Virginia and Surroundings
August 2016 - July 2017
|August 4th - 9th (Thursday - Tuesday): Moving to Virginia|
As described towards the end of my last Hawaii travelogue, I had to somewhat unexpectedly leave Hawaii. But I found a job in Fairfax, Virginia, so Connie and I packed up for the move. We stopped in Washington state for a couple of days on the way. Well, actually I was only there for a couple of days, Connie stayed behind a bit longer so should wouldn't have to spend too much timing roughing it in Virginia before the movers arrive.
Random Virginia Comment: License Plates
|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.
|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...
|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.
Random Virginia Comment: Redundant Name of Rapacious Redundantness
|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.
|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.
|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...
Random Virginia Comment: Driving
|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.
Random Virginia Comment: Mold
|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.
RVC: The Amish
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
Random Virginia Comment: Four Seasons
|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.
|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.
Random D.C. Comment: Touring on a Budget
|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.
|December 28th (Wednesday): Christmas|
|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 it around here strikes me as a bit sad.
|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.
Random Virginia Comment: Winter Weather
|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...
|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.
|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.
|Summer: Random Virginia Comment: Picking Fruit|
|The northeast US, especially states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the like, feature a lot of farmland. And not just big commercial farms, but lots of smaller family run ones as well. While they often sell their produce to stores and/or at farmers' markets, there are a number of them that also offer pick-your-own produce. So why would you drive all the way out to a farm and spend a lot of time picking things you could just buy straight up? Well, for one thing it's cheaper. Picking your own produce will save you money (how much varies by product and farm), sometimes quite a lot. But, more than that, it's fun. You may also come across some rare varieties of otherwise familiar fruits and vegetables.
What you can pick depends on the time of year, weather, etc., so you always need to check what's available on a given day. Fortunately, most farms have gone digital and update their web sites daily so you can easily check what they do or don't have available. Common pick-your-own produce in this part of the country includes: berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries), cherries, peaches (in many different varieties), nectarines, apples (in a huge number of varieties, many of which you don't often see in stores), squash and pumpkins, and flowers. Though various farms can have a number of other fruits and vegetables as well.
If you want to go picking, you'll have your choice of farms. You can use Google to see which ones are the most popular, but your choice of which farm to go to should probably be based mainly on location and current selection. On a side note, there don't seem to be a lot of full organic farms here, unfortunately. But quite a lot are either transitioning to organic or use IPM, which isn't too bad. You don't need to bring any bags or buckets or anything, the farms will provide them (though if you want to bring their own you usually can, so long as you get them weighed before picking). I would, however, recommend bringing some water since it can get hot outside.
Compared to when I used to pick fruit as a kid, it's gotten a bit easier. For example, most farms seem to keep their trees trimmed down so you reach most of the fruit without a ladder (easier and safer, though I always thought climbing up into the trees was fun). Another improvement is the use of thornless berry bushes, which I really appreciate after countless days as a kid coming back covered in small pricks and cuts.
But anyway, if you're in this part of the country in the summer or fall, I highly recommend heading out to a good pick-your-own farm at least once or twice.
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