yokosuka. I was so tired and spent the whole bus ride dreaming of walking into our hotel room and laying down on a big fluffy hotel bed and falling fast asleep. Well, we finally walked into our hotel room only to discover that it was probably the smallest room we had ever seen at a hotel and the big fluffy bed was actually a small double sized bed with so little space around it that you had to walk sideways. There was absolutely no room for our ten suitcases and us.

I fully realize that this is a first world problem (poor me, my hotel room is too small), but when you have so much stuff with you it felt like a big problem at the time. Numerous scenarios flashed through my brain of us spending weeks in this tiny room while we waited for housing, madly trying to search for things we needed in our suitcases while we watched the one English channel available on the television and tried to figure out how to use the toilet. However, a shower and a bowl (okay, two) of ramen later and I had somewhat regained my sense of adventure and composure, somewhat.

Fortunately, the next day we were able to check into the Navy Lodge on the base which had a much larger room for us and our stuff, and I knew how to work the toilet, another bonus! If you are PCSing to Yokosuka and the Navy Lodge website says that they are sold out (which it did repeatedly for us), do your best to call them or just show up when you get here to see if they have last minute availability. The hotel caters to people PCSing with larger rooms, closets, and kitchenettes… it is really nice those first few crazy days. Another great thing about the Navy Lodge is that it is located right next to the housing office, so convenient.

IMG_0041
Our home for our first week in Japan.

When you get stationed in Yokosuka you do not get to choose whether you live on or off base. If there is room for you on base then you have to take it. It was actually kind of nice not having to think too much about housing ahead of our move. That is usually one of the things that stresses me out the most before we PCS. Finding a new house every one to three years, and one that you will be happy in, is kind of daunting. However, I had loved each of our previous homes and was nervous that I wouldn’t love our home in Japan as much since I had less control in choosing it.

IMG_00080
Our little treehouse in Virginia Beach, Virginia
FE1522EC-30A1-42B9-99EE-D6C2850767CC
Our lovely brick townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia
IMG_2389
Our cozy cottage in Newport, Rhode Island

We checked into housing on our second full day in Japan first thing in the morning. After filling out a few forms, we were given a list of houses on the main base, Yokosuka, and a housing base about 20 minutes away, Ikego. If you are moving here you probably read (like I did) that there is a third housing base near Yokohama. Just FYI that this is no longer an option for DOD families, all of the housing is now in Yokosuka or Ikego. Because we have a dog, there were only three places total that we could have lived. So we at least knew that we would be on base, and not off. Now it was just a matter of choosing which one to live in, we were given one day to decide.

One of the options was on the other base, Ikego, and since we knew we did not want to live 20 minutes away, we eliminated that right away. Our other two options were on the Yokosuka base – one apartment and one townhouse. We were pretty sure we wanted the townhouse since that would be easier for us taking our dog out and to have a bit more space, but we walked over and looked at the apartment anyway. We ultimately went with…

IMG_0033
Our new townhouse in Yokosuka, Japan!

So, there is really no getting around it… the military housing in Yokosuka is… kind of ugly on the outside. All of the townhouses look exactly the same and the apartment buildings all match them in style and color. They feel very Cold War Era. And considering how much it rains here and how humid it is, the grass looks surprisingly sad.

IMG_0035
Our new neighborhood.

However, many people find ways to dress their space up and make it their own. You are allowed to put potted plants out and anything else that will personalize your space more. We took this place without seeing the inside so I was not sure what to expect, but the next day we got to go in and I was pleasantly surprised.

IMG_0028
I can work with this kitchen, small but functional! Very light and airy!
IMG_0025
Nothing but potential here, I see a new grill and outdoor patio set in our future!
IMG_0023
Ooo a laundry room! I’ll take it!
IMG_0019
Never thought I would move to Japan and have a walk in closet! Excellent!
IMG_0003
Living and dining room, nice space to hang out in!
IMG_0012
HUGE second bedroom for all of our (hopefully) guests who come to see us!

Since our furniture is not arriving from the US for quite a while the Navy gave us some loaner furniture to use in the meantime. I cannot wait to start decorating this place and putting my own touch on it. My concerns about liking my new house in Japan before we moved here were unfounded, I am already in love!

The Big Move

A lot of our friends and family were very curious about the details of how exactly we were going to be moving to Japan. It is, after all, pretty far away from Rhode Island. We also could not find too much information ourselves about the experience online, except for a few other blog posts. So hopefully, if you are military PCSing to Japan you will find this helpful as well!

Our move from Newport, Rhode Island to Yokosuka, Japan (pronounced you-koo-ska) took about a week and a half and involved a couple of pit stops along the way. We started off by driving from Newport down to Washington, DC (thanks goes out to our awesome friends Paul and Tessa for their hospitality!) where we caught a flight to San Diego. We got to spend about a week in San Diego and had a chance to visit with a lot of our family, so nice to see everyone. All of the military flights going to Japan and Korea leave out of Seattle, so that was our third and final stop in the US.

6174598336_IMG_0223
Gorgeous weather for our long layover!

IMG_3677

We just had one day to spend in the city, but we loved going to Pike’s Place Market and Bainbridge Island.

6174598336_IMG_0198
So much delicious seafood. We went back later in the afternoon and this stand let me try some things for free!
6174598336_IMG_0255
Not such a bad way to spend a long layover!

The military flights work a little differently than your regular commercial flight. To start with you do not get a seat assignment until you check in for the flight. Although the flight was not scheduled to leave until 8:50 am, check in was from 2:50 to 5:50 am. We read that it was a good idea to get there earlier in order to get a better seat assignment. People actually start lining up the night before and just sleep in the terminal. We aren’t that dedicated though, so we got there at 2:15 and waited in line.

IMG_3799
The line in front of the ticket counter at 2:15 am, these are the hard core people who lined up the afternoon or night before.
IMG_3798
But wait, there’s more…
IMG_3797
The line actually stretched all the way down the international terminal. There were probably about 200 people in front of us. At least no other airlines operate on this crazy schedule so we had the place to ourselves.

Although there were a lot of people in front of us, one of the reasons the line was so incredibly long was because everyone was traveling with a lot of crap stuff, including us.

IMG_3801
OMG too much… The airline weighed all of our luggage and our checked bags came to 194 pounds and carry ons came to 72 pounds.

It took us close to two and a half hours to get through the check in line, and in retrospect I do not think it was worth it to get there so early. Even with all those people in front of us we were still seated in row 17 (of 40) right next to each other. Quite a few other people showed up around the time we were checking in and they did not have to wait in a super long line, and they got a couple more hours sleep than us… but oh well. After finally checking in we went through security and headed over to the Centurion Lounge to spend a couple hours before our flight took off.

The DOD charters flights using a company called Atlas Air. So if you ever see one of their planes at an airport you can probably guess they have a plane full of military people being moved someplace far away. They also claim that their flight experience is similar to a business class one on other airlines.. not so sure about that, but okay, whatever.

IMG_3804
Our plane to Japan.

We boarded the plane but then sat on the tarmac for about half an hour. They announced that we were overweight (ouch!) and that everyone needed to de-board while they got rid of some fuel… I’m no expert but getting rid of fuel before flying halfway around the world did not seem like the best idea. Fortunately, the people operating our aircraft know more than I do about these things and we got back on the plane a couple of hours later and took off.

IMG_3808
Finally taking off, so sleepy!
IMG_3813
Bye USA!

The flight to Yokota, Japan (the US Air Force base nearest to Yokosuka) was about ten hours. Besides being long, it was fine and uneventful. As usual, sleeping was not easy and we both spent most of the flight reading, listening to podcasts, or playing games on our phones.

IMG_3818
Breakfast… we didn’t eat the dinner offered.
IMG_3821
Our first glimpse of Japan, so pretty!

After we landed everyone going to the Japan bases got off the plane while those going on to Korea stayed on (they were allowed to get off a little later to stretch their legs). We got to watch a fun video to introduce us to living in Japan. It included helpful advice like not trying to enter the country with porn or drugs, probably a good idea for any country! After the video we got our passports stamped and orders checked and boarded a bus for Yokosuka. At this point we had been awake for well over 24 hours, but we finally made it!