Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shunan Orphanage

While Joe was in Guam, I had the chance to go to a local orphanage with our Family Readiness Officer, Chaplain, a great group of caring Marines, and unit families. This visit really put me in the holiday spirit. The kids who live at this orphanage do everything with each other, share everything with each other, and care for one another as they grow up.

A few interesting things I learned about how Japanese care for children with no home:
  • A parent without the means to support their child can give up their child to an orphanage, but retain rights to the child until he or she is six years old. A young mother, for example, can be back on her feet in six years and care for her child on her own again.
  • Unwed mothers and unplanned pregnancies are still very taboo in Japan.
  • There is no foster care system in Japan (from what I understand).
  • The same schooling system still applies for kids in orphanages: they must study constantly to test into high school. If they don't score well, they can study more and take a test equivalent to a G.E.D., but can only qualify for jobs like manual labor or working in convenience stores. 
Thanks so much to Becky V. for taking these pictures at the orphanage!

This was our amazing group and a few of the older kids from Shunan Orphanage:

A few of my new friends with their gifts from Santa

As hard as I tried to treat all the kids equally, little Rion (?) and her brother were my favorites.
Santa's elf and two of the cutest kids in Iwakuni.
Santa introducing himself to all the kids
After Santa and his elf handed out all the gifts and the children opened and played with them for a while, the kids went back to their regular schedule and one of our guides showed us around to get a feel for how the kids live day-to-day.

This is the room where all the toddlers sleep. There is a wall of cabinets that fit futon mattresses in them when not in use. Sleeping on the tatami mats is a Japanese tradition.
The older kids sleep and study in the same areas.
Coloring time in the playroom!
We are making plans to do another trip before next Christmas so the kids know they have our attention throughout the year, and not just near the holidays. They really are great kids and I hope they are reunited with their parents or find loving families soon. 

If anyone in the Iwakuni area is reading this and wants to get involved, contact your FRO or Chaplain about organizing a visit to the Shunan Orphanage. It was well worth the quick drive down the Sanyo Expressway.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmastime in Iwakuni

Joe was deployed in Guam  for the majority of the holiday season, but finally made it back with a few days to spare before Christmas. It was sad to decorate the house with no one to enjoy the twinkly lights with, but I'm thankful that Joe's deployments are as short as they are. 

On Joe's first full day back in Iwakuni, we bundled up and drove to Hiroshima to check out the Dreamination display along the Peace Boulevard, or Heiwa Odori. We hit Starbucks for fancy dessert drinks and used the heat to warm our hands as we checked out the crazy displays. 

Hearts all over the tree!
A kiss under the light tunnel :)

Cinderella's Slipper

A pretty tree/teepee with an entrance gate and peek into the inner-workings.

Yours truly and my favorite Marine reunited at last!
It was a gorgeous display and fascinating to see. Strangely, only 2% of Japanese label themselves as Christian, so I didn't see any nativity scenes or anything of religious significance. It's interesting to see how Christmas has been appropriated as an almost purely commercial spectacle in Japan.

Check out the next blog for another holiday highlight: My trip to Shunan Orphanage with a few of the Marines and families from our unit.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Animal Mania!

Our 6-month-old miniature Shiba Inu puppy has me wrapped around his paw. I know this is stating the obvious, but I just wanted to let any potential readers know that they can skip this post if they aren't obsessed with my dog.

Eddie's been on a few adventures lately. His first dog sitter was Uncle Sgt Dang, who watched him over Veteran's Day weekend when we went to Fukuoka. Eddie had the chance to play Call of Duty with Dang and his friends, and even play with a full-sized Shiba Inu. He gave us video proof of their playdate:

Today, Eddie got to meet two feline friends, Hank and Pearl! Pearl stayed out of the way for the most part, but Hank seemed to like chasing Eddie and playing in their parents' big backyard. 

First, they sniffed each other out. Both approved!

Next, Eddie explored the fenced-in backyard! He was delighted and decided to terrify Hank by running around like crazy:

We are so happy to be visiting Michigan soon, and even happier that our little furry friend will be staying with animal lovers like Stephanie and Adam! 

Speaking of going out of town, Miho and Pete are currently en route to Maui for their belated Honeymoon! Their Italian Greyhound, Brucey, is going to be hanging out with us until they get home again. I was nervous how the two puppies would get along, but they ended up sharing a rope toy, following commands together, and both cuddling on the couch together with me. 

Both inspecting the rope toy
Mom, can we have a snack now?
Beautiful Brucey is having a good time!
It's so hard leaving the furry creatures, but easier when we have great friends in Iwakuni to help out.

The Chicken Shack

Possibly since our first day in Iwakuni, people have been mentioning The Chicken Shack to us. To me, the restaurant name evokes memories of trying to find a safe place to use the bathroom in Detroit. Any restaurant that brags about catering your party for $4 a person is a little sketchy to me. Please enjoy this link to Michigan's own Chicken Shack if you'd like.

For this superficial reason, I prefer to call the restaurant by it's Japanese name: Sanzoku. According to a well-informed Japanese man, sanzoku means "mountain bandit" in Japanese. We all know the American childhood cliches of being afraid of a monster under the bed/in the closet, but there is a similar fear in Iwakuni of roving mountain bandit attacks. 

Kara had also been urged to check out Sanzoku, so we made a point of going for lunch. We drove up the mountain, taking care to watch out for bandits, and arrived to find the whole place decked out in traditional Japanese flags and tacky Christmas decorations. 

It's awfully Christmas-y for a nation that is 99% Shinto Buddhist, amirite? I guess our spirit is just contagious.

So, we finally wandered our way inside, accidentally asked to be sat in the middle of the smoking section, and the waitress gave us English menus. I ordered udon (thick noodles in broth) with yamame (because it sounds like "call me" in Spanish), a rice ball, and chicken on a skewer (their specialty). Well, yamame turned out to be a whole fish plopped into my udon.

You can take your shoes off to sit here.
Fish in my soup, chicken on my skewer.
The chicken had a good marinade on it, and the decor was very Japanese, but I'm not sure why people insist new people go to Sanzoku. We decided to walk around the outside for a while to check out the famous grounds. 
In-ground tables have heaters underneath! The heat is trapped inside using the tablecloth.

Kara with a pagoda in the background

Pretty waterfall on your way to the dining area

More outdoor seating

A snowman who has put up with one too many snowy nights outside

Kara about to fall in the zen garden!
I really liked the Chicken Shack, and I'm excited to know how close it is. The old-time decor and traditional Japanese seating were enough to give me a taste for Japanese culture, but the fish in my soup was not exactly what I wanted - I told Kara before we started eating that I just didn't want a head in my soup. Wish not granted!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thanksgiving with Kara

Kara just left  the day before yesterday and it was hard to see her go! I had a great time reconnecting, sharing my little Japanese air station town with her, and seeing some of the sites I love here in Japan. Her stay in Iwakuni overlapped with Thanksgiving and I was truly thankful to have her to share the holiday with!

We played our time together by ear and still managed to check off lots of Iwakuni Bucket List items. Here's a quick rundown of the beginning of her visit:

Kara made it here on a space-available flight on the day of Joe's Wet Down! Shockingly, it only took an hour and a half, and it was free because we are military dependents! We had beer chilling and put Kara to work immediately with getting things set up for the festivities. She excelled in setting out cheese at a 45-degree angle. ;) We had lots of fun and even Eddie got to enjoy the party (or rather, our guests got to enjoy Eddie). 

On Monday, we went to Yanai with my friend Alex. She is (very unfortunately!) PCSing soon and wanted to stock up on soy sauce from an actual soy sauce brewery in Yanai. I had no idea what to expect, but was surprised that a goldfish was the city's claim to fame. There were cartoon goldfish everywhere! We walked around the quiet downtown area and checked out the famous white walls from the Edo period. We finally found our way to the brewery and got to climb stairs to check out the brewing process.
Wilkommen to Yakai! This adorable dude looks like an owl but he's a goldfish. Love me some manhole covers.

At the brewery! Kara and Alex are posing in front of the massive platform that houses the soy sauce pools.
It looks like coffee grounds, but is actually soy sauce in progress. Nobody took me up on my dare to grab a handful.
Next up is our visit to Iwakuni's famed cultural site: The Chicken Shack a.k.a Sanzoku. Watch for the next post!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Island Visitor!

I'm so excited to have my friend Kara here in Iwakuni! I got to see her when I went to Okinawa and told that story in this post. She made it here on a military flight the day of Joe's wet down celebration and we put her to work helping us prepare. ;) A "wet down" is a promotion party in the military where you celebrate your promotion with people of the same rank. It's customary to spend your first month's pay raise on booze to get the party going. This meant we had a healthy chunk of change to spend!

Joe is a beer fanatic and wanted to have his favorite microbrews available. Luckily, our Marine Exchange recently partnered with the comparatively luxe Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) to get exciting beers like Blue Moon, Fat Tire, Rogue and more for the past few weeks. Between the exchange and Joe's work adventures taking him to Hawaii, Guam, Australia, and Fukuoka, we had acquired 31 different beers! We had a great time and Eddie even joined the festivities. I think every Marine liked hanging out with the tiny little dog. 

Through some stroke of bad luck, Joe had a flight the morning after his party. I groggily drove him the the Shinkansen (bullet train) station so he could get to the airport on time. Kara and I were left to our own devices to find ways to preserve the leftover beer. This is what we came up with: 

There was beer fully stocked in the fridge too! We poured ice on top of our bathtub beer, put the handy Japanese bath cover over it, and now we're calling it our cooler. Thank goodness for Kara's ingenuity!

We hung out at the Kintai Bridge, explored the town of Yanai, and had lunch at the Chicken Shack for the first time. Iwakuni is a tiny little town, but we're heading to Hiroshima tomorrow to get a feel for the big city. It's so fun to share my new home with an old friend!


Last weekend was incredible! I was a bit disappointed at first by the fact that our Marine Corps Birthday Ball would be on a Wednesday night, but then discovered that the Marines would have Thursday to Sunday off work! We made the most of the time off by taking a trip to Fukuoka the morning after the ball. 

First, Happy Birthday Marine Corps! Being a family member of the Marine Corps has given me so many challenges, and with that, so many opportunities to find out the kind of person I am and can be. Defending freedom comes with sacrifice, and I am proud to make sacrifices now to protect the American way of life for the future. I'm usually not happy about it, but I try not to complain because I can't think of a better reason to endure sacrifice.

The other great part of being a Marine wife is that we are treated like princesses for one day a year! I love this picture that my friend Emily took at the ball: 

Finagling a formal look in the countryside of Japan wasn't easy! The base exchange took measurements and custom ordered dresses from China, I bought over-priced costume jewelry at a Japanese department store (YouMe Town), my shoes came from (free shipping and returns), and I had to wait in line at 9am to make a hair appointment since there are only a few hair stylists on base. Oy! This experience in Iwakuni will make me never take the abundance in America for granted again.

We partied all night long with our friends and I got to sit between a female war vet (Hi, Theresa!) and a Ukrainian stripper (Hi, Sasha!) for dinner. Never a dull moment.

After the party, we landed back at our house and then got up early - miraculously without a hangover (thanks, vodka!) - kissed Eddie goodbye, and walked to the nearest train station. My hair was still fun and curly from the ball, so I really just had to roll out of bed and put it in a ponytail! I wish my hair was curly all the time!

Super curly side ponytail!

My favorite view!
Mountain islands behind me
We took the local train (rather than the bullet train) to Fukuoka to save a hundred dollars or so, but also discovered that we could enjoy the amazing view while riding along the coastline. It was very relaxing to sit on the heated seats and to read our Kindles with a nice view. 

I would definitely recommend getting a Kindle for travelers who like to read. It was so easy to pack the two of them in my purse and pull them out from time to time on public transportation. Joe is reading the Game of Thrones books and I'm reading The Hunger Games books, so it's nice to not lug around lengthy paperbacks or have to wait to buy the next book in your trilogy. 

Once we arrived, we stepped out of Hakata Station and I was in complete amazement! The most exciting thing was seeing our hotel right down the street from a Starbucks! There are a few Starbucks about an hour away in Hiroshima, but I've only been there a few times. Anyway, I was bracing myself for the impact of caffeine on my system and VERY excited about it. We stopped for a quick picture at Hakata Station before making our way to Sunlife Hotel.

I really liked this sculptural fountain with granite and grafitti artwork
We went to Hawks Town Mall (a mall named after the city's baseball team) to look around and then to The Hard Rock Cafe! I haven't had such good food since I was in America, so this was a big deal. Normally, the HRC is not exciting to me (except when one opened in Detroit) and I've always avoided their kitschy goodness in favor of local flavors. After too much time bracing ourselves to eat on base and lowering our expectations by joking, "Hopefully today there won't be much sawdust in the sandwiches!", and eating tempura (fried) everything in Japan, fresh and flavorful American food could not have been more exciting! We ordered a combo platter with Santa Fe egg rolls, SPICY buffalo wings, chicken fingers, etc..., a huge chopped salad for me, and a jerk chicken burger for Joe. We ended up packing up about half of our dinner, but it was really exciting! 

A portrait of excess
Lots of people like going to Fukuoka for the shopping, but I don't really get into the schoolgirl style that is popular in Japan, so I went for the cafe route. Joe and I grabbed coffee at Seattle's Best at the base of this mall (I can't remember the name because there are so many) and then wanted to check out the roof garden. WHOA:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We renewed our vows...with the topiary deer as witnesses.
He puts up with so much for me! I can't stop laughing.
In this same mall, there was an adorable little milkshake shop with a seating area behind it. I looked closer at the seating area, and it's a place to touch up your hair and makeup! Ew. 

This might be the right time to talk about how grossed out I am by Japanese style sometimes. Grown women follow this trend of dressing like a baby and it's really creepy to me. They wear contacts that make their eyes seem bigger, fake eyelashes to look like a doll, and all the photoshopping makes women look like kids. I'm all for moisturizing my skin and staying out of the sun to protect my skin and stay youthful looking, but Japan takes it way too far. I found this store in Fukuoka and all the clothes look like they are made for dolls: 

I think Japan might just have a different outlook on pedophilia than the United States. The legal age of consent in 13 here and I know Japan has a longer history than the US. Maybe it stems from older men being able to take care of young women long ago? Anyway, it's only cute for a minute until you realize how strange it would be to dress like this in any other country. It's almost as weird to me as grown women in the U.S. dying their hair as blonde as it was as a child. Who can trust a blonde adult? ;)

Here is a smattering of other strangeness from the Japanese imagination:
Michigan: Imagination is More Important than Knowledge
I gasped as I walked by this little dog dressed in a beret and left by itself.
I can't help myself.
Silly hats only.
Awesome style spotting at the fish market.
Punk dog
A Brucey dog with his little sister on a sidecar leash! KAWAII!
Detroit-themed haircuts?
The main event for our trip to Fukuoka was to go to our first sumo wrestling match. We bought tickets at FamilyMart (a convenience store like 7-11) and made our way to the match on the very last day we were in Fukuoka. It was BIZARRE. Sumo wrestlers are nothing to joke about! These guys have rippling muscles and rippling fat stores. We learned a lot about the history from a brochure they gave us on arrival and about all the symbolism in the ring. Here are some pictures from our crazy afternoon watching sumo:

There are things in this life better left unseen. We had the crack-view for the entire match.
We discovered that seating is a bit different in Japan. You can buy a futon area for around $200 and fit as many people as you'd like on it. I'd recommend the cheap seats!

We took lots of video from the event, but I just can't bring myself to rewatch the footage and see all those naked butts again. Maybe another time!

Thanks for reading!