Saturday, August 22, 2015

Visiting the States? Watch your portion sizes and bring your power strip

So, yes, it's been a couple of months since I have blogged... I took some much-needed time off after a whirlwind spring. Like many inhabitants of MCAS Iwakuni do during the summer months, I headed back to the States to see family and friends... in four states. Yes. Four states. There was a lot of traveling. And a lot of base inhabitants also have this in common, as family and friends are often scattered around the country. As much fun as it is, it's also exhausting and it pays to be organized and to take perks when you can get them. Here was my experience this summer, with some words of wisdom (so to speak) scattered in to help out others who may be making trips back home.

Sometimes an airplane upgrade is worth the money... or the tears.


Now, to clarify, I did not pay for this upgrade, it was bestowed upon us by a benevolent ANA employee who was checking us in to our flight back to Tokyo as my youngest son cried in his grandmother's arms because he didn't want to leave. (The spouse also got an upgrade when he flew back alone earlier in the summer on United. Upgrades for active duty military members flying alone are fairly easy to get, just ask.) But the upgrade from economy to premium economy, especially if you can get a bulkhead, like we did (there may have been a reason: my TV was stuck and wouldn't come up out of the seat, but I didn't plan to watch Japanese shows anyway), it is well work the price of admission.





Extra leg room, slippers, an elevated foot rest, TV remote (good only if your TV is accessible to you) and free sparkling wine. Yes. Free sparkling wine. Which did wonders for knocking me out to sleep for 5 hours of the 10-hour flight from LAX to Tokyo Haneda. These seats also had electrical outlets (I also carry a power strip with me in my carry on so that if there are a limited number of outlets, we can 1) power all of our devices with one available plug and 2) can offer charging space to others needing it as an offer of goodwill... this is often greatly appreciated by fellow travelers and resulted in an extra bag of pretzels once), which my kids took advantage of. It was one of the best flights I have ever been on. Not to mention ANA is a Japanese carrier and customer service is superb.

I also recommend any flight that can get you straight to the Haneda airport, rather than Tokyo Narita. From Haneda, you can fly directly in to the Iwakuni Kintai-kyo Airport, which is next to the base. If you fly in to Narita, you have to take a bus to Haneda (60 minutes and about $25 per person) or you fly from Narita to Hiroshima (about a 1 hour and 45 minute drive and about $50 in tolls). Our flight left LAX at 1:20 a.m., but it actually worked out because we slept at a relatively "normal" time and arrived in Tokyo at 5 a.m., which was a relatively "normal" time to wake up. I do think it helped with the jet lag, although the kids and I are still sleeping a lot three days later. We may just be recovering from our busy trip, which leads me to my next point...

Don't try to go and visit everyone on your list... have them come to you or meet as many people as possible at one time in one place.

The spouse's grandparents were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. By attending the party, we were able to knock out visiting one whole side of his family in an afternoon.
One of the gripes that many military families have is that when they go home, everyone wants the family to go see them. That means the military family has to find transportation and then travel more hours on top of what they have already traveled. Tell your friends and family that if they really love you, they will GO to see YOU where you are. Better yet, wait a few days after you arrive (so you can get acclimated to the time difference) and then have a family/friends reunion potluck barbecue. That way everyone can see everyone and the military family can stay in one place and use the time to enjoy everyone's company. And hopefully grandma will bring her famous chocolate pie. If that doesn't work, which, as I said, many families are scattered across the country, gather in as few groups as possible. And military families: Don't be afraid to say no to extended family members or friends who haven't bothered to keep in touch while you were gone. It's OK to have quality time with the people who matter.

Visiting the Illinois Family

Visiting the California Family

An unexpected week-long detour to Las Vegas got us caught up with my brother's family. This is the Mob Museum... it was a good choice for all ages.
Making the most of the unexpected Las Vegas trip to visit my oldest (as in how long we have been friends) friend and her family.

Back in California with my grandmother... my oldest friend, at 94.

My niece's birthday party brought together more friends.


And a beach trip to enjoy the company of other USMC spouses. These are sometimes the most therapeutic visits... who understands our way of life better?

Take advantage of your location... get out and see stuff.

Of course, you hear this a lot while you are living in Iwakuni... there are a lot of services provided by the base that encourage you to get off base and see your host country. Until I got to Iwakuni, I never realized how much more of an effort I made to get out and see stuff "before we move back to the States." It has now encouraged me to go out and see and appreciate more stuff in the U.S., especially since the States is so diverse.

In Illinois, I enjoyed the slower pace and animal friends rural life offers:






As well as some of the cultural stops, like the Lincoln Museum in Springfield.

A good stop for all ages, but there is a lot to see and read that's quite interesting to older kids and adults.

The actual bed Lincoln died in. Eerily interesting. I could picture his ghost sitting on it watching us all go by.

While I don't have photos, I visited Iowa City, Iowa, for a couple of days to visit my sister-in-law. I've never been in such a huge college-oriented town before. I seriously felt out of place since I didn't have any black and gold gear. The university town center, famers market and resale shops were a lot of fun.

The day after we flew from Illinois to California, we had an unexpected trip to Las Vegas. Believe it or not, I did not gamble at all... but there was still plenty to do. The Mob Museum and the aquarium at the Silverton Casino were worth visiting. I also enjoyed the many antique shops Vegas offered.



The actual bricks from the shop where the Massacre occurred. The boys loved it.




We messed with the Mob and now we're sleeping with the fishes. ;)
Enjoying National Hot Dog Day at my favorite fast food joint.
In California, we enjoyed the sunny (but, unfortunately, drought-filled) weather in Laguna Beach and at Disneyland and California Adventure. In Laguna Beach, there is the small  Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which takes sick and hurt seals and sea lions and rehabilitates them until they can be rereleased. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.







We also went to the Sawdust Festival, one of the long-time art festivals in the area, and had a great time. There a number of arts and crafts opportunities for kids, too. And military families can get up to four people in for free with ID. Kids 5 and under are free anyway.

My kids love getting shark teeth fossil necklaces. Form the guy pictured below, who has been digging up sharks teeth since the 70s.





Portion sizes are enormous


I have big hands for a woman, so keep that in mind as you gaze on this image... this was a large Slurpee at an Illinois movie theater. Large. Not extra large, not Super Duper Big Gulp, just a large. After living in Japan for three years, it becomes apparent how these American portion sizes are simply ridiculous. I couldn't finish it. And I really didn't need to.


Take every military advantage you can (without being a jerk about it)

I once had an extended family member make reference to how financially well off our family must be since the spouse is in the military. I think I snorted iced tea through my nose before I asked him what pay chart he had been looking at. Military (especially enlisted) spouses have cultivated a certain level of skill at stretching every dollar the military member of the household earns, since most families are what I would call "lower middle class." Contrary to my previous post about how some military families feel exceptionally entitled to free stuff and deals simply because a member of the family serves in the armed forces (this where the jerk part comes in), many places in the States offer military discounts and privileges, and help in stretching each dollar. I took advantage of four of these while I was home:

The Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach, CA

This guy is the Heart-ist. He makes tiny glass hearts and photographs arrangements of them. I got a few of his glass hearts and he was thrilled to know that some of them were coming to Japan.

As mentioned, military families can get up to four free tickets to the Sawdust Festival, with any military ID, including dependent IDs.

Disneyland



Disney tickets are nearly $100 for an adult for one day. If you get your tickets from ITT (information, tours and travel) on any base (I went to Camp Pendleton), you can get the Military Salute 3-day park hopper ticket for $130 per person. And you can get up to 12 of these with a military ID. I was at Disney way more than I wanted to be, and still had to pay $17 a day for parking, but the kids had a great time. It helps that my parents only live 20 minutes away from the park, so we didn't have the added expense of a hotel.

Home Depot

We all shop like mad for certain things we can't find in Japan when we are in the States. Home Depot offers a 10 percent discount every day for military card holders.

USPS

The large, square, flat-rate shipping box is $2 cheaper when shipping to an APO or FPO address. And any weight ships. So, if you buy some small, heavy things you don't want to haul around in your suitcase, (most international flight carriers allow you two checked bags of 50 pounds or less, a carry on and a purse) this might be a smart option for you.

Get rest when you can



Realize that you will be tired... and it sneaks up on you. I'll be going fine all morning, and then right after lunch, I start nodding off while chatting with my mother (not a normal response for me). So be sure to get plenty of rest before you start driving or you might end up freaking out a poor van driver before you realize you are on the wrong side of the road. Not that that actually happened...


So, in conclusion, I hope this helps fellow military families returning home to the States for visits. I'm sure you have your own travel suggestions. Feel free to add them in the Comments for others to read.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nokonoshima flowers and detour encouragement...


In May, six ladies and I hit the Japanese highway and headed to the Fukuoka area (about 3 hours from MCAS Iwakuni) to go to the beautiful island of Nokonoshima, which is most well known for its flower park. Each season, different flowers are blooming on the rolling hills of the park, many of the fields with their own view of the ocean. You do need to take a ferry to the island, and the ferry costs roughly 5,000 yen per vehicle, plus about 1,200 yen per adult. The trip is about 20 minutes long.

View of the mainland from the ferry.
Once you're on island, head to the right once you have exited the ferry. We headed to the right and got lost in a maze of narrow streets. No a super awesome detour when you're driving an 8-passenger van.

Once we drive up the winding hill to the park, we, well, parked, and made our way to the entrance, where we paid and received English guides to the park This is a nice treat because only about half of the tourist stops I've been to in Japan have English maps or guides. You learn to be grateful to those that do. In case they don't have one available when you go, it is, front and back... click on the photos to enlarge.



We went in late spring, so the flowers in bloom were livingstone daisies, azaleas, marigolds, and red poppies. During the summer months, you can see hydrangeas, coral trees, dahlias, and crape myrtle. Fall is dahlia, coral tree, and cosmos. Not to be outdone, winter brings fall foliage in mid to late November, sasanqua, Japanese narcissus and camellias.

According to this sign, restrooms are available... over there.








There are several places to eat and a handful of handcrafted goods shops. There are cabins, so you can spend the night on the island for 5,000 yen per night per adult, although we did not. There is miniature golf and a large playground for children.


We did eat lunch on the island, opting for the barbecue place. And with the seating outside with the view above, it was a great way to spend the afternoon.



I'd also like to take a moment to tell you to build in extra time in to your travel schedule - any travel schedule - to stop for detours. We made an overnight tip of the Nokonoshima trip, stayed at a traditional Japanese hotel about an hour away and headed in to the mountains of Yamaguchi. We made our way back to Iwakuni through some of the Yamaguchi Prefecture back roads and had time to stop to enjoy the things we happened upon, like red bridges and seemingly lonely shrines: