Ganbaro Nippon.

1 05 2011

Maybe it surprises some of you that I haven’t written about the earthquake yet.  Others might just assume I’ve fallen back into my time lapse that can consume this blog.  The truth is I’ve thought everyday for the last 6 weeks about how to write this.  I open the site, I type a title and I just sit staring at the screen.  When I started this blog today, I deleted 8 drafts of previous attempts.  Please keep in mind this was my personal experience, and that I’m not speaking for anyone else…

Four days before the earthquake hit, I had been in mainland visiting some of my best friends.  I had gone to visit Brandon and Jewell Willett and meet their new addition, Ella.  I hadn’t seen the baby yet and it was time for a trip.  I planned it so it was in the middle of Jesse’s “army vacation” so that way there was no chance of me missing him if he came home early.  Well, well.  So much for planning.  He did in fact come home early and was only going to be home for 5 days before he left again.  That put him leaving on May 11th, flying through Tokyo.  I was at work and had no idea of what was going on in mainland.  A Japanese man, came running in the restaurant saying there had been a huge earthquake in mainland, please turn on the TV.  Sign 1 something was horribly wrong – he was panicked.  The Japanese do not panic.  We got the TV on a Japanese news channel and it was an ungodly sight.  It was like a horror movie had come to life.  My entire staff was standing around the TV so focused on what was going on, no one thought to turn on the big screen TV for the next 40 minutes.  There it was, ESPN playing in the background like nothing had happened.

Suddenly there was yelling on the TV and I was asking my staff what’s going on, what are they saying.  They just kept saying tsunami, they say a big tsunami is coming.  We were all standing there in shock.  We’ve had tsunami warnings a few times since I’ve lived here, and nothing has ever happened.  They are frequently issued as a safety precaution after a sizable earthquake.  No one knew if it was really going to happen or not.   Then came the wave.  Watching a natural disaster hit on live television is unreal.  The water was black and looked to be moving very slowly.  It’s hard to imagine how fast a tsunami really moves until you consider how high in the air a helicopter has to be to be getting the entire thing on film.

My immediate thought was thank god Jesse is off the ground.  Their connection had been due to leave before the earthquake hit.  I was thinking about his sister and her family who all live in Tokyo and of course Brando, Jewell, and the baby.  I tried calling Jesse a few times for reassurance that he was indeed in the air.  I was relieved for once when the phone went straight to voicemail.  I assumed the phone was off because he was in the air.  I was not even considering the possibility that the phone lines were jammed.  I ended up getting texts from him saying they had been taxiing out when the first earthquake hit and that they were getting lots of aftershocks.  They wouldn’t let them off the plane because Narita Airport was closed so there was no where for them to go.  No one on the plane knew the gravity of the situation.  Jesse made several comments about, “It’s just another shaker, ” or “Here we go again!  Hang on for a ride!” when the aftershocks started hitting.  They finally got off the ground 8 hours later and when they arrived in the States, they were greeted with the reality of what they had left behind.

And the aftershocks.  To date there have been 1117.  My question is when are they no longer aftershocks?  When are they their own earthquakes again?  I really hope that anyone reading this will go to this link.  The video is a map of all of the quakes they’ve had since March 11.  It’s truly a great visual of what’s going on in mainland Japan.  You see all of these little pings pop up of the earthquakes and you think, wow, those are really big!  Until of course you get to the big one.  The main earthquake ping literally takes up the whole screen and the amount of dots after that are unbelievable.

“Ganbaro Nippon” can roughly translate to do your best or try your hardest, Japan.  And my God do they ever.  There has been no looting, no rioting, no anything negative.  Turns out in Tokyo, people were so adamant about helping conserve the power, they were going to work early and leaving early so they wouldn’t have to use the lights so much in the evening times.  Things seemed to be as calm as they possibly could be.  With the exception of batteries and toilet paper, people were finding what they needed.

I don’t pretend to know what it was like to be there that day, or any of the subsequent days either.  This was simply my experience with the events on March 11.   In Okinawa, we literally felt nothing from the earthquake.  We’ve only had one earthquake since all of this began and I believe that most didn’t feel that one either.  My friends that I had been visiting in Yokosuka had been planning to visit Okinawa in the fall and decided to move up their little escape a few months to help put their family’s and friend’s minds at ease.  It was heartbreaking that while they were trying to take care of their family, they were getting backlash for leaving.  “Flyjins” I believe they are all being called, all of the foreigners that left.

It’s amazing how quickly people here stopped watching the news channels like CNN and MSNBC and turned instead to things like Twitter and Facebook.  We truly are the social media age.  It’s a little concerning to feel the need to call your parents and say, please, tell anyone that’s watching American news channels to please stop.  The sensationalizing and the fear based reporting was unreal.  Of course it was a dire situation, and frankly, I don’t think it’s getting enough coverage now.  I know there are disasters happening all over the world, but if it is possible to not, I don’t think that one can really replace another.  Whether 10 people or 20,000 people die in a disaster, it’s still a disaster.  They all need help, they all need to heal.  What kind of world do we live in if something is forgotten simply because something worse came along?


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.


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.



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