“Live Fish Bowl Prime:” Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan


Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, live fish bowl prime WM

“Live Fish Bowl Prime.” Sure, it sounds like an obscure faddish cartoon shown on Adult Swim back in the 1990s. Or at least it should’ve been.  But it turned out to be a machine translation (Google Translate via iPhone) of an item on Jody’s Japanese menu during dinner our first night at a high-end ryokan on Miyajima.

This is What it Meant!

This is What it Meant!

“What on earth does that mean?!” I asked Jody, laughing at how much technology fails a simple translation. “Who knows!” she responded with an anticipating smile, staring at her phone.

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personalized menu 2 WMOur menu was personalized each night, it’s approval demonstrated by the han-stamp of the resident chef of the ryokan. The dinners were all served as 12-course meals, each choice indicated on the menu with a distinct line of Japanese. We attempted to translate each one, course by course. But as you might guess, something often gets lost in translation. Some of our favorite translations, besides “live fish bowl prime,” include “Hiroshima cow” and “fried bird”….  Or the one shown below.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, the problem with machine translation WM

Concrete Soup. Yummy. Luckily it was MUCH better than it sounded…at least in English.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, afternoon tea in our tatami room WMA ryokan (旅館) or “inn” is a type of traditional Japanese lodge that originated beginning back in the 17th century, maturing as today’s concept in the late 19th century. Originally serving travelers along Japan’s foot and horse paths, they now serve modern tourists at major sites throughout Japan. Typical features include tatami-matted rooms, communal hot spring baths, in-room personalized dining, and public areas where visitors may relax and socialize.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, welcome to Miyajima

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, outdoor private onsen bath WMWe stayed in a ridiculously priced ryokan, the Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto in the resort location of Miyajima, a famous island retreat on the outskirts of Hiroshima. We were there celebrating, although at the time, we still didn’t know what we were celebrating. You can read more about that rather confusing situation is Commander, United States Navy, Arriving!  But in short, we booked one of the most expensive rooms in an already expensive lodge in honor of either Jody’s retirement, or her promotion.  Neither had happened yet.

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WMRyokan are becoming more difficult to find within Japanese urban centers as mainstream and modern hotels are offering more at a much more affordable price-point. They have, however, have found their modern niche by catering to tourists with deep pockets, and are usually concentrated in scenic areas, exactly like Miyajima where we vacationed prior to moving on to Hiroshima proper.

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, sunset from our room 4 WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine,_6894Ryokan guest rooms are styled in traditional Japanese: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, and rice-paper accented privacy screens. Most ryokan feature common bathing areas segregated by gender, using the water from a nearby hot spring (onsen). Higher-end inns provide private bathing facilities. These Japanese inns also provide yukata for guests to wear, and geta (wooden sandals) are available at exits for strolls outside.

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Kevin playing the Japanese part 2Based on a number of reviews, we selected room 502 of the Arimoto Hotel, a very large corner room on the top floor of the ryokan, featuring sunset views of Miyajima’s famous “floating Torii,” as well as private outdoor hot-spring fed bathing and personalized in-room dining.  Check out the hotel’s website; our room is featured as the inn’s “Guest of Honor” billeting, and is also featured in a bridal shoot.  I must admit that it does serve as a fabulous setting to accent the beauty of a beaming bride, certainly more so than it does for my cheesy Japanese peace pose below.

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Jody's fish bowl WMYukata (浴衣 literal “bath clothes”), are casual Japanese garments, sometimes referred to as a summer kimono, worn by men and women. Designed for hot weather, they are unlined and often made of cotton. As with kimono, the general rule is that younger women (and kids) wear bright, vivid colors and bold patterns, while older people wear dark, matured colors and dull patterns. Men in general wear solid dark colors. Yukata are staple wear during a stay at ryokan, commonly seen throughout the establishments. I rather enjoyed my own interpretation of their wear!

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, fresh fish WMI initially wore the yukata to and from our private balcony bath fed by the resort’s on-site hot-spring. The deep-soak tub was set to offer 180 degree views of the setting sun over Miyajima’s western shore. But since there was really no way for anyone to be a voyeur of our bathing habits, I quickly did away with any clothing at all. The yukata was, however, very comfortable to wear for dinner after a long afternoon soak to soothe achy muscles from the day’s adventures.

Our Dining Room

Our Dining Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Jody and her Live Fishbowl Prime!The main tatami room serves three important functions: dining, tea and for sleep. Breakfast and dinner are served there, with tea service in the afternoon. But at night, tables and floor chairs and hidden away and lush futon bedding is spread out directly on the tatami floor, where ample pillows, sheets and blankets are provided for a deep, restful sleep after a day of hiking around Miyajima.

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, tabletop shabu-shabu WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Japanese place setting WMRyokan stays include dinner and breakfast, and most guests take their meals in their room. Meals are central to a ryokan stay: the price and ratings of inns are heavily based on the quality of their food. Traditional Japanese cuisine called kaiseki, a meal consisting of a number of small, varied dishes, is featured, which includes seasonal and regional specialties. The meals are tailored and cooked to order, and service times are selected by the guests daily.

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus - YUMMY!

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus – YUMMY!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, meat and veg WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, beautiful salad WMWhile we got off to a rough start with the ryokan staff, due mainly to some of our specific dietary requests and the lack of English-speaking staff, we came to thoroughly enjoy our in-room meal service. Dinner was unrushed and personal, served by a private waitress, course by course, and lasted anywhere from two to three hours. We had the opportunity to enjoy some local Hiroshima wine while Jody tried quite a few new fish dishes, as I focused my meals more and more on the local high-quality and perfectly delicious Hiroshima beef…with some pork and chicken thrown in as well.  Lucky for us, after the first night of only machine translation of our meal, a waitress called “Emmy” was placed with us, who having spent 8 years in England spoke quite good English, even if it was more aligned to the Queen’s.  She actually stayed an extra day to help us in our culinary adventures as she was moving on to a 9-monht contract job on an Italian cruise ship as a hairdresser.

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef - the BEST!

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef – the BEST!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Hiroshima mussels on hot stones WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, appetizer Hiroshima beef mock sushi WMHiroshima specializes in farm-raised oysters, which were served fresh and in a multitude of ways. One of the more surprising items that Jody enjoyed was fresh stonefish, and not only was she served the delicate and sometimes poisonous meal (if prepared wrong), the fish itself took center stage in her dinner’s presentation! I can’t say it’s appearance is all that…appetizing.

Stonefish: it's a Good Thing we don't eat their Faces!

Stonefish: it’s a Good Thing we don’t eat their Faces!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personal fish soup composite WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Conger Eel and dipping sauces WMBut the most surprising course was a small covered dish of fresh seafood destined to be steamed tableside during dinner. Just after being placed on the table, the dish made a loud knocking sound, quite to our collective surprise. Our waitress, as curious as we were about the sound’s source, innocently lifted the dish’s top. And out flopped a large, live shrimp! We jumped back a bit as the crustacean made good attempt to escape, which our waitress was all too happy to block. Trapped back in its ceramic cell, the dish was placed on a flame for steaming, and no other sound was heard…until Jody’s coos upon eating the poor crustacean.

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it's Behavior and Turned Red

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it’s Behavior and Turned Red

But was it worth truly worth the expense? In terms of such an important celebration, sure it was! Spending money on treasured experiences is never a bad thing. Enjoying “live fish bowl prime,” the premium fresh seafood served to us during our ryokan stay:  priceless!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

See Miyjima Grand Arimoto Ryokan for more photos of our stay!

 

“Dear Cat-Sitter”


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Cat sitter (black text) and cat owner (blue text) correspondence (both raw and unedited), along with a few musings of the cats (green text) left behind during our recent 9 day vacation to Cambodia….

Day 1

Hello, Kevin san, how are you? I could enter into your house, so I was relieved! ^^; Kurio chan & Mayonaka san are fine. Kurio chan is ok but Naka san is so cautious. But he ate his wet food for me, hide now but he will be better day by day. Kurio chan looks sad but plays fine! So don’t worry! Takeyo

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Takeyo-San, thank you so much! We are in our hotel in Cambodia. Naka will warm to you; Cleo is friendly but aloof. I’m glad she played! Thanks for the pics and update. Cheers, Kevin

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Dear Cat-Sitter, Who the hell is this “Kurio” of which you speak?? Sad? Sad?!? I’ll tell you about sad: the doors to this prison never open and the windows stay closed. I take only the mildest of pleasure in playing “fine,” which serves to mask my own feeble attempts at gaining access to your jugular…and the keys to my freedom. The Little Black One appears so strong as he hides, in stark contrast to my lack of will power when confronted with those damned new toys. I vow to join the kitten in his clear acts of civil disobedience during your next visit. Cleo


Day 2

Dear Kevin san, Cleo chan and Naka san are very fine. Naka san also starts to play. I’m so happy (^_^o) Have a nice trip! Takeyo

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Great! Thanks so much!

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Dear Cat-Sitter, Finally, you got my name right. And as my captor, I must object to you continuing to taunt me with the damaging psychological torture of the little red dot that’s impossible to catch. At least the Little Black One has lowered himself to our level now, giving up his campaign of civil disobedience, so I’m no longer alone. I’m glad someone is “so happy”…. Cleo

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Kevin san, Hi, how are you? We are doing well! Cleo & Naka san are getting used to the situation, and the amount to eat dry food increased. They are very fine! Have a nice day! Takeyo. PS I give to a plant every day, don’t worry about that!

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Dear Cat-Sitter, I object, once again, to the forced rations of tasteless dry cereal, and surely we are to starve with only two rationed meals a day. “The Situation?” No, sorry, “The Situation” is some jack-ass from New Jersey on reality TV. What is happening here is just plain sad. Hey, here’s an idea: let me outside and I’ll take care of the plants for you! Cleo

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Day 3

Hello, Kevin san, They are very fine this morning too! They ate all dry food for me last night, and all wet food this morning too. They are interested in a new toy that I have and excited very much. I wonder whether I can park in the parking #501 while the sitting. Is the # 501 yours? The street is very is crowded very much during the G,W holiday. Thank you. Have a nice day!

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Takeyo, Of course park in 501!! I’m sorry we didn’t talk about parking. Please leave a little more food out for the cats. We always leave a bowl of dry food put in the kitchen. Naka is still growing and very hungry! And thank you for bringing new tots to share with the cats! Thanks, Kevin and Jody

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Dear Cat Sitter, With only two choices of food we starve. This is the only reason we eat for you And the Little Black One is…just plain gluttonous. I continue to regret the mildest of pleasure which I cannot resist given your harassing new playthings. Holiday? It must be “Take Great Pleasure in Cat Confinement” week. Enjoy your rock-star parking in our Beloved Warden’s spot while it lasts. Cleo.

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Day 4

Kevin san, Thank you for an answer about parking. I’m just in your house. Yes, I will add dry food for them when I go out. They are just eating wet food now. Have a good night! Takeyo

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Dear Cat Sitter, Thanks be to our Beloved Warden who cares enough to see that our basic food needs are adequately met. We may survive this week after all. Cleo

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Day 5

Kevin san, Hello, How are you? It was a pretty day today, I think Cleo chan & Naka san spent very comfortable. But they looks miss you, so sweet day by day. Cleo loves brushing and Naka san loves play with a new toy everyday!

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Thank you so much! We miss them back. Keep the updates coming!! Cheers, Kevin and Jody

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Dear Cat Sitter, Pretty day? Oh, the Little Black One and I wouldn’t know anything about that since we remain confined with even our exercise yard privileges revoked. Yes, the Little Black One is much too easily amused. I continue to search for his missing feline pride and integrity…while you brush me. Cleo

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Day 6

Hello! How are you ? We are doing well! They are relaxed very much. Naka san is not shy boy anymore. They love CIAO treat and Sheba, eat well. But I worry that the main food does not decrease very well. Their box (toilet)has no problem. Have a good night! Takeyo.

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Takeyo, Many thanks for the update! They are mainly wet food eaters. As long as they are eating the normal wet food we are okay with that. If you cut back on treats they will eat more dry, but it’s okay to spoil them while we are away! We will be home soon now. Thanks for watching over our furry friends! Cheers, Kevin

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Dear Cat Sitter, As much as I long to lodge prolonged protest with a hunger strike, the Little Black One lacks the will power and intestinal fortitude to see it through. Thanks be again to our Beloved Warden for demanding additional treat rations be distributed! We may be lost and locked away, but not forgotten. Cleo

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Day 7

Kevin san, Thank you for the advices about the food for them. If it is so, they are normal and they are eating the dry food little by little. They have no problem! Naka san attacks to Cleo, then he is scolded by her. He looks like a near state for daily life. It’s a fine day this morning, but a rainy season seems to start Okinawa.

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Takeyo, Hello! Yes Naka wants to play fight, but Cleo has never been like that, even with her brother before he went missing. We tried to stop him, but there’s no way. There is no harm and they get along okay! Thanks, Kevin and Jody

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Dear Cat Sitter, If cats could cry tears the rainy season would’ve started seven days ago. And as far as this “state of daily life,” I remain mystified as to why I am continually subjected to the Little Black One’s bullying and harassment with proper intervention by the authorities. If I wasn’t such a proper and proud maternal dignitary, my scolding would involve a lot more blood. Cleo

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Day 8

Kevin san, How are you? Cleo chan & Naka san are very good! They eat food well and their box has no problem, I’m so happy. Naka san looks for his fevorit toy in my bag and waits it out. Cleo chan also play with toy, goes around, watches outside, and request me to drain the tap water of bathroom. She looks very relaxed. A typhoon aproches to Okinawa, I hope that it go away and you have no problem coming back. If you have any problem please let me know to extend to visit. Cleo chan miss you. She is waiting for you and crying. She is so cute!

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Dear Cat Sitter, Yes, I fear drinking from the same stale stagnant water that the Little Black One enjoys with open abandon. For me, I demand clean fresh untainted liquid nourishment, a basic animal right, confined or not. Cute is a relative term. Cute is me biting off the Little Black One’s ears. Or brining home fresh gecko-meat from the exercise yard. And my crying: crocodile tears. Cleo

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Day 9

Hello Kevin san & Jody san, Cleo chan & Naka san are very fine! They will meet you well tomorrow. The typhoon will come here on 12th or 13th, so I believe you are safe. I am glad that we got used very good friends for these 9 days and they are doing very well. So I miss to say them Good bye tomorrow, but they will be so Happy to see you again! Please be careful on your way to home. Takeyo.

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Takeyo-San, We are at the airport in Cambodia and will be home in just about 14 hours. Thanks so much for taking such good care of our family! Please leave the key where you found it after the morning visit. Thanks again!! Regards, Kevin

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Dear Cat Sitter, Yes, very good friends aside (and this characterization is more than debatable), we will be equally has happy to say goodbye to you and finally be paroled by our Beloved Warden from this infernal confinement, storm or no storm. Cleo

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Day 10

Dear Kevin san, How are you doing? I finished my work just now. I left a key in pacage on the point where you left before, please make sure it. Cleo chan and Naka chan are very fine, so don’t worry! Thank you for the everything! Takeyo

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Dear Cat Sitter, All my bitching (and scolding) aside, on behalf of me and the Little Black One, THANK YOU for everything. Until we meet again. Cleo

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For a truly wonderful pet-sitter on Okinawa, please contact Takeyo Yamamoto at (cell) 080-6495-9365, email at Okinawa-chatan@petsitter.co.jp.  See her company “Pet Sitter SOS” website at http://pet-Okinawa.jp

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The Day I Became a Japanese National Hero


“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I may be a living legend, but that sure don’t help when I’ve got to change a flat tire.” ~ Roy Orbison

 “Hero, hero,” the energetic cries bellowed one after another, becoming louder and more passionate with each verbalization! The herd of Japanese kids were beaming smiles at me as I stood up, overly appreciative for apparently saving their very lives. Or so it would seem from their reaction to the drama that unfolded over the last ten minutes. Yes, this was the day I had waited so long for. This was the day that never came over 20 years and multiple wars serving in the military. This was the day, finally, when I became a treasured National Hero…of Japan.

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“Everyday people do Everyday things but I can’t be one of them

I know you hear me now We are a different kind We can do anything

We could be heroes Me and you”

Hero defined (dictionary.com): a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities; a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal, as in “He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.”

Or, in my case, when I changed a flat tire.

 

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No, no, no, not YOU too! Please, you’re embarrassing me. Really, it was nothing; just doin’ what any red-blooded American manly male would do. Really, nothing. There was no danger. Well, there was a LITTLE danger (wink), but hey, I put a brave face on and trudged through it. There was this family’s touristy agenda at stake, the very fate of their vacation hung in the teetering balance of the car on its jack….

Maeda Point, Okinawa, Japan

Maeda Point, Okinawa, Japan

11043707896_ce4469909b_bI had arrived at an Okinawan divesite and popular tourist destination called Maeda Point. It is one of those iconic south Pacific island spots which provides a cliff-high scenic overlook of inviting blue ocean waters unable to hide the mysterious subtropical reef just below. In the last decade the Okinawans have gone to great lengths to make this site much more accessible, and thus throngs of mainland Japanese come here to take guided snorkeling and scuba diving jaunts into the sea.

A Darker Side to Misa Misa

A Darker Side to Misa Misa

I call these tourists, or at least the females of the bunch, “Misa Misas” after the bubbling-over cute but amazingly shallow female character Misa Amane in the popular anime series Death Note (see the embedded video below and Japan Hub’s ranking of anime for Americans). These female Japanese mainlanders seem to lose much of their emotional control on Okinawa in a way that may be slightly reminiscent of “What goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” At least when they are swimming at Maeda Point, it seems. They shriek, they cover their mouths when they giggle (and they giggle all the time), and all seem to be wearing pig tails, better known as “twin tails” in Japan, as they crowd the waters that scuba divers covet.

I had parked next to a small Okinawa rental car which had been backed into its parking spot. In it was a younger, attractive woman at the wheel, but as I parked my truck, I noticed that her rear passenger tire was flat. Like completely done. Kaput. I struggled with what to do.

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Not wanting her to think some barely dressed American was hitting on her (I was set to go diving; the Japanese are very proper about covering up), I at first thought that maybe she would figure it out on her own. But then I spied the baby car seat in the back, and knew right away that I had to get involved.

Moving over to the passenger window, I got her attention. She remotely lowered the passenger side electrically controlled window, and I attempted to speak with my friendliest non-threatening, uncreepy smile I could muster, “Sumimasen!” (excuse or pardon me). “Flat tire,” I continued as I pointed to the problem.

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I’m not sure if she understood, but she understood enough to get out of the car and come over to my side. She gasped when she saw the problem, and took my hands in hers in a gesture of thanks, all the while mumbling exasperations in Japanese. She immediately shouted to a few people nearby in the parking lot, and returned to the driver’s seat with her cell phone already at her ear.

I walked away thinking that my involvement was over. I started to prep my scuba gear for the upcoming dives; all my student divers were late due to a bad traffic accident on the roads leading to this relatively out-of-the-way site. Which got me thinking even more about this woman and her baby attempting to drive away to some uncertain fate that I had a chance of affecting for the better.

I kept one ear on the group, now much larger since an oodles of kids had shown up, and glanced at their goings on. It appeared that Mrs. Flat was visiting Maeda with Mrs. Mom driving another nearby car, and both had what appeared to be a small tribe of kids in tow between them. Seriously, something like 8 kids (and those were just the ambulatory ones), and not a man or boy in sight. Even the Japanese snorkeling concession they were utilizing for their aquatic adventures could only muster the slightest of a man-child, who obviously either didn’t know the first thing about car tires, or didn’t want to get involved.

That's me in the background coming to help in a more "romanticized" version of the story....

That’s me in the background coming to help in a more “romanticized” version of the story….

“Okay,” the inner voice starts in my head, “you’ve got to do something to help.” I hesitate again. There is a precarious relationship between the US military presence in Japan – especially on Okinawa – and the locals. But the powers that be – the US and Japanese governments – will have you believe it is much more caustic than it is in reality. In fact, I have never once had an issue in Okinawa in the seven years I’ve spent here, although I have been “uninvited” from bars up in Honshu…. I debated whether they would eagerly accept my help, or maybe read a darker side into my forwardness. I elected to play ambassador, but more so, to just be a good neighbor.

How can you not help sad Japanese girls?!?

How can you not help sad Japanese girls?!?

I walked over and inquired about a “spare tire” as it seemed they were searching the victim car for one. And from that point on, anything I said in English the kids would energetically repeat. “Spare, spare…spare tire, tire, spare….SPARE!” And not just two or three times. Again and again and again! I doubt they knew much meaning behind the words, but they were happy to be speaking English – even if just phonetically – in a very real context.

But there was no spare! There was a jack and a lug wrench, and even a place for a spare, but no tire. Many of the smaller Japanese cars don’t carry one, but instead carry a can of “fix-a-flat” tire inflation gas/fluid. None of that either. I even checked under the back seat and under the rear of the car to make sure. “No spare,” I muttered astonishingly….

“NO SPARE NO SPARE NO SPARE,” came the misplaced excited replies, like it was a good thing. I smile at the kids and even patted one of the smaller ones on the head, thinking of just how wonderful the innocence of youth is as a treasure that just can’t be valued by the young properly in the those youthful moments.

I ask about her friend’s car. “Spare,” I questioned as I pointed in that car’s direction. Mrs. Mom understands and has her hatchback open in no time. “Aaaaahhhhhhhhh, SPARE-O,” comes her excited reply. That’s all I need to start to get out the tools of the tire-changing trade and arrange them at the ready.

Kids are so wonderful, no matter where you find yourself in the world. Non-judgmental, accepting, sponges for knowledge, and awestruck with the wonders of everyday life, they are so easy to engage and communicate with. They huddle around the tire as I ready everything for the change.

“Parking brake?” I question Mrs. Flat. She doesn’t understand. I approach the passenger side door, wary of making anyone uncomfortable with the baby asleep in the back seat. I mime to open the door to which she offers her eager yet nonverbal consent. I pull the parking brake up and on, stating (for the record and the enjoyment of the kids present), “Parking Brake!”

“PAW-KING BREAK, paking brake, parking brek,” the replies sound again.

I move back and start with the tool phase of the process, more properly referred to as the “Oooohs and Aaaahs” of the change. Each time I manipulated a tool against automobile structure, at least a baker’s dozen “oohs” and a healthy pint of “aahs” sounded. I began to feel almost superhuman at this point with such audience participation.

Trying to keep my language to a unrepeatable minimum, I start to show how things work and fit together. I demonstrate how the jack-screw raises the scissors of the jack lift.

“OOOOOOOOH, aaaaaah!”

I showed how to place the lifting portion of the jack against the notch in the car’s frame.

“EEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHH!”

I took the flathead portion of the lug wrench and wrangled off the cheap plastic hub cap, giving it to one of the nearby children to examine firsthand.

“WOOOOOOOOOOOOO, WOW!”

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But now came the strongman show of this circus. There were only 4 nuts holding the tire on, but of course each was most likely tightened into place with a pneumatic torque socket. It takes a little force to break that grip, and I used my body weight to help loosen the nuts in turn. Pushing on the first I barely grunt under my breath, just as the nut starts to give way with a metallic crunch.

“OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

But now there’s an audible change: “Gentleman!” The word spreads like a Santa Anna wind-blown wild fire in a California drought. Gentleman: A chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man; a man of good social position, especially one of wealth and leisure. I may lack social status and the wealth of the top 5% of Americans, but my leisurely actions of the day were no doubt courteous and chivalrous. Nonetheless, I smile, somewhat embarrassingly, turning a bit red as the accolades only continue.

Repeat that sequence three more times and the flat is off in a jiffy. I quickly rotate the tread examining it for damage, and find a nice shiny screw completely imbedded in the tire, having entered on the inner side of one of the tread channels.

“EEEEEEEEEEEH,” came the exasperated replies from the only two drivers of the gang.

I place the spare on the bolts and hand-tighten the nuts into place. I mimic how you must tighten bolts in an X-pattern to ensure the right fit and ride, and then I’m back into superhuman character, tightening the bolts into place using my body weight and muscle power against the lug wrench’s resistance.

The tire is back on. I lower the car and the suspension accepts the replacement without question or complaint. I pull the jack and tools and stand up to look Mrs. Flat in the eye. “Small tire,” I say as I mime motions for small. “Drive slow,” I say as I mimic the hand signal, at least in motorcycles and diving, for slow. And just to be cautious, I end with “Be safe” while smiling, embarrassed at the unearned and unnecessary accolades I was receiving.

Previously, I had only ever been a Guitar Hero

Previously, I had only ever been a Guitar Hero

I was also a Mathlete Calculus Hero in High School, and had I been Val Kilmer and/or an Astronaut, I would have used math to save lives….

And with that my characterization of “gentleman” takes a light-year leap and becomes “hero.” I am proclaimed by all present, particularly the tween and teen-aged girls, as their “hero.” Over and over as I politely reject such a label, you know, for changing a tire!

My adoring fans did make me feel like this though

My adoring fans did make me feel like this though

Okay, seriously, “hero” is a word that EVERYONE uses way too often, all too easily. I’m sorry America, you are not a hero for putting a uniform on. You are no hero if something bad just happens to you while wearing said uniform. Underpaid teachers and non-profit volunteers are wonderful people who literally weave the fabric of our society, but they are not heroes. The idea and label of “hero” should be reserved for the very few that deserve it, and it should be held back for those esteemed occasions where it could/can be applied with great effect. Tire-changing is not one of them.

Unless you were The Batman

Unless you were The Batman

Each of the Japanese gang of Misa Misas came up and thanked me, some in Japanese, and others in English. They all took my hands. “Hero” was a word said often, and each time I politely rejected the very notion, smiling but shaking my hand “no” rather emphatically. Pictures were taken with various cell phones, me towering over the group, with my arms around them and hands shooting double peace signs so ubiquitous in Japan. I so uncomfortable with becoming a Japanese National Hero that I didn’t ask for the photos to be sent to me, but by now surely there’s been a monument erected in my honor in the group’s hometown. Perhaps a proudly chiseled (and buff) statue. Or a play-park full of tires.

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And to complete the celebratory spirit of the afternoon, as the group were leaving the parking area, the thanks continued. The kids – I mean all of them – had their heads stuffed out every open window of both cars, waving and yelling their thanks and my newfound title of “hero.” The cars move away, but stall waiting to pay for parking at the exit gate. Oh boy, even more time for the Japanese to thank me is this most uncomfortable way. “Thank You Hero…Gentleman…HERO!” It continues, but now being yelled across the entire parking lot at Maeda Point. I wave nonchalantly, trying to downplay my overblown role in their lives. And then, as the cars exit the area and drive away down the road leading away, the yells of “Hero” and “Gentleman” turns to screams of “Goodbye” and “Thank You!”

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No, thank you Japan, for embracing me as a National Hero, if only for 20 minutes one lazy Okinawan afternoon!

Tokyo Disney: Japan’s Infatuation with the Mouse!


“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”  ~Walt Disney

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The band jams on as the sold-out show rings most fans to their feet. The live performance is captivating, and the electric excitement crackles through the crowd while all await the stars’ appearance.

He appears! And the crowd goes wild.  And then she appears, against the surging backdrop of energetic applause.  But it is when they start to dance together, when he sweeps her off her feet swing-style, but especially when he pauses slightly to give her a love peck on the check that the females in attendance coo, giggle and scream like only school-girls-in-love would.

So who offers such star appeal and at what venue in our Far East Fling? Is it a modern-day rock couple, like Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, or perhaps Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed, or even Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson?

Not even close. What I am talking about is TRUE star-power in Japan.  And that can mean only one thing:  Mickey and Minnie Mouse!

Now that is a thorn, worthy of a mouse.

Now that is a thorn, worthy of a mouse.

15323490096_cedbcfc615_bAlthough Mickey-san and his wo-mouse Minnie, along with their eclectic ensemble of Disney characters, entertain the masses in Japan in many of the same ways they do in the California and Florida Disney parks, it is a wholly different experience. Yes, there are fans of the mice in the states, but they are not openly FAN-atical like so many more are here in Japan.

Small in Size, large in Adventure

Small in Size, large in Adventure

15159964878_0fcdb27107_bWhen Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) was built in 1983 it was much smaller than its counterparts in States. But with the construction in 2001 of the adjacent DisneySea, TDL added more than 100 acres and became better known as the Tokyo Disneyland Resort (TDR).  The resort rivals that of any theme park anywhere in the world, being composed of Disneyland, DisneySea, three themed hotels and six partner hotels.  Circling the complex is the Disney Resort Line monorail, which most disappointingly, is neither free nor included in your park admission.  Buying a multi-day pass for the ride, however, is very economical.

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15346342992_d182c76aa1_bSo what’s so different about the Japanese fans of Disney? Well, for most obvious starters, their appearance.  Simply put, people dress for the occasion.  Matching outfits, between female friends visiting the park as small giggly gangs, or as a dating couple where effeminate clothing is simply not a worry, so whole families dressed to the nines in full mouse regalia, you see it all!  Girls actually do their hair up into mouse ears; the hats, the popcorn carriers, the purses, umbrellas, and trinkets – they are all displayed proudly and in your face!

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15142384318_e9fc1885bd_bTDL, as expected, is a theme park based on the films produced by Walt Disney, and was the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. Modeled after the parks almost any American would be familiar with, Tokyo Disneyland is made up of seven themed lands and features seasonal decorations and parades.  In essence, it is essentially just a facsimile of the parks in the US.

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15142280680_080d011f3e_bBUT, the parade experience is different. The Japanese love a show, and from all indications, at TDR they love a parade where water is involved.  Not just floats and fireworks over the parks’ lagoons, but I mean actually being sprayed down with water.  The Japanese go gaga over a costumed character aiming a water-spewing nozzle at them, and claim their spots on the tour routes literally hours ahead of parade time.  Covering themselves in plastic and using umbrellas as shields, it seems as if they are being baptized by the holy spirits of Disney.  It seems to verge on a rite of passage….

Note the Water Cannon; a kindler, gentler form of crowd control.

Note the Water Cannon; a kindler, gentler form of crowd control.

Disney-wild-fansSo what’s special about Tokyo Disneyland? Over the years (and after almost going under in the late 1908s), Tokyo Disneyland has grown into the second most popular amusement park in the world, second only to Florida’s Magic Kingdom (DisneySea on its own is the 5th).  It has also become the centerpiece of Japan’s truly fantastical Disney resort that, many claim (and I agree), has surpassed its American forbears.   Spotlessly clean, impeccably run, and now featuring many attractions unique to Tokyo, TDR is a wonderful place to enjoy a fascinating fusion of American and Japanese culture, all through the combining lens of Walt Disney.  And the Mouse.

These four literally  lost their minds when "Mickey" waved their way!

These four literally lost their minds when “Mickey” waved their way!

15346620305_876354214f_bHey Japan, the ones who are screaming, jumping up and down, and waving emphatically at Mickey and his crazy cast of characters, you do realize they are just people in costumes, right? I’m really not sure they do.  It’s not the kids here that engage in the fantasy with wild abandon; rather, it is the middle-aged women that so desperately need that Disney character to wave back.  I believe, from the emotional meltdown that happens in response, that clearly being acknowledged by Mikey or Minnie (but any of the lessor Disney royalty seems to work in a pinch) is on most Japanese’s bucket lists.  Surprisingly to me, Tokyo Disney visitors are overwhelmingly Japanese (over 97% are from Japan), unlike all the other Disney properties that rely heavily on foreign tourists.  This audience is diverse, but a good chunk is twenty-something females, many of whom are infatuated with Disney characters and American culture.  It is truly a unique Japanese experience.

Tokyo Disneyland is divided into six themed areas: AdventureLand, WesternLand, Critter Country, FantasyLand, TomorrowLand and Toontown. These themed areas are not much different from the other ones found in the rest of the Disneylands.

The lagoon at DisneySea.

The lagoon at DisneySea.

15343448341_82977cf0f1_bRight next door, however, DisneySea opened in 2001 and is the only Disney-associated theme park outside the United States not to use the “Magic Kingdom” design. DisneySea realized many of the concept designs that Walt Disney Imagineering had developed for a possible Long Beach, California theme park, back when Long Beach and Anaheim were competing for Disney’s second theme park after the original in Orlando.  Inspired by the myths and legends of the sea, DisneySea is made up of seven themed “ports of call:”  Mediterranean Harbor, Mystery Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront.  Each port offers different nautical themes and nautically-themed rides.

Real food, actually affordable, all with a Disney twist.

Real food, actually affordable, all with a Disney twist.

15159875880_04dc2f99de_bWhile suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to specifically appeal to adolescents and grown-ups, much like Islands of Adventure is to Universal Studios. DisneySea is an elaborately crafted, beautiful theme park offering a number of excitingly unique rides and attractions.  In this sense, it’s a must-see for any theme park enthusiast.  The park offers a much wider selection of table service restaurants than Tokyo Disneyland, and even serves alcoholic beverages, unavailable at the neighboring Disneyland.

The double-decker carousel is a must-do!

The double-decker carousel is a must-do!

15159998067_6765a1435e_bOne of the funniest things we concluded during our visit is that, for the staff working the concessions throughout the parks, if you’re not selling something, you’d better be waving. It’s so true!  When you visit the parks, keep this in mind.  It’s so automatic and so ubiquitous, that at times I came to believe that these staff members were actually Disney’s latest incarnation of animatronics.  It’s as if there is pain of death for any cast member caught not waving and smiling eagerly if not directly involved in a sale.  Jody and I would walk around the parks and point them out, one after another:  “if you’re not selling, you’d better be waving” the park wardens bark out as the metaphorical whip cracks for effect.

He doesn't have to wave; he's driving (and smiling!)

He doesn’t have to wave; he’s driving (and smiling!)

15142433167_2a50307a44_bBecause of the Japanese infatuation with the union of Disney and American cultures, don’t be surprised by the massive lines for Duffy’s meet & greet (Duffy is a stuffed-bear character that flopped in the US), or limits on how much of his merchandise you can purchase! When we were there on 1 September, one of the main-street stores was opening with Disney’s Halloween line of merchandise; the line for that store was literally hours long….  In fact, meet & greet locations for characters are often swarmed, often by fans dressed as their favorite characters.  This was one of the more disappointing aspects of our visit:  due to the line, I didn’t get a chance to meet, in person, Ariel!

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15160002337_1720640a23_bThe resort also includes a huge commercial complex called “Ikspiari.” It features more than a hundred shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as Cinema Ikspiari, a 16-screen movie theater.  Divided into nine themed zones, shoppers can find anything from high fashion, to household goods and travel services.  Two of the zones specialize in food, featuring various restaurants and a food court, while numerous cafes and bars are found scattered all around the mall.  We had a fabulous dinner here, and I highly recommend the venue for a good, away-from-the-parks sit-down meal where you can help recharge your weary feet without discharging your already shrinking wallet.

Kevin at DisneySea's "Venice"

Kevin at DisneySea’s “Venice”

If you have only one day at the parks, I suggest you skip DisneyLand and detour straight to DisneySea. A one-of-a-kind attraction found only in Japan, it’s sure to delight all your senses, no matter your age.  Besides, DisneyLand is Disneyland, albeit a rather good copy of the parks back home.  Take my advice:  with limited time or monies, expend both FIRST at DisneySea.

A must-ride ride.  We rode it three times!

A must-ride ride. We rode it three times!

15159745259_163e3fcff8_bSetting some of the really neat rides aside (like Journey to the Center of the Earth and Sinbad’s Storybook Adventures), as well as the shows, the rather good and affordable food and everything else Disney, what really impresses is the park’s attention to detail. This park offers a transportive sense of place, and combined with the infectious attitudes of other guests and Cast Members, it’s a hype that is delivered upon.  The whole of Tokyo DisneySea is so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is already pretty impressive on their own.  The Inca temple in the Lost River Delta, the lighthouse at the American waterfront, the Gondola rides in the Mediterranean harbor, the back streets of Venice, the double-decker carousel in the Arabian Coast, Ariel’s underwater playground in the Mermaid lagoon; there simply is a level of craftsmanship displayed that truly impresses.

"Megellan's" comes highly recommended.  Go directly there and get priority seating.

“Megellan’s” comes highly recommended. Go directly there and get priority seating.

The most awesome popcorn containers...EVER.

The most awesome popcorn containers…EVER.

If you are planning a trip to Japan’s Kingdom of Magic, think about buying an “After 6″ or “Starlight” Passport. The Starlight Passport cost 4,900 yen for Adults, 4,300 yen for Juniors, and 3,400 yen for Children (11 and under). It is valid after 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and National holidays. The After 6 Passport has a flat fee of 3,300 yen, and is valid only after 6pm, Monday – Friday.  These tickets can be bought online or at the park on the day of your visit.  If you don’t necessarily want to spend all day in the park fighting what can be truly massive crowds and lengthy lines, try one of these evening passes. In Japan, hours for family life often are reminiscent of the 1950s back in the states. In other words, as the families (most with kids and/or elders) start to depart in late afternoon, the parks become much less crowded, and lines to even the premier attractions are drastically reduced.

Food-art, Japanese-Disney Style

Food-art, Japanese-Disney Style

There are a few things I think TDR could do to improve what is already a world-class themed-operation and resort.

Fast Pass Caste. The good news is that the Fast-Pass in Japan is free, but the bad news is that if you don’t have one for a ride, be prepared for a loooooonnnnnngggggg wait.  In other words, the Disney “Cast Members” cast aside the lowly standby riders, to allow Fast-Passers to go directly on the ride.  It’s fairly annoying to see ratios of (seriously) like 100 to 1.  And you can only have one fast-pass ticket out at a time.  So there is some “strategery” involved here on how to maximize your chances at hitting the most rides in a day.  Seriously Japan, find more of a middle ground.  HINT:  if a rider as a single-rider line, THAT is the way to go!  They are rare in TDR, but some rides do have one….

Non-Asians used in key roles!

Non-Asians used in key roles!

Incorporate Japanese Anime and/or Manga. A rather obvious conclusion and listed first for good reason.  The parks are in Japan, and despite the rich history of Japanese comics, anime animation and the manga movement, they are wholly absent from every aspect of the resort.  Why not a themed area with Manga or Anime?

Potato Head is a bad stand-in for Anime....

Potato Head is a bad stand-in for Anime….

Park Pass Limitations. In Tokyo Disneyland, a 1 or 2 day pass does not allow park hoping; rather, the desired park must be designated when the pass is purchased.  Worse yet, the designated days must be consecutive.  Even though we bought a 2-park, 3-day pass, we still were limited to visiting only ONE park a day for the first two (consecutive) days, and then we could “hop” to our hearts’ content the final, third day.  This really limits flexibility that many families want and need, especially the ones with younger children.

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Charging for the DisneyLine Monorail. This is just plain surprising.  Is it part of the resort or not?  It’s Disney-themed and rings only the Disney Resorts.  At no other DisneyLands is there a separate fee for this convenient service.  And, note that the monorail systems at our parks in the states are much larger systems!  Disney, do everyone a favor and just build in this cost to parking fees, or with the park pass, or in hotel fees, or heck, spread the cost of operation across all these revenue streams!  Everything else costs, and costs plenty; the monorail should be “free.”

In any case, the parks are totally terrific, and should be visited with anyone spending a length of time in Japan.  The price-point is no worse than the parks in the states, and with a package deal, I do believe it may actually be more economical!  And to think, that it was all started with a simple Mouse….  Thank you Walt Disney, for realizing this astounding dream.

Life is more of a journey at Tokyo Disneyland Resort!

Life is astounding at Tokyo Disneyland Resort!

Placenta: Prescription or Placebo?


“Thin people and fat people are the difference.”  ~ loose (machine) translation of a Facebook advertisement for Fasty Placenta

Fasty Placenta - not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

Fasty Placenta – not anything like a delicious chilled bottle of wine!

This one is hard to…uhmm…swallow:  Japanese women (and a few men, I guess) ingesting placenta to stay blemish-free and thin!

At first when seeing the commercials on our Japanese satellite TV channels months ago, I thought surely that using the word to product name containing “Placenta” was a way to differentiate and market yet another vitamin/dietary supplement, which it appears from the frequency of such commercials that the Japanese adore (and buy) on a scale I could have never imagined.

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But real placenta?  Like in tissue from animals…or humans??  Sounds horrific, and let me assure you, the goo they show on TV that actually goes in the capsules being peddled, looks equally as bad.  So, it appears I may have stumbled onto the mystery of how here in the Far East, sexy young-looking women still wearing their high school sailor-girl uniforms are actually in their 40s and 50s, due to the magical life-sustaining power of pig, horse, or lamb placenta.

Placenta to the rescue!

Placenta to the rescue!

Actually, when you stop and think about it, consuming placenta, no matter from what type of mammal, is more akin to one of the horror movies where zombies roam the countryside hand out-stretched, moaning away for brains.  Or, maybe to be more culturally current and hip, conjure up an image of vampires in their tormented and undying search and constant consumption of warm, thick blood.

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well....

Maybe it can give you blue eyes as well….

Think I’m kidding about placenta?

I’m not.  Placenta, human and animal, has been used traditional Chinese and other Asian traditional medicines for thousands of years, usually to treat infertility, impotence, or as a dietary supplement for certain wasting diseases.  Like the longevity of booze and smokes (used in moderation), we probably shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a millennia of culturally medical knowledge; if a behavior has survived that long as part of the human condition, there is probably something beneficial to it.  Oh, and many animals do eat their placentas after giving birth.  But, as we homosapiens are generally more well-fed (and easier grossed-out) than our animal brethren, the animalistic example and reasoning of eating “after birth” (pun intended) doesn’t really apply.

I would've used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

I would’ve used GREEN apples, you know, to avoid any resemblance to blood

Here in Japan many companies (Check out the FB page for Fasty Placenta!) are hawking a plethora of porcine (pig) placenta products, varying from jellies, to facial skin masks, to soaps, to easy-to-swallow capsules, to what I can only assume are less easy-to-swallow drinks.  Most of the claims are for weight loss and general health (for the ingested formats), and for younger, more beautifully radiant babyish skin (for the soaps and topical treatments).  There actually is some casual evidence that the hormones contained in placenta tissue can help treat postpartum depression and menopause.  Men would certainly pause (there’s a pun there too) if they knew their wives were consuming placenta!

Eating it probably shouldn't be one of them.  Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear....

Eating it probably shouldn’t be one of them. Neither should making a creepy stuffed bear….

Nihon-Sofuken offers a full array of placenta products.  What’s impressive about most of the placenta prerogatives are the numbers associated with just how much “ingredient” one derives from a dose.  Claims of 100,000, 270,000, or even 300,000 milligrams abound, which sounds impressive…as an advertising ploy.  Converting to grams, though, and the numbers come way down into the 10’s of grams, equivalent to an ounce or less.  Think of it as a shot and knock it on back.  A beer chaser is highly encouraged.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number!  Too bad it's placenta.

Wow 270,000 is a big, impressive number! Too bad it’s placenta.

Why?  Because although one of the selling points online translates to something like “completely remove blood which cause bad smell and rot via a special extraction method,” you know that it just can’t be appetizing!  Although one company touts that they “erase the high-density animal smell of the pig placenta (it does not smell like ham, bacon, or pork chops!) with a peach or apple flavor,” I’d still much rather have it taste like bacon.  Bacon goes with everything!

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

A martini glass of horse placenta extract?

In spite of the Japanese claims, I can find no real peer-reviewed and published results showing any health benefit efficacy, and in the West, such claims and treatments are best considered pseudo-science.  I have read that even here in Japan there is enough concern about adverse effects from placenta tissue that some of the more invasive treatments preclude people from donating blood as an additional safeguard to help prevent transmission of pathogens.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

As a Domestic Engineer, I draw the line at cannibalism.

But of course it’s not just a Far East Fad.  Check out this placenta cookbook…available on Amazon, in English.  I’m not kidding.  At least in this form the tissue is cooked, and apparently, served with stewed vegetables…but it’s 100% human.  The FDA in the United States maintains that placenta extract may be potentially hazardous and its use is subject to restrictions and requirements of warnings.

No matter.  It appears that people ‘round the world will do – and eat most anything to remain youthful and trim.

Thank goodness no bad smell!

Thank goodness no bad smell!

How far are YOU willing to go??

Gooooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!!


“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh, Being Peace

Psycho Bob and I ready to tumble in the skies of Vietnam

Psycho Bob and I ready to tumble in the skies of Vietnam

The TSA agent, an older, quiet gentlemen working the intake of the x-ray machine line, looked odd at the two sport parachutes that we were placing on the conveyor belt.

“Where you guys off to jump,” he casually inquired. Not being friends with the TSA (although they are just doing their jobs), I’m not known to make small-talk. This time, however, I was happy to be flying.

“Vietnam,” came my response, with a big knowing grin.

“Really?” “Yeah, really. We’re going to be part of the first sport parachute skydivers ever in Vietnam.”

A knowing and somewhat sarcastic “uhmh” was mumbled back in disbelief. “I’ve got a jump over in Vietnam, but of course back then, they were shooting at us….” Sure enough, this gent, in an oddly unlikely connection, was part of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade Team, and in 1967, when I was just over a year old, the 173rd conducted the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War.

Team "Rock" (big guys fall fast) over Nha Trang

Team “Rock” (big guys fall fast) over Nha Trang

So started my and “Psycho Bob’s” excellent adventure into Vietnam. I had been jumping for just about two years, and had probably not even 150 jumps. Psycho had been jumping significantly longer, and was of the perfect, fearless, adventuresome mindset to travel to such an out-of-the-way corner of the planet to partake in cheating death in the skies and under canopy.

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Bob on a very low hop-n-pop!

Bob on a very low hop-n-pop!

Bob, a Navy veteran, was an air traffic controller in Pensacola, and, as his nickname might imply, is a stand-out icon in both the community and the skydiving world. About 6’3″ and 240 pounds (then), with spiked bleached hair, driving a 1974 Ford Bronco painted with zebra stripes, Psycho was the definition of gregarious. A shit-eating grin that at once welcomed all within eye-shot combined with an infectious laugh and warm smile, Psycho was always one to make instant friends while saying – and behaving – in the zannious of ways.

Me and Psycho enjoy Vietnam

Me and Psycho enjoy Vietnam

3652115693_631a15ca41_oI was still active duty, and when I first came across this opportunity to travel to and jump in Vietnam, I thought there was no chance the Navy would ever let me go. A quick check of the foreign clearance guide (the DoD bible on overseas travel requirements), and it turned out that if I traveled there on leave, nothing special was required at all. Like nothing. Very strange for a de facto communist country with strained relations with the US! So, after mailing our passports to the Vietnamese consultant in Washington DC with US-cash-money, weeks later we got our papers pack with the required entry Visa. We would soon be on our way to what remains a very obscure – and fearful corner of Asia for most Americans.

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My first impression of landing at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Hanoi prior to the war) airport was that there were manned anti-aircraft guns scattered throughout the airfield. Talk about a lingering culture of fear. The flight arrangements Bob and I mad required us to stay a night on arrival in Vietnam before continuing on to our ultimate destination there, and unfortunately Bob missed his international connecting flight in the states, which left us both alone and (mostly) unafraid. I jumped in a taxi and asked for a cheap hotel (no reservations), and after traveling for what seemed miles, I was delivered to exactly that. No frills, not much English, and not much of a room. I am not one to subscribe to the all-oppressive American sense and culture of fear, and although I was on alert, I was still okay. It ended up being a relatively quiet, and uneventful night. Bob, arriving much later that night and with no way to contact me, had a much difference experience.

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As Bob was leaving the terminal looking to find a Taxi, he found himself in a darkened area of the parking lot where he quickly got the sense that he was going to be rolled. Bob, having traveled the world with the Navy and after living in the Philippines for 7 years had developed a keen sense of such awareness. Finding the first well-marked limo-taxi he could, he clamored in, startling the unexpecting driver. Psycho I’m sure was beaming his signature grin, telling the man to drive, while the chauffeur was barking for him to leave and get out. Bob, not one to take “no” for an answer, still smiling, motioned to drive on, saying again and again it was okay. Finally, the driver gives into to Psycho’s steady insistence, and drives while making a phone call. Bob, just happy to be off and away from the dark lots of the nearly silent and closed airport, continued to reassure the driver. Finally, the driver says something like “you 514?” Psycho, thinking that the number refers to a room number, agrees eagerly and whole-heartily, becoming even more emphatic that they hurry their journey to the safety of a hotel room. The driver asked at least two more times, and Bob happily dismissed the inquiry with an exhausted wave of his hand, having been traveling now for over 24 hours.

Turns out that this particular limo was for a high-end hotel in downtown on the Saigon river, and that “514” didn’t equate to a room number or reservation at all, but to the price of an available suite, now committed just for him! Bob, ever the optimist, says at least his trip started in lustful luxury!

Posing in front of countryside rice fields

Posing in front of countryside rice fields

3649599630_23e0059570_o3674397012_0fe104cf50_oIn the morning we continued on to a city called Nha Trang for the actual skydiving event. Nha Trang, and it’s nearby airport Cam Ranh Bay were both the site of fairly sizable US bases during the Vietnam War, and amazingly enough, scattered all over the airfield still remained the hulks, parts, and degrading debris of our past presence there of 35 years ago. We were picked up and transported to our island resort hotel, the 5-star resort VinPearl, quite nice but quite out-of-the-way. This area of Vietnam has been built up as a beach resort town for international travels, mostly Soviets, who still mostly make up the “white” people who come and stay, and which almost all the Vietnamese we met considered our heritage. Needless to say, Psycho Bob makes for a terrific Russian…when he wants to play one. Think of “I will crush you…” of Rambo fame.

Above it all in the Russian Mi-8

Above it all in the Russian Mi-8

2329703998_fc45cb9373_o2326194432_ba138a0ec6_oThe skydiving was, well, not nearly as expected. The levels of corruption in Vietnam are far worse than anything I experienced in the Caribbean or elsewhere in Asia, and it seemed with almost every passing hour the authorities there continued to break contracts and agreements, only to cancel flights, reduce the passengers per load, scrap additional aircraft, and demand more money. We were expecting something like 15-20 jumps from a whole slew of aircraft (for a hefty pre-paid price), including a once-in-a-lifetime jump from a Russian jet transport. What we wound up with was about five jumps, all from an Mi-8 Russian helicopter, which, while exceedingly expensive on a per jump basis, were still experiences of a lifetime that only a very few people in the world will ever share with me.

They reluctantly made room for us....

They reluctantly made room for us….

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Playing tunnel rat in the Coo Chi tunnels

Playing tunnel rat in the Coo Chi tunnels

The people in Vietnam are hard to adequately describe. In a group, like those that would turn out to watch us land on the beach, there are very few smiles. There were an ever-present mix of military and police security forces, all with very serious faces. The airport we used was a military airfield, and while not ringed with a fence as we would have in the West, it was ringed with reinforced fighting positions and bunkers, each manned with a young man armed with an assault rifle. The old terminal building where we were housed had numerous guards in ratty army uniforms, complete with Ho Chi Min sandals made from old tires (no joke). When I approached one with a smile and my camera, he raised his rifle with one arm, and with the other crossed the killing machine to make an “X,” the international symbol for no…or in this case, more likely, “I’ll shoot you if you try.” Sorry, no photos of me with the guards.

One of the "Check-Point Charlies" in Nha Trang

One of the “Check-Point Charlies” in Nha Trang

Our "Mom" in Vietnam

Our “Mom” in Vietnam

2325501690_8ee23d04f5_oThere were exceptions. Psycho and I would wave from our bus to all the “Check Point Charlies” along the airport’s boundary, and by the end of the week, we had most of them eagerly waving back. I hope they weren’t punished for that! And, in the spectators that would gather to watch us land on the beach each day, Psycho and I adopted an old woman who was selling drinks and snacks. We called her “Mom,” and after two or three days of us seeking her out to buy our snacks, she would then seek us out and smile big upon sighting us, even offering hugs at the end of our stay. And, of course, children and children the world over, and they were the easiest with which to relate. I think every child, with dreams of flight, looks at parachutists with fun, excitements, awe and respect.

Psycho with our adopted Vietnamese "Mom"

Psycho with our adopted Vietnamese “Mom”

Kids are Kids 'round the world!

Kids are Kids ’round the world!

Our seaside landing area on final approach!

Our seaside landing area on final approach!

2325167430_38ebe5ef02_oParanoia and stupidity both abound there though, an organic by-product of any socialist or communist community. For instance, the authorities there were so worried about us spying at the airport (the only real conclusion I can reach) that they not only wanted all of us to land in a very small circle on the concrete airport apron (all landing together is never guaranteed, and landing on pavement is…well…not preferred), they also expected us all to fly in the same cylinder formed by projecting that circle up into the air. After trying to explain that such a requirement was both physically and aerodynamically impossible, besides being very unsafe for everyone involved, the whole skydiving event was moved off the airfield and over to the nearby beach. While beach jumps are always fabulous, this was a narrow beach line with a trafficked road and hundreds of spectators, and every landing turned out to be with 15 knots of crosswind, making for some interesting reunions with mother earth. The Vietnamese did “attempt” to supply a safety boat; however, the safety swimmers could barely swim with life vests out to their inflatable 2-man raft, without an engine, but proudly flying the red cross international safety flag! Yikes….

I don't even think those two are safe on the safety boat!

I don’t even think those two are safe on the safety boat!

Our Russian Mi-8 ride to altitude, a great jump aircraft!

Our Russian Mi-8 ride to altitude, a great jump aircraft!

3674397012_0fe104cf50_oParanoia and process filled the Vietnamese staff working our event. We, as a group, had the expected “handlers” we wound up have, who were actually quite friendly and engaging, and who all spoke excellent English. However, in order for us to skydive, here’s what had to go down. So, when we skydive we wear a skydiving rig, which has two parachutes (main and reserve) and a harness, which consists of a LOT of metal parts – the parts that actually hold the harness together and firmly attack it to the skydiver. Additionally, most of us wear crash helmets with even more metal parts, and more often than not, we have one, two, or even three metal cameras attached to those helmets (or hands, shoes, or some other mounting point on our bodies). For some reason, the Vietnamese authorities would not allow a small POS camera (like a Sony Cybershot or Nikon Coolpix), or any other type of handheld camera outside of the terminal building. However, the huge digital still and video cameras on all our helmets were somehow, someway “okay.” Our passports were taken in order for us to get on the jump aircraft; that way we wouldn’t paraglide and check out all their military secrets Rambo-style, only to be whisked away by the CIA to a safe house for debriefing. We had to walk through a metal detector dressed with our complete skydiving rig (see the discussion about metal above). Yes, it would alarm for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. So, they would pull each of us out of line and give us the magnetic wand…which would…you guessed it…sing like a stuck pig for EVERYONE, EVERY TIME. And then we would be allowed to board the helicopter, all the while taking pictures of the ramp, the airport, the aircraft and each other. Made absolutely no sense, but hey, the process was followed and completed, which seemed to be more important than the intent. Whatever.

My view from the ATM across the street....

My view from the ATM across the street….

2324495713_45376eb045_oPerhaps the funniest part of our trip was one afternoon when Psycho and I were out in town on our own since jumping that day had been cancelled. I had to cross the street to get some cash from an ATM, and after conducting my business of just a few minutes duration, I turned and looked up from counting my money to see Psycho standing on the other side of the road, a big shit-eating grin filling his face, wearing one of those conical peasant hats that make that part of the world so iconic. Cracking up myself, I cross the street and demanded to know where he go it…so I could get one too!

I was posed with the flowers by a shop-keep....

I was posed with the flowers by a shop-keep….

 

Well, now we are both off, walking down the street with our woven straw hats on, held securely in place by lacy purple and blue chin straps (this should’ve been our sign). Almost immediately, the shop keepers were all coming out, laughing and pointing. Some would pull us into their shop, pose us, and snap pictures with their cell phones. “Wow Bob, these people love us here!” I joked. It turns out that much later that day one shop keep took pity and finally told us that in Vietnam, only their women wear such hats! That was a great afternoon of finally connecting in a relatively closed culture that can be so weary. My hat, BTW, was hand-carried back home and delivered to my Brother-in-Law in Tallahassee, a 2-year Veteran of the war in Vietnam, and it remains there on his hat rack to this day.

Biker gang, 'Nam style

Biker gang, ‘Nam style

2324669903_6c8b022455_oMeeting up with two friends who happened to be traveling through Thailand at the time and who decided to take a detour over and come see us in Vietnam, we decided to rent mopeds and go for a ride. Now, listen to me closely: this, BY FAR, was much more dangerous than the jumps we did there, and perhaps is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done in my life! Riding on mopeds in a densely urban Vietnamese city in the rain without maps was seriously off the charts. It wasn’t so much the lack of traction on the roads, the unkempt condition of the bikes, or even getting lost out in the country. It was riding in rush-hour city traffic, a chaos that I simply will not be able to adequately describe here. In most 2nd and 3rd world Asian countries traffic and traffic laws can be quite haphazard. However, in Vietnam, there is a complete lack of rule of law when it comes to the road. Driving the wrong way, using sidewalks, and ignoring red lights, stop signs and any and all markings on the road…. In fact, when Bob and I hired a guide in Ho Chi Min city at the end of our trip, we all needed to cross a major road with something like 8 lanes of traffic. It was absolutely insane, and Bob and I saw simply no way to cross. When we asked our guide how we were going to cross, he simply replied, “Body language. Stay very close to me.” As he started across the street, with us in frightened tow, he casually put his hand down by his side that facing into traffic and flicked his wrist as if he had a magic wand that would protect us from the oncoming onslaught! It worked. We made it across, and back the other way later that afternoon!

Insane CRAZY dangerous traffic!

Insane CRAZY dangerous traffic!

2326162414_a1fd22f3ec_o2324414277_aa62b4e9f8_oIn hindsight, the potentially most damming thing I did there was actually done in complete innocence. Waiting for long periods between skydiving loads can get very boring. Just outside the terminal door to the tarmac was an old Soviet-style truck, with a few guys sitting around playing crash crew. For whatever reason, I decided to go check the truck out (it was really cool looking!), and see if I could communicate with the military guys manning the machine. Turned out they didn’t speak any English at all, but after getting out our respective military ID cards, I think they at least got the idea that we all were serving our respective countries. They offered me a paper I couldn’t read, and after a few more attempts at niceties, I came back into the terminal building, where one of our handlers was waiting. He was smiling at me upon my return, and stopped me quite casually.

I had to check out the Soviet-style crash truck!

I had to check out the Soviet-style crash truck!

“It is good think it is not three or five years ago,” he states matter of factly.

“Oh, why is that?”

“Then you would have been arrested and taken to prison for going out there….”

“Well, good thing then!” I meagerly respond, realizing just how potentially foolish that excursion may have been….

The old terminal building at Nha Trang

The old terminal building at Nha Trang

Psycho didn't fit well in the Coo Chi tunnels!

Psycho didn’t fit well in the Coo Chi tunnels!

10454006803_96f841d1b1_oVietnam is a surprising place to visit. It’s by no means open the way most Americans think of vacation, but neither is it closed or closed-off to the West. I have a good friend, a die-hard, card-carrying member of the Republican party, who was downright mad at me for traveling there. I tried to explain to him that holding a grudge against Vietnam in 2008 would be like an American refusing to travel to Germany or Italy in 1980. It just makes no sense to hold grudges and keep a bogus war going for no good reason other than maybe we lost…. I told him when I saw him after our trip that Vietnam was doing okay, and he asked me to justify that statement.

Another version of Independence

Another version of Independence

2325326527_73cfa44298_o2328358208_80538ba212_oI simply responded that for me to be able to freely walk down the street, hop on the internet at an open and uncensored internet café, and then to cross the street and use my American VISA card in an ATM to get Vietnamese money, the country is doing pretty okay. What I also learned is that the very reason we couldn’t win in Vietnam is that there is very little way to defeat an idea, other than threatening to obliterate an entire race and culture of people, like was the case for Japan in World War II. In every shop, in every home was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, revered in Vietnam as their version of George Washington. And after visiting their national “War Remnants Museum,” where I expected to see a good dose of false propaganda but failed to find any at all, I came to realize that we Americans were simply another in a long line of colonial powers trying to exert their will over a foreign people…and that foreign people just wanted self-rule. Whether you agree with this conclusion or note, there is something here that is directly analogous to what is happening throughout the Middle East. At some point, perhaps, we will starting learning the hard lessons of history.

The Vietnamese George Washington, a national and highly revered hero

The Vietnamese George Washington, a national and highly revered hero

2327648801_926cf84346_oMy friend ended up scoffing at my remarks. Either he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear, or he was offended at my Che Guevara t-shirt and green communist hat complete with a Vietnamese red and yellow star! Either way, we all – including the Vietnamese – could use a little more humor in our lives, and a lot more compassion and empathy for our fellow-man. Those are the things in the end that make the world go ’round, and those are the most basic kinds of peace work in which we all can engage.

A smile is indeed international

A smile is indeed international

Have you been to Vietnam? What’s your favorite story while traveling there? I’d like to hear if others have had similar experiences!