I will begin this part with where we started the journey….from LAX, in tow with the wife, the 5 month old baby, and a tiny Yorkie…
I set up a commercial flight from LAX to Seattle (the hub for Patriot Express) with Virgin America, with a night stay at the Red Lion Hotel (www.redlion.com/seattleairport). It was additional $100ish to get the Yorkie in-cabin with us on that flight and it was $100ish to get a pet friendly room at the hotel for that night as well. There was no particular reason why I choose Virgin America (they got fancy cabins though), but that hotel was the closest to the airport that was pet friendly and it has a 24hrs free shuttle to/from the airport. And I do mean close, like, we could have walked there if I knew where it was in relation to the airport. But that wasn’t going to happen anyways, since I had the family in tow and 4 suitcases to lug around. Overall, I treated this short hop as a test flight for the family, but luckily the baby didn’t cry and the Yorkie was manageable. We went to bed early and got an early start on checking for the flight the next morning.
Now, most people will tell you to check in waaaaaaay early for these types of patriot express flights, but that isn’t really necessary if you are traveling alone (and don’t care where you sit). BUT, if you are traveling with a family and during the peak PCS season like I was, you better check it as early as possible. This will better ensure your family will be seated near each other and not scattered across the cabin if you wait too late. I think the reservation ticket said to check in before 5am, but we were there around 3am, and I think we were the second to last family to check in! Luckily, AMC personnel have some common sense during this process and have separate lines for accompanied travelers and unaccompanied travelers. While the wait in the accompanied line wasn’t too bad, I was apprehensive about getting seats together with my family. I did notice by the time we got to the counter, the line for unaccompanied personnel was pretty long still, so I was hoping we still had a chance to get seats together. Well it kind of worked out, I had a seat across the aisle from the wife and baby. The plane has the 2-3-2 seat configuration and I would of like to have the center 3 seats, so it would be easier for the me and the wife to tend the baby, but none were available by the time we checked in. So yea we got checked in, and I had to pay another $100ish fee for the in-cabin pet, and then we waited hours for our flight to take off. I mention that because this airport doesn’t really open that early in the morning, so you will be stuck with what you brought to eat/drink until things start opening up later. I do want to stress that all those fees relating to pet travel are NOT REIMBRUSABLE on your travel voucher, aka you will not get it back! Keep that in mind when you are still debating on bringing your pets here. We had to make a heart-breaking decision after we got on island with our Yorkie, but more on that later on.
Well, the normal route for the patriot express from Seattle is Yokota, some Marine base I still can’t remember, and then Kadena. The flight over the pacific was about 11 hours and when you land in Yokota, they will let you off for a couple hours. This great to stretch your legs and they will even let you leave the terminal if you want. We did this, since I knew some people on Yokota already, and it was nice to meet up with them during the layover. There is also a spot outside the terminal were you can take your pets out for some water or to take a leak. What didn’t work out was the bogged down wifi they had there and a baby had enough of traveling by then. Needless to say, the next legs were tedious with an “I am so done with traveling!” baby and I feel sorry for the people next to us…we tried! Well the next stop at that Marine base, they let you out again (and pets) for a couple of hours, but by then, everyone just wants to get to Kadena! They did bring a food truck out to us, which naturally got gutted by the time I got to it. So when you see that truck roll up, get out there and grab what you can! So after that stop, we finally got to Kadena around Friday at 8pm-ish. And this is where the fun begins…
So by the time we got to Kadena, I couldn’t feel my butt, the baby had enough, the wife was frazzled, the Yorkie had a Benadryl hangover, and a full plane still had to disembark! Stress anyone? Oh did I mention that it just started pouring rain when we landed? Normally, not a big deal at a commercial airport, but not at a military airport, where you normally walk to the arriving terminal. Luckily, they called in some buses to cart us over to the terminal and I made sure we were on that first bus. We still managed to get wet, but there was nothing we could do about that, but we got the some bus seats right up front though to speed up our exit. On the 2 minute bus ride over I got out our orders, passports, and IDs in hand, to expedite going through immigration. We were actually the first people though immigration, and my wife and baby got their passports stamp with the SOFA stamp (important), and then we went on through to the luggage claim. Oh yea, that SOFA stamp is just so they can stay as long as you do in Japan as your dependents, it doesn’t entitle travel out/in to Japan though, more on this in a later post.
I may have neglected to mention before, but as soon as I got my official travel reservations from SATO, I made reservations with the Shogun Inn on Kadena. I made my reservation for 30 days (the max) and I am glad I did. I was obviously traveling during the peak PCS season and I wasn’t about to compete with all the other families trying to get a room on base that night. Trust me it was a huge stress relief knowing that I already had a room squared away for me and the family after that exhausting travel. This also made it way easier for my sponsor to cart me over there from the terminal and they were nice enough to have snacks/water and some baby necessities in the room waiting for us. A+!
The only deviation to all this was getting our Yorkie to the Karing Kennels on Kadena, since when I made my billeting reservations they didn’t have any pet rooms available. That detour cost me about an hour more, since everyone else was trying to get their pet in there as well. But luckily, I am proactive and already made reservations way in advance. So I got the Yorkie squared away and out of his carrier finally and it was around 11pm-ish by the time I got back to hotel. So needless to say, all of us took a shower and crashed!
- The Next Day…
I think we woke up at 6am the next morning! The time difference is brutal, but I think we got some of the excitement back on being finally here, and that kind of kept us up after that. The baby was stilling sleeping though at that time, so I and the wife made a quick mental list on what we needed to do this first weekend on the island.
1. Cell phones
Well, 1 and 3 happened, but number 2 won’t happen until Wednesday of every week, unless you are in a “special” unit. Well, as I mentioned in Part 3, I was set on AU cell service and Samsung Galaxy 3’s. We ended up getting Iphone 5’s like 98% everyone else that was on my flight in, but we went with the iphone 5’s mostly to Facetime the family back in the States. I have a print out of their pricing at the time, but you can always find the current pricing on AU’s website (link in Part 3).
AU/KDDI Cell Phone Plans iPhone5
I will try to remember how this all breaks down, because the way Japanese do their cell service is confusing, but when in Rome…Simply put, I will use the column on the far left as an example, and I will simply state that if you went that route and included the16GB iphone in the price your total would be $92 a month for one phone! And that is with a 24 month contract! The only things you can remove from the monthly cost is the warranty service and to pay for the phone upfront, not monthly. That would save you about $25 dollars a month, but a new 16GB iphone 5 here in Okinawa is close to $600 each, so it is up to you how you want to pay that. Are you confused yet??? I wouldn’t worry too much about this until you get here, deals change all the time, and the AU staff is pretty good at explain everything. We went with the LTE + AU24 plan on two iphone 5’s, which gave us unlimited data, unlimited minutes/txt between other AU mobile customers and we paid extra for voicemail. They don’t have “family” plans, so the closest you are going to get is getting a plan with that AU24 option, which lets you talk/txt to other AU mobile customers all you want. Long story short, it should be about $110 month for our 2 phones, and you can use major credit cards to set up auto payments with AU as well.
There is another cell provider on Kadena as well, it is Softbank, but I don’t know much about them. They do offer free phones with a contract, unlike AU, and they have a few more phone/tablet offerings than AU does. But like anything else overseas, if you are savvy enough, getting your phone off-base will net you many more phone options and possibility more plan options as well.
Finally, I do want to clear something up between the two providers actual cell service though. I heard before I even got to Kadena, that Softbank coverage wasn’t as good as AU on/off base, which may be true talking to be people around here. But, I assume everyone gets told this coming here too, so I think the fair majority of people get AU, with in turn bogs it down on-base. This manifests itself in a couple ways here, one being you have to wait your “turn” sometimes when making a call. You know this when you hear a repeating tone a few seconds or more after you hit call button, before the phone actually dials the number out. Secondly, while the LTE service is great when you get it, most of the time you will have 3G data service on base, which means everyone else will too. This bogs it down and it makes it near impossible to use the data (aka iMessenger) side of the service at times. How this all boils down in comparison with Softbank, I am not sure, but these issues may be something you might want to consider. Simply put, the non-saturated network may be better than the saturated network, if most of your time will be spent on-base. Again, I don’t know who is better in this case, but off-base I have had no issues. Luckily, where I live on-base, I am closer to the cell towers off-base and I get good LTE service regardless. Speaking of living on-base, that is the next topic!
- Living on/off base
As I mentioned in the previous parts, we don’t get a “choice” in where we will live. I do want to stress that this condition is applicable to accompanied personnel in all pay grades. If you are unaccompanied (aka single) personnel in the grades above E4, then your “choice” is off-base, since Kadena doesn’t have unaccompanied housing on-base anyways. Well, my single days have been long over, and I will miss living it up off-base overseas (ah the good times!), but I will focus on the getting accompanied housing on Kadena next.
The housing on base is managed by amount of bedrooms and by pay grade. So for example, I am a E7 with 2 dependents (pets don’t matter), so I eligible for SNCO housing with 3 bedrooms. At the time of my housing application, SNCO housing on Kadena was around 85% occupied, so on-base it is! FYI, the occupancy rate has to be about 98% to be allowed to live off-base. I think the 3 bedroom NCO housing occupancy rate was that at the time, so there were some families that had to live off-base that were in my housing in-brief.
The housing management on all the military bases on Okinawa are consolidated to the housing office on Kadena, so needless to say, they are way busy! So busy in fact, there were delays for people trying to get housing assigned in general; thank you budget cuts! Now, I can speak for the Air Force side of the house, but the other military branches have their own rules on who gets what when it comes to housing. So for the USAF members, when they get your application, the housing office will offer your two homes, which you will get the keys of so you can check them out. But, you have to choose one of them, even if they both suck. Yup, that is right, even if they offer you some of the 1960’s nuclear bunker/hurricane proof homes here, that somehow still meets DOD housing requirements, you are stuck with those choices. This is something you have to understand, because I am sure someone’s spouse is envisioning living in a beach villa on-base, and they will be raising hell if they get what I am talking about. So anyways, this is how my situation played out…
Again, being proactive, I sent in my housing application after I got my orders cut awhile back and I think this helped me get a home assigned quicker. Either way, you will fill out those forms here anyways at the housing in-brief. You have to make an appointment at the housing office to get in that in-brief! They do it every day in the morning and the slots get filled quickly, and this is the FIRST step to getting anything done with housing. I repeat, you will not get the ball rolling if you don’t attend this brief at the housing office. After you attend that brief and fill out the forms, the waiting game begins. Again, I went during the peak PCS season, so your mileage may vary at any other time of the year. The best thing to do during this time is not bug the housing office on where your housing offers are at, I think this just slows it all down for you. Now, don’t tell anyone from the AMC flight I was on or anyone that got here a couple of weeks ahead or behind me, but I got into SNCO housing 2 weeks after landing. I mean keys in hand and ready to move my stuff in. I have been talking to people around base and that is definitely not the norm right now, but I am sure it was just perfect timing on my part; or just luck. I ended up with one of the newer units up in the hills near Gate 3 of the base. I can’t complain, we got covered parking, a good view, and the wife is happy (always good, right?).
I almost forgot to mention that you better be mindful of what you bring here. I know I mentioned something about this in Part 3, but now that we are here, I am happy we downsized before we got here. I don’t know what the square footage of the other homes on base, by my home is 1600 square feet on-base, and that is an apartment territory where I came from. When ended up selling more of our stuff after we unpacked, which was pretty easy here too. You too, will know the power of BooKoo =). It is a free yard sale site that has an Okinawa section and you can find just about anything one there. Check it out here… http://okinawa.bookoo.com
One final note about pets and housing and that it is housing job to house you and your family; not your pets. So while you might find that appalling, it is in the regulations. We have a small dog, so keeping him in the house is easy, but if you have a bigger dog, you might run into issues. And no, you can’t deny the housing offers given to you because it won’t work out for Fido. It is in the regulations, sorry. Speaking of Fido, get your tissue box out, because I am going into the next topic…
- Your Pet vs Okinawa
Now if you remember in the Part 3, many families have experienced grief and despair in trying to get their pets to Okinawa, only to decide to leave them behind for many of reasons. Well, we have unfortunately experienced that grief and despair, but after only being here around 3 weeks. It all began with Karing Kennels…
Now that last sentence may be a little too dramatic, but I did end up leaving our Yorkie in the kennels for 2 weeks while we were waiting for a house. But during those first 72 hours you get on the island, you have to get your pets to the base vet for a check-up and to get them in the system here on base. This is on a walk-in basis, so be prepared to wait a while to get that done. They will also give you a packet with everything you need to know about having your pet on this island. They recommend starting Heartguard and flea repellent immediately, since there are a ton of critters that can kill or maim your pet out here. Thank you, didn’t know that…..Anyways, back to the kennels, aka jail as I like to call it. I do want to be clear here, that the kennel facility provided nothing but excellent service and care for my Yorkie, and I had no issues there. His two week stay was about $300 ish when it was all said and done, which included food.
Well, once we got our house squared away, I picked up our Yorkie from the kennel and brought him home. We don’t have a fenced backyard or anything, so he had to stay in the house for the most part, and we would take him out so he can do his business throughout the day. And that is where I think he got worms! Yup, he ended up getting worms, which was a trigger point for the wife. Let me explain…Before our baby coming, he was our “baby”, so he got all the attention he wanted. Well, as expected that changed when the baby was born, and only got worse when we got here. We thought we could handle a growing baby and a young Yorkie, but it just wasn’t fair to the Yorkie anymore. We knew he needed more attention and a friend as well, but we just didn’t have the time. So when he got worms, he was now putting the health of the baby in question, and the wife wasn’t having that. I know medicine can fix him, but the wife has a true phobia of worm like stuff, so she wasn’t going to have him roaming the house. So we made the heart breaking decision to put him up for adoption here. We quickly found a new loving family that will shower him with all the attention and love he deserved and we know he is going to be better off.
I do want to mention the cost of bring our pet here, considering how everything went down here for us. I say the total cost to get out pet Okinawa ready up to the day we gave him up for adoption was about $600 dollars, and that is using military vets and getting a lucky spot on the patriot express. I think my situation with getting our pet out here was ideal and I can see why other families might have to make a tough choice on sending their pets out here, because it is not cheap. It doesn’t help that any of the cost of sending your pet out here is not reimbursable either.
Well, that is about it for our pet here, and we are not planning on anymore anytime soon. I didn’t expect things to go down like they did when we left, but it is what it is.
- Getting Wheels
Moving on to a lighter subject, getting some wheels here on the island is rather easy. The main thing you need is a license to drive here. So make sure you bring your stateside drivers with you, or get one in the States if never had one (you know who you are!). If you need to get a driver’s license here, good luck! It takes time and money here, and I heard people will spend the money/time just to go back to the states to get one there instead, it is easier that way I guess! Anyways, every Wednesday they have a mass brief at the community center here and that is the ONLY time you can get your license (the test is easy). That is right, just one time a week, even if you land on a Friday like we did, we had to wait all the way to the following Wednesday to get a license. While that may seem ok with you, you need a license to buy a car here, so no license, no car. Fortunately, all the car dealerships in the area know this and will hold a car for you with a deposit, until you get that license. Speaking of car dealerships, you will have many choices to shop at, with plenty of good/bad deals out there. Just do your homework and make sure to thoroughly poke and prod the car to make sure everything works and that rust is at the minimum. This place is obviously a tropical area, so rust can happen to any car, just be mindful of that. I went with Sunshine Motors, which is out Gate 1 and to the left, go down a few minutes and you will see it on the right hand side. Here is a picture of their sign.
I didn't go to them for any particular reason, just that they had the car I wanted for a decent price. They also have a 3 month warranty on the car, so if anything goes wrong with it, they will fix it. Most of the dealerships have some type of warranty, so just shop around. Plus most, if not all cars offered to military are around 10 years old, so having a warranty is a plus.
Well, once you get wheels, you will find driving on the left-hand side not too bad. Just practice driving on Kadena before you venture off-base, so you are comfortable with the flow of traffic. I have driven in many different countries before, so it only took me a day or two to get comfortable with everything.
One final thing about getting a car is get something practical. I know I have a family, so naturally I need something with some room, so I ended up with a minivan (I know!). Also, get something within your means, since you can find some expensive cars out here, and the dealerships have no problem offering no interest 18 month financing options. While no interest loans are great, why saddle yourself with a car payment for most of your tour here? And for the gearheads coming out here, yes there are plenty of Skylines, Silvias, and Subi’s out here, but I wouldn't get your hopes up. Most are beat to hell, but I think the main killer is the speed limits out here. The fastest speed limit I have seen out here so far is 60 km/h. That’s right, about 38 mph! So there won’t be that much fast and furious driving out here my friend.
Well, I think that sums up our experiences so far, which have been mostly positive. We are starting to get used to the Kadena-izims, which they are plenty. As we venture out from base and start enjoying the island, I will continue to post our adventures out here. Until then!