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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Adventure in search of a good trail

In Albuquerque, one of Jamie's and my favorite things to do was to strap a backpack on Gnasher and head for the hills. It was not difficult to find a place to hike there, just drive towards the mountains, park when you couldn't drive any further, and start walking up. The trails were well marked and easy to find. We spent countless hours trekking around the Sandias and enjoying the views of the city and the surrounding desert. In Georgia, easy access to good hikes was something that we really missed. Now, we are in Okinawa, and beyond excited to start up weekend hikes again - even if Gnasher has to stay on leash to keep him away from habus.

On one of our first weekends here, we decided it was time to look for a good hike. We spent an hour on the internet trying to find information about good hiking trails, but were rather unsuccessful. Okinawa Hai ( is a great site with tons of useful information. I have used it for finding restaurants and shops, but came up short when looking for a good hike. Most of the entries are very family oriented, so they primarily have information about nature walks that kids can handle. When looking elsewhere on the internets, I found a site that looked awesome at face value, but it turned out that all the hikes listed were in Okinawa prefecture, but not Okinawa the island ( This site did have good description and photos of hikes on the surrounding islands, so check it out if doing some traveling in the archipelago. Not being able to find any information on good nearby hikes, we decided to drive all the way north to Nago mountain, which did have a small, but informative article on Okinawa Hai. The Northern part of the island is less populated and we thought the hike would be worth the drive. Unfortunately, it was a Japanese holiday and the traffic northward was so bad that we had to turn around after not even making it half way. We were already pretty far North, so we tried to do some last minute iphone searching to find a trail nearby, but had no luck. We turned around, went home, and went to the beach.

After our first hiking fail, we stuck to the beach for a couple weekends. I felt like I won the lottery when a friend of mine sent me this hiking guide, 2008 Okinawa Hiking Guide, that appeared to be exactly what I was looking for. We decided it was time to give hiking on Okinawa another try and I selected the first hike listed: The historical Yamada stone bridge and observatory. We did a little googling to find more information and found a blog ( that had some pictures from the hike that further inspired us to jump in the car. As we approached the area where the trail head was located, we quickly realized that the directions were outdated and it mattered. After a number of three point turns, we parked somewhere and explored some trails marked in Japanese. It turned out that we had found the trail that we were looking for, but even after finding the trail, the directions still did not make much sense. Regardless, we were appreciative that the guide got us out the door and to the general area for a great afternoon exploring.

We ended up parking partway up the trail and explored downward first to see where the trail started. It is a good thing we did this, as descending brought us to the old stone bridge for which the trail is named. The bridge goes over a stream that emerges from somewhere in the adjacent rock face. The water from the stream makes the jungle there particularly damp, verdant, and odiferous; the air is thick with the scent of tropical flowers and rich dark soil. I kept breathing deeply and enjoying the bouquet of scents throughout the hike, but it was most enjoyable at the stone bridge. After passing the bridge, we continued on down and found the actual trailhead, which was a small turn off directly from 58, with one parking spot. If you are traveling North on 58 from Kadena, the trailhead is on the right just before you reach the Renaissance Ramada. On the way there, there will be an ENEOS gas station on the right, then a stop light, and just afterwards, the pull in for the trail (If you want to park at the trailhead, but the spot is taken, you can park in the Renaissance Beach parking lot and walk south along the sidewalk to the trailhead). At the trailhead there is a large trail map with historical sites marked in English and Japanese. Apparently this trail is part of an an old road that connected the royal family's castle in Naha with all points North. You can follow the trail for a very long way, but there are sections that are along major roadways now.
Shrine at trailhead. This can be seen from 58.
Trail map at trailhead
Stone Bridge, looking down the trail
Stone Bridge, looking up the trail

Japanese home above the Stone Bridge

After our excursion down to the base of the trail, we walked back up to where we had started and began the trek to the top. At the top of the stairs from the stone bridge, there is the cutest little yellow and white Japanese house. The yard and patio were immaculate and their view combined with the solitude of the hillside made me rather envious of their sweet abode. Continuing up past the house, there was an entrance to a cavern with stalactites framing the entrance. Of course Jamie started planning a return visit with ropes and other gear so that he can repel down into the cave. I, for one, was not too disappointed that I had chosen to wear flip flops on this hike and was not well equipped enough to warrant any cave exploring. I am still rather nervous about the creepy-crawly fauna on this island. When Gnasher pooped on the trail, Jamie instructed me to grab an elephant ear type leaf to pick up the poop and throw it into the woods. Only problem was that grabbing the giant leaf required stepping off the trail. I was literally paralyzed with fear as I reached for that leaf and Jamie laughed on in amusement. Luckily, no habus got me that time, but the cave seems even more treacherous than a single step into the brush. Alas, I will likely have to get over my fears since caves are Jamie's favorite.

Just past the cave, the trail split in two. The helpful blue trail markers that assisted us to that point were pointed up a staircase to the left. The trail to the right was marked with pink plastic ties and seemed the road less traveled. Jamie pushed on to the right and we followed a gorge with water running through it for a while before turning upwards on a narrow path of yellow and orange clay. We soon saw mountain biking tracks and as the trail changed shape, it became obvious that this must be the aptly named "la luge" trail mentioned in the hiking guide. Some places along the way were a bit slippery, but the trail was pretty well maintained and not too difficult (on the way up at least). Along the way, we enjoyed spotting many caterpillars and spiders on the foliage and butterflies flying zig-zap patterns in every direction. There were many recognizable swallowtails, but also some new butterflies that I had not seen before. I was particularly smitten with a quite large black and white butterfly that reminded me of a newspaper page, but much prettier.

As we began to reach the top of hill, we could see power lines and a fenced off area with barbed wire. The trail turned up to the left and let us out at a small clearing with some benches, stone markers, and a graffitied cement observatory. From the observatory, there was an impressive panoramic view of both sides of the island including the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Royal Okinawa Golf Course, which was strangely empty. Attached to the rail of the observatory was a beautiful set of painted ceramic tiles that illustrated the view with labels in Japanese. This hike made me much more motivated to work on learning to read. It is so frustrating to not be able to read signs; I now know what it feels like to be illiterate. I have an adult mind and can understand and observe what is going on around me, but I can't read. Being completely illiterate must be the most frustrating and depressing condition. I swear I am going to practice my reading and writing everyday from now on; I even ordered a reading and writing workbook from amazon last night. It should arrive within the next month or so...

Across from the trail we had taken up, there was a giant staircase leading down. I thought this might hook up with the staircase going up that we had chosen against at the beginning of our hike, so we checked it out. Instead, it led down to a rather dilapidated picnic and parking area. We saw some pink tape leading away and down the road, so we followed it to a driveway. It appeared that this driveway was also marked with pink tape, so we kept exploring. The driveway was a dead end with a chain blocking the way into dense forest, but there was also a trail off to the left that was blocked with bundled branches and had a sign that appeared to say "caution" or "no entry." Of course we followed the blocked off trail. We saw a sign that said "to observatory" in chicken scratch on an old piece of ply wood, and soon after we met up with the trail we had followed to the top. Ignoring caution signs had paid off.

After hiking down and hydrating, we drove about a mile North and pulled over at a sandy beach. I did my first real swimming (not wading) and Gnasher PRed for swimming distance. Jamie went swimming, too, but not by choice. After G's impressive swimming at the beach, Jamie thought he was ready for dock jumping and threw the frisbee off the jetty. Gnasher did not chase it, so Jamie was forced to jump in. The water was cool, clear, and refreshing and had me looking forward to summer and all the beach days the future holds. But, honestly, in that moment, I was not really thinking much about the future, but relishing the present. How lucky we are to be on this adventure together.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Castles in the sky

View from Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
Welcome area to Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
I have to admit that before moving to Okinawa, I knew very little about the history of the island and its people. I still don't know much, but I am learning more with each adventure. One of the most striking visual reminders of the history of Okinawa are the beautiful castle ruins found on hilltops throughout the island. These castles are relics of the feudal days of the Ryukyu Kingdom before Okinawa was designated a prefecture of Japan. Shuri castle, near the city of Naha in the south end of the island, was the home of ruling family of the Ryukyu kingdom and the center of its government for centuries. This castle was built in the 1300's and although damaged several times throughout history, was most recently demolished in WW2. Shuri castle was rebuilt in 1992 and is now a park and museum (I have not visited this castle yet, but I will soon). The rest of the castles around Okinawa were homes to lords and the seats of local government. The Ryukyu kingdom was first invaded by the Satsuma Domain (now the Kagoshima Prefecture - the island of Kyushu and the island group that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan) in 1609 and was taken as a tributary state of Japan. As a tributary state, Okinawa continued to be governed by its royal family. In 1879, Okinawa was officially made a prefecture of Japan and ruled by the central government of Japan. Today, the restored Shuri castle and the smaller castle ruins throughout the island have been dedicated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The second enclosure at Nakagusuku Castle.
Okinawa is mostly a very busy, very urban place. The majority of the middle and southern part of the island is coated in cement with many-story apartment buildings everywhere you turn. The castles of Okinawa are separate from the hustle and bustle of the city; they are above and away, and are surrounded by green jungle. It sounds cliche, but visiting the castles really feels like stepping back in time. There is an overwhelming sense of peace and enchantment at the top of the hills encircled by ancient castle walls. I have visited two castle ruins so far, and I have experienced the same sense of calm and peacefulness while wandering along the impressive structures at both sites.

Rocks are perfectly smooth on the outside,
but crudely cut on the inside.
Each side of the wall is separate and
the gap is filled with rubble
The first castle I visited was Nakagusuku Castle (gusuku means castle in the Okinawan dialect), which is just north of Camp Foster. This castle is the best preserved of all the ruins on the island and was quite expansive. Because it is large and well preserved, it is one of the most visited, and requires a 400 yen fee to enter the ground. The ruins consist of 3 large enclosures, each a little higher than the one before it, and 3 small enclosures along the side of the main structure. The enclosures are essentially large courtyards surrounded by massive stone walls that organically rise up from the cliff sides. The walls were created by piecing together giant limestone bricks. The bricks are not held together with any sort of mortor or cement, they just fit together perfectly. In one enclosure (technically the 3rd, but the first you reach from the visitor's center), the bricks are hexagonal and the wall looks like a turtle shell or a soccer ball. The face of the wall is perfectly smooth without any gaps, which is so impressive considering the walls were built in the 1300's without modern machinery. It is obvious that a lot of time, energy, and attention to detail went into perfectly shaping and stacking the rocks, but it is still hard to imagine how exactly people were able to complete such a formidable project.
Nakagusuku castle walls
Old foundation of palace at Katsuren.
Sacred cave site at Katsuren. Cement box with sand for incense.
It is fun, however, to imagine what the castles looked like in their glory days. Inside the walls, there were once houses and offices. These structures were built of more temporary materials, and have been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history. Nakagusuku was the home of the city offices until WW2 when the buildings were destroyed for the last time. I was obviously not alive during WW2, so that may be one reason that I did not know about the battle of Okinawa. But, I also feel like I received a very European centered education. I have read countless books and seen many movies about World War Two in Europe, but I know much less about the war in the Asian arena. In Okinawa, the effects of World War Two can been seen everywhere. Besides the fact that that war was the impetus for U.S. military bases dominating the island, there was also a huge loss of life and property and the landscape and appearance of the island was forever changed.

Informative plaque about baby skeletons.
Another interesting feature of the castles are the "sacred places." Throughout the structures, there are many seemingly random piles of rocks, or group of bushes, or just a tree that is labeled "sacred place." The south enclosure of Nakagasuku is called holy ground and has 3 sacred places or places of worship. People still come to pray at these sacred places. I am a bit unsure about how and why a place is designated as sacred and do not know the rituals that surround praying and worshiping at a sacred place. I do know, however, that if there is a sacred place in Okinawa, it seems right that it would be in the castle ruins. It has to do with that sense of calm and enchantment that I mentioned earlier, it just feels right that the castle ruins would be a place to come to be quiet and pray or meditate.

I visited Katsuren castle about a week after visiting Nakagusuku. Katsuren is located in a quieter part of the island - on the Yokatsu peninsula, on the way to White Beach. The castle, and the hill it is built on, are smaller and less grand than Nakagusuku, but the structure fits in perfectly with its surroundings. If the two castles switched places, they would be less beautiful. Katsuren is built in much the same style as Nakagusuku, with limestone walls making up 3 main enclosures, each being a little higher and a little smaller. There are many sacred places at Katsuren as well, and some especially interesting archaeology finds. Near the interior wall of the third enclosure (largest, and lowest- the first one you enter), there are many infant skeletons buried in the fetal position facing the wall. Anthropologists are not sure what to make of this find, but it is certainly interesting and a bit creepy.

View of Katsuren as you approach from below.
Katsuren was a bit less impressive, and took less time to explore, but is special in its own ways. This castle does not have a welcome center and there is no fee to visit. When visiting, one kind of feels as though they discovered a secret, enchanted space - even if there are other visitors. Between the baby skeletons and a sacred cave, Katsuren is well worth the visit.

View from midlevel Kasuren. 

View of the first enclose, from the third enclosure of Katsuren.
Farms surrounding Katsuren. 

Me at the base of Katsuren. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Moving on... down

Jamie and I moved into the apartment that will be our home for at least the next year this past weekend. Are we excited? Well we are happy to be a little more settled and to have more space, but, once again, the Air Force kind of screwed us. On base vs. off base housing has been a major point of contention between me and the Air Force since Jamie and I got married. The AF, being quite infatuated with rules, has a plethora of rules about where you can live and when. For instance, while you are in training, you must live on base, regardless of age, rank, behavioral record, or preference. This rule got us while we were living in Albuquerque. Jamie's career field has an abnormally long training period. While most new airmen have a training period of 3-6 months, the pararescue pipeline is about 2 years long. And that is if you go straight through, it can be even longer if you get set back or are injured. So, when Jamie and I got married and wanted to move in together, we were only allowed to live on base, despite Jamie having been in the Air Force for 9 months.

Living on base in Albuquerque was not actually terrible. Kirtland AFB is a large base, but most of the area is just fenced off desert. The part of base where people live and work is pretty compact and the housing is quite near the gates. Sure, it would have been great to have a cute little one bedroom with a yard (and chickens!) in the Nob Hill area so we could walk to bars, restaurants, breweries, and The Guild. But, the base really wasn't that far away from things. Everything was close enough that I used a bicycle as my only means of transportation for a whole month after selling our car. So, while I grumbled about our lack of choice, the situation wasn't that bad, and soon Jamie would graduate from training and the Air Force could never tell us where to live again. 

Just kidding. It is true that we were free to live wherever we wanted while we were stationed in Georgia. I think we made the most of it, too. But, the exception to the rule is overseas assignments. Overseas, The Air Force can force anyone to live on base. It seems there is some sort of agreement with the private company that builds and maintains the on base housing that the government guarantees that the housing will be occupied. If not enough people actually want to live on base, then the Air Force will take away your choice.  For us, base housing must be 98% full to receive permission to live off base. We arrived at a busy time and a lot of people were moving on base, so we were hopeful. When Jamie went to the housing briefing, we found out that Kadena, our new base, was in fact above 98% occupancy, but there was a new rule. Now, in order to be allowed to live off base, Kadena and its sister base a couple miles a away must both be at 98% occupancy. The sister base was not at 98%. We were told that we would not be allowed to live off base and that we might even be offered housing at the nearby sister base so that we wouldn't even be living on the base where Jamie was working! Ironically, this new rule is called the "live where you work policy."

Jamie is required to be on alert in case any training flights go awry, and therefore really does need to live near his squadron. The commander signed a letter saying that we should not live on another base, but it wasn't enough to be permitted to be live off base. Eventually, the housing office offered us two potential places to live. Technically, we could have refused these places, but if we did, we would not be offered housing again for 3 months and would not receive money for housing during that time. The kicker to the whole situation? The housing office is not required to offer us pet friendly housing and being offered a place where pets are not allowed is not an accepted reason to turn down housing. We could have been shown two places where Gnasher was not allowed to live. Our choices would have been to give up Gnasher (who we just flew across the globe), or to wait three more months and pay out of pocket for housing in the meantime. Luckily (everything is relative), the housing office showed us one apartment that Gnasher was not allowed to live in and one apartment where Gnasher was allowed to live. So we weren't totally screwed, but we really didn't get to make any choices about where we would be living. 

Our apartment is in a multiplex (2 upstairs apartments and 2 downstairs apartments) in the back corner of the base. We are about a 10 minute drive to Jamie's work and maybe 15 minutes to get off base and go to the beach. Needless to say, that was a bit of a shock after living walking distance to the water for almost a month. While we were living in the off base hotel, we could walk to the grocery store, a convenience store, more restaurants than I can count, the yoga studio, and the ocean. Now, we can't walk anywhere, except around the giant military neighborhood we are living in. There are some positives, our kitchen is pretty sizable. We have a lot of counter and cabinet space, and a dishwasher - all things that are not found in apartments off base. There is also some green space around the apartment, so we can throw the frisbee for Gnash without walking to a park. But really, who minds walking to a park? 

Essentially, I think it is unfair to ask military families to give up as much as they do and then take away basic freedoms like choosing where to live. Especially since these rules are not in place to keep us safe or aid us in any way, but rather to ensure a private contractor keeps raking in the doe. Jamie and I were pretty excited about receiving orders to move to Okinawa, but not everyone is stoked about living on an island in the Pacific ocean half way across the globe from everyone they know and care about. It is a sacrifice in many ways to ask us to move everything we own to another country. I think the least the government can do is allow us to live where we want so we can make the most of the move and enjoy our time overseas. We will still try to make the most of living here, but having to drive everywhere is definitely a drag. The worst part: I can see off base from my kitchen window like a forbidden fruit shining in the sun. But to get there, I have to drive through my giant neighborhood and go through a gate. It is absurd. 

When the sun comes out I will add some pictures of the apartment and the neighborhood. I know you are on the edge of your seats...


Kitchen Window

Back Bedroom

ONLY bathroom!

Living Room

Back doors


Foyer Area



Front yard

We are apartment B

View from the front yard

Monday, May 5, 2014

From limbo to paradise... and beyond!

Life is always a wild and crazy ride, but the last year has been an extra strange one. Jamie left Albuquerque in April of 2013 and started setting up our new life in Valdosta, Georgia. He found the perfect house for us, after extensive house hunting, and made an offer to buy it. I arrived a month later with the moving van, ready (but not enthusiastic) to start settling in. After two weeks on a friends couch, we closed on our house and moved in. One week later, we received a rip (sp?) to be reassigned to Okinawa, Japan in about a years time. It was very much out of the ordinary to be reassigned so quickly after moving to a new base and to have a whole years notice before the reassignment. This rip put me in an interesting situation. I was very skeptical of the reassignment as a lot can happen in a year; I really had no idea whether we would actually be moving in a year, but it was certainly a possibility.

To be frank, I really wanted the move to turn out to be real. I was not impressed with Valdosta as a town or geographical location. I wanted the move so badly, I hesitated letting myself be excited about it in fear of the let down that would come if it was cancelled. And so I spent the year trying to settle into life in Georgia, knowing that I may move soon, but I may not. I mostly tried to grasp every opportunity possible without letting the possible move hold me back, but it was always there in the back of mind. Also, there was limited opportunity in Georgia. I found an amazing yoga community and taught marine biology at the community college, but there was no chance of going back to school or participating in research. Jamie and I held back on doing any major home improvements or landscaping projects because we could be moving soon. Essentially, I was in a kind of strange limbo. I might not move, so I should try to fit in, get settled, make friends, but I might not move so it could end up not mattering very much at all. In military life, you are always going to move at some point, but 9 months in one place is pretty temporary. It was a very strange, uncomfortable time.

Now that the move has turned out to be real, I am writing from a temporary living facility (TLF) in Okinawa, Japan. That perfect house that we purchased is sitting empty and lonely in Valdosta. I feel like I am floating around with no schedule, routine, or home base, but I have years ahead of me to settle in and feel at home. Since I will be living in once place for a while, I feel obligated to get to work on finding something meaningful and fulfilling to participate in. My number one priority is to go back to school to complete a doctoral degree. My life goal is to be research professor as a university. I have had great teachers in college, but I have also had many terrible ones. I want to be a great teacher at the college level and motivate and inspire young people to enter the field of science. I hope to mentor and support graduate students so that they can become successful research scientists, but also great teachers. I hope to stay true to the dream of great teaching in college instead of getting caught up in the rat race that university research can become. If I am accepted to the programs I have applied to, I will continue to share about my teaching and learning here on this blog.

In addition to going back to school and reaching for my big dreams, I want to fully appreciate and enjoy living in a foreign country and a beautiful subtropical island. The reefs here are very pretty with lots of soft and hard coral. Some sites are very fishy and others have amazing invertebrate spotting. I have only been on 3 dives and I have already seen this - there must be so much more to see. There are farms, mountains, museums, waterfalls, ruins, castles, caves, and many, many restaurants. I want to explore every corner of this island, leaving no stone un turned. I want to interact with locals, work on my Japanese, participate in the culture. And, I want to write about it all right here.

This entry is a bit of a catch up on what has been happening since I have been off the grid for sometime, but also a recommitment. I am on a serious adventure, in so many different ways, and I plan on documenting and sharing the details. Stay tuned!