Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Four - Shrines, Hula Dancers, and Rubber Chicken

At the moment I am sitting in my cabin, good ol' 6278... I just finished lunch up in the Lido, and in a couple of hours we'll have the first of two Captain's Cocktail Parties, in which we will perform our mini-show, Classical Moments. Outside my porthole the ocean passes us by at eighteen knots as we head south to our home base, Yokohama. Sailing around Japan the past two weeks has been a welcome change from the world cruise, also known as the longest sea day ever, and while I've seen land more often in the past two weeks than I did in the first two months, caveats and conditions still apply.

To put it briefly: yes, I've been hanging out in Japan... and no, I really haven't done much worth mentioning. It's a little frustrating, but the bottom line here is while the ports we are visiting must be known for something, often times the reason we're there is lost on the crew. One could blame it on the lack of information given to us about the port, the general disinterest in anything but internet cafes, electronic stores, and shopping malls by the crew at large, or the simple fact that the points of interest each city has to offer are only accessible by tour bus (which is something else that is not available to the crew) or an expensive taxi ride.

Still, when I am able to get off the ship (yep, our friend Russia won one... more on that later), I try and make the most of it. There really aren't any fantastic stories to tell here, just a collection of pictures that hopefully walk the line between culturally aware and blissfully ignorant. So, enough words, let's make with the colorful pixels.

First stop, Miyako. Actually, the first stop was Kobe, but a drunk coworker of mine erased my pictures from that port, so we'll have to wait until September for that one... so, Miyako. As I recall, a lot of lumber yards in Texas seemed to prefer their names painted on the metal roof of their buildings. Such is the case with Miyako.

So it should seem as no coincidence that Miyako is a lumber port. All those stacks of wood and sawdust are pretty much next door to the expansive and welcoming parking lot that we docked along side. Actually, one thing most of our Japanese ports of call seem to have in common are their expansive and welcoming parking lots. So, Miyako is a city that is there because of its inhabitants, and not there because of tourism. I know this because as I walked around the city, I never once saw anybody from our ship gawking and taking pictures. That's okay, since I am easily gawkable... or is it gawked?

That's a bucket of octopus. Gawk away.

Miyako did send us off in style (or we sent Miyako away in style. I guess it depends on which side of the water you're on), with streamers and a bunch of kids beatin' on drums. Next stop, Onahama.

Onahama is a Japanese city that really digs Hawaii. The whole time we were in port, there was a constant rotation of hula dancers entertaining both our passengers and the city's residents. After watching for a few minutes, I decided to leave the immediate area and take a look at the surrounding city. After half an hour's worth of disappointment, I came back. Okay, enough culture... bring on the ignorance...

I tried to purchase a “fukupass,” but I was informed that I already held a lifetime membership.

Get too close to the hula dancers, and Tsang Tsung here is gonna take care of business. Also, it bears mentioning that kids with guns brings up another startling similarity Japan holds with Texas, adding to lumber yards and the whole “silent-head-nod-to-say-hello-or-to-acknowledge-one's-passing-presence” thing both cultures seem to enjoy.

After the hula dancers packed it away, we headed back to Yokohama to drop off and pick up. Yokohama is a large walking city with its own baseball team, China Town, and blistering heat. But even though we're sweating buckets, it's a welcome change from stacks of lumber and buckets of octopus. Here, I am happy to enjoy the normal things I would if I were in a similar sized city in America, like go out for lunch or find an internet cafe and surf the web.

Here is one of the entrances to China Town. Seems that a lot of Japanese cities have one of these, as do many American cities. My question is, why aren't there any Japan Towns? Is it simply because the phrase doesn't roll off the tongue so easily?

Since we are in China Town, I am unsure if this advertisement is for a musical or a meal. Yeah, I just went there.

Here is a very ornate shrine sitting in the middle of China Town. People walk up, toss some yen into a wooden chest, light some incense, and do some kneeling. Other than that, I know nothing.

Notice this man's fancy footwear... now let me explain what you can't see. When this couple passed me, there was no time to do a double take. The man with the summertime sandals was accompanied by another longer haired man, dressed in ladies clothes... but that's not the strange thing here. No, what was strange was that they were pushing a baby carriage with a rag doll sitting inside of it. Now, before some of you more culturally aware folks start to get upset, let me say that yes, I understand that some Japanese mourn the loss of a loved one by sitting a doll at the table while they eat, or in a seat if they are out to a show. But friends, these two dudes were getting confused stares by everyone around me. So, by proxy, they were nuts.

And now, my fondest memory of Yokohama. They have these stores scattered about Japan called "Don Quixote" of all things. In them you'll find pretty much everything manufactured ever crammed inside its four walls. Below is something that I found in the store, and is something I find truly captivating...

You can add easily amused to easily gawked. Let's move on to Otaru.

Nestled at the base of a string of mountains, Otaru would be just another Japanese city if it wasn't for the summer festival going on that day.

Just in front of the pier was a stage flanked on either side by hundreds of pink Japanese-style paper lanterns. Throughout the day different acts performed, and later a parade took over the streets. Below is a video that shows both...

Yep, most guys carrying the “floats” wore bathrobes and diapers. I couldn't tell you for sure what the floats represented, but my guess is that each one symbolized a neighborhood's local shrine. Speaking of which, I tracked down one of 'em.

Here I am sitting on the steps of a shrine nestled on a hill overlooking the city. I've seen several so far, and it appears that they are always open to the public to come in and enjoy some solitude. Other than that, I can't tell you a thing about it.

Well, look at that. I've often heard that American actors will lend themselves to advertisements overseas, since they have less chance of getting caught tarnishing their craft on things like tires. Hey, even Leo has bills to pay.

Next, Rishiri, where inclement weather kept us from making land... After that Abashiri, where I only had a couple of hours off in between rehearsals. Went for a jog, and done. Then we come to Korsakov, Russia.

Proving bad news comes in threes, today Russia made up for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatky, where it somehow found a way to keep the crew on the ship. Let me recap how this works, in case some of you missed the last blog. It's pretty simple, actually: passengers have a passport, and they are allowed in the country; crew have a passport and a seaman's book... that's two internationally identifiable forms of identification... and are not allowed to enter. Whatever Russia... I never wanted to be a part of your stupid club anyway.

Incidentally, the picture above shows a pretty useful way of displaying information to the crew. On the other ships I've worked, nobody was really sure when the crew could get off the ship. We would just approach the gangway and either be allowed off or sent away. Here, we know exactly when we can leave, what time we are expected back, and when a stuck-up country thinks it's too damn good for my time and money.

Coming down the home stretch is Hakodate. Again, the parking lot was welcoming and expansive... which I've discovered pretty much means the opposite for the neighboring city. After a jog along the waterfront, I came back to the ship, rehearsed a little, then took a taxi into town. The cast ended up at a Japanese buffet, where, as I noted in an earlier blog, is different from a Chinese buffet due to the lack of a pizza and nacho bar. Anyway, we were served a ton of sushi and ate very well. Most surprising about the meal, however, was the mineral water I drank.

You know it's mineral water when you can see the rocks sitting at the bottom. For the curious, it tasted just like regular old water.

That pretty much brings us to the present. Since I started this blog I got one Captain's Cocktail down, and one to go. The performing side of things... you know, the reason I'm here... is going well. We are just one show away from being totally open (the sixth show will be performed for the first time in a couple of weeks), and everything is humming along. I did have one performance, however, that was greatly different from the rest.

One of the guest entertainers that joined us recently is Makoto Ozone, who studied at the Berklee school of music and is well respected in Japan as a jazz pianist. He was rehearsing with his trio after one of our shows, and invited Jessica (female singer) and I up to jam with him, after which he asked if we would like to perform with him during his sets the following night. Now, Makoto travels with his own piano tuner (who literally took apart our grand and tuned it that night into the next day... something like twelve hours straight) and sound engineer; that should give you a little insight as to how serious, and seriously good this guy is. So, Jess and I sang in his sets; she the first, and I the second. Oh, and Makoto arranged it so we closed his show! Wow... what an experience. I'll leave the rest to the video below.

And that's pretty much ship life for you... one night you're in the crew bar playing Uno, and the next you're singing with a world class musician.

Speaking of ship life, the officer's mess is calling my name; it's been almost twenty-four hours since I've eaten rice, and my body is going into fits of withdrawal.

Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Michael Lamendola

(Hanging out with the Asuka II in Onahama)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Three - Around (Half) the World in Eighty... Fifty-Three Days

In the past twenty-four hours I've watched in shock as some dude in the crew gym shucked his pants down to his ankles to admire his thighs in a mirror, caught a cook sparking up a cigarette in the galley, used cheap eye liner to paint dog noses onto a dozen housekeepers, hand painted an Indian warrior fern on the chest of some guy in cruise staff, and witnessed the captain get executed samurai style. Normally I would say that this is all just another day on board the illustrious Asuka II, but actually all those events helped me put a cap on a world cruise and begin my time in Japan.

At the moment I am sitting in the Galaxy Lounge, house left, admiring the view of Yokohama just outside the window... and admire is all I'll get to do today, as we won't be getting any shore leave due to crew immigration and the disembarking of passengers. Usually I would take this time to piss and moan about not getting to go ashore, but sailing west from Africa to Asia has taken all the fight out of me. At first glance, a world cruise sounds pretty exciting... sail the globe, stop in exotic places, and buy magnets with the exotic place's name on it. However, the following statistic keeps me from bragging about my unfortunate accomplishment: in a fifty-three day voyage I stepped foot on land a total of thirteen times. Yes, that includes the overnights (two days) in New York City and San Francisco. No, that does not include Panama, where I saw land an arm's reach away, but was unable to firmly grab hold. Thirteen days on land friends... the part that might be the most frustrating is that I had already been to most of the places we hit. Still, who among us can honestly say they dislike being beaten over the head with other people's vacation pictures and stories? Nobody? Good. Here are some highlights:

Here is my first glance, from my porthole, of our early morning sail-in into NYC. It's a bridge all right...

Made it on deck sometime around 6:15 that morning. The thick fog made for a very scenic entrance into America. At this point I had been on board ten days, with only one stop in Bermuda. So, as soon as the gangway hit terra firma, I beat feet to get off the ship. My day was spent catching up with my Buddy Steve, whom I worked with on a couple of Dream contracts, taking in La Cage Aux Folles, and generally doing anything but rehearsing or watching the ocean go by at eight to eighteen knots.

Hanging out with some old friends in The Big Apple. That's Michael (Dream 2005), Steve (Dream 2007, 2008) and Chris (a buddy from San Diego).

Now I'm in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I've overheard rumblings that this place will one day become our “Hawaii to the East,” so I did some preemptive celebrating by eating an American hotdog I bought using American cash, the island's official currency.

My day in St. John's. Yep, that's a beach all right.

Next stop was Curacao, where we only had two hours on land, and it rained the whole time... no pictures necessary.

Taking in the Panama Canal. Nothing special here if you've seen it already... enter a lock, it fills up, exit the lock. Do that a few times in a few different locations. But hey, we discovered a cure for malaria here, so that's good too.

Up next, Acapulco. Weather was hot, cerveza cold, and the cliff divers... Mexican.

You only screw up cliff diving once. Next stop was San Francisco, and what a stop it was. Met up with my buddy Matt, who used to live in San Diego, but now resides in San Jose. We met up for coffee, and he suggested that we drive inland to Sarratoga to watch Steve Martin play some bluegrass. Since I had already seen the bridge and ridden a trolley, I was down for a little something different. So, off we went to an outdoor amphitheater up in the mountains, built around an old monastery that has now become a white man's theme park (winery).

The view from the top.

Our seats were in the middle of the third row, and the show was amazing, especially if you like banjos and bluegrass. Steve is a very accomplished picker, and is well respected in the bluegrass community. Of course, he was hysterical in between songs; his comedy reminiscent of his early stand-up days. Oh, did I mention he was born in Waco? He played two sets with the Steep Mountain Boys, then encored with the following:


Next stop, Vancouver. Nothing special, just had lunch and walked around the city. On the way back to the ship, though, I snapped this picture. Little did I know the events that would follow.

In the foreground is a Holland America ship, the Statendam. Her engines weren't churning as I walked past her to board the Asuka II (shown in the picture sitting in pole position). We left around five o'clock in the afternoon, with three sea says separating us from Juneau, Alaska. During those sea days we spent a lot of time cruising the inside passage of Canada and Alaska, with the mainland and heavily wooded islands slowly passing by. Now, for those of you in the know, you realize that when going to Juneau from Vancouver or Seattle, you typically stop in Ketchican, another well-traveled Alaskan port. Well, we aren't typical on the Asuka II, and port days really get in the way of our sea days.

Here is Ketchican as we sail right by... wait a second... what the hell? Is that the Statendam? Oh, right. You see, I had been on the Asuka II for so long, that I had gotten used to our “we'll get there when we get there” attitude of sailing. Ketchican and Juneau are fairly close to each other, and if you had your own cruise ship, and you were on the bridge with your foot giving the gas pedal a suitable, but not crazy, amount of pressure, you could make it from Vancouver to Juneau, let alone Ketchican, in two days. The Statendam did... not us. So, we passed up Ketchican on day two of our three allotted sea days to get to Juneau, and after another sea day, and more inside passage, we arrive:

See that ship leaving the bay? Wanna take a wild guess who that is? Yep! The stupid damn Statendam. It had passed us the night after we passed it in Ketchican. Son of a bitch, that ship is really starting to piss me off, thinking it's so much better than us. Probably has one of those radar detectors on the bridge so it can speed right up to the point where a local-yokel is hiding behind a whale setting up a speed trap... stupid Statendam. Incidentally, that previous picture was taken on the gondola that takes you up Mt. Roberts. Anyway, Juneau was pretty good. I hadn't been to Alaska in five years, and while the rain kept me from doing any hiking, I was able to revisit one of my old haunts: The Viking.

Nothing says Alaska more than drinking a pint of Alaskan Amber and showing the boys from Romania how pool is played. Pictured above is Dorin (dancer), the afore mentioned boy from Romania, as he steers his partner Jessica (singer) to a perfect bank shot, as Tammy (guest entertainer type singer) looks on. And yes, I ran that table all day long.

Seward, Alaska followed after only two sea days. Thankfully, the stupid Statendam was somewhere else. Hell, it had probably already came and went. I had spent plenty of time here as well, but this time my plans of hiking were stopped by the annual running up and down the mountain race they hold there. The streets were filled with people, who were also celebrating the fourth of July. Didn't do much but Skype family, had some caribou stew, and soaked in my last day in America for the unforeseeable future. Oh, I did take one interesting picture. You may need to blow it up to get the full effect.

Unloading of sins is welcome... but unloading of bowels is not. Also, notice how the “t” in “bathroom” is made to look like a crucifix. Would Jesus really want you spelling bathroom with a crucifix? Just sayin', Seward Methodist Church... just sayin'. My independence day festivities kicked off with our premiere of Magical Dreams, and concluded with me making my own fireworks by sitting in my cabin and rubbing my fists against my eyes.

Then came more sea days, six of them... wait, five of them. You see, we had been going back so many hours as we traveled west that the Captain said “to hell with it, let's just skip a day.” So, we did. Went to sleep on a Tuesday, woke up on a Thursday. Now that's a first. After six... five sea days, we arrive in a port I can barely pronounce, let alone spell: Belize... wouldn't that be unbelizeable? No, we hit Petropavlovsk-Kamchatky, to which my spell check suggests Dnepropetrovsk-Kamchatky, which makes so much more sense. Anyway, we hit Russia. The night before we, the crew, were told not to expect shore leave because of some laws the city has set (made) up. I never quite understood why, but it had something to do with our seaman's books, of which ours are Japanese, and how that didn't count in their game of “enter the country.” The passengers, who do not have a seaman's book, are more than welcome to look around, which made the whole thing even more confusing. So, let me get this straight... one group of people only have passports, and they can enter your country. Another group of people have passports AND seaman's books, but they cannot... what the hell, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatky?

Anyway, like most things on ships, everything gets sorted out last minute, and before long I was breathing the sweet, post communist air of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatky (got that sucker on copy and paste). So, what does one do when in the former USSR?

Go to a carnival and eat ice cream.

Three more sea days and here we are, sitting outside Yokohama. Now that I finish this blog, I expect some of the passengers who had made the hundred plus day voyage have gotten off the ship (the rest are getting off tomorrow in Kobe), making room for double the amount of passengers who are about to embark on a quick cruise from Kobe back to Yokohama. As for me, tonight we open our third show, Amor. Oh! The shows! Yeah, after tonight we're three down and two-ish to go (one is a half show that from what I gather doesn't get performed a lot). So far we've opened the magic show, Magical Dreams, and the musical revue, Musicals Forever. Each show had a modest attendance, but nothing like the End-of-The-World-Cruise-Crew-Show-Extravaganza that was put on last night.

Here are many, if not all, of the house keeping girls, reenacting a couple of scenes from 101 Dalmatians. Earlier that evening I sat in the girl's dressing room, and with eyeliner pencil firmly in hand, made dog noses and spots on about a dozen of them. Funny thing, and I don't remember this in the movie, but at the end of their version, Cruella Deville and the other, evil monocle guy, drink poison and die, to which the dogs say “Hooray! They're dead!” Must have missed that part.

The crew talent show ended with the captain doing a six act (no kidding) samurai style (no kidding) play about how he became a captain, and how he must pass the torch to a new captain. The play ended with the captain getting stabbed through the chest with a samurai sword (no kidding), while another guy sprays red paint all over the wall behind him (no kidding). The pax in attendance, who like always, and on every ship I've been on, outnumbered the attendance of any production show done up to that point, loved the mock-death of our Captain, which is surprising since I've already witnessed them sleeping in the front row during our shows (which is something else that doesn't change from ship to ship. Show time equals nap time).

And that's going to do it for now. As a reward for another successful opening, tomorrow we get an overnight in Kobe. Hopefully that'll be when the culture shock starts.

Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Michael Lamendola

(With Dorin, Costa, and Joe, the men of Asuka II's Production Cast, after a successful opening of Magical Dreams)


About a month ago I found some time to do a little singing outside of rehearsals. Kris, our lounge pianist, did a set of classical music one night, and I was a special guest (always wanted to be a special guest), singing “You Raise Me Up,” and “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life.” The latter is right below.