Friday, September 17, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Seven - Exotic, Delicious, Stimulating

At the moment the Asuka II is sailing into the port of Tomakomai, a port I know nothing about, in the northern part of Japan. Funny thing is that I've been here before, or so I've been told. Turns out we were here one morning a couple of days ago to embark some new pax, but since we were tied to land for a total of three hours, there was no time to get off the ship. Unfortunately, this has been the case for a good chunk of September, and part of August for that matter.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that this is all due to the Asuka II's charter season, where companies and organizations buy out the ship for their own groups. Much like a psychiatrist’s office, the Asuka II decides to keep vessel/passenger confidentiality, so during these charter cruises one organization gets off, and the next day another gets on... and never the two shall meet. Although this has given us more than the occasional ballast night (a repositioning cruise with no passengers on board), the other strange byproduct is more sea days than originally expected.

Take September for example: By looking at all the days that have a city's name by them on our itinerary, it would seem like we have 27 port days out of the 30 day month. In reality, if you take out all the ports where crew have no chance of getting off the ship, those 27 port days shrink to 16... or, to put it another way, an additional 11 sea days. Adding that to the existing 3 sea days, and the month starts to look a little less impressive.

With that said, I can admit that it's been difficult to find anything to write about. That's not to say the past two weeks have gone by in a sea day haze, but for a blog that is supposed to be about interesting things happening in faraway lands... well... I've found that in order to write this, I have to really dig deep... and fair warning: the deeper I go, the worse this blog'll get (or better, depending on your sense of humor). Anyway, to keep things interesting, I'll try and go in chronological order...

Hamada, Japan. Big parking lot. Lots of wood. Looks like going chronological doesn't make things interesting at all.

Next up we revisited Sakaiminato... aside from a jog in near pass-out heat, this port further proves the parking lot and wood equation. Need further proof? Revisit the video below:

Then came Fushiki and Akita, both pretend port days due to lack of time. Thankfully, after that we took a vacation from Japan.

Ah, Vladivostok... First of all, our comrades at Vladivostok didn't seem to mind that the crew only had two internationally identifiable forms of identification, so we were let off the ship with zero hassle... the score is now Crew 2, Russia 1... your move, Russia... your move. So, with pockets bursting full of rubles, and an overnight with which to burn them all, the crew took off. The production cast, led by Kosta (our Russian born adage male), went out for a nice Russian meal, followed by a dance club that we helped to shut down at four in the morning. Pictures were taken, but if I didn't tell you we were in Russia, they would look like any old restaurant and club. But, I did set out on my own to find some onions...

Found em'.

I suppose the only interesting thing worth mentioning is that immediately after I set foot on Russian soil, this is the first thing I see:

I think some of the passengers at the time actually did this for the Russians, but I prefer to think that instead it was some Russians with a little vodka and a lot of time to practice. Anyway, we came, we saw, we drank copious amounts of potato squeezings, and we left.

Then came a couple more make believe port days, followed by stupid Sakiminato, after which we landed in Nagasaki.

The drums have become pretty standard for Japanese ports, a constant no matter how much wood, or lack thereof. So, Nagasaki... I know what you're thinking. Nagasaki is definitely known for something. Yep, it is...

Sponge Cake! Lots and lots and lots of sponge cake! No kidding, everywhere I went I was tempted to try sponge cake. Each time I feigned interest and surprise, like when I greedily go to a grocery store to try samples. Sponge cake? What's that? Oh that's delicious! I'll have to think about getting some of that. Then on to the next... I've never had sponge cake before! A minute later... I didn't know such a thing existed! And so on. But hey, you may think I'm joking, but there is sponge cake, and sponge cake related paraphernalia, littering the streets and stores on either side of the curb! But don't take my word for it:

Sponge cake dolls of every shape and size!

Hello Kitty likes sponge cake!

Elmo likes sponge cake!

Mickey likes sponge cake!

This... this thing likes sponge cake too!

But hey, all that sponge cake has got to go somewhere, right?

Yep, Nagasaki joins the ranks as producer of white trash pooping toys such as the pooping pig, and the American classic, the candy dispensing pooping moose, which can be seen by visiting any tourist store in Alaska.

Okay, all right... I hear you. I am in Nagasaki, and there is much more important stuff to talk about than sponge cake and crapping key chains.

Next time I'll go to the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park, promise.

Then two more make believe ports came and went, followed by another damn visit to Sakaiminato! What the hell is happening here? The funny thing is, while the port looks mountainous and rugged, the reason we stop here is so the passengers can walk down a street that is famous because a certain cartoon was invented there. This isn't some huge attraction like Disney Land, just a street where some dude drew something. But hey, since I haven't seen it with my own eyes, it could be just as exotic and romantic as Nagasaki...

Anyway, after another thrilling Sakaiminato, we have two more (sigh...) make believe ports, followed by another ballast night, during which the Asuka II ran a test of her alarm system... holy cow, all I can say is it works... no, seriously, it works. Really. Guys? Hello? It works! It works! IT WORKS! IT F'ING WORKS!!! SHUT UP! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! THE BELLS! THE BELLS!!! But don't take my word for it...

After the bells quit ringing (in my stupid aching head) we made it to Otaru. This port ain't so bad, actually. You'll recall the last time I was here I witnessed a parade where a bunch of dudes marched down the street, lifting large scale wooden representations of local shrines (Asuka II Part Four). Since I had pretty much found everything worth seeing on the map the last time, I spent the better part of the day catching up on Email. With a couple hours left, I followed my nose, and discovered what could best be described as Otaru's Historic Main Street. Before I continue, I want you to take a breath and recall where this blog has been so far... got it? Good, now lower your expectations even further...

Found this little guy at a souvenir shop. You try dressing like that and winking at people... you'll get arrested. But hey, think this is some one off creation? Oh no...

I swear to you, just a moment before I took this picture, a happy family posed their infant baby in the fish's cut out hole. Plus, if you look above our happy green guy, you might find the reason for his condition. Finally, since a picture doesn't offer much in the way of dimension, I offer you exhibit C.

Perhaps Otaru, not Nagasaki, should be considered exotic and romantic... I think I'll write their local board of tourism. Still, there must be a singular reason why I have only encountered the little green guy with a stiffy in Otaru, and the reason was just a couple blocks down. The reason is because:

I've officially hit rock bottom.

Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Michael Lamendola

(Trying some delicious sponge cake in Nagasaki... sponge cake? What's sponge cake?)

Friday, September 03, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Six - Proving The Stacks of Wood Equation

At the moment I am sitting, once again, in the Galaxy Lounge. Across the room I can see the faint outline of a mountain in the distance as we pass it by at a leisurely 12 knots, on our way to a place called Fushiki... and that's pretty much all I will ever know about Fushiki, as we are only stopping by long enough to drop off the pax... and that's because the Asuka II is in the middle of her charter season, where companies and organizations buy out the entire ship to show their employees and members a good time. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing, for the crew.

On the up side we have the occasional ballast night, where the ship sails without any paying guests on board, allowing the crew a night off, and out on deck. Tonight, for example, we have a party on the pool deck, which is a rarity considering that even those of us with passenger status are unable to enjoy certain pax areas like the pool.

On the down side, aside from the ballast nights, I am basically told to stay out of sight, passenger status be damned. That means unless I am jogging on the promenade deck 7, I am locked to my cabin or the stage. Fortunately we have ports nearly everyday, and since the social atmosphere in the evening is not like it was on The Dream, the only thing I'm really missing out on is the occasional coffee or light snack in one of our bars or cafes. Otherwise, it's still ship life as usual.

The charter cruises have also brought a busier show schedule, and thankfully that has also brought in a higher “butt to seat” ratio for each performance. Still, more patronage also can bring about more problems, like an audience who claps along with the music en masse and off tempo. Then there's the people who choose to sit right next to the stage so they can have a conversation so loud that I can hear them over the white hot speakers blasting out a mix of the music and my voice. Finally, of course, the chronic nappers have increased in number, and can sleep through the cacophony of my voice, the music, and the people catching up on the day's events sitting right next to them... all the while I stand on stage thinking yeah... this is my calling.

But the reason you're reading this isn't to learn about the sleeping habits of a far away culture (right?), but instead to learn about the culture's... culture... I gotta stop writing these things when I'm drunk. Anyway, over the past couple of weeks it's been a mixture of interesting experiences and expansive, wood piled parking lots. Let's set up the slide carousel and see what's been happening...

Saw a shrine...

and the cemetery behind it.

Found a public bathroom at a park... man, that's a public bathroom. Speaking of Japanese bathrooms, I've been meaning to address this, but so far all I've seen... experienced, rather... are the intelligent, heated seat, water squirting ones that make the act of going poopsies a regal event. Once I experience the other method of dropping the kids off at the pool, I'll give you a full report.

Those past few pictures we're taken in the town of Toba, which, if memory serves correctly, is located in Southern Japan... and then again, I could be a hundred percent wrong about that, since I don't have any internet handy to check my facts. Anyway, Toba, like most of the ports I've visited, is a place where you have to know where you're going to get any enjoyment out of the place. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a tourist information building, which was not very convenient to the tender station where the pax and crew were dropped off. Once there, I picked up a map with English scribbled on it, and learned a new fact:

Apparently, the women of Toba have large breasts, and wear hollowed out mayonnaise jars for hats.

Anyway, because of that map I found the shrine, cemetery, and crapper in the park. Next up on my hit list was some sort of scenic outlook that was at the top of a hillside. Following my nose up the curvy road, I came to the halfway point, noted on the map as the Medaka School. Its description on the map read “A learning environment where you can make use of biotapes, pinwheels, and waterwheels. You can relax in the foot spa while enjoying the view.” After stopping by, I think the description should read “Abandoned hippie commune where strange wooden statues creak and groan from the power of hydroponics. You can relax in the foot spa while enjoying the view.”

After walking down a gravel drive I came to an open building, where, once inside, I was greeted by wall to wall display cases filled with figurines of all shapes and sizes playing musical instruments.

After spending a few minutes admiring the collection, I walk outside and find the foot spa and scenic view.

Here's the foot spa. Actually, this part of the “school” was pretty cool. Walking up to a large metal frog, you toss in 50 yen (at the moment a dollar is equal to 86 yen) into its mouth, and place your shoes and socks into a cubby hole. Then you walk down a cement path to the pool and soak your feet in the warm water. So, with a cold drink in hand (you can literally throw a rock and hit a vending machine anywhere in Japan) the view was soaked in, as were my tired feet.

That's the Asuka II sitting off in the distance. When you're finished there are foot towels provided by the large metal frog. I was there for about thirty minutes, and I didn't see anyone... except for the strange wooden water powered marionettes. They played a backdrop of creaking and clanking during my foot soak just loud enough to remind me that I had to walk back to the ship, and that there was a distant possibility that one of those creepy things would shove a knife in my back. Here come's the video:

So, Toba was a success... but it's not always cheese and crackers around here. Imagine my exhilarated shrieks of joy when I open my curtain one morning to see this...

Like a child on Christmas day I throw on my clothes and scamper up to deck 7 to get an eye full.

Friends, if you've ever wondered why the Japanese use chopsticks, it's because they need to find a way to use all the trees they knock down. Holy hell that's a lot of timber... all neatly piled on a stadium sized parking lot. So, using the parking lot wood equation set up in previous posts, mathematically the port of Sakaiminato will be about as fun as a dentist appointment in the reference section of your local public library. But hey, sometimes the long odds pay off, right?

Then there was Hakodate. At this particular port we have a crew shuttle that, for a hundred yen, will take you to a shopping mall close to the ship, or to downtown Hakodate. One day I hop on the bus with laptop in hand; I'll just go to the coffee shop and check my mail. Along the way I get into a conversation with a local woman, Yoshi, who asked me what I was planning to do. I told her that I planned to visit Mt. Hakodate, a mountain that looks over the entire city, at a later date. She suggested that I see it today, and since she works for the city bringing in tourism, specializing in cruise ships, I felt she could be right. So, a chance meeting on the bus ended up getting me a private tour guide for the entire day. Of course, planning on doing nothing but deleting junk mail, I neglected to bring my camera. Fortunately, she had a cell phone handy... here's the view from the top

Yeah, it's a cell phone picture, but it looks a lot better than the dry macaroni and food coloring job I did on green construction paper.

So, we took in the mountain, had lunch at a roof top Italian place, and walked through the historical district with your typical brick and mortar fisheries and factories reborn as shops and restaurants. Back at the ship, we discussed the possibility of heading out again when I come back in a couple of days. She said, “I probably can't, but my daughter can.” Sp, thdn Net day Iy gfyyr higtred... sorry, it's difficult to type with my inflated ego...

So, after a day in Niigata, where I jogged to a shrine, tagged it, and jogged back to the ship, we come back to Hakodate. Speaking with Yoshi, she gave me instructions on how to meet up with her daughter, Miyuki, in downtown Hakodate. This time, my tour guide and I found ourselves on the JR Rail (which is the Japanese equivalent of Amtrak), taking a quick twenty minute ride to the neighboring town of Onuma.

Tucked away from the 300,000 plus population of Hakodate, Onuma reminds me a little of the densely wooded Wisconsin, with a sprinkle of mountainous Northern Georgia. Once there, we rent bicycles and make our way around Lake Onuma, spotting things like a rabbit petting farm, and a school canoeing field trip.

Here is Miyuki, being attacked by hungry rabbits. Seriously, many of them get pissed when they nestle into your hand, only to find zero food... so they bite you. Looks like I'll be bringing home more than chopsticks and sake.

With only a few hours to spend before hopping back on the rails, we were unable to bike the entire lake, so we pedal back to town and wait for the train. Now, you can imagine that finding English in smaller towns could be a tall order, and Onuma is no exception. However, take a look at the map below (you'll need to blow it up). You'll find that everything on the map is written in Japanese... except for one important piece of information, which is scattered several times over the map.

See, sometimes it's not about what you see during your vacation, but how light your disposition is while seeing it.

So, that was my two days of Hakodate, all from the kindness of strangers. Oh, we come back once more in October, and there's a chance that I will be able to hang out with one or both of my new friends. If so, I'll be shown that squid is best enjoyed, and I am not kidding here, when it is still alive... I'll let that soak in a bit.

And that'll just about do it for Japan at the moment. In a couple of days we'll take a break from sake and enjoy some vodka in Vladivostok, Russia, followed by more Japanese ports and many first time visits for yours truly. As I finish this blog I can feel the distant rumble of our bow thrusters... we must be coming along side the dock. I think I'll take a peek out the windows of the Galaxy Lounge to see what Fushiki looks like, and what I'll be missing out on...


Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Michael Lamendola
(Hanging out with my buddy Steve in Yokohama, who was taking a break from his gig over at Tokyo Disney)