Friday, December 30, 2011

The Margarita Tree

We bought a Margarita Tree.

Alternatively, we bought a Gin and Tonic Tree. I guess it just depends on the season and what other drinks are available. But I’m really excited to have a tree. She’s a lime tree, and I can’t wait to see her.

Okinawa has its own unique species of lime. Sometimes called the Taiwan tangerine, flat lemon, or the hirami lemon (thanks Wikipedia!), it looks like a lime, but it tastes like a lemon. I’m sure its juice is wonderful, but no good for mixed drinks. 

No, we were going to get a good old fashion lime tree. And when one is in Japan, where does one go to get a citrus tree? Make-Man!

Let me take a moment to explain Make-Man. It is your Japanese go-to store of all your making needs. Leora and I did some recon and tried to take in the entire store. The best way to describe it is Japan’s version of Home Depot, but it’s so much more. There’s lumber and power tools, blow torches and build-it-yourself bookshelves. But on the other side of the building is pet goods and appliances, 100 yen store, portable burners, towels and actual pets. Pretty much, Make-Man is everything you could ever need and more.

The smell of lumber and orchids greets you at the door. Sure it’s nice for the first minute, but it only gets stronger. As it attacks your olfactory senses, you ears are assaulted with cartoony Japanese music. Not the classical music, but the stuff that plays in the background of anime and helps lead to seizures in lab rats. Think about that, but with the chorus of the song put on repeat.

I make fun of it, but Make-Man is awesome. And they will help you make anything, including a porch garden. And they so want to be helpful. The employees went out of their way to try to help us. But, there is one problem. Not a lot of English speakers.
Fortunately for us, there was an employee who spoke English. Unfortunately, not in the garden department, and he knew nothing about gardens. So they found somebody in gardens who could understand what we were looking for – a translator for our translator, if you will. Most people would say it reminded them of being at the UN. Leora and me? It reminded us of an episode in the first season of West Wing. But that’s a different story for a different time.
We left the store with Japanese basil, thyme, rosemary, and dill. Pots and soil, an orange tree... and a lime tree. I hope we don't kill it.

Private note for Matan Skolnik:
If took you awhile to find me because I was hiding in the lime tree, it meant you weren’t looking that hard. It’s a pretty small tree.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Away from home for the holidays

I love to watch TV. It’s one of my weaknesses, for sure. But growing up, it was also something that we did as a family: my mom and I watched Gilmore Girls and Judging Amy; my dad and I watched Walker Texas Ranger and SVU marathons; you get the idea. So, the unknown TV situation in Japan was definitely something that made me nervous before I arrived. I assumed there would be something, but how much foreign language programming can one person really watch (completely without subtitles) before going insane? And what if Hulu didn’t work?!

Well, I am here to report that the situation is better than I imagined, though not great. First of all, Hulu works well. Second, the armed forces has one cable contractor, and we are basically subject to whatever channels they want to provide. That means that we have completely random and hysterical channels: E!, FX, Univision, MTV, Spike, A&E, ESPN International, CNN, Bravo, Animal Planet – you get the idea. Did you notice anything missing?

Ah, yes – there’s no network TV. Well, no traditional network TV. We do have the “Armed Forces Network”, AFN for short. AFN is funny for a lot of reasons. First of all, because we are living in the future here, all of our network shows are broadcast the day after they are broadcast in the states. How I Met Your Mother on Tuesdays, NCIS on Wednesdays, SVU on Thursdays. Second, shows are broadcast between 7pm and 10pm instead of 8pm and 11pm. I’m told that has to do with the shows being beamed from California or some such nonsense, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything. Third, the selection of shows (just like the selection of movies out here) is, shall we say, random.

But the funniest thing about AFN by far is the selection of commercials. Because AFN is not a traditional network, they are not allowed to show real “commercial” commercials. Instead, we get public service announcements, news updates from the Army and Navy, weather updates (though they barely mention Okinawa), and LOTS of dramatizations designed to teach Marines what not to do. Don’t skateboard without a helmet, or in your uniform! Don’t plug outside devices into military computers! Don't drink and drive – at all! Recycle! Plan your emails in advance to use less internet time! (I think that one is designed for enlisted people who possibly are not allowed to have their own computers, and have designated internet time.)

The selection of commercials I just described was accurate two weeks ago. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, though, about half the commercials are pre-recorded messages from high-up military officials and (usually) their wives, thanking us for our service. (Well, not me, but you know what I mean.) There are also taped messages from senators and congresspeople, sending greetings from Washington and words of thanks to all the active duty military personnel.

Most of these clips have the same theme: we know it’s hard to be away from home for the holidays, but thanks for all you’re doing to keep us safe, etc. I get the idea that these commercials are supposed to be comforting, as if Marines and their families are supposed to watch them and say, gee, we ARE far away from our families, but at least people out there appreciate us! And that message does come across. The whole idea is lovely, really. But the truth is, those commercials make me more homesick than anything else. I’m plenty aware every day that I’m away from home. All I have to do to remember is look out the window and see the East China Sea instead of 90th St and Central Park. I don’t really need the reminder from every commanding officer AFN can come up with and put in front of a fireplace decked out in Christmas decorations. So, while this isn’t really our holiday season (nowhere is that more apparent than here, by the way), I guess I’m just saying that I am very aware of not being at home for the holidays. I hope that this island will start to feel like home soon. In the meantime, though, please know that I am thinking of you all, and wishing everyone a very Happy Hanukkah and a Shabbat Shalom.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good Eats

What a huge week. 

This past week, we had a pre-Hanukah party in the Jewish Community. We got a relatively big crowd, and met some really great people. I’m not sure if we can repeat that kind of success any time soon, but I think there is what to build on.

I also started work for one of the local Combat Logistic Regiments. I’m a long-term sub while their official chaplain is out, but I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve only been there for two days and I’ve already had some really good counseling sessions.

But let’s talk about the most important thing that happened: A few nights ago, I ate chicken.

Keeping kosher in Japan is not exactly the easiest thing to do. Eating “not-treif” in Japan isn’t much easier. But we have an apartment, and we have an oven, and the commissary is stocking Empire Chicken Parts!

So it’s a little freezer-burned. When you live on the other side of the world from the closest Kosher butcher, you have to make a couple of compromises. But, a little paprika, maybe some seasoning salt, and maybe a little Old Bay Seasoning (yes, they sell that here), and voila – dinner is served…and it’s delicious.

When eating out in Japan, it is important to know that local restaurateurs want to make the most delicious food in the world. I am sure they can make a spicy tuna roll without putting in shrimp. But why would a person want that? Treif is (probably) delicious. 

There is a certain blank look that comes on the waiter’s face every time we try to explain that we want the salmon, but we don’t want the crab. I don’t have to understand Japanese to know what he/she is really saying: “Would you eat it on a boat? Would you eat it with a goat?” No, Sam-I-Am, that’s not how I roll and I’m not going to rhyme either.

While it’s tough, we have found that, with our policy of eating hot-dairy, we are able to eat out. There are some American-ish places. Supposedly there’s a Bollywood and Indian Food restaurant, and I heard there is a Buddha-Bodai-esque Buddhist Vegan Chinese place (but I don’t know where). But, we’re in Japan. We want Japanese food!
I have a favorite non-sushi restaurant, but I have absolutely no clue what it’s called. I like to refer to it as “the delicious restaurant halfway between Kinser and Foster next to MOS Burger…you know the one with the white sign and all the cars in the parking lot.” There’s another one between Camp Lester and Kadena AFB, but I haven’t been to that one yet. They make Udon (basically really thick-rice noodles), and they make it good. 

The number one reason that I like this place: its delicious. The second reason is that I can actually watch as they make the udon, and I know they don’t put anything in it! It comes with vegetable tempura and fruit/fish wrapped in seaweed and rice. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. While Japan isn’t known for making prices affordable, this place is pretty cheap. That also makes me happy.

So there is udon, but there’s also some pretty solid sushi. We went to a phenomenal sushi restaurant with a local couple (they are Americans, but they’ve lived here for nearly 50 years). It was good. I thought the sushi in NYC was comparable, so it wasn’t life-changing. However, it was very good and very authentic.

And then, there is the sushi-go-round. It’s exactly what it sounds like (as long as you were expecting me to say “sushi going around the restaurant on a conveyer belt”). It seems weird, and you start to wonder what happens to the stuff that keeps going around and around after an hour or two. But it’s hilarious, and not bad at all.
There is so much to talk about, and I could talk about the food here forever. 

Tomorrow, Leora and I are going down to one of the marinas to find some fresh caught fish for Shabbos. I’m pretty excited about it. I feel like “Joseph Who Loved the Shabbos” (if you haven’t read it, it’s a quick read and its life changing); I'm gonna buy a fish and its going to be huge (and it will fit in my kitchen). We’ll let you know next week if we are successful in our attempt to find fresh fish (it’s harder than you’d think!). Until then, eat some readily-available kosher food for us. We miss it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Photo Series #2: Our first accidental fieldtrip

This past Sunday, itching to get out of our hotel room and tired of running errands, Yoni and I decided to set off and explore the island. We read in a guide book that tangerine picking is something you can do during the winter in Okinawa, and bolstered by our positive experiences blueberry picking at camp, figured – sure! We took a beautiful drive all the way to the end of the Okinawa Expressway (it only covers about 2/3 of the island) and beyond, and found the sign we were looking for:

Unfortunately, once we arrived, a very nice non-English-speaking Japanese woman communicated to us that, actually, tangerine picking season ended November 30 (it was December 4). Of course. At least we got to buy some tangerines.

As we had spent a good portion of the morning getting up to this small village where we now found ourselves with nothing to do, we decided to follow road signs to Mt. Yaedake (Mt Yae for short).

The road became smaller and narrower as it wound up through the mountains. Eventually, after about 45 minutes of incredibly beautiful driving, we found an observation spot to pull over and take some pictures.

The jungle is incredibly thick in the north part of the Island; the Marines use it for jungle warfare training!
Once we got about 4/5 of the way up the mountain, cars were no longer allowed on the road. We left the blueberry in a conveniently located parking lot, and climbed the rest of the way by foot. We were headed for this observatory-ish place, at the very top.
Look how big those leaves was like Jurrasic Park!
Eventually, we made it to the top and were greatly rewarded for our efforts. The 360-degree views of the island were incredible. I learned later that Mt. Yae is the second-highest peak on island.

See the Blueberry in the parking lot?

After a brief resting period, we returned to the car and headed back to the highway. Starving, we stopped for some ice cream in Nago (the big city of the northern half of the island. 

We sat overlooking the beach to eat, and guess what we saw?!

If you look very closely, you can see the observatory where we stood at the top of the mountain! It's in the very center of the picture. If you can't see it, just take my word for it - it was there. All in all, not bad for an accidental field trip.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Yoni and I realized last week that, while we’ve touched on a lot of big-idea topics on this blog, we have neglected to update you all on some of the everyday things that have been going on here. So that’s what I’m going to try to do here!

First things first: on Tuesday, we will be moving into our permanent lodging, an apartment on the second floor of the North Foster Towers. The apartment is located on Camp Foster, very close to the Jewish Chapel, where Friday night services are conducted. It’s a bit of a miracle that we were able to land this apartment. See, the housing office basically can put you wherever they want. The only rules they follow are these two: you are supposed to live close to where you work; and each family is supposed to have two options to choose from. If you don’t like one of those two options – too bad for you. They also don’t particularly care if you have pets or not, even though pets are not allowed in all forms of housing. Now, as many of you know, Yoni and I have a dog. We also (for obvious reasons) need to live within walking distance of the Jewish Chapel, even though it’s not Yoni’s primary place of work and so not the location the housing office is supposed to take into account. Luckily, the housing office was sympathetic to our cause, and did everything in their power to get us the housing we needed. Our new place has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen big enough for at least 7 people to stand in – not to mention our own washer and dryer! For Yoni and me, coming from our 1-bedroom Manhattan apartment, this new place will be palatial. We are very excited to move in and feel a bit more settled.

 Second, we bought a car! It’s pretty impossible to get around the island without a car, and while Yoni’s fellow chaplains were very good-natured about chauffeuring us around, we couldn’t depend on them for too long. Our new (used) car is a bright blue Nissan Cube – not a car you would ever see in the states, but awesome in its funny-looking-ness. I like to say that the car selection in Okinawa is similar to the car selection in Israel; I think this will give many of you a pretty good idea of what kinds of cars you see on the roads here. Here is a picture of our new car, which we affectionately refer to as the Blueberry:

Third, on Thursday night we went to the Chaplain Corps Ball, celebrating the 236th birthday of the Chaplain Corps. We were pleasantly surprised that there was a viable vegetarian option for us, and we met many of the island’s chaplains and their spouses. (A funny side note: almost every woman at the ball was wearing a floor-length dress – prom dress style! I was certainly underdressed.) There was even dancing! There was also a bit too much invoking of Jesus for me…but that was to be expected, and that’s also something that will be hard to change. But overt Christianity aside, we enjoyed our night at the Chaplain Ball, and are working on making some friends here so that we can feel normal and settled.

Finally, my mom mentioned that some of you are curious about the availability of American food here on base (and off). Here is a brief (but not exhaustive) listing of American restaurants I’ve seen. On base: Popeye’s, Captain D’s, Burger King, Subway, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin Donuts, Charley O’s, Manchu Wok, Pizza Hut, Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Off base: McDonald’s, A&W, Starbucks. Hope that at least gives you some of idea of what is available here. If there are other questions you have about life here, leave them in the comments area, and we will do our best to address them!

Shavua tov to everyone; have a wonderful week!