Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni isn’t quite the island oasis of Okinawa, and, unlike bases near Tokyo, it doesn’t have the feel of big-city living. MCAS Iwakuni is in the sticks, but you get the mainland Japan experience, cherry blossoms in the spring, and rainy season in the summer. It’s easy to stay fenced in on MCAS Iwakuni, but to truly enjoy overseas living, we need to get you off base!
For being a small town, Iwakuni has a decent variety of restaurants. You can hit Mike’s Tex-Mex for taco Tuesday and decide for yourself which side of the Indian food rivalry you stand on — Ganesh or Devi. You have a couple of options when it comes to Sushi-go-rounds. The one next to Fresta is usually more crowded, but there is one right across the street from Yellow Hat outside the Monzen gate that rarely has a wait. It’s a pink building.
In the fall, as the leaves change and your clothes stop sticking to you, you’ll become a ramen connoisseur, realizing that the stuff you ate in college was garbage. When you do go out for ramen, you’ll eat the noodles with chopsticks. As you might imagine, this is a hot mess. But, it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp, splash, and drink your broth at the end of the meal. Most restaurants have English menus or, at the very least, menus with pictures that are perfect for pointing and saying kudasai (please).
The Japanese 7-11 convenience stores and the U.S. 7-11 convenience stores are not created equal. The Japanese version has everything except gas for your car. You can get a fresh seaweed salad for lunch, grab a convenient dinner, hit the ATM to get some yen while you’re out and about, use clean restrooms (although most public restrooms in Japan put the U.S. to shame), and you can buy tickets for special events. This is where you’ll head in the spring to snag your Hiroshima Carps tickets or to purchase seats for a sumo tournament. MCAS Iwakuni’s Information, Tickets and Travel office, located in Crossroads Mall can even draft a ticket request form for you, so all you have to do is give this to the 7-11 cashier and say sayonara to the language barrier.
The best way to prepare yourself for Japanese insects is to watch a few episodes of Stranger Things — kidding, kidding (kind of). At your mandatory Welcome Aboard brief the Monday after you arrive, you’ll hear about the good bugs and bad bugs. Just know that even the so-called good bugs look the stuff nightmares are made of.
The Huntsman Spider (Ashidaka-gumo), moves at jogging speed. A House Centipede (Geji) bite feels like a bee sting. And, those are good bugs. Now, about those bad bugs:
- Japanese Giant Hornet (Osusumebachi) — These black and orange monsters are roughly two inches long, plus a quarter-inch stinger. They sting multiple times and spray a pheromone that signals other Osusumebachi. If you spot one or a nest, get away from it. If you’re stung, use water to rinse the site of the sting and get to a hospital as soon as possible.
- Giant Centipede (King Mukade) — Growing up to 15 inches, these are basically slender black snakes with lots of tan legs. Always check your shoes or linens that you pull out of the closet. When you try to kill them, they signal other Mukade to come to their defense. You can buy a bamboo vinegar liquid at a home center and put it around your home to deter the Mukade.
- Black and Brown Widow Spiders — These like to hide in dark places, like that pile of stuff you keep meaning to sort through outside or — gasp — inside the doors of those characteristic outdoor vending machines.
These aren’t so much a Japanese tradition, but an American invention. They can only be purchased at the gift shop on base at Torri pines. For about $30, you get a Kokeshi doll with a scroll wrapped around it. Your friends sign it, so — even when you’re back in the states, you have a personalized Japanese souvenir. Don’t wait until it’s time to move to buy one. Get one when you arrive, that way your friends and military framily can sign it as they leave Iwakuni.
Public transportation is king in Japan. You can use the local train to hop to Hiroshima or Yanai or use the bullet train (shinkansen) to get to most major cities in Japan. Trains are always on time, and while most people assure you that figuring out the ticketing process and routes is a piece of cake, there’s no shame in admitting it’s confusing. Live Iwakuni has a local train tutorial that walks you through ticketing, boarding, train etiquette, and getting an ICOCA card. Live Iwakuni also has a bullet train tutorial when you’re ready to go faster and farther.
Some stores are still cash-only. When it isn’t clearly posted, you can ask them if they take card-o. Bring yen when you hit Daiso, a 100-yen store, but most other chains accept cards — just ask and have your yen on standby.
Iwakuni’s commissary is a great means of getting American favorites not carried in Japanese grocery stores, but the inventory is lackluster most of the time. If you’re looking for vanilla coffee creamer, get ready to throw some elbows. Shop off base when you can for produce, fish, poultry, and beef. Max Value has a produce sale every Tuesday. To stock up on necessities, you can make the drive to Costco in Hiroshima. Bring an ice chest to haul your perishables home.
Get yourself an Amazon Prime membership (U.S.) if you don’t already have one. You can order or set up a recurring subscription for many non-perishable grocery items that are not carried consistently at the commissary.
When you want to escape small-town life in Iwakuni (and you will), venture out! Get yourself some crazy street food — you have to have octopus on a stick once in your life, right? Octopus or not, Japan is a safe place to explore, so enjoy all it has to offer!
Photo Credits: Kristi Stolzenberg