Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kon’nichiwa Asuka II Part Eleven - Getting Shanghaied in Shanghai

At the moment the Asuka II is sitting quietly, somewhere in the Southern part of Japan. I can tell you for certain that we are somewhere in the Southern part of Japan, because that’s what my TV says. I know we are sitting not only because we aren’t moving, but because I can hear the giant chain links being released as they follow the anchor into the murky water below.


Essentially, during the Christmas season, the Asuka II does a lot of one and two day cruises, often times to nowhere. Much like an evening harbor excursion, people come on board for dinner and a show, then spend the night to wake up in the city we left the night before. On the other hand, they also pay north of 600 bucks per person (and it goes up from there) for the experience… I know this for a fact, and that ticket price is only for ONE NIGHT. For my hard earned clams, I think I’d rather eat some average Christmas themed food on a forty year old tugboat turned dining room, soaking in the city lights of Des Moines, and sleeping in my own bed… then I could use the money I saved on a one week Mexican cruise… but that’s just me.


Still, it is funny to see where we go on a cruise to nowhere, so again I turn to my television set. One of the channels we can access displays a map of Japan, with a blue line showing where we’ve been this cruise, and a dot at the end showing where we are.


Where the line starts on the map is where Kobe is, and where we’ll be tomorrow to drop our pax off. Not quite Family Circus, but it’s close. In case you’re nautically curious, from left to right, the numbers at the bottom represent our latitude and longitude coordinates, knots, and directional heading. It must take a moment for the screen to refresh, because even though we are definitely stopped, the knots still show we are moving.


So, maps on television… blah blah blah… What else has been going on? Welp, as usual I look at the pictures I’ve taken since we last spoke and see if there’s anything worth talking about. So, let me do that… oh boy… I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful Betty, or any kind of Betty for that matter… maybe Betty Crocker… cake sounds good right now… maybe some of that red velvet cake… yeah, with two big scoops of vanilla ice cream… or there’s an apple betty… that would be good with ice cream too… wait, what? Oh right… so, basically over the past month I’ve been mostly to Kobe and Yokohama. For me, it’s like being in my home town… I just do normal things, and unfortunately those things are mundane enough that they rarely require pictures. Still, let me get my long spoon and see what I can scrape outta the barrel.


Okay, well, there was this one time when they had a fan appreciation day at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium, home of the fightin’ Yokohama Bay Stars.

And then there was the replica of the statue of liberty standing above an American car dealership in a town called Kagoshima…


There you could buy a used PT Cruiser, a Chevy Van, or a Lincoln Towncar!


Here’s a Japanese Hearse… I find it a little ironic that in spite of all the ornate Japanese stuff the stiff rides in, it’s still a Cadillac…


Let’s see, what else… oh, Kagoshima also has a volcano!


If the hottest thing you see in this picture is a bunch of Japanese cheerleaders, then I hope you’re able to outrun airborne chunks of molten lava. The volcano spouted smoke every forty minutes or so. Thankfully for the residents of Kagoshima, the bay separates the volcanic island from the mainland. All right… anything else?


Saw a lady at a sushi restaurant who likes to coordinate her hair with her clothes…


I’ve been to a few Japanese arcades, and from what I’ve seen they are either multi storied affairs with everything from games to slot machines, to places that are full of nothing but photo booths and skill cranes. While in an arcade similar to the latter, I came upon something interesting.

Still, if you’re embarrassed that you won a Tamagotchi (we still play with those?), maybe you should pick another crane… you know, the one that contains pink hello kitties or anime porn.


And I guess that’s it… for Japan. I suppose the biggest thing I’ve done in the past thirty days is visit Shanghai. Now, before I begin, let me say that things don’t always go according to plan, and that happens a couple of times in my retelling of my Chinese experience. I might even learn something along the way… you may too. Okay, let’s get to it.


Here is the view from the bow at 5:45 PM, December first. We’re actually close to China, but waiting for our turn to enter the channel that takes us to Shanghai. Originally we were scheduled to arrive at the stroke of midnight on December 2nd, putting us port side at 7 AM, scheduled to stay until 5 PM on the 3rd. But we sat, along with dozens of other ships that surrounded us, for a long time. Day turned into night and we were hours late entering the channel… why? Apparently the fog was so thick that the channel was closed to traffic.


There was some talk amongst the crew that we were going to turn around, because the weather forecast said there was no chance of the fog dissipating anytime soon. Then, at 9 PM, the engines kicked back on, and the Asuka II did a one-eighty and headed back to Japan, taking us to none other than Sakaiminato… no kidding! Well, there’s only one thing to do in Sakaiminato…

Okay, so we didn’t go to Sakaiminato, but I’ve got a million of these stupid “Having Fun” videos, and I gotta get them on here somehow.

So yes, there was a rumor amongst the crew that the Asuka II was gonna high tail it out of China… but anytime there’s rain or fog or lingering grasshopper farts somebody here will start yakkin’ about drastic changes to the itinerary and mutiny. Yes, sometimes we’re late, but seriously… when the current 10 day cruise is called “Shanghai Cruise,” do you really think we’re gonna just skip the Shanghai portion? No way… besides the ticket sales, I am sure the majority of the pax have tours booked… there’s two big reasons why we won’t skip… sheesh.


Anyway, we spent the night anchored in open water with dozens of other ships, waiting to get in. Believe it or not, this puts us at risk for a pirate attack. So, with all eyes on deck from the bridge, officers standing guard to our aft, and our emergency lights extended, we sit and wait.IMG_3727

The picture sucks, I know, but all those lights are other ships, and this is what I saw all around our ship. Later, I discover just how busy this channel is, but for now all I can think about is the Asuka’s defense system for pirates. You see, I just assumed that we have a gun locker somewhere… nope. We have fire hoses. Yep. Some gun toting, scurvy barnacle bill tries to scale our hull with his cutlass clenched in his mouth, we’ll just knock him down with salty pressurized water. Oh, and the guy that had the aft watch shift told me he had a meeting with the Captain the following morning to discuss the possibility of him getting fired for something. I feel really, really safe…


Fortunately, no pirates attacked, (although there was one frisky fishing boat) and we made it to the next morning, where we sat some more. Finally, at around 2 PM the Asuka II weighed anchor and began her journey into the channel. I have to say, sailing into Shanghai was by far the most interesting sail in I have ever witnessed… video below.

I watch the video, and I still find it hard to tell just how crowded it was. Even in open water, we were in a line of ships heading in, and ships frequently passed us by on either side… and close.



And as you saw in the video, it was even more crowded once we began sailing down the channel. The Captain rode the horn like a New York City cab driver as every ship to our left needed to be on our right, and right to the left, and they had to get there RIGHT NOW!


As night fell we made our way out of the lengthy (and smelly) industrial area and into the downtown area of Shanghai, and the train tracks that separate the two sides of town were a large, red suspension bridge.


Finally, at 8 PM, the Asuka II tied down, only eighteen hours behind schedule. Still, that gave us about eighteen hours of shore leave… in theory. Sometimes, especially when there’s a heightened anticipation amongst the crew, our shore leave seems to always be delayed. So, we wait and wait… passengers have long since disembarked and caught their tour buses. So, I walk around the ship and take some pictures.


That’s the Oriental Pearl, Shanghai’s big damn TV tower… and the tallest tower in Asia. More on that later.


Finally, at 10:30 PM the crew is finally allowed off the ship… and this is where the learning experience occurred. So, the production cast leaves the ship as a group, as we were warned to not go out at night alone. On our way out there was a lady in the lobby who would accept our yen and give us Yuan, the Chinese currency. Instead of going to her, we decided to go to “this lady who is always outside the ship, every year,” as stated by my coworker. Many of you, if you’ve actually gotten this far by reading, are shaking your heads… I know, I know…


So, we go to “the lady” outside the ship, and like year’s past, she’s “outside the ship” with another guy. We each hand them a hundred bucks, and they hand us 600 Yuan, which was right along with the exchange rate, with a slight markup, but not obscene. After the transaction, the ten of us split up into two cabs and journeyed into town. I would say maybe five minutes went by when the ten of us, in two separate cabs, began to realize something was wrong with our Chinese money.


Turns out some of us got counterfeit Chinese money, and the rest of us got Taiwanese money, which, while pink like Chinese money, is in fact Taiwanese money. Me? I was holding 600 Taiwanese smackers, or, roughly ten bucks. Shit.


That’s basically all there is to that little story. Nobody would take my Taiwanese money, and the people who had the counterfeit Chinese Yuan couldn’t unload it either, as everyone in Shanghai was wise, and did a rubbing trick on the bill to tell if it was real. And whenever I tell the story, even as I type it here, I just shake my head. I heard someone say “Let’s give money to a stranger on the street,” and went with it… looks like my MFA is better suited to jerry-rigging cruise ship showers than it is at global economics. Still, at the very least we were all swindled… nay… Shanghaied as a group, so the sting wasn’t as great. It’s an achievement to be sure… not as big as eating Kobe beef in Kobe, or drinking Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux, but friends, I managed to get Shanghaied in Shanghai.


So, with time wasting away quicker than we could throw our money into the trash, we regrouped, got real Yuan, and tried again. That night, and the following day, was spent eating an admittedly awful steak, having a drink, and seeing the sights of Shanghai. People’s exhibit A below:


I’ll fill in a little detail here. The name of the garden is “Yu Garden” (and you can visit it yourself at All I really know about the place is that it’s old, and was originally built for one guy to enjoy. How old is it? Well, look at the following picture:


The place is so old, people used to sit in rooms and stare at petrified wood statues. THAT’S how old the place is. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.


Now let’s skip ahead to the Chinese temple. Behind the room with the big statue was a courtyard with three buildings. In each building there was a man playing a different musical instrument. It all felt very traditional… that is, until:


Here is a guy, playing music that is probably a thousand years old, and the dude next to him is tweeting about the blizzard he had at Dairy Queen…


Yeah, I ain’t making that up. And yeah, I had an Oreo Blizzard… come on… Japanese food is one thing, but how many tons of Chow Mein have I choked down in my short life?


I forget why I took this picture… HEY! Try the shrimp cocktail! Don’t forget to tip your wait staff! Can you hear me talkin’? Cause I can hear you leavin’!


Of course, when in China, or any country, you are surrounded by souvenir shops. I didn’t need to take any video of that, but one picture does stand out:


Surrounded by magnets depicting Chinese cities and masks, and directly to the right of a Panda, the most useless symbol of Zoos all over the world, are magnets of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Can you imagine going all the way to China, and bringing your poor bastard of a friend a magnet of Saddam or president Obama? From China?


Looks like I had more to talk about than I originally thought, as I actually left out something funny I saw while looking around the shops. Maybe you’re tired from rickshaw rides and souvenir shopping, and need a little relaxing massage.

Hate to think what a happy ending involves…


But, as many of you know, you can get reasonable facsimiles of bags, shoes, watches and clothes in China. I didn’t have time to go to the market where they sell all this stuff, but I was still approached by many people, all holding the same looking laminated piece of paper with pictures of watches and purses. “You want to buy a watch?” they would all ask me, over and over. Finally, I said  to one “sure, show me your watches!” Almost immediately, the man said “follow me!” and zipped across the street. I followed closely behind, stopping only briefly to eat another mouthful of delicious Oreo Blizzard.


We head to a row of stores, only to miss them and head down a narrow alley in between them… uh oh. We go further and further down, passing little closet rooms and boxes of trash. The noise from the street fades as it bounces back and forth off the cracked cement walls that reach up several stories above me and prevent enough ambient light to make me feel like doing this maybe wasn’t a sound decision.


Finally, I am led into a small room full of purses, and thankfully, I see a Chinese couple who is looking through the merchandise. “See?” I think to myself, “this is a safe place… families shop here.” Still, while I am surrounded by shelves stacked floor to ceiling with purses, the only watch I see is the one on my wrist. A lady who is part of the operation tells me the watches will be here in a minute, and to have a seat. “I’ll stand, thank you,” I say, as the sweat from my palm works at melting my Blizzard down to the point where it is no longer safe to do the upside down trick (which they also do in China before handing it to you).


Finally, a guy walks in with three metal briefcases… you know, the kind you see in movies that are heavy, silver, and usually contain money, cocaine, guns, or bombs. He sets them on an empty shelf and opens them one by one… watches. My ass unclenches as I dumbly examine the merchandise. The guy starts rattling off the reasons why these watches are the real deal, and displays they are quality by banging the face into the meaty part of my palm. As tempting as it was to purchase a Folex or an Omega Spreemaster, I declined… unfortunately for these guys I had already been Shanghaied my first day, and just because a watch is heavy and can bounce off my hand doesn’t mean I’m gonna buy it. “You guys must think I’m some sort of sucker,” I think to myself as I scrape the last bit of Blizzard from the bottom of my cup. I wanted to tape the experience, as it was all so unique, and a little scary, but you kind of know your place in a situation like that, so my words will have to do…


And the rickshaw ride? I told him I wanted to go to the Oriental Pearl, and he said sure! After ten hair raising minutes (the video really didn’t do the experience justice), he got me there…


Oh, I’m sorry… I should have been more clear. When I said I wanted to go to the Oriental Pearl, I meant I wanted to be able to get to it without having to swim. Oh well, I was able to take the picture and then take a cab. There’s a snake of tunnels going under the river… and you think people drive bad in (insert your city, state, country here)… oh boy. I saw people riding their scooters on the sidewalk here. Christ. The tower experience was worth it, though. Very high up, and that Plexiglas walkway was pretty intense. Still, what the hell is a roller coaster doing that high up only to be totally encased? Huh?


And that’s about it for me. I've glanced at the TV, and while the blue dot hasn’t moved, we are officially doing 0.0 knots. Christmas is right around the corner, and like all of you, I have to round up the rest of my presents, only this year I don’t have the advantage of internet shopping or 24 hour access to land. Speaking of Christmas, we’ve opened our Christmas show, and do it almost exclusively throughout the month of December. It’s a nice show, and I can’t help smiling like an idiot at the end of every performance. I mean, hey, I get to dress as Santa and sing about Rudolph, plus I can now sing “Silent Night” in Japanese… yeah, my job is pretty sweet.


Keep on Livin’ the Dream,


Michael Lamendola

(Resting my tired feet 850 feet above the doo doo brown water of Shanghai)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Ten - Let’s Cross the Street and Poop!

At the moment the Asuka II is making her way South from Shimizu, a little port with a soccer team and a Ferris wheel, to Kobe, a big port with a Ferris wheel (I'm not sure if they have a soccer team) at a leisurely nine knots. Come to think of it, a lot of Japanese cities have Ferris wheels... I should see how many pictures I have of Ferris wheels... but not now, we've got more important things to discuss.

The Japanese go pee-pee and poo-poo, just like everyone else in the world... but chances are they do it in a way that can be both light years ahead of the way you do it, and cavemanish in comparison. First, let's take a look at what a no-frills Japanese crapper looks like.


This is Japan's traditional, basic tool to take care of your most basic needs. Of course, for us guys going onesies, it's not a big deal, and actually better because you have less chance of water splashing back at you. For the girls, and for anyone having to go number two... well, fortunately I've never been saddled with the task. Essentially, you pop a squat. Notice there are no handlebars to keep you steady. I suppose those who use these toilets on a regular basis have the balance thing down, but you just know at some point in their life they misjudged their own abilities and fell in, or worse... fell during.

Still, even though this toilet is rudimentary, the basin is actually pretty smart. It's hard to see in the picture, but there's a sink built into the top. When you flush, the sink runs, but it drains into the basin; alternatively, when you wash your hands, the water drains elsewhere. This function makes the toilet seem smart in a space saving sort of way, but only halfway makes up for making you precariously hover your ass inches above the floor.

The ironic thing here is while there is nothing available to help you squat, take a look at this decked out urinal.


This particular model is located on the ship, but I've seen the same in a few ports. When I first saw something like this, I didn't know whether I should pee, or swing upside down from my knees. One day I decided to swing upside down from my knees, and got a face full of pee... and now I know better.

So, if the Japanese Potty Pendulum swings one way, it must go an equal distance in the other, right?


Right. This is a typical advanced Japanese john. You can find these in the passenger cabins on the Asuka II, and while they aren't totally decked out, they still are Cadillacs among America's basic Fords and Chevys... or maybe they're Toyotas... no, Lexus... Lexuses... Lexi? Anyway, the manufacturer of your vehicle always includes an owner's manual, so our upscale Toyota toilet shouldn't be any different. Sure enough, under the lid is some helpful advice on how to best enjoy your commode.


Okay, so what I gather here is don't bring your water hose inside and spray your toilet down. Also, don't let your kids climb all over the toilet... that's what the jungle gym urinals are for. Finally, don't treat your toilet as a recliner. Are we all clear? Good, let's move on to the controls.


Yes, controls. These toilets plug into the wall. When you sit down, the toilet senses you (that's one job that's better off for automation) and freshens the water basin, cooling your bee-hind without splashing it. Then, you do what you came to do. Next, turn the dial and pick your poison. In other places I've... gone... there are only pictures, like the one's here. So, picking the huge blue butt I push the button. You hear a buzzing coming from below as the sprayer readies itself into firing position. Once it does, it's actually pretty nice. The water is heated to a comfortable temperature, and may I say that the aim is always dead on... I mean dead... on. The first time I used one, it was a little shocking, then nice, then shocking again because the water wasn't stopping. I panicked for a few moments until I realized the toilet, like my old Sony Walkman, had a stop button. Push stop, and the water stops; the mechanical buzz sounding from below as the toilet holsters its weapon.

Of course, carrying on my stunning car to toilet metaphor, you can actually option out your rig. Some of the more deluxe electronic poopers I've used have had automated lids, heated seats, and a post-business air freshener that activates once your business is concluded. Honestly, there have been days when I knew I was going to be close to one of the fully decked out models, and I purposely held it until I got there. Like I said in a previous blog, it really does make the act of going poopsies a regal event.

BUT... it's a funny thing, that pendulum. While the toilets I just mentioned are in fact public, they are usually found in upscale hotels and restaurants. What if you're walking down the street when mother nature calls? Well, there are options, like this one:


Funny thing, I only discovered how visible I was when I was inside. Pedestrians walk by, and that window is eye level. Maybe people have had conversations, long lost friends reunite, maybe two hopeful lovers finding romance... you know like say Fred is inside, and Bill walks by:

Bill: Well, hey Fred! I haven't seen you in some time!

Fred: Bill, how the hell are ya?

Bill: (walking up to, and leaning against, the window) Fine, fine. How's the wife and kids?

Fred: Just super Fred... just super.

And so on and so forth.

Finally, on the subject of bathrooms, I did find another seemingly very public bathroom in a little town called Tanegashima.


Look at that... they done made themselves a Hello Kitty welcome statue out of floaty buoy things! And if Hello Kitty could turn around, she'd see you standing there doing your business. Hello Kitty... hello.

Okay, let's move on from bathrooms to a subject that I only became aware of a couple days ago. Take a look at the following picture.


See anything interesting? Go ahead, take your time... I'll wait. When you think you know the answer, watch the video below:

Yeah, I just busted a little Street Fighter II on y’all… it’s how I roll. And, in case you are wondering, yes, there are stop lights for the cars and walk indicators for the pedestrians. This wasn't an isolated incident, either. Now that my eyes are open, I am seeing these guys everywhere. Yesterday I was walking along a sidewalk, and they had half of it (the side closest to the building, not the street) dug up to work on some pipes. It was fenced off pretty good, but just in case Stupid Sam comes ambling up the sidewalk with his head buried in his Sudoku book, there's a uniformed city employee with a nice blue jacket, white gloves, and a red flag to help Sam through to safety... poor, stupid Sam.

So, since then, I've taken me some pictures of Japanese crossing guards. Here's my current favorite.


Seriously Japan? Really? No wonder the Yen is falling.

But hey, that reminds me of a joke... Why did the Japanese guy cross the road? Give up? To ride the damn slide in Sakaiminato! That's right, friends, part three of my series of videos displaying both my abundance of free time, and my relation to stupid Sudoku playing Sam (second cousins) is right below.

Okay, so maybe that isn't the real answer to the joke. No, actually, the reason why the Japanese guy crossed the road is to get to the Pachinko Parlour! Right now I don't know why I haven't got a picture of the outside of one of these things, but they are either a windowless bank type building, or a windowless glowing neon bastard of a thing sitting right across the street from its own second cousin. Now then, let's get one thing straight: gambling in Japan is ILLEGAL. But pachinko isn't gambling, no sir! You pay money, get balls. The idea is to win more balls. Take all the balls you when to the front, and trade them in for fabulous prizes! Then you march outside with your fabulous prize and sell it back at the pachinko parlour's own pawn shop... for money. Sneaky sneaky, Japan... but how do you win those coveted little balls?

Needless to say, I haven't won at pachinko. There are also slot machines that you play in the same way. Money buys credit, and the goal is to build it. While each pachinko parlour has its various little aesthetic differences, they are always big buildings containing rows and rows of pachinko and slot machines, the air is thick with smoke, and it is LOUD. I mean factory loud. Take one machine and let it drop a hundred metal balls against its metal pegs, and you might be a little annoyed, but you'll live. Now drop a thousand of those machines into one room and let them belch out their cacophonous metal symphony and see how long it takes for your ears to explode.

So, if pachinko has found its way around Japan's no gambling stance, what else can you get away with?


Off track betting, apparently. Now then, turn your speakers up and listen to that picture above. Yeah, listen to it. Hear that? That's exactly what the room sounded like. I could have studied for my final exams in there, it was so deathly quiet, and quite the difference from the afore mentioned pachinko parlours. So yeah, gambling is illegal in Japan, except for pachinko, slot machines, horse racing... I'll let you know when I see my first cock fight.

In other news, I've kind of given up the ghost on shrines, having seen my fair share, and yours, over the past months. However, I did see one that was worth taking a picture of:


Remember that Golden Book story about the little house, and the city grew around it? No? Oh well, in any case, I find it amusing that there's a place for sanctuary located in front of a multilevel parking structure, and across the street from a gigantic mall.


Here's a store that's apparently also a paradox. “Children Will.” Umm, okay, children will what? Buy five pairs of socks for 1,050 yen? No, that can't be it... okay, I give up... seriously... Children Will what? This is driving me crazy!

Oh hey, I finally made it into the bowels of the ship to see the engine room. I tell ya, the noise in a pachinko parlour doesn't even come close. Wearing big ol' ear phones and safety glasses I ventured into decks 2 and 1 to get a look. Loud to be sure, but clean as well. Oh, and hot... wow... hot. Here's a quick video:

Finally, here's one of my favorite foods in Japan, and it ain't got no fish or rice in it!


This here is some ice cream they call “monaka.” Just take a look at that beautiful golden beast. It's soft serve contained in a ice cream cone type shell (that, sadly, is probably made from rice). You take a bite, and you get a perfect mix of cone and soft serve! And not just one bite, but every bite! And since the thing is fully contained, it never gets drippy! And sometimes they put chocolate or jelly inside!AWESOME! This is my new vice... and you know what, I think I am goin' to put this blog down and eat me one. Yeah, I keep a stock in my little freezer.

Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Crazy Chopstick Man!

Michael Lamendola

(In my Halloween getup. This year I went as “The Guy Who Ate Too Much Japanese Food.” Yeah, those are real chopsticks... and yeah, Asuka II's official Halloween party was November 7th.)


Now that you've learned about how I pee and poo, maybe you should take a gander at how I bathe! All of the juicy details can be gleaned over there at “Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Two – The Pros and Cons of Bathing.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Kon’nichiwa Asuka II Part Nine - Oh My God… It’s Still Moving

At the moment I am in my cabin, getting ready for the first of two Magical Dreams performances tonight. For this show I use my cabin as a dressing room, since all my entrances and exits take place stage right, and the men’s dressing room is off stage left. I wouldn’t have thought of this myself, but the guy before me did, and who am I to break tradition? Besides, in between entrances I get to watch game two of The 2010 World Series, rebroadcasted from last night, where it’s tied at zero at the top of the second. That’s about all I know, because the commentary is in Japanese.


So, with about half an hour before the show starts, I have some time to sit down and tell y’all about all of my comings and goings during the past few weeks… and  to be quite honest, it’s just one big piece of news surrounded by filler. But hey, gotta make you work for it, so let’s start with some filler.


First of all, we made it back to Sakaiminato… which we all know is best known for it’s awesome slide. Well, it turns out that the passengers like to visit the city for an entirely different reason.


This is Mizuki Shigeru Road, named after a famous Japanese cartoonist. Hard to tell from the picture, but lining the four or so blocks of this street are hundreds of bronze statues that represent his creations, including this:


I forget the name, but this is Mizuki’s Mickey Mouse. The eye he is holding, which is usually seen popping out of the kid’s head, is also his father. That’s about all I know, but the popularity of this character spans many generations, and is literally plastered on anything that can be purchased with yen. For example:


To my knowledge, I’ve never seen Mickey or Donald hawkin’ malt liquor, but this eye knows how to move sake.


With all the excitement of bronze statues and merchandising, it only took me an hour to get the whole experience, so I hopped back on the crew shuttle. Back at the ship, and with over four hours of port time remaining, I felt like I should do something productive to take advantage of this fine city and all it has to offer… so I went back to the slide.



If you think that’s sad, wait until you see part three… and four… don’t worry, I’ll pace myself.


In other ho hum news, I recently visited the port of Hamada for the first time. When I looked out my porthole to gauge my potential enjoyment, I realized I may need a new formula.


Okay, so since I’ve replaced stacks of wood with hundreds of earth moving machines, how does that affect my “amount of piles multiplied by size of parking lot on pier inversely equaling my enjoyment factor” equation? Well, let’s see… what did I do that day?


Went to a Japanese flea market… no joke. If you’ve been to one in America, or Russia like I have, you realize that any country’s junk is just that… junk. All the things you’d expect to find are here, like old family photographs, vintage postcards, ancient and outdated electronics, and my personal favorite: taxidermied animals.IMG_3303

I must have saw a dozen of these… still, I didn’t see any trophy deer or sets of longhorns. I guess a Japanese flea market does have its differences, but that doesn’t change the fact that large amounts of stuff on the pier generally make for an disappointing port experience. The equation stands.


Okay, okay… enough putting off… let’s get to the main event. Not to long ago we made it back to Hakodate. You’ll recall that it was here that I met a woman named Yoshie, and her daughter Miyuki, who each showed me around the city, and later the neighboring town of Onuma. With ports like Sakaiminato and Hamada fresh on my mind, Hakodate is a welcome change of pace, and once again I was shown around town by my expert tour guide Yoshie.


First stop was an observation tower, then a Western style fortress, lunch… but the big highlight of the day was finally getting acquainted with live squid. And by acquainted, I mean eating it. Or to put it another way… I ate live squid.

(This is the part of the blog that you came to see, by the way, so you can stop skimming here)


Tell you what, since words really don’t do the whole experience justice, let’s just take a look at the video.



So, is it really alive? Well, not really… but from the time I hooked the squid, maybe three minutes passed before it was hitting the bottom of my gullet. The reason for this is because the squid tastes better when it’s fresh. At least, that’s what the Japanese tell me… having had quite a bit of sushi style squid up to this point, I really don’t think it has much of a flavor anyway. Eating it live is certainly exotic, but I’d be lying if I said I could taste the difference.


Here’s a close-up of my plate of live squid. You can see the tentacles there at the bottom. Above them is the body (which I think is the part that is usually fried up for calamari). The yellow stuff is ginger, and the little chunks just above and to the left is the squid’s liver. Not shown is a pint of Sapporo, which greatly aids in the appreciation, and digestion, of live squid. The whole thing cost us 1200 yen (a little over fourteen bucks), and is enough for three or four (like minded) people to share.


And, as far as the movement is concerned… yeah, it was still moving. You could notice the tentacles slowly writhing on the plate, but once they were dipped into the soy sauce, look out. Those suckers, as you saw, were dancing. Fortunately, I did not feel them putting up a fight as my molars did their thing. However, I did not try to keep the thing in my mouth as if it were a lozenge, so perhaps my chewing stopped it from moving (as it should). And speaking of suckers…IMG_3421What you are seeing is the squid still clinging to its body. This picture was taken over ten minutes after this poor, ugly thing met its eventual demise… that’s it buddy, never give up the fight. 


The big question is, would I have it again? Well, first of all, I would eat live squid over a South Korean bug any day of the week; I prefer wiggling and mostly flavorless over not moving and tasting like ass. It certainly was an event, that’s for sure, but not one I would go out of my way to repeat. Still, Hakodate is well known for this, so the odds of me catching squid in my lifetime are pretty slim.


Okay, that was the big news… anything else to report?


Saw this at a Yako Yen shop (Japanese dollar store). Apparently, in the shrink wrap is some special panty hose, with holes for four heads. Perhaps after you and your three buddies get done eating some live squid, you can each pop this sucker on your head to see who picks up the tab. Let’s see what the rules are to this… game.


The rules on the back state:

  1. Put the panty hose on your head.
  2. Pull with four people at the same time!
  3. If you keep the panty hose on your head to the end, you win!

Wow… Below the rules of the game are the warnings. Make sure you:

  • Do not put the panty hose game in your mouth… bad enough you’re breathing it in.
  • Do not use this product improperly… which I find interesting given the whole nature of the product is improper.
  • Do not wind product around your neck (to be filed under improper usage).
  • see a doctor if “unusual symptoms” occur.

Also, you need to be aware that this product could discolor from use, which is another indicator that this shouldn’t be put in your mouth. But man, that’s an embarrassing amount of fun for 200 yen! Still, I would like to see four ingenious bank robbers pull a heist wearing one of these.


And finally, I think I’ll end with Hello Kitty. I’ve noticed Hello Kitty in a lot of places during my time in Japan. The thing is pretty popular, and I’ve seen the kitty on things from merchandise to advertising. However, the other day I found a very suspicious, and official, Sanrio Hello Kitty product.


You can say what you want, but Hello Kitty is definitely flipping you off.


Keep on Livin’ the Dream,


Michael Lamendola

(Hanging out on top of Mt. Hakodate)



I finish up the blog after my two previously mentioned performances of Magical Dreams. During my last entrance I miss the last two innings, and, hold on… when the hell did the Giants get seven runs? Better step it up, Rangers.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Eight - Watch Me Eat A Bug

At the moment I am sitting in cabin number 6278. Outside my water stained porthole a container ship slips slowly to our aft, heading in the same direction as the Asuka II, but at a slightly slower clip. We left Yokohama this morning, tying down just long enough to let go of roughly four hundred and fifty pax, and at a current speed of 21.9 knots (holy cow, we are hauling some serious ass!) we make our way to Kobe.

Speaking of Kobe, I finally made it back after my initial visit almost three months ago. This time I made sure to load pictures onto my computer as soon as my feet hit deck 6, and for good reason...

What you are seeing is Kobe beef being cooked at the center of my table (called “yakiniku” here in Japan). Let me take a moment and brag... I ate Kobe Beef in Kobe. This sort of accomplishment goes up there with drinking Bordeaux wine in Bordeaux, and eating French fries in France (yeah, yeah, I know... but they don't call them Belgium fries, now do they?). So, how's Kobe beef? Delicious. As a matter of fact, it's so good that you can even eat it like this...

What you're looking at is a plate of freshly ground Kobe beef with a raw egg on top. Although I never heard it trumpeted, I can assume it's a Kobe egg as well. For all you carnivores out there, let me be clear: even when it's raw, covered in slimy uncooked egg, and slowly dripping off your chopsticks, Kobe beef is still awesome. And speaking of egg, the Japanese think of eggs the way Americans think of cheese, that is to say eggs can enhance any meal. I've seen it as an option on everything from rice bowls to hamburgers, and from sushi to ice cream... okay, I made that last one up, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, only that I haven't seen it yet. I mean, come on, they do eat wasabi ice cream after all.

Anyway, all kinds of Kobe beef and seafood were consumed at this tucked away little mom and pop place that some passengers knew of, and in turn treated me to. My job was to sit and knock back Japanese draft beer and watch my hosts prepare the meat, which was brought raw, platter after platter, by an old Japanese woman whose other job was to yell at what I can only assume to be her family that helped her run the restaurant. The sunken, gas fired grill in the center of the table did quick work of the bite sized strips of beef, and mere minutes passed from platter to palette. Boy, lemme tell you, after four months of rice and fish, Japanese BBQ is a very welcome change of pace, and has since ruined me for the afore mentioned rice and fish... sigh.

But it hasn't all been Sake wishes and Kobe beef dreams around here... because soon after hitting Kobe the Asuka II made a detour to South Korea.

Here I am sitting in front of the Choenjiyeon Waterfall, the largest on the small island of Cheju (or Jeju, as I saw on many taxi cabs and signs in the area). So, we came to South Korea, and I saw a waterfall... big deal. what kind of blog would this be if I stopped there? Not a blog I would write, that's for sure.

This, friends, is a simmering pot full of bugs. What kind? Who cares! When you're offered a chance to eat a freshly cooked bug, you don't waste time asking what kind; you simply jump up and down in a panicked glee with your watering mouth agape. Seriously, this pot was not the only one, as almost every vendor close by had an identical vat full of the same looking bugs, fully cooked and ready to move.

Standing down wind of the hot bug stew, I can only describe the smell as “meaty, foul, and thick.” You could purchase a cup of bugs for a price, but for visitors such as myself, sampler toothpicks were handy to quickly convert the non-initiated into true believers. So, when the lady noticed I was standing with my head cocked, trying to make sense of the crock pot of insects, she grabbed a toothpick, stabbed a bug, and handed it to me, grinning. Immediately, my mind raced to the old joke “what's the difference between an oral thermometer and an anal one,” as I took hold of the sliver of wood that skewered the bug, cooked and dead, on top. And the taste?

Yeah, it tasted like a bug... and no, I am not interested in having another one. Back on board, I told my story to some Filipinos, who inquired as to the type of bug (still no idea, although they said crickets are the Kobe beef of the bug world), how it was prepared (simmered in water and the bug's own natural juices, I suppose, since I've never seen Kerr's brand bug bullion cubes), and was vinegar involved (no). “Well, you didn't have a good bug!” they say to me, smiling the same way the South Korean lady did when she handed me the toothpick. Then they told me I should try one prepared in the traditional Filipino way, to which I politely declined, reminding them that they make the same promises about balut (basically a rotten egg that contains a half formed chicken fetus).

But South Korea isn't all about bugs and waterfalls. The day before Cheju we hit Pusan.

This picture was taken on top of the Busan tower (another alternate spelling of a South Korean city), located in Yongdusan Park. The park, which had a couple other things like a statue of an important Korean figure and one of those large flower beds that doubled as a working clock, was hidden on top of a hill that overlooked Texas street, a busy, name brand shopping district. It was on my way back from the park that I discovered a South Korean (Hindu?) temple, also hidden, this time on a larger building's rooftop.

Yeah, there were hundreds of those little gold statues. Yeah, I took off my shoes before entering the temple. Yeah, I took that last picture without permission.

So, South Korea was exotic and delicious... which reminds me... remember our green friend from the last blog?

Well, with the help of my Japanese friends and Wikipedia, this is what I know: his name is Marimokkori, which from what I have learned is a combination of two words. The first word is “marimo,” which, as described by Wikipedia, is “a rare growth form of the species of filamentous green algae (Chlorophyta) that grow in some of Hokkaidō's lakes, where the algae grows into large green balls with a velvety appearance.” The second word is “mokkori,” which essentially is Japanese slang for a boner. So, with this in mind, Marimokkori literally means “green algae balls boner.” It's still anyone's guess why that would make him smile the way he does. His popularity is due to nothing more than merchandising, which from what I gather includes cartoon shows on television. And from the picture below, I also gather that there is a Marimokkori for every boy and girl in your family.

Fortunately, my visits to Japanese ports have been more culturally stimulating than a stimulated puppet.

As promised in my last blog, I forewent (forewent? Since when do I use that word? Is that even a word? I gotta stop eating bugs) the opportunity to sample Nagasaki spongecake (spongecake? What's spongecake?) and instead visited the Nagasaki Peace Park. Nagasaki, as I am sure we all know, is infamously known for being one of America's World War II atom bomb targets (although not first on the list, as Nagasaki was targeted last minute when the originally planned city, Kokura, was shrouded in thick clouds, making it impossible for the B-29 Bomber to target).

The peace park is a large sculpture garden, where many countries have contributed statues celebrating global peace. The above picture is Japan's own contribution. The statue's right hand points upward to symbolize the threat of an atomic bomb, the left reaching for world peace, while the eyes remain closed in prayer of the bomb's victims. That's all very nice and symbolic, but holy cow, does that statue have a nice head of hair...

I mean, it's perfect. He must use a leave in conditioner for all day moisture and shine. Oh, but he has a secret. He gets salon hair at home, without the salon price, and from a two in one! Don't tell his stylist...

Around the park are other monuments, including the bomb's hypo center (the bomb actually detonated 500 meters above the city), various statues and information, and an atomic bomb museum, which included startling artifacts that endured the blast.

This is... was a water tower. I forget exactly where it was in the blast's radius, but the metal was bent like a plastic straw. What's most interesting about all of this is that while taking it all in... the statues that lay on park ground that was once obliterated, the museum full of mangled relics, and everything else, I was at all times surrounded by Japanese school children, obviously brought there to learn about the very real casualties of war. Through it all, while I walked from place to place among these kids, it all felt very peaceful, almost surreal, to see them playing and laughing among these stoic reminders of some very bad decisions.

And hey, since we're talking about kids, if you can't find a Marimokkori doll at your local Walmart, then take the short bus ride to Nagasaki and pick them up one of these...

But parents, remember, this toy is for kids ages six years and older... at least, that's what the box says. Now, if the manufacturers of this toy really had a sense of humor, they would explain that the toy could also be a choking hazard... I mean, if you're gonna put an age requirement on a plastic boob, let's go all the way with it. Another acceptable quip would contain the words “complete set.”

So, after squeezing all the juice outta Nagasaki, we moved on to some other Japanese ports of varying interest. One worth mentioning is Maizuru, where after grabbing a map I ventured out and found me a whole mess of shrines and temples. Mostly located at the base of a mountain, some were big and impressive, while others lay somewhat forgotten. However, I can now say that shrines and temples are starting to feel the same way as cathedrals in Europe and Russian palaces... you've seen one, you've seen them all. Still, sometimes the path leading to the shrine is better than the shrine itself. Case in point is the following video. One of the shrines I visited during my day in Maizuru was not located at the mountain's base, but at the top...

On the subject of the bell, I really don't know whether ringing it is encouraged or not. On one hand, I've seen bells like this at many of the shrines I've visited, all with ropes hanging down from the banging stick that look so, so inviting. But since I was around a bunch of people, many times who are there meditating, or tending to the shrine, I left the rope alone. Here, on the other hand, I was up a mountain and all by myself, so what the hell. It was after my cloak and dagger exploits that a father and son ambled up the hill. Seeing the rope, the boy ran ahead of his dad and swung on that sucker as if the bell was some kind of candy dispensing Japanese pinata. Dad just looked on, I think halfway expecting the same thing. Of course, even if the bell was some convincing paper-maché facsimile, I know better than to think any Japanese candy would be worth eating... but that talk is best saved for the food blog.

Coming back from my hike, I took a stroll through town to get back to the ship, and that's where I found something unique.

That, friends, is a battery vending machine. At first it seems kind of strange, but then I think of some of the drug stores I've frequented, where they keep the damn things behind locked plexiglass. Now that I consider how long I waited for the graveyard shift reminder of why higher education is so important to come out of hiding with the ring of keys so I can purchase four AA batteries, I can't understand why these things aren't in America.

Speaking of vending machines, let me say that you can't walk a city block anywhere in Japan without seeing several of them. They contain everything from colas to water, and canned coffee that is both hot and cold. Pricing tends to float over a hundred yen, sometimes up to one-fifty depending on the location. Not forgetting that, at the moment, eighty-three yen equals a dollar, the Japanese vending machine people seem to have things figured out, since a 100 yen coin still feels small compared to the 500 yen coin, and even smaller when considered next to the 1,000 yen note (the smallest of their paper currency). Think about that next time you bitch about a seventy-five cent can of soda.

Still, with a country that has a limitless array of vending machines, I would be remiss if I didn't have a favorite... and I do.

Man, I love me some Suntory vending machines. I mean, they function just like all the other vending machines, but look at the side. “SUNTORY BOSS is the boss of them all since 1992.” I love that! Suntory Boss, in all caps, is the hot damn boss of them all! Above the slogan is the picture of Suntory himself, calmly smoking his pipe, but ready to kick some ass if shit goes down. Yeah, I said it... and I believe it. I truly hope that one day I see one these machines sprout beefy arms and legs and beat the syrupy carbonated hell out of some other mama's boy vending machine. Yeah, I might sound crazy, but wait a second, who is that on the front of the Suntory Boss (who is the undisputed, heavyweight champion of every last stinkin' one of them, since nineteen-freaking-ninety-two) vending machine?

Tommy Lee Jones doing his best Easter Island Statue impersonation! Oh, it's on now! IT'S ON!!! One of you wussy little battery hawkin' squirts even think about steppin' one foot into Suntory Boss's territory, and one of these big blue beautiful monsters is gonna sprout big ass arms and legs and run at you with rusty barbed wire wrapped around its hairy knuckles, and the last thing you'll see before that sweaty fist punches you straight into your C-cells is the fire and venom that will erupt from Tommy Lee's flared nostrils... and that is why SUNTORY BOSS is the boss of them all... since 1992... and don't you ever... EVER forget it.

Keep on Livin' the Dream,

Michael Lamendola

(Taking a quick kneel in the hidden temple in Pusan, South Korea)


Try finding a trash can to dispose of your soda bottle anywhere in Japan, and you'll be outta luck. Seriously, you compare New York City, with its dirty streets and overflowing trash cans, to the spic-and-span Japanese boulevards that are void of any refuse receptacles, and you'll be left scratching your head (while still holding onto your plastic bottle). But then you realize all those sissy little trash cans have run cryin' to their momma, because SUNTORY BOSS IS THE BOSS OF THEM ALL!!!! SINCE 1992!!!! HE AND TOMMY LEE JONES ARE GONNA WHUP SOME ASS, EAT PLASTIC BOTTLES, AND CRAP SHINY CHROME PLATED YEN!!!! AAARRRRGGHHH!!!!

...never eat South Korean bugs...