Okinawa: A Year in Review


  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

1stanniversary

Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.

9395886181_577e957bef_b

July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout

12803196154_8109387002_b

August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.

14560601340_a0c983c434_b

September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.

244768034_f79132018f_b

October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!

321927569_6195c13f32_b

November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.

12649834565_d1059691a9_b

December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.

11164886004_9c2d14828b_b

January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”

14759900253_bdc4bc16e6_b

February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.

12606496083_78e4c0f1bf_b

March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.

13374457233_98f4b1bc0f_b

April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.

11170751576_a2ab7ba840_b

May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.

14454495572_a08d6935a4_b

June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.

14315757449_60983fbea2_b

July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.

14680672389_d5781d109d_b

August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.

com___happy_anniversary_by_tsubaki_akia-d4jm8lw

O Christmas Half-of-a-Tree!!


“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree:  the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”  ~Burton Hillis

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”  ~Larry Wilde quotes

“Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree”  ~Charlotte Carpenter quotes

(See Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan for even more fun Japanese Christmas music)

Everyone seems to almost instinctively know what a Christmas tree is, and that is now no different here in Okinawa than say, in Duluth, Minnesota.  Such icons universally consist of a decorated tree (usually an evergreen), real or artificial.  But how many of us really know or understand the roots (pun intended!) of The Christmas Tree?

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Nothing says Christmas Tree like a Bonsai Bush!

Christmas trees have long been traditionally decorated with foods widely available, such as apples and nuts, but today can consist almost of anything with strong emotional or sentimental value, but often include garland, tinsel, and candy canes.  In the 18th century candles were often added, which then morphed to modern lighting with the wide introduction of electricity.  An angel or star often tops the tree, usually in representation of the Star of Bethlehem (from Jesus’ story).

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

An Origami Overture to Christmas and its Tree

Our current cultural and religious custom of the Christmas tree comes from 15th and 16th century devout Christians (including the reformist Martin Luther) who resided in the area of Europe now associated with modern Germany.  However, what most of us may find rather surprising is that the Christmas tree didn’t acquire popularity beyond this area until the second half of the 19th century, or well into the mid-to-late 1800s!  The Christmas tree has also been known as the “Yule-tree” (or Tree of Life), especially in discussions of its folkloristic origins.

Original Sin.  It's her fault.  Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

Original Sin. It’s her fault. Are modern ornaments still symbolic of forbidden fruit?

tumblr_mxnxjvkXQ61qdg05vo1_500While the origins of the modern Christmas tree are clear and undebated, there are a number of speculative theories of such custom and tradition prior to the 1400s.  Such icons are frequently traced to the symbolism of evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter pagan rites and rituals.  Such use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands has long been utilized to symbolize eternal life by widely diverse cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  Thus, a type of “tree worship” became common in ancient times and thus was common among the pagan Europeans when Christianity started to sweep the continent.   And, luckily for us, the rite and ritual survived the pagans’ conversion to Christianity (mostly through its continued use as the “Tree of Paradise” stage prop in the popular Paradise Plays of the 11th century), and became decorations for the house and barn alike (sometimes as wintry homes for song birds at Christmastime), and were sometimes used at the New Year to scare evil.

Now that's a tree, Japan!!

Now that’s a tree, Japan!!

I hope she doesn't celebrate ANY other holiday....

I hope she doesn’t celebrate ANY other holiday….

Given this backdrop, and having no tangible ties to any particular strong religious tradition (I think of Christmas and all its trappings, including the trees, as more symbolic of a generalized spirit of love and giving), we decided to leave all our more conventional holiday decorations at home during our move to Japan.  Sure, we brought a Santa hat and our stockings (we both still have our Mother-made stockings from our childhood!), but not much else, including our tree.  We decided to let the spirit of Okinawa and our living space dictate a new holiday rite for me and Jody.

When space is an issue....

When space is an issue….

First thing we had to do was find a tree.  Not a real one – those are hard to come by in Okinawa, a relatively remote sub-tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, but an artificial one.  But, we had to contend with our relatively low condo ceilings, along with a want for space.  On top of this, we find out that the initial artificial tree shipment to the base exchanges sold out in mere days…and, of course, we missed what only could’ve been a mad rush for trees.  Lucky for us we meandered one afternoon into the base craft shop looking for extraordinary ornaments for our as of yet unsourced tree, and behold:  a room full of artificial, pre-light, small-ish Christmas trees!  Expensive ones, but we were in luck.

Whole or Half:  You Decide

Whole or Half: You Decide

11491260433_bd0d618afe_bWe actually found (and purchased) a “half-tree.”  And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like:  a half of an artificial tree, with a stand that will support its lopsidedness, but which also has an anchor point/hook high up on the trunk in case you have to deal with, say, an unruly cat who may decide to climb the tree when no one’s looking….

Charlie Brown's Tree, the Japanese interpretation

Charlie Brown’s Tree, the Japanese interpretation

11491247796_7593c905da_bThe tree works perfectly in our place!  It is maybe 6.5 feet in height, and since it’s only half a tree, we were able to push it back into a corner to conserve space while allowing us to fill in the visibly accessible part of the tree that much more.

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally-sized box!

For once all our decorations fit into ONE normally sized box!

11491201744_4091ecf2fc_b

11491176634_19e24c83fc_bFor decorations we went with our initial Asian, Japanese, and Okinawan-inspiration.  So, our ornaments consisted mainly of origami art (cranes, butterflies, and angels), paper crafted shapes, wooden dolls, miniature obis, and other flirtations with the Far East.  These, combined with the minimalistic white lighting of the tree, results in a quite unconventional appearance by most western standards.  We love it!

11491266983_124e0ceeed_b

11491139985_b7195dc61d_b

11491244823_1861dafb41_bBut, to top off our tree, we wanted truly spectacular and of local custom and tradition.  What we found was perfect for the occasion:  a Hanagasa.  The Hanagasa is a brilliantly colored, flowered-adorned hat worn in many areas of Japan, but here the Okinawans have developed their own particular tradition regarding this type of headdress.  Worn by Okinawan women performing a dance called Yotsudake (“four bamboo,” referring to the bamboo castanets played by the dancers), the large and unique silk hat features a gold-trimmed design of a stylized lotus flower and ocean waves, set against a backdrop of blue skies.  It’s mesmerizing to watch one dancer on her own with her slow, graceful movements; it is breathtaking to see five or six woman so adorned move as one.

...Cleo waits patiently....

…Cleo waits patiently….

11491192294_bf680c0017_b

11491181675_17fb20f702_bWe found a smaller version of the Hanagasa designed for display on dolls, and it worked perfectly to complete our tree.  Like the symbolism that a topping star may hold for others, our Hanagasa makes for an unforgettable sight, and its harmonious flowers seem to sway in time to the carols we often play in the background, things which should remind us all of the beauty, resilience and connectedness that we all share, with each other, and with every other living thing, during this spiritual time of love and giving.

11616053176_0d47fc3ec6_b

11616012886_8cf685975c_b

11615344235_28dcdd1a5c_bMerry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and Happy Holidays.  Whatever YOU prefer to say, please don’t forget to pause your daily grind, express your thanks to those that deserve it, be giving to those that need it, and let Love and Hope win for just a few fleeting moments as you gaze upon your own tree, or other perhaps more appropriate symbolic icon of the season.

coexist-holiday

How are you celebrating Christmas this year??

Sakura-wishes-you-a-Merry-12-Days-of-Christmas___-itll-be-her-turn-soon

Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan


“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

desktop2007111411949722mq4

Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.

christmas-anime-69

However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.

christmas-heart-holiday-lights-love-thumb-400x265-2426

So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.