Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kon’nichiwa Asuka II Part Thirteen - A Fifty Mile Radius

At the moment the Asuka II is somewhere just outside of Yokohama, getting her feet wet for the first time in almost three weeks. You see, from January 11th until the 27th, we called Mitsubishi Dry Dock home, and the Asuka II was literally a fish out of water.


So, during this time what is usually a luxury cruiser is taken down to her studs for an overhaul. Inside, everything floor to ceiling is covered in plastic, and outside several huge cranes are constantly loading and off loading tools and equipment. Life on board also changes quite a bit during this period. For one, since there are no passengers to speak of, there’s obviously no reason to perform any of the shows. Other by-products of the complete lack of pax are the disappearance of heat and ventilation, constant drilling that seems to occur right above my cabin, and a water supply that typically operates from the early evening to the early morning. It’s like camping in a cold metal box!

But hey, I had my choice… I could either fly home (and back) on my own nickel and enjoy a few weeks off back in The States, or I could stay on board the ship, have no responsibilities, the leeway to come and go (mostly) as I please, and oh… continue to draw one hundred percent of my salary. Monty, I’ll take door number two.

Still, conditions and terms do apply. While I was able to spend consecutive days off the ship, I had to stick within a fifty mile radius. The only reason for this is because, for some reason (and I literally have never been explained why), my Japanese landing pass only allows me to travel those precious 50 miles away from the vessel. Of course, I could travel to Japan on my own, and have access to the whole country, not just 50 miles from the airport, but since I work on the ship, I suppose there’s a greater chance of me trying to steal into their country? I don’t know… I quit questioning the thought process of my esteemed Japanese officers some time ago. Anyway, here’s what a fifty mile circle looks like:


So, what the hell did yours truly do with all that free time? Quite a bit actually. First order of business was to visit Tokyo. My buddy Steve currently works at Tokyo Disney, singing at the Diamond Horseshoe Review. January is a slow month for him as well, so we had ample time to explore Tokyo and all its neighborhoods. First stop: Tokyo Tower.


Not the tallest tower in Tokyo, but still a mind numbing 332.5 meters (1,091 feet) above the earth, with two observatories, the highest at 250 meters (820 feet). The view from the top is what you would expect, but still, it would be rude of me not to share at least one shot…


I think that sliver of a tower in the distance is taller, but I never got the chance to go up it. So yeah, the tower was what you would normally expect. It’s when you get back down that things surprise you… or maybe not. If you’ll recall from my blog about Shanghai, you’ll remember that the Orient Pearl tower had an arcade and an indoor roller coaster. So what does the orange and white, Eiffel tower inspired Japanese structure have that China don’t?


One ugly collection of wax statues. Not affiliated with Madame Tussauds, these statues look like play-dough sponsored the whole thing. Shown above is the rag tag bunch of Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Lady Diana (complete with welding mask and apron that protects her junk), and Anne Frank. Draw the parallels if you like, but if you were to play the “one of these things is not like the other” game then Anne is the odd one out. But the hands down winner for the ugliest statue has to go to Julia Roberts.


Oh… pretty woman… the funny thing I just noticed is that she looks more like a hooker here than in the movie. Honorable mention goes to Jodie Foster and Albert Einstein.

But if your idea of fun at an extremely tall tower involves things that go bump in the night, then Tokyo Tower’s got you covered there too! Sort of a dimly lit walk through chamber of horrors (with checkered carpet), one gets to experience what I can only imagine is Japanese folklore come to life via statues that look less like wax and more like paper-mâché. Below is my favorite.IMG_4772

I could go on and on about the kid's games, 3D movies made with an Amiga 500, and the seemingly endless collection of classic rock paraphernalia (really), but there are more exciting things to discuss, like…


Sitting butt naked in a pool of naturally heated water surrounded by snow! A long time ago I told y’all about the Grand Spa, our onsen on the Asuka II. That’s an onsen too, but not the traditional outdoor kind. While the major difference here is, of course, one is inside, and one is definitely not, everything else remains the same: wash before you get in, and no bathing suits please.

So, I experienced two of these suckers… one that could resemble something like a public park, and another a part of a hotel resort. Let’s start with the public onsen. To get there you walk down this snowy path (there’s snow on the ground because it’s –8 Celsius) to the onsen, which is in a valley at the base of a dam. About a hundred feet away from the hot water pools is an open air shack, with his and hers changing areas, which are barely partitioned by a dividing wall and are more or less visible from almost everywhere else. Still, you’re about to get in a pool naked with a bunch of other people, so modesty is not something you bring along with you. Once you’ve changed into your birthday suit, you wrap yourself in a towel (that you hopefully did bring with you) and briskly walk the stone path to the hot water (bitching is optional, but totally necessary at this point).

Then you sit your frozen ass into the warm water… ahh… The water is warm enough to keep you comfortable, but not hot enough to necessitate the in and out game. The pool itself is natural, though part of its structure might be “man assisted,” but the heat is definitely all mother nature, as little bubbles were constantly floating up through the cracks of the rocky floor. My onsen mates were mostly men, but also a few women.IMG_4556

That’s the view from the main pool. The pagoda covers a smaller section of the pool, and that orange glow in the upper left is the changing area mentioned earlier. And the white stuff? Snow… that’s negative eight Celsius.

So, you soak all you want, but eventually you have to drag your now very warm, very comfortable, and very not in the mood to get out, ass back to the changing area to dry off and put on the clothes that are now probably way closer to the freezing temperature than when you got here an hour ago. So, after some self coaching I hold my breath, grab my towel, and quickly trot (but not too quick… water and rock outside can give way to one cold and bruised ass) back to the changing area (this time, the transitional bitching is mandatory). At this point I am now standing completely wet and naked, steam emanating from every inch of me as I quickly dry off and put my clothes back on. Then I realize something… I’m not as cold as my mind thinks I am. I slow down a minute and realize I only assumed I’m cold, while in reality I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t planning on doing some naked snow angels, but I was hot from the inside out, and it would be several minutes before I would really feel the effects of the freezing air around me. It was at this moment that two other guys had gotten out and were changing next to me. One of them looks at me and says “muscles!” Not being used to naked onsen changing room banter, I replied “huh?” The Japanese dude then squeezes my bicep. “Muscles! Su goi!” he says, in a totally heterosexual way. Then I discover hot water and cold air will erase all evidence of body fat. Multiply that with an eight month diet of rice and miso soup…


Right after this picture was taken, I realized my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me… yeah, it was actually cold outside. A little video, while dark, fills in the gaps:

So, that was a public onsen… what does a pay to use onsen look like?


This puppy was attached to a hotel in the mountains. Yes, just as cold as the previous, but higher altitude wise, and with a bunch more snow on the ground. Still, the facilities were quite different. This time towels are provided, along with a nifty robe and sandals. Also complimentary are a pair of those funny Japanese socks with a separate compartment for the big toe. And even though my shoe size is considered average in the states, I had quite a bit of trouble fitting my big toe into the small woven space of the sock… that novelty wore off quick.

So, once you get your robe and sandals on, you trot outside, swap your inside sandals for your outside sandals (it’s how the Japanese roll), and walk a short distance to a snow covered hut on an elevated train track.


Here’s the hut coming up to get me to take me back down to the hotel…

Ride the hut up to the top, and pick from three areas: men’s, women’s, and mixed. Finally, you shuck off your robe and sandals and hop into the onsen.IMG_4638

This one, while still naturally heated, is definitely man made, but only in the sense that someone moved around a bunch of rocks to keep the water in, and built a rustic wooden structure to keep the falling snow from harshing your mellow. This time, the hot water is delivered via a hollowed out log, and the water that pours out is hot. Even though the temperature outside is below freezing, after about ten minutes I needed to stand up to cool off. After making a few snowballs, it was time to soak mine back into the water for another ten minutes. And so it went for my two trips up the mountain at night, and once the following morning. Video proof just below:

The hotel itself was nice as well, but also traditional. For example, this is what my room looked like when I showed up, courtesy of Mr. Blurry Cam:Capture

On the floor is woven bamboo… the kind you take your shoes off to walk on (and really, I’ve never met the kind that is shoe friendly). There were modern amenities too, like a TV that required yen to turn on, and past the screen was a sitting area with large windows looking out onto the mountains. After returning from dinner, the table and “chairs” were replaced by my bed…


The bed itself wasn’t all that bad, but the pillows were strangely filled with the kind of stuff you find in bean bags. It felt like thousands of hard plastic pellets in that pillow case. I suppose that’s not so bad if you sleep on your back, but if you’re a stomach sleeper like me, you’ll be a little uncomfortable. Still, soaking in hot water while surrounded by freezing air does a lot to take it out of you, so those beans could have been plastic or refried... I was out either way.

After my morning soak, it was time for breakfast. Up to now I have enjoyed almost everything I’ve ever eaten in Japan (the bug was in South Korea), but the traditional Japanese mountain breakfast I tried to eat on this particular morning almost did me in.


Let’s go from the upper left hand corner and work our way clockwise… in the little hot pot, simmering in miso soup, are a bunch of mushrooms, shallots, and other root vegetables. To their right is some brown stuff that I think was pulled from the ground as well, two green beans, a tomato slice, and some minced cabbage. Next to that is a salad with two pieces of ham. In the center is a fish, which you eat whole, with two pieces of soy. Down at the lower right is a pickled plum next to some other vegetable mixes. Down stage center is an onion and sweet bean (atsuki) salad. In the green bowl are more mountain mushrooms…. and finally, and egg! Su goi! Oh wait, I’m supposed to crack it, beat it, and mix it into the vegetables and miso soup to make some sort of scramble… oh boy. In the end I ate most the fish, and tried everything else. The ham slices were decadent.

So, after my high altitude, warm water cleansing, I decided to visit Mt. Fuji so I can piss all over myself.


This is Eejanaika, one of the roller coasters at Fuji Q, a roller coaster park outside Tokyo. And, true to its title, it sits practically at the base of its namesake. You can breathe in the grandeur of one of Japan’s most recognizable landmarks, but it’s difficult to see it when your blacking out from a mix of greased lightning and greasier bowels. I am not kidding, the Japanese DO NOT mess around with their roller coasters. Wikipedia does it best at describing this beast:

Eejanaika, designed by S&S Arrow, is a "4th Dimension" coaster, a design in which the seats can rotate forward or backward 360 degrees in a controlled spin. This is achieved by having four rails on the track: two of these are running rails while the other two are for spin control. The two rails that control the spin of the seats move up and down relative to the track and spin the seats using a rack and pinion gear mechanism.

Even on the third ride, this thing scared the bejeebes out of me, and once finished gave me the same breathless feeling after getting out of the onsen, except I’m not wearing my pee when I get out of the onsen (not that I do that… much).

The other big coaster I rode shoots you, in a straight line, to 107 MPH in 1.8 seconds. Basically, you come to Fuji Q, you bring a fresh change or two. Still, when I think back to Fuji Q, it isn’t the coasters I’ll remember…

Seriously, I wear a ten and a half, and if anyone gets these for me, I will learn how to tap dance.

Finally, I went to Tokyo Disney. If you’ve been to Disney Land or World in the States, then you’ve pretty much been to Tokyo Disney (although they also have Tokyo Disney Sea, which I hear is its own beast, with a few recognizable rides like Tower of Terror).


The Enchanted Castle at Tokyo Disneyland.

Since I was there during the off season, some rides were closed for maintenance (like Big Thunder Mountain… LAME!), but I did ride childhood favorites such as Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion. Michael Jackson’s Captain EO has also made its triumphant return from 1987, with all that 1987 3D goodness. If you can find it online, you should watch it… the King of Pop was about as good at acting as the King of Rock and Roll. My favorite picture at the park, however, doesn’t have anything to do with Mickey or Donald…


Ever hear a rumor that the Japanese can, and do, sleep anywhere? They do, and not just on subways and during my shows. This guy was sitting there, sleeping in that exact position, for a few good minutes before my accomplice could get out of the bathroom to hold the camera so I could play a little Simon Says.

Oh, and speaking of subways…


Look, I‘m no voyeur, but I just couldn’t help myself. Japanese girls of all ages love to look cute (Kuaii!), and do so by wearing shorty shorts or skirts with knee high socks or dark hose, even in the middle of winter. Here, however, cute went and threw up Chantilly lace and doll house wall paper all over these two. At first, I thought the girl on the left’s teddy bears were sewn on to the jacket, but nope, she’s just holding them there. Supposedly these two bears are the newest characters at Tokyo Disney, and since this picture was taken I’ve seen several other girls clutching bears just like this. Even though I still suck at putting an age to the Japanese, especially the women, I put these two between 18 and 20… that’s ONE DIGIT more than a normal person would possess to wear something like this… wow.

But, every vacation has to come to an end. As I finish this installment, I rest easy as the heat gently wafts from my vent to fill my room, drying me off after a shower I took sometime around 10:30 AM. We’re sitting back at Osanbashi pier in Yokohama, waiting for the passengers to arrive. Then we’ll embark on a five week cruise to Australia. Yep, I’m taking a break from Sake and Shimizu for some Sun and Sydney. But don’t get too jealous… here’s the reality: 10 out of 38 days will actually see me stepping foot on dry land. That leaves 28 glorious days at sea to ponder life’s great mysteries, like why the wealthy Japanese don’t just fly to Australia.

Keep on Livin’ The Dream,


Michael Lamendola

(Enjoying an onsen and the fresh Japanese mountain air)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Kon’nichiwa Asuka II Part Twelve - Your Red Nose is Necessary!

At the moment the Asuka II is getting beat all to hell by strong winds and massive swells as she fights her way back to Japan from a little place called Saipan… and we are barely half way there. You see, in order to get to Saipan, and Guam the day before, one must travel for three solid days at sea. It’s rocky, I imagine, because the cold Japanese weather is duking it out with the warmer weather of the South Pacific. So, just how warm was it in Guam and Saipan? Let me just get this out of the way now…

High of 85 in Guam, hotter in Saipan… life’s a bitch sometimes, ain’t it? And actually, if you are feeling a little glum because your American Christmas was cold and wet, then you only have yourself to blame, because I was in America. Guam and Saipan are tiny American territories left over from WWII. After many months in Japan, it was kind of a surreal experience to be somewhere where I could speak English, spend American dollars, and see cars drive on the right side of the road on their way to Wendy’s, Chili’s, Home Depot, and Ross…


I mean, look at that… I am in a Ross, where one can dress for less, but if you didn’t know, you’d just expect this picture to be taken anywhere… but look a little closer. All the people in the store, or outside driving their cars and sharing the sidewalk were all Filipinos, Guamese, or Saipanese (with the exception of the American men and women who are stationed there).

So, I was in Guam on December 30th, and Saipan the following day. All I really did both days was go to the beach and thaw out. That first beach picture up there was in Saipan, which was a little more rough around the edges than Guam… kind of reminded me of some of the Mexican beaches I’ve seen in the Yucatan. The water, no matter how far out you walked, never got deeper than your waist… and it was comfortable. Not bath water… but close.

And this tickled me… there were a line of Christmas trees in a small outdoor shopping area, and they were decorated with homemade baubles.IMG_4303

You see? Even in a place like Saipan, you can have a white trash Christmas!

Guam’s beaches felt a little more resort like, with nicer hotels dotting the coast.


Both places are actually little getaways for the Japanese. Knowing which side their bread is buttered, many of the shops catering to tourists, and all the maps leading to them, were in Japanese. There really isn’t much more to say about these places… however, I did find a rather large souvenir store in Saipan, and amidst all the tropical stuff one could buy with “Saipan” stamped all over it, I found this:

Finally, I also found one business worth mentioning. If you ever find yourself in Guam and looking for legal representation with a little sizzle, then take your case over to:


T&A Associates… yeah, I’m (still) easily amused.

But hey, I just got finished spending late December in Japan! What the hell was that like? Well, it was a little of everything, really.

Essentially the Japanese think of Christmas only as a celebration. They like the decorations and music, and the stores and businesses participate with Christmas themed sales and merchandise, like the following:IMG_3359

I like the fact that not only is Santa concerned about the environment, but that he also has an official ranking with the military.


I’m still not sure if the red nose is for Rudolph, or for Uncle Chuck, who always seems to overdo the Christmas Schlitz… either way, it is necessary. However, in Japan Christmas is not something that starts in October, nor do they make a huge deal about buying and exchanging presents. Of course, they really don’t get into the whole birth of Jesus thing, either. Actually, the interesting thing is that in Japan, Christmas is about throwing a party with friends, and New Year’s Eve is about tradition and family, but more about that in a bit.

So, what did I do over Christmas? A little of this, and a little of that. The cast had a secret Santa game going on, with small presents given out on the days leading to Christmas Day, where the big presents were exchanged. The crew was given a nice Christmas Dinner, which was a mix of Japanese and Traditional Christmas type cuisine. In order to hedge our bets, the cast also chipped in and thus supplied ourselves with our own little Christmas dinner.

The Christmas Cruise itself was noting special. We left Yokohama on the 24th, spent the 25th at sea, then returned to Yokohama on the 26th. And this time, our path did very much resemble a Family Circus cartoon. Imagine, if you will, that the Asuka II is Billy, and his mother asked us to go to the store to get some mint jelly for Christmas Dinner… what path did Billy take?vlcsnap-2011-01-02-14h57m02s2

Looks like Billy needs to up his Ritalin.

So, with Christmas Day at sea, what did I do? All of the following:

Yeah, it was a good day… but different. Having been on Asuka for this long has changed my eating habits, first of all, so I didn’t have that lethargic, over done feeling… even though I had two dinners. Still, when it comes to Christmas dessert, it would be rude of me to not overdo it, especially when I am challenged by The Man to not do so.


Other differences were the lack of college football to watch, and the lack of land outside my window. But hey, it’s all what you make of it, and it was certainly a Christmas I’ll always remember… oh, and the Shrieking Chicken? Awesome.

Of course, there was also a special Christmas show that we performed for the majority of December. Some songs I sang you would know, like “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.” Others you may not, like “She” and “Christmas Eve.” I am unable to post any video, but I also sang Silent Night in Japanese… everything else was in English. The song “Christmas Eve” seems to be a big hit in Japan, as I heard it played many times in stores and restaurants. Oh, and I achieved a personal milestone…


That’s right! Ho ho ho y’all! I came through the back of the house singing a rock n’ roll-ish version of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” It was kind of funny, since most of the adults couldn’t bear me passing by without waving and touching my hand… the kids, on the other hand, could give a damn. One time, however, I found myself singing next to a man who might have had a little too much eggnog, and was fast asleep. So, as I was singing, I poked him on the shoulder. He woke up, looked at me, and jumped, seeing the biggest bearded gijing ever! Good times.

So, before I get to New Year’s, let me show you some more of the Japanese country side. We had a few days in Yokohama, so I ventured out a couple of times for a little sightseeing. One day I found myself in Kamakura, a little town about a half an hour’s train ride away. The two things everyone comes here to see are the Hasedera and Kotokuin Temples, the latter being home to Daibutsu (aka The Great Buddha). Normally I wouldn’t waste your time with slideshows, but take a moment and see what I saw:

As far as Daibutsu goes, supposedly he’s not the biggest Buddha in Japan, but he’s close. He was built over 700 years ago with a temple around him… that burned down 500 years ago, and he’s been hanging outside ever since. And, true to what has been posted online, walking inside him is really no big deal, but for 20 yen you can experience it for yourself! As far as Hasedera is concerned, it was the nicest temple complex I had ever seen. It sits on a hillside, and the further up you climb, the more stuff you see, like statues, caves, and shrines.

Something you can do at many of these temples is leave a prayer for someone, which can be done in many different ways, such as lighting a candle or leaving a note. Passing by the large golden Buddha in Hasedera, I came across one note worth sharing:


It’s true… we all should have a Buddha guard of our own.

Oh, the Asuka Christmas video had a brief glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Not so long ago, I was in the port of Shimizu, which is also known as the “Gateway to Mt. Fuji.” To see a brochure quality shot of the big guy, check this out:

Okay, on to New Year’s Eve, which was very traditional, very Japanese, and the whole experience very unique. Overall the word “symbology” comes to mind… for example:


There was a bunch of these suckers on display all over the ship. The colors red and white, when together, mean (I think) luck and prosperity… no coincidence that these colors also comprise the Japanese flag. In the center you see a shrimp, thought of here as the old man. Above him is an orange, which has two Japanese words associated to it, much like the color and the fruit. One word, pronounced “die-die,” is used here to mean the connecting of generations… old to young, much like the American New Year’s symbols of the old man and the baby. But it doesn’t end there.


This is soba, which is a buckwheat noodle, in miso soup (naturally). This is what the Japanese eat on New Year’s Day. Not unlike the Southern tradition of black eyed peas (which I was unable to find), eating soba on New Year’s Day also symbolizes the connection of generations… but there’s a catch here. You see, if a strand of soba equals many generations from beginning to end, it would be in bad form to chew it up. So, you slurp it into your mouth (which is not considered bad manners here) and swallow everything whole. It felt strange at first, but my mind was at ease on this occasion, since I was invited to share this Japanese meal with an ear, nose, and throat doctor… no kidding.

As far as the countdown itself, it was actually a pretty big party, especially when compared to the other, mostly low key, soirees I’ve seen thrown around here.

So we literally rang in the New Year, as you saw. Continuing with the Temple theme, the next day the atrium lobby was converted to an Asuka temple, complete with the red entry way, guard dog, and box with which to toss your yen.


Finally, we had yet another nice spread for lunch and dinner to celebrate New Year’s Day. So, imagine my surprise when I saunter down to the crew mess, at noon, and discover this:IMG_4357

That, friends, is a big barrel of New Year’s sake. The depth of the barrel only goes a third of the way down, but trust me, a stiff sip of sake during lunch the day after a night full of drinking is not exactly what I needed. I will say that yes, it was smooth… but for a culture that is not known for its drinking prowess, they sure know how to drink.

But then I got to thinking… I’ve seen barrels like this before. I asked one of the officers where this sake came from, and he said Kobe. Then I asked him if some temples make this stuff, you know, to make ends meet. He said no… but I went and looked in my stack of pictures and found proof that yeah, they do:


This was taken in a temple complex near Nagoya. At the time I thought maybe they are storing food for the long winter… nuh uh… they’re just waiting for a big damn party! And this isn’t the only picture I have… other temples seem to do the same thing.

Finally, it’s not often I am star struck, but while in Nagoya I saw a line of people waiting to get their picture taken with some important looking man. Not wanting to be left out, I waited in line and had my photo snapped with him too.


After some digging back on the ship, I found out that I had met the Mayor of Nagoya… sweet.

And that’ll just about do it for me. It’s night outside as the Asuka II continues to shake, rattle, and roll in the dark and tumultuous Pacific as we are nearly two days in to our three day trip back to Yokohama. Once we arrive, it’ll be a little more than a week before we go into our near three week dry-dock, or to put it another way, nearly three weeks paid vacation!

Keep on Livin’ The Dream,


Michael Lamendola

(Enjoying a New Year’s Eve martini)