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…

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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…

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This is a bag of green tea (I think). For some reason this app always defaults to saying something is fatty tuna…
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This is a sauce for meat (I think), but apparently it is flavored with chewing gum, eggplant, and fatty tune, yum sounds delicious!
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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!
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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:

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See sake barrels at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
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Go shopping in Harajuku in Tokyo
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Enjoy the neon lights and an izakaya in Shinjuku in Tokyo
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Check out the beautiful shrines and temples in Kamakura
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Cross Lake Ashi on a pirate boat in Hakone (arrrr)
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Go over the volcanic fumes of Owakudani in a gondola 
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See the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
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Eat delicious food and have fun shopping in Yokohama’s Chinatown
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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.

 

 

 

Moving a Dog to Japan

James and I were back on the East Coast during the past month while he went to a school for his upcoming job. While there we were visiting some friends when someone asked us whether it was very difficult for us to move. We thought about it and realized that no, it actually was not too hard. The military provides you with a checklist of things to do and they move all your stuff. So as long as you are on top of things then you are fine. Getting a pet to Japan though… that was quite the obstacle.

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Awww, I would do anything for our little dog to be with us!

Pets, especially small dog breeds, are extremely popular in Japan. In fact, there are actually more registered family pets (dogs and cats) than children under the age of 16 in this country (a shrinking Japanese population is very interesting to read about, but that is a topic for another time). So, the difficulty in bringing a dog to this country is not due to a general dislike for small, cute wiener dogs. Rather, it is due to preventing rabies. Japan, has been rabies free since 1957 largely due to compulsory vaccination of family pets as well as elimination of stray dogs. There is a multi step process that must be followed exactly or else you risk a 180 day quarantine upon trying to enter the country.

We had to prepare for our trip starting last winter while we were still living in Newport. Our dog, Lily, loved living in Newport. She liked that we were home so much, I was working from home, and she loved sitting in front of the fireplace when it was cold out and soaking up the warmth. She also had a nice backyard with lots of little places to stick her nose into and lots of good smells.

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Monitoring the neighborhood in Newport. Little old ladies and children are (in Lily’s opinion) the most suspect people.
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Lily was also a member of the anti-seagull enforcement team and enjoyed walking on the beach Saturday mornings doing her job.

The first step to get her ready to move was to get an international microchip put in. Dogs in the US usually have a nine digit chip, but to enter Japan you need a fifteen digit chip. After getting the microchip we had to get a series of two rabies shots, thirty days apart. After the second shot dogs have to get a blood sample that is sent to a lab that then reports the results to the Japanese government. All of this must be done at least 180 days before attempting to bring the pet in, so we had to get this all done by the end of February.

Once you have the results of the blood test you must contact the Japanese quarantine service for import permission. This must be done at least 40 days prior to entering the country. I went back and forth with them a few times sending all of our paperwork and ensuring that we had, so far, done things correctly. We were just about ready to go!

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Traveling makes Lily a little anxious. She just sat in her dog carrier for about three days as we packed up in Newport, nervous she would be left behind. And yes, she is obsessed with blankets and gets upset when she doesn’t have one. Good thing we don’t spoil her too much…

While we were in Japan during June and July Lily stayed with both sets of her grandparents (our parents). At the end of August I stopped in California to pick her up and take her to our new house! The final thing you have to do before you travel is to get a health certificate. This must be done within ten days of travel. If you are a civilian you must also get the health certificate endorsed by the USDA, but since we are military we were allowed to skip this step and just use a military veterinarian to get the final health exam. We were ready to go!

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My second time in one summer flying to Japan with too much stuff!

Although Lily has criss crossed the US numerous times on airplanes, she had always been able to travel in the cabin with us. This would be her first time traveling as checked baggage, and her first time on an eleven hour flight. We were all a little nervous about the upcoming trip.

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Lily thought if she just didn’t look directly at her carrier then it would just disappear.

Time to say goodbye!

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Ahh my heart is breaking!
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Get on the plane, Lily. NO, not without you!

I swear I heard a dog barking right before takeoff (might have been my imagination), but upon landing Lily was still alive, albeit pretty mad and doing her angry barks. Dogs must still pass through customs after landing and there was a quarantine office at Narita Airport that gave her an exam. This took about half an hour to do, and even though there was a minor mistake on her health exam, she passed and we were allowed to leave the airport! Hooray!

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Checking out the sunrise over Tokyo Bay. We both had jet lag the first few days so we had some early morning walks!

Lily is still getting used to her new home and isn’t too crazy about our house right now. We just got out furniture delivered so everything is all over the place, and our backyard is kind of small and doesn’t have many interesting smells for her. But she will adjust and be fine soon. We still have to get final confirmation from the Yokosuka base veterinarian that we have completed all of the requirements, but once we have that we will be allowed to leave the base and go for walks out in town. Just like us, Lily is eager to explore her new hometown more and experience Japan!

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.

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Gorgeous weather for our long layover!

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

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So much delicious seafood. We went back later in the afternoon and this stand let me try some things for free!
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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.

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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.
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But wait, there’s more…
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Finally taking off, so sleepy!
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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.

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Breakfast… we didn’t eat the dinner offered.
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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!