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Virginia and Surroundings
August 2017 - July 2018
Virginia Travelogue 1
August 11th - 13th (Friday - Saturday): Otakon 2017

Otakon this year was a bit different for a few reasons. First off, Connie and Zack went with me. Connie, because she enjoys cons too. Zack, because we couldn't really leave him with a sitter the whole time or anything. Turned out, we weren't the only ones at Otakon with a baby, and it actually went fairly smoothly. Didn't get to do any late nights, and we had to make sure to keep him happy and take breaks to feed him, but we were still able to enjoy the con.
The other big change is that this year marked Otakon's move from it's long time home in Baltimore to Washington DC. From what I heard, it may or may not be a permanent thing, but it will be in DC for at least a few years. Anyway, the convention center is a little bit north of China Town. As far as locations go, it's a nice enough area. There isn't a good outdoor hangout area right outside (like Inner Harbor in Baltimore), but you do have a much better restaurant selection. And hey, if you want a longer walk you can get to the National Mall and all the big DC attractions. Though I will note that I've found driving and parking in DC to be huge pain (much more than Baltimore). This time around, I tried booking parking in advance online, which helped a lot.
One big advantage that DC has over Baltimore is the convention center. It's a lot bigger and more modern. While a few of the halls still got a bit congested, for the most part things were a lot more open and it was pretty easy to get around and find seats. Even the dealer's room wasn't too bad. Heck, they had room to spare in there. There were a few little issues here and there. The biggest I noticed was that the convention center required a bag check, which slowed down entry and re-entry, especially Friday morning. Not terrible, but a bit annoying.
Anyway, Connie and I enjoyed the con. We mostly just browsed around, took in the cosplay, artist and market areas, and the like. We did go to some panels and video screenings though, with Zack around, not as many I usually do. I didn't get to spend much time in the game area either (though they had an awesome selection of titles). Didn't get to any of the concerts this time around. Partly due to the timing, partly due to the bands this year, and partly do to the new structure. They partnered with an outside group this time. The plus side being there's more and bigger concerts. The down side is that all of them except the Sunday concert require buying a separate ticket. All in all though, Otakon works pretty well in DC and I still had fun, despite the limitations. As always, I'm looking forward to next time.

August 17th (Thursday): Cirque du Soliel's Ovo
Connie and I haven't really been going to movies or shows or anything lately since we can't take Zack with us. But we couldn't really resist Cirque du Soliel, especially when it was at the arena at my campus, just a few minutes away. This show was Ovo, which is my sixth Cirque show. So what's it's about? Bugs and an egg. Though, as usual, the story is rather dreamlike and more of a loose excuse to tie together the various acrobatic acts. Speaking of the acts, there was a good variety. Nothing I'd consider truly unique to this particular show, but all extremely well done, of course. I was especially impressed with the slack rope and trampoline acts. Though the contortionist was extremely skilled as well, and then there were the diabolos, and the trapeze, just to name a few more. And, of course, you can't have a Cirque show without elaborate costumes (all insect themed) and great live music. Combine them all together and, as I've come to expect from Cirque du Soliel, you spend much of the show feeling like you're in some fantastic dream.
All in all, Ovo is an awesome show. I'd probably rank it a little bit below the other Cirque shows I've seen, but the bar is so high to begin with that you shouldn't consider that much of a negative. As always, I highly recommend seeing Ovo (or any of the main Cirque shows) if you get the chance. It's fantastic and very much worth it.

August 23rd (Wednesday): Mazes and Mishkan
In addition to Otakon, one thing I really have to do every year while I'm living in this area is go the Amazing Maize Maze at Cherry Crest Farm. And with a moderately busy class schedule coming up, and the operating hours getting restricted starting in September, this seemed like the best time to go.
This year, the theme was Charlotte's Web. Since we came a bit earlier than last year, the corn was still nice and green and, as always, lots of fun to walk through. This was one of my slower maze completion times, but pushing Zack's stroller along the paths, while not especially difficult, did reduce our pace a bit. We also got turned around once after stopping for a while to feed him, which led to us accidentally backtracking into a section of the maze we'd already explored pretty thoroughly, completely missing the turn we needed to enter the final stretch. But it was fun and Zack did pretty well. I'm looking forward to taking him when he's a bit older and can appreciate both the maze and all the other games and activities they have set up around the farm.
While we didn't get as early a start as we could have, the maze didn't take all day, leaving us with time for a bit more sightseeing before dinner. This time, we ended up at the Mennonite Information Center. Not to learn about the Mennonites (we got a bit of a crash course on them last year at the Amish farm), but to visit their recreation of the Biblical tabernacle (or mishkan in Hebrew, hence the title of this post). They had both the outer courtyard and the inner chambers done up in a fairly faithful fashion and a nice tour guide spent 30 - 40 minutes going over the details of what the tabernacle was, how it was made, and how it was used. I already knew pretty much everything, but it was still an enjoyable and educational tour and I would recommend it to anyone in the area with a strong interest in the Bible.
Finally, it was off to dinner. Connie and I had really enjoyed the buffet at Hershey Farm last year, so we went again. While certainly not the healthiest choice, it's a fun way to sample lots of New England, and especially Pennsylvania Dutch, comfort foods.
It was a fun day and, when planning it out, I was reminded just how many interesting things there are to see and do in the Lancaster area, especially when Zack gets a bit older. Not sure if we'll manage to get out there more than once or twice a year, but I think I'll always be looking forward to it.

September 15th (Friday): The Natural Products Expo East
Earlier in the year, my parents and brother spent a day at a natural products expo in California. They enjoyed it and came back with a ridiculous amount of product samples. They also learned that there's an east coast version in Baltimore in September. It's not open to the general public, but my brother was able to get Connie and I tickets (yay for family connections). There's a lot of parts to the expo as a whole (talks, presentations, etc.) but we only had tickets for the expo floor. But that's fine since it's all we were really interested in anyway.
Backstory aside, while the expo lasted for several days, we only had time to go on Friday. But I'd say one day is good for seeing the expo floor. I've been to various expos before, but this is the first natural products one. The first (very large) half of the show floor was devoted to food. A lot of the major brands you'll see in a health food store had booths, along with a lot I'd never heard of before. Of course, they all had the usual expo stuff. Product fliers, pens, clips, and other branded junk (well, mostly junk; I did pick up a nice mug, several good canvas bags, and a fidget spinner). But they also had lots and lots of samples. Chocolate, coffee, and tea seemed to be the most common, but that was only the beginning. Dried fruit, energy bars, candy, milk, cheese, sodas, juice, crackers, popcorn, jerky, ice cream, etc., etc., etc. Most of it was meant to eat there, and Connie and I had a lot of fun wandering around and snacking on whatever looked interesting. But we also filled a fairly large bag each with samples to take home.
The second half of the show floor was devoted to health and beauty products. Not nearly as much fun as the food (at least for me), but I didn't have much time to look around that part either since we were planning to meet my cousin (well, second cousin) for dinner. While we did have to occasionally stop to take care of Zack (though carrying him around also got us a bunch of free baby food and wipes), and I had take a few breaks to deal with some important phone calls and e-mails, it was a fun day (if a bit more hectic than it needed to be).
While not everyone can go to the Natural Products Expo, I'd recommend checking it out if you get the chance. Apparently the California one is a lot bigger, but I'd say you can still spend a day exploring the expo floor in Baltimore. Just make sure to skip lunch, you'll want to leave room for all the sampling.

October 9th (Monday): DC With Friends
My friends Silver and Colly, from the forums, were passing through DC. We hung out a little Sunday night and, since it happened to be Columbus Day, I had the day off so I was able to join them for some sightseeing in DC. Zack had been kind of fussy for the last couple of days, so Connie decided to play it safe and stay home with him instead of joining us.
Since Silver and Colly were visiting, I let them choose the day's itinerary. Fortunately, despite it being a holiday, pretty much all the notable DC attractions were open. We started out at the Air and Space Museum. I got to go through a couple of exhibits I'd missed last time, including an interesting but oddly out of place one featuring art, photos, and memorabilia related to WWI. We even spotted the Enterprise. At this point, I'd say I've probably seen around 75% of the museum, give or take.
We didn't want to spend all day in one place so, after a while, we walked over to the United States Botanic Garden. While the main garden is indoors, there's an outdoor garden next to it which we walked through first. While October probably isn't the best time of year for it, there were still some flowers and other interesting plants around. That said, I've been a lot of gardens over the years and, while this one was fairly nice, there wasn't anything really special about it. The indoor portion of the garden was more interesting. It's divided into half a dozen or so zones themed around different climates and plant types. I wouldn't say that there was anything truly spectacular, but the garden does offer a very wide variety of plants that you can see all year round and it takes less than an hour to walk through so it's worth a visit if you're in the area.
At this point, we didn't have a ton of time left, but we were still able to swing by the Museum of Natural History. There, we took a quick walk through the animal bones to see the dinosaurs. As a note, it seems that there's currently a bigger and fancier dinosaur section under construction, though what they have now isn't bad. After that we made our way through the bug exhibit and spent a few minutes in the undersea section before the museum closed. I'd say I've probably seen 40% or so of the Natural History Museum now, though I just skimmed a couple of the exhibits and would like to take a closer look. I definitely need to make it back there sometime soon and go through the rest.
After that, we headed back to Fairfax and picked up Zack and Connie for dinner before going our separate ways. It was a fun day, especially since I hadn't had a chance to explore DC in a while, much less hang out with friends.

October 15th (Sunday): The Freer Gallery and Illuminasia Festival
Connie heard about a an Asian festival in DC so we decided to check it out. It turns out, it was being held to coincide with the re-opening of the Freer Art Gallery which is part of the Smithsonian just off the National Mall. The Illuminasia Festival was held outside of and around the gallery. The most popular area was the market street which had a small but diverse selection of food stalls. It wasn't your typical quick Chinese/Japanese/Thai food you usually see at this things. Instead, the focus more more on southern and west Asian countries and it was fun to try new things, even if the lines were a bit on the long side. There were also cooking demos, some music and other performances, and some talks on Asian art and related subjects. After eating and walking around for a bit we decided to check out the gallery itself. The Freer Gallery is the Smithsonian's Asian art museum. It's often combined with the nearby Sackler Gallery, which I previously visited. While the Sackler is more southern Asian and Middle Eastern art, Freer focuses more on works from East Asian countries like China and Japan. The collections aren't overly large, but they do have some nice pieces. That said, thanks to my travels, I've seen tons of Japanese and Chinese art before so I actually found the Arabic section more interesting. The original Peacock Room was also there, which was pretty cool. Add in a nice little courtyard (which was hosting a tea tasting for the festival), and it's a pleasant gallery to browse for an hour or two.
We had a nice half day or so between the festival and the gallery and it reminded me just how many parts of the Smithsonian we have yet to visit. There's plenty of keep us busy in the future.

March 27th (Tuesday): The National Gallery of Art
Connie had to stop at an embassy in DC to apply for a visa for our summer trip (more on that in the future), and we haven't really had the chance to do any sightseeing since we returned from Hawaii, so I wanted to take advantage of the day to do something in DC. We finished at the embassy fairly quickly. Connie wanted to get an early lunch, and she'd had her mind on a Chinese place she'd read about called Dumplings and Beyond over near the Chinese embassy. Unfortunately, we had to drive there (not all the embassies are in the same part of the city), but fortunately we were able to find free parking and the restaurant was pretty good (we got dumplings, of course).
After that, it was finally time to do some sightseeing, so we drove over to the National Mall (unfortunately, parking around there isn't free (or cheap)). Anyway, we ended up parked pretty close to the National Gallery of Art, and that's one of the Smithsonian museums we hadn't seen yet, so we headed inside. The gallery is a pretty impressive building spread over two floors. The first floor was an odd mix of exhibits including early American furniture, carvings and sculpture, and some paintings (though I didn't quite figure out the theme for those). Most of the paintings, however, were on the second floor. My favorite part was the impressionist gallery, which had a number of works by Money, Van Gogh, Renior, among others. There was also a very impressive collection of landscapes and the like, and Renaissance art. I wasn't quite as interested in the portraits, the Gothic art (I like Gothic architecture, not painting), or the current special exhibit, but all of them had large and well organized collections as well
Taking it all into account, the National Gallery is one of the largest art museums I've visited and I really appreciated the complete and total lack of modern art. Honestly, if you look at great artwork of the past (Renaissance, Impressionist, even Gothic, and the like) and then look at modern "art", you have to wonder what the heck went wrong over the past 50 years or so... That aside, it's very much worth a visit if you're in the area. Strolling through the entirety of the gallery, more or less, will take at least two hours, but an art lover could easily spend a day or more there.
By the time we finished, Zack had woken up from his nap and we were in danger of getting caught in the start of rush hour if we stayed any longer, so we called it quits a little early and headed home. Not a really full day, but pleasant and it's nice to finally be doing some sightseeing again.

April 6th (Friday): DC Cherry Blossoms
While it's Japan that's known for sakura or cherry blossom trees, there are other places you can go to see them, even in the US. And one of those places is Washington DC. The mayor of Tokyo gave the city of DC a large number of trees as a gift back in 1912. They were planted all around the Tidal Basin area and have since spread to other parts of the city and the general area. It's not the same as seeing the blossoms in Japan, but probably the closest you can get without traveling to Asia.
Last year, the weather really hurt the blossoms and prevented us from getting a good look. This yeah, however, we got a couple nice days just as they were hitting their peak, so Connie, Zack, and I headed in for an afternoon.
I was hoping that, since it was a weekday, we'd be able to snag one of the free parking spots near the basin. Unfortunately, despite it being a weekday, there were a ton of other people going in to see the blossoms so we were way too late for the free spots and had to fight our way through heavy traffic to get to any parking at all. But we eventually made it to the basin...and into a different kind of traffic. The blossoms were beautiful, though it seems like the majority of the Tidal Basin trees are the white variety, as opposed to the more well known pink (though there are plenty of those too). The path around the Basin was packed, but there were some parks along the way where we were able to get out of the crowds and enjoy the blossoms in a more open area. Zack certainly had a lot of fun, though he cared more about playing with sticks than anything else.
In the end, we actually didn't walk that far along the basin. It would have been fun to go all the way around, but we had to be back home before it got too late and, while the temperature wasn't bad, it extremely windy by the water. And other places, for that matter. It seems that the area around the Washington Monument is a very popular kit flying spot on windy days. Though not everyone knows how to keep their kite in the air. I saw at least a few that had gotten caught in trees or on power lines and abandoned.
While the wind was annoying, it was a pleasant couple of hours and, while it certainly wasn't the same as being in Japan during the sakura season, it did bring back some memories.

April 8th (Sunday): Museums and Blossoms
Awhile back, we made plans to visit DC on the 8th to see the cherry blossoms with some friends. Unfortunately, things didn't work out as well as we hoped. The weather took a serious down turn over the weekend. No rain or anything, but it was a rather cold day. Plus, it turned out there was a marathon in the morning, which resulted in a lot of road closures, so we had to change some plans around. In the end, we decided to start out at a museum and walk over to the blossoms afterwards once the race was over and the weather was a bit warmer.
Connie had been wanting to see The Museum of the American Indian, so we met up there. From a design standpoint, it looks like one of the newer Smithsonian museums, so it's very modern and well designed, with a good mix of information and artifacts. We started out in an interesting exhibit on treaties before walking through one on the native peoples of Central America (the museum isn't just about "American Indians").
We hadn't gotten the earliest start, so it was getting close to lunch time. Now, most of the Smithsonian museums have restaurants, but a lot of them aren't anything special. This one though focuses on early American food so there were lots of dishes incorporating things like bison, turkey, and traditional American vegetables. The menu is pretty interesting and I really liked the food. Honestly, I might go to the museum just for the restaurant if I was already in the area.
After eating, we headed to the third floor and spent a while going through the surprisingly large kids' section. While our friends' son was a bit too young to do much, Zack had fun and I'm sure older kids would get quite a lot out of it. In the end, we probably saw about a third of the museum before we decided to go see the blossoms. While it was never high on my list of DC museums to visit, I actually found it pretty interesting, so I'll be sure to go back and see the rest some time.
On the way to the Tidal Basin, I spotted something interesting in the center of the National Mall. It was the fifteen millionth Ford Model T, which was also the last one of the iconic cars created before they shut down the assembly line. Anyway, we eventually made it to the basin. It was pretty but, as previously mentioned, it was cold and, being the weekend right after peak bloom, the crowds were pretty crazy (maybe it really isn't that different from Japan), so we didn't stay for too long.
In the end, it was a fun day, despite a few issues. We'll have to plan a better cherry blossom viewing day next year.

April 15th (Sunday): Cirque du Soleil's LUZIA
I got on Cirque du Soleil's mailing list ages ago, so I always hear if any of their traveling shows are going to be stopping nearby. Seems like northern Virginia is a pretty good location in that regard. Connie and I already got to see Kurios and Ovo in the year and a half or so since we moved here and on Sunday we went to see the Mexico inspired Luzia. That said, like all Cirque shows, it's extremely abstract and dreamlike. There were a couple elements that were very clearly Mexican, but I probably wouldn't have pegged the show as a whole as such if the ads didn't say so.
Anyway, the story, such as it is, involves a tourist who goes to Mexico, finds a giant wind-up key, and lots of crazy stuff happens after he turns it. Like I said, very abstract and dreamlike. As expected from Cirque du Soliel, the music, costumes, and over all atmosphere were extremely well done and the acrobatics were amazing. While I enjoyed Ovo (the last Cirque show I saw), it didn't really have any types of acts that I hadn't seen before. Luzia didn't have that problem. There were a number of unique performances and many of the ones that started out kind of familiar ended up having interesting twists of their own. The use of water, for example, was completely unexpected but really cool.
Connie says Luzia is her favorite of all the Cirque shows she's seen. I wouldn't go quite that far, but I'd probably put it in my top three. Probably. It's kind of a hard choice. Regardless, Luzia is an excellent show, even by Cirque standards, and I highly recommend seeing it if you get the chance.

July 8th (Sunday): Cirque du Soleil's Crystal
Looking at this travelogue, it's been quite a few months since my last entry, which also happened to be for a Cirque du Soleil show. I had picked up a ticket for Crystal a while back. Connie thought about going but opted to take Zack out instead of hiring a sitter. However, with my mom here to help with our move, she reconsidered and, fortunately, I was able to get another ticket.
Since the show was in Baltimore, we all decided to make a day of it. We started at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, which Connie and I visited once a while back (you can read about it in my first Virginia travelogue). It was pretty much the same as I remembered, and a lot of fun to walk around. After we finished there, we made our way to the Inner Harbor area where we walked a bit, met up with my cousin (sorta), who lives nearby and got lunch at a nearby Peruvian chicken place. Nothing too exciting, but it all made for an enjoyable morning.
After lunch, we split up, with my mom taking Zack and Connie and I heading to the nearby arena for the show. Crystal is one of the more unique Cirque shows as it takes place entirely on ice. It's also one of the more story focused ones, at least for Cirque, featuring a relatively coherent plot and a bit of narration at the start of each scene. Basically, it's about a girl named Crystal who has trouble fitting in at home and school. While skating, she falls through the ice and into a magical world were she struggles to come to terms with who she is and her place in the world. There's nothing too ground-breaking there (think a less trippy Alice in Wonderland), but some of the narration is rather poetic. Of course, no one goes to see Cirque du Soliel for the storyline. As far as the performances go, I've seen a moderate number of ice shows before but none of them could match Crystal in terms of atmosphere, costumes, or music. And Cirque certainly brought some interesting twists to ice skating. I didn't find the first half to be especially spectacular (good, but nothing too amazing), but they mixed it up more after the intermission with some pretty unique acts. Though I still feel that they could have taken it a bit further at times. Over all, Crystal was an enjoyable and impressive show, and very different from other Cirque performances. But, at the same time, I feel that having the whole thing on ice was a little limiting and kept it from quite reaching the more breathtaking heights of many of the others. It's still very much worth seeing, but I wouldn't rank it quite as highly as many of the others. That said, you'd be hard pressed to find a better or more unique ice skating show around.
After the show, we met back up with my mom and let Zack play around the harbor for a bit before heading home. It wasn't quite a full day, but between Zack and all the work left to do for our move, we decided not to push it.

July 12th (Thursday): Miku Expo
Thanks to the places I've lived, I've gotten to see a lot of different concerts over the years, many of which I've written about in various travelogues. Well, this summer gave me the chance to see two more that have been sitting near the top of my list for years. One of those will be coming up at Otakon, so more on that later. The other was Hatsune Miku. I've written about Miku and Vocaloid music before in depth so I won't do it again here. To give a quick summary, Miku is a Vocaloid, a computer program that acts as a virtual singer. She's the most popular of the Vocaloids by far and featured in thousands of songs by numerous artists. I'm a big fan of Miku and the other Crypton Vocaloids thanks to the Project Diva games.
Now, Miku is so popular that she even has live concerts. How does that work? Well, there's an actual live band (from Japan) playing the music and Miku herself shows up as a hologram. I love a lot of Miku's music, and I also thought the whole hologram thing would be a pretty neat, so I've been wanting to go to a Miku concert for a long time, but never before had a chance. Luckily, this year's Miku Expo tour had a stop in DC so I was sure to get a ticket.
The show was at a club in the harbor area, where I hadn't been before. Seems like a nice place to hang out, eat, and shop, though parking was a bit of a pain. Even more so because the scanners in the garage were glitching and didn't recognize my parking pass. Annoyances aside, I did eventually park and get to the show. I was there fairly early, so I had chance to look around a bit and grab a good spot (unless you spent a lot more for a seat on the higher levels, it was standing room only). I opted to stay a bit further back from the stage in return for a less crowded area and a higher vantage point, which paid off when the place filled up. It was a pretty large, and very passionate, audience. On a side note, they must have made a fortune on those glow sticks, you could only buy them at the official merchandise table it seemed like nearly everyone had at least one.
The concert itself was pretty awesome. The hologram tech they use for Miku was seriously impressive. There were some faint outlines of the screen they use but, if I could ignore those, I could nearly believe that it was a real person in a really good cosplay. The set list didn't quite have everything I would have wanted, but it did have many of Miku's biggest hits, including a lot of my favorites. And Miku wasn't the only one. All the other Crypton Vocaloids got at least one song (with Luca and the twins getting a few), for a total show time of about 2 hours (including the encore). As a note, while those videos don't really show it, Miku wore her regular outfit for most of the set list and only a couple songs made use of the hologram for special effects or backgrounds. While part of me felt that was a missed opportunity, another part of me felt that it helped keep things feeling "real". And they did, mostly. There was a part maybe 30 or 40 minutes into the show when Kaito was singing his song that he did a fancy jumping spin move. For a second, I was actually impressed. Not with the animation, but with his actual dancing skills. Of course, a moment later I remembered that he was a hologram so pulling off a tricky jump wasn't really anything spectacular. Still, that moment stuck with me as a sign of just how real the concert felt and how good the holograms were.
Anyway, the show was a blast and I would definitely go again if given the chance. Even if you're not especially familiar with Miku's music, I'd still give it a recommendation for the sheer novelty.

Virginia Travelogue 1

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