Sharknado!!!


Okay, so it’s more like a shark circus.  Or at least that is what it’s called  aboard the MV Orion, a scuba live-aboard in the Emperor’s fleet that we were guests on this past September.  Jody and I booked this scuba vacation (her first live-aboard) coincident with our 5th anniversary, to a far away, exotic location that many Americans have never heard of:  The Maldives.  Go ahead, look it up on a map…I’ll wait.

There will be a lot more written about this particular vacation, but this video is all I wish to share at this point.  Oh, and listen with the music turned all the way up.  I have something in excess of 1,500 scuba dives from all over the world, but this dive easily tops the list.  The video was shot from sunset going on to full night, with a large domed wide-angle lens, so the action was really much closer than it often appears.

What else can I say, except what Jessica said upon surfacing from this dive:

BEST … DIVE … EVER!

 

Fortunes of Cambodia


“Oh Rollo, if you truly knew what the gods have in store for you, you would go down now and dance naked on the beach. (LAUGHING)” ~Seer’s oracle, The Vikings

The fortune-teller glanced down and stated to silently read my prophesy. And just as quickly as he started, he immediately slammed the small booklet of Khmer palm-leaf writings shut.

“No good,” flatly said Thalay, our Cambodian tour guide, without any further explanation or elucidation.

“Well that’s not good, not good at all,” I thought to myself. Good thing I had two more choices at my fortune’s revelation!

Entry into the Silver Pagoda Compound

Entry into the Silver Pagoda Compound

We were visiting the Silver Pagoda, located adjacent to the Royal Palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. A couple of lessor shrines here specialize in fortune-telling, a common belief throughout the Far East, and I was eager to indulge myself.

The Library Adjacent to the Silver Pagoda

The Library Adjacent to the Silver Pagoda

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda, burial stupa WMWe watched as a young, well-dressed man received his fortune. The teller was located in small library just outside of the Silver Pagoda proper. Here were stored many old and historic Buddhist manuscripts written on palm leaves using Sanskrit, preserved in glass-faced cabinets, which were also lined with more modern translations in bound books. Thalay explained to us that this student was here to get his fortune regarding the future of his studies. Apparently, and unlike me, he got a fairly good one.

And on his first choice. Lucky.

Palm Leave Fortunes

Palm Leave Fortunes

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Khmer rooflines 2 WMPalm leaves have been used for millennia both for writing and painting because of their thin and flexible qualities. From the first millenia up to the 16th centuries, manuscripts were written on palm leaves called Tādapatra. They provide an excellent surface for writing which is easily preserved and transported as rolled bundles. The rolled palm leaf manuscripts here were stored in small boxes, themselves placed inside modern steel and glass cabinets to further protect them from dust, dirt and thieves.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Khmer rooflines WM

The mystic had a small bundle of fortunes written on palm leaves but in the more modern Khmer script. The leaves were bound top and bottom by a hard covering of bamboo, and the entire collection was held together with what appeared to be a hemp-like cord.

Clarity & Focus before Fortune-Telling

Clarity & Focus before Fortune-Telling

Before my first attempt it was explained that one must clear their minds entirely and focus on the one thing for which the fortune would apply. On my knees in front of a sacred bull, I closed my eyes, bowed my head and took a few deep cleansing breathes to help clear my thoughts. Then I started to hone my mental energies in order to focus the fortune’s predictions.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Buddha's Tripitaka, sacred bull closeup WM

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, metal-worked gate WMI wished to know the prospects for my health in the coming years. Last May, almost exactly a year previous to this fortune-telling, I had started to become very seriously ill (see Offshore Okinawa: A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose). And my condition, one which I will remain “stuck” with over time, is also one for which the Western medical establishment has no clear answers…or cures. When I felt my mental energies were sufficiently engaged and fixated, I was ready for my second attempt at better providence.

The Silver Pagoda and a Stupa

The Silver Pagoda and a Stupa

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Khmer spire WMThe Silver Pagoda is a small walled compound adjacent to the Cambodian Royal Palace complex, both located in the busy riverside district of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. It features a royal temple commonly referred to as Wat Preah Keo (Khmer: វត្តព្រះកែវ), which houses many national treasures, most notably the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia, a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha, as well as a near-life-size standing Buddha figurine encrusted with 9,584, diamonds dressed in royal regalia. The Pagoda itself is inlaid with more than 5,000 silver floor tiles, most of which remained covered for their protection.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda Buddha's Tripitaka, Kevin picking another fortune WM

This time I placed the bundles of fortunes on my head as I saw the student do. Attached to the bundle via a worn and fibrous string was a small wooden dowel, which is used to select the fortune in question.

“You can use your left hand,” said Thalay. I was using my right hand to do the choosing. After thinking about her somewhat odd comments, it suddenly dawned on me. Maybe I was doing it wrong.

“You mean I should use my left hand?” “Yes,” came her reply with a smile. Ah, perhaps I had discovered the cause of the first fortune failure. At least that’s what I chose to believe.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda Buddha's Tripitaka, Kevin picking a fortune WM

I select my fortune and hand it over to the seer. He silently reads the fortune. And continues reading for quite some time. I look at the palm leaf, and this fortune is quite long; the beautiful twists and twirls of the Khmer language written small and without margins right to the edge. I attempt to read his tells during his contemplation, and I’m struck that again he is not happy. I turn to Thalay and give her a rather pleading look.

After an extended discussions with the fortune-teller, Thalay starts to give me her interpretation. I can tell that this is not easy for her, and she is struggling with an explanation after two or three false starts. Finally, after even more discussion with the oracle, she comes up with this analogy:

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda Buddha's Tripitaka, fortunes WM

“It is not good, but not bad,” she starts, obviously trying to diffuse the growing anxiety that she clearly sees on my face. “It is like this: a fisherman can work hard all the day all his life, and at the only short time that he relaxes, the fish he wants swims by….”

Now for my third attempt. And my last. I took a few extra moments to center my mind and spirit. And again I take my chances with the bundle of what has only been, for me, bad or sad news. I turn over my choiced chance to the soothsayer.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda Buddha's Tripitaka, fortunes and the fortune teller WM

This time the slightest of a smile comes across his face. So, either he is amused at my exceedingly bad luck over three attempts, or actually I finally found a fortune worth having. What was it this time?

Well, after another difficult translation, it apparently comes down to this: that what I seek will require a life-long struggle, one that is fated to be not easy over time, and that will require the active support of my wife Jody. Jody, Thalay and I all make light of the situation, finding the obvious humor in having my health in the hands of my nurse-wife (literally – she’s a nurse). But of course, for me, in the recesses of the darker parts of my consciousness, this resonates true.  Maintaining my health may not be easy as I age, but with Jody’s help I will in fact keep aging.  Which is a good thing.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda Buddha's Tripitaka, fortune teller checking my fortune again WM

Most of us are drawn to having our fortunes predicted, as it has been throughout time. Almost everyone at some time or another wishes to know the Kismet with which we have been blessed…or cursed, and have the opportunity to confront the unchangeable fate to which we are bound.

But most of the time, it’s better to not openly know. Let the gods plan and scheme; we, like the Viking Rollo, simply strive to make the most of the lot we have drawn, waiting for our destinies to take hold. We never really know what the gods have in store.  We should dance naked anyhow.

Cambodia 2015, Phnom Penh, Silver Pagoda, Cambodian greeting and show of respect WM

Sources

http://www.dsbcproject.org/manuscripts/short-history

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_Pagoda,_Phnom_Penh

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting! Misconceptions about China


 

No, everybody was certainly not Kung Fu fighting. Nor were we tailed 24/7 by secret Chinese intelligence officials – which we were told would be the case by our American tour guide. And although our DNA may have been collected from one of our many wine glasses enjoyed along the way, I’m pretty ding-dang sure our suitcase weren’t rummaged through in our hotel rooms…as a counterintelligence friend of ours warned….

Aside from our touristy The Legend of Kung Fu show at the ritzy Red Theater in Beijing, we failed to sight even one local Chinese resident spontaneously breaking out into Kung Fu. Actually, I would hazard to guess that’s there probably a much higher probability of spotting such frivolity as part of some flash mob in “Some Town,” U.S. of A. And while we did take a plethora of wide-angle camera shots of surrounding crowds hoping to catch the spies that must have been surely in our midst, I am sad to report a complete lack of photogenic proof. But hey, that doesn’t stop the Sasquatch-Hunters or UFO-Believers, does it?!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

While we really didn’t expect to see Kung Fu fighting in the streets on our recent foray into China, at the same time we really didn’t know quite what to expect; perhaps our things would be rifled and electronic devices all copied and implanted with bugs and other MI-6 eavesdropping devices. My parents went to China – twice – in the very early eighties, when it literally has just “opened-up” a few years after the crushing weight of the 1970s Cultural Revolution had finally been lifted. They, of course, informed my early opinions of that far-away land, one that we learned next-to-nothing about in all of my formal schooling. And that concept of China centered on horrible food, substandard lodgings, an almost complete lack of cars, and the ubiquitous use of the abacus in place of cash registers or calculators. Oh, and the tours back then were escorted by the military and party officials, quite transparently.

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

That early concept of the Far East didn’t change too much over much of my early adult life. I did, at numerous times, get to enjoy Hong Kong and Macau, the latter first under Portuguese administration in 1999, and then as part of Chinese sovereignty in the 21st century under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But it always was very clear that Hong Kong and Macau were not, and remain quite distinct from China. So, my early conceptual formulation, combined with decades of exposure to the indoctrinating fear and loathing of the U.S. political and military-industrial complex towards China, along with the arrogance and ignorance of most of my fellow Americans, resulted in several misconceptions about this intriguing continent-sized country, the most populous one on the planet, with the world’s second most powerful economy.

Chinese Flag

Chinese Flag

The first is its name: China’s name is not China …at least to the Chinese. We use China most likely because of its Sanskrit derivation from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) Kingdom, one of the first unified regions of today’s China that would have been reached via land-travel from the west in ancient times. Oddly unknown to the west, the Chinese peoples’ common name for their country is Zhōngguó (中国, meaning “Central Nation State.”

funny-languages-Japanese-Korean-Chinese-kanjis

The next most obvious thing? Chinese people don’t speak “Chinese.” Mainland China is made up mostly of the Han ethnicity, but includes large percentages of another 56 ethnic minorities (Tibetans perhaps being the most famous). Unlike many of its Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea or Vietnam, China is not homogeneous. One could say that China is more like the “Europe of Asia.” When we Westerners think of “The Chinese,” the Han majority is what we conjure, even without knowing it. And like most other places that aren’t the great melting pot that America once was, each minority in China retains its own traditions, costume and culture. And this includes language as well.

I've finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

I’ve finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

Mandarin is the “Chinese language” that we might commonly associate with what is spoken in mainland China. But the Chinese heard in movies and TV may more likely be Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong. Putonghua, as Mandarin is called in Mandarin, is the officially unifying language taught in schools and used by the central government and on national television and radio. But there are wide and sometimes huge differences between languages in China. For instance, people from Shanghai speak Shanghainese, which is by and large incompatible with Mandarin! Come to think of it, I reckon that’s not much different from a Californian trying to converse with someone from, say, the hills of Kentucky.

YMCA-harder-in-other-languages

And speaking of language, don’t believe the hype about the lack of English speakers in China. There is, in fact, a fair amount of English spoken, especially in and around tourist areas and attractions. However, while English may be spoken, it may not be understood. A danger here, experienced firsthand, is that service industry personnel will smile, say “yes” and happily agree with you, especially when they haven’t properly understood. Oh, and an important tip: taxi drivers don’t generally speak English (at all), so it’s always good to have your destination written down in Chinese. See notes on language above!

Chinese Beer.  Yummy.

Chinese Beer. Yummy.

KFC in China

KFC in China

China 2014, Shanghai, Chinese coke colaChinese food in China is NOT anything like Manchu Wok! “Duh,” I hear you say, I know, I know. But since I’ve been asked this particular question more than any other since traveling to China, I just have to include what should be fairly obvious. Chinese cuisine focuses on seafood, although beef and pork are widely available and served in quantity to Westerners. Most surprisingly, it’s chicken that is in most modern demand (see Thanksgiving in the Far East for more). Noodles are the staple starch in the north, replaced by rice is the south (where people are smaller in stature as a result, or so I’m told). The food was very good, and yes, Peking Duck is really so very much better in China!

One Child Policy

And what about the “one child policy” that we’ve all heard so much about? Well, many Chinese do have siblings, and it’s becoming more and more common. The Chinese Government’s One Child Policy was only recently put into effect in 1979, so most people born before very likely have at least one brother or sister. In the West, the policy seems like – and at times is one of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. But, in a country that was suffering unsustainable growth with well over 1 billion people at the time, such a measure of austerity make some logical sense, less the world have another Africa on its hands. Now numbers like billion don’t mean much to most people, but after a visit to China, one realizes just how many people China has! More than any other country in the world, in fact. In the mid-1970s, population models showed China’s growth spiraling out of control. Like anywhere else in the world, when there is an incongruity between people and resources, undesirable happenings like war, unrest, famine, and crime all can result. Personal sacrifice for general peace and harmony is a deep-seeded Chinese mindset stemming a long affair with Confucianism, where respect for elders (and family) and loyalty to the state are foremost above all else.

And, seldom noted in the West, the policy was never intended as blanket coverage; farmers and China’s ethnic minorities, typically much more blue-collar and agri-based, have always been allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you’ll find families with more than one child. Although the policy remains in force, reduced and stabilized birth-rates, combined with a now aging population, has resulted in shifts in the application of the rule. For instance, if two people born under the policy without siblings marry, they may be permitted to have two children.

D2607AS1

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

How’bout capitalism and democracy there? Well, my own response is that even America isn’t a democracy – it’s a republic…. And our “free market” is heavily influenced and to some extent controlled by the state. China’s economy is forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to surpass that of the United States within a decade or two. Their national per capita income will double, placing once destitute China on par with European countries like Italy and Spain – without the current economic and/or political woes those two countries currently suffer from. China has been and continues to open to the global village, and while it’s a reasonable expectation that Western influences must result in change to China, China is smart enough to absorb the best of capitalism from afar while translating it into a uniquely Chinese context. Don’t confuse China’s recent economic revolution with Westernization. Those are two very different ideas.

'Quick, comrade, what is the latest party position on existence of dragons?'

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Popular protests don’t mean that the Socialist Party’s power is in decline. The government in China, while suffering from a brutality-infused past and still heavy-handed by Western standards, still garners respect on the street. Nationalism is strong, and people are proud. For instance, older senior leaders in the party have admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible mistake, and have acknowledged that much reform is still needed moving forward. It seems that at least while good times continue to persist, China’s citizenry will continue to support their national leaders and their leadership…even if sometimes only grudgingly. In a country as large, diverse, and heavily populated as China, stability is valued over almost all else. One thing for certain, the future of China’s political system will not be dictated by Americanor anyone else in the world…except for the Chinese themselves.

Mao_Jordan_cropped

China 2014, there are cameras everywhere in China WM

This can only be described as...individualistic!

This can only be described as…individualistic!

While American-style individualism is just starting to take root, American-style individual freedoms are not. China’s pop culture is undergoing a booming revolution, and like any fast-paced and progressive change, it comes with a whole array of counter-culture features and trends, from tattoo parlors to non-conformist artists and musicians. However, self-expression does not equate to freedom or independence. The wider Chinese society still is centered on the loyal clan over the free individual, and traditional Chinese values are still held in high regard. While horrifically destructive to the Chinese, the recent Cultural Revolution nor their conversion to Socialism/Communism post WWII failed to purge their central principles of sanctity of family and loyalty to nation. For most Chinese (and just like in Japan), the greater good of social harmony remains a noble goal that continues to trump individualism. The trick for the new Chinese moving forward will be finding the right balance that will maintain harmony between the New China and the Old.

Individual yet Collective!

Individual yet Collective!

“But surely the internet must revolutionize China,” I hear you thinking. Sure, the internet can’t help but change China, and the change the Internet brings is mostly good. But rather than causing a revolution, wiring the country with the information superhighway is better characterized as an evolutionary change. The central government in Beijing allows wide and expansive access, but retains veto power when it senses a threat to the state. Sure, Facebook is blocked in China, but would you really miss your friend’s constant status updates and inane check-ins? I wouldn’t – and didn’t while in China for a week, where, by the way, Jody and I were completely digital-free…except for our cameras. And in terms of this blog, in 2014 I had almost ~28,000 views, with only 15 of those coming from China. But while Internet users may grumble about state censorship in China, few activists are really ready to rumble over it.

Who is really more militaristic?

Who is really more militaristic?

Don't worry, we have 12.  And they are super-sized....

Don’t worry, we have 12. And they are super-sized….

And finally, what about what we’re indoctrinated to fear as an aggressively militaristic China threatening the West? C’mon people. The America War Machine remains the most-funded, best-equipped, and most destructive force on the planet, and is used to violent effect without much restraint across the globe. I find it absolutely hilarious that we in America question the rise of the Chinese military. When we stop trying to be Team American: World Police (“Fuck Yeah!”), perhaps we can see China’s intent through a less clouded and distorting lens. Sure, China is building up its military, and yes they even have a fairly capable blue-water Navy. By why do we panic whenever any other country builds an aircraft carrier? China is not about to challenge the U.S. militarily anytime soon, or is it likely to invade its Asian neighbors.  While “pacifist” is too strong (or weak as it were) a word, the Chinese are not itching for a fight. Like we are, at least. “Hello Kettle, this is Pot….”

us-and-china-comic-drawing-about-leading-world-economy

However, more importantly, in a more philosophical context, China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does. The precepts of America – government by, for and of the people (even if it doesn’t work), our Bill of Rights and individual freedoms (when the NSA isn’t listening), and the very idea of the “American Dream” all touch hearts and win minds. China is simply too narrow-minded and self-centered which serves to continually isolate and insulate. There is little doubt that China will be a world economic power. But it’s hard to imagine it becoming a world cultural or political power on par with the United States.

What manufacturers' labels say in China....

What manufacturers’ labels say in China….

So, can we in the West look objectively at the Eastern Dragon without bias and misconceptions? In my own experience, having spent 20 years in the military-industrial complex – much of that serving in the Pacific – and having experienced China firsthand, however small a sliver that was, I believe that much of the Western analysis of China, particularly in the last decade, has been overly alarmist. It’s time to approach China more honestly, without fear – and without misconceptions. A genuinely cooperative and more open relationship could open an unprecedented phase of peace and prosperity, not just around the Pacific, but across the globe.

China 2014, Shanghai, The Bund, Kevin amazed by the cityscape

A Splash of Ramen: “Kitchen Splash” Restaurant Review


A Splash of Seashells

A Splash of Seashells

“Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.” ~Ludwig van Beethoven

“Having a good wife and rich cabbage soup, seek not other things” ~Russian Proverb quotes

“What’s a soup kitchen?” ~Paris Hilton

She has never had to live on Ramen.

She has never had to live on Ramen.

Good Soup is better than Second-Hand Art

Good Soup is better than Second-Hand Art

Kitchen Splash:  2-93 Miyagi, Chatan Town, 098-926-0151

Ambiance:  Average, except indoor smoking is allowed during dinner

Service:  Good

Cocktails:  Beer & Awamori available, cocktails very limited

Food Quality:  Average

Features :  Japanese cuisine, all you can drink, bar counter, close to Sunabe Seawall, international, pet-friendly (terrace only), ramen, set lunch, tatami rooms, terrace seating (very limited), English menu available.

Cuisine:  Japanese / Okinawan, Noodles

Price/Value:  Average

I often think gyoza and edamame make the world'go'round.  Oh, and blue-eyed beauties.

I often think gyoza and edamame make the world’go’round. Oh, and blue-eyed beauties.

Having a good wife, and needing only a local source of rich soup, Jody and I set out for “Kitchen Splash,” a noodle house of sorts located less than a block off Sunabe Seawall in the heart of commercial Miyagi.  And in the way of noodles, they do not disappoint.  However….

Truth in Advertising

Truth in Advertising

Group Tatami Area

Group Tatami Area

The restaurant is clean and fairly spacious inside, although the outdoor terrace seating is cramped and very limited, but pet friendly.  The décor matches the name; there are rustic touches here and there that both hint and call-out from the nearby sea.  There is a larger tatami area for group seating.  While we were there, the staff were playing a Japanese boy-group concert on their rather large flat screen TV mounted from the ceiling, and although the volume was higher than I would have liked, the music was actually good and the video?  Well, highly entertaining!

Rustic Seating

Rustic Seating

The menu has a full selection of noodles and soup, but offers little else.  The cocktails are very limited, and pricey by my standards.  However, there is a wide range of beer and Awamori.

Menu Selections

Menu Selections

Before the Kick-Boxing Match with her Meal

Before the Kick-Boxing Match with her Meal

We ordered gyoza and edamame for starters, both served quickly, steaming hot, and turned out to be quite tasty and fresh.  The service was prompt, although we were initially the only two in the eatery, soon joined by 4-6 others, most of whom appeared to be local shift workers just getting off for dinner.  When the soups came, we were both somewhat disappointed.  A large portion of our letdown, I believe, stems from our basic lack of understanding of the menu and options for our dishes.  I ended up with soy ramen soup with pork and vegetables, but instead of the yummy, meaty slices of pork that one can find in other ramen houses, my soup had a number of very fatty and what appeared to be second-hand pieces of pork, most of which I chose not to eat.  Jody tried a dish neither of us was familiar with, and although the spelling offered on the menus was “Tammen,” I believe what she wound up with was “Taman” soup, a spicy garlic and red-sauce concoction based on the local Okinawa fish Taman.

Fatty Pork...and Indoor Smoking - I'll Pass

Fatty Pork…and Indoor Smoking – I’ll Pass

We finished most of our meals, and took our short walk – 3 or 4 blocks – back home, where I remained somewhat disappointed in my ramen, and Jody quickly wound up with a pretty bad belly ache.  Even though we ordered her soup with “skoshi” spice, her meal was produced with a healthy kick, which she continued to fight through the evening.  Both ailments quickly passed, and we agreed we would splash in again at this kitchen, eager to give then another try.  But probably only for lunch, when indoor smoking, for some reason, is not allowed by the staff.  If the chances of Paris Hilton showing up here were even measureable, perhaps we would return for dinner.  However, we instead prefer not to share our evening meal with smokers in such close quarters.

Respectfully, No Microwave Used Here

Respectfully, No Microwave Used Here

Rustic Seating

Rustic Seating

• Open Lunch 11:30-15:00 / Dinner 17:00-24:00, Closed Wed

• $ accepted

• English menu available

• Parking is available, but problematic along the main seawall roads

• Pet friendly (terrace only)

• Takeout available

Sushi SNAFU! Tuna & Sake Amawari Resturant Review


“I’m not making art, I’m making sushi.” ~Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto

He was NOT our chef

He was NOT our chef

Tune & Sake Amawari, Chatan Cho

Tune & Sake Amawari, Chatan Cho

Amawari Tuna & Sake

Chatan Cho, Immediately behind Family Mart outside Kadena AB Gate 1

Ambiance: Poor

Service: Good

Cocktails: Poor

Food Quality: Average to Below Average

Price/Value: Poor

[This will be the first of a long line of restaurant reviews while stationed here on Okinawa]

Monday night Jody and I decided that it was high time for her to finally dive in and try some local, authentic Okinawan sushi. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating. So, instead of focusing on a known and reputable sushi establishment from which to dine, we let an alternate agenda cloud our better judgment.

You see, Family Mart – one of two primary local convenience store chains here on-island – has these really cute and yummy single serving sizes of rather odd flavors of ice cream, gelato, and sorbet generally not found back in the states. Since this particular dessert was the true goal of the evening, and thanks to Tropical Storm Toraji appearing from virtually nowhere but brining driving rain and gusting winds, we decided to try a Sunabe eatery located immediately behind our local Family Mart, allowing us to make mad and relatively dry dashes to both locations, thereby killing the proverbial two birds with one stone.

Third TS in Three Weeks!

Third TS in Three Weeks!

I would like to kill a couple of those angry birds....

I would like to kill a couple of those angry birds….

Tuna & Sake Amawari is the name of this place. Although I do believe it was here both other times I’ve lived on island, it never had the curbside appeal that would cause me to want to take the jog off the roads and into their parking lot. You see, it is right next to a pachinko parlor, with a hard to maneuver in parking lot. Things Vegas, but without all the glitz, public transportation, and all-you-can-eat steak buffets.

Crazy actually IS crazy in Okinawa, not this Vegas knock-off

Crazy actually IS crazy in Okinawa, not this Vegas knock-off

On quick glance as we arrived around 7-ish, there were few cars in the parking, none of them American. Although this was not a positive sign, I didn’t say anything to Jody as I was excited for her to finally be trying something I had talked up so much in anticipation of our fling into the Far East.

Ambiance is...not as it is portrayed

Ambiance is…not as it is portrayed

We entered, and there were maybe three tables taken; a couple at one, a group of men at another, and a single sitting at another…we’ll refer to him as “loser” since he plays into the story. We immediately directed away from the tables and tatami area, and instead were whisked all the way into the back corner, where a privacy curtain was drawn…which offered no privacy at all. It was a nice gesture though.

Looks nice, but for Gaijin?

Looks nice, but for Gaijin?

The Ever Popular "Obama Roll" Isn't Available.  Yet.

The Ever Popular “Obama Roll” Isn’t Available.  Yet.

The wait staff brought us a menu in English, and right off the get-go, the menu of this Amawari is very limited. One “set,” a popular term in Japanese restaurants that means a heck of a lot more than simply “meal combo” back home, stated quite plainly in English that there was no translation available by stating directly“…in Japanese only.” Fine. It looked nice though.

After deciphering the mojito (spelled using our alphabet) colors into flavors (all of which were in Japanese), I ordered a lime mojito. It came quickly, but was very light in color, with absolutely no mint, muddled or otherwise present in the glass. It was light and refreshing, but very weak on alcohol, and seemed to be watered down with a large portion of what tasted like ginger ale. I couldn’t help but notice that the loser got one as well, and I swear to you that his had mint! Maybe it was the light playing tricks. Or maybe his mojito actually wins. It wasn’t an expensive drink, clocking in at around 400 yen. You get what you pay for, yes? Sometimes no.

Here the Bar is Low.  In fact, there isn't a Sushi Bar at all....

Here the Bar is Low. In fact, there isn’t a Sushi Bar at all….

We waited an awful long time to order, and just as I realized we had a “call” button at the table (as many restaurants in Japan and Okinawa do), the staff must have figured out that the ignorant Gaijin would never figure it out, and a waitress came and cheerfully took our order. I ordered garlic fried rice, edamame, and yakitori. Jody ordered two plates of sushi – grilled fatty tuna sushi, and salmon sushi, each five pieces.

Large Menus, Limited Selection

Large Menus, Limited Selection

The garlic fried rice appeared first, served in a wooden bowl with a pleasant and effectively small ladle, with volume enough for the both of us to share, leaving leftovers. It was fresh, hot, and delicious, loaded with egg, bacon, and yes, plenty of garlic. The bacon was nearly as rendered as we would expect in the West, but it played off very well with the garlic and toasted sesame flavors inherent in the dish. This dish seemed to improve upon our Las Vegas odds of having a pleasing meal after the initial disappointment of the mojito.

The edamame came next, served steaming on an interesting bamboo platter, the combination looking quite appealing. However, it was somewhat of a letdown. Either it wasn’t fresh, or was overcooked, or quite possibly a little of both. It’s sad that the totally American-staffed and American-operated Sidelines sports bar, which replaced the quaint and quiet Fujiya joint a block and a half off the seawall, actually had some fresh, perfectly cooked and well-seasoned edamame. That review is for another time, but mostly because we were just using them for their Wi-Fi until ours was installed at the condo.

More Menu Options

More Menu Options

Finally the time arrived for the main event. The yakitori was served as chunks of dark-meat chicken resting in sauce, rather than chicken that was grilled with the sauce. Almost every other instance I can recall involving this concoction, it was presented on a skewer, enhancing and validating the grilled aspect that makes this dish so succulent. Amawari’s version lacked the deep smoky charring and caramelized sugars of the roasted sauce, but was acceptable nonetheless.

The sushi, however, was quite a disappointment. The grilled fatty tuna, listed exactly this way on the menu, was brought to our table with little fanfare, in terms of preparation or presentation. On a rather plane long rectangular tray were arranged hearty pieces of tuna over rice without further accoutrement, less the token dollop of wasabi. Although the “grilling” was done tableside, it consisted of nothing more than a blow-torch flame run back and forth across the tuna until the meat turned a rather unappetizing beige, the same color of every single building and structure on all the Marine bases on Okinawa. Jody said it tasted good, though.

Slender Selections

Slender Selections

The salmon was presented in the same fashion, complete with its own unappetizing qualities. It seems the Japanese leave part of what I’ll call here a “blood vein” on the fish. Although we understand this element of the fish to be edible, its sinew-like appearance does nothing to help the diner eat with her eyes first. And we would not think to serve such a cut in the United States. Loser-man of winning cocktail-fame appeared to order this same dish, although I was too far away to attempt to begin to spy at how his fish was prepared.

But perhaps the worst part of Jody’s sushi experience was tactile. Jody, a seasoned sushi-eater and chop sticks-user, was unable to keep any of the sushi together. Between the size of the pieces and their tendency to explode into their constituent parts, Jody was again let down. I did notice that Mr. Winning Sushi & Cocktail but single-diner-loser had no trouble whatsoever in eating his. My on the fly advice to Jody based on a quick time-series study of his movements and technique were, alas, to no avail. At least Jody is rather adept at keeping stains off her shirt, a skill I cannot claim proficiency with.

Private SNAFU probably didn't eat here....

Private SNAFU probably didn’t eat here….

All in all, this was a sad dining experience on Okinawa. Although I have come to not expect much physically from an eatery’s surroundings, I do expect a certain level of pleasant if not groovy ambiance, and certainly outstanding food is easy enough to find. Not in this case however; Amawari lacked both.

This is Your Brain on Sushi

This is Your Brain on Sushi

9 Lives and Hard Travels


Cleo Contemplates her Lives

Cleo Contemplates her Lives

“The cat has nine lives:  three for playing, three for straying, and three for staying….” ~Ancient Proverb

Japanese Maneki Neko

Japanese Maneki Neko

The maneki-neko (招き猫?, literally ‘beckoning cat’) is an ubiquitous Japanese figurine akin to a lucky charm or good fortune talisman, usually made of ceramic, which is often believed to bring good luck to the owner.  It is NOT of Chinese origin, as some believe, although it has become increasingly popular there among Chinese merchants.  The figurine depicts a cat, traditionally a calico Japanese Bobtail often highly stylized, beckoning with an upright paw, and is usually displayed at the entrance in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors, and other businesses.  Some are electric or battery-powered and have a slow-moving paw beckoning one from a distance.  The maneki-neko is sometimes also called the welcoming cat, lucky cat, money cat, happy cat, or fortune cat, but usually only in English.  In my mind, although I can find no evidence to support this conclusion, clearly the idea of having multiple lives is connected directly to this strong notion of “luck.”

It seems my cat may have used one for staying with us on our journey to Okinawa, purely to my own lament after accidentally trying to kill her!

The story starts long before the actual, shall we say, “troubles.”  And while this story is really about our journey across the pond to Japan, it uses as a hook and centerpiece cats, in particular, my cat named Cleo.

Short for Cleopatra mind you.  She wanted that to be made perfectly clear.  I imagine she views herself akin to the image below (Nine Lives ~Hanyafuda Suru Nyan!~ – Hanafuda card game with cat girls).

Cat Girls - and Cleo's Alter Ego - from a Japanese Card Game

Cat Girls – and Cleo’s Alter Ego – from a Japanese Card Game

Over the last two weeks we have been busy at work (and some measure of play) getting ready for our move.  This involved, not in the least, three separate moves of our household goods over five days; riding my motorcycle three hours to Montgomery to be placed into storage, and then riding back to put a truck to the same modality of hibernation; cleaning & fixing the home to the last second to get ready for renters; moving into a pet-friendly hotel for a week, and finally, making sure our furry little friend could go along with us, in as much comfort as possible.

Ready to Go?  Probably Not....

Ready to Go? Probably Not….

I’ve already written extensively about the cat-astrophic requirements for importing an animal into Japan (see my blog entitled “Feline Fiasco”).  Part of this process, however, involved getting Cleo acclimatized to her hard crate and soft carrier (yes, we had to lug both 8,000 miles), which, for a grown cat, is next to impossible.  But we had to try….

Cleo's Traveling Confinement

Cleo’s Traveling Confinement

Cleo went back and forth with us to and from the house our last week in Pensacola while we were in our hotel.  Partly because of the above-mentioned reasoning (acclimatization), a little more to let her roam freely in and around our house where she is a very independent indoor-outdoor cat (with her own cat-door), but mostly because we KNEW she would try and make an escape when housekeeping opened our hotel room door.  After numerous car rides she continued to serenade us with her growing displeasure.

A genuine test came, however, when she had to make the long trek to the vet at Eglin Air Force Base, at least an hour (each way) in her hard crate.  Just our luck that Pensacola was in the process of changing military vets, and due to USDA and Japanese government requirements, Cleo needed a special “international health certificate” to go along with her medical record that is now as thick as most teenagers’ are.  Yep, she’s clean, micro-chipped, vaccinated, dewormed, de-mited, anally probed, titer-tested, and generally roughly handled by the veterinary establishment.  Never mind that I or you could be carrying any host of deadly disease….  The more you stop and really think about this – the contrasting way we treat the migration (and immigration) of animals versus people – the more it really stops to make much sense.

But Okinawa is rabies-free – and kudos to the Japanese.  Really.  That’s pretty cool.

Now about its problems with HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, and a whole “host” of parasitic diseases (Get it!?!  There’s a pun there.)….  It’s not that Okinawa is any different than other countries in this respect; quite the contrary.  However, it helps highlight my point about, to some not insignificant degree, as to a poorly-placed focus on disease transmission and control.

A Kabuki-Stylized Bakeneko

A Kabuki-Stylized Bakeneko

The Maneki Neko described above, is also a type of bakeneko, the characteristics of which Cleo sometimes adopts.  Bakeneko (化け猫?, “monster-cat”), in Japanese folklore, refers to cat yōkai (spiritual beings) with supernatural abilities akin to those of the kitsune (fox) or tanuki (raccoon dog).  There are a number of superstitions that detail how ordinary cats may transform into a bakeneko;  bakeneko then haunt and menace their household.  A bakeneko with a forked tail is referred to as a nekomata (猫又?, or 猫股 “forked-cat”).

In our case, the pre-traveling trials and foresighted feline forays did not appear to be paying dividends.  Since Cleo is so bad at carrying a “CAR-aoke tune” (Jody’s joke, not mine), we decided to let her roam freely in the vehicle, which I can assure you is NOT a good idea.  Of all the places Cleo could wander, she continually wound up lodged behind and/or around the brake pedal at Jody’s feet.

I’m convinced it was by pre-mediated design as a bakeneko.  After all, she has more lives to survive vehicle “mishaps.”  Anything to get out of that car.  I salute her resolution and commitment.

Anger Kitty

So, the big travel day comes, and we are off to the airport with our 5 carry-ons (includes the cat, but please don’t repeat that that to her, you know, because of the bakeneko problem), 6 pieces of luggage (5 of which were pretty damn near our limit of 70 pounds), and our smiling faces at 4 am last Thursday.  Based on our conversations with the vet, we “medicated” Cleo with about 8mg of Benadryl earlier that morning, which in the past has worked exceedingly well with my other cats.

Luggage.  Can you Spot the Cat?

Luggage. Can you Spot the Cat?

“Medicating” a cat is not in any way analogous to one having to take, say, a large abhorred pill that tastes really badly.  It is in some ways similar to trying to give a toddler some of that really thick, nasty, refrigerated oral liquid antibiotic that everyone around my age (mid 40s) should remember with a fair amount of visible disgust on their faces.

If Only Cats Had Thumbs - and Dressed Better

If Only Cats Had Thumbs – and Dressed Better

Except add claws.  And very sharp teeth.  And the uncanny bakeneko-inspired ability to wiggle away from just about anything but a fierce choke-hold.

Okay, that’s a wee-tad over-dramatized.  All you really have to do be is not afraid to grab and hold a cat’s scruf….

Cleo does well during our wait in Pensacola and our first leg to Houston.  As well as can be expected for a caged-animal used to her near-complete freedom.  And most likely better than her owners, both stressed with her displeasure and quite possibly a few irrational conclusions of possible discomfort and notions of suffering.

The Benadryl did, if anything, turn her healthy and vocal meow into a more pathetic, low and slow drawl of complaint.  More stressful to us, certainly, than the former!

However, we do decide once safely in Houston to try and medicate her again.  Mainly because there were times when she would rather violently rock and struggle in her carrier while meowing quite loudly and alarmingly.  It’s difficult to read your cat; they are not like your own children.  With babies and toddlers, astute parents learn quickly how to properly evaluate an annoyance cry from a distressed shriek.  It’s all too easy to misinterpret a different species….

The Girls in Houston

The Girls in Houston

We find a family-friendly restroom in the airport.  Note that the signage on and around these areas say nothing about being furry-friendly!  And there’s certainly no rest involved, not for a cat.  We let her out, auspiciously to give her water and “a break” from her confinement, but unlike a human prisoner, there is no equating this momentary freedom with any conception of thanks.  Or any curtailment of her stress.

[This leads to an interesting tangent – and possible business prospect if not a grandiose idea for (multiple) patent(s) – about truly pet-friendly spaces at airports.]

Cleo vigorously explores these new surroundings, reacting to all the outlandish sounds and abnormal smells with extreme caution and high alert.  Jody and I ready the next does of meds, and although Jody points out how jagged the 1/3 of a Benadryl pill piece is, I casually blow off this alarm.

A decision I will come to regret.

That's a 7,000 Mile Line....

That’s a 7,000 Mile Line….

Jody does the holding, prying, and prepping for dosing.  I hold firm in a totally unfounded belief that as a highly trained and certified perioperative nurse, somehow she knows how to handle my cat’s airway in with both the greatest effect and with least intrusion.  My role in this endeavor is as the “dose-er” to the dosed.  And unlike in execution by lethal injection, where a few people push buttons so theoretically no one knows who is ultimately responsible for administering any deadly drugs (doesn’t that make ALL of them equally responsible – an even worse ethical outcome), I know exactly who is to blame….

The pill goes in.  Not far enough down Cleo’s throat.  Jody tries in vain to get her to swallow.  Cleo either can’t, but in any case, certainly won’t.

Anything is better than Medicine

Anything is better than Medicine

I’m not sure how many cat owners get to see what happens when their cats taste a flavor that they detest in absolute terms.  Like as in an involuntary biological, physiological reaction.  From all my reading online, cats taste (and smell) quite differently than we do.  In fact, in the bitter and sweet ranges (to us), their experiences are radically different than ours.  Most meds we take are on the bitter to extremely bitter end of the spectrum, a place that quote, “cats detest.”  If any part of the pill gets on their tongue or near their specialized olfactory organ (in the roof of their mouth), they begin to violently wrench, salivate excessively, and literally foam at the mouth in attempts to rid themselves of their displeasure.  These effects are rather immediate and severe, and look deadly.

And it’s scary as shit.  But, experts always say that “foaming looks terrible but it is not dangerous or painful….”

Tell that to my cat.

This foaming went on for what seemed like 30 minutes, but in actuality was probably more like five; all-the-while I’m literally concerned whether she’s breathing, and just as literally, I’m sick to my stomach over the whole morbid affair.  I’m not sure what I would do if I was responsible for my cat’s death en route to Okinawa.

cat%20medicine%20hospital

In retrospect, the funniest thought that rattle around my head, then full of racing fears, was that although I was recently re-certified as an Emergency First Responder (EFR) as a scuba diving divemaster (and for emergencies in general), the stupid course didn’t include CPR for animals!  In my life, I am more apt to have to do CPR on my cat than an infant, the latter of which I have very little contact.  Remember the conversation above about misplaced focus (wink)??

Cleo starts to recover, after spitting out the pill mind you.  And what started out as a quick measure to ease her longer-term suffering on the lengthy flight over the Pacific, turned into ten minutes of far worse suffering for Cleo.  You know it’s bad – really bad – when your cat voluntarily returns to her carrier without protest or sound, and peacefully lays down in complete defeat and surrender.

not-the-best-place-avoid-vet-hide-cat-cage-demotivational-posters

Exhausted and beaten, all of us make the journey to Japan.  Cleo spends another 19 hours or so in her carrier and crate, and what does she do when she is finally free in our lodge on Okinawa?

She loves us just the same.

Cleo Closeup

I feel as though I cost Cleo a life in Houston, a life for staying with us, for traveling unknowingly across the globe.  Welcome to Okinawa, Cleo, my once-again Maneki Neko.  Here’s good fortune to us all, and prayers for no more lost lives during the next three years.