As I mentioned at the end of Part 2, I will cover most of the perks and options that are available towards my PCS to Okinawa. Most of what I am covering obviously pertains to my move or what is important to me, but I hope it is still useful for others. For those that want to do their own research, which I recommend anyways, I will provide the web link to Kadena AB’s Newcomers website and to “Okinawa Hai!” below. Both websites cover just about everything you might wonder about your move to Okinawa and it is a good spring board to find other relevant information …
So let’s get started shall we? In no particular order, but starting with probably the most common request USAF members have about their move to Okinawa, “Can I bring my dog/cat?”
- Pet Travel Clearances
Honestly, this is going to be a long section because Japan makes so “hard” to import your pets there. At least that is what I read on the Internet, but I think that isn’t really true after my experiences so far. I have read plenty of horror stories on the Internet about families having to leave their pets behind in tears, because the paperwork was just too much handle! Well, if you know how to read regulations and start WAY early, you should be ok. When I mean way early, I mean like 1 year out from the date you fly out of the CONUS! But I didn’t start that far out and I guess I will find what happens to my pet at the Airport Terminal Gate in a1.5 weeks when we leave for Okinawa. As usual I will breakdown what I have done so far to get our Yorkie ready, but please follow the web link below and read the “Ideal timeline” first. This will help you make sense of what I am talking about and what the Japan government requires to import pets into their country.
So, basically I just stuck to page 1 on the “Ideal timeline” and went in the order given, making sure I kept the days between the rabies tests within the day limits listed. However, the one requirement I didn’t follow because I wasn’t proactive enough (go figure!), was the 180 day quarantine window. This happen because when I actually found out I was going to Okinawa for sure, it was almost impossible to meet this timeframe. So, I was convinced up to that time I was just going to dump our Yorkie out in the desert when we left…just kidding! I ended up talking to a few co-workers of mine that have been to Okinawa before and said the quarantine period is no big deal, because IF you live on-base, your on-base residence counts as a quarantine area. They go on to say that even if you end up living off-base on Okinawa, you can most likely sweet talk one of your co-workers that live on-base to keep your dog at their residence for the quarantine timeframe. All this stuff is addressed in the pet regulations posted on that Newcomers website. By my calculations, we will be 90 days into the quarantine window by the time we land on Okinawa. Luckily this quarantine situation gets better for us…and the Yorkie.
The Passenger Travel office hooked up the Patriot Express (military flight) from Seattle to Japan. That is great, but what was better, is that they managed to get an in-cabin spot for our Yorkie; score! I heard those Patriot Express in-cabin pet spots are extremely limited and major kudos to the Edwards AFB’s Passenger Travel office for hooking it up. Ok, so now that I have secured a military flight from the CONUS all the way to our final destination of Okinawa, my stress level on this issue drop off next to nothing. This is mostly for two reasons…
1. The pet advance travel notification you are required to send to the Japanese Customs office is NOT required. It is only required when you are entering the country on a commercial flight.
2. I don’t have to worry about those same officials possibly freaking out that I am only 90 days in the quarantine window when we land, and heaven forbid my Yorkie gets loose and causes a rabies epidemic! Why no worries? Because we are only landing on military installations all the way to Okinawa, so no pesky Japanese custom officials to worry about! But what could happen though when you arrive in Japan off a commercial flight, is that they can quarantine your pet at the port of entry and that means your pet is not going anywhere with you. And I think 90 days at a quarantine kennel would be quite expensive in my case!
So that is about it for my Yorkie. I have all the shots, FAVN tests, microchip, and doggy carrier ready to go. I still need to get his health certificate before we go, but you only have a 10 day window on getting that done, which starts from the day you actually fly out. Actually, Kadena AB’s newcomer’s website has plenty of info on this process, so check it out below…
Just remember to start way early on this or you can just hope for a Patriot Express flight for your PCS! Also, there are certain dog breeds that can’t be brought to Okinawa, plenty of pet policies in place at Kadena AB, and having a pet may affect your housing options on/off the base as well. So do your research and decide if bringing your pets is the best thing to do.
- But my car! It is my baby! I can’t leave it behind, are you crazy?!
Ok, first off I am not sending any vehicles to Okinawa. Basically, we don’t have anything to send! But the TMO office are the guys you want to talk to about getting your car over there. Not every USAF member is authorized to ship a POV, so make sure the POV authorization is on your PCS orders before you get any crazy ideas about sending a car. But if you don’t send your car, you should be authorized CONUS storage at no cost to you while you are gone, so it isn’t too bad of a deal.
However, I will share what I have found out when I did THINK about sending our SUV over there, since it is working perfectly for my family’s uses so far. First, it is POSSIBLE to send a car to Japan, but it is just going to cost YOU a lot of money to make it happen. That’s right, YOU, the government will cover the shipping side of the deal, just not all the work that needs to get done to be import ready for Japan. I wish I could remember the web link to a car forum website that has a good write-up on this process. If I can find that link again, I will update this post, but it basically stated that the car needs met certain Japanese road safety features. Think special indicator light colors, special bumpers, and what not. Plus the work that is done to get the car up to spec, has to be “certified” it was done right too! This basically adds up to THOUSANDS of dollars in garage work/parts and government fees to make happen. So if your car is too precious to leave behind and you will never be caught dead in a hoopty in Okinawa, be my guest and shell out the dough. So needless to say, our SUV is staying here with my parents (it is theirs anyways) and I plan on getting a “nice” hoopty for the family when we get there.
Ok, I imagine right now that the true Gearheads among the readers are not truly deterred on getting their “baby” to Okinawa yet. Well, here are a couple of more things I found out that happen when you own a car in Japan, and they are not cheap either. These two additional requirements make owning a car in Japan expensive, and they are called Japanese Compulsory Insurance (JCI) and the Annual Road Tax. The JCI is required for all cars in Japan every 2 years, and it is basically a means to make sure that the cars on Japanese roads are safe and are in good working order. I have read that this can get really expensive, since anything that is identified as not meeting the standards, has to be fixed before you can get a valid JCI on the car in question. Here is a Wikipedia article on the JCI process, but who knows how accurate it is…
But I think the real killer, is the Annual Road Tax every car owner has to pay in Japan. Long story short, you are charged a fee that is based on how many liters your car engine has. Considering most American cars have “big” engines, this can cost you a lot…and every year you are there! I found a recent article about this process and what the current fee structure is like, see link right below…
Still not deterred?! Well here is some practical advice that my co-workers gave me that have been to Okinawa before. The roads there are SMALL, and even what we consider a small car here in the States, would be considered big car there on that island and it may have trouble navigating the roads there. I know that sounds weird, but I saw this play out numerous times when I was stationed in Europe a while back. I used to get a good chuckle when I saw all these “big shots” that just got there in Germany, trying to get around town with their big decked out Yukons and Expeditions, “Complete with 24’s rims son!” I chuckled because they looked real “cool” when they realized they couldn’t fit in any parking structures or parking spaces in town, or even on 90% of the roads in Europe for the matter. So, the choice is yours, to be practical or cool? Which is it going to be?
- To live on-base or off-base???
Well, on Okinawa military members don’t really have a choice! I guess back in 2009 (the regs are on that Newcomers website) it was decided that EVERYONE had to live on-base, unless the on-base housing was full of course, then you were thrown off-base. I am guessing many of the military members prior to 2009, would have rather lived on a nice villa on the beach, than live in the concrete storm shelters they call family housing! I would have done the same, but I guess I won’t know what my options are until I get there. I will admit we are leaning on living on-base anyways, because I heard it is “easier” on you when you have a family and what not to consider, but this contrary to everything I have done up to now in my career. I always moved off-base when I got the chance! I wanted to experience what it was like to live in a different country to the fullest extent possible. And if you played your cards right, you almost always ended up with a bigger paycheck for your troubles! I will touch more about the financial stuff later, but my point is to get out there and enjoy the culture if you can.
However, here are some things I have found out so far about the housing situation on Okinawa. One, all the housing on Okinawa is considered Joint Service assets, so you can be assigned to live in any of the numerous Air Force, Army and Naval bases’ housing areas. I am not sure how this will play out, but the regs do state they will try to place you and your family somewhere that is “close” to your actual work center. Secondly, we are traveling with a pet, so this will obviously affect where we would like to live. We are lucky that our Yorkie is small and can be considered an exclusively indoor pet, but not all family housing accommodations allow pets. I also read that you can’t use the fact that you have a pet to deny on-base non-pet housing given to you, so beware! Again, we will see how this plays out when we get here.
Finally, there isn't really much I can do from here that will determine where I will live. I did email my housing application to Kadena’a Housing office already, but they rack and stack the applications by the date you left the CONUS. So it may not matter if I do it now or later, but we will see. I also know that the on-base occupancy rates (+95%?) have to be pretty high for us to be given the option to live off-base. I like options, because I did see what housing you can get off-base, and can be significantly higher in quality than what you will get on-base. I included some important links relating to on/off basing housing below…
1. http://www.housing.af.mil/okinawa/index.asp (Info on the Military housing on Okinawa)
2. http://www.ahrn.com/ (Listings of off-base rentals on Okinawa and other bases as well)
3. http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/site/ohaCalc.cfm (OHA Calculator, more on this later)
- Household Appliances
I threw this section right after the housing section because they are related to each other somewhat and I actually considered sending our refrigerator and clothes washer/dryer to Okinawa. I really didn’t want to give up the ice/water dispenser in the refrigerator and the steam functions of the clothes washer and dryer we had (once you have steam, you never go back!) plus the wife was pretty attached to them as well. So I did some research on the Internet and contacted Kadena’s Housing office as well. This is what I found…
1. The AC voltage that is available off-base in Okinawa is 100 volts, on-base it is 110 volts, so for most American appliances, we are good to go with those numbers for both on/off base. However, the AC power frequency that is available off-base is 50 Hz, but most American appliances need 60 Hz to function correctly. This means your American appliances will work just fine on-base, but maybe with a little less “umph” than normal in an off-base residence. So for example, my clothes washer will probably not clean our clothes that well, since it isn’t getting enough “juice” for it to work right in an off-base residence. Secondly, other appliances or other types of electrical equipment that needs an accurate internal clock to function properly, like your common alarm clock, will NOT work as intended. The AC power frequency of 50 Hz is too slow and your alarm clock will “lose” time, or in the case of my clothes dryer, the drying timer would be off. Oh, you WILL be late to work if you use your American alarm clock, so consider yourself warned!
2. The other factor I had to consider was not having a gas hookup for our clothes dryer. This is a common feature in California, but not on Okinawa, on- or off-base. If you have an electric clothes dryer, consider factor one above before you get too excited. Anyways, I think the Japanese way of doing things is to use a clothes washer machine to clean of course, and then hang dry everything. So that is why there are no gas clothes dryer hookups in their homes.
3. The next factor I had to consider was the size of the appliances. I was told that the off-bases residences on Okinawa are way SMALL, so my unwieldy American appliances would not fit anywhere they should go. Case in point, I noticed when I was looking at Okinawa off-base rentals on the Internet, I saw that most Japanese clothes washer machine (way small by the way) was either in or very near the kitchen area. Considering the size of our clothes washer machine, I guess we could have used it as a kitchen as well! These restrictions go for the refrigerator as well, since ours looks like it would be too tall and too deep to go in its designated spot in a Japanese residence. So no convenient ice maker for us to use on a hot tropical island, just our luck!
4. The final factor I had to deal with was that if we ended up living on-base somewhere on the island, they all come with the major appliances anyways. So I emailed the Kadena Housing office and asked them if I could have them removed out of the quarters we would be assigned to, since I was planning to bring my (nicer) appliances anyways. Guess what they said? They said, “Nope, see all the factors above!”
So, if anyone reading this needs some nice stainless steel appliances, they are priced to move! Just shoot me an email and, its “first come first served!”…just kidding, I already sold them!
- Cell Phone Service
Well, like I mentioned in the very beginning of this guide, I got some time on my hands to look up stuff. So I wondered what kind of cell service we could get over there and luckily most of the major cell phone providers there have English websites too. I can’t remember all of them right now and I am too lazy to Google it again, but the one cell phone provider I think we are going with is AU. I have read on other Internet forums and had my Sponsor tell me that AU is the one to go with. They got the best coverage and it works all over base, so that is good for us. I don’t know how competitive their pricing is compared to the other cell phone providers, so I will find out about that when I get on the island. Here is a link to AU’s English website…
As you can see, they have a good mix of the current smart phones and tablets offerings, and their cell phone plans seem reasonable. But I do have a warning for everyone reading this, and that is their cell phone plans are extremely…intricate to say the least. It based by the type of phone you get and then it just gets stringy after that. It took me a good 30 minutes of reading and re-reading before things started to make sense. To find the cell phone plans, click the “Charges & Discounts” menu option near the top of this website and you may need to grab some coffee to help you get through it all!
I do have one final comment on cell phones in Okinawa, since I have seen the following question come up a numerous web forums, “Can I bring my American cell phone to Okinawa and use it with no issues?” The short answer is, NO. The long answer is as follows…
1. Most American cell phones don’t operate on the required frequencies and/or use the communication protocols they use in Japan. I am not going to bore you with the gritty details, but just understand that the American cell phone infrastructure is not the same as the Japanese infrastructure, because they developed way differently throughout the prior decades.
2. Ok, so you got a “fancy” cell phone, and you did some smart research, and you can smugly say, “My ___ cell phone is better than everyone else’s, because I can USE mine there!” Well, that is fine and dandy for you, but I hope you have piles of money you can burn, since your roaming charges are going to be astronomical! So just because you can bring and use it, it would not be the most cost effective to use as your regular daily phone, no matter how cool you think you would be with the “fanciest” phone on Okinawa. Anyways, if you look on the AU website and go over their phone products, they got some pretty good Android and Apple product offerings. I am eyeing the Samsung Galaxy 3 for me and the wife.
So wrapping this section up, I would recommend dumping your American phones on your way out and get something over here in Okinawa. Plus, I think most of the major cell phone companies here in the States will let you cancel your phone contracts for free with your military PCS orders. Heck, if you have a smart phone/iPhone just keep it for its Wifi function, and use it as a Skype/VOIP phone when you are at your on/off base residence.
- Keeping In Touch With The Family
Luckily in this day and age, keeping in touch with family is pretty easy with emails, Facebook, Skype, etc. So I am going to keep this short and sweet, and only put out there what my family is planning on using. Since my family doesn't like being stuck behind a computer to communicate, we will be going the cell phone (smartphone) route for most of our daily communication needs. The most common apps we use now and plan to use in Okinawa, are Facebook, Kakao Talk (Korea based), and Skype. But currently, we have unlimited cell phone data here in the States, but that isn’t really an option in Japan, or at least a cheap option. So using all those apps at anytime we feel like may have to change, like having to restrict our family communications to when we are home on our Wifi or some free hotspot. This is definitely a very fluid situation, so we will see once we get to Okinawa.
- Doing GPS
Firstly, I know how to read a map, but I love GPS for the simple fact always I know “where” I am at any given time. Plus, I will always know how to get somewhere! I currently have a Garmin 1490T that I have been using the whole time I have been at Edwards AFB. It has worked great (but needs a new battery) but I am trying to be a cheap as possible, and I do not want to buy one over there. I know, I know, Okinawa is a small island. I get it, but sometimes I want to know where the closest 7-11 is, right then and NOW! So if you think like me, here is what I found out about using an American GPS in Japan…
1. You are probably not going to be happy with it. Yes, there are Japanese maps floating around the Internet that will work with Garmins and you can the maps from Garmin directly if you want. But, the major issue with the American Garmin GPS models is that they will not have Japanese language input capability. I guess the character set of Japanese is pretty intense and it would take up a lot of memory just to store it all. Oh, and for those familiar with Garmin GPS’s, you can’t just select the Japanese Keyboard (I tried) and expect it to work. It won’t because the Japanese character set has to be part of the internal coding of the unit. If you are thinking, “So what I can’t get that mumbo jumbo inputted, what’s the big deal!?” Well then, you won’t be able to search for any address in Okinawa (or Japan for that matter) or search for Points of Interests (POI); that’s what! So that limits your Garmin GPS to being a simple electronic map, which sucks in my opinion. Here is a link to a non-Garmin GPS map that you can load up to your Garmin GPS, it isn’t free, but you don’t really have many options either…
2. But there is hope! And that hope lies in the POI function. Basically, I found a huge database of POI’s on the following website…
So, just search for Okinawa and download the hundreds of POI’s that people have saved and then uploaded to that site. They are all in English and you can find POI’s for just about any part of the world actually. How this actually helps American GPS owners out is by bypassing the need to “search” for anything! For example, I can just pull up the POI list (or search the list) on my Gamin GPS and select the “Kadena BX” POI. And presto, the location is already loaded on the unit and it plots the route to Kadena’s BX. Obviously, I don’t know how accurate that location is, since that POI mostly likely involved someone parking their car in the Kadena BX parking lot, saved their location on their GPS, then went home and downloaded that POI to their computer, and then finally uploaded it to that website. That is a lot of work just to make one POI to share, and a lot of trust in that POI I might add! It could say Kadena BX on the POI label, but it could really be POI of a “scenic location” off a very short bridge!
3. The final option is just give up the American Garmin GPS and buy a Japanese market Garmin GPS! They will have the English keyboard and Voice that will work just fine on it, BUT you still won’t be able to search for addresses in English anyways. Uh!? Yea, I guess you still have to narrow down address in Japanese OR by telephone number. Yup, telephone number, that is the best way to find an address in Japan. I guess it is just the way the addresses are structured in Japan; kind of reminds me how good old Billy Bob gives directions to his house here in the States, “Yup, just go down the road here and turn left before the second oak tree on the right, then a right after the broken down tractor on the left, then drive 5 minutes and you are there!”
Well, after finding all that out, I decided to give my trusty Garmin GPS a spin and rely on the POI’s to get me around Okinawa. I managed to get a Japanese map that covers Okinawa, I just hope it isn’t too out of date. But if that doesn’t work out or I fail to memorize all the roads on the island in a month (which I hear is a real possibility to actual do), I will just buy a Japanese GPS or maybe use an app for my phone that will do it.
- Show Me The Money!
I saved the best section for last, but in reality, it is probably the most important! Because let’s be honest here, for most military members moving to Okinawa, their monthly pay checks will be double, of not triple than what they we getting before! But I am going to try to put that in perspective for everyone reading this, especially the young military families that have never PCS’d to an overseas assignment before. But first, I will cover the basic pay entitlements that most military members will be receiving when they arrive to Okinawa.
1. Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA): I mentioned this earlier in the housing section, but this pay entitlement is to be used to pay your rent and utilities if you live off-base. If you live on-base, you will NOT get any part of this pay. The rent payment portion is paid to the exact rent amount stated on your off-base rental contract, up to your maximum OHA rental limit. The other component to OHA, is the utilities payment, and this can make you some extra cash if you take it easy using your utilities. I am not sure about the conditions on receiving the full utilities amount, but I am guessing you have to be paying over 2 or more major utilities when you live off-base, which will also be stated on your rental contract. So hopefully you can see right away, that the less utilities you use, the more money of that pay stays in your pocket! This one of the few pay entitlements that you can actually control how much you keep of it. All these pay entitlements fluctuates with the Dollar/Yen exchange rate, so be mindful of that. To find the pay limits, see the link below…
2. Overseas Cost of Living Allowances (COLA): This pay tends to stretch most peoples’ imaginations on how rich they think they are when they start receiving it. Simply put, this extra pay is just keeping the level of buying power you have in the States, to a similar level in Japan, nothing more. For example, an Apple may cost an average of $1 in the States, but it may cost about $6 dollars in Okinawa. COLA bridges that $5 dollar gap, protecting your “buying power” that you had in the States, and that is it. COLA is NOT for covering your monthly insanely high interest rate loan payment for that shit hot ride you got just for cruising around Okinawa with! First, live within your means! Secondly, COLA, like OHA, varies with the Dollar/Yen exchange rate. If the dollar gets strong, your COLA drops, and you may find out that it doesn’t cover that next month’s car payment all the way. I guess you will be eating at the DFAC for the next month and hopefully you got enough gas money to get to work! Moral of the story, just understand what the COLA is for and use it accordingly. Oh yea, if you are dorm rat, which is typically an E1-E4, you will NOT be getting the full amount of COLA (partial). You just get a taste of it, sorry. For the accompanied personnel living on/off base, you will receive the full amount. To find those amounts, follow the link below…
Well, those will be the only extra pay entitlements most will get while living on Okinawa and like I said before, it might make you rich (or feel rich)! But I do not see it that way really. Because you see, I became a “born again” saver after I got married. And where some people will see that extra dough as something that needs to be spent, I see extra dough that needs to be saved! Because the wife and I have plans for our financial future, and we see this assignment as a good way to get us moving along to that future we want. We will be there for 48 months and that is a long time to save some money. I have a co-worker that was there before as a single SSgt and he is a saver, always has been. He saved $1000 a month his whole tour there, which was 36 months, and he still went out and enjoyed the island to the max! Doing some quick math, that comes out to $36,000! I am sure many would like to have that much cash just lying around in their bank, but he made it happen. The wife and I intend to do the same and amongst other things, but with 48 months of time to play with, we should leave Okinawa with $48,000, minimum! And that feels good!
- And I am spent!
Well, I think it is time to wrap up Part 3, don’t you think? I covered quite a few topics and I hope someone got something useful out of all this. As I complete this segment, the family and I are about 1.5 weeks away from getting on a plane to Okinawa. So honestly, I think there is nothing really left to do, but to do it.
I do want to put it out there that after the dust settles and the we are all settled in over there, I might drum up a Part 4 to cover the in-and-outs of Okinawa living. I would also update any outdated/wrong information that I have put out in the Parts 1-3 already. I wouldn’t want to steer anyone wrong now would I?!
I am open to all comments, good and bad, so please contact me when the need arises! Thank you and good night!