“I bear a charmed life.” ~William Shakespeare
“Charm, in most men and nearly all women, is a decoration.” ~E. M. Forster
“The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.” ~Aldous Huxley
I believe what Mr. Huxley, a famous English author, is attempting much too hard to state elegantly in the Queen’s English is quite simply that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is no less true in Okinawa…where charm is most unquestionably beyond mere decoration.
While at first I was, I must admit, quite shocked at some of the more obvious changes on Okinawa, I very quickly realized that the more charming elements of my stored memory were quite superficial, and not fully accurate – as are most memories. Slowly, day-by-day, I am rediscovering the charmed life that still exists on this wonderful island. Given a full week has gone by, and although I remain sleep-deprived from a sleep schedule turned upside-down, I thought it high time to capture (if not recapture) and share some of the more prominent and emotional corners of the culture that make this locale so exceptional.
Just today Jody got introduced to the Okinawan version of that all-American by-gone delicacy, the neighborhood ice cream man. Except here what sounds the ice cream man is actually the garbage truck making its neighborhood rounds. In Japan, everything can be cute and pleasant, including leftover, two-day old fermenting sushi.
The USO near Kadena Air Base “Gate 2” has changed dramatically. The place we divers used to congregate for post-dive celebrations of taco-rice cooked and served in a basic mom & pop diner-like atmosphere is gone, replaced by a “Chili’s Too,” an eatery like any one would expect to find in American. Except we are not in America…here. And chain restaurants certainly lack charm…and individuality. However, in full fairness, the food there is pretty dang good though (wink)!
Construction workers in Japan dress in what I like to call “work pajamas,” a distant cousin to the flight suits I used to wear daily in the Navy. Literally, they are comprised of large, baggy pants, like the worst parachute pants from the 80s you can conjure. Long sleeved, loose fitting shirts for protection from the sun. And toe-shoes, or something very similar, but probably worn here for millennia before being introduced to the New World. The only OSHA recognizable-attire is a hardhat (same ‘round the world) and a high visibility vest, although the Okinawan version is much more like very colorful and reflective suspenders, which are lit at night via high-visibility and flashing LEDs.
The Base Exchange (BX, or PX for you Army types), has been razed and renewed, into a monstrosity that words cannot adequately describe. Gone are the distinctive local vendors and unique side-shops full of mood lighting and strange but alluring smells. Replaced by a 2-story sanitized structure much too brightly lit and tiled completely in an unnatural white. The food court is shaped as in the curve of a sickle, where the food choices surely help expand waistlines and keep Death in good business…but certainly not in good company (think ill-behaved children rift with bad parenting, or is that vice-versa?). The main store is now on the 2nd story, which makes little sense to me. God forbid you purchase something large or heavy! This requires, of course, extra conveyors (up & down) for shopping carts, since wheels don’t do well on stairs…and neither to the children/parent combo previously mentioned. And, to top it all off, there is about 50% too much ‘stuff’ crammed into about 90% of the store’s floor-plan, so operating those elevated shopping carts is near-impossible. And for the love of god, don’t dare go shopping the week prior to the start of school.
Shishi (Shisha) dogs are still ubiquitous, although they are no longer utilized or placed on most new construction, at least that construction targeted at the American westerner. I find ancient cultures’ continuing connection with their spiritual roots and a dimension of life unseen but sensed a refreshing relief from what I would considered a much more politicized and convenient dogmas in the West. Here, be careful; karma may run over dogma.
The Sunabe Seawall has all but been completely rebuilt. The new structure is fantastic; much more pedestrian friendly and scenic, and certainly it offers a good deal more protection from the dangers of the sea and surf. But, lost is its signature graffiti, a tradition in Okinawa all across the island. In Okinawa, graffiti art is just that – an artful expressive of creativity, voice, viewpoint, creed, or just general commentary on subjects ranging from love and friendship, to alien races, all of which is embraced if not encouraged by the populations and authorities alike. It is wholly different and distinct from anything I have seen in the states, which most often seems to have as its roots violence, separation, judgment, and fiefdom. I hope, with all my being that the wall returns to its former colorful commentary, although there is little sign of that happening, yet. It still remains though, one of the most inviting places on the planet for me to live, love, and dive. And that I will continue to do.
The liberty & alcohol policies of the US Military on Okinawa are simply and stupendously stifling, overly restrictive and quite insulting to the vast number of Americans on Okinawa. It has also literally starved many and varied businesses in and around bases of their very livelihood. All in some vain and ludicrous attempt to appease nothing more the US government itself, already blinded by the notion that tightening their grip on the individual by limiting freedoms and dictating behavior will correct the whole spectrum of issues faced by Americans living abroad in Japan. In a nutshell, military members may not purchase alcohol off-base ever, can only drink during the “evening meal,” and then can only have two drinks between the hours of 1800-2200, and these drinks can only be purchased in an establishment that primarily serves food…. The upside? The policy, as far as I can tell, doesn’t apply to me (as a dependent), so looks like I have a permanent designated driver during my tenure on-island!
In American roadside and public space lawn care is usually provided by prisoners. In Okinawa, it is provided by little old 65 year-old women who operate what appear to be weed-whackers on steroids. Seriously, these gas-powered devices replace our plastic cutting cord with a large and sharp hard-metal scathe. The ladies are serious about their business, without the additional worry of escapees.
The character of the Sunabe area of Chatan Cho has shifted. While the central and south sides remain fairly unchanged and in-tact, the north side up near the “junkyard” has been built-up with American-style condos, duplexes and single-family homes all arranged on zero-lot lines and in rows like some post-WWII housing boom in middle America. It is terrible, and only Americans live here. Of the 30+ properties we viewed, maybe 3 were what I would consider traditional Okinawan/Japanese construction. What has happened to this region of Okinawa should be regarded as criminal; as one realtor put it, these greedy land-developers are taking all the good space for substandard American-esque housing…. As another stated, if Americans want to live in a gated-like community, stay on base! There is certainly a very large gate and fence there….
CoCo Curry, a 24/7 Japanese curry house, is still going strong! Nothing like hot, freshly-made and completely customized curry for a 4th meal snack at 1 am.
Many restaurants here employ end-to-end electronic service (provided by a human, mind you) – and have since I was here in 1999. There is a cordless button on the table you can press to place your order and get additional service (if needed). Your order is taken on an electronic handheld tablet at tableside, then it is verbally recited to assure accuracy, and then immediately transmitted to the kitchen. In the sushi-go-rounds, the plates of food selected from the conveyor of delights are embedded with an RFI device and color-coded, both to reflect price of the individual food selection. When you are through, a waitress comes by and literally scans your stack of plates, and a total is printed out for presentation and payment at the cashier. The level of food service efficiency and quality of product on Okinawa (off-base at least) is refreshingly astounding to those of us used and conditioned to mediocre service back home. And all this without tipping – a custom not practiced in Japan. Rather, good, professional, expedient service is the expectation!
There is a quick yet effective neck, head and scalp massage offered as part of a Japanese haircut. The sound of cupped hands hitting in rhythmic fashion is instantly recognizable, albeit long forgotten….
The power, elegance, and necessity of the “Han” stamp.
“Platters,” an on-base dining facility, is still located in the Schilling Center, and I happened to hold a discussion with the manager there during a lunch-time meal. All the materials on the walls and displayed around the diner are authentic. However, the real jukebox, controlled by remote stations located at each table, is gone. Inquiring as to this sad shift in affairs, he informed me that it became too hard to not just get parts for the machinery, but to find people and places that could repair them. So, these iconic elements of any 50’s diner were removed…and replaced by the same soundtrack, collapsed into one gigantic playlist and played now through a characterless and unseen iPod….
Udon soup at the “San A” near Hamby Town is unassailable. No place I’ve ever tried in America can replicate the almost chewy texture and fresh taste of Japanese Udon noodles. And that’s before they are paired with all the other goodness served in a heaping bowl of boiling broth. Pair this with crisp, freshly-fried chicken (katsu), and the meal of my dreams becomes reality. As it did this past Wednesday!
What would any of us do without Lawson and Family Mart, the island’s two primary convenience store chains in Okinawa? The list of reasons why starts with public Water Closets (“W.C.”), and probably ends with bento boxes. Or Spam, readily available. Oh, and no lotto sales here which at home often results in something more akin to inconvenience.
The Transit Café not just survives along Sunabe Seawall, but seems to be thriving. We will soon be neighbors living about two blocks away and will be frequent fliers and pleasant patrons, hopefully not seen simply as transiting visitors.
My old apartment endures, and remains relatively unchanged, although my donated scuba locker downstairs is MIA. The empty lot next door, once a bottle recycling location, and then overflow parking for guests, now contains an additional “Sea Dream” unit of apartments, owned by the same man.
The diversified beauty and vast availability of Ryukyu Glass is a prominent fixture on Okinawa.
The sensual spirituality of Obon and auditory and visual delight of Eisa, both cultural celebrations taking place here this week and worthy of their own blog – stayed tuned!
And finally, last but not least, one venerated vernacular v-word: vending. The idea that vending machines, happily selling cold and hot drinks alike, should be available anywhere and everywhere one could possibly imagine parched thirst worthy of immediate satiation is part and parcel with Japanese culture. They are everywhere, quite literally. People will double-park, of course with their hazards on, and run out of their still running cars to grab a quick drink, not minding the inconvenience to rush-hour traffic. After all, a coffee fix is a coffee fix, no? Or, better yet, I once passed a lone vending machine in the middle of sugar cane fields at a country crossroads. Okay, not so odd you might think; farmers get thirsty too, especially working outside in the subtropical heat and humidity here. Not so odd until you realize that not only was a concrete foundation prepared and poured for this sole vending machine which protruded into one of the fields, but that power poles and lines were run only to power this one machine! Those are quite parched farmers, or, more likely, this is the best visualization of the power of Big Sugar I have ever witnessed!
Okinawa retains its charms and more. And these charms are not just skin-deep, certainly not derived by physical appearance or man-made structure. It remains steadfast in the language, the culture, the customs, and the climate. But in the end, it remains most safely secured in the peoples that share this island.
I live a charmed life, and I live in Okinawa, Japan.
- Jody Drives Naked!!! (fareastfling.me)
- Leving Home for Home (fareastfling.me)
- Tora! Tora! Tora! (fareastfling.me)