Receiving orders overseas is one of those things that can paralyze you with either utter fear or sheer excitement. And when those orders are to Japan, the emotional roller coaster can be a wild ride because the Japanese culture is so drastically different from what we know in the United States. You might think…How will I be able to get around if I can’t read the signs? When will I know to bow? I don’t know the language! How do those chopstick things work? I don’t think I like sushi! It’s so far from home! And while all of those fears and reactions are extremely valid, I can tell you, 100% that your tour in Yokosuka, Japan will be unforgettable.
Yokosuka is a quiet town about 75 km outside of Tokyo, yet it is still considered part of the Tokyo metro area. Yokohama is a quick 20-minute train ride north and Tokyo is just a bit further, taking about one hour. Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka is the home to U.S. 7th Fleet and the accompanying ships, aircraft squadrons, and submarine groups. There is a K-12 school system on base, a hospital, a large commissary, Navy Exchange, a Starbucks, and of course the requisite fast food restaurants found on every military base.
I have been stationed in Yokosuka twice. The first time, 2007-2009, I was on active duty as a Surface Warfare Officer serving aboard a ship. I was freshly commissioned, young, single, and had an immense appetite for adventure. Fast-forward a few years and my husband I returned, 2014-2016. This time, though, I returned as a dependent, was 30 weeks pregnant with our first child and rapidly approaching my 30’s. My appetite for adventure hadn’t dimmed, just merely changed. And while both of our experiences in Yokosuka were vastly different, they were equally filled with adventures and memories. Here are some of my top tips to ensuring you thrive during your tour in Yokosuka:
Get on Facebook. As with most things in the military spouse community, there are a TON of Facebook groups that you can join to get you ready for your PCS. You can get advice on what furniture to pack, how to travel with pets, what the schools are like, etc. And once you arrive, there are even more groups with specific interests such as: playgroups, those interested in off-base adventures, how to decorate your on-base home/apartment, church groups, and more. It’s a quick and easy way to connect with other families, stay informed, find your footing and get off base.
Embrace living on base. During our most recent tour, you were only authorized off base housing if you were single or if you had a pet and there was no pet-friendly housing available. (I’m not sure, but I think that policy is still in effect.) Please double check with housing if you’re preparing to PCS. That being said, while living in cookie cutter townhomes or apartments that rival the size of my first college apartment, might not seem ideal, it allows ease of access to all your needs on base and easily facilitates meeting people. It’s a cross between old-school military life and small town America–all the kids go to the same school, you see your spouse’s coworkers at the commissary, and your neighbor becomes your best friend. It sounds intrusive and to a point, it is. However, the on-base lifestyle creates a comfort blanket that is there for you when your spouse is at sea (which is typically all the time) and you need that friend to vent over coffee (or a glass of wine), or your kids need a playmate or you’re just plain homesick.
Build your village. As spouses, we know a ‘village’ is imperative to surviving any arduous tour. Whether or not your spouse is on sea duty, living abroad can have its tough times. Everyone, spouses and service members alike, are required to attend the Area Orientation Brief upon arriving in the country. It’s a great opportunity to scope out new friends. During your first few weeks, you quickly develop a razor sharp ability to pick out those who you know will become “your people.”
Volunteer. Finding employment overseas can be challenging. There are lots of spouses who make it work and find jobs that they love. However, the majority of spouses, with and without kids, do not work. Rather than feeling frustrated by this pause in your career, spend time volunteering. There are many organizations on base that are volunteer driven and in such a small community, they have a direct impact. The USO, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, American Red Cross and PAWS are just a few of the organizations available. I chose to volunteer at the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) because I felt a strong connection with their mission of providing financial assistance to sailors and families in need. Find an organization that aligns with your background and interests and spend a few hours each week “working.” It fills a gap on your resume, gets you out of the house and connects you with other spouses.
Meet your Japanese neighbors. The local Yokosuka community embraces its Navy residents. And while it may seem like you’re a guest in their home (which you kind of are), they are always thrilled to show and teach anyone who is interested more about their town, their culture and their language. During our second tour, I found a language class hosted by a dear, kind Japanese woman who opened her arms to Navy families. She continues, to this day, to facilitate many friendship-building events between the local community and Navy families. You can find her and many other opportunities through the Facebook groups I mentioned earlier.
Travel. This goes without saying. Every overseas assignment is an opportunity to see more of the world than you would if you were stateside, and at a cheaper rate. I strongly suggest budgeting your finances to allow yourself the ability to travel in/around Japan, as well as outside the country. The ITT office constantly runs organized trips both in and out of Japan. If you prefer not to do an organized tour, they are quite accommodating at helping you make personalized itineraries. I also recommend opening a credit card that offers a good reward program in the form of travel and international benefits.
Whether you venture north to Hokkaido, Japan, for the annual Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival (pictured here) or head south to Bali, the travel opportunities are plentiful. If you have children, don’t let that deter you from adventuring beyond Japan. We traveled with our son (an infant and toddler at the time) throughout Southeast Asia and we were well cared for on each trip. He now has pages upon pages of passport stamps that we will have to explain to him when he’s older.
While the perks of being stationed in Yokosuka are bountiful, there are also big challenges. For instance, the commissary routinely runs out of perishable items and it’s not uncommon to buy milk that expires in two days. Schlepping children to/from the base post office to pick-up your anticipated packages, especially at the height of holiday shipping season, can be as challenging as climbing Mount Fuji. And don’t forget the nitpicky rules of living on base, such as the use of chalk on your driveway, parking strollers outside your apartment and getting non-military visitors on/off base. However, if you take the challenges in stride with a side of sarcastic wit, I promise you that your tour in Japan will still be incredible and memorable.
While our tour in Japan was extremely hard, I look back on it every day and smile because the friendships and memories we built during that time are ones that last a lifetime. By the time we PCS’d, I felt ready to go, like I had accomplished everything on my bucket list and was departing without any last regrets. But once we set food on US soil, my husband asked, “Ready to go back?” And I replied, “In a heartbeat.”
Have you been stationed in Yokosuka, Japan? What was your favorite memory?
Posted by Ali Maruca, a Navy wife and Navy Reserve officer. She has a passion for supporting other military families, planning her next adventure, and sipping hot coffee over a good book.