January 13, 2006
Housing is...interesting, to say the least when one is stationed overseas. (Warning: relatively involved description of "How Navy Housing Works" follows, so if you want, you can skip down to paragraph #6.)
Usually, there is a waiting list for base housing, so families are given up to sixty days in the Navy Lodge (we moved to the lodge last Monday) to find housing in a cho (neighborhood) or get offered base housing. We pay for our stay in the lodge and are reimbursed every ten days for both the lodging fee and a per diem towards food. Some folks have up to a two-year wait for base housing, so they have no choice but to move into a cho. If you move to a cho and then housing becomes available, the Navy will pay both for your move to the cho and for your subsequent move to base housing.
HOWEVER...if the space to which you are entitled is available on base, you get two offers. The first offer is usually at the Hario base, in the apartment tower. This is nice enough, but it's linoleum-floored, cinderblock-walled rabbit-warren housing, and it's a 35-minute commute to the main base. If you turn down your first offer, you can be more specific for your second offer (a townhouse instead of the apartment tower, Main Base instead of Hario, etc.) But, if you turn down your first offer and move to the cho, and your second offer becomes available, the military will not move you from the cho to base housing...it's at your own expense.
We signed up for housing on Tuesday...and got our first offer that afternoon! We were given 24 hours to accept or decline our first offer. I was panicked, as I really did want to see what was in the community before making any decisions or burning any bridges. So I went to talk to the housing counselors. Melissa is officially our counselor, and she is very new. As a result, she's a real stickler for following the rule book to the letter (and I don't really blame her.) Luckily for me, Roland was the only counselor available to talk to me, and he's an old hand. Instead of making me wait for Melissa, he decided to talk to me. I blurted out everthing, about wanting to look at the neighborhoods but not wanting to give up base housing in case the neighborhoods were not what I wanted and I need a place with Internet access and are the bugs really as big as some people have told me if I live in the cho and we have two appointments to look at houses, but can't go until Friday and Saturday due to our mandatory class....
When I finally took a breath, he said "Let me see..." He got up and retrieved a three ring binder, then leaned back in his chair, slowly flipping through the binder and occasionally glancing over it at me. It was REALLY hard to sit still--not talking or fidgeting--but I did it. After five minutes (felt like a week), Roland leaned forward, put the binder down and said "here's what I can do..." Basically, he told me our second offer was ready to go, and once he made the offer, we'd have 24 hours to decide...then no more chances to live on base. But he was willing to work with me, and give us our second offer on Tuesday so we could see the houses on Friday and Saturday, and then two more on Tuesday if we play our cards right, before having to give him our decision. He then told me I could choose which offer we get on Tuesday....a townhouse in Hario (something coveted) or a townhouse on Main Base (REALLY coveted and very rare). He even gave me a key so we could walk over to the Main Base housing and look at the town house he will offer us on Tuesday. Basically he was treating me like a pretty high-ranking officer's wife, and I found out later he does not work with the enlisted men and their families (but he does know FH is an E-6). He even gave me a copy of the floorplan for both townhouses, to help us decide.
The Main Base housing has some good points--it is within an easy walk of FH's ship, the gym, the commissary, medical, etc. The appliances are all installed and all full-sized (American). It's clean and freshly painted, with nice blinds and hardwood floors. There is a LOT of storage, including a little storage shed, and there is a postage-stamp back yard, in which I could grow a couple of tomato plants and a marigold, as long as they all get along. But it's blank and boring and the views are pretty drab and depressing. I'm sure I could fill the house with color and light though, and make it a nice, if small, nest, and there is a lot to be said for the walking commute (we could wait to get a car, and I could explore the area via train and bus) and being within an American community. But we want to live IN the Japanese community here rather than just BESIDE it.
So on Friday afternoon, we had our first appointment with a real estate agent. We walked to the base's back gate to meet him (about a mile and a half), and of course the skies opened up on us halfway there, and I'd forgotten my umbrella. We made our dripping way into the agent's little box car. He bowed from the driver's seat, handed me a box of tissues, and off we went like a rattle-trap rocket. After a few attempts at conversation, we realized our agent spoke absolutely NO English. It was better than a rollercoaster at first, being flung from side to side through the crazy traffic as he shouted in Japanese into his cell phone, driving with one hand and both feet. All I could think was "Isn't there a horror movie that starts just like this?" Eventually though, the traffic thinned out as we drove into the country and up into the mountains. I was craning my neck from the back seat, trying to see where the road cut through the mountains, when suddenly we did just that--cut right THROUGH the mountains, plunging into a tunnel that went on long enough to seriously worry me.
When we popped out the other side, we were in another world. The rain stopped, and mist clung in shreds to the mountains. Rice paddy terraces stepped their way up hilllsides, a paler, brighter green than the surrounding landscape despite their winter hibernation. Farmer's houses with dark, tiled roofs sat like not-so-little islands centered in the expanding ripples of the paddies. We drove and drove...cut through the outskirts of a tiny village, and with a sudden twist of the steering wheel, plunged to the left over a boulder-strewn stream and up the steepest, narrowest winding road I have ever been on in my life. We clung to the handles in the car, waiting for the inevitable plunge to our deaths when the little car made a last hairpin turn to the right and pulled into a parking space beside a house.
Let me rephrase that. We pulled in beside THE house.
This house was like something out of Shogun. It was quintessentially Japanese, from the little entrance gate and archway to the carefully sculpted, OLD trees, to the shoji screens and tatami mats...and it was over 1,700 square feet. The entranceway tiles were ceramic, not linoleum, and except for the kitchen, the floors were either hardwood or tatami. The altar alcove and accompanying hand-carved main beam (usually the most expensive part of a Japanese house) seemed imbued with ancient spirits, and the sliding rice paper shoji screens seemed to whisper words like "geisha" and "arigato". The house clung to the mountain, backed up against a towering, silent pine forest. The views of the mistneighboring mountains and the valley were barely framed by trees, and otherwise unimpeded. A beautifully twisted orange tree and a lemon tree, both heavy with fruit, stand at the foot of the steep driveway, and from there, the land just falls away beneath a thick carpet of green to the valley floor, far below.
A little background: tatami rooms are rooms that are floored in tatami mats, which are 3 x 6' each, and about 3" deep. They are covered in straw, and make the floor give beneath your feet, beneath your knees and behind while sitting or kneeling, and beneath your futon. The room sizes are not given in square feet, but rather by how many tatami mats will fill the floor space. So, a six tatami room would be 9 x 12'. No rooms are designated as "bedrooms" since every morning, futons are folded in half and put into very large cupboards just for that purpose in every room, converting the room one sleeps in to a living area.
The bathroom was entirely Japanese--a completely tiled room in which one sits on a stool OUTSIDE the tub and uses a bucket (or in this case a modern, hand-held shower sprayer) to wash and rinse the body and hair. Once the bather is entirely clean, he or she steps into the large, very deep tub embedded with the rim near the floor level, to soak and relax. Often the water is heated only in the tub, and is circulated to heat it after the tub is drawn. Soap is never, ever used in a Japanese bath, and one only gets into the tub when one is as clean as possible, since every member of the family may soak in the hot water, one after another. The toilet and wash basin are in separate rooms--and hot water isn't always an option for the wash basin, so we have to make sure and ask!
There is no central heating--instead, there are kerosene or propane heaters in a couple of rooms, and occasionally air conditioning units. (The military will provide us with two more heating/air conditioning units wherever we move.) The whole house is on stilts, and every room has sliding windows/doors, floor to ceiling, directly to the outside--regardless of whether there is a step or just a six-foot drop! We've been told this is so ghosts and bad spirits can flow on through instead of being trapped, but with the hot and humid summers, it's probably also to encourage every stray breeze. Winters are chilly in these non-insulated houses. One tradition sounds pretty wonderful to me though. In the winter time, a heat lamp (used to be a coal brazier in years gone by) is placed under a low table, and a quilt is thrown over the table. The whole family sits on the floor around the table with the quilt tucked around their waist, their legs and lower body cozy in the warmth beneath the table.
FH turned to me after we'd explored the house and were standing looking at the view, and said "This is a house we could really WRITE in." I agreed wholeheartedly. We don't know what sort of Internet service we could get, but we both covet that house, the views, the romance, the pine forest, the lemon tree, the mist and the rice paddies--the lifestyle that house whispered to us both.
Why haven't we moved in already? What are the drawbacks? Well, the slightest bit of ice or snow, or even really heavy typhoon weather would trap us, and the Navy doesn't look kindly on sailors who call in to say they can't get to work. The commute, as lovely as it is, would be a minimum of 40 minutes, longer in rush hour--and if I want the car for the day, I would have to drive him to the base and drive back twice a day. If FH is out on his ship for months at a time, I would be quite isolated, and the chance of getting to know the neighbors is small, as they are so scattered. There is a train station, and so that's a possibility, but again, we'd have to drive down the mountain to get to the station, and though it doesn't snow or ice up often, it does happen.
Actually, finding out about the train station was kind of funny. I was trying to ask our agent where the nearest station was. With no common language, I drew some pretty horrible pictures of trains and train tracks. He was totally lost and I think FH was mortified by my drawing and my charades. Then the agent's face lit up and he whipped out his cell phone. After speaking in Japanese, he handed me the phone with a bow. On the other end..an interpreter! After much back and forth (I explained to the interpreter, she explained to him, he answered her, she told me what he said, etc.) he understood, and promised to point out the train station on the way back. I think he did--at least that's how I interpreted his rapid Japanese and frantic arm flailing as we went careering past a ramshackle building beside the train tracks on our way home. I think the station was beyond the shack though, as he also said several times "Shopping! Shopping!" as he flailed, and we've been told the train stations often have several shops and a grocery store.
So...we know we will be offered a highly-desirable but grim townhouse on the Main Base on Tuesday. We've seen our dream house--if only it was closer. Tomorrow, we get to see another house, not so special, but not so far away. Unfortunately, after these two houses, we can't see any more until the housing office reopens on Tuesday and they schedule us for more house viewings. We hope to see at least four before we have to decide on Wednesday morning.
I took my camera with me on the house visit, but forgot the &#$% SD card, so was unable to take any pictures to send you. My apologies! Stay tuned for the story of house number two!