さくら….or Sakura.

14 02 2011

You’re pretty impressed with my Japanese there aren’t ya?  Juuuust admit it, I know you are.

Disclaimer:  If you are not a White Stripes fan, I apologize in advance.  I’m hoping you’ll read this and just not ever know what’s going on.  For those of you who waited hours to see Jack White live (forever damaging your ear drums in the process) and those of you who cried when they cancelled the aftershow at ACL,  read on.

*****

When I arrived in Okinawa last year, I planned to essentially conquer the island and  do it fast-like.  I wanted to do everything, and do it NOW.  Much like my Houston adventure plan that dream fizzled out quickly.  Between real life and settling into a foreign country, I only had time for a conquest every so often.  I’ve finally realized it’s better that way.  No need to go bone broke trying to see everything in a short time.  So then (and now) I take it slow. Figure out the roads, see the little acorns, feel the air near my fingers, and thank St. Andrew I can live somewhere that castles still exist.  And it’s working out nicely I’m proud to report.

One of the activities that I failed to get to last year was the Sakura festival, otherwise known as Cherry Blossoms.  It’s one of those things that really creeps up on you around here.  The trees only bloom for about two weeks so if you’re going to do it, you better make it fast – like a 300 MPH torrential outpoor from the sky fast – and get your behind to a good flower-viewing site.

Cherry Blossoms are the beautiful, sometimes stubby trees you see that have thousands of little pink or white blossoms all over them.  They only bloom for a few weeks out of the year and climate drastically affects when that will be.  The trees are mostly found in Japan, Canada, the US, the Philippines, the Koreas, and Germany.   Okinawan cherry blossoms are special for two reasons – 1. Opposite to mainland Japan, the flowers here bloom North to South on the island, mainland being South to North and 2.  our cherry blossoms are pink.  I mean PINK.  Okinawa is famous for many things – Shisha dogs, Ryukyu dancing, blue orchids, a massive aquarium, and their PINK cherry blossoms.

DC Cherry Blossoms:

Okinawa Cherry Blossoms:

 

Like I've been saying…..PINK!

While I’m not really into it the background of the Cherry Blossoms, perhaps you are so I am willing to explain. If Jolene rang my doorbell and asked for the story, I would tell her, “The legend goes something like this.”  Way way way back in the day, it was considered good luck to have “hanami” –  a picnic – under a Sakura tree.  Initially, this practice was only allowed to the elite, those of the imperial palace, but eventually it was an activity that all were allowed to participate in and a tradition that is still carried on today.  The Japanese Meteorological Agency monitors the cherry blossom season, called the “sakura senzen (translation: the cherry-blossom front),” and annual festivals are scheduled around the predicted dates of the front’s arrival.  The “front” always starts in Okinawa and works it’s way to to the North of mainland by April.  If you ever visit Japan, you’ll see cherry blossoms plastered all over everything and a pure overload of the flowers arriving during the early few months of each year.  They can be found painted on plates, t-shirts, mugs or stationary, used in anime and manga, and sewn onto kimonos.  The flower is also represented on the back of the 100 yen coin and used as a flavor in Starbucks drinks for a while: think, the sakura latte.  Seriously.  The Japanese are a culture of symbolism and not to fret, the cherry blossom was not left out this tradition.  Because it is only in bloom for about 2 weeks before dying and falling off of the tree, the flower can sometimes represent mortality and the preciousness of life.  It’s an omen of good fortune to come and the beginning of spring.  They were even painted on the sides of WWII suicide bomber planes as a sign of intensity and get this – there was actually a unit of air raiders in Japan called “Yamazakura” or cherry blossoms.  Pretty scary stuff right?  I don’t know what I’d do if I saw a cherry blossom plane of the seven nation army flying over me…..

Anyway, enough history don’t you think?  I mean, I’m bound to pack it up and call it done if I have to type much more of that, sorry.  Back to the story at hand.

Somewhere near Nago

So I missed the festival last year, we’ve clarified that.  And as shocking as this is going to be, I, little Jimmy the Explorer, I missed the festival again this year.  I had the schedule, I had the dates, I had a staff alerting me that the flowers were blooming.  I just don’t know what to do with myself sometimes, ya know?  Thankfully, my Cherry blossom death letter had not been written quite yet.  I was talking to one of my employees about wanting to go and being sad that I missed the festival and she mentioned she wanted to go as well.  Now, Miki is one of those people you meet and you just think, we’re going to be friends.  We’re always trying to plan things and nothing ever works out.  But it sounded like this was going to work!  There was a festival still going on down in Itoman (the town furthest South on Okinawa) which happens to be Miki’s hometown.  It was a night festival so the trees were adorned  with little lanterns and beautiful lights.  With the backdrop of a full white moon, it was going to be a perfect night.

Miki came to work the morning before our little plan was to take place and let me know that the festival was over.  The little bird that told her it was still going on had lied, it had ended two days before we planned to see it.  I think it was her baby brother so you can’t really be too mad at the guy right?  Or maybe we can…I mean, he does LIVE in the city.  Oh well.  Never fear, we had a new plan.  We were saying screw the festival, who needs a festival with lots of little lights and tons of people and absurd amounts of fried dough balls of octopus?  The new plan was to meet at the restaurant the following day and we would just make our own festival.

I woke up the morning of said event in my little room and immediately started thinking of ways to bail.  For starters, it had been a cold, cold night and I had the beginnings of a killer headache.  It felt like little Suzy Lee was throwing broken bricks at my head.  I mean really Okinawa, why can’t you be nicer to me? Let’s shake hands and make a pact to show each other some love.  On top of that, I was pretty sure I was wasting my time – I mean, I’m not a huge fan of flowers, not going to lie.   I strongly considered the passive manipulation approach but as I was deciding my game plan,  I got a text from Miki. “The weather is perfect, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m off work!  I’m so excited!”  Shit.  Stop breaking down Steph, there’s no home for you here negative sakura thoughts, time to get on board.  I made a pot of coffee, hopped in the shower and prepared for our little journey.  Miki was off a little earlier than expected so I slammed one more cup of coffee (when I really wanted to slam a screwdriver) and off we went.

Things to know about Okinawa: 1. There are no street signs.  Like….none.  It’s like every man’s nightmare and every woman’s dream: directions MUST be based on landmarks.  2.  When you do see a sign it’s one of those that says how much further to your destination; they are never right.  On this trip we passed 3 signs for our destination starting at 11 km away, then 7, then 4.  We travelled 16.  And finally 3. The highest posted speed limit on island is 80 kph and that’s on the expressway.  For those of you who won’t take the time to do the black math – that’s 49.7 mph.  Forty freaking nine.  Okinawa is a continuing, never ending lesson in patience, ladies and gents.

This is what it can, but did not, look like. at least when we were there.

Miki and I are slowly (as there’s no other way) making our journey up to Nago and we start to see the cherry blossoms.  Just a few at first dotting the expressway shoulders and then more and more as we can see the hills the further North you went on island.  Miki hadn’t been acting completely thrilled with this trip either as the weather had turned a little nasty on us, but now we were really getting excited.  I was thinking I can’t wait, I just don’t know what to do with myself.  The trees were beautiful.  When the expressway ended our little journey led us onto a two-lane road that we followed all the way up to Mount Yaedake.  This is where the trees REALLY started.  They lined both sides of the road and leaned juuuuust enough to give you a tunnel effect.  It was like the trees were mocking us, thinking, Sure.  It’s MY fault for being famous. I’m allowed to slouch a little.  You idiots drove all the way up here to see me!

You know how there’s always the hardest button to button on your favorite peacoat ladies or gentleman on the cuff of your sleeve?  Well that’s what it was like trying to find this last turn.  This was the 16 km journey that we were told was 11 and then 7 km about 8 km later.  Did you get all that?  Yea… exactly.  But alas, we found our turn and we found our cherry blossoms.

Miki-san!

the holes for your head were SO big!

I think we squealed just as loudly around every corner as we had around the first corner as these things seriously make you think you don’t know what love is until you’ve see them.  They can truly hypnotize you.  We were practically doing hand springs, and I have to say Miki was adorable.  Even though she lives in Okinawa, it had been forever for her since she’d been to a Sakura festival.  In the end, we decided it was much better that we went by ourselves and missed the actual festival.  The amount of people that were out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday was amazing – I can’t imagine what it would have been like over a weekend.  And not to worry, there was one hold out family still making fried dough balls of octopus.  We opted for the ice cream wagon instead.  Miki had sakura flavored and I had a choice to make between the apple blossom pie, a little cream soda, or the hot chocolate.  The day was clearly a success and I was SO glad I hadn’t bailed.  Oh, and I went with the hot chocolate.

Sugar never tasted so good.

All for now friends, have a good day.

xo

steph

R.I.P White Stripes.  You did us good.





An explanation.

9 02 2011

I almost deleted this blog about 15 minutes ago.  You’re probably thinking, ohhh great, here we go again.  Another reason why she never updates this thing.  I don’t blame you at all if that’s where your mind is at when reading this.  I mean let’s be real, I finally finished telling the SCUBA stories that happened TEN MONTHS AGO last week.  That’s ridiculous!  But friends and family, I offer you an explanation – yes, another one.  This is different than the others as this is the honest-to-god truth.

It’s gotten incredibly difficult for me to write and keep up with this blog the way I had originally intended.  From the beginning of this, I wanted it to be about the adventure of moving to a foreign country, the trials and triumphs of that process and the crazy things I got myself into once I was in Okinawa.  And I did that fairly well.  I blogged about my time in Houston during training, about the painstaking process of learning the military ways and the fun I was having in the meantime.  It’s easy to write from an adventure standpoint when everyday brings you something new.  Then of course I met TB, Jesse, and my life changed even further.  We’ve had lots of adventures together: ziplining, traveling to Kyoto and Hawaii, furniture stores (yes, it’s an adventure), roller slide parks, casing the beach for sea glass, and making our own version of the holidays.  But eventually those days slow down and real life sets in.

Don’t get me wrong, real life is great.  Real life is better than it’s ever been.  I’m so happy with Jesse and the life that we are building together.  But I didn’t want to write about it.  This life was private, it was ours and I held very closely to my heart.  Maybe too close.  I was afraid that writing something overly personal would mess something up with us, or somehow push us apart.  Like if I was putting everything out there on the internet, it would be for everyone else instead of for us.  I talked to him about it, finally, after it had been bothering me for several months.  He simply told me, Steph.  Don’t waste your talent as a writer.  Write what you need to write, what you want to write.  That’s what makes you you and I love you.  And I said, well yea, I want to write about my life, but you’re a huge part of my life.  What if I write about us?  How do you feel about that – if I’m writing about the great times but the maybe not so perfect times?  And god bless him, he said, So?  Just. Write it already.

So here I am at a crossroads, realizing the way I write this blog has to change.  It has too be more about my day to day life, our day to day life, rather than just when we do a BIG adventure day.  What the hell’s an adventure anyway?  Webster says: “an exciting or very unusual experience; a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.”  UUUUUHHH, what?  Hey Webster, I didn’t sign up for uncertain outcome.  And hazardous?  I got my fair share of hazardous with the SCUBA don’t you think?  No, my idea of adventure has always been a little less awesome (or a little less dramatic) than all of that.  I just want to have a good time.  I want to love life and live it to the absolute fullest.  I want to share it with someone I’m madly in love with and someone that can share in my happiness and sorrows and vice versa.  I want to do things that maybe other people wouldn’t dare try, and I want to write about all of it.

So there’s my long winded, roundabout explanation.  I haven’t been writing because I’ve been avoiding.  I wasn’t writing about what I really cared about these days, so I wasn’t writing at all.  Lame?  Maybe.  But now at least you have the information and you can decide what to do with it.  I’m going to write more personally, more from the heart.  I hope that you all still read and enjoy, but if you just can’t stand another mushy blog, I won’t take it personally.  Not to worry though, I’ll still write about the “cool” stuff, too.  Thanks for stickin’ with it….

 

In the meantime, here’s a few more pictures of my life these days.  We are truly so happy.

 

 

There's nothing to do but love these two.

Happy Thanksgiving, Pufkin.

 

Daddy teaching little lady pants about fish.

We love angry birds. She can beat levels…she's 2.

Korean BBQ. The owner's gave us a Christmas present. Must have been for most frequent guests.

Adorable child. Her future boyfriends are already in trouble with Daddy.

Merry Christmas! from our little family to yours...

xo

steph





SCUBA. part 3 – my final dive.

2 02 2011

We’re not even going to talk about how long it’s been since I’ve posted a blog.  Eek.

I left off with me getting the bends.  I had them, they were not fun, and I’m glad to report that my new fancy international health insurance covers scuba related accidents.  Too little too late?  Some might say, especially after reading this next (and final) part of my scuba adventure…

I had decided that the bends incident was a one time thing.  Beginner’s (bad) luck.  I learned my lesson, I would do better next time.  To prove my point, that this was a one time incident, I asked Cynde to go dive with me again at the same place.  Maeda Point is a beautiful area of Okinawa and a great place to dive or even just snorkel if that’s more your style.

It’s always crowded, but once you get in the water, you hardly notice the other divers.  The water is that color of blue and aqua and turquoise that mixes together and you don’t really even know what color it is anymore.

Cynde and I once again suited up and got going.  We decided to dive along the reef wall which is a pretty safe area.  She knew I was nervous after the last time, and I fully appreciated that she was willing to ease up a little bit.  We were diving down to depth, and for whatever insane reason, I decided it wouldn’t be a big deal to go below 60 feet.  Again.  And it wasn’t a big deal until right around 70 feet when it started to feel like my eyes were being sucked out of my head.  I cannot even begin to find the words to explain the feeling in my face, in my sinuses.  I was terrified.  It was a battle to blink and reopen my eyes.  The pressure that was pushing against my eyes was unbelievable and was growing with every inch that we swam deeper into the ocean.  I had been trying to chase Cynde, she was leading our dive, and finally I just stopped knowing she would turn around eventually.  Once again, I was in panic mode – holding my regulator to my mouth, forcing myself to breathe and to keep blinking.  Even after all of these months have gone by, I remember at the time thinking I should try to clear my mask, but could I somehow blind myself by doing that?  Now let’s be real for a moment.  Could I have actually blinded myself?  Doubtful.  But at that point I was scared to mess any part of my equipment.  I can’t imagine the insane fear I would have felt if I had tried to take my mask off or what it would have felt like to have cold saltwater rushing to and burning my eyes.  But imagine if you will, having those kinds of thoughts while being 80 feet underwater.  Somewhere in the madness of these feelings I remembered that we had to do the safety stop this time around so at least I wouldn’t have the bends along with being blind.  I didn’t even bother putting air in my BCD, I just swam myself to the top with one hand on my weight belt (in case I freaked out and needed to throw it off) and one hand on my regulator so I didn’t spit it out.  When we finally broke through the top of the water, I’ve never been so happy to be breathing in fresh air.

Cynde was great through all of this.  I told her I was feeling weird, explained about my eyes and how my sinuses were feeling crazy and she said it was totally fine not to go back under.  She kept saying this is supposed to be fun and I kept thinking, when are we going to get to THAT part of this so called “recreational sport?”  We continued snorkeling around for a little while, seeing beautiful tiny fish, half of their bodies sky blue and the other half neon pink.  We saw a school of angel fish and a few Nemos.  I wasn’t enjoying this at all, none of it, and I decided that that was enough for the day.  We finally went back to shore after what felt like a lifetime and I truly can’t remember ever being so thankful to get out of the water.  I had sinus problems when I was a kid (I’ll mention here I checked “no” to the box that asked that specific question in dive class – the questionnaire that if you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should not scuba dive) and I chalked it up to a mixture of that and the weird weather on Okinawa.  I was going to live to dive another day.

I had to work the night of that fateful dive.  No big deal.  I got home from Maeda, took a shower, ate some lunch, went to work.  Work was fine, went off without a hitch.  Got back to the apartment and Jesse was still awake, I remember he was brushing his teeth.  He was just staring at me from the bathroom.  I thought he was upset with me about something from the way he was looking at me.  He spit out his toothpaste, rinsed his mouth as usual, took another squinted look at me and said, “What the hell’s wrong with your face?” and grabbed it between his hands.  I suppose I should have been offended, it’s not usually smiled upon when your boyfriend asks what’s wrong with your face.  But I figured I already knew what the hell was going to be wrong with it before I ever looked in the mirror.  Hello fear, old friend, welcome back!

Earlier in the day I had talked to Jesse about the dive and how bizarre my eyes and face had felt.  He had told me that that maybe it wasn’t a good idea if I continued diving.  I thought he was being a sweet, overprotective boyfriend, and I reassured him I would be and was completely fine.  I was just having a few strange dives.  I was thinking about our conversation right before I turned to look in the mirror.  I don’t know if it was the lighting in the restaurant or that people were just being nice by not saying anything, but I looked awful.  Tiny freckle sized blood bumps had appeared all over my eyelids and under my eyes.  From a distance, they truly looked like freckles, but up close there was no mistaking it.  Again, Jesse politely said, maybe that’s enough for your diving career huh?  We started googling dive injuries and found some really awful pictures of far more unfortunate people than I.  Here’s a good example.

Looks pretty awesome, right?  This guy had apparently gone so far as to pop the blood vessels inside his eyes, at least I managed not to do that.  I went to bed that night feeling sad and discouraged, scuba diving was NOT supposed to be this much of a buzzkill.  And oh it gets better.

By the time I woke up the next morning, I had what’s known as raccoon eyes, you can imagine what that looked like.  Now added to the blood bumps were bruises all around my eyes and  on my cheeks.  Again, thank goodness, they weren’t so awful that you would think I had gotten into a fight with a butch Marine.  Jesse just shook his head and on his way out the door to work told me, more or less, I should NEVER dive again.  I was finally starting to believe him.  If you’ll remember from my previous blog, our kitchen manager Dana-san had been a rescue and master diver.  He took one look at my face at work the next day and basically repeated what Jesse had already told me.  Stephanie-san!  No more diving, ne?  Hai Dana-san, yes.  No more diving.  He told me in broken English and a little Japanese that I was lucky.  The blood bumps I DID have were a sure sign I was on my way to popping the blood vessels in my eyes.  Can you imagine doing that ever in your life?  Let alone underwater?  Ugh.  Jesse was relieved this hadn’t happened because he was afraid people were going to start thinking he abused me.  Given my clumsiness and my affinity for developing bruises by barely bumping a chair, it was a legitimate concern.   I refused to let him take any pictures of me with the blood bumps and bruises, but here is the one picture I have from my short lived diving adventure :

 

yes, it's really me under all of that mess.

Needless to say, I haven’t been diving since all of this happened.  I wouldn’t just come out and say I would never dive again, so Jesse and I made a deal.  I promised I wouldn’t go diving while he was away with work.  That way if something serious did happen, at least he would be on island and would be able to know immediately instead of finding out two weeks later in some incredibly underdeveloped country and not being able to do anything about it.  I figured fair enough.  Given that my success rate was now somewhere at 33%, I couldn’t really push the envelope with that one.  And if we’re being honest, I wanted nothing to do with it anymore.  Of course I couldn’t just say that at the time – no way.  I had to be proud and stubborn and a little bit annoyed that my loving boyfriend asked this of me.  But truth be told, I’m glad he made me promise and he really didn’t have to twist my arm to do it.

And here we are again, as spring is fast approaching in Okinawa.  I’m hoping to dive again – someday.  For now though, I’ll stick with the snorkeling and the life vests.  What could possibly go wrong there?  Trust me, if something can, I’ll find out soon enough and you can expect a report back.  Thanks for being patient with my lack of writing.  While you may not care for an explanation, one is coming.  I’m just trying to figure out how to word it without being whiney or obnoxious woe is me.  Love you guys, thanks for keeping up with this.

xo.