Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Five - Dancing in The Streets

At the moment I am sitting in the Galaxy Lounge... yesterday the Asuka II left Yokohama and we are now headed south towards a little place called Kumano. Officially it's a sea day, since we are only going there to drop anchor and watch some fireworks. Since the Asuka II is never in a hurry to get anywhere, our cruising speed is a steady eight to ten knots, which leads me to believe that we could have gotten there by now. Still, as with a good portion of the ports we've visited thus far, getting there doesn't necessarily mean anything. Take for example the port of Komatsujima...

Here is a picture of the port. Now, for those of you who have been paying attention, you know that a port's ability to entertain is based on a couple of key factors. First of all, how big is the parking lot that is directly attached to the dock? From what we've discovered in the past, the more cars the lot can hold, the less interesting the port is. Secondly, are there piles of things within a stone's throw of the ship?

Piles of wood... check. This also does not bode well for Komatsujima's enjoyment factor.

However, today I discovered a third factor that when combined with the other two form a holy trifecta of unfunness that can not be disputed.

When bulldozers and dump trucks are moving piles (that not only are a stone's throw from the ship, but are literally piles of thrown stones) from one place to another... well, you might as well stay on the ship. To really drive the point home, we had an overnight here. Fortunately, it wasn't a total loss, as that night I wandered off the ship and found my way to a engine department bonfire being thrown at a little secluded beach. Sure, it rained most of the time, but that didn't stop the bonfire's blaze, or one of Asuka's crew members from getting totally hammered and setting off fireworks with his bare hands... wait a second... am I back in Texas?

Now, all sarcasm aside, the real reason we had an overnight here wasn't for the piles of wood and rocks, which were awesome, but for a summer festival being thrown the next town over. The passengers had taken buses and taxis over to witness the parades, and some even get to take part (for a fee). All over Japan cities celebrate summer with parades and fireworks. It seems to start in late July, and as of this writing there are still cities which have yet to have their celebration, as with tonight's port. The production cast has been called upon twice to participate in the parades, but if you're picturing marching bands and floats sponsored by the local Japanese Kiwanis club, you're way, way off. Let's go back a bit and take a look at my first parade...

On August 6th, we hit the port of Aomori. Let's take a look at the dock camera and see what kind of city we're dealing with here...

No parking lots or piles of anything next to the ship... this looks promising. So, at around four o'clock the cast is called to get into uniform for the parade. Following the other three guys in the cast, I make my way to the changing area, where I am dressed up in a kimono.

Here I am sporting my kimono. What you can't see here is that for the most part, a person can't put one of these suckers on by themselves. There are two “robes” for lack of a better term that one might be able to put on, but they are literally wrapped around you, and tied really, really tight to seal in freshness. Then there's the two sashes around the waist, again mostly there to restrict breathing, and one more tied around your shoulder blades and under your arms, so that you are unable to make your hands meet in front of your chest. The whole thing is very elaborate, and what we're wearing is still more the casual kimono compared to the evening wear I've seen worn around the ship (and those also require assistance to put on, and the Grand Spa on deck 12 is more than happy to assist in strapping you in, for the nominal fee of $80 to $128 dollars.

Anyway, once we've got our kimonos all set, we head out to join our float in the parade.

That's what I call a float. Yep, it's made from paper and wire, and it's all internally lit. So, the parade works like this... each “float section” consists of the following, from front to back:

Heading the pack is a bunch of drums rigged on a rolling platform, and with these drums are a bunch of dudes beatin' on them, with another dude blowing on some kind of flute.

Behind them are a whole mess of people, myself and the rest of the cast included. Our job is to jump in the air and chant “rah-sera, rah-sera, rah-sera-sera-sera!” over and over (and over and over and over and over). Supposedly, this means “happiness.” We are also wearing all these little jingle bells, the kind you see at Christmas time, and those are given out to the children in lieu of candy (if they only knew...). Behind us is our float, again on wheels, chasing after us. Plus, unlike the parades in America, anything on wheels is not pulled by horsepower, or horses for that matter, but by people.

So, we jump and chant for almost two hours. I lost count of how many blocks we made, but it was plenty... and plenty hot too. Even though the sun had set hours ago, it was still humid as hell, and the heat radiating from the concrete made our kimonos a tied up sweaty mess. Thankfully, we had all been given fans, and boy was I glad to have one.

The parade was still going strong when the Asuka II group was pulled out and corralled at a Japanese restaurant. I know, redundant to say, but this was the kind of Japanese restaurant where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor... yeah, that kind of Japanese restaurant.

For the record, I prefer chairs. So, with chopsticks full of tempura and sushi in one hand, and a glass full of sake in the other, I dined. We were promised a show during dinner and... um... wow. Let me just say this: everyone in the parade was wearing kimonos, largely of the same color scheme as what I had on. Nowhere did I see costumed characters and... men in drag. Wanna see for yourself? Check out the video of the entire night's experience below. You'll also see the following night where the parade was held again, this time without my help. However, this time the floats took to the water, floating around the harbor under a backdrop of fireworks.

So, that was one summer festival that I attended, but what about the port with all the piles of wood and rocks? Yep, we were there for a festival as well, but were not called upon until the second night. This time we wore officially branded Asuka II kimonos, which we were able to put on by ourselves. Then, we hopped onto a bus and rode into the neighboring town of Awaodori for the parade competition. That's right, this time our jumping and hollering is to be adjudicated by a panel of experts. Also, instead of jumping and hollering for hundreds of city blocks, the parade areas were clearly defined, and maybe two hundred yards each. The other difference was that this time the chant was more of a call response game, where “yato-sah yato-sah” was both the call, and the response. At the moment, I still have no idea what that means. Finally, there was no jumping involved, but a certain walk that everyone does, where you move forward with the same arm and leg.

So, we arrive at our first parade area, queue up, and do the thing... then we corral and walk to a second staging area. Do it one more time, then off to the hotel to get fed... this time sitting in chairs with our shoes on. For a look at our award winning choreography, check the video below.

Fireworks once again closed the night out... and let me take a moment to address the fireworks. In a nutshell: America's are better. Shocker, I know, but let me explain why. I had a schedule of the day's events, and it said that the fireworks will go from nine until ten at night. At nine on the nose, the fireworks start... for two minutes. Then a few minutes go by with nothing... then two or three minutes with fireworks... then a break... then fireworks... then a break. This goes on for exactly one hour, and at the end the last fireworks are shot off as ceremoniously as the first (read: NO GRAND FINALE) and at ten o'clock on the button the fireworks are concluded. The exact same thing has happened three times, and once the fireworks show went on for two hours, stopping and starting over and over. Of course, the fireworks were big and loud, but never did they light a fuse on a thousand at once, setting the sky on fire... nope. Oh, and sparklers? Hello??? Where's my damn sparkler?

So yeah, the summer festival season in Japan is somethin' else... but did anything else happen since the last time we spoke? Let's see...

Saw a shrine.

Saw a girl in a kimono shooting pool.

Realized that no matter how expensive the ticket, or how many stars the cruise line claims to have, a cruise ship is never, ever, above Bingo.

Found this hotel in Yokohama. I can only imagine how exotic they think the name sounds. Who knows, maybe they import Mexican zebras.

Ate sushi... again...

Ate a friggin' corn dog! Actually, I've had them on the ship several times... friends, the Japanese can make a damn good corn dog. Problem here is that I can never find any mustard. Still, I love me a mess of corn dogs! I mean, here I am in Japan, with Kobe beef and sushi grade tuna, and all I want is a corn dog... what could be more white trash than than?

Drinkin' a big damn tall boy of Kirin beer and smokin' a damn Marlboro by the water!

Spotted one of my coworkers during the Awaodori Festival, buying squid on a stick. Sadly, corn dogs were nowhere to be found.

As I finish this blog, I am sitting in a hotel in Yokohama. Outside it's a balmy ninety degrees, with enough humidity to make it feel like a bazillion. After this, I'll plan on getting some a bowl of cold udon noodle soup... but probably will end up getting another corn dog.

Keep on Livin' The Dream,

Michael Lamendola
(leading the parade in Awaodori)