WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY, OCTOBER 14-15, 2009 – TRAVELING TO KUMAMOTO, JAPAN WITH HONKY TONK TAILGATE PARTY (MARK WILLS, TRENT WILLMON AND JEFF BATES:
Early call this morning. Got up at 4 am and departed for the airport at 6:30 am. This is the 21st Anniversary of the Country Gold Festival in Kumamoto, Japan. It will be much different this year than in years past. Throughout the history of the event, we have always brought 4 – sometimes 5 – entertainers from the U.S. to participate along with Charlie Nagatani (our promoter) and his band the Cannonballs. It has always been the best festival I work with. Because of the economy, we will only take one “group” this year – Honky Tonk Tailgate Party. It’s three artists – Mark Wills, Trent Willmon, and Jeff Bates – all using one band. I worked with this group in Mexico and Iraq last year only Ray Scott was a member and Jeff was not with them. Great group of guys and very entertaining show. The other groups are all local Japanese – of course there’s Charlie and his Cannonballs, plus a popular Japanese country band and a Japanese bluegrass band. Like they did last year, there will be a “local band” competition on Saturday and two winners will be selected to perform at the Country Gold Festival on Sunday.
Mark was flying out of Atlanta and one of his other guys was flying out of another city and we were all supposed to meet in DC for the flight to Narita 13 ½ hour trip. From Narita we fly to Fukuoka – another one hour flight – and then a two hour bus ride to Kumamoto. At least this year, we don’t have a staff meeting at midnight when we arrive at the hotel. Our flight was an hour late leaving and our layover in DC was only 2 hours if we had arrived on time. The weather was horrible – cloudy and raining and but it wasn’t as turbulent taking off as I had anticipated. I fell asleep for a few minutes in flight but dropping out of the sky at a high rate of speed quickly woke me up. Fortunately, it only lasted for a few minutes. We landed just in time to board our next flight and Mark and Keith had both already arrived at the departure gate.
I spent the entire time in DC fighting with T-Mobile. From my last report, you know that I was switching to AT&T as soon as I returned from Korea. I went the Saturday after I got back, purchased their newest Blackberry, checked to make sure I could get all my “international services” and LOVED the new blackberry. On Monday I called AT&T to have my international services turned on only to learn that they do not have an “unlimited international data plan” anymore. I use my blackberry consistently for my email and I get about 300 a day. I was going to be charged per megabite and even if I didn’t OPEN the email, it counted because it came into my blackberry. My bill would have been thousands of dollars a month. The salesman who sold it to me called corporate and tried to convince them to sell me the unlimited package but no luck. So, one week later, I took the blackberry back to AT&T and I’m back with T-Mobile – and having the same problems that made me leave them in the first place. The minute I leave my “home tower”, my email stops coming in. It is so frustrating. When I get back, I’m staying on the phone with them until it is fixed. Can’t travel like I do and not have the services I’m paying for. T-Mobile is coming out with the 9300 Gemini next month which is 3G and will work in Korea and Japan. I rented a blackberry and a cell phone that will work in Japan this time.
The flight to Narita is completely full. Since the only thing I had all day was a Starbucks soy latte at the airport, I was forced to eat on the flight. Food was as bad as ever on United. I watched a movie that my daughter recommended but didn’t find it as great as she said. “Hangover” was the title and it was about a bachelor party in Vegas. My video monitor kept fading in and out which made it even more frustrating.
There was very little turbulence on the flight. A couple of the flight attendants remembered me from my numerous trips to Kuwait! We landed on time and had to wait in a very long line at Immigration. Picked up our luggage and gear and everything made it. We had bag tags showing everything was checked through to Fukuoka and one of the agents at baggage claim told us where to go to give them our luggage. Turns out it is a “check-in” counter for ANA. Our tickets are booked as “through fares” and our flight on ANA is listed as a United Airlines flight with a UA flight number. ANA immediately began fighting with me about the number of pieces we could check. They finally agreed that it is 2 per person which is exactly what we had. Then they refused to let our musician carry his guitar on in a soft case. They said the overhead bins were too small. I argued and argued but they were going to make me purchase another TICKET for him to carry it on!!! They finally brought out this padded box and we put the guitar in it. Then they told us that our things probably wouldn’t go on the plane with us tonight! That did not go over well with me at all.
When we got on the plane, the overhead bins were longer than anything on U.S. airlines! I was taking a picture of them because ANA is a sponsor of the festival. The flight attendant told me I couldn’t do that and I just said, “Oh yes I can” and kept taking the photos. Then she told me I had to turn off my telephone. I told her when they closed the aircraft doors, I’d turn it off. Not off to a good start.
I am “Global” on United which is the highest ranking you can have. I reserved an aisle seat on the ANA flight but when I got my boarding pass, it was a middle seat. ANA refused to change it for me so I was stuck for 2 hours in a middle seat. Let’s just say that the ANA sponsor for our event and United Airlines will be getting some emails from me tomorrow!
All our luggage and gear made it to Fukuoka and Charlie and his staff were waiting for us. There is a film crew here from Field Guide Media and they are filming this year’s event for inclusion in a documentary. I’ve been talking to the guy for months so it was nice to finally meet him.
The bus ride from Fukuoka to Kumamoto was 2 hours. At least this year we don’t have a staff meeting as soon as we arrive. The promoter always has burgers and sandwiches waiting for us in the hotel lobby. Not so, this time. They were “late”. Everyone was very tired and very hungry. I’m very worried about this year’s Country Gold because none of our “good staff” is returning from the past 21 years. It’s very “different” and so far, not in a good way. Will keep my fingers crossed that things improve.
It’s after 3 am for me because I’ve been answering hundreds of emails. Going to bed for a couple of hours now! More tomorrow.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16TH – SIGHTSEEING IN KUMAMOTO:
Got in bed at 4:30 am and had to get up at 6:00 am if I was going to get my jog in. Pretty important to exercise when I’m working this hard and getting very little sleep. It was “hard” to do though. But, a truly beautiful day. Weather was perfect. I ran along the river where I always jog.
Met in the lobby at 10:15 am and went to Suijenzi Park and then to Kumamoto Castle (my 36th visit to both – I can GIVE the tours!). Because the weather is so beautiful, it was the perfect day. The group is so in awe of Japan and really enjoyed the sightseeing. We had a traditional Japanese lunch at the park and they loved it. Trent eats ANYTHING. He stopped and purchased “Horse Jerky” and then bought a bag of “crabs”. They were tiny and he said they tasted like potato chips. YUCK. As I mentioned, none of our wonderful interpreters are with us this year. Charlie had a gentleman from Kumamoto City Government with us and he was going to give us the history of the park and castle as we walked around. When Charlie introduced me to him, I immediately noticed that he was not fluent in English and asked Charlie about that. He said he can’t have “conversational English and can only tell the history of the places we would be visiting. He was a very nice man but it would have been better to have someone who spoke English so he could answer our questions. Got back to the hotel at around 3 pm and I went in search of the Sushi Bar that Keiko always takes us too. It’s gone. Korean Bar-b-que there now. L Some of the guys went with a friend of Charlie’s to buy kimonos while I worked in my room. Then at 5:30 pm, we met in the lobby to go to dinner. I took them to a sushi restaurant that has lots of other things, too. Some of the less adventurous went to McDonalds, as usual. Tonight Trent ate raw horse and cooked horse. He actually liked it.
We went to Charlie’s nightclub for his Welcome Party. He and the Cannonballs sang first and then called the Japanese country music band up to perform. After they sang, one member of the bluegrass band got up with them and performed. Then Trent, Jeff and Mark sang 3 songs each. It is so “strange” this year not to have my 4 artists with me. The “jam session” ended at 9 pm and I bolted for the door. Have been in my room answering emails since that time. J
Going to make a real effort to go to bed by midnight, sleep until 4 am and then get up and start working on emails that came in from the U.S.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 17TH – SOUND CHECK DAY:
I planned to sleep for 5 hours and then get up and work before jogging. But I woke up after 4 hours and decided to start answering emails. Did that until 6:30 and then went jogging. It looked like it might rain but never did. Another beautiful morning and long run along the river.
Came back and showered, answered more emails, had breakfast and was in the lobby at 10 am for our departure. Usually, we have two buses dedicated just for the entertainers from America. Since we have such a small group this year, the Bluegrass band was riding on the bus with us. When we started to depart the hotel, they told Seiya that we had to stop by the airport and pick up their other musicians. We were already late leaving and I knew we didn’t have time to make any stops. Seiya arranged for a taxi to take them so that we didn’t have to make a stop. Would have been nice if someone had “communicated” that this was the plan beforehand!
Arrived at the venue and the stage was set and waiting for HTTP to sound check. The Green Room was another matter. The caterers were two guys that I had never seen before and they were not set up and ready for the group. They had coffee – no creamer. They had drinks – no ice. No napkins. The food that they prepared was good, just very unorganized to begin with.
Sound check finished right on time and we departed for the volcano. Only the 2nd time in 21 years that I have been able to go up there. It is still spectacular but when I went the first time in 1989, it was spewing smoke and ash and you could see fire down in the crater. This time you could only see green, boiling water. It was cool and windy but not as bad as I remember the first time being.
Left there and went back to the city. I hooked Mark, Trent, and Kevin up with Tim for some “adventure eating” while I took a few of the guys out for Italian at Angelo’s. Our meals were terrific as usual.
After eating, I walked around the Ginza to two department stores looking for baby clothes but never found anything. The economy hit Kumamoto hard and so many stores have closed. Have been back in the room working for about an hour and hope to go to bed soon.
Forgot to mention something cool in my report yesterday. When we had lunch at the Park, I went to the restroom when we finished. I opened the door to the ladies room, and the light came on by itself and there was a pair of slippers sitting on a mat right in front of the door as I opened it. Then, the lid to the toilet lifted automatically. It was way cool. The toilet seat itself was heated and there was one of those little “modesty” contraptions built in. This machine makes the noise of flushing water so that no one can hear you. So….if they can make a toilet where the lid automatically raises when you enter the bathroom, why can’t they make one where the toilet seat LOWERS when you walk in? Would make lots of wives very happy!
Tomorrow is the concert and we fly home on Monday. Very short visit to Japan.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 18TH – CONCERT DAY:
Another beautiful day to jog! Tried a new “route” this time – crossed the river and went down on a dirt path that ran along the river. It was fine for a couple of miles then there were these big signs with RED lettering in Japanese on them. No idea what they meant but I was the only person on that trail. The grass was really high on both sides and I started thinking that maybe the signs said “watch out for snakes”. Certainly helped with my “time” this morning.
We left the hotel at 10 am and arrived at Aspecta at 11:30 am. The guys had autographs from noon until 2 pm and then had to go out to the merch booth and sign autographs. Did a tv interview after that and then it was show time.
The new Governor came by to say hello. Really nice man. He was educated in the U.S. and graduated from Harvard with a degree in Political Science. He was also a “cowboy” in Montana. J Hopefully he will support Charlie’s efforts to keep Country Gold alive!
Mark, Trent, and Kevin went “adventure” eating with my friend Tim last night. They had the “live fish” experience that I had a few years ago with Elizabeth Cook. They picked a live fish out of a tank and watched as the sushi chef severed the spinal column. Okay, I get queasy just typing this. Then while the fish is still alive, the chef slices the stomach and the guys eat it while the fish’s little mouth is still opening and closing. Never want to see that again. Mark videoed the entire process and put it on his Facebook.
Trent performed for 30 minutes, followed by Jeff and then Mark. They all three ROCKED and the crowd loved them. We finished a few minutes late (first time that has happened in 21 years – wasn’t the artists’ fault – I didn’t have my production manager here this time) and the Finale was “Will the Circle be Unbroken”. We had the Kampaii (toast) in the Green Room and then drove back to the hotel. I was so tired, just didn’t feel like going out to eat. I broke my rule of no “fast food” and had a fish sandwich and a glass of ice tea.
It was such a “different” feel to Country Gold this year because we only had the one group instead of 4. But, my guys had nothing to compare it with and still said it’s the best festival they have ever attended.
Leaving at 8 am for the airport tomorrow. Going to bed very soon.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 19TH – FLYING HOME:
Everyone was dressed and ready to go to the airport at 8 am. Two hour bus ride and then we have a 2 hour flight to Narita. This time when we checked in, I had Sieya and Shoji stand behind and hold the guitars that were being carried on so we wouldn’t be questioned. We made it through to the gate with plenty of time to “shop” and they let them on the plane with their guitars. This time I had an aisle seat and was the only person on the plane with two empty seats beside them. Maybe the note my travel agent sent to United after the nightmare trip over actually got someone’s attention. J The flight attendant did come by and question one of my guys about the guitar. She kept saying turbulence and he told her it would be just fine if there was turbulence. When he put it in the overhead, there was at least another two feet of empty space in the length of the bin! So evidently the Japanese would not let us check it because what IF we had turbulence and it got damaged? As if it wouldn’t be damaged getting thrown into the cargo hold with all the heavy suitcases? Go figure!
No turbulence and we again landed in Narita with time to shop. Bags were checked through so all we had to do was go to the gate. Our flight departed on time and this time there was a lot of turbulence. I had an empty seat beside me on this flight as well which was nice. I wanted to watch “My Sister’s Keeper” but it was only shown on the way over so I tried to watch “The Hurt Locker”. It’s the story of the Army’s EOD Team (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and was set in Iraq. About 5 minutes into the film, the same thing happened as did on the way over. The video stopped and a message saying “Select Another Channel” popped up. I played with the channel selection for a while and when I went back to my movie, the whole thing started over again. This happened again about halfway through the movie and I finally had to give up and not watch it. Sleeping was a good idea at that point. J
Landed early but didn’t stop at the right place and had to wait for a “tow” to get to the gate. I breezed through Global Entry this time and it’s a good thing…the line for Immigration was very long. Picked up my bags and they made me leave the baggage claim area because it was so crowded. I waited for Mark outside security and said goodbye to him. The rest of the guys were on the flight to Nashville with me. I was sitting at the gate area waiting to board the flight to Nashville when I heard my name being called. I went up to the counter and they just said, “Oh we want to board you FIRST”. My, my, my…what a “change”.
Flight to Nashville was painless and I worked the entire time. All our luggage came in and just as we were picking up everything, I got an urgent text message from Mark who had just arrived Atlanta. He forgot to pick up his guitar in DC because he wasn’t accustomed to traveling with it. I told him to take his claim checks to the ticket counter and make sure they flew it on to him tonight. Then I checked with his guys to make sure no one picked it up. His production manager said he saw it and had them put it on Mark’s flight to Atlanta. So, I called Mark back and told him it should be on the conveyor belt with his suitcase!
At 1:00 am this morning, I got a telephone call from United Airlines in Memphis. Seems one of our musicians left his PASSPORT on the plane. They have it and want him to call them tomorrow. J
Just typical international travel stories with entertainers. LOL. I’m home until Sunday when I go back to Iraq.