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Old News Archives:
(If you'd like to read about my travels in Japan, China, or another location, check out the Travelogues page.)
(If you'd like to read more about Ink, check out the Ink section.)

Year 1: 8/11/2003 - 8/9/2004
Year 2: 8/11/2004 - 8/10/2005
Year 3: 8/11/2005 - 8/9/2006
Year 4: 8/11/2006 - 8/10/2007
Year 5: 8/13/2007 - 8/8/2008
Year 6: 8/11/2008 - 8/10/2009
Year 7: 8/12/2009 - 8/9/2010
Year 8: 8/11/2010 - 8/10/2011
Year 9: 8/12/2011 - 8/10/2012
Year 10: 8/13/2012 - 8/9/2013
Year 11: 8/12/2013 - 8/8/2014
Year 12: 8/11/2014 - 8/10/2015
Year 13: 8/12/2015 - 8/10/2016

7/24/2017 Still tired...

Yeah... I'm not even going to try today, sorry. It's not really late yet, but I only just finished today's strip. I meant to get a bit of a backlog built up over the weekend, but I was too tired to get a lot done. I'm mostly ok during the day but at night, when I usually work on PV, all the late nights catch up to me and I have trouble actually accomplishing much. Hopefully things will improve this week. Then again, we're thinking of sleep training Zack this week (if not now, than in another couple of weeks). That would be great in the long run, but miserable in the short term.

Anyway, I'm going to try and catch up on some sleep. Later!

Josiah

7/21/2017 Late nights

Hershey was fun, though we got back pretty late. Sorry about the missed update, I don't expect that to happen again any time soon. I might do a travelogue entry for Hershey Park, though we were only there around half a day and I didn't get a lot of pictures so I may just wait until next time when I can do a more exhaustive one (as long as I stay in this area, I'll be going back sooner or later).

Either way, I'm not going to write much today. Zack stayed up pretty late again, which once again meant that I got a late start on the update and I need to get some sleep. It seems like the current version of his sleep cycle has him staying up until 11 or so. I really should try and change that...

Anyway, have a good weekend and I'll see you on Monday!

Josiah

7/17/2017 Family visit

My parents and brother are arriving today, though it's going to be a kind of on and off visit, with them staying here a little, then going other places for a few days, and coming back. Tomorrow though, we're all planning a trip to Hershey Park, which should be a lot of fun. On that note, we might be getting back kind of late so there's a slight chance that I might miss Wednesday's update since I've been too busy to rebuild my comic buffer since returning to the US. But I'll do my best to avoid that.

Unfortunately though, I will have to put off that last Random China Comment or two. Zack didn't want to go to sleep last night and I had to keep him happy for quite a while, which meant getting a very late start on my Pebble Version work.

Later!

Josiah

7/14/2017 The boxes

Vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic!

I'm still thinking about writing a last Random China Comment or two for the travelogue, but it's not happening today. Zack is sort of the reason, though he's doing fine and sleeping well now. Anyway, while I'm thinking that Connie and I will move out of our apartment sometime over the next year or so, we need more space for Zack since he's pretty close to crawling. And pretty much the only way to free up some space in this apartment was to move some stuff into storage (mostly boxes of books, games, and other assorted things that we didn't have room to unpack in the first place). So I spent most of yesterday moving boxes there (I could only fit so much in my car at a time). I ended up renting the smallest size storage room they had. I measured to make sure everything would fit, but it was close so I still had to play some Tetris, of sorts, to make the best use of the space. Probably going to be really sore today, but I got it all done. Now I just need to clean up and buy a fence or something so Zack can't get where he's not supposed to.

Anyway, I'm pretty tired after all of that so I'm going to get some sleep.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

7/12/2017 Unhappy baby

Zack wasn't feeling well on Monday night and, as a result, Connie and I did not get a lot of sleep. He slowly improved as Tuesday progressed, but remained pretty fussy, which made for a stressful day. Didn't help that I had a big to-do list to work on. Hopefully today will be better, but for now, I need to try and get some rest.

See you Friday.

Josiah

7/10/2017 Returning to the US

Let's get back to the travelogue...

June 30th - July 1st (Friday - Saturday): A Little More Time in Maanshan
I woke up Friday morning to one of the clearest days you can get in China (outside of the mountains and extreme rural areas). They don't seem to come around too often, and I was a bit disappointed that I didn't get this weather a day or two earlier when I could have really taken advantage of it. Still, I wasn't in a huge hurry to get back to Maanshan, so I walked along West Lake for around half a hour, just to enjoy the relatively clear skies and snap a few photos. After that though, I had to get going.
I really liked Hangzhou the first time I was there and, now that I've spent a few more days exploring the area, I'd say that, of all the towns and cities I've been to in China, it's my favorite. It's got a great variety of things to see and do (the lake park, temples, pagodas, theme parks, museums, old shopping streets, etc.), great shopping and dining (doesn't have all my favorite Chinese resultants, but still good), and it's conveniently located too. While I did hit the vast majority of sightseeing spots, there's a couple areas I visited that I wouldn't mind exploring more, and a few more locations in the city itself that could be worth visiting. And that's not counting any potential days trips, so I could definitely see myself going back again in the future.
Anyway, after enjoying the view and getting breakfast, I made my way back to Maanshan. Nothing too much happened there, other than one last big meal, this time with relatives from Connie's mom's side. And I actually had someone I could talk to at that one. Said person was a 10 year old girl who only knew elementary school level English (similar to the stuff I taught my first time in Japan), but it was still fun.

July 2nd - 4th (Sunday - Tuesday): Heading Home
Our flight back to the US was scheduled for Monday evening. We could have left Maanshan early on the same day if we wanted, but we decided to make things a bit less hectic and spend the night in Shanghai. Connie's parents wanted to go with us, which was nice of them, and certainly helped with the luggage, so we all took a very crowded train to Shanghai and then an equally crowded subway (we arrived right during rush hour) to our hotel. I'd picked the hotel for its convenient location more than anything else. Though I'd also stayed in the same chain before and been pretty happy with it. This one, on the other hand, was kind of what I'd expect from a bargain priced Chinese hotel, serviceable and clean, but kind of run down and in some level of disrepair. It worked, but I expected something a bit nicer for the price. Clearly, they figured that, since they had a very convenient location, they didn't need to worry about anything else. Anyway, there were some restaurants nearby, but just fast food so we headed to Nanjing Road to find something better. We got lucky and immediately ran into a Bellagio (my third favorite nice Chinese restaurant chain after Nanjing dai Paidong and Din Tai Fon), so that worked out well.
The next day, after hanging around the hotel for a while, it was off to the airport. We ate lunch there, said goodbye to Connie's parents, and made our way to our gate (after waiting in a series of very long lines). Annoyingly, they later changed the gate to one half way across the airport. And, being China, the flight got delayed. First, it arrived about half an hour late. Then, once we actually got on the plane, it was held up by air traffic control for another hour or so. Suddenly, our two hour layover in Toronto wasn't sounding long enough... I was hoping we'd make up some time in the air but, unfortunately, that didn't happen and we, along with quite a lot of the other passengers, ended up missing our connecting flight. So instead of getting back home on Monday night, we had to spend the night in Canada. On the bright side, the airline paid for the hotel. On the down side, we only got several hours of sleep before heading back to the airport for our flight back to Virginia. In the end, I still had time to get all the grocery shopping done after getting home, but I was, unfortunately, way too tired to go see the 4th of July fireworks, which was a bit disappointing. At this point, I'm thinking that, in the future, if I book any flights leaving from, or changing planes in, China, I should assume a 1 - 2 hour delay and time connecting flights accordingly.
But what matters is that we made it back ok. It was a great trip and it was good to see that we can still do big trips, even with Zack.

Well, that covers everything, though I might do a last couple of RCCs later in the week.

Later!

Josiah

7/7/2017 Back in the US

Top Web Comics is having issues so I'm posting this week's bonus comic here on the main page. Regular strips will resume on Monday.

Well, there were a couple problems on the way, but I'm back in the US. Since then, I've been busy unpacking, running errands, catching up on stuff, and the like. Not totally done yet, but I'm getting there. I would have liked to have the travelogue all wrapped up today, but didn't have the time. Here's one entry, anyway, I'll get get the rest finished next week.

June 29th (Thursday): Still More Hangzhou Destinations
While I hit all my highest priority Hangzhou location yesterday, I still had several more places on my list so I decided to stay in Hangzhou for the day (rather than taking a day trip to another city) and see the rest of them. Most of them, however, were all pretty far away from each other and walking would have required walking half way around West Lake and then following the road for another 45 minutes - 1 hour on top of that. While I normally like walking, I wanted to spend most of my time actually visiting my chosen locations, not getting to them, so I decided to take taxis around instead. Fortunately the rain, which was pouring when I woke up, died down shortly after I left the hotel, though it remained hot, foggy, and very humid.
Things went smoothly, and soon I was on my way to Liuhe Pagoda, which is about an hour's walk from the south end of West Lake, near the river. While not as famous as Leifeng Pagoda, which is actually on the shore of West Lake, Liuhe is a lot older. It's undergone some renovations, and the entirety of the wood work had to be replaced once after a fire, but the main structure has been there for around 1,000 years. Unfortunately, it clearly shows. Like all the older Chinese pagodas I've been in (as opposed to modern reconstructions like Leifeng), they really haven't done anything to restore or maintain the interior, which is kind of sad. While the interior wasn't much to look at, climbing to the top gave me a view (albeit a very foggy one) of the southern part of Hangzhou, which is across a large river. Behind the pagoda are a couple small structures, some statues, and a big bell (which you can pay to ring). There's also a pathway leading into the woods with marks the start of the Liuhe Pagoda Garden. There's not really a garden, just some paths through the forest, but the entire area is dotted with scale recreations of various pagodas from across China (some of which, I believe, no longer exist). I think my guide book said that there's around one hundred of them. I didn't see half that many, but a number were hidden a bit off the beaten path and, thanks to the weather, the mosquitos were out in force so I rushed through somewhat.
Leaving Liuhe, I walked about 20 minutes back towards West Lake to Dreaming of Tiger Spring (near Hangzhou Zoo, which I skipped). Naturally, there's a story behind the name. Long ago there was a monk who came to live in the area but, due to the lack of a good water source, was planning to move on. However, one night he dreamed of two tigers tearing up the ground to create a spring. The next morning, there was a spring of clean water nearby. Said spring has remained clean and constant throughout the centuries and was even ranked as China's third best spring long ago by one of the emperors (I can't remember which). As such, it became famous, with people coming from far and wide to collect the water. I wasn't really sure what to expect (other than a spring), but I'm glad I went since it turned out to be an incredibly scenic area. The entrance opens up to a path following a very picturesque (and very clear) steam. There are a few statues, and a spot where you can fill your bottle with the spring water if you'd like. I thought about it but, despite the reassurances, I couldn't really bring myself to trust spring water in modern China (remember, the tap water isn't safe to drink unless it's been boiled). Continuing on, I came to a temple complex. It was a pretty one with lots of plants and little garden displays and the main temple building featured one of the more unique interiors I've come across, with a very unorthodox Buddha statue and display (as a side note, that's not the "normal" Buddha, there's more than one in Buddhism (the most commonly known one is just the first) and some, like this one, are female). A bit further up, I found the the source of the spring and a path leading off into the forest. According to the signs, the trail actually goes through nearby hills and forests, passing some notable scenic spots, and eventually ends up back at Liuhe Pagoda. Though that route is much longer and more strenuous than the walk I took along the road. Could be nice on a day that's not so hot and damp. I followed it for a bit (which turned out to be all up hill on a very steep staircase), though I probably shouldn't have. At first, I went because it looked like there was something to see nearby, and later because I felt like I had already gone so far that it would be a shame to stop before I at least got a view or something. It was a lot of work to get up there, but I least I could say for sure that stairs weren't bothering me any more. After making my way back down, I continued exploring the area and came across a tea house, since the spring water and Hangzhou's tea have a long history together.
I wanted a break after all the climbing, and I still hadn't really been to a Hangzhou tea house (just a sampling at the museum), so I decided to give it a try. There were a few different kinds of tea, but I got the most famous local green tea, which was also the most expensive, of course. While some teas come in a pot, mine was just a cup of leaves and a separate kettle of hot water. And no, it's not just one cup, whole tea leaves can be used several times in a row (five to eight, depending on the type of tea) without losing much flavor and good green tea doesn't really get bitter even if you leave the leaves in for a while. If you're wondering how you're supposed to drink it without swallowing the leaves (though you technically can eat them if you want), the trick is to put the lid on the cup and leave just a tiny gap for the tea to come through when you drink while keeping the leaves trapped inside. If the cup is too hot to touch, you can just pick up the bowl underneath it instead. As a note, the tea house experience is supposed to be a relaxing one. You sit back, enjoy sipping your tea, and read, watch the scenery, or talk (if you're in a group). I spent a while relaxing before leaving Dreaming of Tiger Spring behind and catching another taxi.
My next stop was off to the west of the northwest side of West Lake and is probably the most popular Hangzhou attraction that's not on the lake itself. My tour book referred to it as the Temple of the Soul's Retreat, though the temple is just a part of a much larger area, with the Feilai Feng Grottoes actually being the main attraction. Anyway, I arrived to find an entire little shopping and dining plaza and big ticket window. It took me a few minutes to determine that the tickets were probably for where I wanted to go, due to a lack of English and the fact that the temple is just one part of the larger area, and not even what you buy a ticket for. But soon, ticket in hand, I joined the crowds and headed in. The path goes along side the Feilai Feng Grottoes, which are a large collection of Buddhist statues carved into niches in the rocks next to a stream. There's somewhere around 70 carvings, and a few are even inside a small cave. It's a very atmospheric spot, despite the crowds. And the mist brought on by the rain (which had started up again) and the mugginess only enhanced that. There were some trails leading up the side of the mountain up above the carvings. Unfortunately, the signs were all in Chinese but I decided to take a look and see what was there. As far as I could tell, not much. I did find a stone with the name of the area carved in it and colored red, which seemed to be a moderately popular photo spot, but in my opinion that didn't really justify the climb.
Back on the main path, I found the actual Temple of the Soul's Retreat close to where the grottoes ended. Though getting in required a separate ticket. It's a very big temple complex that has been around for over 1,000 years. The stone pagodas near the entrance are actually around that old, while the rest of a buildings are a mix of somewhat old and fairly modern. It is a very nice temple, with a number of halls and large and small features, several giant Buddha (of varying designs and materials), and some halls dedicated to other things as well. One of the more interesting ones, in my opinion, is the Hall of 500 Arhats. Not exactly sure who or what an Arhat is, but it's filled with 500 bronze statues, all different, along with a large set of four bronze Buddhas. I wish I had a better picture, but you weren't supposed to take photos inside so I kind of snuck one through the door (I pretty much always follow the letter of the photography rules at the places I visit, though I do occasionally break the spirit of them if something is especially cool).
At this point, it was getting near two and I hadn't eaten lunch yet. My tour book said that the temple had a fancy vegetarian restaurant that it highly recommend so I planned to eat there. Only problem was, I couldn't find the thing. My book just said it was in the temple, but it wasn't listed on any of the temple's maps or directory signs. There was one sign that mentioned the restaurant (indicating that it probably does exist), but it was sitting in the midst of an empty courtyard without an arrow or any other indication of where the place was. After walking all around the temple complex and failing to find it, I gave up. But the temple did have a small vegetarian noodle place as well, and that was very obviously marked. There wasn't any English, so I basically had to order at random. I ended up with a noodle soup with vegetables. Not bad, though nothing too special either. But I was hungry and it worked.
Leaving the temple, I followed the path by the grottoes further upstream to Yongfu Temple (which didn't need an extra ticket). While not nearly as big or elaborate as the Temple of the Soul's Retreat, it was very picturesque, with its various halls set in the side of the mountain amidst a collection of tea fields. The upper areas offered a distant view of West Lake as well. All in all, it was a really pretty location, and very much worth the extra walk.
There was also one other temple complex in the area (also included with the main ticket), though it was set much further up the mountain and getting there required climbing a ton of stairs, only to find even more stairs waiting for you when you arrived. It was an ok temple, and the view was nice, but it was a pretty serious climb and neither the temple or the view were really worth the effort, in my opinion, unless you just want to make to the climb for fun.
By that point, I had pretty much seen everything inside the Grottoes area, so I headed back towards my started point. There is an area nearby where you can pay to take a cable car up to a nearby peak, but I'd gotten enough views already, so I didn't feel the need. Instead, I went to look for a taxi back to West Lake. I did consider walking but, after all that climbing (which was just the latest in a number of steep climbs I'd made that day), on top of the walking, I kind of wanted a break and a 45 minute walk just to get to West Lake (and a part of the lake that wasn't anywhere near where I wanted to go next) wasn't very appealing. Strangely, while there were plenty of taxis dropping people off near the entrance, they all seemed to be making a point of not picking up any new passengers. I wasn't the only person having trouble finding a ride back and, since I can't speak Chinese, I really didn't know what was going on. After waiting around fruitlessly for a bit, I started walking back, while trying to flag down any empty taxi that passed. Before too long one did stop next to me and the driver offered to take me where I wanted to go but off the meter for a flat fee (as a note, official taxi drivers really aren't supposed to do that, though some do). Now I'd ridden enough taxis in the area to know that the amount he asked for was 3 - 4 times what the ride should have cost. But, while that was really expensive by Chinese standards, it wasn't that bad by American standards (official Chinese taxi rates are really cheap) and I really wanted to save some time and get off my feet for a bit so I took him up on it. Unfortunately, it didn't go so well. Before we'd gone very far, he indicated to me that he had to get gas and then proceeded to drive out of the way (and through a small traffic jam) to get to his gas station. The guy tried to be nice about it (he offered me a cigarette twice along the way, despite having a non-smoking cab, and bought me a Red Bull (which I don't drink) at the gas station), but I was still rather annoyed. We finally got back on route, only to get stuck in traffic (not really the driver's fault, but still annoying) and he kept trying to pick up additional fares along the way, another thing that's against the official taxi rules (fortunately, none were going in my direction). Finally, he dropped me off a solid ten minutes walk from where I'd asked to go, though at that point I was already considering getting out early due to the traffic so I didn't complain. I was seriously tempted to text Connie and have her send me a note demanding half my money back because of that gas station detour (he still would have made a solid profit off me), but decided against it. While I have been occasionally tempted to argue with people in China, the fact that I'm a foreigner and can't speak Chinese has always made me a bit nervous about what would happen if things escalated. In the end, I made it fairly close to my destination, and I did get a rest, but I don't think it ended up being all that much faster than walking.
Back at West Lake, I walked the rest of the way to the fountain area (where I began my day) and headed south (clockwise), passing through some of the areas I'd previously walked through with Connie but hadn't yet been back to on this trip. The rain had ended and taken away the mist and much of the smog with it, leaving the lake clearer than I'd ever seen. Because of that, I kept stopping to take photographs, which slowed me down a bit on my way to Orioles Singing in the Willows, a park area on the side of the lake. But that wasn't really my destination. From there I turned away from the lake one last time, heading into the city. I passed the park with this neat pagoda (or maybe pavilion) that I'd been seeing a lot in the distance. Part of me would have liked to go up, but it was likely closed for the day at that point (though I didn't actually check) and I'd had enough climbing for one day. My actual destination was a short distance past the park on Hefeng Street, where several blocks are lined with old buildings which have been converted into shops and restaurants. A bit touristy, but fun to walk around. There was also this Buddha (which I personally found a little creepy). It looked like there were some little museums as well, though it was getting a bit too late in the day for that, though all the lights and evening activity was fun. The area was rather crowded, but that did enhance the atmosphere to a certain point, and there were some quieter alleyways and side streets. The old section of Hefeng Street ran east for a few blocks before coming to an end at Nansongyu Street, another old street turned tourist attraction, though with a different and slightly newer style of building. I hadn't actually known about it, but couldn't really complain about having a larger area to explore. I had a good time walking around, looking at some unusual buildings, and snacking a bit (though not on the dodgy street food, of course).
I had originally planned to go back the way I came but, by the time I reached the end of Nansongyu Street, it rather late and I still hadn't eaten a solid meal so I decided to take a more direct route back towards my hotel. I had a particular restaurant in mind that I'd seen the other day but, after checking my map, noticed that I'd be passing by Grandma's Home, a very popular restaurant focusing on Hangzhou cuisine. It had good reviews, and I'd been curious about it, so I decided to go there instead. There ended up being a moderately long wait, so I ate much later than I usually do, but it was a neat restaurant with a huge menu and the food was good. I certainly wouldn't mind going back again and trying some other dishes.

Later!

Josiah

7/7/2017 Back in the US

Top Web Comics is having issues so I'm posting this week's bonus comic here on the main page. Regular strips will resume on Monday.

Well, there were a couple problems on the way, but I'm back in the US. Since then, I've been busy unpacking, running errands, catching up on stuff, and the like. Not totally done yet, but I'm getting there. I would have liked to have the travelogue all wrapped up today, but didn't have the time to finish. Here's one entry, anyway, I'll get get the rest finished next week.

June 29th (Thursday): Still More Hangzhou Destinations
While I hit all my highest priority Hangzhou location yesterday, I still had several more places on my list so I decided to stay in Hangzhou for the day (rather than taking a day trip to another city) and see the rest of them. Most of them, however, were all pretty far away from each other and walking would have required walking half way around West Lake and then following the road for another 45 minutes - 1 hour on top of that. While I normally like walking, I wanted to spend most of my time actually visiting my chosen locations, not getting to them, so I decided to take taxis around instead. Fortunately the rain, which was pouring when I woke up, died down shortly after I left the hotel, though it remained hot, foggy, and very humid.
Things went smoothly, and soon I was on my way to Liuhe Pagoda, which is about an hour's walk from the south end of West Lake, near the river. While not as famous as Leifeng Pagoda, which is actually on the shore of West Lake, Liuhe is a lot older. It's undergone some renovations, and the entirety of the wood work had to be replaced once after a fire, but the main structure has been there for around 1,000 years. Unfortunately, it clearly shows. Like all the older Chinese pagodas I've been in (as opposed to modern reconstructions like Leifeng), they really haven't done anything to restore or maintain the interior, which is kind of sad. While the interior wasn't much to look at, climbing to the top gave me a view (albeit a very foggy one) of the southern part of Hangzhou, which is across a large river. Behind the pagoda are a couple small structures, some statues, and a big bell (which you can pay to ring). There's also a pathway leading into the woods with marks the start of the Liuhe Pagoda Garden. There's not really a garden, just some paths through the forest, but the entire area is dotted with scale recreations of various pagodas from across China (some of which, I believe, no longer exist). I think my guide book said that there's around one hundred of them. I didn't see half that many, but a number were hidden a bit off the beaten path and, thanks to the weather, the mosquitos were out in force so I rushed through somewhat.
Leaving Liuhe, I walked about 20 minutes back towards West Lake to Dreaming of Tiger Spring (near Hangzhou Zoo, which I skipped). Naturally, there's a story behind the name. Long ago there was a monk who came to live in the area but, due to the lack of a good water source, was planning to move on. However, one night he dreamed of two tigers tearing up the ground to create a spring. The next morning, there was a spring of clean water nearby. Said spring has remained clean and constant throughout the centuries and was even ranked as China's third best spring long ago by one of the emperors (I can't remember which). As such, it became famous, with people coming from far and wide to collect the water. I wasn't really sure what to expect (other than a spring), but I'm glad I went since it turned out to be an incredibly scenic area. The entrance opens up to a path following a very picturesque (and very clear) steam. There are a few statues, and a spot where you can fill your bottle with the spring water if you'd like. I thought about it but, despite the reassurances, I couldn't really bring myself to trust spring water in modern China (remember, the tap water isn't safe to drink unless it's been boiled). Continuing on, I came to a temple complex. It was a pretty one with lots of plants and little garden displays and the main temple building featured one of the more unique interiors I've come across, with a very unorthodox Buddha statue and display (as a side note, that's not the "normal" Buddha, there's more than one in Buddhism (the most commonly known one is just the first) and some, like this one, are female). A bit further up, I found the the source of the spring and a path leading off into the forest. According to the signs, the trail actually goes through nearby hills and forests, passing some notable scenic spots, and eventually ends up back at Liuhe Pagoda. Though that route is much longer and more strenuous than the walk I took along the road. Could be nice on a day that's not so hot and damp. I followed it for a bit (which turned out to be all up hill on a very steep staircase), though I probably shouldn't have. At first, I went because it looked like there was something to see nearby, and later because I felt like I had already gone so far that it would be a shame to stop before I at least got a view or something. It was a lot of work to get up there, but I least I could say for sure that stairs weren't bothering me any more. After making my way back down, I continued exploring the area and came across a tea house, since the spring water and Hangzhou's tea have a long history together.
I wanted a break after all the climbing, and I still hadn't really been to a Hangzhou tea house (just a sampling at the museum), so I decided to give it a try. There were a few different kinds of tea, but I got the most famous local green tea, which was also the most expensive, of course. While some teas come in a pot, mine was just a cup of leaves and a separate kettle of hot water. And no, it's not just one cup, whole tea leaves can be used several times in a row (five to eight, depending on the type of tea) without losing much flavor and good green tea doesn't really get bitter even if you leave the leaves in for a while. If you're wondering how you're supposed to drink it without swallowing the leaves (though you technically can eat them if you want), the trick is to put the lid on the cup and leave just a tiny gap for the tea to come through when you drink while keeping the leaves trapped inside. If the cup is too hot to touch, you can just pick up the bowl underneath it instead. As a note, the tea house experience is supposed to be a relaxing one. You sit back, enjoy sipping your tea, and read, watch the scenery, or talk (if you're in a group). I spent a while relaxing before leaving Dreaming of Tiger Spring behind and catching another taxi.
My next stop was off to the west of the northwest side of West Lake and is probably the most popular Hangzhou attraction that's not on the lake itself. My tour book referred to it as the Temple of the Soul's Retreat, though the temple is just a part of a much larger area, with the Feilai Feng Grottoes actually being the main attraction. Anyway, I arrived to find an entire little shopping and dining plaza and big ticket window. It took me a few minutes to determine that the tickets were probably for where I wanted to go, due to a lack of English and the fact that the temple is just one part of the larger area, and not even what you buy a ticket for. But soon, ticket in hand, I joined the crowds and headed in. The path goes along side the Feilai Feng Grottoes, which are a large collection of Buddhist statues carved into niches in the rocks next to a stream. There's somewhere around 70 carvings, and a few are even inside a small cave. It's a very atmospheric spot, despite the crowds. And the mist brought on by the rain (which had started up again) and the mugginess only enhanced that. There were some trails leading up the side of the mountain up above the carvings. Unfortunately, the signs were all in Chinese but I decided to take a look and see what was there. As far as I could tell, not much. I did find a stone with the name of the area carved in it and colored red, which seemed to be a moderately popular photo spot, but in my opinion that didn't really justify the climb.
Back on the main path, I found the actual Temple of the Soul's Retreat close to where the grottoes ended. Though getting in required a separate ticket. It's a very big temple complex that has been around for over 1,000 years. The stone pagodas near the entrance are actually around that old, while the rest of a buildings are a mix of somewhat old and fairly modern. It is a very nice temple, with a number of halls and large and small features, several giant Buddha (of varying designs and materials), and some halls dedicated to other things as well. One of the more interesting ones, in my opinion, is the Hall of 500 Arhats. Not exactly sure who or what an Arhat is, but it's filled with 500 bronze statues, all different, along with a large set of four bronze Buddhas. I wish I had a better picture, but you weren't supposed to take photos inside so I kind of snuck one through the door (I pretty much always follow the letter of the photography rules at the places I visit, though I do occasionally break the spirit of them if something is especially cool).
At this point, it was getting near two and I hadn't eaten lunch yet. My tour book said that the temple had a fancy vegetarian restaurant that it highly recommend so I planned to eat there. Only problem was, I couldn't find the thing. My book just said it was in the temple, but it wasn't listed on any of the temple's maps or directory signs. There was one sign that mentioned the restaurant (indicating that it probably does exist), but it was sitting in the midst of an empty courtyard without an arrow or any other indication of where the place was. After walking all around the temple complex and failing to find it, I gave up. But the temple did have a small vegetarian noodle place as well, and that was very obviously marked. There wasn't any English, so I basically had to order at random. I ended up with a noodle soup with vegetables. Not bad, though nothing too special either. But I was hungry and it worked.
Leaving the temple, I followed the path by the grottoes further upstream to Yongfu Temple (which didn't need an extra ticket). While not nearly as big or elaborate as the Temple of the Soul's Retreat, it was very picturesque, with its various halls set in the side of the mountain amidst a collection of tea fields. The upper areas offered a distant view of West Lake as well. All in all, it was a really pretty location, and very much worth the extra walk.
There was also one other temple complex in the area (also included with the main ticket), though it was set much further up the mountain and getting there required climbing a ton of stairs, only to find even more stairs waiting for you when you arrived. It was an ok temple, and the view was nice, but it was a pretty serious climb and neither the temple or the view were really worth the effort, in my opinion, unless you just want to make to the climb for fun.
By that point, I had pretty much seen everything inside the Grottoes area, so I headed back towards my started point. There is an area nearby where you can pay to take a cable car up to a nearby peak, but I'd gotten enough views already, so I didn't feel the need. Instead, I went to look for a taxi back to West Lake. I did consider walking but, after all that climbing (which was just the latest in a number of steep climbs I'd made that day), on top of the walking, I kind of wanted a break and a 45 minute walk just to get to West Lake (and a part of the lake that wasn't anywhere near where I wanted to go next) wasn't very appealing. Strangely, while there were plenty of taxis dropping people off near the entrance, they all seemed to be making a point of not picking up any new passengers. I wasn't the only person having trouble finding a ride back and, since I can't speak Chinese, I really didn't know what was going on. After waiting around fruitlessly for a bit, I started walking back, while trying to flag down any empty taxi that passed. Before too long one did stop next to me and the driver offered to take me where I wanted to go but off the meter for a flat fee (as a note, official taxi drivers really aren't supposed to do that, though some do). Now I'd ridden enough taxis in the area to know that the amount he asked for was 3 - 4 times what the ride should have cost. But, while that was really expensive by Chinese standards, it wasn't that bad by American standards (official Chinese taxi rates are really cheap) and I really wanted to save some time and get off my feet for a bit so I took him up on it. Unfortunately, it didn't go so well. Before we'd gone very far, he indicated to me that he had to get gas and then proceeded to drive out of the way (and through a small traffic jam) to get to his gas station. The guy tried to be nice about it (he offered me a cigarette twice along the way, despite having a non-smoking cab, and bought me a Red Bull (which I don't drink) at the gas station), but I was still rather annoyed. We finally got back on route, only to get stuck in traffic (not really the driver's fault, but still annoying) and he kept trying to pick up additional fares along the way, another thing that's against the official taxi rules (fortunately, none were going in my direction). Finally, he dropped me off a solid ten minutes walk from where I'd asked to go, though at that point I was already considering getting out early due to the traffic so I didn't complain. I was seriously tempted to text Connie and have her send me a note demanding half my money back because of that gas station detour (he still would have made a solid profit off me), but decided against it. While I have been occasionally tempted to argue with people in China, the fact that I'm a foreigner and can't speak Chinese has always made me a bit nervous about what would happen if things escalated. In the end, I made it fairly close to my destination, and I did get a rest, but I don't think it ended up being all that much faster than walking.
Back at West Lake, I walked the rest of the way to the fountain area (where I began my day) and headed south (clockwise), passing through some of the areas I'd previously walked through with Connie but hadn't yet been back to on this trip. The rain had ended and taken away the mist and much of the smog with it, leaving the lake clearer than I'd ever seen. Because of that, I kept stopping to take photographs, which slowed me down a bit on my way to Orioles Singing in the Willows, a park area on the side of the lake. But that wasn't really my destination. From there I turned away from the lake one last time, heading into the city. I passed the park with this neat pagoda (or maybe pavilion) that I'd been seeing a lot in the distance. Part of me would have liked to go up, but it was likely closed for the day at that point (though I didn't actually check) and I'd had enough climbing for one day. My actual destination was a short distance past the park on Hefeng Street, where several blocks are lined with old buildings which have been converted into shops and restaurants. A bit touristy, but fun to walk around. There was also this Buddha (which I personally found a little creepy). It looked like there were some little museums as well, though it was getting a bit too late in the day for that, though all the lights and evening activity was fun. The area was rather crowded, but that did enhance the atmosphere to a certain point, and there were some quieter alleyways and side streets. The old section of Hefeng Street ran east for a few blocks before coming to an end at Nansongyu Street, another old street turned tourist attraction, though with a different and slightly newer style of building. I hadn't actually known about it, but couldn't really complain about having a larger area to explore. I had a good time walking around, looking at some unusual buildings, and snacking a bit (though not on the dodgy street food, of course).
I had originally planned to go back the way I came but, by the time I reached the end of Nansongyu Street, it rather late and I still hadn't eaten a solid meal so I decided to take a more direct route back towards my hotel. I had a particular restaurant in mind that I'd seen the other day but, after checking my map, noticed that I'd be passing by Grandma's Home, a very popular restaurant focusing on Hangzhou cuisine. It had good reviews, and I'd been curious about it, so I decided to go there instead. There ended up being a moderately long wait, so I ate much later than I usually do, but it was a neat restaurant with a huge menu and the food was good. I certainly wouldn't mind going back again and trying some other dishes.

Later!

Josiah

6/30/2017 Exploring Hangzhou

First up, there's a new bonus comic so click the TWC button on the left and vote to take a look! In other PV news, please note that there will be no update on Monday, since I'll be flying back to the US. I'm hoping to resume updates on Wednesday, but since I'll have a lot to catch up on when I get back, on top of jet lag and Independence Day, I'm not sure if I'll be able to get an update done or not. So check back Wednesday but, if there's no update, things will resume on Friday.

With that out of the way, let's get back to the travelogue.

June 28th (Wednesday): Everything I wanted to see in Hangzhou but didn't have time for the last time.
There were several things I had originally planned to see on my first visit to Hangzhou but wasn't able to due to time constraints. So, naturally, they were on the top of my to-do list for this visit. I decided to plan out a route that would let me hit as many as possible today and leave tomorrow up in the air depending on what (if anything) was left.
I started off walking counterclockwise around West Lake again, but this time I took the causeway to Solitary Hill Island, the large island just off the lake's northern shore. I had a main destination in mind, but there were a few little things on the island that I hadn't seen yet, so I took a look along the way. First was the Wenlange Library Pavilion, which was built long ago to house a collection of specific imperial books (scrolls). It's one of the only such libraries to survive to the present day, though neither the exterior to interior would be immediately recognizable to modern visitors as a library. Right next door, I stumbled across a relatively small museum focused on the history of Chinese porcelain. I'd already seen a lot of porcelain, but it was free so I took a quick look. It was kind of interesting to see how the colors of porcelain were essentially fashion trends that changed through the ages. For some reason, they also had some artifacts from Leifeng Pagoda, even though it's all the way on the opposite side of the lake.
Next, I came across the ruins of a temporary imperial palace that was once built there, though ruins is right as there was almost nothing left. Climbing the hill in the back, I came to the upper section of the Seal Engravers Society complex (I had only seen the lower area last time). Their museum seemed to be closed, but the area itself was quite pretty.
Finally, I decided it was time to leave Solitary Hill Island and head for my first main destination, but that required a boat ride. There are a number of boat docks around west lake. Some are for hiring little private boats where a boatman will take you and the rest of your small group out on the water for an hour or two. Others are for somewhat similar, but larger and less private, outings. But there are also ferries which launch from several spots around the lake. You can get a ticket from any of the launching points and ride the ferry to Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, an island in the middle of the lake. From there, you can spend however long you want exploring the island before taking one of the return ferries back to whichever dock you prefer. The ride itself was smooth and fairly quick but before I can really talk about Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, you need to have an idea of its layout. Get the picture? It started out as a much smaller island with an equally small temple but it was later expanded, with dirt and rock put in around it to form the pools and create its current shape. On a side note, I know it looks more like either four pools or two than three, but whatever. Anyway, despite the crowds, it's a pretty place (and it should be, since the entire thing was created as a sort of water garden) and the pools are covered with water lilies and filled with fish and birds. It also offers some good views of West Lake itself that you can't get from the shore.
Once I'd finished looking around, I took the ferry to the south side of West Lake, near Leifeng Pagoda. Once again, I had a specific destination in mind, but I couldn't resist looking around a bit along the way. Last time, while Connie and I visited the pagoda, we didn't have time to see Chijian Jingci Temple, which is across the street. It's a nice large temple, but I wouldn't say that there was anything about it that especially stuck out to me (having already seen lots of Chinese temples). Well, except for the trash cans. See, most trash cans in China are divided into two sections. One is for recyclables (and labeled as such) and the other, for everything else, is usually labeled as "non-recyclable" or "other waste". The cans in the temple, however, gave it a very different (and pretty weird) translation.
Speaking of odd English, as I left West Lake behind and headed south towards my next stop, I passed the Hangzhou Normal University. Which, of course, begs the question of where the abnormal university is. I bet that one would be much more interesting to see. Anyway, I had been expecting a 20 minute walk along the road, but it turned out that there was a park with a stream going most of the way, which made for a much nicer route. Surprisingly, the water in the stream was extremely clear which, from my experience, is a rarity in China.
The park ended just before I reached the Chinese Silk Museum. It's a large modern complex which can best be described as "everything you ever wanted to know about silk and then much, much, much more". The first building combines an exhaustive history of the creation and use of silk (including weaves, cuts, patterns, fashion trends, etc.) with an equally detailed history of the Silk Road and its influence on Chinese silk production. Everything had English translations and there were lots of samples, from ancient silk garments found in tombs, to those worn during China's most famous dynasties, up until modern times. Honestly, I eventually went into a sort of information overload and resorted to just skimming a lot of the signs since there was so much to take in. There was another building dedicated to silk worms and how silk thread is actually made from their cocoons, another featuring a huge collection of looms, and one on dying and silk art. Next up was the silk shop and cafe and then, finally, a temporary exhibition (silk use among a certain ancient people group), and the final exhibit hall, which was dedicated to more modern fashion (silk and otherwise). As I was leaving, I also noticed this reproduction of an ancient silk making shed (those are mulberry trees outside, since silkworms feed on their leaves). It was an interesting and well done museum though I left feeling like I now know way more about silk than I ever wanted to.
From there, I made my way back to West Lake and began going clockwise along the west side, following the route Connie and I had bypassed last time by taking the more popular causeway. There were a lot of little islands and streams breaking up the shore and before long I reached an area known as Viewing Fish at Flower Pond (here are the fish). A little further on, and I once again began following a road away from the lake. After a little walking, the scenery changed considerably, giving way to fields and fields of Hangzhou's most famous product, tea. Which, of course, made it a great location for the China National Tea Museum. Like the Silk Museum, it too contained excellent English translations. The tea museum opted for a somewhat less exhaustive exhibit, though it did cover the basic history of tea and its role in Chinese life and culture, the development of tea utensils, how tea is processed, and the like. There was also some basic information about how tea is rated and all the different kinds of mainstream tea (not counting tea mixed with fruit and stuff like that). They also had some particularly large and fancy tea cakes on display. If you're not familiar with the term, a tea cake is an old Chinese way of storing tea which involves packing the leaves into a mortar like substance which is then formed into various shapes. Later, pieces can be broken off and put in hot water to create the tea. Tea cakes were once the main way to store and brew tea in ancient China, but later fell out of fashion in most regions. Outside of its main building, the tea museum complex housed more tea fields and several tea houses. I found the shop in the main building underwhelming, but it turned out there was a separate building with free tea sampling and a much better shop for tea and all necessary brewing and serving accessories. I tried a few teas (the lady in the shop spoke decent English and was able to describe them all) and ended up getting a couple. They were a little on the expensive side, at least compared to what you normally see in stores in the US, but very good quality and the ones I picked are rather hard to find back home anyway. According to my tour book, there's a more freeform tea market further down the road from the museum, but it requires a lot of tea knowledge and bargaining (and presumably some Chinese reading and/or speaking ability) to get good deals, so the museum is an easier place to shop.
After I'd had my fill of tea, I once again made my way back to West Lake, continuing to follow the shore to the north. At this point, I was actually really hungry. I was still feeling a touch off in the morning so I'd only eaten some very simple bread and I'd pretty much skipped lunch entirely due to not feeling hungry and not being near a good restaurant anyway. Looking at the map, I determined that I could get to my chosen dinner spot within an hour so I decided to forgo any more sightseeing and head there. Of course, I was still walking on the shore of West Lake, so it's not like I was just ignoring the scenery or anything.
Right on schedule, I found myself back where I'd started on Solitary Hill Island. Specifically, at Louwailou, a former fish shack turned fancy restaurant that's been around for over 100 years and become one of Hangzhou's most famous places to eat. Fortunately, I arrived just before the dinner rush and had no trouble getting a seat. Connie and I had eaten there last time but there was a dish I'd wanted to try but didn't. While fish is naturally one of Louwailou's specialties, the other is beggar's chicken, which involves stuffing a chicken (with beef and mushrooms, in this case), wrapping it in a lotus leaf, then covering it in clay (though many modern restaurants skip that step or use a substitute) and roasting it. It originated in the Hangzhou area (supposedly due to a beggar hiding a stolen chicken in the mud before cooking it) and since became a legendary dish throughout the country. So how does it taste? Pretty good. The whole process traps the juices inside and leaves the chicken moist and soft. Though I'll note that the bottom half (where all the stuffing a juice collected) was considerably more flavorful than the top.
That would have been a good time to end the day but I wasn't done quite yet. A little before reaching Solitary Hill Island, I'd passed the entrance for Enduring Memories of Hangzhou (aka Impressions of West Lake), a show I'd been seeing a lot of signs for. I did some research online while eating, and it got good reviews, so I decided to see if I could get a ticket. The sites I saw online recommended booking at least a day in advance. I, however, managed to buy a ticket about an hour before show time. That said, the stands were mostly full and it was a weekday that didn't fall during vacation or holiday season. On a side note, these types of shows have become very popular across China recently. Connie and I saw two at various theme parks (in Hangzhou and Lijiang) and I've seen ads for several in other cities. What set this particular show apart is that it takes place on West Lake itself. There's a series of nearly invisible walkways that make it look like the performers are dancing on the water, combined with beautiful live music (mostly traditional Chinese, but with Swan Lake and Ode to Joy thrown in for good measure), and excellent use of lights and projectors. Unfortunately, photos and videos weren't allowed (though I seemed to be the only person in the audience actually following the rules), but you can get a preview on the ticket web site. Luckily (and/or thanks to the clerk in the ticket office), I had a really good seat right in the front row. All in all, it was a great show and I'm glad I went.
By the time the show got out, it was nearly 9 PM and I still had a thirty minute or so walk back to the area with my hotel. Despite the late hour, the area around the lake with still busy, with many people enjoying a nighttime stroll or lounging in the restaurants and tea houses, making for a pleasant walk back to finish up the day.

Ok, I've got two more days to write about but haven't even finished sorting those photos yet so I'll have to end it here for now and finish up the travelogue after I get back to the US.

See you Wednesday (or Friday, depending)!

Josiah

6/28/2017 Back to Hangzhou

I've noticed that, as slow as my internet connections often are here in China, if I have problems uploading PV updates, at least part of the blame can be assigned to the ftp client in my web editor. If I bypass it and upload the files directly via my server's control panel, the whole process goes a lot more quickly and smoothly. Though it also confuses my web editor has to what has and hasn't been uploaded, which becomes a problem after a while. But anyway, on with the travelogue!

June 24th - 26th (Sat - Mon): Back in Maanshan
Not too much to write about for these few days. I got a nice, high resolution, family shot of Connie, her parents, Zack, and I, which is one thing I'd been meaning to do this whole time.
Sunday, Connie, Zack, and I had lunch with one of her cousins and his wife and son at a fancy revolving buffet restaurant on top of a very fancy looking hotel. I still couldn't do much talking, but it was fun and the view was good (aside from the smog). The food was ok. Good selection, but nothing too amazing.
Monday, unfortunately, I woke up feeling kind of sick. Food poisoning, as far as I could tell. It could have been something from the restaurant (there were some things I ate that Connie didn't), or the tea I got later that day, or maybe something from supper at Connie's parents (though that's unlikely, since we all ate the same things). Whatever it was, the result wasn't terrible. I even managed to go on a walk with Connie to a small but nice mall nearby where I saw this really weird Mario/Pac-Man dress and a camel milk store (the quality looked pretty good so, if I'd been feeling better, I probably would have tried it). If you're wondering, camel milk is not a typical Chinese thing. It's mostly just drunk by the tribes in the desert regions. Other than that walk though, I took some medicine (I always bring a stock of Supreme Nutrition Products stuff, especially Morinda, Melia, and Takesumi, when I go to China, both as a preventative and for situations like this) and mostly just lounged around for the rest of the day.

June 27th (Tue): Hangzhou
Fortunately, I woke up feeling about 95% better, so I didn't feel a need to cancel my second solo trip. While there is a direct train from Maanshan to Hangzhou, it's only once a day and on the slow side (despite being a G train), so I ended up getting a ticket to Nanjing and then a separate ticket from there to Hangzhou. As a note, switching trains mid-trip is not as quick or easy as it is in Japan (buying the tickets is trickier too if you don't speak Chinese), so you need to leave yourself a lot more time. I had about 20 minutes and I barely made it (that's with a lot of running). One thing I did learn is that they actually sell a limited number standing tickets on the trains her in China. Though they often won't offer them to you unless you specifically ask (once again, not easy if you don't speak Chinese). Still, considering how many times I've gotten stuck waiting long periods of time in a Chinese train station, or that K train experience from last week, there are times I'd certainly be happy to take a standing ticket if there's one available.
Anyway... Hangzhou is a popular tourist destination not all that far from Shanghai. It's known for West Lake, a large lake surrounded by a scenic pathway and numerous interesting sights. Connie and I spent two days there on my last trip to China (see the entries for Days 9 and 10), one walking around West Lake and one visiting the Hongzhou Songcheng theme park. It was a really fun trip, but there were some things I wanted to see that we didn't have time for and Hangzhou also makes a decent base for day trips to a couple other cities (though I don't know if I'll actually get to those or not this trip) so I decided to go back.
By the time I got to Hangzhou and took the subway to the West Lake area, it was time for lunch (the subway exit I chose just happened to come out in a nice food court) and, after that, it was just about late enough for me to check into my hotel, so I didn't get an especially early start on sightseeing. But I eventually make to back to West Lake. The weather was definitely better than the last time I was here (which was really foggy and hazy), though I wish I could see the lake on a day with a really clear sky.
Last time, Connie and I took a clockwise route around the lake, starting on the east side (where most of the hotels and shops are). So we saw most of the notable sights on the east and south sides of the lake, but not as much on the west and north (we did make a complete circuit, but we didn't get a very early start so we had to pick up the pace when it got late).
Because of that, I immediately began heading counterclockwise, making my way to the north. One thing I quickly noticed was that the north east quarter of the lake is definitely the most crowded. The crowds disappeared fairly quickly when we went south last time, but today they stayed pretty thick for the entire section of the lake path that I covered. On the plus side, that means I got to see the occasional street performer along the way. And, despite the haze, the lake itself has plenty of great scenery.
My first goal for today was a hike up Precious Stone Hill Floating in the Rosy Cloud (ancient China really loved poetic names and that fact is very obvious in Hangzhou). Unfortunately, I soon noticed that while my head and stomach had mostly recovered from that food poisoning, the rest of my body wasn't doing quite so well and all the stairs, which normally wouldn't have been a big deal, left me really winded. That slowed me a down a lot, but I eventually made it to Baochu Pagoda and from there to the summit of Precious Stone Hill, which offered a really great view of the lake.
Now the hill area wasn't just a simple hill but an entire forest covered park crisscrossed with paths, some of which wound over, under, and between large rocks, which was fun. The only problem was that about half of those paths were missing from my map, which made navigation a bit tricky (basically, I just tried to keep heading in the proper direction and it worked out in the end). My tour book had mentioned a place at the base of the hill called Yellow Dragon Cave Dressed in Green so I tried to find my way. It took some searching, but I eventually managed to stumble across the back entrance on a nondescript path (as a side note, there's a much more prominent entrance on the northern most end of the forest, though it's further away from West Lake. Turns out, it's an entire area with several different things to thing to see (and an admission fee). One of the attractions is a temple for the god of marriage, along with a giant lock where couples can buy small locks to attach to the surrounding cords. And right nearby was a stage with periodic performances of traditional Chinese singing. There was also a bamboo garden featuring the rare square bamboo. Though you probably won't be able to tell it from the regular bamboo in the picture. While square bamboo is a natural type of bamboo, it's a very rounded square, so you need to take a close look (or touch it) to tell the difference. The one thing I had a lot of trouble finding was the Yellow Dragon Cave itself. I spent a little while following the signs in circles before I finally came across it. It's not really much of a "cave" but can you see the dragon? Here it is up close. Kind of neat, but not what I was expecting when I heard "cave".
They closed the back entrance of the Yellow Dragon Cave area earlier than the front one, so I had to take a different route back from the north side of the park to the south side and West Lake. Fortunately, there was a pretty direct path over the hill nearby. Mostly forest, but with some nice scenery along the way. Since I was walking a bit slowly, especially when it came to climbing hills, it was around five by the time I made it back to the lake so I had to give up my plans to see any of the other stuff on my list that day. However, I ended up right next to Yuewang Temple, and it was open until six, so I decided to pay it a visit.
Despite the name, Yuewang Temple isn't actually a temple. It's also known as the tomb of Yue Fei. For those of you who aren't particularly knowledgable about Chinese history, Yue Fei was a Chinese general who lived in the early 1100's. He started out as a peasant soldier and rose to become the leader of the Song dynasty's military and the greatest general of his time. It was thanks to his leadership that the Song dynasty was able to hold off the advances of North China's Jin Dynasty. Unfortunately, corrupt officials and a weak and foolish emperor forced Yue Fei to end the war just before what would have likely been his definitive victory, after which he was brought up on false charges and executed (or maybe assassinated, depending on the source). He was posthumously pardoned by a later emperor around twenty years after his death and has since been revered as a military master and a symbol of loyalty to his country. At the same time, the tomb was erected in his honor. Now, in addition to the tomb, it houses several temple style buildings with displays detailing Yue Fei's life and military campaigns. Not everything was translated, but there was enough for me to learn what I just told you. It made for an interesting history lesson and was worth the visit.
Despite all the walking, I actually wasn't feeling hungry (a big lunch combined with lingering effects of the food poisoning, I think) so I walked around the lake a bit more, enjoying the scenery and the eventual sunset, before settling in to watch the nightly fountain show on the east side. As a note, while I managed to avoid showing it in that video, there was a large crowd there. If you want to get a really good spot in front of the fountains, you need to show up early. I got there around 20 or 30 minutes before the show and there was already several rows of people between me and the water. In addition to the crowd, the mosquitos were also out in force (I guess they know how popular the fountain show is too). Somehow, I avoided getting bitten, but I think I just got lucky. Considering how China doesn't seem particularly averse to chemical usage, I'm surprised they don't spray for mosquitos (in parks or in condo developments).
After that, it was back to the hotel. While I didn't get to see as much as I'd wanted, it was a pleasant day and I'm looking forward to getting down to some serious sightseeing tomorrow.

Random China Comment: Foreign Tourists
One thing I keep getting asked is how many foreign tourists I see in China. As a disclaimer, please note that I don't think I could tell the difference between a tourist from Taiwan or Hong Kong and a mainland Chinese citizen. Also, if I'm not paying close attention, I could easily fail to notice tourists from Japan, Korea, or the like. That said, the number of obviously foreign tourists I see in China varies greatly depending on where in China I am. I've seen the most by far in Shanghai and Beijing. At the most famous tourist destinations, such as the Forbidden City, Great Wall, and Shanghai's Yu Garden area, I encountered massive numbers of foreign tourists. Maybe up half to the people I saw were clearly not Chinese. Outside of those areas though, the number drops considerably. Get away from the main tourist spots in Shanghai and Beijing and you'll only see a handful. And other cities are even less. For example, I only saw one non-Asian person during the two days I recently spent in Nanjing (along with a couple of Japanese) and none in Yangzhou. And a couple of years ago when Connie and I went to Kunming and Lijiang up in the Yunnan province, I only saw a single family of US tourists for our entire week long stay. Here in Hangzhou, I've seen around 10 - 20 foreigners per day (not counting one odd tour group I spotted, which had about 15 - 20 people of its own). That's a bit better, but still pretty low considering that Hangzhou is a both pretty famous destination (well, not nearly so much as Shanghai and Beijing but nothing else in China really approaches them in terms of foreign name recognition) and a fairly short train ride from Shanghai.
As a quick comparison, while I've had plenty of days in Japan where I never encountered another foreigner, those were all in lesser known rural areas. On average, I encounter a decent amount more foreigners in Japan than in China.
The reason? Well, this is only speculation, of course. But, first off, getting a China visa (at least for US citizens) is a bit of a pain in the neck. The new 10 year visas fix that somewhat (at least if you plan on repeat trips), but the initial application process isn't any better and you have to know about and write in a request for the 10 year visa, since they haven't bothered to update their application forms in the last few years. And, once you do get to China, while getting around a major city like Shanghai or Beijing is relatively easy even if you don't speak any Chinese, trying to travel to other or cities (unless you're on a tour) is a lot more complicated thanks to the way the trains here work (especially the ticket buying process). Though most tourist destinations I've seen in China offer at least a moderate amount of English language support once you're actually there. I also wouldn't be surprised if there's also a bit of nervousness about visiting China, given their government's history and up and down relationship with much of the rest of the world, the pollution and sanitation issues, and the like. I was certainly a bit nervous my first time here.
On a side note, I wouldn't be surprised if some people removed China from their list of potential travel destinations immediately after hearing that Facebook and Twitter are blocked here... (Though, if you have an international cell phone plan, you can access them (and any other blocked sites) normally on your phone so long as you're not connected to wi-fi.)

I got back a bit late today so I'll end it there for now. See you Friday!

Josiah

6/26/2017 Continuing on...

I really hate having to interrupt a travelogue post in the middle, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Anyway, let's pick up right where we left off...

June 22nd (Thu): Yangzhou (Part 2)
By this point it had been raining for a while but only a light mist. It picked up a bit just before I left Lin's, finally driving me to get out my umbrella, but faded and then stopped entirely over the next hour or so while I was exploring my next destination. Said destination, by the way, was Geyuan, or Ge's Garden. Not to be confused with (though very easy to confuse with) Heyuan. It's one of China's four most famous gardens (along with one I visited in Suzhou and two others I'm not familiar with). I entered from the south entrance, which put me in an old building that was organized a bit like Wang's (though on a smaller scale). I'm not sure if it was originally used as a home, or was just designed as part of the garden. Actually, I moved kind of quickly through that part since I arrived just after a giant elementary school tour group (that picture only shows a small part of the full group) and I was trying to stay ahead of them. I like little kids, but I don't really want to get stuck in the middle of a giant mob of them when I'm trying to sightsee. Many of the rooms were furnished, but you weren't allowed inside. Well, at least that's what I'd assume from the locked gates they had blocking the entrances. The English signs on said gates were rather vague. Before too long, I made my way out of the buildings and into the garden proper. The first section had a lot of the same elements I've seen in many Chinese gardens, though very nicely done. But what Geyuan is really famous for is its bamboo. Bamboo is the main focus of the garden (even the character used for Ge in the name references bamboo). As such, the garden features a number of bamboo groves (containing many different kinds of bamboo), with lots of paths winding peacefully through them.
Once I'd finished enjoying the bamboo, I left the garden and headed north. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant mentioned in my tour book (at least, I'm pretty sure it was the one) but, despite being featured in an English language tour book, there wasn't an English menu. Or, if there was, none of the staff thought to show it to me. In the end, since I was hungry and didn't want to look for anywhere else, I ended up sending Connie a photo of the menu and having her tell me what to order. It worked out, though was a bit of a pain in the neck. In the future, I don't think I'll be eating at any restaurants without an English menu, or at least a picture menu, when I'm on my own.
From there, I went a little further north to a stream or canal and began to follow it to the west. I was originally planning to walk along the road, but it turned out that they had a path by the canal itself. Unfortunately, the path started out rather dirty, causing me to stick to the road for a while, then it switched to just overgrown, before finally turning into a nice and well maintained walkway. Said walkway ended shortly before my next destination, Slender West Lake Park. Slender West Lake is, as the name implies, a rather narrow lake. It's surrounded by a large park filled with gardens and other attractions. While far smaller than Hangzhou's famous West Lake, Yangzhou's slender version is quite nice in its own right. It was a pretty park, with lots of trees, flowers, and birds (which I've been seeing more of on this China trip than on my previous ones). One of the more notable attractions is this stupa (a Buddhist structure that you don't see too often outside of India). If it seems a little out of place, there's a story behind it. Long ago when the emperor (I can't remember which one) was visiting Yangzhou, he was very impressed with the lake and remarked that all it needed was a stupa to resemble a famous park in Beijing. In a (successful) attempt to curry favor, the locals carved a replica out of salt over night. This one was built a bit later, as a more permanent version. The lake also featured a number of bridges, some of which were quite elaborate. Here, for example is the 24 Bridges...er, bridge? I'm not entirely sure if the phrase "24 Bridges" was a typo referring to that particular bridge (which has 24 steps on each side, potentially making it the 24 Bridge), or that entire section of the park (which might or might not have 24 bridges, I didn't count).
The park also held a small garden, some picturesque man-made waterfalls, and a bonsai museum. I was originally going to skip the museum itself, but it was free so I walked through. While bonsai is generally considered to be a Japanese art form, it's practiced in China too. In fact, Yangzhou has its own bonsai style (hence the museum). As a note, while some Chinese bonsai trees look more or less the same as Japanese bonsai, some seem to put more of an emphasis on creating a mini landscape, rather than just one tree, and others can be several times larger than what I'd expect to see in Japan.
As I left the bonsai museum, I began seeing a large pagoda off in the distance. Figuring that it was most likely part of the nearby Daming Temple, I decided to try and get there before closing time. As I made my way through the north end of the park, I came across another little attraction, a sort of mini recreation of the lake area and local water system done as a garden. It lacked a lot of details, but was kind of fun to see.
Shortly after that, I left the official lake part behind, though Slender West Lake itself actually continued on a bit further to the north, with some more picturesque scenes. I think I explored the park fairly thoroughly, but there were tons of side paths with bridges and statues scattered about so I'm sure I missed a bit. It seems that there's also a big show they put on there every night (with fancy costumes, lights, music, etc.), though it requires a separate ticket. It looked cool, but wasn't until 8:30 and, assuming it went for about an hour or so, if I stayed I probably wouldn't be able to catch the last train back to Nanjing. But I'll keep it in mind in case I ever spend a night in Yangzhou in the future.
Anyway, I managed to make to to Daming Temple about half an hour before closing time, so I headed inside. The main temple is nice enough, though nothing too special (at least for someone like me who has seen tons of Buddhist temples), but they also have a pretty large compound complete with a garden, numerous side buildings, and that nine story pagoda. I spent a minute debating whether or not I really wanted to climb all the way up there (assuming it was allowed) after spending all day on my feet, though knowing that there was no way I wouldn't do it. Turns out, it's a pretty new pagoda (so new that you can only go as high as floor 7 because 8 and 9 are unfinished) so it had an elevator. However, going up the pagoda required a separate ticket (besides the admission ticket for the temple). Still, I think the view was worth it. If you're wondering, that body of water in the photo is only the north end of Slender West Lake, it stretches all the way back through that entire block of green (the park). Made me realize just how far I'd walked over the course of the day. I spent a little while up there enjoying the view and chatting with a student from Nanjing University who wanted to practice her English before heading down. I took the stairs, in case I'd missed anything interesting on the lower levels of the pagoda on the way up (I didn't), then left the temple complex.
There was a couple other attractions around (some ruins and an ancient tomb) but everything was closing up for the day so I flagged down a taxi back to the train station. Unfortunately, that was when the day took a turn for the worse. Since I hadn't been sure exactly when I'd finish up in Yangzhou, I hadn't bought a return ticket in advance. Well, it turned out that the next two trains were sold out, leaving me with about a three hour wait. And it turns out that the Yangzhou train station is even worse than Nanjing north when it comes to food and drink, with nothing but a couple of very mediocre convenience stores (probably should have taken a taxi somewhere else but, once inside the station, I was kind of stuck). Didn't help that my 3DS ran out of battery life an hour before the train and my phone was running extremely low as well. But my return trip didn't really improve once the train arrived. See, there are several classes of train in China. G trains, which I normally ride, are fairly close to Japanese Shinkansen. I've also ridden the occasional D train, which is similar though a slight downgrade in terms of speed and comfort. However, when I bought my ticket, the next available seat as on a K train. I didn't really think about it at the time but, in retrospect, I would have rather waited at the station a bit longer if there was a G or D train after that one. So what's the deal with K trains? Well, they're slower for starters. Though on my particular trip that only amounted to a difference of about 15 minutes since it was a relatively short ride to begin with. That I didn't mind...at least until after I was on the train, and then I was just wishing the ride would end as soon as possible. Actually, things got off to a bad start even before I got on the train as the boarding process was essentially a large mass of people trying to get into the car with no sort of order while conductors (or station employees or someone in uniform) angrily shouted at everyone to hurry up (at least I assume that's what they were saying) and shoved you through the doorway once you got close. It didn't get any better after that. K trains are much older and, as such, they're dirty, cramped, uncomfortable, and smell like smoke. Actually, I'm not sure if the cigarette smell was because it was an old train (perhaps from back when smoking on trains was allowed) or from the people ignoring the no smoking signs (something I haven't seen anyone do on G or D trains). They don't ride nearly as smoothly either. On top of that, my K train was also super crowded. Technically, I had a seat assignment but seating on K trains seems to basically ignore the tickets and people just have to try to grab a seat (or several seats, in some cases) if and when they found one. I didn't feel like fighting for my assigned seat (honestly, I didn't really want to sit down on that train anyway), so I tried to just find a place to stand that wasn't too close to the smokers or the bathrooms and wait out the ride. That was made more difficult by the fact that people were constantly making their way up and down the narrow isles, either passengers looking for a seat or conductors checking on things (and totally ignoring the smoking violations) or selling snacks. Anyway, it was a miserable ride and I'll do my best never to take another K train again in the future. On the bright side, K trains are a bit cheaper, but trains in China aren't very expensive anyway and I would gladly pay extra to never repeat that experience again.
I never really got supper (or anything close to it) but, by the time I made it back to Nanjing, it was around 10 at night, a lot of stuff was closing, and I was more worn out than hungry, so I just headed back to my hotel. Definitely a lousy ending to an otherwise enjoyable day.

June 23rd (Fri): The Nanjing Museum
While I needed to return to Maanshan later in the day, I had time to finally get to the Nanjing Museum. As a note, admission was free, though I needed to show my ID (passport) at the info counter to get a ticket. At least that's what the sign side, though no one ever actually checked to see if I had gotten a ticket or not so it didn't matter too much.
Anyway, the museum is made up of multiple buildings, but you're meant to enter it though the old style building in the back. From there, you can follow the route to get a detailed history of the region from the dinosaurs (well, one small room of them) and onward through the various periods of history. There were a variety of artifacts for each time period going from the stone age, to the bronze age, and onward. It's a huge collection, and nearly all the signs had English translations, which I really appreciated. One thing that I found rather interesting was how much in common the early Chinese civilization had with the Egyptians in regards to their burial customs. While there weren't any mummies, they dressed the bodies, put them in sarcophagi, and built elaborate tombs (at least for the rulers) filled with things that the dead person might need in the afterlife (both real and miniature statues).
Throughout all the ages, there was a large focus on pottery, which quickly began to get more and more elaborate. That said, while some museums tend to follow a "less is more" philosophy in regards to which artifacts they put on display, the Nanjing Museum has a tendency to throw a ton of stuff at you at once, which can be a bit overwhelming. Of course, there was lots more than pottery. There were carvings, embroidery, metal work, enamel, and porcelain. Including, of course, Ming vases. Finally, there was a section set up as a recreation of a city street from... Well, I didn't see the specific year anywhere, but it looks to me like the early 1900's, prior to the rise of the Communist party.
After that, I passed through a section dedicated to traditional crafts (mostly photos and descriptions, but there were some actual craftsmen making, and selling, things as well) and came out by the gift shops. Including the the Bro Store. I asked Connie later, and she said that "bro" was just the sound made by that Chinese character. But the name immediately brought Barney from How I Met Your Mother to mind...
At that point, I thought I'd been through the entire museum but I'd seen some signs for a couple things which I definitely hadn't seen, so I took another look. Turns out, if you follow the route exactly, like I did, it's pretty easy to overlook the art gallery and the temporary exhibit building. The art gallery had very little English, and much of it was dedicated to more modern Chinese painters, though there was some traditional stuff and a room of carvings. The temporary exhibit building had a large variety of displays including one on Scotland, more porcelain, and some items once used in imperial households.
By the time I finished making my way through, it was lunch time so I made one last stop at Nanjing dai Paidong before heading back to Maanshan.

Well, I wanted to write about the weekend and get totally caught up, but I'm getting over a case of food poisoning today (presumably something I ate yesterday, though I don't know what) and I really just want to get to sleep. Hopefully I'll feel better in the morning.

Josiah

6/23/2017 Continuing the travelogue

UPDATE: Sorry if this update showed up late and/or if some of the pictures didn't load properly. I had an extremely difficult time getting it all uploaded due to a bad internet connection. Everything should be up and working now though.

As usual, you can use the TWC button to vote and see this week's new bonus comic!

Last time, I left off right in the middle of a travelogue entry, so let's get to that (if you missed the first part, just scroll down and read Wednesday's news post first.

June 21st (Wed): Nanjing (Part 2)
If you couldn't tell from the previous paragraph, I really wasn't expecting much from the Imperial Examination Museum. Fortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong about it. But first, a bit of background information. The imperial examination is a system of tests created in 605 AD and used until 1905 to select Chinese government officials. One of the key points was that the test stressed fairness and that nothing mattered except the scores. At such, it prevented the noble families from controlling the government and provided even the poorest peasants the chance for advancement to the highest ranks. It went on to influence the creation of other such exams in a number of Asian countries and the museum says it also influenced systems in the US and Europe as well, though I'm not quite sure how accurate that claim is. As a note, I had some vague knowledge about the exam before, but most of what I know I learned from the museum.
The museum is divided into two sections, the above ground section and underground section. I started with the above ground area. It's a bit small, but it's on the side of the river so it is rather picturesque. Aside from a few statues of various scholars who passed the exam, it contained some displays of good luck charms that were given to candidates, lucky meals that they would eat prior to the exam, celebratory plaques, and the like. The majority of the signs had an English translation, which was nice, but there wasn't a whole lot to see there. Though they did have some examination cells. The cells were built in rows which were then formed into blocks and the candidates lived in them while taking the exam. Yes, I said lived in. The exam took nine days to complete and the candidates had to not only take the test but also eat and sleep in those tiny little cells. Makes the SAT seem kind of tame, huh?
Moving on, I headed for the underground section of the museum, which is below that water side pavilion I posted a picture of earlier. As a note, getting there requires leaving the above ground section of the museum entirely and showing your ticket to enter the other area, which is across the street. First off, I was surprised by just how far underground it went. I soon realized that the underground is the main part of the museum. There's a set route you follow which walks you through the history of the examination, starting with its creation, as you make your way back towards the surface. The museum is clearly very new and modern with all sorts of elaborately designed areas that make it fun to walk through for the visual presentation alone. In addition to the history of the exam and various notable events that happened during its long history, the museum also details of how the examination was conducted (including the follow-up exam for those that passed (for ranking purposes), which was given by the emperor himself), and the lives and accomplishments of some notable figures who took it. There were plenty of relics and artifacts relating to the exam as well, such as this robe, which was bestowed upon the scholars who passed. They even had a short sample test you could take (complete with English subtitles, though some of the questions would be extremely hard for a non-Chinese native). Fortunately, the vast majority of the material featured English translations, so I was easily able to follow along, and I found both the exam and the history behind it to be quite fascinating. If you're wondering, the examination system was discontinued not long after the opium wars with England (which China lost), when officials realized that, because of the way the exam was structured, those that passed it often lacked the practical skills needed to modernize the country to catch up with Europe and the US. A series of reforms to the exam were proposed by the current emperor, but never implemented, so the system was eventually scrapped entirely. Still, it left a big impact on China and other parts of the world. The museum exit ended up being back near that building I first saw, which was also surrounded by rows upon rows of recreated examination cells. Got to say, the exam certainly didn't look like a pleasant experience for the takers or the overseers. But anyway, I really enjoyed the museum and am very glad that I decided to check it out.
Heading back to Xinjiekou, I made my way through a very fancy mall (complete with a display of odd motorcycles) and ate at a branch of my favorite Chinese restaurant, Nanjing da Paidong which, aside from the fun atmosphere, features a huge menu of excellent Nanjing cuisine (with English) at great prices. They even had live music. Unfortunately, all the locations also tend to feature large crowds at meal times, but it's worth the wait.

June 22nd (Thu): Yangzhou
Back when I was thinking about where to go during this China trip, Connie's dad recommend the city of Yangzhou, which isn't too far away from Nanjing (50 minutes of the train, or a longer (but still reasonable) bus ride). It had an entry in my tour book as well, and looked interesting, so I decided to make it a day trip from Nanjing.
Yangzhou was once a major trade hub on both land and water and, as such, became one of the most prosperous cities in China. Now a days, it's fallen significantly behind Nanjing in terms of size, fame, and glitz, though there was a fairly nice looking and moderately high-end shopping street through the center of the city. Even the train station is a relatively recent addition and, unfortunately, it's located pretty far away from most of the city's major attractions. Really, the only thing within walking distance is Yangzhou Museum, and I decided to skip that to focus other things (especially since I still planned to go to Nanjing Museum the following day). There's no subway either, which means that getting around requires either taking a bus (which are pretty difficult for non-Chinese speakers) or a taxi. Fortunately, taxis are cheap and abundant and, so long as you have the name and/or address of where you want to go written in Chinese, they can get you there. That said, if risky driving makes you nervous, I recommend you spend the duration of any Chinese taxi rides you take starting intently at your phone or something similar and avoid paying any attention to the road. I shrug it off, but Chinese taxi drivers drive just as crazily as regular Chinese drivers.
Anyway... The driver dropped me off near my first sightseeing destination but my first stop was actually at a Starbucks I saw just before we arrived. Since I was in a hurry to get to my train on time, I didn't eat breakfast back in Nanjing, figuring I could get something at the station. Except that Nanjing Station really didn't have much of anything (unlike Nanjing South Station, which has a bunch of restaurants and stuff).
But anyway, it took me a little longer than planned (partly traffic and partly the driver didn't seem to take the most direct route), but I finally made it to Wang's Residence. Wang, if you were wondering, was a salt merchant back during Yangzhou's glory days as a trade hub (salt was one of the major commodities) and he built quite an impressive mansion for himself and his family. Actually, from what I read, such dwellings were actually rather common back then, though Wang's is the only one that survived to the present. The mansion is designed as a large number of connected chambers surrounding small square courtyards. Now, a lot of the rooms are empty and unfurnished, but some still hold their various furnishings. There was almost no English and, honestly, not a ton of Chinese either, so you were pretty much just left to explore on your own. The back area held a small garden, though the focus was mainly on the building itself. There were only a few other people there when I arrived, so was able to get some neat pictures, without any crowds to deal with, as I explored. While I think that the place could be better maintained and presented, it's a pretty neat structure and I had fun walking around and finding different interesting areas scattered about.
From Wang's, I headed south for a ways (about half of which was down a half touristy, half lived in old street) to Heyuan or He's Garden. It's a nice garden, though a couple parts of it were undergoing renovation and, as such, unaccessible. But beyond that, it also surrounds the former home of the He family. The He's were a prominent merchant family from a much later period in Yangzhou's history, as shown in their home's east meets west style fusion of Chinese and European design and elements. Both the garden and mansion can be explored, and most of the rooms are still fully furnished. It seems to be more popular than Wang's and, as such, is much better maintained and features a lot more English. I really liked the fusion of home and garden, and the garden itself is pretty nice too, though I think that Wang's was the more interesting mansion by far due to its age and style.
Once I'd finished, I walked all the way back to Wang's then continued north to Dongguan Street, which is a long tourist street lined with old buildings that have been converted into shops and restaurants. It actually caught me off guard since my tour book hadn't even mentioned it, I was just using that street as the most direct route to my next destination, but it was fun to walk down and look around. I got a peanut drink too, which was interesting. Along the way I passed, but didn't enter, the Chinese papercraft museum. Chinese paper cutting is cool, but I didn't really feel like looking at a ton of them all at once and the museum was on the expensive side. I did, however, take a look inside Lin's Residence. It was another merchant home and garden, though this one is actually a modern recreation. All you can really do is walk through the garden, but it is pretty. Interestingly, it looked like the buildings were actually part of a hotel. Could be a pretty cool place to stay...
By this point it had been raining for a while but only a light mist. It picked up a bit just before I left Lin's, finally driving me to get out my umbrella, but faded and then stopped entirely over the next hour or so while I was exploring my next destination. Said destination, by the way, was Geyuan, or Ge's Garden. Not to be confused with (though very easy to confuse with) Heyuan.

Ugh... And once again I find myself in the middle of a very long post but up way later than I should be. I'm afraid I'm going to half to cut this entry in half too. Sorry, I'll finish it (and hopefully get caught up) on Monday.

Josiah

6/21/2017 Out on my own

I'm in Nanjing on the first of my solo sightseeing excursions on this China trip. It's getting a bit late, so I'll jump right into the travelogue.

June 19th - 20th (Mon - Tue): More in Maanshan
I didn't have a lot to do on Monday, so I walked to a part of Maanshan we'd driven past the other day that had a bunch of shops and malls and stuff. I started by checking out an street lined with food stalls (though, as per everyone's advice, I don't eat street food in China) then went down into a weird underground mall that was filled with tiny clothing stores and little snack places. Oh, look what I spotted in one of the stores. Note that it's a kids' shirt. Moving on, I passed a Pizza Hut (which, in China, are really fancy) which was advertising a trio of new pizzas. From the top, they're seafood (weird, but common enough in Japan), durian (ugh), and potato chip and ham. China really doesn't understand proper pizza toppings any more than Japan does... After that, I went into a decent size mall which was mostly clothing up until the top couple of floors, which had tons of restaurants. Speaking of which, the restaurants in fancy malls in China tend to have really elaborate themes and decor. It makes them fun to look at (and eat in), and I really wish we'd see more of that in the US outside of places like Disney World.
I eventually got tired of looking around and headed back, though this place caught my attention. If you're wondering, no, it's not plumbing related, it's a restaurant (and with a perfectly decent looking menu). Yes, seriously. Figuring they were the victim of a really bad translation mistake, I asked Connie to read the Chinese characters but the name is the same in Chinese as well. Weird... I mean, it's attention getting, sure, but doesn't really make me want to eat there...
Tuesday, we had another lunch at the fancy restaurant from before. This time it was a smaller group consisting of some of Connie's dad's old friends and their families. It was enjoyable, and I got to try some foods that I hadn't at the previous meal, though once again I couldn't really understand anything that was being said.
And, while not directly related, I haven't posted a good photo of Zack in a while so...

June 21st (Wed): Nanjing
When I was originally planning to do some touring on my own while in China, I created itineraries for three different areas, though I knew that I'd likely only have time for two. Unfortunately, the one I ultimately eliminated, Yellow Mountain (or Huangshan), was the place I wanted to go to the most. But the weather just wasn't on my side. June is the wettest month in that area and the forecasts were calling for thunderstorms pretty much every day for the next couple of weeks. I will definitely make it there on a future China trip. This time though, that left me with revisiting Nanjing and Hangzhou. I decided to start with Nanjing since it was closer and shorter. And, while I wasn't worried about myself, this would be the first time I'd left Zack for more than half a day, so I wanted to be nearby just in case.
Connie's dad drove me to the train station in the morning, from where it was a very short trip (around 15 minutes) to Nanjing. Of course, I had to wait in the train station for over an hour because the first train was already full. Though, from past experience, that seems to almost always happen in China if you don't buy your ticket at least a few hours in advance. Which is also why my first task upon arriving in Nanjing was to buy a ticket for tomorrow's excursion.
Nanjing is one of China's former capital cities and was also a major trade hub. It's now a huge metropolitan area known as one of the country's nicer cities. I previously toured Nanjing with Connie for a few days on my first trip to China and I saw most of the major tourist attractions then, but there were a couple things I missed, and it also made a convenient hub for another destination.
Anyway, I was originally planning to go to my hotel first and drop off my backpack, but figured I could deal with it for a few hours and decided to go straight to my first destination, the Nanjing Museum. While I'd made some notes about the museum's location in my travel plan, I decided to forget about them and use Google Maps to plot the quickest way to get there. Said route took me through some very old and run down alleyways, which were interesting to see, but left me thinking that there had to be a better route. Note that said alleys never really felt dangerous, but they're a strong reminder that modern day China is a rather odd mix of first world and third world living conditions (and a lot inbetween the two (is there such a thing as "second world"?)). It's kind of hard to believe that alley and this street (that photo was, obviously, taken much later in the day) really aren't very far apart. But, getting back on track, as I neared the location on the map, the area just didn't look right so I checked my notes and discovered that I was nowhere near the museum. Turns out that Google had led me to the Chaotian Palace, which houses the Nanjing Municipal Museum. But Google apparently lists both it and the Nanjing Museum as just "Nanjing Museum". I was a bit annoyed but figured that, since I had come all the way, I might as well check out the palace while as I was there. And I'm glad I did. It's certainly worth visiting, but I'd never heard of before (it's not in my tour book and no one told me about it) so, had it not been for the mix-up, I never would have known it even existed.
The Chaotian Palace was named (and created?) by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1385 (which I believe is when Nanjing was the capital). Much of it had to be rebuilt in 1866, but it's still considered to be the largest and best preserved group of ancient buildings south of the Yangtze. Many of the palace buildings held small themed exhibits including dried plants (often incorporated into hand written poems), fancy clocks, and painted fans. Then there was the Nanjing Municipal Museum, which covered the history of Nanjing from its earliest beginnings to the present, complete with a large number of artifacts from various points in the city's history, such as roof tiles and other building parts, pottery (not sure why that bull has a bunch of spikes on its back), porcelain, and metal work. It was a nice museum, and rather interesting, at least from what I could understand. Only a handful of the signs were translated, so I only picked up the basic gist of things. After leaving the museum, I soon came across the palace garden, which was small but pleasant, and slowly worked my way back to the entrance.
While unplanned, I ended up pretty happy about the museum mix-up. So as not to disrupt my afternoon plans, I decided to save the actual Nanjing Museum for another day and go get lunch. To that end, I walked to the Xinjiekou area (Nanjing's fancy, modern downtown, which is filled with high-end shopping malls) and began looking around. While I didn't get anything there, I did spot a bakery with an interesting (and very likely unofficial) Mario Bros. promotion. Another place I spotted by didn't eat at was this very clearly copyright infringing One Piece themed restaurant. Are One Piece rip-off restaurants a big thing in China? That's the second one I've seen so far on this trip, and it's not like I've visited many areas. I think I may have gotten a glimpse of one in Yunnan last time I was in China too... I guess One Piece must be pretty popular here, but it's still odd.
After a slightly late lunch, it was check -n time at my hotel (which was nearby), so I swung over there to drop off my stuff. It turned out to be a pretty fancy place, and one of the nicer Chinese hotels I've stayed in. Though the decor seemed almost Japanese in style...
After a short stop at the hotel I set out (with a much, much lighter backpack) and, after getting distracted for a few minutes by the large underground mall by the subway station, I headed towards the Qinhuai River and Confucian Temple, which is where Connie and I took a boat ride last time I was here. While I'd already seen the temple and ridden the boat, I wanted to spend some more time walking around the streets in that area. I happened to pass by the Jinling Garden on my way and figured I might as well check it out too. It's not a bad Chinese style garden, though it lacked a true stand out feature. That said, I've already visited a number of very famous Chinese gardens. If this was one of my first, I'd probably be more impressed. Still, it was nice to walk through and there were some little museum exhibits in some of the buildings as well.
I eventually made it to the area near the river and began to explore. After looking walking down some streets, looking in a few shops, and getting a milk tea with oats (not rolled oats, cooked whole oats) in it instead of boba, I spotted this neat structure. Turns out, it was part of the Imperial Examination Museum. Now, I didn't think the subject sounded all that interesting, and it was somewhere around 4:30 so I figured they'd probably close soon anyway. Plus, with a subject like that, it seemed unlikely that the museum would have much, if any, English. That said, I was there and I didn't really have anything else to do. After a few minutes of internal debate, I saw that they were still selling tickets so I decided I might as well give it a try. As a side note, I never did see the hours posted anywhere, but I left a little after 6 and they were still selling tickets, so it must stay open pretty late.
If you couldn't tell from the previous paragraph, I really wasn't expecting much from the Imperial Examination Museum. Fortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong about it.

Unfortunately, as much as I want to finish writing about the museum, it's getting pretty late and I have a big day planned for tomorrow so, while I hate to do it, I'm going to split this travelogue entry into two and post the rest on Friday.

Later!

Josiah

6/19/2017 Hanging out in Maanshan

I've got my China touring plans worked out. Instead of going off on my own for a solid week or so, I'll be doing two shorter trips and returning for a couple days in between. I'll go into details in the travelogue at the appropriate time. Anyway, the first of those trips will be on Wednesday. Wednesday's update will hopefully be unaffected.

June 16th - 17th (Fri - Sat): Maanshan with Relatives
As previously mentioned, I'm staying with Connie's parents in Maanshan, a "small town" according to Connie and a moderate sized city by any non-Chinese standards. It's a fairly new city a bit outside of Nanjing and not really on the radar for any non-Chinese tourists. Though it does seem to be a somewhat popular spot for day trippers from Nanjing itself.
Her parents are very nice, though the fact that they can't speak English and I can't speak Chinese complicates things a bit. They also seem to love constantly giving me more and more food at meal times. Connie's mom is a pretty good cook, but there's only so much I can eat...
Anyway, I didn't do much over the last couple of days other than get acclimated and catch up on some things I'd been putting off while in Japan. Unfortunately, her parents are having some internet issues right now. At first it wasn't working at all and now that it is, it's running at a speed that could at best be described as dial-up. Though I get the feeling my old 56k modem might have been faster... The only touristy thing I really did worth mentioning was walking around a nearby park, which was fairly large and rather scenic. Pretty well maintained too. I think Maanshan is supposed to be known for its parks and such. If you follow the stream long enough (it has a walking trail which extends past the park in both directions) you'll even reach another, bigger park. Though I haven't gone that far yet.
We also had a big meal with Connie's uncle's family and a bunch of family friends so they could meet me and Zack. It took place in a restaurant that was all private rooms. It had a nice view and a huge table for everyone to sit around. The food was arrayed on that raised glass bit, which rotated automatically so you could grab what you wanted as it passed by. I think I mentioned this before but meals in China tend to involve a whole lot of dishes which everyone shares, even at restaurants. Apparently, it's also a thing for just about every person at the table to make their way around and drink a toast with everyone else along the way. Fortunately, they had a yogurt drink for those of us who didn't drink alcohol. Since there was a lot of people, there was a lot of food. Beef, fish, poultry, vegetables... There was a lot of really good stuff, though the ones that stick in my memory the most do so because of their presentation. For example, the pigeon served in a bird cage, complete with toy bird. And then there was the strips of thinly sliced beef served on top of a cow skull. Never seen anything like that before. The beef strips were actually very good, though the dish got progressively creepier the more we ate... It was a fun and good meal, even though I couldn't understand 99.9% of what was being said.
As you might have noticed from the earlier photos, there was even a moderately blue sky. Still plenty of smog, but much better than I expected, especially after Thursday, which was dismal and gray. I asked, and it's not always like this, but they do get some good days in the summer. Considering that I wasn't expecting to see a blue sky until returning to Virginia, I'll be grateful for what I can get.

Random China Comment: Condos
As a note, most Chinese people don't understand the difference between the English words apartment and condo, so what many English speaking Chinese refer to as apartments are actually condos. Anyway, go to any city in China and you'll see tons of high rises filled with condos. They're generally grouped into developments with some landscaping and the like (though not all the amenities you'd normally get in the US). The outside of the buildings tends to range from very fancy to serviceable (not terrible, but a bit dirty and old fashioned). At least unless you're looking at the old cheap places, which can look like something out of a third world country. Anyway, the condos are sold extremely unfinished so the interiors tend to be highly customized to match the owner's personal tastes. As a result, they can be a bit eccentric, but are often quite nice (at least from my very limited experience). Though they often will be somewhat quirky by Western standards (fewer restrooms, no central AC or heat, hot water heaters that need to be turned on and off before and after use, and the like). The complexes also aren't always designed with enough parking in mind (don't expect the minimum one space per unit like you'd find in the US), turning the grounds into a maze of tightly packed cars. I'm not sure if that's intentional to save space/money or encourage residents not to own cars, or if it's just poor planning and/or very incorrect assumptions about car ownership on the builders' part.
I asked Connie, and she said that her parents pay an annual HOA type fee (as opposed to the typically monthly fee in the US). I'm not sure how much they, or other Chinese condo owners, typically pay, but I'm not sure they get their money's worth. Here, I would assume it goes towards the security guards at the entrance. Though, from what I've seen, they pretty much let anyone in or out without comment and even sleep on the job. There's also some people trimming the plants, sweeping up leaves, and the like (though probably not quite as often as they should). But there's clearly a lot of exterior maintenance tasks that should have been addressed years ago (a broken fountain, rotting bench, etc.). Over all though, the grounds aren't bad, they just seem a little neglected. The main issue is that, in every Chinese condo complex I've visited, no one seems to be in charge of cleaning or maintaining the halls, stairways, and elevators (if there are any, which is an issue of its own) inside the buildings themselves. Which leads to creepy, decaying interiors that would make you think the place had been abandoned for ages, and provides a very strong and odd contrast to the nice condos.
Oh, on a side note, you know how in the US marketers sometimes sneak into apartment buildings or complexes and stick flyers for restaurants or something under your door? I always thought that was a little annoying (though much better than the door to door salesmen I'd occasionally get in Arizona), but not too big of a deal. Here, they do the same thing...except that instead of flyers they put a difficult to remove sticker right on the door. So it's quite common here to see apartment doors with a half dozen or more advertisement stickers plastered to them. That would drive me crazy...

Random China Comment: Signs
As I looked around Maanshan, something struck me as very different about the signs for the various shops and businesses lining the street when compared to Japan. Took me a couple of minutes to work out what was bugging me. But what I realized is that, while you have streets lined with colorful signs in both countries, China lacks Japan's verticality (where's it common to have a 8+ story building with signs stacked all the way up) and the signs are generally plainer. While there are certainly exceptions, the majority of store and business signs here seem to consist entirely of the name (written in a rather plain font) on a bright but solid single color background. And that's it. No logos, fancy designs, or anything. I suppose that's practical (if a little dull and repetitious) but, if you can't read Chinese, the average sign doesn't give you any idea about what type of business is there, making it kind of hard identify useful and/or interesting ones at a glance.

June 18th (Sun): Caishiji
While Maanshan itself is too new of a city to have any historical tourist attractions, it borders on the much older Caishiji. Connie's parents had wanted to take me there last time I visited, but the weather wasn't good. Today though, the weather was pretty great so we set out in the morning for a relatively short drive to the area.
Caishiji is one of the oldest Buddhist sacred lands and is also the place where Li Bai (a famous Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty) died and is buried. Well, there's actually some dispute over whether or not that's true (there are a few places which claim to house Li Bai's tomb), but it is certain that he visited the area and wrote about it. Now, Caishiji is a large park with a number of old buildings, many of which serve as memorials to Li Bai, with exhibits about his life and accomplishments (there's some English, though the majority of the signs are untranslated). Some highlights include the garden and a pavilion and trail built into the cliff on the side of the river. There are also a lot of trails which meander through the forest to various buildings, statues, and the like. There was also a cable car up to a pagoda on top of the hill, but I didn't get a chance to go up there.
We spent a while walking around and seeing some of the notable buildings and other sights. Though I feel like we spent at least half the time posing for photos. Connie's dad really really loves taking photos of everyone in different places and poses (and frequently getting passersby to take the pictures so he can join in). (Sorry about the low quality, by the way, the photo was taken with a cell phone then sent to me through a chatting app which compressed it a ridiculous amount.) I think he went a bit overboard, but it was a fun trip and I certainly wouldn't mind going back to Caishiji in future to explore some more of the area.
After spending a while at Caishiji, went drove to the small town right outside the park. It's a bit of a tourist area (though many of the buildings are a bit on the old and rundown side) and ate at a fancy restaurant that specialized in fish from the river. Though we also got some other dishes including a bamboo and goose soup. I think this was my first time eating actual goose and it was pretty good. Sort of halfway between duck and turkey. The first was good too, though I liked one of the two fish dishes we got (which was a variation on flower fish, a Chinese favorite of mine) a lot better than the other.

Random China Comment: Driving Speed
I've already written about how crazy driving in China is. The limited regard for traffic lights and other signals, the lack of a pedestrian right-of-way, the crazy turns and lane changes drivers make, all the horn honking, etc. With all that, it always surprised me that I wasn't seeing an accident on every street corner. But I think I might have figured out the reason. In general, people in China seem to drive at a slower speed than in the US. I'm not quite sure if that's due to a speed limit (haven't been paying enough attention to the signs) or if people just drive that way of their own volition. But I'd say that slower speed goes a long way towards preventing all the accidents that their crazy driving style seems like it should cause. Trying to react to all this stuff while driving at 45 or 50 mph (or whatever that is in kilometers) would be near impossible at times. Doing so at around 30 seems a bit more reasonable.

Random China Comment: Ctrip
Ctrip is a hotel booking web site for China. The majority of Chinese hotels aren't on major US booking sites (like Expedia and the like) so, if you want the best deals and best selection, you need a site that specializes in Chinese hotels. My first time in China, I used a site called Agoda. It worked, but there were a lot of things I didn't like about it, so next time I tried Ctrip instead. Overall, I like it better, though it still has its issues. For example, it lacks some filters I'd like to have (such as hotels with non-smoking rooms) and its mapping system uses Google Maps...which is totally fine so long as you're not actually in China, where everything Google is banned. I used it on my last trip here and it worked fairly well. So I've been using it again on this trip...or trying, at least. I booked a hotel a couple of days ago for the first of my solo excursions, only to receive an e-mail a little later saying that the reservation had been cancelled because my card hadn't gone through so I should try again. Well, my success rate with my credit card in China has never been perfect (maybe 80% - 90%), so I decided to give it another shot, only to have the site tell me I could no long book that hotel on my account. No reason was given. That was weird. Out of curiosity, I logged out and tried booking the hotel as a guest user (using the same info and credit card), it worked fine. So I went ahead and booked my second hotel as a guest and it also went through perfectly. The next day, I needed to book one last hotel. I decided that the last time had probably been a fluke so I logged into my account and gave it a try. However, shortly after making the reservation I received a call saying that the hotel was full so it it didn't go through. Weird, but not impossible. So I found a different hotel and booked that...only to get a call saying that not only was that hotel also full, but my credit card had been declined. At this point, I was getting a little suspicious, so I logged out and tried to book the first hotel as a guest...and it worked. Naturally, this made me wonder if they had put some kind of secret flag on my account and were automatically canceling every booking I made with it. No idea why they'd do that (I never had a problem with Ctrip or the hotels I booked through them in the past), but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence either. I was actually tempted to have Connie call them up and yell at them in Chinese to get to the bottom of things (the phone calls I got were in English, but the operators were clearly Chinese), but decided I didn't want to risk my successful bookings getting canceled as well. So, the moral of the story? Ctrip, despite its faults, is probably one of your best options for booking hotels in China. However, I recommend not making an account and booking everything as a guest, since it seems to work better. That's what I'll be doing in the future.

Ok, this seems like a good place to stop. I'll do a combined post for today and tomorrow (and probably one for the first day of my first solo trip) on Wednesday.

Josiah

6/16/2017 Goodbye Japan, Hello China

It's Friday and you should know the drill. Use the TWC button to vote and see the new bonus comic!

June 14th (Wed): A Little More Tokyo
Although we went up the Sky Tree back near the start of the trip, Connie wanted to visit Tokyo Tower too, so we set off after breakfast, arriving just a little after it opened. Although it's been functionally replaced by the Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower is still open for business as a tourist attraction and it's still worth seeing. It's also a lot cheaper than the Sky Tree, if you're on a budget. We took the elevator (instead of the stairs) and spent some time admiring the view. It's not nearly as high as the Sky Tree, so there are some other buildings blocking things, but it's still impressive. And, of course, there's the glass floor.
The lower levels of the tower house a collection of gift shops, restaurants, and other attractions. One of the newest is an entire indoor One Piece theme park. Of course, there's a One Piece section at J-World, and there was that One Piece promotion at Huis Ten Bosch a few years back, but this is a whole dedicated park. I would have liked to go but Connie hasn't started One Piece yet and there wasn't time for me to go back on my own. But I'll make sure to put it on the list for next time. And hey, the Tokyo Tower shaped taiyaki was amusing (and good).
Moving on, we made our way to Shinjuku. We didn't have a particular goal in mind, just wandering around and showing Connie the area. We also got lunch and I checked some more stores for jeans, finally finding a workable (though not ideal) pair. Read the RJC below for more details on that.
Eventually, we got tired of the city so we headed into Shinjuku Gyoen, a large park and garden that I've somehow managed to never visit despite all my time in Tokyo (if I remember right, the one day I decided to go it turned out to be closed). As a note, it does charge admission, though not very much. A good chunk of the place is devoted to forest, which is pleasant (and a big change from the lights and hustle of Shinjuku, though nothing too special. Though we did see the first bunches of hydrangeas blooming. There are also a lot of grassy plains and hills for people to hang out, have a picnic, toss a ball, or the like. But if your goal is sightseeing, you'll want to make your way to the Japanese garden. There are better gardens in Tokyo, but it's still nice (and the location is very convenient). There's also a British garden area and a French style rose garden. I heard something about a green house too, but we must have missed that. Like I said before, there are better gardens in Tokyo if that's your goal, but Shinjuku Gyoen is big, cheap, easy to get to, and makes for a nice respite from the city. But keep in mind that it closes a little on the early side, even for a garden (4:30 PM).
After some time spent at the hotel packing, we went to the Yodobashi Camera food court again, this time to get a meal of grilled beef tongue. It was fairly good, though I can't really say it's a favorite.
That even, I walked around Ueno for a little while at night after Connie went to bed. I often feel a little melancholy when leaving Japan, thinking of all the things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go that I wasn't able to fit in. Especially on this trip, which has been my shortest stay in Japan and very much catered to my family members. Still, I enjoyed myself quite a bit and the walk helped put me in a better mood. While I don't regret my decisions, I guess there will always be a little part of me that wishes I'd stayed in Japan all those years ago. But there would have been a lot of negatives to that as well and hey, I can always visit. With Connie's family in China, it shouldn't be hard to spend some time here in Japan at least every couple of years. And you never know what the future may hold...

Random Japan Comment: Clothes Shopping
Unless you have a very Asian height, weight, and build, clothes shopping in Japan can be tough. Not that Japanese people don't have different body types, but over all there's a lot more uniformity than in the US, which can make clothes shopping tough. Shirts, at least, usually aren't too bad. Though I generally need to buy 1 - 2 sizes larger than I would in the US (for example, getting a large or even extra large instead of a medium), more for the width than the length. But pants? Pants are harder...
For starters, your average store tends to sell skinny and slim fit and that's about it. If you're lucky, they might also have some regular. No relaxed or anything like that. Waist sizes also tend to top out in the low to mid 30's (or the equivalent in centimeters). The waist size isn't a problem for me, though I can see how it would be for a lot of people, but even "regular" fit pants in Japan tend to feel pretty tight. Length can also be an issue. Some pants are sold in various waist and length combinations like the US. Jeans, however, seem to be only sold in one length, which can best be described as "too long for people of average height". The expectation seems to be that everyone will roll up the legs. Not to mention that "distressed" jeans seem to be in fashion right now, making normal ones hard to find.
So how do I shop for pants in Japan? Honestly, I try my best not to, even when I lived here. But occasionally something happens and you need new pants (note to self: never buy jeans from The Gap again, they don't last) and then you just have to check as many stores as possible and hope you find something decent.

June 15th (Thu): Goodbye Japan
And another Japan trip comes to an end. Fortunately, staying right by Ueno Park makes it super easy to get to the airport. Just get on the the Skyliner from Keisei Ueno Station and you're good to go. We left on the early side, which was good since it was far from a smooth process. First off, we were flying to China instead of the US, like I usually do, so we had tickets on a China Eastern flight. Well, their web site and the sign in the airport said that they were in Terminal 3, which is a rather long walk from the train station. We make it all the way there (with tons of luggage), only to be told that China Eastern is actually in Terminal 2, back where we'd started. So that was a big waste of time and effort. Once we actually get to the check out counter, we end up at the very back of a long line (which we really should have been in front of considering when we'd arrived at the airport). Unfortunately, checking in wasn't without issues either. For one thing, they were really picky about carry on bags. They insisted on weighing one (the first time I've had that happen) and told me it was too heavy so I'd have to check it. They also made a big deal about the size of another carry on and came and measured it themselves (it was fine). Then there was another problem with Zack's middle name not showing up on the reservation even though it's on his passport (and the two need to match exactly). Now I'm positive that, if there was a middle name box on the form when I made the reservation I would have filled it in (they had my middle name, after all), so I'm going to pin that on their computer system. Once we actually got checked in (it took a while), getting through security was very quick and easy. While I've flown out of Terminal 2 a lot in the past, we were in a different (more remote) part of it this time. It required a lot more walking to get there, but they had a Yoshinoya nearby for lunch, so that was a plus. And with that, we were finally off to China...around 45 minutes late, since it was a China flight and all...
Goodbye for now, Japan. I'll be back soon, I'm sure.

And that's wraps up this edition of my Japan Travelogue. Next up, China!

June 15th (Thu): Welcome to China
After spending some time touring Japan with my parents, it was time to go to China to visit Connie's side of the family. We flew directly to Nanjing this time, rather than going to Shanghai like I've done in the past. It looked like a pretty big airport, but it was also mostly empty when we arrived so we made it through quickly and Connie's parents were there to pick us up. From there, we drove to her home town.
A few initial observations... Yep, the smog and gray skies are still pretty much ever present. There were some farms on the road side selling melons and grapes. We didn't stop, but they looked good. Driving in China is still crazy. Lots of honking horns and dubious maneuvering. Seatbelts seem to be mostly ignored as well, to the point where people often put in seat covers that seem to block access to them entirely. Also, car seats (for babies) aren't just not required here, they're not commonly used either. I'm kind of glad that we probably won't be driving much...
Anyway, Connie's parents are nice and we'll be staying at their place for a while. Well, Connie and Zack will be staying here for the entire trip (except for one night in Shanghai before we depart). I'll be heading off on my own sometime next week (still working out the details) to do some sightseeing and then rejoining them at the end of the month. While staying with her parents, I'm not sure if I'll be doing daily travelogue entries, since I think we're mostly going to be hanging around her home town and relaxing. More likely, there will be the occasional entry and some Random China Comments, but we'll see what happens.

Later!

Josiah

6/14/2017 Enjoying Tokyo

Well, Connie, Zack, and I are heading off to China tomorrow. Updates will hopefully continue as normal, though I've never been too impressed with the internet access over there so, if there are problems, that's probably why. I'll likely also have limited access to things like Facebook and Gmail (due to the country's internet censoring) for the duration of the trip.

June 12th (Mon): Tokyo Sightseeing and the Ghibli Museum
I went to the Ghibli Museum once when I was first in Japan and I really enjoyed. I actually did try to go again, but never made it due to how difficult it was to get tickets. This time though, with Connie also being a big Ghibli fan, we wanted to go if possible. Originally, if you wanted to go to the museum, you had to get tickets either through certain travel agencies or go to Japan and buy them from a ticket machine in a Lawson store. Getting them at Lawson required some Japanese knowledge and, unless you bought the tickets far enough in advance, there was a good chance the day and time you wanted would be sold out. Yes, day and time. Due to its popularity, all Ghibli Museum tickets must be purchased in advance and let you enter the museum at a set time (give or take maybe 30 minutes) on a set date. More recently, they added the ability to purchase tickets online (there's a link on the Ghibli Museum web site). Tickets are for the following month, and go up for sale on a specific date and time so you really need to known when sales are opening and grab your tickets as soon as they go live since they disappear fast. If you're a bit late, you might have a tough time trying to find an available date and time that works with your schedule. I did mange to get Connie and I a pair, though we got stuck with a 4 PM admission time (the museum closes at 6).
Anyway, we kind of had to schedule our day around that museum visit. After a walk around the lotus pond in Ueno Park, we headed up to Asakusa for a bit so Connie could buy some gifts for friends. Then, since it was in a convenient location for getting to the Ghibli Museum, we took the train across town to Nakano and killed some time in Nakano Broadway (the shopping arcade and mall known for its anime and game stores (especially figurines). It's currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, which is impressive, though I don't think it had an otaku focus for anywhere near that long. As always, it was fun to browse the different stores and see what I could find. We also got some sushi for lunch, so no complaints there.
Finally, we got back on the train for a short ride to Mitaka. From there, the Ghibli Museum is a pleasant 15 minute walk through a quiet residential area. Though there's also a bus if you can't or really don't want to walk (it does cost though). The museum itself is situated in Inokashira Park (yes, the same one that you can visit in Persona 5), which is also a nice place to spend some time. Anyway, you can't take photos inside the museum, but the outside areas are fine, so I made sure to get a group photo with the Laputa robot and also get a shot of some soot balls. The museum itself hasn't changed too much since my list visit, other than adding a few references to the newer films. But there was a different short film showing (they change those every so often). This one was about an old couple who help sumo wrestling mice and it was pretty amusing. The one non-permanent exhibit currently running is about the food featured in Ghibli movies, complete with plastic models, concept sketches, and even full size recreations of kitchens featured in a couple of the movies. We had a good time exploring the museum and finished in just under two hours, so the late admission time worked out ok.
On the way back to Ueno, we swung by Akihabara so I could introduce Connie to the Yodobashi Camera food court. We ended up getting sukiyaki, which made for a great way to finish up the day.

June 13th (Tue): Hanging Around Tokyo
We had been thinking about doing something up around Nikko today, but the weather wasn't looking good and Connie's been having some foot problems this trip, so we decided to just stay in Tokyo. Probably for the best, since it rained most of the day. Anyway, we started off at the Tokyo National Museum. As I've mentioned before, it's an excellent place to go if you want an overview of many different types of Japanese artwork and crafts, including lacquerware, swords and metal work, painting, textiles, etc., etc. While there are a few items on permanent display, most of them are regularly switched out, so I always see a lot of new things every time I visit. Like this sword, which once belonged to a hero in green who- Just kidding. That Tri-Force like design is actually the triple fish scale crest of the Hojo family. I wonder if the similarly is intentional...
Once we'd finished exploring the museum, we headed to Odaiba and began working our way through the various malls, from the fancy to the kitchy. Unfortunately, they full-scale RX Gundam which used to stand outside Diver City isn't there anymore. On the bright side, that's only because it's being replaced with a full-scale Unicorn Gundam. Though it won't be finished until later in the year (along with a new a set of museum exhibits focused on Gundam model kits) so I'll have to wait until next time to see it. I did manage to find a new gradient shirt though to replace my old blue one (which is falling apart). It's not quite as good as the old one, but better than nothing. Expect to see it in some future photos. One thing I was not able to find was good jeans, but I'll write more on that another time.
Anyway, we had a fun but didn't stay in the area too late. Back in Ueno, we split up for dinner. I went back to Akihabara for a few reasons. First off, I had some points on my Yodobashi Gold Card that I wanted to use up. Also, I wanted to check out the new Square Enix Cafe they added on the ground level. It's smaller and not as fancy as the main one, but it's a whole lot easier to get to. Finally, I wanted to check out a do it yourself kushikatsu buffet I'd seen in the food court. Kushikatsu is an Osakan food which is essentially breaded and fried stuff on a stick. And I say stuff because just about anything edible goes (meats, vegetables, cheese, sweets, etc.). Normally though, it's fried for you. However, at this buffet (it's a chain, by the way), each table has a fryer and you get to grab your pre-skewered items, and fry them up yourself. It's fun, though my first batch didn't turn out too well. The instructions weren't that good so I had to learn from watching others. The key is to fill a bowl with batter and another with panko (break crumbs) and cover your skewered item first with the batter and then the crumbs before frying it. The other trick is figuring out how long to fry everything for. On the one hand, with raw meat involved, you don't want to undercook things. But they fry pretty quickly so it's very easy to burn them if you're not careful. I got it down after a little practice. Aside from the kushikatsu, they also had some salads, a make your own cha gohan bar (rice with assorted toppings and tea, often used to end a meal) and a dessert bar (currently dedicated to everything matcha). While it wasn't a quick meal by any estimate, it was fun and I enjoyed the food as well so I'm glad I got to try it.

I really wanted to get caught up today but I'm running late so this will have to be it. Look for the conclusion of this Japan travelogue on Friday.

Josiah

6/12/2017 Back to Tokyo

I thought I had a big enough comic buffer made to last me until China but I must have miscounted... Though that's not the actual reason today's strip is so simple, it's because I was having some trouble with the emulator I use to get sprites and reference the game when planning the Pebble Version strips. Hopefully it'll work properly next time. Speaking of computer issues, I think I managed to fix mine. It's working right now anyway, so we'll just have to see if it stays that way.

June 9th (Fri): Returning to Tokyo
Getting from Matsumoto to Tokyo takes two to three hours, depending on whether you take the shinkansen or the slower (but more direct) limited express trains. Actually, in our case, the shinkansen would have taken about three hours anyway, since we'd have had a long stop over in the middle. Anyway, we took the limited express and had a nice ride (with very pretty scenery) to Tokyo Station. From there, it was quick and easy to get to Ueno, which is one of my favorite parts of the city.
After dropping off our bags, we headed into Ameya Yokocho (the big collection of shopping streets) to look around and to get lunch. In the end, we split up pretty quickly. I was able to go to a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant for the first time this trip, so that made me happy. I also had a chance to browse a bit in the big toy store across from Ueno Station. I never really buy anything there, since I know where I can get all of it for a better price, but it's still fun to look. I also bought a new and much easier to handle suitcase (luggage management has been a pain on this trip) since Ameya is a good place to find really great deals on them. Oh, and did I ever post a video of this before? Well, if not, I did now. And I can't forgot to show the view from our hotel room, which looks out over Ueno Park's lotus filled pond. Dinner at Pepper Lunch (one of my favorite Japanese restaurant chains) wrapped up the evening.

June 10th (Sat): Ueno Zoo
Since services weren't until the afternoon, we decided to spend the morning walking around Ueno Park. Speaking of which, here's that lotus pond up close. Before long, we passed by Ueno Zoo and my dad decided that it would be fun to go in and see the panda. One of the first things you notice about the zoo is that it's cheap. Only 600 Yen ($6 or less) for an adult, and kids are free through age 12. We arrived a few minutes before the zoo opened and lined up. After getting in, pretty much everyone made a beeline for the panda (it's the zoo's star attraction) so there ended up being a line. We got in early enough that it wasn't a big problem, but you might want to watch out for that if you go (as a note, by the time we left the zoo the line had shortened a decent amount). After the watching the panda a bit we walked around some of the other exhibits. Some highlights included the white handed gibbons, tiger, tapir, and bears. There was also a dark building for nocturnal animals, one of which looked like a cross between a badger and an armadillo. It was pretty cool, but the area was too dark for me to get a decent picture or video.
Overall, Ueno Zoo isn't one of the better ones I've been to. It's not especially large, and some of the animal habitats are a bit cramped. But it's cheap, conveniently located, and features a few rather rare animals (like the panda). And hey, how many zoos have a pagoda? So it's not a bad place to visit if you're in the area.
Later in the afternoon, we met up with some old friends of mine for services and later dinner. It was a lot of fun to catch up and Zack really enjoyed all the attention.

June 11th (Sun): Shopping Day
My dad and I both wanted to visit the big flea market while in Tokyo, so we all headed there this morning for around an hour of browsing. As always, it was fun to look around, but I didn't see anything I really wanted this time. After a bit of walking around in Ueno, Connie and I took my parents to the train station and saw them off (they flew back to the US late in the afternoon). It was a lot of fun traveling with them and I hope we can do this again sometime. In fact, they're already talking about potential plans for a future Japan trip, so I'd say that I accomplished one of my goals.
Once they were safety off, Connie and I got some udon then headed to Akihabara. She wanted to see it and, while I've mostly been focused on what the others wanted to do on this trip, I really wanted one decent shopping day. She and I browsed together for a while, then I helped her and Zack back to the hotel before continuing on my own. While I was a bit rushed (the trip is almost over and I had a list of things I wanted to track down), I still really enjoyed it. It's just so much fun to shop there. And this coming from someone who generally finds shopping pretty boring. Most of my favorite stores are still around and I managed to find the majority of the items on my list for decent prices.
One big change I noticed is that the restaurant floor in Yodobashi Camera (a favorite place of mine to eat) has undergone some serious renovations, including a number of changes to the restaurant lineup. On the downside, a couple of restaurants that I liked are no longer there. However, there are some pretty cool looking new ones and, overall, I think the update is a positive one. On a side note, I ate at a sushi place there and they had a wasabi leaf roll, which I'd never seen before. The menu said it was really hot but wow... I like wasabi and I could barely eat it, even though there wasn't that much of the stuff and it was surrounded by a bunch of rice and seaweed.

Ok, let's stop there for today and I'll plan to get caught up on Wednesday, right before we leave for China.

Josiah

6/9/2017 Still catching up

Vote to see this week's bonus comic! As a note, my computer is still giving me trouble so, if I miss an update or two, that's probably why. Or maybe (starting next Friday), because of the iffy internet connections in China.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled travelogue...

June 6th (Tue): On to Matsumoto
For our next hub destination, we set out early and got a train (well, two trains) to Matsumoto. It's a pleasant mountain town (well, more a small city, though it has a bit of a town feel to it) up in the Japanese Alps. I was there with my brother a long time ago, though only for one night.
After arriving and dropping off our bags at the hotel, we walked around a bit looking for a place to eat, passing through a couple of neat shopping streets lined with old buildings. In the end, we just snacked a bit (there was a good taiyaki place) before getting on a another train for a short ride to Hotaka Station so we could visit the Daio Wasabi Farm. I went there with my brother as well, though we arrived a bit late in the day so we didn't have a lot of time to look around. Anyway, the wasabi farm is a short taxi ride, or a 30 minute or so walk, from the train station. We opted for the taxi on the way there. There actually aren't a lot of places that wasabi can be grown, since it needs very large amounts of very clean water (we were able to taste the water, it was extremely clear and with very little flavor), which Hotaka is known for. In addition to wasabi fields, the farm has a shrine and a couple of small sacred caves. There's also a water wheel which was built for and featured in an Akira Kurosawa movie (if you don't know, he's a very famous old Japanese director). You can also watch them processing the wasabi. As a note, while wasabi paste is made from the root, the leaves and stems can be eaten as well. The farm even has a restaurant featuring lots of wasabi based items but, since we went around the farm clockwise, we arrived just after it closed for the day. We did, however, swing by the snack stand for some wasabi juice, beer, and ice cream. For those items, the farm doesn't overdo the amount of wasabi. That keeps everything eatable and drinkable, but reduces the impact a bit. Some of the wasabi items in the gift shop, however, are quite strong.
We decided to walk back to the station, instead of looking for another taxi. Much of the road went through scenic rice paddies and flower gardens and past a mixture of old and new houses, making for a very pleasant stroll. There was also a temple with giant geta (Japanese sandals), though I'm not really sure why.
Back in Matsumoto, we split up for dinner with Connie and I eating at a soba restaurant (it's a local specialty here (and in dozens of other areas of Japan, but still...)). The soba was very good and one of the sides we got featured pickled wasabi steams and leaves. It was good, but had a fairly strong bite to it (I guess the root isn't the only hot part of the plant).

Random Japan Comment: Matsumoto Station
When a train arrives at a station, they always announce the station name a couple of times. Normally, it's done is a straight forward fashion. In Matsumoto, however, they do it in a sing-song yodeling king of way, which is amusing and adds a bit of local flair.

June 7th (Wed): The Nakasendo Trail
The weather forecast for the day gave a good chance of rain from mid to late afternoon, but the forecast for Thursday was even worse, so we decided that we'd go ahead with our plan to hike the Nakasendo Trail and hopefully finish before the rain hit. When my mom and I hiked it back in 2008, we took a train from Nagoya, but Matsumoto is actually much more conveniently located. As a note, Nakasendo is an old postal road that was used hundreds of years ago. The full trail extends all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, though parts of it no longer exist. Now, the most popular section of the trail is an 8 km stretch between the old postal towns of Magome and Tsumago. Though it does extend much further in both directions if you want a more extensive hike.
Anyway, we started off the day with a train to Takamatsu followed by a bus ride to Magome (though you can actually hike that segment if you want to add on another couple of hours). It's a really neat town with old roads and buildings, many of which now house souvenir shops and snack stands. Speaking of which, local specialties include a unique type of steamed bun filled with vegetables, dango (mochi balls on a stick) covered with a miso walnut sauce, and various things made with chestnuts.
The ascent through Magome ends at a nice viewpoint and from there it's off towards Tsumago. The trail is clearly marked and goes through a very wide variety of terrain. There are forests, tiny farming towns, and overgrown paths. You can find some nice flowers on the way as well, depending on the season. As we neared the half way point, we did end up in a small rain shower. Fortunately, it wasn't too long before we reached a rest house where a nice old man offered free tea and homemade pickled ume (Japanese plums) and umeshu (plum wine). By the time we left, the rain had ended. Continuing on, we passed through some tall trees and reached a short turn off which leads to a pair of waterfalls. After some bamboo groves and small farms, we made a quick stop in a lone restaurant so Connie could get some soba (I snacked on miso walnut paste covered rice balls) and then it was time for the final stretch, past this straw horse and on to Tsumago. Like Magome, it's a neat old postal town with ancient buildings filled with souvenir stores and snack stands. And hey, remember this water wheel? I got a photo next to it back in 2008 and used it as my photo on this site (and Facebook, for those of you who are friends with me there) for quite a while. It's changed a bit since then (new wood for the wheel and a lot more plant growth on the wheel house), but it was fun to get another picture in the same spot.
From Tsumago, you can either take a bus to the town of Nagiso or walk there (which takes another 60 minutes or so) to get the train. Last time, my mom and I opted to walk. Today though, we weren't making the best time (I was the only one without some kind of lingering foot or knee problem) and the chance of rain was increasing, so we took the bus. Good thing we did too, since it started raining pretty hard soon after we reached Nagiso.
Despite the slow pace, we all really enjoyed the hike. The scenery is beautiful and the variety of terrain keeps it interesting the whole way. Despite the length, it's also not a particularly strenuous hike. I've love to do it again some day, perhaps hiking a longer section of the trail.
Back in Matsumoto, my parents, who hadn't eaten lunch, wanted to go for a slightly early supper so I took them to a nearby yakitori restaurant, which was good and offered a lot of interesting chicken based options both in terms of the yakitori itself and the various side dishes. In fact, I actually went back there a second time that evening with Connie, who hadn't wanted to eat so early.

June 8th (Thu): Monkeys, Miso, and a Castle
The weather report for the day really wasn't looking good, with a rather high chance of rain all day. But it was out last day in the Matsumoto area and it wasn't raining when we got up, so we decided to go ahead with our plans to visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park. I first went there with my brother a long time ago, but that was in the middle of the winter, so it was interesting to see everything covered in green instead of snow. Anyway, you can't go directly from Matsumoto to the park, you have to go to Nagano first. From there, you can either take a direct bus (the cheapest and fastest option, though there are only several per day) or take a local train to Yudanaka, followed by a shorter bus ride. The tourist info office at Nagano Station can give you all the times so you can choose the best option. For us, that was the bus, though we did have a bit of a wait.
After you arrive at the bus stop, it's actually still a 2 km (20 - 30 minutes) walk through the forest to reach the park itself. It's a nice walk though and, except for one staircase at the beginning and one at the end, it's completely flat. When you reach this onsen (complete with a geyser), you're just about there. Speaking of onsen, the monkey park has one just for the monkeys, and there are many famous photos of the Japanese snow monkeys lounging in the warm water on winter days. They're much less likely to go in the water when its warm, but they still tend to hang out all over the park. Note that this isn't a zoo or anything like that, these are wild monkeys who live in the area and often come to the area around the park. Fortunately, the weather was still good, so we were able to enjoy watching the monkeys without worrying about rain. There were lots of monkeys around, many of which were carrying babies. They're a lot of fun to watch and you can get right up to them. Though, being wild animals, you're not supposed to feed them or touch them. They're used to humans, but could lash out if they feel threatened. We had a fun time watching the monkeys, though Zack slept through the entire thing. I could post about a dozen photos of them if I wanted to, but I think the ones I already linked to make for a good sample.
When we were finished, we followed the trail back to the bus stop. There was some time before the bus, so I stopped in a little restaurant and snack shop back near the start and got a bowl or really good miso chicken ramen for lunch (everyone else just snacked a bit).
Once we returned to Matsumoto, the weather continued to defy the forecast by staying sunny and dry. Connie and Zack went back to the hotel to rest up a bit while the rest of us hurried over to the Ishii Miso factory for a miso tasting and a short tour (with a friendly English speaking guide). As it turns out, Nagano prefecture is famous for miso, with a significant portion of Japan's miso being made there. However, Ishii Miso is one of the few companies that still makes miso the traditional way, putting it in large wooden barrels where it ages for 1 to 3 years. Each barrel holds over four tons of miso and every six months they have to turn it by shoveling it out (by hand) into another barrel. The end result though, is very good. Another interesting miso fact that I learned is that "white" miso (even though it doesn't always look very white) is miso aged for one year (or one month, using the modern method which involves steel drums and controlled temperatures), while red miso is aged for three years. The factory also had a shop with a variety of miso based products (along with plain miso paste, of course), including miso ice cream, which is actually pretty good. All in all, it was a fun and interesting visit, and I'm glad my mom found it.
Finally, though it was too late to go inside, we took a walk around Matsumoto castle, another one of Japan's top three castles. Unlike Himeji, it was built solely as a defensive structure, not a residence. While not on the same scale as Himeji, it's still impressive and worth a visit.
After that it was time for dinner (Indian this time) and back to the hotel to get ready for our departure in the morning. I didn't have a lot of time to look around Matsumoto last time I was there, so I'm glad I got the chance to spend a little more time in the area on this trip. It's a really scenic and peaceful place and a great area to visit if you want to see a lot of Japan's natural beauty. I wouldn't mind going back again some time for some more hiking and the like.

Ok, still one day behind, but I think this is a good place to stop for now. See you Monday (hopefully)!

Josiah

6/7/2017 Playing catch up

Seems like I spoke too soon on that computer issue. While everything was working when I made the last update, it broke again once I restarted the computer. So I had to go and uninstall my anti-virus and firewall again, which once again fixed things. Apparently the software wasn't corrupted, but it's having some sort of serious and silent conflict with either Windows or one of my other programs. Seeing as I didn't install anything new recently, either I got some sort of weird virus (despite not doing anything that would likely result in that) or, more likely, some new update screwed everything up and I have auto-updates for either Windows or the anti-virus to blame. While I will need to keep working on the problem (I don't really trust Windows Defender to keep my computer safe long term), at least everything works fine so long as I don't reinstall the anti-virus, so it's not too bad right now.

But enough about that. Let's try a get caught up (or at least as much as I can) on the travelogue.

June 2nd (Fri): Okayama and Kyoto
The weather report for Kyoto gave a decent chance of rain in the morning, but it was all supposed to clear up by the afternoon. So, we decided to take a half day trip to Okayama to avoid the bad weather and return after lunch to continue touring Kyoto.
Okayama is known as the place where Momotaro (a Japanese fairy tale) is supposed to have taken place, so there are a number of statues throughout the city commemorating the story. There are also a couple of unusual fountains. One of the main attractions is Okayama Castle, also known as the black crow castle, due to its color. It's a recreation so, while the outside looks authentic, the inside is much more modern. My mom and I went inside the castle the last time we came to the area, but we skipped it this time since we'll be seeing a couple other (and better) castles on this trip. Not that Okayama Castle isn't worth a visit, but we have limited time. Our main destination, Korakuen (or Korakoen) is right next to the castle and it's considered to be one of Japan's three best landscape gardens. It's certainly big (this panorama by no means shows the entire place) and, even if you're not there during one of the flower seasons, is very scenic with many different views to enjoy.
After grabbing a quick lunch, we returned to Kyoto and made our way to the Imperial Palace (remember, Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan before it was moved to Tokyo). In the past, visiting the palace was kind of complicated, since you needed to make a special reservation far in advance (with no convenient web or e-mail form), with the exception of a couple days per year which my mom and I just happened to hit last time we were in Kyoto. Now, however, it operates like a regular tourist attraction (though there are bag checks, which is rare in Japan), so it's easy to visit anytime during opening hours. While it certainly can't begin to compare to China's Forbidden City in size and grandeur, the palace has Japan's simplistic beauty to it and a number of nice painted sliding doors. There's also the gardens, which are worth a visit in their own right. Unfortunately, you can't actually go inside any of the buildings and I get the feeling that there were some parts of the grounds I visited last time that were closed off. Still, it was interesting to see and the park surrounding the palace is a pleasant place to stroll as well.
Once we finished, it was back to the buffet from the other day and then back to our very nice hotel.

Random Japan Comment: Japan with a Baby
This is Connie and my first trip with Zack. And, while he can't walk or even crawl yet (though he can sort of squirm himself across a surface if given the chance), having a baby around does require some extra considerations when traveling. I won't get into basics like diapers and stuff, but how easy is it to visit Japan with an infant or toddler?
Well, for starters, taking them on the trains, subways, busses, etc. is fine and, until they're somewhere between 3 and 6 (depending on the method of transportation), they don't require a separate ticket. They get free admission to attractions as well, so there isn't much extra expense. Even better, we haven't gone anywhere where babies aren't allowed (though I'd assume some performances and rides would have age restrictions). We were even allowed to take him in the shared bath at the onsen we went to (with a water diaper).
Restrooms in most train and subway stations, and larger stores, typically have changing tables (sometimes rather nice ones) and a few even have areas for mothers to sit and feed their babies (though, when those aren't available, it's generally not too hard to find a quiet place to sit wherever and do so). Smaller locations, however, have very tiny restrooms where changing can tricky (though not impossible). Make sure you have a pad or something to lay the baby on.
If you do visit Japan with a baby, or a child that can't walk for too long, I really recommend getting an Ergobaby or similar baby carrier so you can carry the baby on your chest or back (which is very common in Japan). Strollers (known here as baby cars) are usable, but there are some issues. On the plus side, almost every train and subway station, as well as shopping malls and big department stores, will have an elevator somewhere (though it might not be very close to where you want to go) and, although there are signs saying not to, it's easy to take a stroller up or down an escalator as well. We've also been able to bring the stroller into restaurants without issues. The first problem is that smaller and/or older multi-story buildings, may not have elevators or escalators and, even if you want to carry the stroller, stairs can be steep and there may not be much room for it. Space could also be a problem is some of Japan's really small restaurants and shops (which are pretty common). Then there's the fact that some tourist attractions (parts of towns, shrines and temples, castles, etc.) features very rough paths (dirt, gravel, uneven stone, etc.), tight spaces, and/or tons of steps (with no escalators or elevators). That means that, in some places, taking a stroller is impractical at best and impossible at worst. Since this trip is almost entirely centered around places that I've been before, I've been able to decide which days are ok for the stroller, and which we should rely entirely on our Ergobaby. If you're going in blind, however, it may be hard to know in advance.
So, traveling in Japan with a baby is totally possible, but does require a bit more work and planning.

June 3rd (Sat): Himeji
Japan's three best castles (according to whoever ranks them) are Himeji, Matsumoto, and Kumamoto. I've been to all of them, and they're all great, but I'd say that Himeji Castle is far and away the best castle in Japan and really a must see if you're anywhere close to the area. It's also known as the white crane castle, due to its color. Actually, they did a lot of cleaning and renovations since the last time I was there, so it looks even whiter now.
Himeji is Japan's largest castle and, while it's been repaired over the years, it's not a recreation. The castle and most of the surrounding structures have survived to the present. Rather remarkably, when you read the history. The Japanese government was planning to demolish it at one point to build an army base (and did destroy a bit of the outer area), but a officer convinced them not to. Then it was auctioned off for the very low price of 23 Yen (which was a lot more back in the day, but still only around $2,200 by modern standards) to a developer who wanted to demolish the castle and use the land for other things, but the demolition cost would have been too high so he gave up. Later, it miraculously survived the extensive bombing Himeji received during WWII (only one bomb hit the castle and it didn't detonate) and made it through a major Earthquake with little damage.
We're fortunate it survived, because the castle is amazing. It features extensive grounds (with twisting paths to confuse enemies) and a large number of walls and outbuildings (some of which you can enter). Honestly, it's one of the most impressive old buildings, of any kind, in the entire country. Possibly the entire world. Naturally, you can also enter the main keep and get some good views from the top floor.
After we finished our tour in the castle, we ate lunch (we'd bought some bentos and rice balls and stuff the previous day) then got on a bus to Mt. Sosha, Himeji's other big attraction (and where they filmed part of the The Last Samurai). I didn't have time to visit Mt. Sosha last time I was in Himeji, but I'm glad we made it there this time around. The mountain is on the outskirts of the city (a 30 minute bus ride) and a short cable car ride (or a longer hike) up to the summit. Mt. Sosha is a sacred mountain covered with shrines and temples (somewhat like Mt. Koya, which I visited last time I was in Japan, though smaller) which you can walk between on pleasant forest paths. Or, if you're lazy, you can pay extra to take a shuttle bus from the cable car station to the main temple building. It's a relatively easy (though not flat) walk between the different temples and shrines. It's a pretty and peaceful area, and you can easily walk from the cable car to the furthermost structures and back in a couple of hours at a leisurely pace (much less if you hurry). If you're interested, you can even make reservations ahead of time to eat and stay in one of the temples.
I'm not sure if I'd rank Mt. Sosha above or below Mt. Koya, but they're both very nice and offer similar experiences (Koya is bigger and has more to see, Sosha is quieter is more peaceful) and I'd recommend visiting at least one.

June 4th (Sun): Walking in Kyoto
With only a couple of days left in the Kyoto area, we decided to spend one in Kyoto and one in Osaka. Connie needed a bit of a rest, so she spent the morning with Zack while my parents and I went to check out the Kyoto Food Museum, which we'd seen advertised in a tourist book. It's a little off the beaten path, and not especially large or English friendly, but it was kind of interesting.
After that, we made our way through Umekoji Park (home of the new and very popular Kyoto Railway Museum) and down to Toji Temple, which my dad wanted to visit after frequently spotting its pagoda from the trains. It's Japan's tallest pagoda and situated in a pleasant little garden. The temple itself has a collection of large Buddha statues and, when we were there, was also hosting an exhibition for a local artist who uses porcelain techniques to create some very striking paintings. There also happened to be a flea market (mostly antiques) nearby, so we browsed there for a bit as well.
By then, it was about time for lunch so we met back up with Connie and tried out another healthy buffet before starting our afternoon touring plan, which involved following the Philosopher's Walk (also known as the Walk of Philosophy and a few other variations). The best starting point is at Nanzenji Temple (which we didn't visit this time around). From there, you can stroll down some pleasant streets and past Zenrinji Temple, which is a fun one to walk through, with multiple levels and lots of covered walkways, and famous for its Amida Buddha statue with a turned head. It also had some small but really loud frogs dotting its gardens when Connie and I went to visit. It's easy enough in the photo but, in real life, they were very hard to spot. Anyway, a bit further on you can start on the walk proper, which winds along a canal past houses, cafes, and little shops. It comes to an end near Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. Though, unlike the similarly named Gold Pavilion, it's not actually covered with silver. That was originally the plan, but the work was delayed repeatedly and then the idea was abandoned after the owner's death. Aside from the not so silver pavilion, there's a very nice stone garden and regular garden (with a heavy emphasis on moss). Basically, it's just a really pretty place.
Unfortunately, there's no train or subway stations near Ginkakuji. There are some buses, which work well enough, or you can backtrack to Nanzenji and get the subway near there. Connie made the decision for us, since she lost her phone back at the subway station. Fortunately, this being Japan, someone found it and turned it in to the ticket office so we got it back without any problems. And, after dinner at Yoshinoya (my favorite beef bowl chain), it was time to return to the hotel.

June 5th (Mon): Osaka
For our last day in the Kyoto area, we headed to nearby Osaka. I visited Osaka for the first time on my last Japan trip and ended up liking the city a lot more than I had expected. I did originally have a travel plan for the day but feedback from everyone else ended up vetoing most of the main attractions for one reason or another so the schedule was a little bit slapdash between my knowledge and some places my dad had heard about and wanted to visit.
Our first stop was the Housing Museum. It features two different sections. The first is an indoor recreation of a street from the Osaka of a couple hundred years ago. You can walk through the buildings and they even have a show or two. I've been to a few museums like this in various spots and, while I wouldn't say this is the best, it's still fun to walk around. What seems to be especially popular is renting a kimono and posing for photos throughout the area. Even on a Monday morning, the kimono rentals were reserved hours in advance. The other floor, meanwhile, contains much smaller models of some scenes from Osaka's history as well as various apartment and housing styles throughout the years.
Once we were finished, we headed off to the Kuromon Market. It's one of the many shopping arcades near Namba and Dotonburi, but it specializes in food. It's kind of like the food shopping arcade we went to in Kyoto, but this one has more stuff to snack on and, as a result, we just did that rather than get a real lunch.
Afterwards, we passed by Dotonburi looking for a store my mom wanted to visit before doubling back to Hozenji Yokocho, a little street in the shopping arcade area, though this one looks a couple hundred years older than all the others. It's also right by Hozenji Temple, which is a little place tucked in the middle of the shopping streets and featuring a very unusual moss covered Buddha. Er, at least I assume it was a Buddha, being a Buddhist temple and all. Couldn't really tell for sure under all that moss...
We spent a little longer in the shopping arcades together before splitting up, with my Mom and Connie hanging out in a mall by Namba Station while my dad and I spent a little while browsing the shops in Den Den Town (Osaka's version of Akihabara). That was a lot of fun for me, since I've been avoiding anime and game shops so far this trip since I don't want to carry a bunch of purchases all over the place. I am, however, planning for a day in Akihabara once we're back in Tokyo.
Finally, we went back to Dotonburi to eat and ended up with a classic Osaka dish, okonomiyaki, before returning to Kyoto to pack for the next day's departure.
This was my third visit to the Kyoto/Osaka area and I still feel like, while I've hit most of the top attractions, there are still tons of things in the area that I've yet to see and do. It's a really fun part of the country, no matter what your interests are.

Ok, that seems like enough for now. Still a couple days left, but this is already really long. I'll try and get caught up over the next update or two.

Later!

Josiah

6/5/2017 Bleeping computer

So, I have all my photos edited and ready to go. Just needed to write some travelogue entries and that would be that... Except that I turned on my computer to find that hardly any programs would open. After multiple restarts, system restores, and some fruitless Google searching, I finally focused on good old fashioned troubleshooting and, after lots of silent cursing about how Windows 10 changed or moved around familiar settings and tools, and I finally managed to narrow down the problem and get it fixed. Which is a relief, since I was really worried I'd have to reinstall Windows or something, which is a huge pain in the neck the best of times, and would be a nightmare now when I'm in the middle of a long trip. If you're curious, my virus scanner and firewall program seems to have somehow (very quickly and randomly) gotten corrupted and was silently preventing most software from launching as a result (including most of its own elements). So, good news is that my computer is working fine once again. Bad news is that I had to spend the last two and a half hours fixing it, leaving me without any time to write those travelogue entries. Anyway, I've got a long train ride later, so I'll try and use that time to write up the travelogue entries so they'll be ready come Wednesday.

Later!

Josiah

6/2/2017 Kyoto

As usual, you can vote with the TWC button to see the new Blooper Reel comic! And now, back to the travelogue...

June 1st (Thu): Kyoto Highlights
After yesterday's long train ride, I decided we should stick around Kyoto for a day and spend more time on our feet instead. Our first stop, Fushimi Inari Shrine. Situated on the side of Mount Inari (named after the kitsune (fox) god), it's one of Kyoto's more famous locations. While the shrine itself is nice enough, the big drawl is the path behind it which winds its way up and around the mountain, all while passing under over 10,000 tori gates. It can be pretty crowded, but I was still able to get some good shots, since the crowds taper off considerably the further you go. In fact, once you pass this view point, they're fairly nonexistent. Along the way, there are lots of small shrines, complete with little gates, and a few small restaurants selling kitsune soba (so named because it contains inari (tofu skin), which is said to be the foxes' favorite food). If you make it all the way to the top of the mountain, you'll come across a statue for Inari (the god, not the tofu skin) and a path continuing down. I highly recommend taking the hike at Fushimi Inari if you're ever in Kyoto. At very least, you have to do the first few minutes and, if you can, continue on to the viewpoint. Personally, I think it's completely worth it to do the whole trail, since you'll come across lots of neat things like this little water shrine. But there are a lot of stairs and the whole thing takes, on average, 2 - 3 hours so, if you can't manage it, the viewpoint makes a good stopping place. Anyway, we enjoyed out hike then fought our way through the crowds and onto the train back to Kyoto Station.
We decided to visit Gion next but made a detour on the way to check out a buffet we'd heard about, where we ended up eating. Passed this place on the way. While it's perfectly normal for people to make weird English mistakes over here, I could swear this person knew exactly what they were writing... Moving on, after lunch we passed by the river (which features a long line of restaurants with temporary seasonal decks) and entered Gion, the former pleasure quarter and home to geisha culture. As a note, there are still geisha in Gion, fulfilling the role of traditional entertainers (Japanese music, poetry, song, etc.) though you're not especially likely to see them unless you have a lot of money and possibly a personal invitation. Gion, however, is a lot of fun to walk through. At least so long as you can find the right streets, as some are just modern and boring. The old streets, however, are great. As a note, while you're not super likely to encounter a real geisha on the street (maybe in the evening, if you're lucky), you will probably see plenty of young women in kimonos. They're tourists (quite a lot of which are not Japanese) looking to further get into that old Japanese atmosphere. While we didn't do so, we passed at least half a dozen shops renting kimonos and other old Japanese clothes.
As we got towards the ends of Gion, we spotted some fish out to dry, which seems a little odd. We also happened across Yasui Konpiragu shrine as we made our way between Gion and Higashiyama. While the shrine itself wasn't anything too special, it had a giant rock covered with omikuji fortune papers. There was a hole in the rock and, every so often, someone would crawl through it (presumably for good luck).
As we neared Kyoto's Higashiyama distract, I began seeing signs for Kodaiji Temple. I'd never been there before, but it was on the way and looked nice so we decided to check it out. It was established by the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose name you'll probably recognize if you studied Japanese history. If you don't appreciate the temple's historical significance, you can still enjoy its gardens, which are quite nice. In addition to the regular garden, there's also a stone garden and a bamboo grove to see, making for a great nature fix. While there, we also got a look at the giant Buddha statue next door. Technically it's a separate place, but the statue is so big that you can easily see it without paying.
Once we'd finished exploring Kodaiji, it was just a short walk into the Higashiyama area proper. There, the main streets are entirely lined with old buildings (now mostly shops and restaurants), giving it a great look. Though the crowds get considerably worse as you near Kiyomizudera Temple, another of Kyoto's top attractions. In the end, we didn't go in, just to the top of the hill. A little disappointing, but the temple is under going maintains, leaving some areas unaccusable anyway. While we could have taken a bus back to our hotel, we opted to walk instead, which pretty much wrapped up the day.

And we're a day late again. Sorry about that, I'm just too tired to continue on today. Later!

Josiah

5/31/2017 Kyushu part 2

Let's get caught up...

May 29th (Mon): Beppu
Beppu is one of Japan's most famous hot springs towns, featuring the highest number of hot springs of anywhere in the world and 10 of the 11 different types of hot springs pools found worldwide. I really enjoyed it last time I went, so I included it on this trip as well. Like when I went before, we started out by getting on the bus to visit the "hells" (thermal pools which steam or bubble out from the ground). There's eight hells in Beppu, divided between two areas. We got a combo ticket for all eight but, based on my past experience, we skipped a couple that I had found to be less than impressive. If you want to read the full run down of the hells, check out my previous travelogue entry (see the one for Thursday the 3rd), but here are some highlights from this trip.
We started out with Oniishibozu-Jigoku, which is full of bubbling mud pools. And right next to it is Umi-Jigoku, one of my favorites, with its lily ponds and sea blue pool. As a note, they're currently doing some construction there and, while it doesn't prevent you from seeing the main sights, it means that the gift shop and the indoor lily green house are currently closed. Moving on, we skipped Yama-Jigoku and Oniyama-Jigoku (easily the least impressive of the hells), and made our way to Kamado-Jigoku, which has a large variety of pools and is a great place to try onsen tamago (eggs boiled in hot springs water). One neat thing there that I don't remember seeing before is one of the employees using a cigarette to make smoke bounce off the pools. Speaking of smoke, if you read my travelogue last time I went to Beppu, you might notice that there's a lot less steam rising from the pools in my photos this time around. The reason is that last time it was raining. While that generally detracts from outdoor sightseeing a bit, it does really enhance the steamy atmosphere of Beppu. Anyway, next we saw the piranha and other fish at Shiraike-Jigoku and then walked through the town a little to finish up the area. Then it was time for a short bus ride to the last two hells, the red (well, technically orange-ish) Chinoike-Jigoku and the frequently erupting geyser at Tatsumami-Jigoku.
Once we'd finished with the hells, with took a bus back to the station, taking a route through part of Beppu I hadn't seen before. It's a much bigger place than I had realized. Then it was off to Suginoi Palace, the nice onsen resorted I stopped at on my last visit. It was just as good as I remembered, complete with great view. We were even able to take Zack into the big shared pool, for his first pool and first onsen experience. We didn't stay super late (the others are a bit less tolerant of really long days than I am), but we did find a surprisingly good restaurant in Beppu Station (I good a local vegetable, mochi, and miso soup), before returning to Fukuoka.

May 30th (Tue): Around Fukuoka
At this point, the others wanted to take a break from train rides, and my dad and I had tickets for a baseball game (the local Softbank Sea Hawks vs. the Chunichi Dragons) in the evening, so we decided to take it easy an explore Fukuoka a bit.
We started out by visiting some of the nearby temples and shrines that I saw on my previous trip, including the one with the giant wooden Buddha and pagoda, and the shrine where the big summer festival takes place, complete with really giant floats. Then it was through the shopping arcade, into a really fancy mall, and through a night life distract with some interesting buildings. After that we ended up back near the hotel so we broke for lunch. Connie and I went to a good udon place and I got a bowl with beef and gobo (burdock) tempura. Gobo seems to be a local specialty, since I've been seeing it around a lot in the area. Once we were done eating, we met up again for shopping in Uniqlo (a Japanese clothing chain known for low prices and pretty good clothes). As you know, I'm not too into clothes shopping (though it's a little more interesting in Japan), but Uniqlo did recently launch a line of Nintendo t-shirts, many of which are pretty cool, and they were currently on sale for only 990 Yen, so I did pick up a couple of those.
Once the shopping was finished, my mom and Connie went off with Zack while my dad and I went off towards the baseball stadium. It's a little bit on the outskirts, requiring a subway ride followed by a walk. There were lots of souvenir stands outside, along with a lot of sets of metal hands, which seemed to be a mix of Japanese ball players and various celebrities (maybe ones that visited the stadium?). There's also a nice (though entirely Japanese) museum about Sadaharu Oh, one of the most famous Japanese baseball players.
Once nice thing we noticed is that, unlike in the US, it was perfectly ok for people to bring their own drinks and food inside the stadium (though, of course, you could also buy plenty of different things once inside). Security was also much less prominent and strict when compared to the US, no doubt because Japan is such a peaceful country.
My dad is much more of a baseball fan than me (I don't mind going to a game once in a while, but have no special interest in watching it or any other sport), but watching a game in Japan can be pretty interesting. The stadium didn't start out overly full, but it filled up steadily over time. Speaking of the crowd, by rough estimate, I'd say somewhere between 40 - 60% of the audience was female, and many of them were either on their own, with their kids, or with other women, rather than accompanying husbands or boyfriends. I haven't been to a game in the US for a while, but I assume the percentage would be a lot lower. Compared to a US baseball game, Japanese games are a bit more high energy, something like minor league games, with lots of cheerleading, little goofy shows, and the like. Then there's the cheering sections, people who go to tons of games and have created cheers for pretty much every player and situation. Japanese baseball fans really go all out. It makes things a lot more lively, though also a lot more noisy, compared to the US. And it's not just the home team. While that video was of the Hawk's cheering section, the Dragons had a sizable one as well, who likely traveled all the way from Nagoya (a several hour and moderately expensive shinkansen ride), just to cheer on their team.
The food is a bit different than what you'd find in the US too. I looked around a bit before ending with with friend chicken wrapped in nori, a 30 cm yakitori (chicken skewer), which I guess is the Japanese version of the foot long hotdog, and some long french fry type things made from gobo.
Since we went more for the experience than the game itself, we didn't stay for the entire thing. Once back at the hotel, I went off for a little bit to see some yatai. Yatai are carts that unfold into little mini-restaurants. They used to be very common in Japan back in the day, but are a lot rarer now. Fukuoka, however, is rather famous for them. You can find them scattered around the city but there are a few areas that are especially known for them, including the south end of Nakatsu Island, which was right nearby, across a canal. The yatai don't open until late evening and have a certain charm to them. If you're curious, they primarily serve ramen, oden, yakitori, and alcohol. I did see a few foreigners eating at them but none of them looked the least bit English friendly so, if you don't know some Japanese, you might have a hard time.
I had already eaten, so I just looked around a bit before making my way back. I passed through the Canal City mall on the way, just in time to see their One Piece show at the fountain, which was fun.
Tomorrow we're off to Kyoto for the next leg of our trip. This visit reminded me of how much I like Kyushu. It's a great area and I've love to come back sometime. If I do, basing in Kagoshima for a while would open up some very interesting day trip possibilities and it would also be a lot of fun to spend a few days in the Beppu area and maybe overnight in Huis Ten Bosch.

Random Japan Comment: Baseball Tickets
If you want to see a baseball game in Japan, you can always buy tickets at the stadium, though there's a decent chance they'll sell out ahead of time. If you're really Japanese savvy, you can also buy them online through the Japanese sales systems or at various stores in Japan. Otherwise, this site is a good place to order them. You'll pay an extra fee, but it's relatively reasonable, the service is good, and you can be sure that you'll get the tickets you want.

May 31st (Wed): On to Kyoto
There are quite a lot of shinkansen going between Kyushu and central Honshu (Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, etc.). Unfortunately, most of them are the ones that you can't use with a rail pass. With the pass, there's only about one train an hour, and it only goes as far as Osaka, so that limits things a bit. In the end though, we made it to Kyoto right around noon and headed to our hotel. While it was too early to check in, we were able to drop off our bags before heading back out.
Since it was getting close to lunch time, we ended up making our way north to Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping arcade focused entirely on food. That said, there are very few actual restaurants in it. But there are a lot of stores selling snacks, seafood, locally made pickled vegetables, and the like. I missed this place last time I was in Kyoto, but it's definitely worth a walk though and it's a good spot to snack. If you want a meal though, there are plenty of restaurants just outside of the arcade proper, and we found a nice place for lunch before heading back in.
Nishiki connects to a regular shopping arcade (which I do remember from before) on one end, so we walked in there a little bit before making our way back to the hotel to get our rooms. Since I was a good bit under budget on all the other hotels, we ended up splurging a little here, and got rooms at Hotel Kanra Kyoto, a sort of modern take on the Japanese ryokan (traditional inn). It's certainly fancy. Each room has an elaborate entry way, a large sitting and sleeping area, and even a bathroom with a large wooden tub.
After resting up for a bit, my parents and I went out to get supper. We took a brief look at the nearby Higashi Honganji Temple (which is huge, and has a cool fountain), but it was closing soon so we only saw the outside. Then we made our way back to Kyoto Station. We looked around the stores a bit, and came across a nicely done Lego recreation of the station, before settling down for a very traditional Kyoto style dinner. Finally, after a minute spent watching the stairs, it was time to call it a day.

Later!

Josiah

5/29/2017 Back on Kyushu

The travelogue continues!

May 27th (Sat): Chiran
Since it was a shabbat, we decided to stick with more outdoors, nature oriented, activities. Of the things on the travel plan, a trip to Kagoshima made the most sense so we got on the shinkansen.
I have to say that, as I noticed before, Kyushu is a really pretty island with tons of hills, greenery, and nice farming towns. Unfortunately, the shinkansen goes through a lot of tunnels, which limits your view quiet a bit (fortunately, that's much less of an issue on the regular trains). After arriving at Kagoshima, it was onto the bus for a ride to the old samurai village of Chiran. It's a good bit out of the way, but worth the trip, at least in my opinion. I gave a complete run down of it last time, if you want more details (see the entry for Friday the 4th), so I won't do that again. But the different samurai gardens are still beautiful and even just walking down the street through the massive hedges is quite the experience. It's really a cool place.
We got back to Kagoshima a little later than I'd expected, but I figured we still had time to finish our plan for the day and take the ferry to the volcanic island of Sakurajima. I'd wanted to do that on my last visit, but hadn't had time. Unfortunately, Connie wasn't feeling her best and whoever wrote my Japan guide book was sorely mistaken when they said that the ferry terminal is a 10 minute walk from the station (it's more like 30) so, in the end, we walked around a bit but gave up on Sakurajima. Someday, I really want to base in Kagoshima for a few days, explore the city more, visit Sakurajima, and take day trips out to some of the more distant islands as well. Something to keep in mind for the future, anyway.
Oh, when looking for a place to eat dinner back in Fukuoka, I saw this (the sign says American Jumbo Burger). You might not be able to tell from the photo, but it looked to be around 8 -12 inches in diameter. And no, I didn't eat it.

May 28th (Sun): Huis Ten Bosch
I couldn't plan a trip to Kyushu without a stop at Huis Ten Bosch, the amazing dutch theme park. It's a huge place, easily on par with a Disney Park in terms of both size and atmosphere. Last time, I was there on a week day and the place was a bit dead, so it was actually kind of nice to see it more crowded this time. Fortunately, it's big enough and spread out enough that lines were never really an issue. While a lot of the attractions skew towards an older audience, they've been trying to attract a younger crowd too. Last time I came, there was a big cross promotion with One Piece. That's over, but there were several smaller ones this time including Gintama and Patlabor. They've also added a large number of VR games (some are free, some cost extra). I only got to try a few, but one of them (a music game on the Vive) was a whole lot of fun and some of the other more elaborate games looks pretty cool as well. The tech push also extends to robots. One of the hotels is now staffed by robots (you'll never encounter a human employee) and they have a robot run restaurant as well.
While walking down Umbrella Street, I noticed that the ice bar (which was being renovated last time I came) was now open, so my parents and I stopped in to take a look. While the whole idea of a bar where all the furniture and decorations are made of ice is kind of weird, it's pretty neat too. Drinks are a bit on the expensive side, but they're served inside a giant ice cube, which is a pretty awesome. (Note my careful avoidance of describing the place as "cool".) We also watched a water show and went through the mirror maze before continuing on.
We ended up going our separate ways for lunch, and meeting up again in Adventure Land, stopping along the way to watch the rose parade. The ropes course there is still as awesome as I remember, and they were currently doing a promotion where you could try an extra challenge that involved completing the course while balancing a plastic egg in a bowl on your helmet. I managed to pull it off (which required very steady balance and repressing the urge to look up or down to check hand and foot holds), winning a One Piece charm. My mom did the course as well, but didn't attempt the egg challenge.
The rose garden was pleasant enough last time I visited, but it's naturally a whole lot better when the roses are actually in bloom. Something I don't remember from last time in the garden is a bungee jumping tower. Now bungee jumping is something I've always wanted to try, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. While it wasn't a super tall tower, the jump was a lot of fun, and surprisingly low intensity in terms of how much it jerks your body around. Of course, no one actually got a photo or video of me doing the jump. My mom drained my camera battery taking videos of Zack while I was climbing the tower and it died just before I jumped. Meanwhile, my dad tried with his phone but had some technical difficulties. Sigh...
Moving on, we walked through some other areas of the park (note that the photo only shows around 1/4 of the place at most), enjoying the sights, visiting the glass museum, etc. Looks like even the classic carousel got the VR treatment (it makes it look like you're flying around on dragons, instead of going in circles on wooden horses. On a side note, while we didn't really go into the haunted house area, I think it's possible to take the horror theme a bit too far. If you're curious, that's the sign for an actual restroom, not an attraction, though it just sounds wrong either way...
Eventually, we made it to another tech attraction, the game museum. Inside, it's mostly an arcade (with a mix of new and old machines, some free) and gift shop (complete with a small cafe), but they also have a pretty good collection of old video game consoles and some fun photo spots.
The others didn't want to get back to the hotel super late, so we left before sunset (which was a shame, since it really lights up after dark). Everyone had a lot of fun and we didn't see half the attractions that Huis Ten Bosch has to offer. Once again, I loved it. It's a really great theme park with something for everyone. If I get to go again, I'd love to spend the night in one of the hotels (maybe the robot one) and really explore in-depth.

Well, that leaves me a day behind, but it's getting late so I think this is good enough for now.

Later!

Josiah

5/27/2017 More Japan

Vote to see the new bonus comic!

May 25th (Thu): Shibuya
Today didn't get off to the greatest start. While preparing everything for the day ahead, I realized that the vouchers for our JR train passes had been left back in Virginia. That was stressful and I got pretty frustrated with myself since I had somehow completely forgotten about them all that time. Despite referencing them repeatedly in my travel plan, they never got added to the packing list and I hadn't noticed them when packing the passports, despite them being in the same spot. Unfortunately, without the actual vouchers, there's no way to get the rail passes, even if you have the order confirmation info and everything. On the bright side, I was able to declare them lost to get a refund (though not for 100% of the price). In the past, we would have had to make do without rail passes entirely (or at least order new vouchers and have them shipped to our next hotel (forcing us to pay for tomorrow's expensive train trip)). But, just a couple months ago, they started selling JR Passes in Japan at a limited number of stations. You pay a small premium, so it's still much better to order them ahead of time, but it's way better than going without.
Anyway, after figuring out all the details about that, Connie, Zack, and I finally set out for Shibuya, Tokyo's center of popular fashion. After a quick visit to Hachiko, we headed into Shibuya 109, a famous mall made up of a number of little clothing and accessory stores, mostly focusing on Japanese brands. Not really my thing, of course, especially since the main 109 building is all women's clothes, but Connie enjoyed it and I have to admit that some of the outfits on display were rather interesting to see. After that, we ate at a family restaurant, did a little more shopping, and got back on the train.
Next stop, Harajuku. But, before hitting more shops, we detoured into Yoyogi Park to visit Meiji Jingu Shrine (and its collection of sake barrels). Part of the shrine is currently undergoing renovation, but we were able to enter the main courtyard. We also swung by the nearby garden, which is small but pleasant.
We were planning to browse the shopping streets next, but Connie was feeling a little off so I took her back to the hotel to rest a bit. I headed back out a little later but by then I only had about an hour before I needed to meet my parents (who were arriving from the US to join us) so I just walked around Shinagawa Station for a bit. On that note, there's a decent amount of restaurants in the area, but it's definitely not worth a trip there just to eat or look around.
After my parents arrived, I got them settled in the hotel, got Connie and Zack, and we all went to Tokyo Station to pick up new rail passes. It was getting late by then but, fortunately, Tokyo Station has a ton of restaurants and we eventually settled on a nice little oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl) place before calling it a day. Tomorrow, on to Fukuoka!

May 26th (Fri): Off to Fukuoka
We set off from Tokyo a bit later in the morning than I would have liked but the earlier shinkansen were mostly booked so we didn't have much of a choice. On the bright side, it did make the morning a bit more relaxed. Anyway, it was our longest train ride of the trip (a little under six hours, counting the time switching trains half way) and, since we didn't get an especially early start, it ate up a good chunk of the day. By the time we arrived and checked into our hotel (a nice Dormy Inn), it was too late to do any serious sightseeing so instead we walked around the Canal City Mall, watched the fountain show, got dinner, and did a little shopping for tomorrow.
Not an especially interesting or exciting day, but I'm glad we got it all out of the way.

Later!

Josiah

5/22/2017 Off to Japan

Well, I'm off to Japan! If all goes well, updates will continue as normal (though they'll likely be posted in early to mid morning of the update day, rather than the night before), but don't be surprised if I miss one here or there. Here's hoping that Zack sleeps through most of the flight...

Later!

Josiah

5/19/2017 Update schedule

Top Web Comics is having issues again, so here's the new Blooper Reel strip. Regular comics resume on Monday.

So, how're updates going to be handled while I'm on vacation? Monday's update will be normal. After that, updates should continue as usual while I've traveling. However, they'll likely be posted several hours to half a day earlier or later than usual (probably later). That said, I can't be 100% sure about my internet access (especially during the second half of the trip when I'm in China) so there's always the chance that an update will be missed here or there if I don't have a good connection. Naturally, there will be a travelogue as well. I've even got a bit of a buffer built up for PV strips. Not enough to cover the entire trip, but it's a good start and I'll probably be able to work on it a bit more over the weekend.

Later!

Josiah

5/17/2017 Closing in...

Grading is finished, though I've still got commencement and some paperwork on that front. Add in a few errands, packing, and a bit of graphic design work, and I guess I'll have a few somewhat busy days before it's vacation time. Close though.

In other news, Zack (now five months) just learned to roll over. It's cute, but means that we can't just set him down wherever now since there's a very real risk he could roll off or into something. He really wants to crawl too, but he can't yet, which tends to make him rather frustrated.

Anyway, updates will continue as usual through Monday. I'll go over how that's going to change during the trip another day.

See you Friday!

Josiah

5/15/2017 Persona 5

I've finished grading the final projects of two of the classes I taught this semester. Today, I'm hoping to grade everything for the third. Though it's an extra large class (around one and half times the usual amount of students), so there's a lot of papers to go over. The schedule for finals grading here is a bit different than at other universities I've worked at, with the result being that professors have less time and flexibility in regards to when they need to grade finals, so it can make for some very long days in order to get everything done on schedule. After the grading is finished, I still have commencement ceremonies and some paperwork to do, but the end of the semester is really close. As is the family trip to Japan and China.

On a different topic, I've been meaning to write about Persona 5 for a while now. Despite my love of JRPGs, I didn't get into the Persona series until a fairly late. On a whim, I started playing Persona 3 a little before moving to Florida (many years after its release) and become hooked. Persona 4 came a bit later (when they released the Vita port), and quickly became one of my all time favorite games. Persona 5 has been a long time coming (the series tends to have long development times in general and, after Persona 4 Golden, the team took a break to create Catherine (which is also a favorite)), and it's game I've been really looking forward to. So much so, that I put off a few other highly anticipated games (like Zelda Breath of the Wild and Gravity Rush 2) in order to play P5 first. Fortunately, I don't regret it in the least.
The Persona series's signature blend of JRPG and high school life/time management sim is back and just as engaging as ever. As days pass in the game world, you need to carefully balance your time between studies and other self improvement activities, socializing, and your new career as a Phantom Thief. Specifically, a Phantom Thief who can enter an alternate dimension and reform criminals by stealing the twisted desires of their hearts. Both the social system and the battle system have been further refined since P4 and are in excellent form. The main dungeons in particular have improved significantly, going from the old randomly generated slogs to high unique and well designed destinations, the perfect stages for epic heists.
But, of course, the real heart of any Persona game is the story and characters, and P5 is just as good as its predecessors. While the main cast, though excellent, hasn't grabbed me quite as much that of P4 (which set the bar ridiculously high), the side characters are the best the series has seen yet.
The audio (both the sound track and voice acting) is just as good as always. But another thing that really sets P5 apart from the earlier titles, and most other games on the market these days, is style. P5 is absolutely dripping with it. The animations, the little graphical flourishes, even the menus and GUI. I can't remember another game I've played that was this stylish. Of course, when it comes to games, substance beats style every time, but substance is something the Persona series has never had any trouble with. So the new highly stylized presentation only improves the brilliant core experience.
And then there's the sheer amount of content. Persona games are never short. I think Persona 3 took me around 60 hours (plus another 10 or 20 for the FES expansion), and I spent 100 on Persona 4 (about 60 for my first playthrough and another 40 for a perfect run on New Game+ to get all the trophies). For Persona 5, I'm doing what I'd say is a fairly normal playthrough (without any excessive grinding or anything). I'd estimate I'm around 80% of the way through the game (though that's a guess, since I've been avoiding walkthroughs so as not to spoil anything) and my play clock is already at 83 hours. And I'm seriously tempted to jump back in for a New Game+ once I'm done so I can max out my confidant (s-link) rankings, fill out my Persona compendium, and the like.
Long story short, Persona 5 is an excellent game. It's the best JRPG I've played in ages (sorry Final Fantasy XV) and likely to become one of my all time favorite games of any kind. Anyone with a Playstation 3 or 4 and even the smallest interest in RPGs really should give it a try.

Josiah

5/12/2017 Grading...start!

Why the Blooper Reel comic here on the main page? Well, Top Web Comics is having one of those periods when it's not working right so I can't upload this Blooper Reel strip there. And, while I did have a regular comic ready for today, since I'm trying to build up a buffer, I figured running the Blooper Reel strip here instead wouldn't be a bad idea. Regular PV strips will be back on Monday.

So, I spent the entirely of yesterday (from around 10 AM - 10 PM) watching final presentations and then grading final projects, with a few short breaks here and there to eat and such. And I've got more of that to look forward to today (though not nearly as much) and even more the early part of next week (which could be a lot like yesterday). Then there's some more trip prep, and graduation ceremonies, so it's going to be a busy week. Though after that it's Japan and China, so I have a lot to look forward to.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

5/10/2017 Still working

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to have to focus on grading final projects for a while. But, for now, I'm still working on various trip prep things. Sometime before I leave, I really should write about Persona 5, which I've been squeezing in when I have time. But right now I'd really like to get some work done on that comic buffer so I'll save that for another time.

Later!

Josiah

5/8/2017 Comic buffer

Yep, only two weeks until vacation. I've got a little more trip planning I want to get done, but that shouldn't take too long. Other than work, of course, my other priority before leaving is going to be trying to build up a decent comic buffer for while I'm traveling. On that note, if anyone feels like sending me a guest comic, that wouldn't be bad either. Just make it PV related and G or PG rated.

Later!

Josiah

5/5/2017 Moving on to finals

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I had my last classes of the semester yesterday. Next up, finals. Mostly grading, on my part, with a few meetings and events thrown in for good measure. But none of that really starts until Thursday, so I've got a few days to recharge and get through the remaining items on my trip prep list, which really need to be taken care of soon considering how close said trip is getting.

So, I'm going to get to that. Have a good weekend!

Josiah

5/3/2017 Enough already

One thing that's really bugged me lately is that a lot of the TV shows I watch have been putting in little bits of political commentary. I mean, it's one thing if I was watching shows where that would make sense, but in most cases I watch fantasy and super hero shows, which means they really have no reason to bring in current politics, other than for the writers to take cheap shots at whoever they don't agree with. And even in one show where bringing in politics made sense, they devoted almost an entire episode to overwrought and very one-sided grandstanding. I get way too much political commentary (and a ton of uninformed ranting and whining, which is worse) on Facebook, in the news, and in regular life. I really don't want it pervading my entertainment. At least most of the time it's quick and only a momentary annoyance, but some shows go really overboard with it. I've already dropped one show I had been watching because of that and I'm really close to dropping a second (at very least, I won't be watching the next season).

Sigh... At least I don't need to worry about that type of thing in anime or video games (some indie games that I mostly don't play aside). Still, Hollywood writers need to stop cramming this type of thing in wherever they can. Their job is to write entertaining fiction, not political commentary. If they don't realize that, their shows are going to start losing more viewers since I can't be the only one who is fed up with it.

Josiah

5/1/2017 One more week

It's the last week of classes! Though that's only regular classes. Finals, graduation, and various related events stretch on for another two weeks after that. But we're close now, and I am really looking forward to summer break. Not that it's been a particularly difficult semester in and of itself, but adding Zack into the mix made it a lot crazier. Plus, I haven't really had a proper vacation in ages (Zack was born over winter break, last summer was taken up with moving, etc.). For now though, I've got three more weeks of work.

Later!

Josiah

4/28/2017 Getting close...

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Hard to believe that I'll be in Japan in less than a month. Time has really been flying lately. I have the entire Japan portion of the trip planned out, though I still have some work to do on China. I've got a rough outline but I need to work out the details. And even then, a few things may have to wait until the last minute since I'm trying to coordinate some stuff with Connie's family. Not to mention that June is the rainiest month in that part of China, so the weather may prove problematic for some of my plans. I'd really like to get everything done and locked down ASAP, but I can live with leaving the exact dates being a bit fuzzy for now, so long as I have everything else figured out. Anyway, it will be a fun trip and I'm really looking forward to it and the rest of the summer. For now though, I need to finish those China plans and focus on grading, finals, and the like.

Later!

Josiah

4/26/2017 Walking in DC

Ok, it's finally time for that travelogue entry.

April 26th (Sunday): DC Monuments and Memorials
On a side note, if some of the photos look weird, or if there are some things I don't have photos of, I was having some camera problems. Hopefully I'll have it fixed soon.
The weather here has been steadily improving (though still with a little back and forth) so Connie and I decided to take advantage of a particularly nice day and walk around DC. Luckily, we even managed to grab one of the very limited number of free parking spots along the Potomac. Moving away from that body of water, we passed the George Mason Memorial (not one of the more well known ones) and started walking along the Tidal Basin. The first famous spot we came to was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The main chamber features a statue of Jefferson, surrounded by quotes from his writings. While it's less obvious, there's a lower level with a gift shop and a small museum type display about Jefferson's life. Like Washington, he was a really fascinating guy.
Although it was a bit early, we were both hungry so we decided to get lunch. Turns out, most of the restaurants on the south side of the National Mall are closed on Sundays, so we had a bit of a walk to an area a bit north east of the mall which, unless you want to try a food truck, is probably the best spot to find food in the National Mall area. We even passed the Navy Memorial along the way. We ended up at an Indian place of sorts, which was pretty good.
Since the weather was nice, and we didn't want to stay in DC really late (since we had Zack and all) we decided not to visit any museums and get back to the monuments and memorials. On the way, we passed through the sculpture garden next to the National Museum of Art. It's a pleasant area, though I can't say that I care for most of the sculptures. A few were decent, but a lot were pretty weird. Then there was this, which I don't think really even counts as a sculpture. I mean, it's just a plain sheet of metal.
Moving along, we took a short detour in order to pass by the White House. At this point, you can't get especially close to it, but there's still one spot on the path which has a decent view. Then we swung down towards the Washington Monument (which is still closed while they replace the elevator) and over to the World War II Memorial. It's a pretty nice one, from a design perspective, and it's connected via the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial, which was our last stop. I have to say, the statue of Lincoln inside is very impressive in-person. And the steps outside the memorial offer a great view across the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and even further on to the Capital Building.
Finally, we completed our long loop back to our car (passing the lesser known Martin Luther King Jr. Monument and Franklin Roosevelt Memorial along the way) and headed out. It made for a pleasant day and, with the detours we took to the restaurant and White House, a pretty good walk too. Seeing all the memorials is kind a must do thing in DC, so I'd been looking forward to it. I'd say that, if you rush, you could hit the main ones (Jefferson, Washington, WWII, and Lincoln) in an hour or two, and do the entire loop around the Tidal Basin in twice that, though it's more pleasant to devote a solid half day or more and take your time, especially if the weather is good.

Josiah

4/24/2017 Baby time

I had to spend awhile getting Zack to sleep, so I didn't quite finish the travelogue entry and now I'm the one who needs to sleep. But that's life with a baby. Anyway, I'll have the travelogue entry finished for Wednesday.

Later!

Josiah

4/21/2017 This and that

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Well, we're coming up on another weekend. This one is going to be a lot busier than the last since I have some work related stuff on both Friday and Sunday. But hey, the end of the semester is only a month away and after that, we've got a pretty fun (and hopefully productive) summer coming up.

Still working on my photos (I'd fallen a bit behind on them), but I should probably have the travelogue entry ready for Monday. For now, have a great weekend!

Josiah

4/19/2017 Back to work

Well, I had a great weekend, Passover is finished, and I'm feeling much more rested. Connie and I even got the chance to go out and do some sightseeing. I'll get a travelogue post up sometime soonish once I've sorted through the photos.

See you Friday!

Josiah

4/14/2017 Recharging...

Why the Blooper Reel strip today? TWC is working ok (and you can see this exact same strip if you vote). But I don't have a comic buffer at the moment (haven't had one for months, actually) and I'm not feeling that great at the moment. I don't think I'm getting sick or anything, though my diet yesterday was a bit weird and might have messed with my stomach a bit. It was also a very long and kind of stressful day, coming after a week of late nights, and I'm just feeling really burned out. I'll try and get some rest (and hopefully get a buffer built up) over the weekend and hit the ground running next week. That said, speaking of next week, there will be no PV update on Monday. That actually has nothing to do with how I'm feeling though, it's the last day of Passover.

Anyway, have a great weekend and I'll see you (with a new strip) on Wednesday.

Josiah

4/12/2017 Happy Passover

Well, Passover is off to a fairly good start but I'm running a bit late (took Zack some time to get to sleep again) so I'm off for now.

Later!

Josiah

4/10/2017 Cherry blossoms

It's a busy day. I've got a class to teach in the morning, then I have to immediately run to DC to pick up Zack's visa, then run right back home so I can prepare for the Passover seder this evening. Anyway, before I get started on all that though, he's a quick travelogue entry.

March 26th (Sunday): Cherry Blossoms
In the end, thanks to the weather, we never did get a very good look at the sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) in DC. However, DC doesn't have a monopoly on sakura trees, they're scattered all around the general area, including Fairfax. My parents, Connie, Zack, and I went out for a long walk and came across a a fair number of them not too far from our apartment. It's not quite the same as in Japan, where the trees are everything, turning everything pink. But the blossoms are still pretty in smaller amounts. I really enjoyed seeing them around both while walking and driving over the last few days. Gives me a little bit of a Japan vibe, which I've definitely been missing lately.

Later!

Josiah

4/7/2017 Almost Passover

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This week has ended up pretty busy with grading and all the visa stuff. And, with Passover coming up, things will likely stay a bit hectic, at least through Monday. I'll try to get some cherry blossom pictures posted soon though. Anyway, I'm running late (again) so I'm off.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

4/5/2017 Visa run

I've finished the majority of planning for our summer trip (not totally done yet, but getting there). So I've been working on visas instead. Specifically, Connie needs to apply for a visa to visit Japan (US citizens do not, Chinese citizens do) and Zack needs one to visit China (my old one is still good). On the bright side, being right near DC means we can go to the embassies ourselves and get everything taken care of instead of paying a company to do it. But that does take time and there's a lot of forms to fill out and files print. Hoping to get the last of it taken care of today though, so we'll see.

Later!

Josiah

4/3/2017 DC sightseeing

And now for that travelogue entry (finally).

March 24th (Friday): Visiting the Smithsonian
Unfortunately, my parents' visit happened to coincide with some of the worst weather we've had this winter. Things did finally start to improve, so we headed into DC to do a bit of sightseeing. Unfortunately, we didn't look at the finer details of the weather report. Turns out that the good weather we were promised wasn't coming until the afternoon. So, instead of walking around the monuments and seeing the cherry blossoms, we ended up in the middle of a rain storm and made a run for the nearest Smithsonian museum.
That ended up being the Freer Gallery of Art, which is focused on Asian art. That said, it's not really what you expect when you think of Asian art. One floor was dedicated to Chinese porcelain. Well, sort of. There was a normal display of it, but quite a lot of the space was dedicated to some more modern displays that were supposed to represent the the dark side of collecting too much porcelain...or something. Honestly, it was kind of weird. The other floor was a lot more normal, though still had a relatively small amount of actual art, and focused on Afghanistan. It was kind of nice, actually. Though I don't really think of the Middle East as "Asia". The lowest level connected to a nearby gallery housing African art. It was nicely arranged though, once again, there was a somewhat limited amount of art. And, to be perfectly honest, I find a lot of African art to be kind of creepy (though I do like some Egyptian and Ethiopian stuff).
Anyway, by that time the rain had finally stopped so we walked through garden behind the original Smithsonian castle (now a visitor center) and made our way to the Washington Monument. As a side note, while you can normally go up to the top of the monument, it's currently closed while they make some upgrades to the elevator. They probably got tired of it breaking down every other week (it was frequently in the news when I moved here). There's still a nice view from the base of the monument though, you can see most of the other monuments, memorials, and famous buildings from there.
While the rain had stopped, it was still pretty cold (thanks to the wind), so we went to the Museum of Natural History. Got to say, that's the best Smithsonian museum I've been to so far. I always liked natural history museums to begin with, and this one is huge, with a very wide variety of exhibits. For example, here's Zack and my dad in front of a Moai head. But we only had time to see the Hope Diamond, the very impressive rock and mineral exhibit, and take a quick look through a large collection of animal skeletons, which is barely scratching the surface. I'm looking forward to going back sometime in the not too distant future to take in the rest of the exhibits.
In the end, we only really got to see the DC cherry blossoms in passing, but I did get a better look at some that were growing closer to our apartment a few days later. I'll post some pictures of them another time...

Josiah

3/31/2017 This and that

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Well, I did get my photos sorted but I'm running late again tonight and don't really have time to type up the travelogue... So yeah, going to have to put it off one more time. But it will be up Monday.

Anyway, I did get the chance to catch up with an old friend, which was cool. We used to hang out as kids, and we're Facebook friends, but this is the first time we've met in a really long time. Probably something like 18 years, actually. Wow, that makes me feel old... Anyway, it was a lot of fun seeing him again. But now, I really need to get to sleep.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

3/29/2017 Goodnight

This was another one of those nights when Zack just didn't want to go to sleep. Fortunately, they're not too common, but still pretty annoying when they happen. Combine that with some paperwork I really had to get done and it's a kind of late night. Due to that, and various other things, I still haven't finished those photos. So I'll aim for Friday for that travelogue entry. In the meantime, sleep.

Later!

Josiah

3/27/2017 Catching up

Well, we did go into DC on Friday and did some sightseeing, though the weather wasn't especially cooperative. I haven't had a chance to go through my photos yet though, so the travelogue entry will have to wait until later in the week. There's actually a lot going on this week. My parents are still here, for one thing, though they'll be leaving tomorrow. It's been really nice having them around, and they've certainly helped out with Zack. Other tasks this week? Well, I needed to spend some time yesterday catching up on grading. Later in the week we need to go back into DC to get Connie a visa for traveling to Japan (since she's not a US citizen yet, she needs to apply for one in advance). And, now that I finally got the last of the papers I was waiting for, I really need to get my taxes done. There's a few other things as well, though those are the most important. Anyway, I think I'll be keeping busy for the next few days, at least until I work though my to-do list.

Later!

Josiah

3/24/2017 Off to see the sakura

Now that the cold weather is finished (at least for the time being) the sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) in DC are blooming so my family and I are headed over there today to see them and check out some of the monuments and other DC attractions. Fortunately, I just got my camera back. Unfortunately, it cost way too much considering that the only thing that needed to be fixed was the outer lens cover. Anyway, I'm looking forward seeing the sakura and taking in more of the sights around DC. Expect a travelogue entry, with photos, of course, next week.

See you Monday!

Josiah

3/22/2017 Yawn...

Despite being in a pretty good mood, Zack just didn't want to go to sleep tonight. And, as a result, I'm running late and I have work in the morning so I'm going to keep this news post short. This short to be precise.

Later!

Josiah

3/20/2017 Happy anniversary!

It's my anniversary! Got to say, Connie and my first year together ended up a lot crazier and more stressful than I ever thought it would. A number of things could have turned out better than they did. Still, I'm glad we got through it together. Unfortunately, I don't have anything too elaborate planned for our first anniversary. I thought about it, but between Zack, work, and some other things I have to do tomorrow, it just isn't going to work out. We'll do something this week, but a big anniversary celebration just isn't in the cards this year.

On a side note, due to the weather, my family and I didn't really get to do any sightseeing last week. We did walk around downtown Arlington on Friday but, while it's nice enough (some shops, restaurants, and all that), there's nothing too special about it. It certainly doesn't qualify as a sightseeing destination, anyway. This week though, we are hoping to go into DC at least, though it'll have to fit around my work schedule.

Anyway, we'll see what happens with that. For now, I'm off.

Later!

Josiah

3/17/2017 Fussy baby

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Due to the weather, I haven't really done any sightseeing this week. Next week, maybe. Though I'll be back at work. Anyway, the rest of my family arrived and it's fun having everyone here, regardless of the weather. For most of them, it's their first time seeing Zack in-person as well, so that's cool. Unfortunately, I think he may have gotten a bit overstimulated and we're having trouble getting him to sleep so I'll see you later.

Josiah

3/15/2017 It's always something

My spring break still seems to be flirting with Murphy's Law but at least my parents made it here (a day late). Hopefully the rest of the week won't have any more unexpected problems. I also hope this winter storm won't hurt the cherry blossoms too much. Delaying the blooming isn't that bad, but it might kill a lot of them off, which would be unfortunate. Speaking of the storm, it really hasn't been that bad, at least where I am. They canceled a ton of flights but probably didn't need to. We got maybe two inches of snow at most. Might be some more today though. Really wish last week could have been the snow storm and cold temperatures and this week could have had the sunny 70 degree weather. Ah well, an indoor spring break can be fun too.

Later!

Josiah

3/13/2017 The Switch

Well, my spring break didn't get off to the best start, but hopefully the rest of the week will be more enjoyable. One thing that probably won't improve though is the weather. Last week was really nice. This week, unfortunately, is going to be kind of cold and there might even be some snow.

Anyway, I haven't really talked about the Switch yet. While I haven't spent a ton of time with it, I am impressed. It's an extremely well designed piece of hardware. They paid a lot of attention to usability, incorporating a lot of nice little features that, while minor on their own, really add up. But what really matters is how it plays games. And the answer is, very well. Switching between docked TV mode and portable mode is quick and pretty much seamless. Impressively so. The Joycon controllers are also extremely well designed and it's very easy to switch them from being locked to the console, to the controller grip, and to their wrist straps. They're surprisingly comfortable and easy to use despite their small size. And the screen, when you're in portable mode, looks really good. I think the interface could use some work, but it's simple and easy to use, at least for now (it might become a bit unwieldy if you have a large number of games). To quickly summarize, the Switch is a very impressive piece of hardware. It's not without faults (the small amount of internal memory, for example), and it's too early to say whether or not the hybrid design will really catch on, but it's got some good games out already with a lot more on the way, so it's worth checking out, especially if you're a Nintendo fan.

Later!

Josiah

3/10/2017 Spring break!

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Actually, I'll be spending most of today in meetings at work. But after that it's spring break for the coming week. My parents will be arriving on Monday and my brother and his wife will be getting here later in the week, so it should be a fun time. There will likely be some sightseeing involved as well, so expect some travelogue entries sooner or later.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

3/8/2017 Next stage

Well, I got the last Japan hotel booked, so now I can move on the more fun part of trip planning, deciding what all we're going to see and do (planning the logistics, not quite so much). As I said before, this trip will mostly be me playing tour guide for places I've already been, but it'll still be a lot of fun. Haven't really touched the China portion of the trip yet, but I'll get to that eventually.

As for the Switch? I've played around with it a little. Not as much as I'd like, of course. But I've been busy and, as I said before, I can't start Zelda right away regardless. Anyway, I'll try and write a bit about the console itself on Friday.

Later!

Josiah

3/6/2017 Next week...

Just one week to go until spring break! It'll be great to have a little time off and my family will be visiting for a lot of it as well, so we'll probably get out and do some sightseeing. Today though, I need to get going. I had a bunch of stuff to get done yesterday and, thanks to Zack being really fussy in the evening (he was, fortunately, ok the rest of the day) I didn't quite get to it all so I need to get some rest and than try and catch up today.

Later!

Josiah

3/3/2017 Switch!

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The Nintendo Switch launches today! New consoles are always exciting and the Switch is a really neat piece of hardware. I'm not entirely sure if the whole hybrid home console / portable console element will catch on. But, either way, I like the design and they've already announced more than enough cool games to ensure that I'd have to buy one sooner or later. Sooner, actually. I just happened to be online when Switch pre-orders went live, saw the announcement, and grabbed one on Best Buy. Though, despite ordering online, I have to actually go and pick it up at the store today. Unfortunately, I was not fast enough to get either the Master Edition or Special Edition of Zelda Breath of the Wild. That was disappointing, but it happens sometimes. Especially when they don't produce enough units... Anyway, I'm looking forward to messing around with the Switch and Zelda is getting rave reviews, plus I haven't played a Zelda game in ages. Problem is, I probably won't be getting to Zelda for a little while. Work, my own projects, and, of course, Zack have cut down on my video game time over the past few months. At this point, it'll take me another week or two to finish Final Fantasy XV (though, to be fair, I have been doing almost all the optional quests and the like) and another couple of days to get through the new content in Kingdom Hearts 2.8 before I start a new game. Though I'm not sure if said game will be Zelda or not. I'm currently debating between it, Gravity Rush 2 (which I've been looking forward to for ages), and the last few add-ons for Lego Dimensions. And there's no way I'll be able to get through all three of those (maybe the shorter two, if I'm lucky) before Persona 5 (another one of my most anticipated games) hits in early April. Might have some time to catch up after the big summer trip. I mean, I'll still have Zack and my own projects to focus on, but I'll certainly have more free time than I do right now, or likely will in the fall.

Anyway, expect some impressions of the Switch itself, at least, sometime next week.

See you Monday!

Josiah

3/1/2017 Not again...

I was heading out to work yesterday only to discover that my car battery was dead. Seems that a light had gotten left on the day before and drained it. This is actually the second time that happened in the past couple of months. The first was after Connie and I brought Zack home from the hospital after his birth. It was late and we obviously weren't used to getting him in and out of the car, so I had a light on. Considering everything that was going on then, I can forgive myself for forgetting to turn off the light. And, fortunately, I didn't have anywhere I really had to get to when I discovered the problem. Today, on the other hand, I had to get an Uber in order to make it to my class on time. And then I ended up walking back (the weather was nice and I didn't feel like paying for another ride). The thing is though, I have no idea why that light would have been on in the first place. I was the only one in the car on Monday and I only drove it during the day so I can't think of any reason why I would have turned on a light. Did I hit it by accident or something? Anyway, I really need to more careful. I have AAA, which was a big help both times getting the car started again, but it wastes a lot of time.

Later!

Josiah

2/27/2017 Hotel searching...

Planning for the big summer trip is going in stages. First was figuring out general dates and getting plane tickets. I got that done last week. Next up is booking hotels (which includes finalizing which areas we'll be visiting on which dates). I've got a web site I like for hotels in Japan, so it normally wouldn't be too complicated, but my dad is rather picky, so that complicates things. After the hotels are booked, I'll be talking with everyone about different things we can see and do. Then, taking their preferences into account, I can sketch out a plan for each day. Then, finally, I can fill in the details about train schedules and so on.

Anyway, I've still got a couple more locations to figure out hotels for, so I'm off.

Later!

Josiah

2/24/2017 Weekend!

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It's the weekend at the weather is awesome...at least today and probably tomorrow. Sunday the temperature is going to be dropping to something a bit more appropriate for February (though still not super cold). Not going to be able to take too much advantage of it though, since I need to take Connie and Zack to a checkup today and there's services on Saturday. At very least, I should be able to get in a good walk or two. Been trying to do that a lot this week actually, since the weather's been good and Zack could use some sun and fresh air (so could I, for that matter). Though, at the same time, I have a variety of things to work on, many of which require me to be indoors infront of my computer. So, in the end, I'm not getting to take advantage of the good weather as much as I'd like, and I'm not getting as much work done as I'd like either. Yay for compromise?

Josiah

2/22/2017 Movies

Zack has gotten to the point where, for the past few weeks, Connie and I have felt comfortable enough taking him out on walks, to restaurants, shopping malls, and other locations. The only problem is that we can't really take him to something like a movie or a concert. For that, we'd need a baby sitter. We have done some research into that, but haven't actually hired one yet. For one thing, the only time we've ever left him with someone else was for a couple hours when my mom visited shortly after his birth and leaving him with someone we don't know would make me a little nervous. Plus, getting a sitter for a few hours is kind of expensive, especially when you combine it with the cost of movie tickets and all that. It's a shame, though I suppose Connie and I can just wait a few months and either stream the movies we want to see or get the Blu-rays (which would probably be cheaper than theater tickets anyway).

Later!

Josiah

2/20/2017 Sunny

The weather here continues to be much better than I expected for an east coast winter. It goes back and forth a bit but this entire week is at least partially sunny with temperatures going up to the low 70's on some days. Even the "coldest" day this week has a predicted high of 57. One thing I'm trying to keep an eye on is when the cherry blossoms will bloom in Washington DC (they've got a large collection of Japanese sakura trees there). Due to my work schedule, I haven't been able to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season for years. Seeing them in DC won't be quite the same as, say, Kyoto, but it should still be really pretty. And Connie hasn't seen them at all, so we're definitely planning to head into DC once they're in bloom. As for when that will happen? Current estimates are mid-to late March, but we'll just have to wait and see...

Josiah

2/17/2017 Still at it

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Well, although I'm made some progress on both fronts, I've yet to finish either the grading or my current trip prep task (getting plane tickets). Lately it seems like I have to divide my time between way too many different tasks, which really slows down progress on many of them. But I won't have any grading next week (at least once I've finished the rest of the current (unusually large) batch) and I should have a good bit of time over the weekend to finish researching flights (flying to Asia from the east coast is a whole lot less convenient than from Hawaii). Other than that, and taking care of Zack, the only other things on my mind right now are that Thunderbolt Fantasy is pretty cool (you can watch it on Crunchy Roll, if you're curious) and some social / political things (which I make a point of not talking about on Pebble Version). So I think that's about all I have to say for today.

See you Monday!

Josiah

2/15/2017 Work on the computer...

In addition to the aforementioned grading, I'm also trying to work on some trip planning and early prep as well. What trip? I may not have mentioned it here on PV yet, but since there isn't a job change or big move looming, Connie and I are planning a summer trip. Zack is going to make things a little more complicated but, honestly, it'll probably be easier to travel now than, say, in a year or two when we have to worry about him walking off on his own. Anyway, the plan is to spend around three weeks in Japan and two in China. Since it will be Connie's first time in Japan, and my parents will be joining us for part of that leg, it'll mostly be me playing tour guide to areas I've already been. Though it'll still be fun and I'll still be doing a travelogue. In China, we'll be visiting Connie's parents but, while she and Zack will stay with them the whole time, I'll probably be striking out on my own for a week or week and a half to do some touring. Anyway, I'll post more about the trip once the details are worked out.

Later!

Josiah

2/13/2017 Grading time

It's my first "grading week" of the semester. People always ask me how my students are each semester. And I tell them that I can't really say for sure until after I've graded their first assignments. Well, time to see what kind of start this semester's students are off to.

Anyway, I've got a bit of a headache right now, so I'm heading off.

Later!

Josiah

2/10/2017 Meeting a legend

When I was working in Hawaii, I got to meet Hironobu Sakaguchi, who created many of the games which were my biggest influences in terms of my own writing and game design styles. Yesterday I got the chance to meet someone who set the foundation for Sakaguchi, Miyamoto, and all my other favorite game designers. I'm referring to Nolan Bushnell, the cofounder of Atari (along with a lot of other companies, including Chuckie Cheese) and the "father" of the game industry. While I wasn't directly influenced by Bushnell's games, I have him to thank for the creation of the industry. Fully explaining Bushnell's impact isn't something I have time for today (I do that in my game history class, which Bushnell visited). But without him the game industry likely wouldn't have come into being until much later on and would no doubt be a very different place. Anyway, Bushnell is a very interesting guy and always seems to have a hand in one or more promising new ventures. I really enjoyed listening to him speak and, even better, I got to spend some time chatting with him later in the day. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, be sure to do so.

Now if I could just meet Miyamoto and and Kojima too...

Later!

Josiah

2/8/2017 Getting over it

I'm still trying to shake that cold. Fortunately, it's fairly mild. Still annoying though. So I want to try and get some extra sleep.

Later!

Josiah

2/6/2017 Super Bowl

I don't really care much about pro football. Actually, the only reason I even understand the rules of the game is from watching Eye Shield 21 (a football anime). But I do watch the Super Bowl. Mostly for the commercials and an excuse to eat a bunch of chips and stuff. Gotta say, this was an interesting one, especially considering how one-sided it seemed for the first half.

Anyway, I think I've got a rather mild cold and I'm trying to avoid it turning into something more serious so I'm gonna head off.

Later!

Josiah

2/3/2017 Chinese New Year

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January 29th (Sunday): Chinese New Year
The Fair Oaks Mall is pretty close to where Connie and I live so when we saw that they would be having a big Chinese New Year celebration over the weekend, we had to check it out. So, how big was it? Well, they had a lot of decorations up throughout the mall and several hours of performances including lion dancing, dragon dancing, and a few not Chinese ones, such as belly dancing and Polynesian dancing. We didn't watch everything, but the performances we saw were all very well done. The festival was fairly popular, with a large crowd in attendance. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything going on other than the performances. I was kind of hoping for some food booths or something. Anyway, I'm a bit spoiled after living on Oahu, where they really go all out for Chinese New Year. The event at the Fair Oaks Mall is fun, and worth checking out if you're in the area. But it's not really worth a long a trip just to see it.

Later!

Josiah

2/1/2017 Late, late, late...

Well, this update actually is on time but barely and it's getting pretty late. Plus, I've got to teach class today so I've got to cut this short and get some sleep. I'll try to have that travelogue entry ready for Friday.

Josiah

1/30/2017 Weather

I'll talk about that Chinese New Year celebration later in the week, once I've sorted through my photos. For now, here's a RVC.

Random Virginia Comment: Winter Weather
Winter in Virginia isn't really what I expected. Having lived in West Virginia as a kid, and having a lot of family on the east coast as well, I was expecting a fairly cold, wet, and snowy winter. Not as much snow as in Colorado, sure, but I was expecting a small snow blanket through much of the winter. While the winter isn't over yet, it really isn't living up to my expectations (for better or worse). First off, it's only snowed twice so far. The first time was just a dusting and the second, while it was a couple inches, only lasted a day or two. Add in another day or two with icy roads (though only in the morning), and that's it. There's hasn't been too much rain either. The weather has mostly bounced back and forth between sunny and cloudy from day to day, probably averaging somewhere in the middle (partially cloudy). And the temperature? There's only been a handful of really cold days, and even they owed a good bit of their chill to the wind (which isn't especially common either). So far, it's been averaging in the 40's. It occasionally dips lower, but for every really cold day there's been a day in the 50's. It even got over 60 a couple of times. Will it get colder? Maybe, there's still some time. And this is only my first winter here, so I can't say if it's normally like this. But it's honestly not that bad and doesn't even feel like a "real" winter at times.

Later!

Josiah

1/27/2017 Another new year

TWC is working again so you can use the button on the left to vote and see the new bonus comic and the main comic is here where it belongs.

In other news, Chinese New Year is coming up and there's enough of a Chinese population around here that there's some stuff going on. Not sure if it'll match up to the festivities back in Honolulu, but Connie and I will be checking it out so expect a travelogue entry sometime next week.

Later!

Josiah

1/25/2017 Upgrading

My Playstation 4 was just upgraded to hard drive number 3. I knew the original 500 GB drive would never be enough so I swapped that for a 1 TB the moment I bought it (I ended up putting the 500 GB drive in my PS3, which was running low on space). Turns out 1 TB wasn't big enough either (too many games with ridiculously large installations). Hopefully the new 2 TB drive will have all the space I need. At least they're easy to replace and the speed for backups and restorations is a whole lot faster on the PS4 than the PS3. Unless it's just my new external hard drive that's faster...

Later!

Josiah

1/23/2017 Aurora's Nightmare

If you haven't seen it, I made a big post on the development blog for Aurora's Nightmare (the visual novel I'm writing and designing) yesterday, talking about its current status. You can read the details there but, to summarize, a lot of progress has been made lately. The demo really shouldn't be too far off and I'm fairly optimistic that the full game will be out later in the year as well.

Later!

Josiah

1/19/2017 Again?

So, it's another Friday and another Blooper Reel comic up on the main site. Believe me, I don't intend this to become a regular thing. But I'm still having issues with putting the new Blooper Reel comics on TWC and I'm still running a bit behind on regular PV strips, since these big battle strips take a lot longer to make. Anyway, hopefully this won't happen again any time soon. For now though, enjoy the Blooper Reel and have a great weekend!

Josiah

1/18/2016 Zack!

Here we go, a photo of Zack at one month old. Well, technically, this photo was taken the day before he turned one month old, but close enough. I really should take more photos of him when he's awake. Looking for a good one for today, I realized that quite a lot of the photos of him are when he's asleep. Probably cause it's much easier to take photos when he's quiet and not moving...

Well, anyway, see you Friday!

Josiah

1/16/2017 One month

Hard to believe that Zack is already one month old. He's gaining weight and has filled out quite a bit. I should post another picture soon... Anyway, we're all doing well and I've got one week to go before school starts up again. I might write more about life with a baby in the future but, for now, I should get some sleep while I have the chance.

Later!

Josiah

1/13/2017 Bloopers

Top Web comics is having that rare glitch that prevents me from updating the bonus comic. And since the next regular PV strip isn't finished yet (I've been focused on finishing my spring class prep, which I actually completed just a few minutes ago), I decided to go ahead and post the Blooper Reel comic here instead. Anyway, regular PV strips will resume on Monday and, now that things are settling down with Zack, and my class prep work is finished, I shouldn't fall behind on PV strips again in the near future.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

1/11/2017 Plans change again

Just when I thought 2016 couldn't throw anymore wrenches in my plans... Though we only found out the other day, it turns out that, thanks to something that happened late last year, Connie's mom isn't going to be able to come as planned. At the moment, I'm trying to get her ticket changed to later this year. Fortunately, we're doing ok with Zack, so I think we'll be fine on our own for the foreseeable future. Still, such a big last minute change is pretty annoying regardless.

Later!

Josiah

1/9/2017 Time passing...

Since I'm in the middle of a stay at home vacation, and one where life is mostly revolving around taking care of an infant, running errands, and assorted computer work, the days have really been blending together a lot lately. My mom visited for a week and a half, which was a big help. And Connie's mom will be coming later this week for a much longer stay. I'm sure having her around will be helpful, but it'll also be a bit awkward, since she doesn't speak English and I don't speak Chinese. Previous visits weren't too bad, but they were for a matter of days, not weeks. Anyway, as previously mentioned, I'm working primarily on daily stuff and prepping my spring classes (which I hope to finish in another two or three days). Though after that I plan to switch focus and spend a lot of time over the coming months on my own projects, such as Aurora's Nightmare.

And yeah... I think life will slowly be returning to normal over the next few months. Well, at least something more similar to what used to be normal. It'll help when Zack can go out and about and doesn't need to feed quite so often. But for now, things are calmer than they were and I'm getting stuff done so I can't complain too much.

See you Wednesday!

Josiah

1/6/2017 Sun and Moon

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You might have noticed that I haven't really talked about Pokémon Sun and Moon yet. Well, I did pre-order a copy of Sun and it's been sitting on my end table since it arrived, but I haven't actually played it yet (though I did play through the demo pre-launch). Why? Well, first and foremost I just haven't had a lot of time for games between finals and then Zack's early arrival. And, in the game time I have had, it's had tough competition. Final Fantasy has long been my favorite series, so I've naturally been trying to play through FFXV. I did take a short break from FFXV a little before Zack was born, but that was to play through a game I've been waiting for nearly as long, The Last Guardian. So when will I play Pokémon? Soonish, I think. I'm starting to get gaming back into my regular schedule (though time is still a bit limited), but my main priority is still FFXV and after that Pokémon will have some competition from Lego Dimensions and Gravity Rush 2. But I am looking forward to it and will be diving into it sometime in the not too distant future.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

1/4/2017 Class prep

I have about three weeks left in my winter vacation (not counting any days I might have to do in before the start of the semester for meetings or the like), but that doesn't mean I can spend all my time on my own projects. Well, all my time after chores, errands, taking care of Zack, etc. What I'm getting at is that I'm working on prepping my spring classes. That's a process that gets quicker and easier the longer you're at a particular university. Prepping a class you've already taught (especially if it doesn't need any serious updating), is relatively quick and easy. If you need to make changes, the time can increase significantly. And if you're teaching a class for the first time... Well, that can easily mean days (or weeks) of work. For this spring, I have one old class with minor modifications (which took me a total of several hours), one old class with a moderate number of updates and modifications (a solid day of work), and one brand new one (and not entirely in my area of expertise either) (which I expect to take quite a while). So yeah. Not entirely relaxing, but I can do most of the work while watching TV, so that's not bad.

Anyway, that's what I'm working on this week (and probably into part of next week). Once it's done though, I can focus pretty heavily on my own projects for the rest of the vacation, and probably the first couple weeks of the semester as well.

Well, back to work.

Josiah

1/2/2017 Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2017! I'm actually fairly optimistic about this year. There are a few things coming up that I'm decidedly not thrilled about, but there are a lot of things that I'm looking forward to as well. And hey, it can't be nearly as crazy as 2016 (even just on a personal level). Though one thing I'm probably not going to be able to do this year though is catch up on my game backlog. With Zack now and possibly yet another MFA program come fall, I think I can safely say that I'm just going to fall further and further behind when it comes to game playing. On the other hand, I think I have a pretty good shot at getting Aurora's Nightmare finished and released this year, which would be awesome.

Anyway, here's to 2017 and hoping for the best!

Josiah

12/30/2016 Moving along...

TWC is working again, so use the TWC button on the left to vote and see the new blooper reel comic!

While I didn't plan it this way, it's kind of cool to close out the year on the 2000th strip. Come Monday, it will be 2017. This past year has been crazy in so many ways. Both on a macro level and a personal one as well. Here's hoping there aren't any more surprises in store for these last couple of days.

And, with the new year, my birthday is also coming up. Zack's early arrival threw a wrench in a lot of my potential birthday plans, but that's ok. I can always save some of those things for another time.

Anyway, see you next year!

Josiah

12/28/2016 Christmas commentary

I meant to write this a week or two ago, you know, before Christmas. But with everything that happened I never got around to it. But I didn't feel like just forgetting about it either, so here it is.

Random Virginia Comment: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...Or is it?
Technically I'm writing this after Christmas due to everything that happened recently, but at least this lets me look back on things as a whole. As a disclaimer, keep in mind that I'm Jewish and, as such, don't actually celebrate Christmas myself. Though I also have nothing against it and think it's a perfectly fine holiday.
Anyway, maybe it was the stores and shopping centers I went to, but I just didn't see much in the way of Christmas spirit, or even decorations, here in Fairfax. Between homes and shops, I've seen relatively few decorations, beyond the obligatory photos with Santa booths at the malls, and heard hardly any Christmas carols playing in stores or on the radio (that might be somewhat due to my choice of stations, but it still seems odd). Heck, I haven't even seen any Salvation Army bell ringing Santas this year. Maybe this level of Christmas is common in some parts of the country, but it's certainly far less than I'd expect to see in the last few states where I've lived.
So why the lack of Christmas? Well, there are large Korean and Chinese populations around here...though most of them are Christian so they're probably not the reason. There are also a lot of Indians and Muslims, however, who probably don't celebrate Christmas. Or maybe it's because, being near D.C., this is a relatively secular and politically correct area, so they don't want to support any one holiday.
Whatever the reason, even as someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas (I've got Chanukah), the lack of Christmas around here strikes me as a bit sad.

Later!

Josiah

12/26/2016 Zack

Merry day after Christmas! Or, if you're like me, happy second day of Chanukah!

Now that things have calmed down a bit, here's the full story of what happened a week and a half ago. Basically, Connie was pregnant but, with her due date in mid-January, we weren't expecting the baby until sometime next month. So, back on the 15th, we were getting ready to go to my department's holiday party when she became worried that her water may have broken. Despite what you see on TV, that's actually pretty rare, so I was skeptical. We called the birth center though, and eventually ended up going over there for a check. Turns out, her water did break. Unfortunately, since it was a month early, we wouldn't be able to have the birth at the center as planned, and would have to go to a hospital instead (it's a legal thing). There was talk about how we'd likely be waiting a day or two for labor to start, or they might have to induce it, and the issues that can cause. Since it seemed like we had time, we decided to go back home, pack some stuff, and eat before meeting the mid-wife at the hospital.
However, by the time we got back to our apartment, Connie didn't feel up to getting out of the car, so we skipped the food, I ran up and grabbed everything, and we headed straight to the hospital. By the time we got close, she was definitely feeling something strong. I thought back to what I'd read in some birth books about how only the last half hour or so of labor is really intense, but figured it was way too early for that. Still, by the time we arrived she insisted on a wheelchair and could barely stay in it. With the mid-wife's help, they rushed her to a room while I handled the check-in. Just as I finished, the orderly had me literally run upstairs, saying that the baby was coming. And she was right. I made it in time, but little Zack was born less than 20 minutes after we arrived at the hospital. Guess we came really close to another TV staple, the car birth...
Fortunately, Zack didn't look premature and his weight was only just below the low end of average for a full-term baby. Still, the hospital wanted us to stay 48 hours for various tests. The hospital and staff were pretty nice, but it was exhausting. Not so much due to Zack, since newborns tend to sleep most of the time for their first couple days, but because someone was always coming in to run a test or have me fill out more paperwork.
Actually, he wasn't Zack quite yet. We hadn't finished narrowing down our list of potential names before he was born, so it took us a day or so to get that figured out. But anyway, while Connie seemed fairly comfortable in the hospital, the room clearly wasn't designed for someone else to spend the night, so I ended up with a couple of mostly sleepless nights on an uncomfortable couch. Fortunately, Zack passed all his tests (except the car seat one, so we had to get him a car bed) and we got home Saturday night.
Since then, things have been busy. Especially the first few days since I had a ton of final projects to grade on a tight deadline. At this age, babies mostly sleep and eat but, since Zack is a little small, we need to feed him a bit more often than a regular baby (though things will hopefully get a little more relaxed once we get his weight up). It's all still a bit hard to believe, but Connie, Zack, and I are all doing well.

And with that, things are slowly settling down. While having Zack come early really changed some plans, things haven't been too bad since I got the grading done. And, over time, I think they'll get a bit easier as Zack starts sleeping longer at night, learns to sit up on his own, and the like. And, if you were wondering, I don't plan to stop doing day trips or longer vacations, though there will be a bit of a break until Zack is big enough to go around in a carrier and/or stroller.

See you Wednesday!

Josiah

12/23/2016 Slowly adjusting...

I was going to get a regular PV strip done for today but TWC is having some issues and is currently preventing me from updating the voter bonus Blooper Reel comic, so I decided to just post it here today and resume regular PV strips on Monday.

So, life with a newborn... Connie and I are adjusting, slowly. I mean, it's going pretty well, but it certainly eats up a lot of time and makes sleep tricky. The first few months are supposed to be the worst, so here's hoping we get though them ok.

Anyway, I'll try and rebuild my strip buffer over the weekend to get regular comics back on track come Monday. I'll likely write a bit more about Zack then too.

Later!

Josiah

12/19/2016 Introducing...

Sorry about the sudden missed update on Friday, and today for that matter. Friday was unavoidable. I really hoped to be back in the swing of things today, but not quite. At this point, I'm hoping to resume PV updates on Wednesday, though I can't guarentee it won't get pushed back to Friday. Absolute worst case, next Monday, but I really doubt that it'll take that long.

Anyway, here's a quick explanation (I'll get into more details once I'm more caught up on things). I realize that I kept forgetting to mention it here on PV (though you might have figured it out from some of my pictures), but Connie is pregnant. Or rather, was pregnant. Thursday afternoon she unexpectedly went in to labor a month before her due date (that said, we figured any time in Janauary was fair game, but this isn't January). It was all pretty crazy but the baby, despite being a little premature, was born safe and healthy, and Connie did just fine herself. We got home Saturday night and it's been pretty crazy ever since. Doesn't help that I barely got any sleep for two days at the hospital. Plus I have final projects that need to be graded now. So yeah... Tired and busy, but still pretty happy.

Introducing Zack Rei Lebowitz! I'll leave with that for now. As I said before, PV updates will resume soon, once I've gotten some sleep and caught up on my work related duties.

Later!

Josiah

12/14/2016 Another founding father UPDATE

UPDATE: There will be no update on Friday due to some rather unexpected circumstances. I'll say more on Monday.

Time to get the travelogue caught up!

November 27th (Sunday): Monticello
With one last day for touring, my brother decided on Monticello. Like Mt. Vernon was George Washington's estate, Monticello was Thomas Jefferson's. It's just outside of Charlottesville (which, from a passing look, seems to be a decent sized city), about two hours away from my apartment.
In case you're not from the US, or just didn't pay much attention in history class, Jefferson was one of the US's founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the US. Though that's just scratching the surface of his accomplishments and contributions.
The entrance to Monticello starts at a visitor center. We got lucky and, in honor of the holidays, admission just happened to be free that day. Other than the ticket booth, the center has a movie room and a small museum, both of which are focused not so much on Jefferson himself, but on Monticello (the house and grounds). Unfortunately, that theme carried throughout pretty much the entirety of the exhibits. While there are quite a lot of interesting elements to Monticello, I think they really missed an opportunity to talk about the very person who made the estate famous.
Anyway, there's a shuttle bus from the visitor center to Monticello itself, or you can do what we did and take a pleasant 15 minute walk up the hill on your own. The path passes by Jefferson's grave before reaching the gardens. Like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was quite the farmer. He experimented with a large number of different plants in order to discover the best crops to grow in the "new world". The gardens are very scenic, though this really wasn't the best time of year to view them. There were a few out buildings as well, including a blacksmith and slave quarters, though it seems that a lot of them didn't survive to the present (not sure why).
The manor itself is quite picturesque and was actually designed by Jefferson himself, who liked to dabble in architecture. If it looks familiar, take a look in your pocket. It's actually the same building that can be found on the back of every nickel. Like at Mt. Vernon, tours of the building itself are guided and ticketed (you enter at the time on your ticket). Though it wasn't nearly as crowded as Mt. Vernon was. Pictures weren't allowed inside, but it was quite a nice building and featured a lot of advanced designs and clever gimmicks that aren't normally seen in US structures from that time period.
While the guided tour covers the upper levels, you can also walk through the lower level on your own. For convenience, many chambers that would normally be put in separate buildings, such as laundry room, storerooms, and cold storage, were built into the basement level. That included the beer and wine cellars (apparently, Jefferson was also the country's foremost wine expert back in the day). It was a very cool and well designed building though, once again, all the information focused primarily on the structure itself, without talking a whole lot about Jefferson.
After we'd finished exploring the manor, we headed off to meet a friend for dinner and call it a day. In the end, Monticello is a neat building on very picturesque grounds. I enjoyed visiting it. However, it's a bit far away from most of the other DC and northern Virginia attractions. So, if you only have time to visit one founding father's estate, Mt. Vernon is really the better choice. Not only is there a lot more to see and do, but you can also learn a lot of fascinating history about, not just the estate, but George Washington himself. Whereas Monticello really doesn't teach you much about Jefferson. So, while Monticello isn't a bad place to visit by any means, I certainly wouldn't put it near the top of your sightseeing list.

Josiah

12/12/2016 Taking to the sky

I'd really like to get caught up on travelogue entries soon, so back to that...

November 26th (Saturday): The Air and Space Museum
Saturday, after services, Connie, my brother, sister-in-law, and I headed to D.C. figuring we'd go to one of the free Smithsonian museums and then get dinner after sunset. My brother really wanted to do the Air and Space Museum so that's where we headed, though we did get some good views of the Capital Building on the way.
The Air and Space Museum is dedicated to, as its name suggests, air and space travel. It's divided into a number of different exhibits, most of which are focused on different periods in the history of flight from early experiments, to the "golden age", to the World Wars, to commercial aviation. There's a whole section dedicated to the Wright Brothers as well. And, on the space side of things, you've got rockets, rovers, and the like. If you enjoy looking at old aircraft and/or rockets, you'll love the Air and Space Museum. If you're not all that interested in aviation, it's a bit of a harder sell. Personally, I don't mind looking at the planes for a little while, but I'd get bored before too long if that's all there was. I also don't care too much about the mechanical side of things. That said, I did think a lot of the signs and displays were interesting, especially the parts that focused more on the history of aviation and its notable figures, rather than the technical details. Unfortunately, we went through the museum a little quickly, so I didn't have time to read as much as I would have liked. While it's not on the top of my list (just due to personal preference, it's a very nice museum), I wouldn't mind going back sometime for a more leisurely exploration.
Back outside, we walked around a little and eventually found our way to D.C.'s holiday market, a outdoor collection of tents and booths selling handcrafts and artwork mostly. It was fun to walk through, though there unfortunately wasn't all that much food so we decided to leave the city and stop by an Afghani restaurant. Connie and I had actually been there several days earlier with my aunt and uncle and some other relatives. While I'm usually not really big on middle eastern food (I like it well enough, but it's not a favorite), this place has a lot of really unique and interesting dishes that I haven't seen at normal middle eastern restaurants, and it's pretty good. Maybe I'll write a review sometime...

Random D.C. Comment: Touring on a Budget
One nice thing about touring in D.C. is that quite a lot of the major attractions are free. Specifically, most or all of the government run attractions. That includes the monuments, government buildings (the Library of Congress, Capital Buildings, etc.), and all the Smithsonian museums (including the zoo). It's not just admission, tours tend to be free as well. Though some may charge you for other things like parking, maps, and special shows.
On a side note, thanks to increased security, be prepared to empty your pockets and go through metal detectors at the entrance of a lot of places. On the bright side, they aren't too picky about what you bring in. Well, I assume weapons would be a problem but they don't seem to mind electronics, food, or drinks.

Later!

Josiah

12/9/2016 Commenting...

I've still got a couple of travelogue entries to write but I decided to take a break from those today to finish that commentary I owe. On that note, the commentary for strips 317 - 320 is finished! What isn't finished is the next bonus comic. I thought it was done but I seem to have completely forgotten about it. Sorry about that. There will definitely be a new one next week.

Have a great weekend!

Josiah

12/7/2016 Mt. Vernon

I've got several more travelogue entries to go, so let's get right back to that.

November 25th (Friday): Mt. Vernon
My aunt, uncle, and cousin left in the morning, but my brother and sister-in-law stayed through the weekend. Since they were the visitors, Connie and I let them choose the sightseeing locations. They decided to start at Mt. Vernon, which is about 40 minutes away from where Connie and I live in Fairfax.
If you're not familiar with the name, Mt. Vernon is George Washington's home and estate. Yes, George Washington the general, founding father, and first president of the United States of America. His family home is still there, as are the grounds and out buildings. Of course, now there's also a museum, gift shop and restaurant. Anyway, when you buy your admission ticket, you get an assigned time to tour the mansion, but you're free to explore everything else on your own.
We started out with a intro video that focused on some of the highlights of Washington's career, especially the crossing of the Delaware, which gave the Union army a much needed victory in the Revolutionary War. Washington really was a fascinating guy, born in a farming family (and not a particularly rich or well known one) and rising to lead an army and then a country. But, despite all that, he never really sought power. He voluntarily gave up his military power after the Revolutionary War, he turned down a third term as president, and he even turned down the opportunity to rule the US as a king.
Anyway, we had a while until our mansion tour so, after the video, we began exploring the grounds. Naturally, being a farming estate, they included fields of fruit and vegetables, along with a number of decorative gardens as well. Admittedly, this probably wasn't the best time of the year to see them, but there were still a lot of things growing. There were also numerous buildings such as a greenhouse, slave quarters, servant's quarters, a smithy, smoke house, stables, and more. On a side note, while he did keep slaves, Washington wasn't especially fond of slavery but didn't see a way to rid the country of it at the time. He did, however, free all his slaves in his will. Along the way, there were plenty of interesting signs explaining things about Washington, the estate, and life at that time. Not to mention some great views of the Potomac River.
The mansion tours were running a bit behind schedule (not sure if that's a normal thing or if they were just getting a lot more visitors due to the holiday weekend), but we eventually got in. Photos weren't allowed inside, but it was a pretty fancy building. The Washingtons used to entertain a lot of guests and had a suitably elaborate and interesting mansion.
After the tour, we continued exploring the grounds. We passed some farm animals and some not really "farm" animals. If you're curious, Washington actually did bring a camel on Mt. Vernon to entertain his guests. After some walking, we ended up at a much more somber location, the tomb where George Washington and his wife Martha were laid to rest.
A bit further on by the riverbank was another farm area. Turns out that Washington didn't leave the farming to his staff, he was quite avid about it. He even developed an impressive crop rotation program and invented a revolutionary barn designed to improve wheat threshing.
A short walk through the forest brought us back to the main grounds and from there we continued on to the museum. It had a special exhibit hall (currently featuring an exhibit about slavery at Mt. Vernon) and a main hall which was devoted to a very fascinating and well put-together walkthrough of Washington's life, from birth to death. They even had his dentures which, contrary to popular belief, were not made of wood. It was really interesting but we were already a couple hours past our normal lunch time and pretty hungry so we moved through it a lot more quickly than I normally would have liked.
In the end though, we still spent several hours at Mt. Vernon and we all really enjoyed our visit. It's a really pretty area with lots to see and do and you learn a whole lot as well. I highly recommend it if you come to the DC area (even though it's a bit outside the city). There's even special events at different times of the year (Christmas festivities, tours of Washington's distillery, etc.), so I'd be up for going back sometime for another visit.

Josiah

12/5/2016 Seasons

I was planning to do another travelogue entry, or at least the last batch of commentary, today but it's getting late and I'm kind of burned out so here's a RVC I've been meaning to write instead.

Random Virginia Comment: Four Seasons
Ok, I suppose there isn't anything "amazing" about the fact that Virginia has four clearly defined seasons. So does most of the world. However, it's been interesting for me to experience them. While I did grow up in states with the full range of seasons, it's been a while since I've experienced them. Keep in mind that I spent the two years in Hawaii and before that I was Florida for three years (north central Florida, but it still). So it's been awhile since I've had a real fall or winter. And even for a few years before that, I spent a lot of time in Phoenix, Arizona, which also tends to stay fairly warm all year.
Anyway, I got to Virginia in late summer so I missed the really hot and humid time and it was a lot of fun watching the leaves change color. The temperature dropping... Well, that was kind of refreshing at first. Not quite so fond of it now. I don't hate the winter, but I don't see much point in cold weather unless there's some fun in the snow involved. But hey, maybe I'll get to see some snow for a change, that'd be neat (at first; it'll probably get annoying eventually). And then there's always spring to look forward to.
So, while I can't say that I'm not going to miss the near perfect weather of Hawaii, being back in a place with all four seasons strongly represented will be kind of fun.

And I'm off for now. I'll try to have a full travelogue entry up on Wednesday.

Josiah

12/2/2016 Visiting DC

Remember to vote to see this week's bonus comic!

Now, I've got several travelogue entries to do. Not going to write them all today, of course, but let's get started...

November 22nd (Tuesday): The Library and the Capital
Now that I'm in a more convenient location (well, sorta), I invited some family members over for Thanksgiving. My aunt, uncle, and one of my cousins came a bit earlier in the week and will be staying until Friday and my brother and his wife are coming tomorrow. Anyway, my aunt's family wanted to do some touring while they were here. I had work yesterday, but Connie and I were free today, so we joined them in Washington DC.
Our first stop was the Library of Congress. Specifically the Thomas Jefferson Building, since the library and its impressive 162 million plus items (mostly, but not entirely, books) is spread across several different buildings now. The library also houses the US Copyright Office. Anyway, the Jefferson building is the oldest and grandest of the library's buildings.
For a quick history lesson, the Library of Congress was originally a modest 740 books purchased from Europe, mostly about subjects such as law and geography that members of congress might find useful over the course of their work. That library was burned by the British in 1814 along with the Capital Building. Thomas Jefferson later sold the government his own personal book collection as a replacement. His collection was much larger (at 6,487 books) and covered a broader range of subjects. They still have it there on display. Well, part of it anyway. A large portion was lost in another fire (an accident that time), prompting Congress to start construction on a new (and much more fire resistant) building (later renamed in honor of Jefferson), which was completed in 1897. In addition to being relatively fireproof, there was some extra money left in the budget (a real rarity for government work), so they were able to make a lot of amazing decorations. It's one of the fanciest and most impressive buildings I've seen. While it's worth visiting just for the building itself, the library also houses a number of displays and exhibits. For example, there's Abel Buell's map, the first American made map of America, and even an original Gutenberg Bible.
We took a tour while we were there, which is how I learned all about the history of the library. It was interesting, but it mostly focused on the building and only showed off a few highlights of the exhibits. I could definitely go back and spend another couple of hours taking a closer look. Or maybe just to use the rather awe inspiring reading room. On that note, it's actually not too hard to get a reading card and use the reading room to access much of the library's collection (except for the rarer items), but only the president, vice-president, and members of Congress can actually check books out.
When we finished the tour, it was getting close to lunch time so we took a convenient underground tunnel to the nearby Capital Building (naturally, that photo was not taken from inside the tunnel, I snapped it outside before entering the library). There's a pretty decent cafeteria inside and we were able to get tickets for a tour right after we finished eating. The Capital Building, in case you're not familiar with it, houses both Congress and the Senate, though they weren't in session that day and the tour doesn't show you their chambers anyway (I heard it used to, but security it tighter these days). Instead, we got to see a pillared chamber with George Washington's tomb...which is totally empty since he's buried at his estate on Mt. Vernon. We also got to see the chamber beneath the dome, with its impressive paintings and statues. Actually, there are statues all over the place of various important figures in US (and occasionally world) history. Including in this chamber, which used to house either Congress or the Senate (can't remember which). Problem is, the acoustics accidentally made it easy to hear people whispering while standing on the other side of the room. Plus, it started to get a bit cramped, so they moved to a different room. It actually housed a market for a little while before it got filled with statues. Anyway, we had a great tour guide and the statues were cool, though the building wasn't nearly as impressive as the Library of Congress. On the way out, I snapped a photo of the original Freedom statue (the newer one is sitting on top of the dome).
To stay out of the cold, we took some more underground passages back towards our parking area. The one between the library and the Capital is pretty fancy. Some of the others, not so much. Anyway, it was a fun half day or so of touring. I'd definitely recommend the Library of Congress. The Capital...it's interesting but wouldn't be near the top of my list of things to see in DC.

That's all for today. More coming next week.

Josiah

11/30/2016 Continuing commentary

I'm starting to unwind and get caught up on some things now that all the holiday and other craziness is done. One thing I'm still working on is my photos, so no travelogue entry today (should have at least one ready for Friday though). In the meantime, I did finish the commentary for strips 313 - 316.

Later!

Josiah

11/28/2016 Back to work

Well, Thanksgiving weekend is over. It's been a lot of fun, if a bit hectic. A little stressful too, though for reasons not related to the holiday (more on that another time, maybe). I've had a lot of late nights and need some rest, plus I'm nowhere near done sorting my photos so the travelogue entries will have to wait until later in the week.

See you Wednesday!

Josiah

11/23/2016 Happy Thanksgiving! UPDATE

UPDATE: Sorry, no update today. I have family visiting for Thanksgiving and between that and a couple other things going on right now (which sort of came out of nowhere), I just haven't had any time to work on PV for the last few days so I don't have a comic ready and I'm going to have to skip a day. Once again, very sorry about the late notice. Updates will resume on Monday and I'll have travelogue entries next week as well so see you then!

Hope all my US readers have a great Thanksgiving tomorrow! I've got family visiting and will have some travelogue posts later this week and/or next week. In the meantime though, I've finished the commentary for strips 309 - 312.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Josiah

11/21/2016 Back to the commentary

I've posted the commentary for strips 305 - 308. Expect more later in the week.

See you Wednesday!

Josiah

11/18/2016 My new computer

Don't forget to use the TWC button to vote and see the new bonus comic!

I think I'll talk a little about my new laptop today and then get back to work on the commentary on Monday. So, the laptop. I've generally been upgrading to a new system every three years or so. Most of the time it was because I needed more power and memory. Last time, it was part that and part because my system was starting to have heating problems. Up until my last laptop, I always got a Dell but three years ago I just couldn't find a model of theirs which I had everything I wanted (their customization options have seriously declined over the years) and their service and reliability rankings, while not bad, weren't industry leading like they once were either, so I decided to try something different and got an ASUS. It was a nice system in a number of ways, but I was never happy with the build quality and, over time, some things started to break down. Well, the fans especially have been having a lot of issues and driving me crazy, plus and it was about to the three year mark anyway, so I started looking at potential replacements.

In the end, I realized I was not going to find a good laptop with an internal Blu-Ray drive anymore. Which is unfortunate, but I can make do with an external. I did some research and checked out a number of different models before deciding that I definitely wanted something with the new NVidia Pascal series of graphic cards. They're a pretty major power boost over the previous series, and just what I'll need if I end up getting into VR (either for fun or for future development projects). That limited my options a bit since the cards are pretty new and I didn't want to wait another six months or so for all the major brands to incorporate them. One brand I kept coming back to was Alienware. I had one as a work computer in the past and I was really impressed with the build quality. They're also a Dell brand, so there's that. Plus they had just launched their new series for 2016 with Pascal. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for a good price.

Thanks to a combination of a pre-Black Friday sale and a 10% off coupon, I got a pretty high end Alienware 15 R3 for around $1,500. Intel i7-6700HQ, 16 GB of RAM, GForce 1060, 256 GB SSD + 1 TB HDD, and the largest battery they can legally ship in these things (not quite the highest end options, but close enough). It's the most powerful laptop I've ever had by a large margin. And, as I hoped, the build quality it great. It feels so much more solid than my ASUS and the keyboard and touchpad are much more comfortable and responsive. The customizable lighting is pretty cool too, if pointless other than the "cool" factor. While I haven't had the time to really push the laptop to the limit (I did load up a high end up game as a test, but only for a few minutes), it's been impressively fast and stable. I do have a couple issues with Windows 10 (though it has some good points to), but I can't blame Alienware for that. But, considering the size of the laptop (it's heavy and barely fits in my backpack), I'm pretty certain they could have easily fit a number pad and SSD card reader in it if they tried. But anyway, I've been using it for a week now and I'm pretty happy so far. And hey, with a system this solid and powerful, maybe I'll be able to break the 3 year cycle this time around.

Josiah

11/16/2016 Baltimore

Let's get right to that travelogue entry.

November 13th (Sunday): A Day in Baltimore
Baltimore is only an hour away but I haven't been over there since Otakon. Connie and I had originally planned to do a day trip there a while ago but she wasn't feeling good that day so we put it off. Anyway, it was a bit last minute but we finally made it over there for a bit of touring around the inner harbor area. Our first stop was actually a bit away from the harbor, so we started out with a walk. We passed city hall, though most of the route we took ended up being a bit rundown. Anyway, it wasn't much further to the Baltimore Farmers Market and Bazaar, which is every Sunday morning for a good chunk of the year. It's mostly situated under a freeway and has a pretty impressive selection of stuff. It's much more farmers market than bazaar, but there's a lot of good food booths and tons of local produce, even at this time of year. Certainly worth a visit if you're in Baltimore at the right time. We focused a bit more on snacking, including an interesting Egyptian tea (sort of like a chai with citrus) and a really good wasabi pickle on a stick.
After exploring the market, we headed back towards inner harbor. We had tickets for the aquarium but not until mid afternoon (tickets there are for specific entry times) so we walked around the harbor a bit. One end has some old power plant buildings that were converted into stores and restaurants, including a pretty cool Barnes & Noble. Other than that, the harbor features a few shopping centers, paddle boats, and is just a pleasant place to walk.
We didn't have any specific plans for lunch but spotted an interesting looking place on Yelp and headed that way. The route took us away from the harbor and into a nice old timey residential and shopping area. The restaurant, called Mi & Yu, was a sorta modern Asian fusion focusing on noodle bowls and bao sandwiches. Not really authentic but good, and worth the walk.
We eventually ended up at the aquarium. I've been to the Baltimore Aquarium a couple times in the past, but my most recent visit must have been at least 15 years ago and I didn't remember much other than that it was a pretty good. Fortunately, my memory was right on that count, it's certainly one of the better aquariums I've visited (along with Chicago, Yokohama, and Osaka). We arrived in time for a decent dolphin show then headed down to see the jellyfish. They had a pretty cool jellyfish collection, including some rather unusual ones. After that we began our tour through the main section of the aquarium, a five story tower with a wide variety of fish and sea creatures. You might not be able to tell from this photo, but this is the biggest sea turtle I've ever seen. There was some pretty strange creatures (see how many fish you can find in that photo) as well, including a weird urchin with several "lights" dotted on its shell and what looked kind of like an eye sitting on top. There was even a nautilus, and I don't think I've ever seen a live one of those before. And, this ray, which was one of Connie's favorites. Like a lot of aquariums, they had a "petting" area but this one actually had some jellyfish you could pet in addition to the usual stuff, which was neat. Honestly, they feel pretty much like you'd expect.
The top floor is actually a rainforest, with a number of tropical birds. Which were followed by an equally colorful collection of tropical frogs. The area finished with a big underwater viewing area. Not a tunnel, unfortunately, but still pretty cool.
The final area was based on Australia. The creatures there weren't quite as impressive as some of the others, but there were still some fun things to see.
It was dark by the time we left the aquarium so we grabbed dinner (opting for a convenient location rather than something especially unique) and then called it a day. It was a fun trip. The weather was really good and Baltimore has a lot of great areas to walk around and explore. While Inner Harbor and the Aquarium and the most famous attractions, there's a lot of museums and other things we could go back and visit sometime in the future.

Josiah

11/14/2016 Upgraded!

I'm about 95% done setting up my new laptop, which is close enough that I was able to make today's PV strip and update the web site on said laptop. I haven't fully put it through its paces yet, but I'm pretty happy with it so far. Anyway, I'll probably talk about it a bit more in the future once I've finished that remaining 5%. This is also the first PV strip done in Photoshop CC, as opposed to my old copy of Photoshop CS2. Honestly, I hate Adobe forcing a subscription on everyone, especially how they made files saved in CC incompatible with older versions, just to ensure that you'd be stuck switching to CC eventually for compatibility reasons. And that time has finally come for me. Not that this strip does anything to show off the new features of CC, but that's just how it goes.

Anyway, I'm heading off now. Expect a travelogue entry later this week (Connie and I took a trip to Baltimore yesterday) and more work on that PV commentary I owe you.

Later!

Josiah

11/11/2016 Moving along...

There's a new bonus comic so vote with the TWC button to see it! Remember that you can vote up to once per day to help support Pebble Version.

Other than that I'm glad it's over, I'm going to stick with my no politics on PV policy and not say anything about the election. In fact...I'm not going to say much of anything today. I got my new computer and I'm still in the midst of switching everything over. Slightly complicated by the fact that I've been getting terrible internet speeds the last couple of days and my external hard drive (at least the one that's not still packed somewhere) doesn't seem to be working so I'm using a USB flash drive with annoyingly slow transfer speeds. Ah well, the new laptop seems pretty good (I'll talk about it more another time), though I haven't had the chance to really test it out yet. I should have it ready to go by Monday so I'll see you then!

Josiah

11/9/2016 A big day

Well, today we'll know who the new US president is going to be. Or maybe not if there ends up being some recounts, which certainly seems like a possibility. As I'm writing this, it's too early to tell who will win or whether or not it'll be so close that it gets contested. Anyway, while I can't say that I especially like either candidate this time around, I do have a very strong preference and I've been paying a lot of attention to the political world the past few months. That said, I'm not going into detail. I've always made a point of not talking about politics here on PV because you don't come here to read about my political views. You come here to read Pokémon comics and maybe my travelogues and the like. That said, this is a big and crazy election. I voted and, at this point, I just need to wait and hope that things go my way. Regardless of who wins, I hope the losing side takes it well. There's a strong tendency these days, especially among some groups, to paint people who disagree with them as either stupid (they're not smart enough to see how wrong they are), evil (they're terrible everything-phobic and want to destroy all we hold dear), or both. What we need to keep in mind is that, 99% of the time, that's just not the case. Some people are simply uninformed or misinformed. But it's often not even that, it's totally possible for two decent intelligent people to come to different conclusions about something. And there's nothing wrong with that. Different people have different opinions about the way to do things and it's wrong to demonize or look down on people who don't share your views. Quite often, the truth or the best result is somewhere in the middle. In the end, those of us here in the US all want what's best for our country, even if we don't always agree on what that is. No matter who wins, we should be focusing on working together, compromising, and finding the best solutions to our problems, not tearing each other apart.

And that's probably the last thing I'll say here on the subject.

Josiah

11/7/2016 A symphony

Last week was pretty busy, though a decent amount of that was because of fun events. There was the Shenandoah Valley, the escape room, and, Saturday night, one more thing...

November 5th (Saturday): The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses
Despite all my travels, and my hobby of collecting video game soundtracks, I've never actually gotten to go to a video game concert. I've seen bunch of American and British bands (old and new), some J-Pop singers, and a few other assorted musical performances. But the closest thing to a video game concert was seeing Lotus Juice and Shihoko Hirata at Otakon, when they did a decent number of Persona songs. Unfortunately, there just aren't many video game concerts in the US and the locations and/or dates have just never worked for me. Well, that finally changed and Connie and I were able to make it to The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses in Washington D.C.
I ended up buying parking (figuring it would be easier than the metro at night), which worked out well. There were a couple of hitches with some times not matching what was shown online. But we made it and the concert was fantastic. As the name implies, it's a full symphony orchestra, combined with video from the games. Most of the concert was made up of melodies of music from many of the main games (as well as a couple of side titles), though there were some stand alone themes as well. Anyway, I couldn't take videos, but it was an awesome concert. I'd go again and I highly recommend it to any Zelda fans, or even just fans of good orchestral music.

Josiah

11/4/2016 Escape

This week's bonus comic is up! Just use the TWC button on the left to vote and you can check it out.

Another Groupon I got a while back was for Escape Room Loudoun, which isn't too far from here. Connie and I did a room based on a bank robbery. It was a slow night so we had the room to ourselves. That can be fun, but it means we had a lot more to do since it's normally for much larger groups. It was a pretty fun escape room. We didn't quite make it out in time, but we came very close. We were on the last puzzle when the time ran out, and probably could have had it done in another five minutes or so. The guy running it helped us out with the last bit after the time limit, since no one else was there, and said it normally only has a 20% escape rate with a full group, so I'm pretty happy we did so well with just the two of us. Anyway, it was fun and it looks like there's a lot of escape rooms in the area (and they often have Groupon specials), so I'm sure we'll be doing some more (either on our own or with a larger group) sooner or later.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

11/2/2016 Caves and a war

Travelogue time!

October 30th (Sunday): The Shenandoah Valley
Shortly after moving here, I picked up Groupons for a couple of nearby attractions, one of which was the Shenandoah Caverns. Since Sunday was looking to have really nice weather (possibly one of the last really warm days this year), Connie and I decided to head over to the cave then. Of course, since we would be driving around an hour and a half, I checked if there was anything else nearby worth visiting. It turns out that the Shenandoah Valley area has quite a lot of interesting attractions. Enough to fill two or three days depending on your preferences. That includes at least half a dozen caves, though there are three (Shenandoah, Luray, and Skyline Caverns) that appears to be the most well known and highly rated. Connie didn't want to do more than one cave in a single day, so we decided to focus on the other attractions closest to Shenandoah Caverns.
The drive there was pleasant enough. Mostly trees, though we got into some farmland during the last third or so. Not quite as pretty as the drive to Strasburg earlier this month, but the fall leaves were very nice. Since the caverns were our main stop, we headed there first. Shenandoah Caverns only has one tour, an hour long trip through the cave. I love caves, but it's been a long time since I've had the chance to visit a really nice one. While Shenandoah Caverns isn't the best cave I've been to, it's a good one, with many impressive formations. I think this is actually the first time I've toured a good cave with a nice camera, so I took the opportunity to get a lot of great shots. The tour ended with a reflecting pool before we headed back to the surface.
The caverns includes a few other attractions besides the cave itself, which are included in admission. First up is the Main Street of Yesterday, which features a number of old time store window displays. Which, back in the days before TV, often featured elaborate moving doll and puppet displays. There's also American Celebration on Parade. Turns out that the family that owns the cave also creates floats for the biggest parades in the country. It made for a short but interesting stop. There's also the Yellow Barn, which features some farming related displays and a local wine shop, but Connie and I were getting hungry so we skipped it and headed off for lunch.
Unfortunately, there aren't really any particularly good restaurants near Shenandoah Caverns, so lunch wasn't anything worth writing about. Next stop, a flea market. There's quite a lot of them in the area, but neither Connie or I are big flea market hunters. It's interesting to walk through one everyone once in a while, but one was plenty.
After that, it was off to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. Virginia played host to a number of battles during the war. The museum is located at the site of the battle of New Market, which was one of the last major victories for the Confederate (southern) army. I thought the museum was pretty interesting. While it covered the war in general, the main focus was on the battles that happened in and around the valley. The museum ticket also gets you access to the battlefield itself and the Bushong farm which, unfortunately for its owners, ended up right in the middle of the battlefield. Though both they and the farm seem to have gotten though it in one piece. Looking around the old farm buildings was fun and, while the battlefield was just a field, the walk through it offered some good views.
That about wrapped things up for the day since we didn't want to get back too late. It was a pleasant trip and I really enjoyed getting to visit a good cave after so long. Not sure if we'll get back to the Shenandoah Valley this year due to the seasons and all, but I do plan to go back sooner or later to visit some more caves and check out Shenandoah National Park, among other things.

Josiah

10/31/2016 Halloween!

Actually...I'm not planning on doing anything special for Halloween this year. Neither Connie or I are all that into it to begin with, plus I have to teach a class this evening. We did take a day trip yesterday, though it had nothing to do with Halloween. I'm still working on the photos, but you can expect a travelogue entry later this week. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday (if you have plans), or just enjoy an ordinary Monday.

In other news, I started on that batch of commentary I owe you guys. Today, I did strips 301 - 304. Expect more soon.

Later!

Josiah

10/28/2016 Another weekend

Vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic!

I'm running late (seems to be a trend this week) so let's keep this short. I may have a travelogue entry or two next week but for now I need to get some rest so have a good weekend!

Josiah

10/26/2016 Upgrading

I picked up a new phone last week. It's been about two years since I got my Samsung Galaxy S5 and the battery is pretty much shot (I'm lucky to get half a day if I use it for anything other than phone calls). I've been wanting to upgrade for a while, but was just hanging on until there was a good sale. Well, now I've got a Galaxy S7 Edge. Honestly, I don't care all that much about the edge functionality. It looks rather neat, but certainly isn't worth the extra cost compared to the regular S7...except that the Edge also has a better battery which, for me, is worth the cost. And it is a nice phone. Other than the usual Samsung and Verizon bloatware, and Samsung's strange insistence on turning on the Android feature that lets it treat a SD card as internal memory (which would be really convenient), I'm very happy with it so far.

The phone isn't the only tech upgrade I've got planned for the near future. It's about time to upgrade to a new laptop as well, which I talked about a little while ago. There's actually a small sale on the model I want right now, which is tempting. But, on the other hand, it's a brand new model and, while the brand is good, I kind of want to hold off until there's some professional reviews, just in case. I'm sure there'll be a similar, if not better, sale around Thanksgiving.

Later!

Josiah

10/21/2016 Quick update

The new bonus comic is up so use the TWC button to vote and see it!

Now, you may notice that there's no new comic up today. Or maybe you didn't. Due to a server glitch, the site was down for most of Wednesday and Thursday so this may be your first time seeing this strip. I went back and forth between leaving this one up or posting a new one but, in the end, I didn't have a new one ready yet and I'm swamped with work at the moment (which needs to be finished by the end of today), so that made the decision kind of obvious.

As a final announcement, there will be no update on Monday, since it's the last day of Sukkot. Updates will resume on Wednesday and I don't expect any more missed updates after that for the foreseeable future.

So I'll see you next week (which should be a whole lot less busy).

Josiah

10/19/2018 Amish

Finally time for that RVC comment abut the Amish to go with my last travelogue entry.

RVC: The Amish
Actually, this comment is more tied to Pennsylvania than Virginia, but anyway...
The Amish are one of the more unique minority groups in the US. They actually live in 27 different states and part of Canada but they seem to be most associated with Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, which is home to one of the largest Amish communities. To the point where they're something of a tourist attraction, though they'd rather not be (they also don't like being photographed, though that doesn't stop people).
So who are the Amish exactly? To summarize... That story goes back to the Swiss Anabaptists, a Christian group who believed that children should not be baptized at birth, but when they're old enough to understand its significance and make the choice for themselves. That was against the teachings of the crown sponsored church, so they were persecuted. They got help from a certain church official, and named themselves Mennonites after him. Later on, a certain Mennonite leader believed that they needed to be stricter on members who broke away from the faith and completely shun or excommunicate them. Those who followed him broke away from the Mennonites and became the Amish. Both groups eventually moved to the US in the 18th century to escape persecution, mostly settling in Pennsylvania with the aid of William Penn, the state's founder (he wasn't Amish or Mennonite, just a nice guy). Later on, the Amish became considerably more distant from the Mennonites with the rise of electricity, when their leadership decided that they should avoid it, and a lot of other modern technology, in order to avoid becoming too enmeshed with the rest of the world.
Amish today live almost just like the Amish of 300 years ago. They drive horse drawn buggies (though they're allowed to ride in a car or bus if driven by a non-Amish), wear old fashioned hand-made clothing, and live simple lives, mostly as farmers, with a heavy focus on God and community. There's a lot more to it (and they do find some creative ways around the electricity restriction in certain limited ways), but that's the basic gist. If you drive around Strasburg, or any of the farmland around Lancaster, you're bound to see a number of Amish farms (easily recognizable by their lack of electric lines) and end up sharing the road with a few carriages. They certainly give the area a unique character and provide an interesting look back at a simpler time.

Josiah

10/14/2016 Holidays!

As always, since it's Friday, you can vote to see the new bonus comic! In other PV related news, while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are finished, there will be no update on Monday since it's the first day of Sukkot. Updates will resume on Wednesday.

I'm still working on that RVC about the Amish. I had hoped to finish it for today, but ended up not having much time to work on it between Yom Kippur, work, and some errands. Next week for sure though. In the meantime, have a good weekend and happy Sukkot!

Later!

Josiah

10/10/2016 A day in PA

I've got a travelogue entry for today but, before getting started on that, I should mention that there will not be a PV update on Wednesday due to Yom Kippur. Updates will resume on Friday. And now onto the travelogue.

October 7th (Friday): A Day in Strasburg
While living in Fairfax has its pros and cons compared to Hawaii, there were a few things in this area that I've been looking forward to from the beginning. Otakon was one, a visit to Cherry Crest Farm's Amazing Maize Maze is another. But the farm is around 2 1/2 hours from here, and there's a lot of other attractions in the Strasburg area, so Connie and I decided to make it a day trip and explore a bit.
The drive was a bit long, but the scenery was nice, especially for the last hour or so, which was spent winding through rolling hills and old farms. Some of those farms were owned by the Amish, and we passed a few buggies and saw some horse drawn corn harvesters along the way.
Our first destination was the Strasburg Railroad. It's a restored old train driven by a coal powered steam engine. It was once a major mode of transportation for the area. Now, it's used for a 45 minute round-trip sightseeing ride between Strasburg and Paradise. There are some different cars to choose from and sometimes there are special events (dinner rides, murder mysteries, etc.) too, but Connie and I just took a regular ride (coach class) and enjoyed watching the farmlands pass by. The conductor chimed in with some train and historical trivia along the way, which was pretty interesting. For example, it takes 750 pounds of coal (shoveled by hand) to power the train for the duration of the ride.
It was just about lunch time when we left the railroad. Connie had been wanting omelets, so we went to a place called the Speckled Hen in nearby downtown Strasburg which served breakfast and lunch using a lot of locally sourced ingredients. They made a pretty good omelet and a good chai latte too.
After eating, we decided to take a little time to stroll around Strasburg. The town dates back to the 1700's and, actually, so do a lot of the houses. The majority of the buildings on the main street have historical markers on them, dating them to the anywhere from the mid 1700's to late 1800's. A lot of them are still in really good shape too, and it was fun to walk around and take a look.
Once we'd finished our walk, it was time for the main event, the Amazing Maize Maze! Cherry Crest Farm has been doing a huge corn maze since 1996. It's a different maze every year, and I've been to 13 or 14 of them since we used to go every year (starting in 1997) when visiting my grandparents in PA. Anyway, I've been to a number of life sized mazes (corn and otherwise) and the Amazing Maize Maze is the best. This year's maze was farm themed, featuring a tractor and a giant ear of corn. While actually getting to the end doesn't take that long (for most people, anyway), the big challenge is finding all the hidden map pieces and crossword puzzle answers. Connie and I went at a fairly leisurely pace, but still managed to find them all and get out in one hour and forty nine minutes. The farm has steadily added more attractions over the years to compliment the maze. Most are for kids, but there are a few that can appeal to older visitors as well. Connie and I looked around a little, but didn't hang around too long, since we still had time for one more attraction.
The Amish Village is probably a little misnamed. It's more of a farm than a village. Anyway, it's a former Amish house and farm converted into a museum about the Amish lifestyle. It starts with a guided tour of the house, after which you're free to explore the farm. If you're just looking to see some Amish people, you're better off driving around the surrounding farms but, if you want to learn a bit about them, it makes for an interesting visit. On that note, if you want to learn a bit more about the Amish right now, see the following RVC...
Our last stop was at Hershey Farm (which I don't think is related to Hershey chocolate), which is a local hotel and restaurant, for dinner. If you're looking to try Pennsylvania Dutch food, they've got a pretty nice buffet. Fried chicken, Amish stuffing, cooked vegetables, pickled eggs, baked apples, chicken pot pie, and a lot more. Definitely comfort food but good, and it's fun to have that kind of meal once in a while. Some of the dishes were things you could find anywhere in the US while others, like pickled eggs and shoofly pie (a pie with a molasses filling) never seem to have spread outside of Pennsylvania. All in all, it was a very good meal and a fun way to cap off the day.
Connie and I had a very enjoyable day exploring Strasburg. Assuming we're still here, we'll be heading back next year for the new maze and, while we checked out most of the attractions in Strasburg itself, there's lots of other interesting towns in the area too so I'm sure we'll have another day trip to Pennsylvania's farm country sometime in the future.

Well, I did mention a RVC but it's late so I'm going to stop here and post it on Friday instead. See you then!

Josiah

10/7/2016 Day trip

Vote with the TWC button and you can see the new bonus comic!

In other news, congrats to my friends Silver and Colly (from the PV forums) who were married on Wednesday! They didn't meet on the forums, but they've been big parts of it over the years, especially Silver. All the best you two!

Closer to home, Connie and I have a big day trip planned for today that I've really been looking forward to. Look for a travelogue entry next week. Speaking of next week, there will be no update on Wednesday due to Yom Kippur.

Anyway, I want to get some sleep before we head out so have a good weekend and I'll see you on Monday.

Josiah

10/5/2016 A couple of comments

Time for a couple of Random Virginia Comments I've been meaning to write...

Random Virginia Comment: Driving
I've had a lot of complaints about the drivers in Arizona, Florida, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Hawaii. Compared to all those places, the drivers here in Virginia actually seem pretty good. Sure I've seen a few bad ones but, in general, drivers here seem to stick fairly close to the speed limit and don't try and pull any crazy stunts. At least until you get to D.C. One day of driving around there was enough to convince me to take the metro when at all possible. Sure parking can be tough to find and/or expensive, but the roads are a confusing mess (even with a GPS) and the drivers are a huge pain in the neck.
Outside of the other drivers, driving in Virginia can be a little confusing. While a lot of the roads are nice and modern, you've got a lot of twisty little back roads too (which is pretty typical for the northeastern US). There's also some toll roads scattered about, though I've mostly managed to avoid them. Actually, for many of them, you only have to pay a toll (via an wireless payment thing you can buy) in order to use certain lanes. I guess it's more for commuters who want to avoid the rush hour traffic. Some of the highways also have a red lane on the far right side of the road (sort of a shoulder lane) which, for some reason I haven't figured out, is only supposed to be used during certain times of the day. But, as long as you pay attention and are ready for some sharp curves, driving in Virginia isn't bad (just stay away from D.C.).

Random Virginia Comment: Mold
When living in any moist area, you need to be careful to avoid getting mold in your house, and the northeastern US is no exception. But what I'm talking about is food. I've lived in a lot of environments with lots of rain and high humidity but food here just seems to get moldy faster than anywhere else. Even foods that I've found to be fairly mold resistant in the past. Is is the climate here just that much more ideal for mold formation? Could be. Or maybe the refrigerator in this apartment just isn't that great. Guess I'll figure it out sooner or later.

See you Friday!

Josiah

9/31/2016 Upgrades

It's Friday so you can use the TWC button to vote and see the new bonus comic! In other PV related news, I'll have to miss a few updates over the coming weeks due to some major Jewish holidays. The first of which, Rosh Hashanah, is this Monday. So comics will resume on Wednesday.

In other news, I spent a few hours yesterday looking into new laptops. In the the past, I've always upgraded about every three years and it's just about that time. That said, I'm not really looking because of the time frame. Before, I always upgraded because I needed to. By the time three years had passed, my previous laptops were typically starting to have trouble keeping up with newer software and dangerously low on hard disc space. My previous laptop was still doing fairly well in the power department, but was short on space and was starting to have serious heating problems. As for this one... Well, it is getting a bit old but I don't actually feel like I really need a lot more power and the hard drive still has room. The main issue is that it's been slowly but steadily breaking down. I'm not sure if it's the brand, the customization reseller I bought it from, or if I just got a lemon, but I've had some issues with it from the beginning and it's steadily gotten worse over time. At this point, I kind of just want to be done with it and move on. Of course, since I spend so much time on my laptop, and need it to run a wide range of software, I take the choice of new one pretty seriously and do a lot of research. Honestly, it was a lot easier when there were big trusted brands that offered fully customizable systems. Not to mention before build quality started to get sacrificed in the name of low prices and/or a thinner form factor. It seems like, no matter what I get this time around, I'm going to have to compromise and live without one thing or another. Anyway, I think I've pretty much made my decision, but I'm going to hold off for a little while in case there's a sale or something. And, in the meantime, I'll keep an eye out in case my runner-up choice gets an upgrade.

Later!

Josiah

9/28/2016 My apartment

I finally got around to taking those apartment pictures, so here they are.

September 27th (Tuesday): My Apartment
It's a little less than two months since I moved here, but I finally got around to taking some photos. Actually, the main reason it took this long was that I wanted to wait until the movers arrived and everything was unpacked. And then until I got some shelves and other things to neaten the place up a bit. Really, I only got all that finished a week or two ago, so I haven't been putting off the photos for too long.
Anyway, let's start off with the apartment building. It's got two buildings, each with their own gym, lounge, pool, and the like. They've got a pretty nice set of amenities. Interesting note about that courtyard and pool, they're actually on the third floor, the first two floors are the parking garage. Also, that picture was taken about a month ago. They closed the pool for the winter about a week back and it's empty now.
Moving on to the apartment itself... As a note, the place is a little messy at the moment, but I wanted to get the photos taken while I was thinking about it. Here's the kitchen, living and dining room, and the office. Unfortunately, those boxes in the office are probably going to stay like that until we move into a bigger place. They're mostly books, games, and the like which we don't have the shelf and/or closet space for. Speaking of shelves, I did put a few in the guest room. I'd kind of like to put some in the master bedroom, as well, since there's some empty space, but Connie would rather we didn't for now. And I did manage to fit all the most important things on the shelves I have, so that works. Not shown, two bathrooms, a couple medium sized (non walk-in) closets, and a small deck. It's the nicest apartment I've ever had (not the biggest, but the fanciest), which is fitting considering how much it costs. Honestly, rent here isn't much different than in Hawaii. Having all my nice furniture certainly helps too (making this my best furnished apartment), though cramming a house's worth of stuff into an apartment makes it a little cramped. All in all though, it's pretty nice. I miss having a house, but it's nice.

Josiah

9/26/2016 Apples

Still haven't taken those apartment photos, but I do have a travelogue post.

September 23rd (Friday): Apple Picking
It's apple season and they grow lots of them in this part of the country so I figured there would probably be some place nearby that does pick your own. Picking is fun and cheaper than buying them in stores or at a farmer's market. As it turned out, there are quite a lot of pick your own apples (and other fruits and veggies) farms around here. So I chose one that looked promising and Connie and I headed out. We went to Hollin Farms, which is out in the countryside in what can best be described as the rolling hills. I'd been expecting ladders (back from when I picked apples as a kid), but all of their trees topped out at around 10 feet or so, making most of the apples pretty easy to reach by hand. They were having a special where you could pick four bags for the price of three and they had several types of apples that were currently in season, so we spent a pleasant hour or so filling up our bags. We ended up with about one bag each of Autumn Gala (sweet like regular Gala, but smaller), Shizuka (part sweet part tart, kind of like a Honey Crisp), Grimes Golden (a really good yellow apple), and Crown Empire (small, purple, and fairly sour). They had a vegetable patch as well, with a variety of greens and some radishes, so we pulled a few of those and picked a squash from their pumpkin patch too. While we didn't do it, they also had the option to dig up potatoes and peanuts.
Unlike some pick your own places I've been to, Hollin Farms didn't have anything fancy. No big gift shop or market stall, nothing to do except pick, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's a picturesque place with good prices and very good fruit. Now Connie and I just need to figure out what to do with all those apples...

Josiah

9/23/2016 At the zoo

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I keep forgetting to take apartment photos when the light is good. I'll try and get them for Monday. In the meantime, here's a bit on Connie and my recent day in DC.

September 20th (Tuesday): The Smithsonian's National Zoo
Connie needed to visit the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. so we decided to make a day of it. I think that most of the time we go to D.C., we'll take the metro. The embassy, however, wasn't very close to any of the stations, so we decided to drive instead. Driving in was actually pretty easy. Driving out at the end of the day, on the other hand... But I'll do a RVC about driving sometime soon.
The embassy is a bit outside of D.C.'s main tourist area. It's in a mostly residential area, along with a few shops and restaurants. I walked around while Connie was getting her things taken care of. Other than a couple old churches and an even older cemetery, there wasn't really too much to see. Pleasant enough, but nothing too exciting.
Once Connie was finished, we grabbed lunch at a nearby Vietnamese place and then headed for the zoo. Why the zoo? Well, it's a bit away from the main tourist areas as well, so I figured we might as well go on the day we had our car. Actually getting there proved a little complicated though. Even with a GPS, D.C. has really confusing streets.
Anyway, the Smithonian's National Zoo, also known as the National Zoological Park, is, like the Smithsonian museums, completely free of charge. That said, they do charge quite a lot for parking and even maps of the zoo cost $5 (though you can find some signs with maps scattered around, or just pull one up on your cellphone for free). And you may want a map. While the zoo isn't overly large (about average), the paths are kind of twisty and go through lots of trees and rocks.
The zoo is divided into several areas. Connie and I started in the American section. Though, other than a few fairly ordinary animals, most of the animals there were either hiding or not in their areas. At least until we got to the Amazonian building, which had a mini rain forest and lots of interesting displays. Moving on, we left the Americas behind and found our way to the great cats area, complete with lions and tigers. Monkeys came next, along with gorillas and orangutans. There was also a building with lots of small and mid-size animals (though no ant-eaters), including a fennic fox, a sloth, and a sand cat. Elephants followed, and then the zoo's most most famous animals...giant pandas! There aren't many zoos in the US with pandas, and the National Zoo has several of them. Though they have a large habitat, including indoor and outdoor areas, so they can take a while to find.
There were a few more animals that we ended up skipping (like the flamingos), but we made it around most of the zoo before deciding to call it a day. Over all, I wouldn't say that the National Zoo is one of the best zoos I've been do. There are plenty that have a nicer layout and/or a larger collection of animals. But the National Zoo is still a pleasant place to spend a couple hours and it has a few rather rare animals, like the pandas, so it's worth a visit if you have the time. Though it probably shouldn't top a D.C. touring list unless you're a huge panda lover.

Josiah

9/21/2016 Photo sorting

I'm in the middle of sorting the photos from yesterday's Washington DC trip. Expect the travelogue post on Friday!

Josiah

9/19/2016 Upcoming plans

With things calming down her, it's just about time for me to get back to work on my various writing and game projects, which have been on hold for a bit due to all the moving and new job related work. Connie and I are also starting to plan some future day trips. We'll actually be going to D.C. tomorrow, though that trip will be half business. I'm also hoping to go to my favorite corn maze sometime soon, and Connie and I would also like to take advantage of the season and do some apple picking (though the fridge space in our apartment is a bit limited...). Of course, that's only the beginning, there's a lot of cool stuff to see and do around here, but we've got time (and other things we need to do) so we'll work our way through it gradually.

Anyway, expect a write-up about that D.C. trip and some apartment photos (finally) later this week and we'll go from there.

Josiah

9/16/2016 Weird Al

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September 11th (Sunday): Weird Al Concert
Connie and I have been keeping pretty busy here between work, settling in, and a bunch of other assorted stuff that's needed to be done, so we really haven't done any big day trips yet. We did take a bit of time to explore the Tyson's Corner mall, which we first came across on our way to Kurios. It's a pretty big and fancy place, and I was happy to find a kaitenzushi restaurant (though we didn't eat there on that visit).
But anyway, Kurios wasn't the only thing I'd gotten tickets for. The next one was a Weird Al concert. I've seen Weird Al a few times before (you can read about at least some of those concerts in previous travelogue entries) but he's gotten a new show since the last time and Connie had never been before.
The concert took place at night at Wolf Trap, a nearby national park that seems to serve mainly as a performing arts venue. The amphitheater was pretty cool (and packed). All the wood made me think of Noah's ark for some reason... Weird Al's current concert tour is Mandatory Fun (named after this latest album). Naturally, it included a number of new songs from said album, along with older classics. He even had a section of remixes of some of his oldest hits. Of course, being a Weird Al show, there were also lots of crazy costumes and lots of funny videos to pass the time during the costume changes. The concert had some elements pulled straight from his last tour, but there was a lot of new content as well and Weird Al concerts are just plain fun. Connie and I enjoyed ourselves and I'm sure I'll be back to see him again sooner or later.

Josiah

9/14/2016 This and that

Now that Connie and I are settled in, and I don't have a lot of grading to do yet, I kinda figured this week would be slow and relaxing. Yeah, not so much. So far anyway, I've been running all over the place between work and various errands and to-do list stuff. Hardly even had any time for Ace Attorney... Haven't had time to finish sorting my photos and videos from the Weird Al concert either, so the write-up will have to wait until Friday.

See you then!

Josiah

9/12/2016 Zzzz...

Just got back from a Weird Al concert (write-up coming later in the week) and I'm really tired so I'll write more Wednesday

Josiah

9/9/2016 OBJECTION!

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I'm running a bit late right now. Partly because I had a lot of things I had to get done. And partly because the new Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney game just came out. So yeah, I'm going to get going for now.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

9/7/2016 Redundancy

Here's a quick RVC!

Random Virginia Comment: Redundant Name of Rapacious Redundantness
Technically this is a Maryland comment, but whatever. Anyway, while listening to the radio here I've heard several ads for University of Maryland University College. Yes, you read that right and yes it sounds super awkward and redundant. No offense to the university itself, but that name... Naturally, it left me rather curious. Did the founders screw up the name on the paperwork and never bother to fix it? Is it a brand new university that chose its name to try and optimize search engine placement? I looked it up, and UMUC's Wikipedia page actually has a whole section explaining the name. Apparently, as weird as it sounds here in the US, University College is a designation that's occasionally used in Europe to denote a college that's associated with a university. And the University of Maryland part indicates the university to which UMUC belongs. Or rather used to belong, I think, since it's independent now, though you can think of it as part of the broader university system within the state of Maryland. So it's a college that's part of a university system, specifically the university system of Maryland, but not the actual University of Maryland. Got it? If not, I really don't blame you.
As a further bit of trivia, it was actually renamed in 1959. The original name was the vague College of Special and Continuation Studies. I can certainly see them wanting to change that, though, no offense to the people behind the decision, but I think they could have come up with something better. On a side note, it does offer master's degrees which, by my understanding, would make it a university, not a college. Though maybe I have the specifics of the two terms mixed up since they're often just used interchangeably here in the US. Anyway, all that confusion aside, it sounds like a fairly good college, university, or whatever it is, but I'd have a really had time getting past the name...

Josiah

9/5/2016 Cirque

I finally have some shelves! Not nearly as many as in Hawaii, so most of my books and stuff are still boxed, but it's a big improvement and I actually have some easy to access movies, books, and games now. Anyway, time to get the travelogue caught up.

August 28th (Sunday): Kurios
Cirque du Soleil has its permanent shows like La Nouba and Ka and its traveling shows like Kooza. While the permanent shows give them the opportunity to make some especially fancy stages, the traveling shows are no less spectacular. Shortly after moving here, I saw an add for Kurios, a touring Cirque show scheduled to perform nearby, so I got tickets for Connie and I.
The tent was set up by the Tyson's Corner metro station. I'd never been to that area, but it turns out there's a really big and fancy mall right across the street, which made for a convenient (and free) place to park.
Anyway, there naturally wasn't any photography allowed, but you can watch the official trailer. Kurios is sort of Cirque meets Steampunk in aesthetic. Like most Cirque shows, there's a vague plot running throughout. In this case, it's about a scientist who creates a machine that calls some strange people from another world. But it's really just a device to frame one incredible act after another. There were lots of great performances, including aerial bicycle riding, a really clever take on chair stacking, a quartet of contortionists, and a surprisingly awesome bit of hand puppetry, just to name a few. Combined with the elaborate costumes and fantastic live music, it created the dreamlike atmosphere and amazing experience that I've come to expect from Cirque du Soleil. I don't think I'd call Kurios my favorite Cirque show (though it's really hard to choose), but it was awesome and featured some very unique performances. It further reinforced my opinion that you really can't go wrong with any Cirque show, they're like nothing else and totally worth the ticket price. If Kurios is in your area be sure to see it.

Josiah

9/2/2016 Holiday weekend

As usual, you can vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic for this week.

It feels weird having a long holiday weekend just one week after the start of the semester. Though I could use the time to relax and get caught up on a few things now that all the unpacking is just about done, so I'm not going to complain. Expect some travelogue stuff (and possibly apartment photos) on Monday. For now, I could use a rest.

Have a great weekend!

Josiah

8/31/2016 Hard at work

I got a lot more unpacking done yesterday, but there's still a little left. And that's not mentioning my to-do list... Anyway, while I don't have any apartment pictures yet (I'll take them once the unpacking is totally finished), here's a little bit of travelogue stuff.

August 15th - 30th (Monday - Tuesday): Settling In
It's been a really busy couple of weeks. First off, Connie arrived on the 16th. Unfortunately, the movers hadn't arrived yet (they ended up running around the high end of their estimate) so we had to rough it until the 24th. On that note, even then they were pretty late, not arriving until after 7 PM (from an original estimate of 9 AM). Though I did have some orientation and division meetings to go to on the days leading up to their arrival, so at least the timing didn't conflict. Since then, it's mostly been a mix of unpacking (nearly done), running various errands, and doing prep work for my fall classes, which started on the 29th.
Connie I and did walk around the area where our apartment building is for a bit. Turns out there's a lot of fancy townhouses around here. They look rather nice, though if we end up buying a house in the area eventually, I think I'd rather have a stand alone...
We also found a pretty nice farmer's market at the Mosiac shopping area. I actually looked at some apartments there back when doing my initial search, but being near a metro station and part of a fancy shopping plaza, they were pretty expensive. Anyway, while I'm going to miss the pineapples, apple bananas, and other tropical fruit in Hawaii, it's great to have all the fresh berries, peaches, apples, and nectarines. Not to mention all the vegetables.
Anyway, it's mostly been work, work, work on one thing or another. Connie and I did have a fun outting on the 28th, but I'll cover that in it's own entry. I do have a lot of cool ideas for future day trips when things calm down (hopefully next week). This should be a fun area to explore...

Josiah

8/29/2016 Not quite...

Class prep has been taking longer than I expected. Mainly because I forgot just how long it takes to setup an online test. They're super convenient, but entering all the questions and answers takes a long time. I did get all my tests finished, but it really slowed me down. At this point... I probably still have two or three hours of prep work left and, with classes starting today, that means I'm going to have to put off those travelogue entries yet again. Honestly, I'm getting annoyed by how many times I've pushed them back at this point. Definitely Wednesday though. I'll have the last of the class prep done later today and, once that's out of the way, my schedule will be a lot more open.

Josiah

8/26/2016 Unpacking

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Well, the movers did arrive on Wednesday, but the original arrival estimate of 9 - 10 AM got changed multiple times until, in the end, they arrived around 7:20 PM. It was pretty late by the time they finished getting everything off the truck and into the apartment. Late enough that Connie and decided to just let them leave at that point and deal with unwrapping and assembling the furniture ourselves. Not ideal, but we would have been dealing with a sleepless night and likely noise complaints if they'd done it then. We made pretty serious progress with the unpacking on Thursday. We're probably... 80 - 85% done. At least for now. At some point I want to get a few shelves so I can get some of my books, games, and DVDs out of their boxes. But that's a project that can wait for a week or two (or three).

Anyway though, after a full day spent unpacking and putting together furniture, it's late and I'm tired. I barely got today's strip done and, on top of all that, I still have somewhere between half a day and a full day of class prep left. So yeah, the travelogue will have to wait a little longer.

Have a good weekend!

Josiah

8/24/2016 Almost ready...

I just finished two days of orientation meetings combined with more class prep work (which will likely continue until the end of the work). In more exciting news, the movers are supposed to arrive today. It'll be really nice to have a real bed again, and a couch, and a full set of kitchen stuff, and a whole lot of other things. Hopefully that all goes smoothly without any missing boxes, broken stuff, or anything.

Anyway, I'll hopefully get all of that sorted out and get a travelogue entry about Virginia up on Friday. If the unpacking is done, I may include some apartment pictures as well.

See you then!

Josiah

8/22/2016 Prepping

Connie and I found a nice farmer's market yesterday but I forgot to bring my camera, so I'll take some pictures and write about it next time. Actually, I don't think I'll be writing much today at all. I've been spending a lot of time over the past few days doing prep work for my fall classes. I'm not done yet, but I'm pretty far along. However, I've got meetings to attend most of the day today and tomorrow. The movers are also supposed to be coming with the furniture and other stuff sometime in the next couple days, so hopefully that happen and nothing will be missing or broken. Anyway, things are going to be pretty hectic for the next few days but I actually think that, come next week when the semester starts, they'll calm down considerably. At least I hope so.

Later!

Josiah

8/19/2016 Otakon

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I'm feeling a bit more well rested so the travelogue can resume. I'll probably talk a bit more about my initial impressions of Virginia next week but, for now, Otakon!

August 11th - 14th (Thursday - Sunday): Otakon
Otakon holds a special significance to me as the first anime convention I ever attended, back in 2004. As a side note, I actually learned about it from playing Metal Gear Solid back on the original Playstation. One of the characters is nicknamed Otakon after the convention. That led me to look it up and notice that it wasn't too far away from where my grandparents lived, so I talked my mom into giving me and a cousin a ride there one day when visiting them. It was pretty amazing and led to me finding several anime that would later become favorites. That was also when I get my Final Fantasy VIII Griever pendant (a replica of Squall's), which I've worn ever since. However, due to university schedules and the like, I wasn't able to go again until 2013. Not only did I go with the same cousin (well, technically second cousin once removed or something like that) as before, who had since moved right near the Baltimore convention center, but I also got to meet several of my Pebble Version Forum friends, including Silver, one of the longest and most active members, in-person for the first time. It was awesome and I'd hoped to return in 2014 and 2015 but the timing didn't work out.
And that brings up to this year. I was originally thinking that Connie and I would do some traveling around the continental US during the summer and that we might wrap it up with a visit to Otakon. Then the whole mess at my university caused all travel plans to be abandoned so I could focus on job hunting. However, as soon as I got the interview for a job in Virginia, Otakon came back to mind. So, after getting the job, I made sure to time my moving plans so I could attend Otakon 2016.
With Baltimore only an hour from my new apartment in Fairfax, I didn't need to worry about finding a place to stay or anything like that. Parking in downtown Baltimore isn't exactly cheap, but it beats hotel prices. Actually, this was Otakon's final year in the Baltimore Convention Center, at least for the time being. For various reasons, it'll be moving to Washington DC next year, which is actually even more convenient for me.
Anyway, while the main convention was Friday - Sunday, they have early badge pickup on Thursday. And, to make the day a bit more interesting, they also started the Thursday matsuri (Japanese for festival). I'd never been to the matsuri before, so I decided to go in Thursday, get my badge, and check it out.
The matsuri took place by Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which is a nice plan to stroll around and browse a bunch of shops, restaurants, and some of the city's major tourist attractions (more on that in some future travelogue entry). It also happens to be a good place to play Pokémon Go, especially with tons of anime and game fans and filling the city and using Lure Modules everywhere. Anyway, the matsuri had a few booths up for local anime clubs and the like and a performance stage, but there wasn't much going on at first so, after hanging around for a little while, I decided to go get in line for my badge. The line was pretty long but, once the doors opened, it actually moved really quickly so I headed back to the matsuri to kill time. There was some music and random dance groups, but nothing too interesting. After a while my cousin showed up (yep, same one as before) so we went to get his badge and grab dinner. Then it was back to the matsuri, which was getting a lot busier, for the main event, and the main reason I wanted to go. While there were several concerts as part of the matsuri, the best (and the one I was interested in) was the final, featuring Lotus Juice and Shihoko Hirata, two of the singers who did much of the vocal work for the songs in the Persona games (a favorite series of mine). Despite a few technical difficulties towards the end, that was a lot of fun. One my way home for the night, I snapped a picture of the Inner Harbor at night to wrap things up.
As for the convention itself? Just like my previous two visits, Otakon was huge and a whole lot of fun. I went back and forth between hanging out with my cousin (and another cousin who was there for only one day), hanging out with Silver and Colly from the forums, and doing my own stuff. There were panels, there were anime screenings (When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace was pretty funny), there were video games, there were artists, there were cosplayers, there were concerts, there were dealers, and there were lots and lots of people. Rather than a full description, here are some highlights...
They had a Pokémon league of sorts running throughout all three days where you could find and defeat various "battle masters" scattered around the convention (using the 3DS games) to win badges. Get enough badges, and you could challenge an Elite Four esque group on Sunday. I had fun dusting off my battle team and did pretty good, taking down all six of the battle masters I challenged, though one of them took two attempts. Unfortunately, due to the timing, I wasn't able to fight the remaining two I needed to go on to the final round, but it was still a lot of fun.
The dealer's room at Otakon is one of the closest experiences you can get to shopping in Akihabara without leaving the US. Not on the same level, but still pretty awesome. That said, I didn't buy too much since I was short on spending money, plus I'm hoping to get back to Japan in the next year or two, and things are usually cheaper there. But browsing was still quite enjoyable. I even got to meet Katie from Awkward Zombie (she drew a torchic in my book).
Aside from Lotus Juice and Shihoko Hirata at the matsuri, I went to two other concerts (and skipped a third I didn't care about). The Friday concert was Yui Makino, who I knew from her work on Tsubasa and Aria. About half of her concert was fairly typical bubbly J-Pop and the other half featured her playing piano while singing some slower ballad type songs. I could take or leave her regular stuff, but the piano numbers were pretty good. No videos allowed though, so you'll have to take my word for it (or look her up on Youtube). There was also a mini-concert Saturday night in the middle of the masquerade. Actually, that was the main reason I went to the masquerade, despite not being familiar with the singer, Michi (my reasoning being that I like concerts and she's cute, with a cool outfit). Actually, not many people were familiar with her since she debuted rather recently and only has three singles so far. Despite that, she was really good with a great voice and a solid set of songs. I was impressed enough that I got a CD and went to her autograph session the next day (where I got to chat with her a little since the line wasn't very long). Hopefully she'll have a full album out in the not too distance future. She's great as is and I think she has the potential to become one of my favorite J-Pop singers going forward.
Though, going back to the main convention center from the masquerade that night, a friend of a friend got his wallet snatched despite being on a nice busy street. (General note, it's best to ignore panhandlers and keep moving quickly, no matter how persistant they may be, especially after dark. Try to look calm and confident as well. It was the person that didn't that got singled out.) My friend and I saw it happen and ran at the two perps a moment later (maybe not the smartest thing to do, but I was pretty certain they weren't armed and I am a third degree black belt). We were too far away to catch up so the chase didn't last long before they dissapeared down a side street, but we did force them to run for it and toss the wallet before they could do anything except grab the cash, so losses were, fortunately, minimal. We did call the police and gave statements afterwards, though who knows if they'll catch the guys or not. First time I've ever been involved in something like that, but I remained really calm throughout the whole thing. I really don't get freaked out easily... Probably because I think everything out very logically and was convinced that we weren't in any real danger.
That one thing aside, Otakon was a lot of fun and, while there are some pros and cons to living in this part of the country, being near Otakon is an awesome benefit. I'm really looking forward to next year's in DC.

Josiah

8/17/2016 Tired...

I figured that, between Sunday evening and Monday, I'd be more or less back to normal but I think I underestimated how worn down I'd gotten from this move. Didn't really help that I got to sleep pretty late on Monday and then Connie arrived on Tuesday, but her flight was delayed a couple of hours, so things ran kind of late as well. Anyway... What I'm getting at is that I'm running behind and I really need some sleep so I'm going to have to push my Otakon travelogue entry back until Friday. I did get the pictures sorted and everything, but I just don't trust myself to do any serious writing when I'm this tired.

Later!

Josiah

8/15/2016 Recharge...

Well, Otakon was a blast but a busy con after a very busy week has left me pretty tired. Fortunately, while I still have things to do this week (I'd like to get started on class prep, for one), I shouldn't have any more early mornings or late nights for a while. Anyway, I was hoping to do my Otakon travelogue entry today, but didn't have time to finish sorting the photos yesterday evening so it'll be up on Wednesday instead.

See you then!

Josiah

8/12/2016 Con time

Click the TWC button to vote and see the new bonus comic! And with this, Pebble Version begins its 14th year. Wow... Hard to believe it's been so long. But I don't have time to talk about it today. It's also the start of Otakon. And, with pretty much everything on my post-moving checklist finished, I'm gonna enjoy myself this weekend. Expect a travelogue Monday or Wednesday.

Later!

Josiah





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