投稿者 HakuAi | 1月 11, 2009

Just another day in paradise

White, sandy beaches… warm, sunny skies… tropical flowers and lush greenery all around… there probably isn’t anyone in Japan that doesn’t immediately conjure up these images in her brain upon hearing the word “Okinawa”.  But what’s it really like living in paradise?  Take it from someone who used to groan “Again?” every time her mother wanted to drag her away from her Super Nintendo for a day at one of O`ahu’s many gorgeous beaches, paradise is a state of mind.  Okinawa is definitely warmer and greener than, say, Tokyo, but every place has its own challenges in between sunny days at the beach.  

I must admit, after surviving my third Yokohama winter plus a nasty divorce, I was aching to get back to a land where snow was nonexistent and life was not easy, but perhaps easier.  As I was contemplating returning home for good that frigid January, I met Rody, who happened to be from Okinawa and turned out to be the love of my life.  It didn’t take much deliberation at all before I decided I wasn’t ready to leave Japan just yet, so by June I was here in my new home – Okinawa City.  

Rody, who’s lived in Okinawa nearly all his life, tried his best to convince me I shouldn’t expect too much of his hometown.  He warned I’d be lucky to find a job that paid more than 650 yen per hour.  He told me I shouldn’t expect to be able to live without a warm coat or swim in January like in Hawaii, and if anything it was going to feel colder than in Yokohama because of the harsh wind.  He said I’d have to splurge for a car and brush up on my horrible driving skills, because you can’t go anywhere here without driving, not even to the grocery store.  I told him I was up to all of those challenges and more if it meant we would be together.  

So how do these warnings stand up to that hibiscus-wearing Hello Kitty keitai strap image?  First of all, let’s get those climate-related myths straight.  Those posters hanging in Tokyo trains advertising Okinawa as being 20 degrees and sunny in the winter look pretty enticing, don’t they?  They don’t mention the dark, rainy days that get down to 10 – and Rody wasn’t kidding about the wind-chill factor.  I brought my down jacket and wool muffler from Yokohama and I’m glad every day that I did.  Still, I know every reader in Tokyo is going, “10 degrees – boo hoo”, and I’ll admit I’m definitely grateful I’m not huddled four inches from a room heater as I write.  

Cold though the wind may be, at least I don’t have to walk in it any more than the distance between work and my car.  She’s an adorable little red Daihatsu Gino and I got her at an amazing bargain with Rody’s help, but I have to admit that driving was the new challenge I had been least looking forward to.  I relished the daily 20-minute walk from my apartment to the station and back when I lived in Yokohama – it let me stay in shape without even thinking about it.  Besides, I hadn’t driven in years and certainly never on the left side of an insanely narrow two-lane road.  Still, Rody was right: the lack of a train system outside of the capital and the unreliable buses make it tough to get anywhere in Okinawa City without a car.  I did manage to walk to the nearest Jusco and back the day before Rody insisted on renting a temporary car for me, and it only took an hour each way… in the blistering summer sun… lugging about 10 pounds of groceries on each arm, groceries which included milk and other perishables.  I enjoy the heat and don’t get food poisoning easily, but most locals, like Rody, wouldn’t bother to walk two minutes to the convenience store down the street if wheels were available.  

So I had to compromise on the driving, but at least Okinawa City offers the perfect solution for the walker in me: the Comprehensive Exercise Park, the largest and most magnificent free-entry park I’ve seen in Japan, conveniently located just a couple of blocks from our apartment.  Every day I go down there to make up for not having walked to and from a train station, I not only get my exercise but enjoy beautiful scenery of all sorts: winding paths enclosed by trees that make you feel as if you were wandering through the jungle,  a wide road leading straight to the ocean where you can stop and chat with neighbors out walking their dogs, a pond where vending machines sell food for pigeons and koi, and another where you can hang out with turtles, ducks, and the occasional stray cat.  My favorite part is the rickety wooden staircase climbing so high my mother wouldn’t be able to take them without gasping for breath, leading up to an observatory deck with a view of the whole city.  With so many amazing places to explore, walking is no longer a mere necessity to get from place to place but a 40-minute window to relax and unwind each day.  Still, it’s hard to drag myself outside for a walk when it’s 12 degrees above freezing…just barely above, as far as anyone here is concerned.  

Finding a decent job wasn’t impossible either – I was lucky to land a job at an elementary school just a few months after moving in.  Being an ALT isn’t exactly my ideal occupation, but it’s the best way here to save money.  Ingratiating myself with my coworkers has turned out to be something of a challenge, though.  When people here see a face that doesn’t look Japanese, they often write the person off as an intruder from the U.S. military who has no interest in them or in Japan whatsoever.  Many cannot fathom that a foreigner might live among them of her own free will without the shelter of an American base to go home to every night, let alone bother to learn Japanese, and don’t know what to make of one who does.  When I went drinking with Rody and his friends from school days, they were quite crass, cracking “baka-gaijin” jokes every left and right and only deigning to apologize after I told them off loudly in Japanese.  So we found our own group of friends: a Japanese girl my age who barely speaks two words of English and a couple of military guys from states I’ve never been to who, incidentally, are very interested in Japanese language and culture.  We’re not the most typical group around here – no one knows what language they should use to serve us when we go out to eat – but we’re all learning a lot from each other and have great fun together. 

So is Okinawa really paradise to those who live here?  Maybe not when I’m in my car stuck in traffic or suffering from yet another cold, and definitely not when I have to fend off angry anti-American comments.  But when it’s summer, and I’m home playing Nintendo with Rody and our friends as the sun floods the room with rays of light and warmth, the windows open to let in the breeze and the music of the birds – that’s paradise to me, or at least as close as it gets.




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