Legends of California #1: Baby Making Made Easy

When last we spoke, I left you with a promise: a photo essay of our neighborhood in Okinawa.  I spent months preparing.  I took hundreds of photos.  We literally did laps around our neighborhood, poking our heads into forgotten corners, trying to wring every ounce of interesting from the coral-crete crevices. All that said, there will be no such blog. Kind of alot has happened since then.

After a whirlwind tour through the South East, my family and I have established ourselves in a cozy little neighborhood about an hour north of San Diego.  Several of our friends moved from Oki about the same time as us, and have moved in down the street. Another bonus to our location is its proximity to the hospital: about 2 miles.  This dramatically aided my wife and I in our efforts to reproduce in a civilized fashion.

Our efforts were nearly stymied by my employer.  The United States Marine Corps is not known as a compassionate organization.  They scheduled field training the week we were due.  As the saying goes, “If the Corps wanted you to have a wife, they would’ve issued you one.”

While the Corps may be tough on families, individual Marine leaders tend to be fairly understanding, and will often work to accomplish both the goals of the unit and the goals of its members.  My unit’s goal was to blow stuff up…my goal was to be there for the birth of my first child.

After speaking with my commander, highly irregular arrangements were made for me to keep my personally owned vehicle nearby while we were in the field making it rain.  Whilst in the middle of such shenanigans, I received the call: wifey was four centimeters dilated. My CO noticed me standing there directing fire with one hand on a military radio and another on my cell phone. “I’m getting nervous, sir,” I said.

“Go, ” he replied, “Let us know how it turns out.”

While still wearing all my body armor, I sprinted for my car.  It was like a scene from The Dukes of Hazard.  I left a dust trail a quarter mile long as I left the training area.

In the end, I made it in plenty of time.  A couple of days later,  my command even sent flowers.   You stay classy San Diego.

 

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OkiLog #8: Churaumi in Photos

This life-sized bronze whale shark dominates the entrance of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.

This sign plays second fiddle to the bronze statue.

The atrium at the entrance. The entire complex faces the East China Sea.

A view of the atrium from the bottom of the complex near the turtle tanks.

The aquarium channels the reefs that surround Okinawa, and the result is one gorgeous tank after another.

The tanks are friendly to visitors of all ages.

The tanks are friendly to visitors of all ages.

Feeding time for the whale sharks. This is the most beautiful event I have ever witnessed.

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I wasn’t the only one mesmerized by it.

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This viewing window is the world’s largest single aquarium viewing pane.

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A different portion is home to some of the more aggressive species.

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One of my favorite parts of the entire experience, this alcove rests under the main tank.

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Mantas from the aforementioned alcove. I’m shooting directly up, hence the structures visible in the background.

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Nemo AND Dori. Need I say more?

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A superb example, this tank illustrates the beauty of the reefs here.

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One of the few intact examples of a giant squid, preserved for our viewing pleasure.

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One resident of the turtle tanks.

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As one exits the building, they are treated to a dolphin show. The narration is all in Japanese, but it’s still fun to watch. One of the dolphins has a prosthetic tail fin!

Up Next: Kuwae in Photos and Goodbye Okinawa!

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OkiLog #7: SCUBA

Hand signals are a huge deal underwater.

When I first received orders to Okinawa, folks that had already been here began telling me how beautiful the waters were, and how easy it was to get SCUBA certified.  I listened with rapt attention and promised myself that it would be one of the first things we did.

I arrived a few months ahead of my family, and I resolved to wait for them so my wife and I could get certified together.  When they finally did arrive, I was foaming at the mouth waiting to get in the water.  For a variety of reasons, immediate immersion didn’t happen.  Work trips, expensive plane tickets to the States, and a thousand other things got in the way.

We finally managed to carve some time(and a fair amount of disposable income) out of our lives in late 2011, so for my wife’s birthday, we signed up for SCUBA lessons.  I’m still kicking myself for “wasting” a year-and-a-half.

Me in my gear. In addition to being heavy, this stuff’s expensive!

Cruising along the wall at the Okinawa Toilet Bowl

Our instructor was a retired Green Beret named Scott. Scott is a large, happy ex-pat that loves to do nothing more than dive, talk about diving, teach diving, plan diving,  and talk more about diving.  He has a reputation for being a by-the-book instructor, and is known far and wide for his Pikachu wet suit. Seriously, the guy has a giant, yellow Pikachu suit complete with ears on the hood. It’s AWESOME!

Me and a lion fish. Note the washed-out color.

Same lion fish with a light shone on him from four feet away.

Shortly after earning our Open Water certification, I began pre-deployment training in Hawaii.  This afforded me the opportunity to do some diving there as well.  The reefs in Okinawa are vastly superior to the reefs off of Oahu, though Hawaii does have a few neat things to see.  I think it has to do with the amount of tourism.  Oahu has great quantities of non-certified vacationers, whilst Okinawa hosts more dedicated divers.  The mantra I live by is, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles.”

This is the Sea Tiger. It was a smuggling ship scuttled off the coast of Waikiki in 1999.

Something you’ll notice in these pictures is a TON of blue colors. The deeper you go, the bluer it gets, as other colors are slowly washed out.  See this link for a more thorough explanation.

Since I returned to Okinawa in the later half of 2012, I’ve had tons of opportunities to get in the water and I’ve made the most of it.  I’ve made new friends, seen cool things, and can’t wait for my first chance to dive at my next duty station.

I’m told that San Diego has fairly chilly waters(50-65 degrees Fahrenheit), so most folks use a thicker wet suit. It will be a big change from Okinawa’s 70-ish waters.  Apparently the Kelp Forests are filled with sharks and seals, etc.

As much as I’ve loved learning to dive here in the warm East China Sea, the new environment and new critters will be a welcome change.  I can’t wait to get home.

Up Next: A photo blog featuring the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium!

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OkiLog #6: A Three Hour Tour

Okinawa is known for it’s phenomenal aquatic life. The SCUBA diving is world class(I’ll cover that later), it boasts one of the best aquariums in existence(I’ll cover that later too), and the deep-sea fishing in the area has yielded quite a few monsters(I’ll cover that now).

IMG_2244To the left is our boat.  When we first boarded, I had my doubts about whether or not it would leave us stranded in an inconvenient place. Thirty minutes into the trip, with black smoke bellowing from the stern engine compartment, I had more doubts.  Our captain, a middle-aged Okinawan who didn’t speak much English, didn’t seem to be worried.  Yay for him.  It was easy to see Captain Jack’s expertise as he move around the boat, essentially handling all the crew jobs by himself.  He asked very little of us(no pun intended there), and after about two hours we arrived above an underwater buoy to begin “drift fishing.”

Our experience at the first buoy was completely ruined by a trio of inconsiderate dolphins that kept scaring away all the fish.  Our efforts at the next buoy were sabotaged by a rival fishing boat. Our attempt at the third buoy was ham-strung by both dolphins AND another boat. This was beginning to get frustrating.  Four hours on the water and we had NOTHING.

Finally, while on our way to yet another fishing spot, one of our trolling rigs “got hit.” The clickety-clickety of the line spooling out from the stern could be heard all the way from the bow, and those of us up front ran to the back to see what was going on. One of the guys hanging out back there had grabbed the operative road and was wrestling with an ENORMOUS marlin.  The angry fish was “tail-walking” across the water in an attempt to fight the pull of the line.  In what was probably the most anti-climatic moment of the day, when the big fish was about five feet from the boat, the hook tore through his skin and off he went. No marlin for us.

His name is Brutus. I’m eating him raw as I write this. No, really, Captain Jack turned him into sashimi for me.

After our epic defeat, we needed a win. We were all anxious to do something. We finally found a good spot and began to reel in a few yellowfin and bonita.  I feel like I should mention here that the fish(and the entire boat), smelled like(you guessed it) fish.  When I got home, my wife wanted nothing to do with me.  Our win came when yours truly felt a BIG hit and began to reel like my life depended on it. I’m pretty sure that if my rod hadn’t been mounted, both me and it would have gone into the water. One of the guys next to me grabbed a gaffing hook and begin to take swipes at what we first thought was a shark. Right when I got him to the top of the water, he dove under the boat, and really made me work at getting him back up to the surface. By this time Captain Jack had arrived and was helping me whilst my companion successfully connected the gaff stick to the monster. Once it was in the boat, the Captain jammed a metal spike into its brain and the big critter called it a day.

No rod, no problem.

After that we managed to catch fish at a pace high enough to keep us entertained.  I’m particularly proud of a fish I reeled in without the help of a rod.  After I hooked him, the reel popped of the mount and would’ve gone in the drink if not for the Captain and I pulling as hard as we could.  Our efforts gave us a good size yellowfin. By the time our boat began to troll back towards Okinawa, we had fifty fish.

Captain Jack making fillets.

 

Several hours later, we pulled back into Awase Port.  Captain Jack had called ahead, and several of his buddies met us on the shore. We laid out our fish, and then hired the Captain and his buddies to clean them for us.  Working with deft hands and skill born from years of practice, he cleaned all fifty fish in less than an hour. You can see a video of him working here.  He saved Brutus for last, and instead of filleting him, we opted for turning him into sashimi. I took home about ten pounds of him, and gave the rest away.  He tastes delicious!

Me and most of our catch. The big one’s mine:)

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OkiLog#5: Where everybody knows your name.

DSC_0148One of the best parts about being stationed in Okinawa is the level of exposure to local cuisine.  The Okinawan fare tends to be a Chinese-Japanese fusion, much like the architecture. The sushi is no exception.

Yoshi brandishing his signature samurai sword.

One of the main selling points of the apartment we chose was it’s proximity to one of the best sushi restaurants on Okinawa.  It is a five-second walk to Sushi Bar Yoshi Hachi.  It’s run by a polite and outgoing man named Yoshi Maekawa.

A native of Okinawa, Yoshi also owned a restaurant in Los Angeles for a while and hosted many famous people.

Yoshi with a 16-year-old Tiger Woods

Yoshi with a 16-year-old Tiger Woods

Since returning to Okinawa over twenty years ago, Yoshi has embraced the American military community whole-heartedly, and the proximity of his place to two of the larger installations has been a boon to business: most of his clientle are Americans.  The Americans have embraced him back. Yoshi has hosted the rank-and-file alongside several Commandants of the Marine Corps, and also has a picture of himself with Peter Pace.

The inside of Yoshi Hachi

The inside of Yoshi Hachi

The interior of the restaurant has pictures of all of Yoshi’s famous customers, as well as a few more obscure ones, and some of the random bits of decor common in eateries around the world.  His staff rotates like other restaurants, but a few have been there long enough to get to know Jon-San pretty well.  There was a server named Tatsu working there for a while that knew me so well, all I had to do was stick my head in the door and give him a thumbs up, and my order would be ready in 30 minutes.  Akemi is another staff member I’m fond of.  She barely speaks English, but I’m pretty sure she’s the nicest lady on the planet.

The first time I ate at Yoshi Hachi, Yoshi warned me to come early to avoid the crowd. When I told him that my wife hadn’t arrived in Oki yet, and that I planned on eating there every day, he warned me that she would be mad at me for spending so much money eating out. Sure enough, once my non-sushi-loving family arrived, my sushi intake was drastically reduced.  Over the last few years I’ve managed to get them to go with me a few times, and they have now found stuff they will eat.  I’m still the most adventurous eater here, but my daughter has been brave about trying the things I eat.  Escargot and basashi are two of the more daring things we have tried, neither of which are served in Yoshi’s place.

Top to bottom: Mint, pickled seaweed, raw tuna.

Another topic of discussion on my first visit was the proper way to eat sashimi.  Yoshi explained how to add seaweed and mint to the fish before dipping it into soy sauce.  Prior to this I’d just eaten the fish chunks. I like his way better.

Akemi the counter lady.  She can't speak much English, but she knows Jon-San real well.

Akemi the counter lady. She can’t speak much English, but she knows Jon-San real well.

Two Californias and a Rainbow Roll to go. Yes, this is what take out sushi looks like in Japan. It’s ok to be a little jealous…

At the risk of sounding like a commercial:
Kamakaze Platter!

 

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OkiLog #4: Fire on the Mountain

There are very few times in my life that I’ve experienced enough pain that I would carry the memory forever.  I’ve had mental, physical, and emotional trauma to be sure, but every once-in-a-while, I encounter a true soul-searing experience. This story is about one of those times, and happened a month or so ago on the side of Mt Fuji.

Oleoresin Capsicum is a nasty little substance that the military has added to their less-than-lethal arsenal.  The rule is that if you are going to carry it, you must have felt it’s effects, and proven that you can still “operate” while under it’s influence.  When I say “operate,” what I really mean is “flap my arms like a bird and pray for death.”

Some of those in my charge were going to be filling a billet that required them to be qualified with the substance, so they had to get trained.  I wasn’t going to make them do something I hadn’t also done, so ignoring the advice of some of my more-seasoned peers, I jumped in line.

I received a quick class in M.A.C.H. techniques, and I was on my way.  The first stop was a briefing by a sadistic young corporal.  His job was to actually spray me in the face with the stuff. He has a black heart and is the epitome of evil.  After he was done with me, he sent me with an observer-controller, whose job it was to gently shepherd me the rest of the way through the course.

I was made to do twenty military jumping jacks, then move on to apply a MACH technique to a guy in a foam suit.  By the time I began to track him down, the lava running down my face made it impossible to see, much less think.  I managed to apply a feeble impersonation of the move, then went on to execute some baton techniques.  After some questions to make sure I was still coherent, they led me to a “cool down” circle.  There was nothing cool about it.  I don’t have any video of myself walking the circle, but here is one I took of a few of my Marines.

I went into this whole thing knowing that this was an experience I’d talk about for years.  In my insatiable lust for new experiences, I may have gotten just a wee bit ahead of myself. I made sure that I had one of my guys record my trek through the course, and you can watch me here.

 

 

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OkiLog #3: All Aboard!

I‘d like to deviate from writing about Chatan for a while.  I’ve recently returned from a training exercise on the Japanese mainland, and have plenty to write about.  Most of the trip was spent in the shadow of Mount Fuji doing what Uncle Sam pays me to do, but for a day or two, my unit was unleashed on the unsuspecting Japanese country side.

A few of my fellow Belleau Woodsmen and I sought to make the trip to Tokyo for some well-earned respite…wrong move.  Tokyo exemplifies Japanese culture as much as Domino’s Pizza exemplifies Italian cuisine.  Sure, the signs were screaming in katakana, but everything else was a monument to the decline of eastern culture in the face of western expansionism.  No sooner had I mentioned wanting coffee than I laid eyes on the circular logo of a Starbucks.

The real gem in Tokyo is the train system.  Mt. Fuji is a ways away from the city, but my companions and I had no trouble finding a train to take us there.  We received guidance from a polite, quasi-bilingual local at Gotemba Station, then boarded the iron beast for our adventure.  Four trains later, we found ourselves in the Akihabara district, or Electric Town, to the locals.

The first portion of the ride was spent in an un-crowded car enjoying the warmth of the heated seats, and shuddering every time the doors opened to allow more folks to get on.  We began in a farming suburb, and gradually the train grew heavy with passengers and the scenery outside transitioned from beautiful mountains and flowing foothills into urban entanglement.

The passengers morphed as well.  Hunch-backed old ladies and young school girls slowly turned in to sharply dressed businessmen and couriers, grandfathers became public works laborers.  By the time we reached the heart of the city, the trains were standing room only, and I wasn’t surprised when I no longer had to hold the overhead rail to keep myself upright.  The press of foreign flesh negated the need for it.

On the ride back, I began to study the people themselves rather than the scenery outside the train.  The ones I saw now were of the same ilk as the ones that traveled with us earlier in the day, but instead of the fresh hope for a new day, these people were haggard and tired.  The high-powered businessmen no longer had the same wind in their sails.  I saw many of them relaxing against the strangers pressed against them, sleeping while standing.

As we travel away from one of the largest cities on earth, the train car empties. By the time we arrive back at Gotemba Station, we share the car with only a handful, and it’s dark and cold outside.  The Station itself seems to have gone to sleep.  I’m grateful for the relative quiet.  The truth of it is that there is too much in that city for me to write about in a hundred years, much less see in a day.

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