PCS Overview: So you got orders to Japan….

Congrats! You are going to have the time of your life, but you will need to prepare well, and prepare quickly for your upcoming adventures. Japan is one of the most restrictive places for a foreigner (Gajin) to stay for over 90 days. You have joined a very elite group of Americans that have what is known as SOFA status, or Status of Forces Agreement between the Government of Japan and the American Military. On your arrival, there will be no visa given, but rather a stamp in your passport that will give you unlimited stay and leave privileges from Japan for the duration of your tour. Your spouse and dependents will get this stamp as well. This is an excellent way to bypass the Japanese immigration visa restrictions. Usually normal visitors must leave after 90 days or apply for a one year cultural exchange visa with a school or work place.

This is a collection of advice I have given in emails to my sponsored members over the 1096 days I spent in Okinawa:

You Will Get More Pay:

Check your COLA rates here, don’t plan on spending this money and instead try saving it all. You can’t depend on this as it is recalculated every 2 weeks. It kept on dropping due to Abenomics in just the 3 years I was there. Again, do not depend on this money! For example the month I got on island the COLA for myself was $867.14 for the month, today the COLA is $603.50. This would suck if I bought a brand new Harley banking on that extra $867.14 a month thinking its going to be that rate forever.

Your Current Vehicle:

The government will store one car per set of orders stateside while you are gone. You have to drive it to several pick up facilities around the country and have them ship it to various warehouses handled by International Auto Logistics. I got my car back and it was taken care of better than I had for three years. No damage to report, and they started it up monthly and checked on the fluids. Apparently if I didn’t store a car I could buy a 1994 Skyline GT-R (or Nissan Figaro) in Okinawa and have the Navy ship it back when my orders were up, but since I stored a car I am not eligible to export. So no Tokyo Drift style racing for me anymore stateside.

Bottom line, don’t feel forced to sell your car because you have orders overseas. Also don’t feel like you have to store your car, especially if your banking on exporting an awesome Skyline GT-R back to the states when you are done.

Family (furniture) Planning:

My wife gave birth to our daughter within 4 months of arriving on Okinawa. The hospital is brand new and it was nice to have her in Okinawa rather than taking that 12 hour flight with a new born. They call this the two baby tour of Okinawa for sure. Just wish we bought a crib ahead of time, so buy one now and put it in your household goods, because they charged be $1,500 to ship something as large as a crib here from America. Also Target and Baby’s R us don’t ship to APO/FPO since they won’t ship USPS. Get what you think you need for any future baby needs!

Adventure Planning:

Also the sporty members of the island suggest buying surfboards, bikes, paddle boards, roller blades, kayaks and put them in the household goods. because they are hard to find out here and even harder to ship. Diving is huge on the island and the certification classes are heavily subsidized by the base and are the cheapest in the world. They offer PADI classes here and the dive sites were described by Jacques Cousteau as some of the most beautiful he has ever seen. Plenty of dive shops on island, but remember to pack up and ship all your dive gear!

Commercial Flights:

I was also able to get circuitous travel orders to take a commercial flight to get miles. This was 4 years ago, and it sounds like everyone is stuck taking the MAC flight form Seattle. I don’t know about the rotator but I heard it makes some pretty long layovers and they fly to all the Japanese bases, so read your orders or ask your detailer about traveling commercial. We were
able to drive from DC to Chicago, get reimbursement for that, see family and then fly commercial to Tokyo and then take a connector to Naha. Also save your tickets, you need an international ticket to be eligible for these discount flights from Okinawa to mainland.

Free Passports and not so free Visas:

My dependent child was eligible for a no fee passport, I tried to get my official passport on island, but they were pretty strict on allowing me to get one. In the end they said no, but everyone who applied before leaving the USA got it.  My one regret was not getting the no fee or official versions before I left. I also have a tourist passport that I use for travel, however having both allows me the flexibility to travel TAD while my tourist passport is away for visa approval. The orders do talk about and suggest getting a no fee and official passport, I would look into it if at all possible to get an official passport. Also keep in mind you always got to carry your orders and your passport and CAC card while traveling on SOFA status.

I never got to travel to China in a relaxed fashion, because I neglected to get my Chinese visa. I had to use a little know loophole to get into Shanghai without a visa. This resulted in hour long detainment in Chinese immigration to verify a transit Visa obtained that day on arrival, do not recommend this method. It would be worth it to get the 10 year unlimited entry visa now in America before jetting off to Japan. When living in Japan, I could not find a month where I could surrender my passport to the Chinese Embassy for visa processing. This visa now will save you headaches in the future when you want to see the Great Wall via direct flight form Naha to Beijing. Even if your passport expires within 10 years, your visa in the old passport can be used along side your new passport.

Leave Free Travel:

Four years ago they allowed Navy assigned to the Marines to travel to all the Okinawa islands and mainland over the weekend without using leave. Not sure about now, but we have 96 hours (4 day) and 72 hour (3 day) liberty with the Marines on the following holidays:

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY (96 HOURS)
SUPER BOWL (72 HOURS)
PRESIDENT’S DAY (96 HOURS)
MEMORIAL DAY (96 HOURS)
INDEPENDENCE DAY (96 HOURS)
LABOR DAY (96 HOURS)
COLUMBUS DAY (96 HOURS)
VETERAN’S DAY (48 HOURS)
THANKSGIVING (96 HOURS)
CHRISTMAS DAY (96 HOURS)
NEW YEARS DAY (96 HOURS)

Weekend liberty and 48 hour special liberty is authorized for:

1- All Okinawan Islands
2 . Mainland Japan

72 hour special liberty is authorized for:

1- Republic of Korea (South Korea)
2. Hong Kong

96 hour special liberty is authorized for:

1. Republic of Philippines
2. Thailand
3. Singapore
4. Indonesia
5. Malaysia

So over the long weekends you can travel to Hong Kong and korea on a 3 day weekend, and over a 4 day weekend you can go to those listed above without using any leave. So I was traveling on every long weekend, saving my leave for other places.

Using Leave:

You also earn the 2.5 days a month of leave of which you can only transfer 60 days to the next fiscal year. So you sometimes must use leave or lose it. With that being said you have other countries that have direct flights from Okinawa, but you must use leave:

Beijing, China
Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
Shanghai, China
Taichung City, Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan
Tianjin, China
Xi’an, China

and then other flights that transfer from the major hubs or HK, Tokyo and Taipei:

Australia
Singapore
Guam

Pets:

If you have pets you need to start on the vaccinations right now. The Japanese require a lot of paperwork. Your sponsor should get you all the information. Basically you need an ISO chip placed, and a rabies test along with letting the Japanese know your arrival and intent to import a pet well ahead of time before travel.

Credit Cards, Global Entry, and Lounge Access:

All transactions on base count as USA. For example using your credit card at the commissary or Burger King on base counts as an American charge. A card like AmEx Blue Cash Preferred will not only get you 3% off on base gas, but a whopping 6% off on groceries. However the second you use this card off base you get hit with a staggering 2.7% foreign transaction fee. You will need a card that has zero foreign transaction fees like the American Express Platnum, which waives its annual fee of $450 for military members.

It is easier to apply for the American Express Platinum Card and/or Biz Platinum when you are stateside. Please use the links to give me some points. My biggest regret was not getting the Amex Platinum Card in America because they like to overnight it UPS to your house and stupidly they try to send it to an FPO address which gets returned and locks your account for a month. When you’re here in Japan it takes over a month to get you the card due to this trying to UPS to a FPO. If you want to get the Priority Pass it’s sent under separate cover after activation, so it took 2 months just for lounge access.

More delays if you want the global entry ($100 that is reimbursed) since you have to go to O’Hare Airport for a quick interview which I ended up having to fly to Guam to get mine. So do it while you’re in America. This card has been invaluable in my Pacific travels because it gets me airport lounge access for the many layovers in Taiwan and Hong Kong and other international cities, check out www.prioritypass.com for a list of lounges. Again all free for active duty. You should also be also familiar with the SCRA and get out of any leases you have with housing or car leases.

PSC Mailbox:

Get your sponsor to get you your Mailbox Early. I sent myself a bunch of Priority Mail Flat Rate Boxes to get essentials over there waiting for my arrival. They charge you the standard domestic rate, but you need to fill out a customs form. I also switched all my mail over to the new address, and best part is the PQD requirement becomes waived for United Airlines in earning premier status. Making it nice for making status using ANA flights with your United Number.

Best part is all mail FPO/APO/DPO was free to other FPO/APO/DPO boxes. I sent my gifts from the New Sanno Basement to my PSC in Okinawa for free!

Typhoon Preparations:

Take a look at: http://shogunweather.com/tccor/ and read up on how we do things on island. We have a system called TCCOR, it shows up in the corner of the TV screen when you watch The military TV stations here, additionally it’s mentioned every 15 mins on the American radio. TCCOR is important because it dictates if you have to go to work or not.

Between June and November we are in TCCOR 4 and can expect a typhoon within 72 hours. You should always have canned food, water, flashlights on hand. Also I recommend you buy an external cell phone battery like this: http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/best-portable-battery-chargers/2/ Also battery powered fans because it gets pretty hot during the power outages!
When a typhoon appears and starts heading here the TCCOR goes from 4 to: 3 (48 hours), 2 (24 hours), and 1 (12 hours). This is all based on observations and reports from the Air Force. You are asked to secure loose items around the house as well as stock up on supplies.

When TCCOR 1 is announced. It’s pretty much finish up work and plan on going home. So when TCCOR 1 was announced we all covered up essential equipment and went home early. You need to get ready for the storm that is going to hit in 12 hours, that means keeping your battery on your cell phone charged! Your entire goal is to answer that phone when TCCOR 1E hits. If you don’t everyone assumes your not safe and all these people get in trouble. Also there is no drinking now during TCCOR 1 just in case you have to get back to work.

When TCCOR 1c (caution) hits all things in base will shut down! At this point everyone must go home. If you are at work you will be released for sure.
So at home you got to get ready by your phone, when TCCOR 1e (emergency) is announced you will get a phone call from your clinic director to make sure your safe. At this point you cannot leave your house, the base gate will be locked.
When the storm passes it will go into TCCOR 1r (recovery). You are not able to leave Until the typhoon damage experts say everything is alright. You will get a phone call at this time to check if your family is safe.
Finally when TCCOR all clear is announced, you can leave, if it’s a work day you have two hours to get back to work. If it’s the end of the day they usually don’t even bother bringing us back to work.
TCCOR storm watch may be announced to warn us of high winds and TCCOR 5 is what we are usually in year round.
Cell Phones:
Japanese Versions of all cellphones make an loud audible camera shutter sound to prevent creep shots. They are also locked to the Japanese Networks of AU, Soft bank etc. Best strategy is to do s military suspension of your current carrier here, do not cancel the account, because you want to have it activated for those times you come back and you want to have the same number as before.
Get your unlocked phone from America and bring it to Japan. I brought my Verizon Phone and got a SIM card form AU. I also got a monthly fee data only reseller I use is this company: http://service.ocn.ne.jp/english/mobile/one/ for my iPad. This requires buying the sim card at an off base retailer, setting up the phone, and  navigating a Japanese website and paying online. This is not the most popular option, but it is very possible to bring a phone and get a sim card.
I have Verizon at home, which is on military suspension, I do recommend doing this as part of the SCRA in order to maintain age of the account to use in future negotiations for better service deals. There is a lot of misinformation out there, even at the retail level. The Japanese have been lied to for years to think their network is so unique and special that no other phone can ever work here. This is just a lot of exploitive marketing on the part of the big three telecom companies here (KDDI, Softbank, Docomo). Your phone will work, but you must demand a SIM card and prove your phone is compliant on the Japanese networks.

You can always check Okinawa bookoo for people looking to take over their contracts. Usually you can make a deal because they are desperate to get out of a contract. I do recommend AU because they are very much the Verizon of Japan. Very expensive, good customer service, and they reinvest in their network so it’s very fast and robust. I have been on mountain hikes and have 4g service in the woods!Softbank was the first to introduce the iPhone in Japan and therefore their network is overloaded and not very fast. My colleagues never get fast internet on Softbank. I would call it the At&t Comcast of Japan. Cheap but why? What’s the point of phone and internet that doesn’t work, just to save a few yen?

Also keep in mind all calls from Softbank to Softbank are air time free, and all au to au calls are airtime free. When you call someone a series of tones are sounded to indicate the carrier the person you are calling has. So when I hear the long tones of AU I continue the call, if not I Use google voice to call the number, or use the work phone.

Coupons

Coupons expire 6 months after their published dates. We had all our friends and family send their expired coupons to us for redemption in Okinawa. My wife used a service called coups for troops or troopons which set us up with a volunteer who sent us tons of coupons. There are also coupon exchanges at the Navy Marine Cops Relief Society on island. This in combination with the 6% off with BCP means super cheap groceries.

Awesome Hotel Redemptions

Tokyo may be the best place to use your 2 free nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo or the Andaz Tokyo when getting the Chase Hyatt Card. Also Okinawa has a Tier 4 Ritz Carlton you can use your 3 free nights on with the Chase Ritz Carlton Card. Hotels in Tokyo are crazy expensive, making the points redemption of most Marriott and Hyatt properties worth it.

More to come…
-Derp

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