Living Abroad in Okinawa, Japan featuring Erwin and Tara Lewis

Living Abroad in Okinawa, Japan featuring Erwin and Tara Lewis

Erwin, Tara, and I go way back – we all met in college at NC State University. Like Sean and myself, Erwin and Tara are another married couple who were in the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity together. We definitely have that and a love for adventure in common. I think that I see an international double date in our future!

photo of Okinawa
I am really excited to share about their move abroad to Okinawa Prefecture, Japan for two main reasons:
  • They currently live there (all of my previous Expat Chats so far have been with people who moved abroad and have since moved back).
  • They have both contributed their perspectives – it’s a two in one!

Erwin works abroad as an aerospace structural engineer and Tara as a merchandise manager. As a couple, they also have some really unique hobbies and special interests ranging from scuba diving, dragon boat, hiking, taking cooking classes, traveling, trying new things, meeting new people, and eating their way across the globe.

photo of Tara and Erwin on Miyagi Island
Hi Tara and Erwin! Here they are on the beach on Miyagi Island
Yes, yes, yes to trying new things! Let’s dive in (see what I did there?!) to their adventures living abroad in Okinawa!
scuba diving at the Sunabe Seawall
Erwin and Tara Scuba Diving at the Sunabe Seawall

Original Home Location: New Bern, North Carolina, United States

New Home Location: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan

About the Move to Okinawa, Japan

When did you make the move?
Erwin and Tara: We made the move to Okinawa at the beginning of 2019. Erwin arrived in January 2019 with our cat (Dexter) due to work requirements and Tara arrived in March 2019 in order to secure transportation for our two dogs (Peter Barker and Einstein).

Tell me about your experience moving your pets.
Erwin and Tara: Getting all the animals over to Japan was probably the most stressful part of the move because of the required rabies vaccines and 180 day quarantine period specific for Japan as well as securing transportation.

photo of a cat prepared for international travel
Dexter prepared for the flight!
photo of Erwin and Tara's pets
Dexter, Peter Barker, and Einstein in their new home.

Why did you decide to make the move? / What motivated you?
Erwin and Tara: We moved because Erwin had the opportunity for a promotion at work. This position was something that he had talked about for a while and was the type of engineering that he loved doing. During the summer of 2017, he was given the opportunity to do this exact job for 5 months (April – September) in Okinawa, Japan. During that rotation I was able to come out and stay with him for 3 months and we fell in love with the island, the Okinawa/Japanese culture, and the lifestyle associated with the job. When the opportunity to move out to Okinawa “permanently” (rules limit the amount of time Erwin can hold this position, maximum 5-7 years) presented itself, Erwin competed for it and was selected. We were very excited to return to Okinawa and all the opportunities it offers.

photo of Okinawa heart rock
The heart rock must have been a sign! Seriously, what’s not to love about this photo op?

How many times did you visit your new country and city prior to your move?
Erwin and Tara: We had visited Okinawa just once prior to moving here (April – September 2017 for Erwin, June – September 2017 for Tara) but since we had spent several months here during that trip, it allowed us plenty of time to get to know the island, its culture, and narrow down spots/areas where we would like to live.

How did you break the news to loved ones?
Erwin and Tara: Erwin found out he had gotten the job in July 2018 so we had several months to meet with friends and family prior to leaving. We spent most of that time with as many friends and family as we could and savored a lot of “American” things that we knew we would miss/wouldn’t be able to participate in while in Japan. Both our families were sad that we were moving so far away but were excited for us at the same time. The same with our friends, many of whom have planned trips to come visit us while we are here. We got to spend both Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families and friends and met up with some people we hadn’t seen in a while too prior to leaving so while difficult to say goodbye, we didn’t feel rushed doing so.

What was the hardest part of moving / what did you find frustrating during your move?
Erwin: Since my job is associated with the US Military, there was a set process for how to conduct the move; however, since we are civilians and not active duty service members, that process is a bit different so we had to figure out how to do it all. It was a lot of work identifying what paperwork needed to be processed, who needed to be contacted, when stuff needed to be submitted and tons of other things that you don’t even think about until you have to do them (Will my phone plan work overseas? Do I need new bank accounts? What do I need to do to get my pets there? Should I sell or store my American car? Etc.) Also since this was a brand new position that didn’t exist before, we had to be the trail blazers in figuring all of this information out.

MAG-36 Change of Command
MAG-36 Change of Command

Tara: The hardest part of the move for me was giving up my job and becoming unemployed with no job prospects lined up. I am a very career driven person so giving up everything I had worked for the last five years was extremely hard. Another hard part as with most people in our situation is missing my family and friends. We were fortunate enough to only live a few hours drive from both of our parents so not being able to see them over holidays and long weekends is tough. We also had to leave our very tight knit group of friends and not being there for their big life moments (buying homes, having children, etc) has been a challenging thing to go through.

Did you decide to ship your belongings or to store your belongings?
Erwin and Tara: Both, we shipped most of our belongings but since we know we will be returning to the States in a few years we did leave some things behind in storage (items we didn’t want to get damaged or wouldn’t really need over here). Also Japanese homes are much smaller than American ones so all of our stuff from our house in America would not have fit in the house we have now. We also sold and donated several things that we no longer needed before moving.

photo of shipping containers arriving
After months in transit, their household goods arrived!

About their Home in Okinawa, Japan

How did you find your current home?
Erwin and Tara: We found it through a Japanese rental agency in Okinawa after searching for countless hours on Facebook. When Erwin arrived in Okinawa, he stayed in temporary lodging for 2 months and worked with this rental agency to find the house (visited multiple homes and facetimed with Tara at ungodly hours). By the time Tara arrived, he had already moved into the house.

Describe your home – apartment, house, etc:
Erwin and Tara: It is a two story home in a town in Okinawa called Chatan. All the homes in Okinawa are solid concrete to help withstand typhoons and earthquakes. It is about 1300 square feet with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, good storage space and a spacious backyard and carpark. In Japan they do not have central air so we have an air conditioning unit in every room. We also have three large dehumidifiers that we have to run year round. This house is “Americanized” to appeal to the many Americans who live in Okinawa due to the US military presence here so it is similar to what you would see in a typical American home as opposed to what you would find in a typical Japanese home (kitchen and bathrooms specifically, also much larger than a typical Japanese house). We selected this house because of its location, the backyard, and its size.

photo of Chatan house
Their home in Chatan

Did you buy or rent your current home?
Erwin and Tara: Rent

Lifestyle Abroad in Okinawa, Japan

Why did you choose your current country and specifically, your current city?
Erwin and Tara: Specifically for Erwin’s work, the job was located in Okinawa, Japan. We chose to live in the town of Chatan in Okinawa because it is close to places and restaurants that we frequent as well as essential services and is not a long commute from both our workplaces. It is a short ride to the seawall which is a popular and easy place to scuba dive. We also love Asia and what to learn more about its countries and cultures so when the chance to live in there in a place that is centrally located for travel, we were happy to go.

How long do you plan on living an expat lifestyle?
Erwin and Tara: Several years, Erwin’s job has a maximum limit of 5-7 years before we are required to return to the US.

What have you missed the most about the city that you used to live in?
Erwin and Tara: Our friends and Mexican food.

What was the most surprising thing to you?
Erwin: Since we had been here before for an extended period of time I kind of knew what to expect when we moved here. I guess the most surprising thing about Japan that I have found out so far is how much plastic they use. Everything comes in its own individual wrapper (chopsticks, toothpicks, individual pieces of food) so there is so much plastic trash. The Japanese are super clean so you never really see it in the streets as litter but it’s still a lot of plastic that is bad for the environment.

WOW. This video blew my mind. The Washington Post published a great, informative post about this topic.

Tara: The roads here. It was already a struggle to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road but a lot of roads here are two way but only large enough for one car at a time. You have to decide who has to back up all the way to the end of the road and try again. I’m also surprised at how different our versions of knowing “a little” of the other language is. I have learned enough Japanese to get by and consider that as knowing “a little”. So basically when I speak I sound like a toddler who is just learning to speak.  When at stores or restaurants if you ask “Do you speak English?” they respond with “Only a little” but can hold an entire conversation fairly well.

What do you love about your current city?
Erwin: Is everything an acceptable answer? In terms of “city” I kind of feel like Okinawa itself is one “city”. Our town of Chatan is nice and has its own things (town mascot, mayor, community centers, etc.) but because Okinawa is so small the towns mostly seem to blend together. As a whole, I love the laid back Okinawa culture, the numerous delicious restaurants near our house, and the sunsets and ocean views.

photo of Chatan town mascot, Chitan
Erwin with the local mascot of the Chatan town, Chitan.

Tara: I love the people here. The entire attitude of Japan is trying to do what is best for everyone not just yourself. For this reason people are extremely friendly here and always willing to help you to the best of their ability which is often when you can’t read a majority of the signs, menus, labels on food in grocery stores, etc.

What was the hardest thing to adjust to?
Erwin: The language. Japanese is hard and while I have been pretty good a picking up languages, learning three alphabets and trying to figure out spoken Japanese has been very challenging. Since there are many Americans here, a lot of people in the area we live in speak English, but I feel like we miss a lot by not being able to read or speak Japanese well.

Tara: The language 100%. I was shocked when I learned that the only way to learn Kanji is just to memorize, and there are over 3000 commonly used characters! (Over 30,000 exist) Learning Hiragana & Katakana was fairly easy but with those two we are basically reading at a elementary school level so we still can’t read most things we encounter. Thank god for Google Translate!

kanji characters photo
Here is a great blog post that teaches you some Kanji characters to help you get around Japan.

What did you have to sacrifice to make living abroad come true?
Erwin: I don’t necessarily feel that it is a “sacrifice” but I am sad that we don’t get to participate in the big events of our good friends and family back in the states (births, weddings, even just dinners together). I certainly don’t have any regrets moving here.

Tara: My job but looking back I don’t regret it. I was working 50-60 hour weeks prior to moving and was missing out on a lot with family and friends. Coming out here has given me the opportunity to step back and see where my real priorities are in life.

Have you ever lived outside of your home country before?
Erwin: I have spent a few months outside the US before either visiting family in the Philippines or when I studied abroad for a summer in Europe, but this is the first time actually living overseas for me.

Tara: Only for a few weeks studying abroad in Europe.

What do you do for fun in your new location?
Erwin: I love to scuba dive, some of the best diving in the world I here in Okinawa. I also have taken up running was well as joining a dragon boat team. I also love trying new restaurants in the area and attending local festivals and other cultural events. During the summer months there is a different festival almost every weekend so there is always something new and exciting to do.

japanese food festival
Japanese Food Festival

Tara: Dragon Boat, Scuba Diving, culture classes, festivals. I want to make the most out of the time I have here because I know a lot of others are not fortunate enough to have this opportunity.

photo on a dragon boat
Erwin and Tara on a dragon boat
Dragon Boat races in Naha
This looks so fun! Dragon Boat races in Naha 

What do you like/dislike about your new location?
Erwin: Honestly, I like most things about Japan. The culture is not centered on the individual like many Western countries so the people are very family and community centered and you can see that in the festivals and everyday interactions with the local population. Okinawa is a beautiful island with a long and interesting history. It is also very conveniently located for travel through Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Australia. I guess the only real disadvantage is we have to fly everywhere so no road trips.

Tara: I love most things about living on this island. I am in a great location that makes traveling around Asia fairly cheap and simple. The food here is AMAZING. I already mentioned how great the locals are here.  There are always weird new snacks & candy to try. Arcades!

Things I don’t like: Typhoon season, Earthquakes, Humidity, Tiny Roads, Huntsman Spiders, Natto, Floor Toilets

Snapchat photo of a huntsman spider
Huntsman Spider
snapchat photo of a floor toilet
Floor Toilet

What are your favorite spots in the area?
Erwin: There is an area near us called the Sunabe Seawall. It is an excellent scuba diving location and also a great place for walks and runs. There are also several really good restaurants and cafes there and it is one of the best places on the island to catch one of Okinawa’s famous sunsets.

Okinawa sunset
The sunset at Sunabe Seawall

Tara: One of my favorite places to go is called Seaglass Beach. It was a glass dump many years ago making it now a hotspot for beautiful seaglass. It’s a great place to go alone or with my dogs for a few hours to get some sun or to swim around and I always come back with my pockets full of glass and a few other treasures.

seaglass beach seaglass
Some of Tara’s finds from Seaglass Beach

Do you have your own mode of transportation, a car, bike, etc in your new city?
Erwin and Tara: We both have cars, Okinawa is not like the rest of Japan and does not have a good subway or train system so the only real convenient way to get anywhere is to drive. The Japanese drive on the left side of road so it took us a while to get used to that. We also walk a lot more here because there are restaurants, convenience stores and other shops that are close to where we live and we often have to park at central location and walk to an area due to the limited availability of public parking in some areas.

a photo of a Japanese Toyota Funcargo
Erwin’s car, Nozomi the Toyota Funcargo
a photo of a Japanese Honda Fit
Tara’s car, Mochi the Honda Fit

Advice and Benefits of Living an Expat Lifestyle Abroad

Is there any advice or anything that you wished you would have known before your move that you would like to share with someone who may be considering an international move?
Erwin: Overall I felt we were pretty prepared for the move. We did our research, had visited the area before and heard from multiple sources before deciding to move to Japan. Each move is different so I would just encourage everyone to thoroughly research everything and fully understand what your company (if moving for a job) or situation (if moving on your own or through some other program) will provide for you before committing to leaving the US.

Tara: We were very fortunate to have people in similar situations that we could ask questions. There is also a very active Facebook page here for questions where we got a lot of our information. Reach out to as many people or resources as you can, you can never have too much information when it comes to moving internationally. The big thing for us was that we knew we probably wouldn’t have this opportunity in a few years after we started a family so if we wanted to experience it we knew we needed to take the leap.

Are there any items, apps, or tools that you have found to be helpful when navigating your new lifestyle and city?
Erwin and Tara: Google Translate has been a (sometimes hilarious) lifesaver when it comes to navigating Japanese stores and communicating with others who do not speak English. Facebook is a big resource here, a lot of businesses use Facebook Messenger or their Facebook pages to communicate with customers since there is a mix of foreign and Japanese phone numbers and different phone platforms (iPhones vs Android). Message Apps like Line, Whatsapp, and others are also big because of the phone situation as well. I also have an app called Japan Transit Planner for train schedules for when we travel to mainland Japan. Uber is not as popular in Asia but they have an app called Grab that is similar and allows you to find rides. We also use the Sky Scanner & Hopper website to find cheap flights.

google translate
A must have!

Any other recommendations or words of wisdom?
Erwin and Tara: Living overseas is not for everyone. You more than likely won’t be able to visit your friends and families as often as you do now, you won’t have all the items or services that you are used to and depending on where you go you might not be able to communicate as effectively with people as you do now. Really evaluate your goals and what matters to you before deciding to leave for an extended period of time or forever. If it is your cup of tea, and you do move to somewhere different, really try to embrace it. Learn about the culture and participate in it. Learn some of the language (even just basic phrases), the locals with appreciate it, (even if you are bad at it) it shows you are trying. Try things out of your comfort zone and go places you didn’t think you ever would. Eat the local cuisine and then learn the recipes so that you can make it even when you leave. Make memories through experiences and take home the photographs more than buying things. Make the most of it so when it comes time to leave you look back with no regrets.

Is there anything extra that you would like to add?
Erwin and Tara: Always choose the adventure; it also helps if you have an amazing partner to share in that adventure.

asian elephant in Chiang, Thailand
Erwin and Tara’s sense of adventure has led them to exploring many other cities in Japan and Thailand as well during their expat lifestyle. Here they are pictured with an Asian elephant at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There you have it! Erwin’s job took the couple abroad and you can tell that they are really embracing the culture and loving it. I know that when writing this post, it was hard to not book a flight to Okinawa on the spot! I even managed to stumble upon this list of the 20 Top Things to Do In Okinawa. I hope to be able to visit someday.

However, making a move abroad to a country where they speak another language is challenging and is easily one of the biggest deterrents for someone deciding whether or not to make the move. It’s a good thing that Erwin and Tara were up for the challenge! Tara also expressed the initial difficulty in giving up her job in order to make the move. I know the feeling! But ultimately, the discomfort is worth experiencing another culture and chasing the adventure.

Thank you Erwin and Tara for both taking the time to share your story! You can follow along with Erwin on Instagram at @erwin.lewis and with Tara at @tara_lewis12. Sean and I hope to connect with them abroad once we are able to make our move!

Do you know a couple who is living as an expat abroad? Let me know so that I can feature their story in a future Expat Chat!