Culture

A Mediterranean Honeymoon, Part 1

Casey and I said our vows on a windy day in Texas two years ago. We spent the following six months apart from each other as Casey completed his flight training in California and North Carolina, and then we moved across the planet. After arriving in Okinawa, we dealt with many adjustments in the time we were able to spend together. It would be dishonest to say it was easy. With all of the changes in our lives during such a short period, we did not have much time to focus on us. All the moves and changes also left us no chance to go on a honeymoon.

Last month, we finally made that happen– two years late, but incredible nonetheless. Two of our closest friends currently live in Seville, Spain, so we could not pass up the opportunity to see them and have them show us around (probably) the coolest country in the world. As I had never been to Europe, we decided to make a honeymoon out of it via a cruise through the Mediterranean. We packed as much as we could into this almost-3-week-long trip.

Our 30+ hour flight experience took us from Okinawa to Tokyo, Doha, and finally into Barcelona. Exhausted but excited, we found our way to our adorable bed and breakfast, ANBA, which provided tasteful modern decor juxtaposed with original nineteenth- century hand-painted ceilings. We cleaned up and then went out to meet Barcelona. We walked through the streets of Las Ramblas, spending time in the Boquería, the most colorful market I have ever seen. Everything from fresh squeezed fruit juices to paella, eggs, pastries, fish, jamón serrano, truffles, and lamb heads, are fresh and on display in gorgeous array.

Barcelona is a city that is truly alive. Everything from the architecture to the food pulsates with a vibrancy that is uniquely Barcelona. It goes without saying that I did not want to leave. We went to bed early on our first night there, then spent the morning and early afternoon at La Sagrada Familia, an unfinished masterpiece of the late architectural genius Antoni Gaudí. No photo can come close to capturing his brilliance, and I remain in absolute awe of his work. La Sagrada Familia in particular is an incredible work of art, as every elemental detail is cutting edge in its design and construction. I am amazed by Gaudí’s ability to plan and begin construction in 1882 on what is seen as a modern architectural marvel in 2014. Despite ongoing construction on the building, this was a major highlight of our trip.

That afternoon, we jumped in a taxi and headed to the port to embark upon the Costa Serena, our home and transportation for the next seven days. In case you are wondering, yes: this is the sister ship to the Costa Concordia, whose recent journey ended in the deaths of 32 passengers when it ran aground outside Tuscany in 2012. As we expected, Costa had ramped up their emergency procedures in response, and we felt safe but slightly annoyed by all of the safety reminders announced daily in seven languages. The ship was massive, and filled with passengers speaking every language you can imagine. We enjoyed multilingual performances, all-inclusive food and drinks, dancing, beautiful Mediterranean sunsets from our balcony, and making friends with an awesome British family who provided companionship and entertainment throughout the trip.

From Barcelona, the Costa Serena carried us along to Marseille, France. While our plans to hike Les Calanques did not work out, we enjoyed casually discovering the sights of this lovely old city. We visited a gorgeous old cathedral, walked through the shopping district, savored fantastic espressos and lunch at a local cafe, and relaxed in the sunlight looking down over le vieux port de Marseille. It was just the day we needed.

From France, we headed on to the shores of Savona, Italy. Our planned excursion to tour the local vineyards along the Italian countryside was unfortunately cancelled, so we took the opportunity to visit Monaco. The two-hour-long bus ride was the most beautiful drive I’ve ever experienced (sorry, Big Sur), taking us through gorgeous villages along the mountains of Liguria. As we approached Monaco, I understood why the wealthiest people in the world retire there. The entire (2.02 square kilometers) sits surrounded by stunning blue water and beautiful French countryside. In addition to its beauty, Monaco sports a very attractive tax code, explaining why it manages to be both the second smallest and the most densely populated country in the world. We visited the royal palace, the famous Monte Carlo casino, and walked around the immaculately manicured streets during our short visit. Casey geeked out a bit over the ridiculously expensive cars that frequented the streets, and especially enjoyed seeing the Formula 1 track that runs right through the city.

That night, we had a great time enjoying (more than) a few drinks with our new British friends. The following morning, we had room service before we pulled into the port of Naples, Italy. If you can imagine the world’s worst hangover, and then picture yourself on a boat in the middle of the ocean, then you might be able to understand the situation I was in as I decided that I absolutely could not miss out on our trip to Pompeii that day. Please note that if you are planning to visit Pompeii, there is nowhere where it is conceivably appropriate to leave your breakfast. However, there are some nice bushes outside the local cameo jewelry factory. Despite feeling like death, I fully enjoyed Pompeii. It is absolutely incredible how well maintained it is after so long, with intact mosaics and murals, ovens, wells, furniture, and even calcified human and animal remains. In short, there is something for everyone! 😉

Stay tuned for the second half of our trip to learn how we let ourselves get swindled in Africa, saw dead people in Palermo, and fell even deeper in love with Spain as we spend more time in Barcelona, and then visit Granada and Sevilla with our friends!

Always, Amanda

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Categories: Culture, Exploring, History, Marriage, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

Our Mainland Adventure

As Casey and I prepare to embark on an exciting adventure to the Mediterranean, I realize that I can no longer delay sharing our last traveling exploits with the world. In September, we toured mainland Japan with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend, visiting Kyoto, Matsumoto, Nagano, and Tokyo. We had an amazing time, and I somehow managed to fall deeper in love with this country that is now our home.

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Kinkaku-ji Temple

We flew from Naha into Kobe and then took the train straight to Kyoto, a city where I would be happy to spend the rest of my days. Kyoto’s deep cultural and historical roots bring traditional Japan to life. The medley of these stunning cultural hotspots interwoven through the busy, modern city, and against the backdrop of such pure, natural beauty makes Kyoto infinitely interesting.

2014-02-08 12.33.56From castles to temples and shrines, to fantastic restaurants hidden down dimly lit stone streets; Kyoto is a microcosm of the heartwarming contradiction that is Japan. We definitely plan to go back once we move to mainland this summer, although I may not leave next time.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

We left Kyoto and headed to Matsumoto, where we visited an awesome wasabii farm and castle. Matsumoto castle is the most modern I have seen so far in Japan. We traveled around this quirky little city on bicycles borrowed from our hotel, and enjoyed a delicious izakaya meal for dinner before we were off to our next stop.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

We spent the next night in Nagano, a city known for some of the best skiing in the world. There, we did some hiking to a shrine and a lake, visited a beautiful Buddhist temple, and went to a tasting at a sake brewery. Casey had some trouble communicating his brewing curiosities to the gentleman at the sake brewery, who instead just sent us inside to tour it ourselves.

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Finally, we were off to our last stop: Tokyo. Tokyo could not have been more different than the other cities we visited. Tall buildings, bright lights, and busy streets made Tokyo an exciting, but slightly overwhelming visit. We attended the opening day of the Sumo matches there, which made the top ten on the coolest things I have seen. These massive, solid men were as intense as they come, and the locals took the whole event very seriously. I definitely need to attend another one before we leave Japan. After that, we spent a night out in Roppongi, did some shopping in Harajuku and Akihabara, and went to Tsukiji fish market. Here, we had the world’s freshest sushi for breakfast. (Of course, I went for the veggie and egg rolls).

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After their ten-day visit in Okinawa and Japan, we had to say goodbye to Devon and Lauren. It was wonderful to spend time with them on this incredible trip, which also left us with a renewed excitement for our move to Iwakuni this summer. While we will miss so many things about Okinawa, mainland offers something for everyone to love. Stay tuned for our next adventure on yet another continent!

Always,

Amanda

Categories: Culture, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Earth Day, Nippon-Style

In three days, I am getting on a plane in Naha and making the long journey over to the US. I could not be more excited to see my friends and family in the states, but I must say that this trip makes me very nervous. I am an awful traveler; I worry about leaving my husband, furry children, and my life for almost 2 months; and, regretfully, I’m not sure I want to be in America right now. Don’t get me wrong– I am a proud American military spouse who believes in freedom, sweet tea, and the American way. But the last week has left me glued to the news, biting my fingernails in concern over the events that have transpired: potentially homegrown terrorist attacks, the explosion of a poorly regulated factory, a failed attempt on the President’s life, and a Senate that is more concerned with the NRA than the people they represent. I believe that we will pull through all of this, but watching the process unfold in such frustratingly terrifying ways from almost 10,000 miles across the world has been difficult, to say the least.

On a lighter note, I wanted to celebrate something the Japanese do very well: protecting the Earth. As today is Earth day, I thought it appropriate to discuss the Earth-friendly things I have noticed during our 6-month love affair with Okinawa.

First of all, as I discussed in my earlier post on the variety of flower festivals on Okinawa, the Okinawans celebrate their plant life like none other. With beautiful gardens and fancy tropical greenhouses dedicated to orchids, fruit trees, lilies, and many other plants; there is no shortage of daily celebrations of Okinawan flora. The Japanese have even made an art form out of cultivating beautiful little bonsai trees.

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In addition to this obvious reverence of the Earth, they are in general very conscious of reducing the impact of their daily routines on the Earth. Here are just a few examples: Japanese toilets have two different flushing options, depending on the type of business you’ve made there. I’ll leave the details out, but as you can imagine, one of these options uses less water than the other, making for a more Earth-friendly flush. (Now, if only I could figure out which is which)! Another common bathroom tactic they employ is to not use paper towels. Some bathrooms have hand dryers, while others have nothing at all. I realized recently that people carry hand towels in their purses to use when drying their hands, so they will never have to use paper towels! I am not so big a fan, however, of their half-ply toilet paper…

The Okinawans typically do not have what they consider unnecessary appliances in their homes, such as dishwashers and dryers. Every day I drive past tall apartment buildings with elaborate laundry hangers they use to dry everything from rugs to socks. Finally, their “do more with less” mantra manifests itself in the cars they drive. The government of Japan subsidizes driving smaller vehicles with better gas mileage through their road tax system. For example, Casey drives a Toyota Camry, which is going to cost us about $230 a year in road taxes. I drive a Daihatsu Naked, which is designated as a Kei (mini) car, and will only cost us about $30 a year because of its tiny engine. As a result, most cars on Okinawa are tiny, adorable, and environmentally friendly. Read more on this here!

Most importantly, the Okinawans recycle everything. There is a mandatory, very complicated system of recycling on the island, which on base military only kind of have to abide by. Everything placed in the trash must be burnable, and everything placed in recycling must be clean and label-free. Here is a picture of a McDonald’s trash can, where they have clearly noted the baskets each piece of your trash belongs in:Image

Everywhere you go, businesses do what they can to recycle and reduce their impact. We visited Orion brewery yesterday, and they indicated that they recycle 100% of their waste by donating, reusing, and recycling. If running a road race on Okinawa, the race workers will hand you a water cup and then pick it up off the ground where you left it so that they can dip it in bleach water and refill it for the next runner. (I could do without this one, however, because some people have gotten very sick from drinking too much bleach while trying to run a marathon…)

Overall, while not perfect, the Japanese work together to do their part to keep our Earth clean today and every day. What are you doing for our Earth?

Categories: Culture, Nature, Okinawa Life, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Lives Lost Underground

It is no secret that the relationship between the United States and Japan is a complex one, but living in Okinawa has provided me with a new perspective on the alliance. Okinawa has had a fairly rough history for such a peaceful people. On their own they lived in relative peace for many years until the Japanese stepped in and claimed them. With such a strategic location, it is no wonder Okinawa has for centuries now been a popular geopolitical asset. The impact this has had on the people here, however, has at times been no less than tragic.

I will save my international political rant on the current state of affairs for another day. Living in a foreign country while on orders from the US military has revealed things to me that I would never have found in a history book or on CNN. I have seen first-hand the results of international politics, but being an American has still allowed me the naive comfort of being sheltered from some of the worst stories history has to offer. Until I ventured underground in Okinawa.

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This is the monument outside the Japanese Naval Underground, where the Japanese forces dug a tunnel system towards the end of World War II. The Americans were winning the war, so the Japanese Navy literally went underground. These tunnels were by far the most ominous place I’ve been in my life.

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This is the room where the Japanese Navy decided that committing suicide en masse was preferable to surrendering to American forces. You can see the marks the grenade shrapnel left in the walls where many men met their deaths. It is a strange thing to be an American in a place such as this, but forcing myself to witness these places has helped me come closer to understanding the complex dynamics of the relationship between these countries that now mean so much to me. May we not forget those who came before us and the sacrifices they made to bring the world where it is today.

-A

Categories: Culture, History, Okinawa | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

An Okinawan Flower-thon

Two weeks ago, Casey and I decided to make good use of the little time he had left with me this month (he has been on a detachment off the island for most of February) and visit a few of Okinawa’s flower festivals. The Okinawans take nature very seriously, and their appreciation of flowers is both fun and admirable. We went first to Kitanagusuku, an area not too far from where we live, towards the Southern end of Okinawa; where the Sunflower festival was in full effect. With three beautiful fields of sunflowers, local vendors, and a singing troupe of face-painted Okinawans marching through the street; it was a fun event!

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After spending time in the sun with these gorgeous sunflowers, we headed up north past the city of Nago to see the International Orchid Show! Apparently people had flown in from all over the world with the most beautiful orchids to showcase their hard work and the stunning diversity of the orchid plant. I’ve never been much of an orchid girl, but I was amazed by how perfect these flowers were. They almost looked fake! The show had everything from potted orchids to beautiful bouquets to huge displays of orchid forests! I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (although I must say they did not quite capture it)!Image

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ImageAfter the Orchid Festival, we headed back down to Nago city to Nakijin-jo castle to see the Cherry Blossom festival! The cherry blossoms were not cooperating for the Okinawans this year, so many of the trees had not yet bloomed. However, the ones that had were gorgeous! I’ll post more pictures of the castle later, but for now, enjoy these gorgeous cherry blossoms!

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We were exhausted after a long day of exploring the island, viewing millions of flowers. Through our Flower-thon, we came to appreciate the diversity of Okinawan plant life, in addition to enjoying the day with each other before Casey had to plunge back into preparing for his month-long trip. I miss him, so it’s nice to look back on a great day! Wishing you all happiness and the prettiest flowers the world has to offer! Talk to you soon!

Always, Amanda

Categories: Culture, Okinawa | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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