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8/10/2015 One more week

Well, only one more week before work starts. Summer has gone by so fast this year. And, other than the China trip and the odd day here and there, it's been a pretty busy one, with me jumping from one one project to the next with little to no breaks inbetween. Looking back on things, I suppose I did get a lot done. Though I had a lot less time work on Aurora's Nightmare than I originally hoped. I haven't even made much progress on the video games I've been playing, even my most highly anticipated ones. It's kind of strange. I had expected that summer break would leave me a lot of time to both relax and work on Aurora's Nightmare, especially since I wasn't going to be doing as much traveling as I had the last few years. But, despite spending the majority of the summer at home, lots of stuff came up that had to be done, pushing both Aurora's Nightmare and relaxation way down on my priority list.

Speaking of lists, I still have a number of things left on my list of fun thing I'd like to do here on the island before the end of summer. I can probably get one or two of them done this week (though I'm trying to spend most of my time on Aurora's Nightmare) but, as for the rest, I'll just have to try and fit them in during the fall if I can, along with some fall events like the Greek Festival and the Hawaii 5-0 premiere. Though, I'm not too sure how much free time I'll have. Things shouldn't be too busy for the next few weeks anyway (just the usual work and start of semester stuff), but there's a decent chance that they'll get a lot busier in mid-September and remain that way for quite some time.

Connie will be coming for a visit around then as well (though that has nothing to do with why I might be really busy, more on that another time). It'll be nice having her here. Hopefully I won't be so busy that we just end up staying at home all the time.

Anyway, that's life. No use complaining about. Just have to hope that, sooner or later, the flow of extra jobs, projects, and tasks I need to do will dry up so things will calm down and I can narrow my focus to the stuff I really want to be working on.


8/7/2015 Quake

Use the TWC button on the left to vote and see the new bonus comic!

Having been in a number of earthquake during my time in Japan, including the big one in 2011, I can say with confidence that this comic is fairly accurate. Everything shakes for a few moments to a couple of minutes...and that's it. Well, unless there are some aftershocks afterwards. The quakes you see in disaster movies, with buildings collapsing and the ground splitting apart... Pretty exaggerated. I mean, buildings could potentially collapse, but only if they're poorly built. Even during the big 2011 quake in Japan, it was the following tsunami, not the earthquake itself, that did nearly all the damage. If the quake hadn't triggered a tsunami, the damage and death toll would have been miniscule. As for the ground splitting open? Not impossible, I guess. But extremely rare, even in really strong earthquakes. You'd probably have to be right on a fault line, or standing on top of underground tunnel or something...

Anyway, just a random musing.


8/5/2015 It's always something

Sometimes things just never seem to go as smoothly as they should, even if they seem very easy and straight forward. I don't really feel like elaborating, but something to that extent came up Monday night and I had to spend a while yesterday trying to get things back on track. Though it could be anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks before I find out whether it worked or not. Best case scenario, it all works out and I just end up with a slightly late start and a bit of wasted time. Worst case, it still falls through and I have to go with my backup plan. I can't imagine that one failing, but it's not my first choice and will probably delay things a bit (not to mention all the extra time needed to switch gears).

So yeah, that's annoying, but it could be worse. I just hope the other major projects I have in progress right now (such as Connie's fiance visa application) go more smoothly than this one is.


8/3/2015 More hiking

Time for another hiking related travelogue entry.

August 2nd (Sunday): Koko Head Arch Hike
Since last week's hiking Meetup went well, I decided to try another one. There are a few this week, but one of the more interesting ones involved going up Koko Head the back way. I was a bit late to sign up and ended up on the wait list, but manage to secure a spot Saturday afternoon.
Anyway, Koko Head is a mountain on the east end of the island. The main trail is rather popular and known for being short but very strenuous (it's literally a straight climb up, following a old and steep railway track like a staircase). I did it a while back (see the entry for December 19th). However, there's an alternate (but not very well known) route that goes up the back side as well.
We started at the regular Koko Head parking lot. For one thing, there isn't any parking at the start of the other trail. And that way, we were able to make a loop of it. Avoiding the regular trail, we walked around Koko Head, past the nearby shooting range (for about half the hike, it sounded like we were skirting around a battlefield), and to the road by the coast. Turns out there's actually a small lava tube going under the roadway and out onto the coast. As you can tell from the photo, there's no beach at that area, it's all rocks worn away by long exposure to the waves. It made for an extremely pretty walk, though not one you'd want to take at high tide. The tide was low when we were there, but we still had to watch out for the rare big wave on a couple of narrow sections.
As a note, there was actually no reason we had to walk along the coast like that. It was just more fun and scenic than following the road. And, after a while, we climbed back up and crossed the road to begin our ascent of Koko Head. After a bit of climbing, we neared the arch. Can you see it? Here's a closer shot, but it's still a bit hard to tell that it's an arch from that angle. At that point it went from a hike to more of an actual climb. While it wasn't especially difficult (I've done that kind of thing plenty of times when hiking in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona), I wouldn't recommend it if you're afraid of heights or not in decent physical condition. Here's a panorama I took from on top of the arch.
The top of the arch didn't mark the end of the climbing, since we still had to gain a lot of height to reach the ridge. From there though, it was fairly simple to follow the ridge for the rest of the ascent. Here I am about halfway along the ridge. If you hadn't noticed from the previous photos, you can probably tell from this one that it was really windy. The wind kept up for nearly the entire hike (start to finish). It did make the climbing slightly more difficult (and made a total mess of my hair), but it also kept things from getting too hot, which is nice since otherwise we would have been in the sun pretty much the entire time. According to the hike organizer, we got pretty lucky in that regard, since there's usually no wind and it can get very hot.
In the end, we reached the same place the regular Koko Head hike ends. Here's a panorama from the top and here's a close up of Hawaii Kai and Honolulu. From there it was a quick and simple walk down the regular railway trail back to the parking lot. Between the coastline and the arch climb, I'd say this is one of my favorite hikes on the island (at least so far). But, while it's not especially dangerous, you do need to be careful climbing over the arch and pay attention to the tides if you walk along the coast.


7/31/2015 Hiking trip

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July 28th (Tuesday): Pillboxes and Likeke Falls Hikes
I joined a hiking Meetup group a while back but nothing ever seemed to fit my schedule. Well, I finally spotted one that worked, and it involved two hikes I'd never done before, both in the Kailua area
The first hike was Pillboxes, which is a fairly well known one. It starts in a Lanikai housing development and, after a relatively short but kinda steep climb, follows a ridge to a couple of pillboxes (old military bunkers). While the pillboxes themselves aren't much to look at, the views are great. There were some interesting plants up there too. The hike itself isn't very long (you can make it to the pillboxes in under 30 minutes if you keep a decent pace), though you can keep following the ridge for quite a while after that (I heard it eventually loops back down into a different part of the town). Not too strenuous either, though the very beginning is a bit steep. Definitely a nice shorter hike.
After that going to the pillboxes and back, we drove to the Ko'olau Golf Club, which is the start of the Likeke Falls hike. One end of it, anyway (someone said the other end of the trail connects to the Pali highway somewhere). Hiking from the Paili could have been kind of long. From the golf club though, it was a really short (if a little muddy) 10 or 15 minutes to the falls. The only tricky part was spotting the turn off for the falls (it's by a big tree that lots of people have carved on). Unlike the Pillboxes, this trail was in a thick forest. Really thick at spots (like where I took that photo). The falls themselves are nice. Not amazing, but nice. And one advantage of hiking with others is that there's always someone to take a picture of you. As a note, considering how short the hike is, it's hard to say if it would be worth driving out there just for that. But it makes a nice combo with other hikes or activities.
After we finished the hikes, some group members, myself included, decided to get lunch (see the review, below). It was a fun morning, and I'll definitely do some more hikes with that group if I get the chance.

Restaurant Review: Mike's Hulihuli Chicken
I've driven past Mike's a few times in the past, and could always smell the chicken roasting. Now, I finally got to try it. Mike's used to be a food truck but got popular enough to upgrade to a more permanent setup, though still with a very strong food truck vibe. They've got a good variety of plate lunches (all meat based, of course). A little on the expensive side for a food truck, but you do get a pretty big serving. I got the chicken plate, which is their signature dish. Got to say, they really know how to grill a good chicken. Crisp skin, tender meat, for rotisserie chicken, the texture was about as good as it can get. Nicely spiced too. I can't comment on their other meats, but you can't really ask for a better chicken. I'll be sure to go back next time I'm in the area.


7/29/2015 Another Wednesday

I tried a couple of new hikes for the first time yesterday. Got back home kind of late though (not due to the hiking, but other stuff) so I'm tired and haven't had time to go through my photos yet. But you can expect a write-up on Friday. In the meantime, I'm going to get some rest and take care of a few assorted tasks around the house.



7/27/2015 Interesting weekend

Well, Friday and Saturday were kind of interesting. Sunday not so much (I spent most of the day working on things).

July 24th - 25th (Friday - Saturday): Events in Honolulu
This weekend marked the debut of Comic Con Honolulu (aka. Hokukon). It's actually one of several new cons that are starting this year to compliment Kawaii Kon (which I wrote about a while back). Regular comic cons generally don't interest me as much as anime conventions, but I figured I'd check it out. All in all, they did fairly good for a first year con but it was pretty small, with only two panel rooms, a small vendor area, a couple of game spaces, and an autograph room. I was originally thinking I might spend most of the weekend there but the panels that interested me the most were all at times I couldn't go and, over all, there just wasn't enough to hold my attention so I ended up just going for Friday. I could have always spent more time playing around in the video or table top game areas, but I had enough other stuff I wanted and needed to do that I decided not to. As for whether or not I'll go next year, it'll depend on who the guests are and how the other new cons stack up.
My other weekend activity, besides some beach time, was checking out the dragon boat races Saturday morning. While you see a lot of long kayaks on Honolulu's main canal, dragon boats are different. They're Chinese in origin and they have dragon head and tail designs. More practically though, they have two rows of rowers and a drummer to help them keep time (like the old ships used to have). There's also a person laying on the front whose job it is to grab a flag at the end of the race. Now this is what I thought the Dragon Boat Festival in China would have a lot of (I was wrong). Kinda interesting to watch, at least for a bit.


7/24/2015 Caught up!

Huh... Looks likes, while Wednesday's news post went up properly the comic did not. At least not on the main page, it did show up in the archives. Sigh... Well, click the Previous Comic link if you missed it.

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

Well, the China travelogue is finished and here's that Hawaii travelogue entry I mentioned earlier in the week, getting me all caught up in that regard. I'm also more or less caught up on a variety of other things since getting back from China. Not that I don't still have more to do. But it's mostly just Aurora's Nightmare at this point up until classes start up in a few weeks. Mostly, got a couple of days of other kinds of work here and there. And some fun stuff too, like this weekend for example. But that's something to talk about next time...

July 19th (Sunday): The Honolulu Ukulele Festival
I assume most of you know what a ukulele is, right? If not, it's a Hawaiian instrument shaped like a guitar but much smaller and with only four strings. If you're ever heard Hawaiian music, you've no doubt heard a ukulele. Anyway, there's an annual ukulele festival at Kapiolani Park right past Waikiki. I had some stuff to do in the morning, but I met up with my parents there that afternoon for the last two or three hours. There were some booths selling food (and ukuleles), of course. But the main focus of the festival was the stage, where there was a constant stream of ukulele performances throughout the day. Some were single players, some were groups, some used other instruments as well, and some of the musicians were even from other countries. From the ones I saw, there were two standouts. The first was Willie K, who I wasn't previously familiar with (though he seemed kinda famous), and the second was Jake Shimabukuro, who I saw once before in Colorado years back. Jake is especially famous and known for doing a lot of music with the ukulele that you really wouldn't think it could possibly handle (classic rock, for example). They're both really impressive musicians, whether or not you're a ukulele fan. On that note, while I'm not sure I would have wanted to spend an entire day at the Ukulele Festival, it made for an enjoyable couple of hours.


7/22/2015 How to improve

Here's one last Random China Comment.

Random China Comments: Improvements I'd Like to See
While China is a fun place to visit, there are some things about it that can be very problematic for tourists. On that note, I'd like to quickly go over some of the things I'd most like to see change in China over the coming years. Note that, for the purposes of this list, I'm only going to cover things that strongly impact the average tourist (though most of them would be really beneficial for Chinese citizens as well) and I'm going to mostly avoid political and cultural issues. If these things are dealt with, visits to China will be much safe and more pleasant.
So, in no particular order...

1. Less Smoking
Or at least less smoking allowed in public places. Though, if you are a smoker, you'll probably find the much small number of restrictions a nice change... While more businesses and/or the government could easily limit smoking in more locations, a lot of people seem to ignore the no signs there are and actually reducing the number of smokers will take a lot of time. So yeah, I assume this will improve, but very slowly.

2. Less Pollution
Over all, China is easily the most polluted place I've ever seen by far You really have to get far into the countryside if you want to find clean air and water and even then there's usually still some smog around. Another difficult and time consuming problem to fix, but certainly doable if the government really gets behind the effort.

3. Easier Train Travel
More high speed train lines would be nice but, from what I can tell, those are already an ongoing project. I won't even complain about all the security checks (though I'm not sure if they're really needed). However, it would make things so much easier if the Chinese government would just allow tourists to buy train tickets using the automated kiosks (you need a Chinese ID card). They already have an English menu option, so it would be a simple enough. Right now though, not being able to use the kiosks means talking to an actual ticket agent. Problem is, there are usually very long lines and most ticket agents can't speak English, making the ticket buying process a difficult and time consuming hassle.

4. Improved Sanitation
Being able to actually drink the tap water and not having to carry around anti-bacterial wipes or gel to use before meals would be a huge improvement, and go a long way towards making China feel like a fully modern country. Not having to worry about getting food poisoning from smaller restaurants and street food would be awesome as well.

5. Faster and Less Restricted Internet
While I think the hotels I've stayed at are partly to blame for the horrendous internet access I usually have in China, that's not the whole problem. Though I did recently read that the government is going to be investing a lot of money in improving internet speeds throughout the country, so that's one issue hopefully taken care of.
One thing I'd really like to see though, is for the Chinese government to stop blocking access to so many web sites; including gmail (and everything else Google), Facebook, and many other widely used sites and services. I do appreciate that I can access them on my phone (at least so long as I'm not on wi-fi), but data costs when roaming are pretty expensive and not being able to access them on my computer is, at best, extremely inconvenient. At worst, it could make conducting business while in China near impossible if you rely heavily on some of the blocked sites.

6. Better Cleanliness and Repair in Hotels
While I've yet to get a hotel room in China that's so bad I won't stay there, I've only had a couple where I'd say the room cleanliness and quality was completely up to US or Japanese standards. I'm not sure if the issue is hotel policy or the maids' skills or work ethic, but something could use a bit of improvement.

7. Less Scams
China is getting a bit infamous for scammers that target foreigners (trying to sell knock-off items, overcharging in restaurants and taxis, pretending to need money for train tickets, etc., etc.). Sure you can avoid at least most of the scams if you're careful, but it would be nice if they weren't so prevalent.

8. Better Traffic Safety
Not knowing China's traffic laws, I'm not sure if the main problem is due to lack of suitable laws, or a glut of drivers who ignore them. Either way, appropriate laws should be made (if needed) and very strictly enforced. Especially in regards to stopping before turning on red lights and giving pedestrians the right of way when they're crossing at the proper time. Charging ahead full speed to make a right turn on a red, while honking and hoping everyone runs out the way, is not how it should be done. There are lots of other traffic safety issues that should be addressed, but I'd say that's the most critical one I've noticed so far.


7/20/2015 Commentary!

I actually have a Hawaii travelogue entry to do at some point but, for now, I have another day or two of Random China Comments I want to do to wrap up that travelogue.

Random China Comments: Favorite Restaurants
I've eaten at a lot of good restaurants in China. One of the nice things about traveling there is that, due to the exchange rate, you can get a meal in a very nice restaurant for a relatively low cost (often $8 - $16 per person; a fraction of what a similar meal would cost in the US), or in a cheap or mid-range restaurant for next to nothing. Though keep in mind that food quality in the low end restaurants can be a bit dodgy at times. One thing I did notice this year, however, is that a lot of restaurants now post their health inspection ratings in an obvious spot. Not sure how reliable they are, but it's a nice addition.
As a note, most Chinese restaurants expect you to order multiple items and share them among your group, rather than the American style of everyone getting their own appetizer. In general, three items is a good amount of food for a party of two if you've not overly hungry.
Anyway, I just wanted to mention a few of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Specifically, nice higher end places where I ate at least a couple of times and which have multiple branches around China.

Nanjing Da Pai Dang
This restaurant specializes in food from Nanjing and the surrounding area. It's got a large and diverse menu, complete with English translation, and a fun old China style of décor. Some of the menu items are rather small, so I'd recommend 2 - 3 things per person, a bit more than at most restaurants, but the prices are also low, so ordering a few more things than usual isn't a problem. I especially recommend the duck dumplings, salted duck, and some of the chicken dishes, but really everything I've tried has been good. It's my favorite China restaurant and I highly recommend it.
While it started in Nanjing, there are branches in many major Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing, so there's no reason not to go.

Din Tai Fung
A close second on my list, Din Tai Fung's specialty is Shanghai style soup dumplings, and they've got quite a wide variety. But there are also numerous other items on the menu including noodles, steamed buns, and soups. While there are a lot of restaurants with soup dumpling, few have Din Tai Fung's variety, not to mention the English menu. It's also received numerous awards from not only Chinese but American papers as well. So yeah, the food is awesome. My personal favorites are the chicken soup dumplings, the mushroom dumplings, and the sweet rice wine soup. Though the noodles and the chestnut dumplings are pretty awesome too.
Din Tai Fung has branches in most major Chinese cities, along with a few locations abroad (including a couple in the US) so be sure to go if you ever get the chance.

If you want to try Taiwanese food, Bellagio provides a large menu, English translations, and great food. I'm especially fond of the three cup chicken and a number of the fish dishes (check out the really strangely looking fried one for something really good and different). They've got a pretty fun drink selection as well, like the longan and jujube milk tea. Wow I don't think it has quite the "wow" factor of the previous two restaurants on my list, I always enjoy eating there.
Conveniently, Bellagio also has branches all around China, so keep an eye out for it if you're traveling.

Random China Comment: Going it Alone
One thing that made this China trip different from my last one is that I was with Connie (a native Mandarin speaker) the entire time, unlike last year where I spent half the time touring on my own. And, unlike in Japan, where I always have my conversational level Japanese to help me out, I know virtually no Chinese. Traveling with Connie made everything a lot simpler. While I still did a lot of the trip planning, and was often the one leading the way, her language skills really were invaluable.
Still, that left me wondering, could I have done it, gone to all the same places and done the same things, on my own, without the aid of a Chinese speaker? Well, let's see...

First up, Shanghai. Thanks to the subway, Shanghai is a very easy city to navigate and there's a decent amount of English around. While Connie did turn me on to some attractions not listed in my tour book, there's nothing we did in Shanghai that I would have had any serious problems with had I been on my own.

Next, Maanshan. Since the best way to get to Connie's home city is by bus, it would have been a bit difficult (through probably not impossible) to reach on my own, since the Chinese bus system is not English friendly in the least. I'd say it's even harder than the Japanese bus system, which I don't recommend without either very clear directions or a decent knowledge of Japanese. However, since there's really not much of anything for tourists to see in Maanshan (though it is a nice city), had it not been for Connie I would have had no reason to go, making it a bit of a non-issue.

Hangzhou? Well, getting there and doing the walk around West Lake would have been simple enough. Getting to Hangzhou Songcheng (the theme park), however, would have been pretty difficult since it required a bus ride. While the park has an English web site, it's extremely barebones (missing a lot of basic info) and, as far as popular travel books and web sites go, the place doesn't seem to exist. There was also no English for the show schedule, though the rest of the park had enough English that I would have been ok. Anyway, I'm really not sure if I could have gotten to Hangzhou Songcheng by myself or not. Maybe with a bit of searching or a taxi.

That brings us to Kunming. Flying there wouldn't have been too hard. The main problem would have been transportation. Kunming is eventually getting a full subway system, which should simplify things greatly but, for now, there's only a handful of stations open so it's not very useful. The best way to get around is by taxi. I did manage to use some taxis on my own last year, by making sure to have the Chinese name (and often address) of where ever I was going written down and showing it to the driver. That might have worked but, as I previously mentioned, Kunming's taxi drivers had a tendency to turn you down if they didn't know the address (which was often) or just didn't feel like diving where you wanted to go). Without Connie there to either reason with them or tell me when we needed to find a different cab, I'm not sure what would have happened. I suspect I either would have gotten kicked out of a lot of cabs (with no idea why), or majorly overcharged instead. Especially, since a lot of them didn't run their meters...
On a side note, the cab ride to the bus station aside, getting to the Stone Forest wouldn't have been too difficult since the ticket counter and busses are clearly labeled.

How about Lijiang? Kind of like Kunming in that the taxi rides (such as the one to the hotel) could have been rather tricky. On the bright side, once there, I could have walked most places. Finding the bus to Shuhe could have been difficult, and both finding out about and going to Lijiang Songcheng would have likely been extremely difficult as, once again, there's virtually no English info about it out there (though I'd be fine once I reached the park). I think I could have managed Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ok on my own though. One thing, however, is that I wouldn't have been able to eat at some of the restaurants we did, since they entirely lacked English.

And finally Tongli. I would have had to eat at a different restaurant (once again, no English) but, that aside, the only difficulty would have been the bus. Finding the correct ticket window and bus, mainly.

So, over all, there would have been some problems but I think I could have mostly done it on my own, with a few potential hang-ups. Actually, some of my hotels my be among those... The Shanghai one in particular never seemed to have any idea of how to check me in. Never mind that I had a reservation (which I gave them a printed copy of), stayed there on three separate occasions, and had the same clerks each time...
So, if you're a moderately adventurous traveler, don't be too afraid to get out of the big cities and explore other parts of China (like Yunnan), just make sure to make detailed plans in advance.


7/17/2015 End of the trip

Another Friday, another new bonus comic for everyone who votes with the TWC button.

Well, I'm back in Hawaii so update times will return to normal. Today I've got travelogue entries for the last couple days of my trip, but I'm going to do some Random China Comments next week before wrapping up the travelogue entirely.

Day 25 (Wed July 15th): Last Day in Shanghai
At this point I'd finished everything on my Shanghai list and I needed some time to pack and such so Connie and I didn't have any big plans for today. We went out for lunch at Nanjing Da Pai Dang one last time. Tried some different things on the menu this time, including fried fish, pigeon soup, and some type of gourd. After that, we just walked around a bit in the mall we usually go to at Xuijianhua. They were apparently doing a Popeye themed promotion. How many of you guys remember Popeye? He was still fairly popular when I was a kid, but this was the first time I'd seen any Popeye stuff in a very long time... Anyway, it seems he was, and still is, popular in China.
That aside, there wasn't much to write about. Just some packing, hanging out with Connie, and the like.

Day 26 (Thu July 16th): Back to the US
I had originally planned to take the subway to the airport but, after seeing what morning rush hour was like on the local lines, I decided to just get a taxi instead. A lot more expensive, but not that bad by US standards, and a whole lot easier. I had a much simpler and more pleasant time leaving China than I did last year, though my flight did get delayed for an hour (after everyone was already stuck onboard the plane). That happens way too often in China... Once we actually got in the air though, it was a short hour and a half or so to Seoul, South Korea.
I had a much longer layover there than I did last year, thanks to some changes in my original flight plan, so I had more time to look around. It really is a nice airport, quite possibly the nicest I've ever been to. Fancy, comfortable, good wi-fi (way better than any I had in China), and lots to do. There's some museum style cultural displays, the performances, the traditional Korean craft lessons, and even a parade of sorts. Actually, if I had arrived a bit earlier (thank you China and your frequent flight delays), I could have gone on one of several free tours to nearby attractions (temples, shopping areas, etc.), no visa required, while I waited.
Not too much else to say. Both my flight to Seoul and the one back to Hawaii were on Asiana, a Korean airlines that was fairly nice. I think they should have served drinks a bit more often on the Seoul to Honolulu flight, and their movie selection wasn't as big as some larger airlines, but that's nitpicking. All in all, it was a smooth trip back.

Ok, that's all for today but, as previously mentioned, I'll be doing some Random China Comments and stuff next week summarize my remaining thoughts and wrap up this travelogue


7/15/2015 Heading home

Rest in peace Satoru Iwata (Nintendo's president since 2002), you will be missed...

Well, it's my last day China. Tomorrow morning, I'll be catching a plane back to the US. It's really been a fun and eventful trip. I'll cover today's events and my trip back on Friday and I may continue with the travelogue into next with some Random China Comments to wrap things up. For now though, here's a look at what I did a little earlier this week...

Day 23 (Mon July 13th): Hanging Out in Shanghai
After the big Yunnan trip, Connie and I decided to take it easy for today. Our first stop was a ticket office so we could buy some train tickets for tomorrow's trip. Of course, we could have just bought them at the station tomorrow, but the way things work here, that probably would have meant a long wait in line and a later train.
Anyway, after that we made out way out to the Xiantandi area (which I wrote about back on Day 4), walked around for a bit, and ended up at Honeymoon Dessert. It's a chain my tour book recommended. And, as the name suggests, it focuses on desserts. Some are fairly ordinary, others are definitely things you wouldn't see in the US. Connie and I split what was more or less a mango blintz or crepe. I got a dessert that was almost normal (fruit and an iced vanilla sauce) except for all the basil seeds, which seem to be a fairly common dessert ingredient. Connie's was a bit more unusual (at least by US standards), mango soup with white fungus. Odd combination, but not bad. The weirdest thing on the menu by far though (which we didn't get) was a coconut soup with frog eggs. Supposedly they're good for beauty or something...
After that, we walked around a bit more and got a little more to eat, but we still had the better part of the afternoon to kill. Since it was rather hot and humid, Connie didn't want to spend much time outdoors if we didn't have to, so we decided to check out the nearby movie theaters. Nothing was playing in English, but I figured that, despite my complete lack of Chinese, I might be able to enjoy an action or kids' movie. Turned out, there was a kids action movie starting soon. Called The Monkey King, it was a CG movie loosely based off the popular Journey to the West (you may remember I posted a picture of a a guy dressed up like him the other day). While Connie did explain a couple things to me, it was pretty easy to follow. It was actually rather entertaining too. Honestly, they could probably dub it in English and release it in the US. Most US kids won't know who the monkey king is, but there are a lot of popular kids movies these days based on original IP, so I don't see that being a problem. One thing about the movie that did stand out was the theater. The one we saw it in was what they call 4D, which I've seen at amusement parks but never for a full length movie. Anyway, it means that the seats vibrate, poke, and blast air at you at appropriate times to match what's going on in the film. They even sprayed snow (well, more like some sorta snow like bubble stuff) over the theater at one point. A little corny, but kind of amusing too.
We meant to eat at Nanjing Da Pai Dang that night, but there was a really long wait so we ended up getting dim sum at the nearby Starz Kitchen, a popular Hong Kong style restaurant, which was pretty good.

Random China Comment: Hotel Quality
I've mentioned before that, with the rare exception, I could nitpick a bit about all the hotels that I've stayed at in China. Much more than most US hotels. Ignoring the hard beds (that's just a traditional China thing), most of them just aren't quite up to US (or Japanese) standards in regardless to cleanliness or repair. Of course, part of that might be because I usually stay in fairly cheap hotels here, and it's never been so bad that it's dissuaded me from staying in said hotel, but it is noticeable. However, I'm beginning to think that the main issue is with the maid service. Most of the issues I've had with various hotels rooms could easily be pinned on the maids not going a good job.
I've been here a few times when the maids have cleaned my hotel room in Shanghai. And, at least in this hotel, they seem to the do the absolute bare minimum (often nothing more than fresh towels and toilet paper). That does leave the question of whether the maids are lazy, or the hotel just doesn't set very strict cleaning standards. Either way, it seems to be a rather common issue in China. Still, there have been some hotels I've stayed in that I have no complaints about (I think the hotel in Hangzhou was the best in that regard). And, of course, fancier more expensive hotels generally have better quality. Still, it's something that I think Chinese hotels in general should work to improve.

Day 24 (Tue July 14th): Tongli
One thing I wanted to do last year but didn't have the time for was to visit one of the water villages near Suzhou. So named because they'll small old villages built around a network of canals (a bit like Venice). There's three of them, with the most famous being (according to all the tour books) extremely touristy and full of souvenir shops (probably kind of like Lijiang). Instead, my book recommended Tongli as the best one to visit, so that's where we went. While there are a handful of direct busses from Shanghai, the easiest way to get there is to catch one of the frequent busses from Suzhou station, which takes around 45 - 60 minutes (as a note, they're at the long distance bus station, and finding the right ticket counter takes a little work). Add in a 30 minute train ride to Suzhou, and it seems like a pretty short trip. Add in the time from our hotel to the train station, all the waiting you have to do before trains here, and the waiting time for the bus, and it took us more like 3 1/2 hours total. Anyway, despite arriving a bit later than I would have liked, we eventually made it to Tongli. Or the bus stop, at least. Where where we opted to pay 5 RMB (about 80 cents) for a shuttle to the town entrance, skipping a 20 minute or so walk past a bunch of shops and restaurants. As a note, you need to get a ticket to enter Tongli itself (you can get them at the tourist center when you arrive, or as a combo with your bus ticket from Suzhou). Conveniently though, said ticket gives you free admission to most of the town's attractions.
Anyway, after crossing a bridge into Tongli proper, we immediately went looking for lunch (as I said, the trip took longer than I thought it would). Connie had done some research on restaurants and quickly led to us a little place nearby where we got a local vegetable, white fish with eggs, and another variation on that sweet rice wine soup we've had a couple times before (this time, with tons of little mochi balls). Simple, but good. After that, we set off to explore the town. While Tongli is a bit touristy in spots, the majority of it is clearly still residential, with people living ordinary lives in very old houses. As such, it's also much quieter than Lijiang and weaving through the streets and alleys was rather peaceful. Aside from the electricity and occasional motor bike, it really felt like stepping back in time, and the canals make for a lot of pretty scenery.
Most of the points of interest in Tongli, other than the town itself, are fancy old houses which once belonging to the town's wealthier inhabitants. The first one we found was Gengle Manor (or mansion, depending which translation you're looking at). Like most traditional Chinese mansions, it was comprised of several buildings with enclosed courtyards and a garden. With plenty of neat walls, doorways, and alcoves scattered about. The first couple of buildings also featured a display of tree root carvings (a traditional Chinese art form), many of which were extremely impressive in both size and skill.
Our next stop was the Pearl Tower. It's another mansion and garden complex, much larger than Gengle. It even had a stage for opera or other performances. The one thing it didn't have was a tower. Apparently there never was one either, just a little model of a tower (which isn't even there now, though there is a somewhat larger model you can look at in its place). Not quite sure what the deal is with that, but it was still a nice place to walk around. I thought the set of game themed window lattices in the garden were rather neat, and there were some signs with amusing English (naturally, those are two different locations it's pointing to, but they're not clearly separated on the sign) as well.
Backtracking a bit, we then followed one of the main canals for a ways, passing some commorants (birds used for fishing) and a place selling milk tea strained through stockings instead of whatever it's normally strained through (it was good milk tea, though I'm not sure exactly what difference the stocking makes). Anyway, our next stop was Jiayin Manor, which was a lot smaller than the last two but featured some rather tall buildings and some neatly shaped windows.
After a bit more exploring, we ended up at Tuisi Garden. I wouldn't say it's quite on the same level as the Suzhou gardens, but it's still pretty and way quieter than they are. There were a few kids there practicing their painting, which was kind of fun to watch.
Connie and I had decided not to stay too late in the day, due to the amount of time it would take to get back to our hotel, and the fact that we didn't have a return train ticket reserved, but we still had a bit of time left so we decided to take a ride on one of the gondolas (or whatever they're called). While the pilot (is that the right word?) didn't really say much of anything (it's apparently a ride, not a tour), it was nice to ride around one of the major canals, and offered a different view of the town.
In the end, we spent around 4 hours in Tongli, which was enough time to walk through the majority of the town and see most of the major attractions (though there was one other big one and several smaller ones we didn't get to) at a fairly relaxed pace. Another couple of hours probably would have been enough to see at least most of the remaining stuff. Though there were some hotels scattered about and Tongli seems like it would be a relaxing place to spend an entire day or two. Either way, I'd say it's definitely worth a visit and Connie and I both enjoyed it, even coming so soon after our stay in Lijiang.


7/13/2015 A weekend in Lijiang

Well, Connie and I are back in Shanghai and we're nearing the end of my China trip, and my summer travels for this year as a whole. I'll be flying back to the US on Thursday and plan to remain at home for the last few weeks of summer vacation. Though there may be a few Hawaii travelogue entries popping up in that time. Unfortunately, I won't be spending any time in Japan this year. Wish I could, but money is a bit tighter for me right now (due to my move and a couple other reasons) so I didn't want to spend too much on traveling. If it hadn't have been for Connie, I might have actually stayed in the US all summer. Anyway, this has been a fun trip and its not quite over yet, so let's get to the travelogue.

Day 20 (Fri July 10th): Lijiang Soncheng
The original plan for today was to take a train to the town of Dali (another one of Yunnan's more famous tourist destinations) and spend the day there. It's a reasonable 2 hour or so ride from Lijiang, despite the area's total lack of high speed trains (a G train would probably reduce it to half an hour). But yesterday, when talking with the guy at our hotel about train tickets, he insisted that, after spending time in Lijiang, Dali's old town would be a bit of a disappointment. So we decided to sleep late and spend the day doing more stuff in Lijiang instead. We had a few options but, since we got off to a rather late start, we decided not to get too ambitious and just go see a show. There's two big shows in Lijiang. Lijiang Impressions is supposed to be really good, but it's a bit expensive and the show times are pretty early in the day. There's also a Lijiang Songcheng. You might remember Hangzhou Songcheng back from Day 10 of this travelogue, the old time theme park and show Connie and I went to in Hangzhou. Well Lijiang has one too, so we decided to spend the afternoon there. We ended up with tickets for the 6:00 show (the 4:30 was sold out) and got there right around when the park opened at 2 PM (which seemed rather late, but it made sense later). Everyone seemed a little puzzled why we wanted to arrive so early, but the guy at our hotel was nice enough to drive us there for free to save us the taxi fare.
Lijiang Songcheng actually has two sections. The first is a little amusement park with some (mostly kiddy) rides. Since we bought our tickets through our hotel, we actually got a ticket for three free rides (they're not included with regular admission), though we only used one of them before heading over in the actual Songcheng park. Like the Hangzhou one, it's themed after ancient China, though this time with a focus on some of the minority ethnic groups that live near Lijiang such as the Dai, Mosou, and Naxi. We spotted an old timey shopping street and a little beach with some really weird chairs, before going to see a street show. For the next hour and a half or so, we were pretty much whisked along from show to show. First there was a Naxi weapons show (swords, staves, chain flails, etc.), immediately followed by a spear dance and a fire dancing and breathing show. The fire part was especially good. Then, over at the, er, brothel (yes, that's a guy), there was a show that combined some comedy, dancing, and singing. Next up, a Dai cultic show of sorts with a witch doctor (who I immediately thought of as Dai Darth Vader) leading some chants and dancing, followed by more fire dancing and some knife climbing. Not sure if those were real knives or not, but I looked it up and apparently knife climbing is a real thing that's done at Dai festivals. That was immediately followed by a Mosuo show which, while probably not all that accurate, played heavily on their reputation. And finally a version of the ball throwing show we saw in Hangzhou.
After that, things slowed down as the 4:30 main show got ready to start, so Connie and I set out to explore the park. Turns out, there's a reason most people don't get there until an hour or two before their main show starts. Not only is the park smaller than the one in Hangzhou, but the majority of the buildings, and even an entire village, appear to be completely unused at present. So, when there aren't any shows happening, there really isn't very much to do. If they filled up the buildings with shops, restaurants, displays, and other attractions like at Hangzhou Songcheng (where you can spend at least the better part of a day), that would be one thing. As is though, it's really only worth going for 2 - 3 hours (one for the main show and another hour or two to check out the other shows around the park). Makes me wonder why they built so many unused buildings though. Hopefully they have plans to expand and fill them out in the future...
Anyway, eventually our show time came around. Like in Hangzhou, the show was an extremely elaborate and well choreographic series of performances based on the local history and culture. It started with a bit about early civilizations and some kind of flood, followed by a romantic section about the Mosuo. Switching gears, the section about the dangers facing ancient trading caravans was a lot more intense. Then it was off to Mufu for a celebration much like the Emperor's birthday party in the Hangzhou show. And, of course, every thing was historically accurate... Ok, maybe not. While it's possible that the Mu family did receive delegations from Persia (Lijiang was once an important trade hub), I really doubt they traveled there on a flying carpet. Next was a tale of tragic lovers. Apparently, due to some government policies after the Mu family lost control, lovers' suicides became rather common as many young men and women weren't able to marry whom they wished. And finally, the show ended with a section about Shangri-la. No, not the mythical city, but the real Shangri-la, which is a Tibetan minority town a few hours away from Lijiang. Though, apparently, the local government actually changed the town's name to Shangri-la back in 2011 to attract more tourism... Regardless, it was a nice finale.
We managed to squeeze on a shuttle bus back to Lijiang and got back just in time to get dinner before sunset. We decided to try a Tibetan restaurant near our hotel, which turned out to be quite good. The stir-fried Yak and vegetables and Tibetan pancake with yogurt were the standouts.

Random China Comment: American Fast Food
Unsurprisingly, some American fast foods chains have made their way over to China. According to Connie, KFC is the most popular (and I have seen quite a lot of them). But there's also McDonald's, Burger King, and the rare Subway. Pizza Hut is here too, though it seems a lot fancier. It's kind of weird seeing a fancy Pizza Hut... Anyway, like in Japan, all of these chains have some menu tweaks to make them a bit more Chinese, which can range from interesting to plain weird. A few Japanese chains like Yoshinoya and Genki Sushi pop up once in a while as well, though they don't seem very common.
If you just want something to drink, Starbucks is still all over the place (though the Chinese coffee and tea places tend to be a lot cheaper) and mostly the same (with a couple more Asian drink and snack options, much like in Japan). The British chain Costa Coffee (a Starbucks clone that is apparently very popular internationally, despite not having any notable presence in the US or Japan) is quite common as well.

Day 21 (Sat July 11th): Blue Moon Valley
Today, I wanted to get out and do some hiking. The two main spots for that near Lijiang are Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. But the gorge requires two days (or one very long day if you're fast) to hike the entire thing (though there is a short hike you can do instead) and is a bit further away. Connie was rather adamant about not wanting to go to the summit of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, but was up for visiting one of the other parts of the park. We eventually decided to start at Blue Moon Valley and then go to the Yak Meadow (where they really do raise Yak) afterwards if there was time (unfortunately, there wasn't as we go off to a late start).
Getting to the mountain was a little tricky. There are shuttle busses, but only if you get a ticket for the summit or the Lijiang Impressions show (the main reason the show is a bit expensive is that you have to pay the park entry fee on top on the ticket price). If you want to go to the other parts of the mountain, other than hiring or renting a car, you need to go to the Mao monument a short walk north of old town, cross the street, and take one of the number 7 mini-buses waiting there. Thing is, there are a lot of number 7 mini-busses competing for customers and they don't leave until they're full so, depending on how good your buss's "recruiter" is and how many people want a ride to the mountain at the time, you might end up waiting for a while like Connie and I did. However, the driver's don't care so much about the number of people as long as they make at least 100 RMB / Yuan per trip. The normal fee is 20 RMB per person with five people per bus. However, if you're willing to pay extra to make up the difference they'll be happy to go without a full load. Connie and I eventually did that, and the driver was nice enough to take us all the way to Blue Moon Valley, rather than dropping us off at the parking lot (where we would have had to pay a little more for a shuttle bus).
Blue Moon Valley is one of the lower spots in the park, though high enough for a somewhat cooler temperature and cleaner air, and consists of a number of pools along with spectacular views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. While the mountain stream that feeds them is real (you can see some waterfalls up on the mountain if you look closely), the pools themselves are man made. Though the designers did a beautiful job with the pools and the waterfalls leading into each one. Connie at I started at the second pool from the top and followed a nice path down and around the lower pools before looping back up to where we started. Apparently, the valley is an extremely popular spot for wedding photographs and we passed a number of couples in all sorts of different wedding suits and gowns. Continuing on, we reached the uppermost pool and probably the most famous photography spot in the valley. Oh, if you're curious, the water color is due to the minerals in the limestone, not pollution. The stream itself is extremely clear. At one point, we found a Chinese couple fishing stones out of the stream for some reason as the guy loudly complained about the freezing cold water. Not sure what they were doing, but it was kid of funny to watch. From there, we followed a quiet little path along the stream for a bit. We could have gone further than we did, but it started to rain a little so we turned back. In the end, the rain was only a brief sprinkle and, after enjoying the scenery for a while longer, we caught a shuttle bus to the main parking lot followed by another number 7 mini-bus (same rules apply as before) back to Lijiang.
That evening, we went over by the water wheels to check out that bonfire. In the end, while there were some groups of dancers around, there still wasn't a bonfire. Maybe because there was a special event performance going on that day? It was fun to people watch though. We even spotted the Monkey King (aka. Son Goku from the Journey to the West legend (Saiyuki in Japanese). This particular version of the Monkey King is from a popular old Chinese TV show based on the legend. The guy did a really good job with both the costume and the movements...
As the sun began to set, we headed back towards our hotel. A wrong turn along the way due to the crowded streets (Lijiang is a lot busier on weekends) took us into the eastern part of old town, which we hadn't visited before. Despite all the time we spent exploring, there really is still a good chunk of the town we never saw. Anyway, it was a lot quieter and less crowded over there. And it was nice to watching things begin to light up as it got darker. We walked around for a few more minutes after another Tibetan dinner (featuring yak fried rice) just to admire the city at night as a conclusion to our time in Lijiang.
While Lijiang is very touristy, the old town is still a really fun place to visit and there's some good hiking and other points of interesting nearby. I could certainly see myself returning in the future, probably with a more serious hiking focus.

Day 22 (Sun July 12th): Back to Shanghai
Not too much to write about today. The guys at our hotel were nice enough to give us and another group a free ride to the airport. And, while it wasn't first class, we had a perfectly good flight back to Shanghai where we checked into the same hotel as before. Apparently, a big typhoon passed through the city yesterday (we completely missed it), though you couldn't tell that by looking around. I didn't notice any signs of damage and the weather was hot, sunny (the sky was sort blue, probably thanks to the typhoon), and humid. No rain at all.
It was getting towards evening by the time we settled in, so there wasn't time for much other than dinner and a bit of relaxation. So yeah, nothing big to write about for today.

Random China Comment: Religion
When I was a kid, I remember hearing some stories about missionaries taking huge risks to smuggle Bibles into China. Well, those days are long over. Christianity has gotten fairly common in China and continues to grow. Meanwhile, traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, once more or less stamped out by the government, are in the midst of a resurgence. Though the decades of government crackdown still show, as religion (of any kind) is clearly a much less prominent force in China than, say, the US or Japan.
Also, while the Chinese government's stance towards religion has greatly improved, it still stops short of actual religious freedom. Religious groups have to be approved and monitored by the government and a number of religions, such as Judaism, have yet to be officially recognized. As such, while it's ok for foreigners and temporary residents (such as those on student or work visas) to hold services and other meetings for those religions, Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend.


7/10/2015 On to Lijiang

As a reminder, you can use the TWC button on the left to vote for Pebble Version and see the weekly bonus comic (new one every Friday).

Day 18 (Wed July 8th): Lijiang
Today, we left Kunming for another part of Yunnan, the town of Lijiang. On disadvantage of traveling around Yunnan is that the whole region seems to be rather lacking in high speed trains (D and G trains specifically, which are similar to the Japanese Shinkansen). So, if you want to travel between Yunnan's major towns and cities by land, you're left with the much slower K trains and busses. Which is why, instead of spending all day on a train or bus (7 - 10 hours), Connie and I headed back to the airport for a one hour fight. When I booked the flights, the site I used had some kind of special that let me upgrade our tickets on this particular flight to first class for something like $10 extra. Now, I'd love to fly first class on my long overseas trips, but the ridiculous prices have always stopped me. And if I can ride coach for 10 hours to get to China or Japan, I could certainly do it for an hour to Lijiang. But a chance to fly first class for cheap, even on such a short flight, was too good to pass up. And it was rather nice. We got to use separate (and much shorter) check-in and security lines at the airport and got to hang out in the VIP lounge (complete with free breakfast) prior to the flight. For some reason, our plane was really far from the gate, so everyone had to crowd into a shuttle bus to get to it... Except us, as we were personally escorted to our own private (and much more comfortable) bus, which also arrived before the regular one, allowing us to board quickly and easily. It was only a medium sized plane, so the seats weren't super fancy, but they were larger and offered more leg room, plus we got hot towels for our hands / faces. So yeah, first class is pretty cool. Too bad I'll probably never get it on a longer flight...
As with a lot of Chinese cities, the airport in Lijiang is on the far outskirts, so we got a taxi and headed to our hotel. Well, most of the way to our hotel. With a couple exceptions (more on that later) cars aren't allowed in Lijiang's old town, where our hotel is, so the driver got us as close as she could then called the hotel and a guy came to meet us and show us the rest of the way. Fortunately, our hotel is on the very edge of the old town, so it took only a couple minutes to walk. I feel sorry for the people who have to lug their suitcases around for 20 or 30 minutes to the hotels in the center of old town...
At around $64 a night, this is the most expensive hotel I've ever booked in China (gotta love Chinese hotel prices). Being in the old town, it's an old building that's been renovated into a hotel, complete with rather fancy themed rooms (a bit like the hotel I stayed at last year in Beijing). I could nitpick a little (like with most hotels I've stayed at in China), but it's a pretty nice hotel with very friendly and helpful (though not English speaking) staff.
After settling in, Connie and I headed out to explore old town. If you've read my other travelogues, you may remember my visits to various old towns in Japan. Well Lijiang is similar, in that it's a town with a long history (over 1,000 years in this case) that managed to survive to the modern era with many of its old buildings, roadways, and the like intact (though I doubt there's much left that goes back 1,000 years, probably more like a few hundred or so).
But before exploring came lunch. One of the first decent looking places we passed served black chicken hot pot, a popular dish in this area. We must have had at least half a chicken in ours, including a foot and the head (which we didn't eat). You could order various vegetables, noodles, and the like to add in, and there were some spices to dip your chicken in too. The oddest thing was a side of a tofu dish I've never seen before that tasted like a very strong cheese (interesting, but I wasn't a fan). It was a decent meal, though nothing too spectacular compared to all the other hot pots I've had.
Once we'd finished eating, it was time to start exploring in earnest. Since we were on the outskirts, the place was fairly quiet and empty at first. One thing we soon noticed is that old town makes use of a lot of canals. Originally, they were used for washing and drinking water. Now, they more just add to the ambiance. Though I'll say that many of them have some of the clearest non-tap or bottled water I've seen in China. After a little more walking, we got onto one of the main streets and started to see a lot more shops and other tourists (though the place doesn't seem to get really busy until mid-afternoon). The old streets and buildings are really cool and, as we continued to explore, I was especially impressed with the size. Lijiang's old town is much, much larger than any of the old towns I've visited in Japan. You could easily spend hours winding through the streets and not see everything. But I do mean winding, it's a bit of a maze. They do have maps (in Chinese, at least) at the tourist centers though. I relied more on Google Maps, but while it does show the location of many hotels, restaurants, and attractions, it doesn't show any streets, so the best it can do is point you in the right general direction. That's usually enough, though there was point later in the day and we spent around 20 minutes going in circles trying to find a road that would lead to a certain restaurant.
Lijiang has had a huge tourism boom over the past decade or so, which means that most of the buildings in old town now house a seemingly endless array of shops, restaurants, and inns. Lots of snacks too. Though, despite how many shops there are, most fall into only a handful of categories such as local instruments (drums, mostly), Naxi (the main local minority group) weaving, clothing (of a couple specific kinds), wooden trinkets, dried yak meat, milk, and yogurt (nice, but not hugely different than cow yogurt), and a few other things. Even the snacks tend to be the same from place to place (fried street foods, rose petal pastries (a local speciality), and popsicles (for some reason)). So it does get a bit repetitious at times. Though I will note that prices do vary (sometimes wildly) between shops. And it's nice to see actual craftsmen working in some of them. On a side note, despite the massive amount of tourism here, I've seen hardly any non-Asians other than myself (and I haven't even seen any Asians I can definitely say are non-Chinese).
Repetitive shopping options aside, the town itself continued to provide lots of visual variety. We stumbled across a group of Naxi dancers as well. Oh, another thing about the canals, they often don't have guard rails and, in many places, you cross them on thick boards rather than proper bridges, so be careful not to trip and fall in. With all the bars / night clubs positioned along one of the main canals, I have to wonder if that happens a lot...
To keep the atmosphere intact, cars are mostly banned in old town, though you will need to dodge the occasional bike and cart. The main exception to the car rule is the small garbage trucks which, oddly enough play loud music as they go, presumably to alert the local shop keepers of their arrival (a little like an old ice cream truck, but for garbage).
We eventually ended up at the north end of old town, marked by a large square with a pair of really big water wheels (which is apparently the place to go if you want KFC, McDonald's, or Pizza Hut as well). From there, we walked north along another canal and past some old style (though not actually old) buildings to Black Dragon Pool. The pool itself (supposedly protected by a black dragon) is surrounded by a nice park. On a side note, you need an Lijiang Old Town Maintenance Ticket to get in. Though you need one of those to get into just about every attraction in and around Lijiang, so the pool is as good a place as any to get one and they're good for seven days, so that's convenient. But back to the pool. There are a number of nice pavilions in and around it, the water is surprisingly clear, and it has more birds than anywhere else I've been in China (not that the place is swarming with birds, more like they're oddly missing in most parts of China). The main draw though, is the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the distance, which is said to be one of the prettiest views in China. While looking across the pool towards the the mountain is nice (and would doubtless be even nicer if seen on a cloudless day), I think "one of the nicest views in China" might be overselling it a bit.
After walking around the park surrounding the pool for a bit, Connie and I headed back into old town to find dinner. In the end, we settled into a random restaurant along the main canal. The view and décor were nice and the food was decent, though nothing especially great (the general consensus seems to be that it's hard to find really good restaurants in Lijiang, since they tend to cater to tourists rather than aim for repeat customers). The thing I liked the most was the Naxi style fish. Actually, while the fish was fairly good, I liked the vegetable, nuts, and sauce mix on top of it the best. One thing about the restaurants in old town though is that many of them turn more into bars or night clubs as they night wears on and, as such, most of them have singers (or maybe karaoke in some cases) with the volume cranked up to ridiculous levels.
After that, we sat around the central square for a bit waiting for a nightly bonfire that's supposed to take place but nothing seemed to be happening so we eventually gave up and headed back to the hotel. Upon further research, I learned that we were in the wrong square (it's in the one with the water wheels), so we'll try again a different night.

Day 19 (Thu July 9th): Mufu and Shuhe
Black Dragon Pool is one of the biggest attractions in (well, technically near) Lijiang's old town, the other is Mufu, which was where we headed this morning. It's nestled in the western part of old town and fairly easy to find if you follow the signs. Plus it's really hard to miss when you get close. You need one of those maintenance tickets I mentioned the other day to get in, along with another ticket that costs extra.
Anyway, Mufu means Mu's residence and it's the former home of the Mu family, the Naxi head family which ruled Lijiang for hundreds of years. The inside is a palace like complex, a little like a smaller and more colorful version of the Forbidden City. There was a throne room, of course, complete with a water dragon carving in the ceiling to ward off fires (personally, I think a large bucket might have been more useful...). But that was only the beginning. There were living quarters, a library, and a temple; a really pretty complex. The complex went partway up a nearby hill, offering a view of the old town's rooftops. My first thought was how easy it would be to run and jump across them, a sign that I've probably played too much Assassin's Creed...
On a side note, Lijiang is odd in that it lacks a wall (a key feature of ancient Chinese cities). One of the main theories as to why is that if you add a box around the Chinese character for Mu (as in the Mu family), you get the character for trapped, so the Mus thought a wall would be bad luck. I found that amusing, anyway.
We spent a couple hours wandering around inside Mufu then it was back into old town. After seeing (but mostly not trying, since we'd had big meals) all the local snacks yesterday, Connie and I wanted to go on a bit of a snacking spree for lunch. First up, rose petal pastries. The filling is made of rose petals while the outside is a flaky pasty dough, sometimes flavored with other things like sesame seeds or sweet potato. They were really good. The popsicles? Also good, though some flavors can be a bit strange (I tried a green bean the previous day, which was better than it sounds, but opted for a more normal one today).
On the way to our next snacking destination, we made a short stop for something else. If you spend any amount of time in old town, you'll see lots of girls and women with colorful strings braided into their hair. Women without said braids can expect to be approached by a steady stream of old women offering the service. I'd been urging Connie to give it a try and she finally relented, with good results.
Back to food, we went to one of those street food style counters. That was kinda breaking the general China rule of don't eat street food, but it looked clean enough. We got pregnant tofu (large cubes of soft tofu stuffed with mushrooms), large mushroom caps stir fried with vegetables, a weird looking vegetable (supposedly something local that no one but the sellers seem to know the name of), and some mochi type balls filled with a brown sugar mix. The food was pretty good (especially the tofu) and I did fine eating it. Connie, however, got a bit sick, despite us sharing all the food. Fortunately, after some recovery time, she was ok and ready to continue.
Making our way back to the water wheels, we walked a short distance into the very generic new town (the large town / small city bordering old town) and caught a bus heading towards Shuhe, another old town in the Lijiang area. Though I should note that the regular bus like we took drops you off nearly half a mile from the entrance to Shuhe. You need to either take a taxi or a tourist bus if you want to avoid the extra walk.
Shuhe is a lot smaller than Lijiang Old Town and didn't start becoming commercialized until more recently. As such, it's possible to wander off the main tourist drag enough to see some more "authentic" residential areas if you want. That aside, the streets are wider than Lijiang, there's fewer people around, and the whole place seems quieter with a slower pace. So it would presumably be a better place to stay if you just want to relax and take things easy. And, as you saw from that previous picture, there's a bunch of horses or mules around that you can pay to ride. There's a canal too, which is pretty and is put to some practical uses as well... Other than that, the shops are mostly the same as what you'd find in Lijiang, though there seem to be more foreign restaurants (as opposed to Lijiang's focus on Naxi and Sichuan food). There's also a big Tibetan cultural center. There's a free little museum inside, though at one point Connie and I got pulled away and whisked into a lecture on Tibetan medicine complete with a doctor who determines your health by a quick glance as your palms and tries to get you to buy various medicines. Over all, Shuhe is a pleasant place to visit, especially if you want a bit more quiet without losing the old city vibe. But it wasn't as different from Lijiang old town as I'd expected. Oh, as a note, Google Maps does show roads for Shuhe, making navigation simpler.
It started to rain rather hard on our way out of Shuhe but fortunately we managed to get a taxi soon after leaving the town, even if the driver would only take us to the square with the water wheels, rather than the area near our hotel (looks like Lijiang taxi drivers aren't any better than the Kunming ones). After walking the rest of the way and drying off, we ate at a little restaurant near our hotel that Connie had spotted the other day, which apparently gets lots of good reviews on the Chinese equivalent of Yelp. It was pretty good. That dish, by the way, is called Japanese tofu. I liked it quite a bit but I can say with confidence that there's really nothing Japanese about it.
One other thing worth mentioning about the day is that we switched hotel rooms. There wasn't anything wrong with our first one, but it was actually a three person room and family had booked at the last minute and was looking for a room like that so the hotel asked if we'd be willing to switch to a different room (at the same price, of course). We took a look at the one they offered and decided to go ahead and do it. The new room seems like an upgrade in most ways, with a living room, massage chair, and even a huge kind of Japanese style bath. So yeah, no complaints there.

Random China Comment: Bitter Tea
Normally when brewing tea, you want to avoiding leaving the tea leaves or bag to steep in the water too long to prevent the tea from getting bitter. And in Japan, when it comes to matcha (green tea powder), the better (and more expensive) the tea, the milder and less bitter the flavor. China, on the other hand, takes an opposite approach. Tea leaves tend to be left in the water the entire time, even while the tea is being drank. It's fairly common to see a Chinese person carrying around a travel mug filled with tea, leaves included. According to Connie, the bitterness is actually seen as a good thing. Definitely not what I'm used too...


7/8/2015 More fun in Kunming

Let's get right to the travelogue.

Day 16 (Mon July 6th): Yunnan Ethnic Villages
When I first planned the basics of the Yunnan trip (hotels, flights, etc.) I was going purely by my tour book, which said that there really wasn't much to do in Kunming. Which is why I gave us only 2 1/2 days there and wasn't entirely sure if we'd be able to fill it. Turns out, my tour book sold Kunming a bit short. While it's true that there aren't that many attractions in the city itself (we hit the main spots yesterday), aside from all the cool restaurants, there are a lot of neat places right nearby, which I discovered when doing some additional research online. In the end, I had about four different possible destinations for today. I let Connie decide, and she chose the Yunnan Ethnic Villages (also known as Minorities Villages and Nationalities Villages).
YEV is a theme park on the shore of the nearby Dianchi Lake and West Mountain (also major attractions), a cheap 30 minute Taxi ride from downtown Kunming. It's got a bit in common with Epcot, but struck me more as a bigger version of the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. It's a large area, with 26 themed villages, each dedicated to a different one of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. Going through the entire list and writing about all of them would take way too long, so I'll more try to summarize the general experience, while going into more detail about a few here and there.
After entering, Connie and I first came to the Dai Village, which was neat since it brought to mind the Dai restaurant from yesterday. It more or less gave us an idea of what to expect from the other villages. While each village varies in size, they all contain at least a few buildings done in that group's traditional style, a store selling traditional handicrafts, and a costume shop if you want to dress up and get your picture taken in that group's traditional garb. Many also contained a place where you could get snacks. Some were really generic (hot dogs and popcorn) but others were ethnic specialties such as this buckwheat pancake in the Lisu Village. A few, such as the Dai Village, even included a full restaurant. Most villages also had at least one traditional style house you could enter to get a feel for how that people of that minority group live (or lived, I suppose, some of them have probably modernized a bit), like this one from the Nu Village. Temples and the occasional craftsman's shop were scattered about as well. Each village also had at least one sign (sometimes several) talking about each group, how large they are, where they live, their religious beliefs, etc. With an odd handful of exceptions, all the signs had Chinese and English. Throughout the park, there were also several stages where various groups would put on shows of traditional song, dance, etc. The first one we saw featured a mix from the Pumi, Nu, and Lisu, whose villages were all close together.
We made it through the first 9 villages then took a detour to a sort of Thailand area for the one non-minority related attraction. An elephant show! I hadn't seen one of those since I went to the circus as a little kid. The elephants were well trained and it was a lot of fun to watch. As an interesting twist, instead of the trainers rewarding the elephants after a successful trick, the audience could buy bananas and coconuts to feed the elephants between acts. Yes, elephants can eat coconuts. Most just smashed them and ate the pieces, like in that photo, but I saw one elephant actually just put a whole coconut in its mouth and chew on it for a while. And no, there were no peanuts.
After getting some snacks, including purple rice cooked in bamboo and onion bread, we were back to exploring... Or not. Connie's cellphone apparently disappeared at some point during the morning so we spent some time backtracking and trying to call it, all without luck. While we're not sure how, it seems most likely that it got pickpocketed at some point. On the bright side, she didn't really like that phone so she wasn't too upset about it.
After giving up on the phone, we headed to the next batch of villages, including Tibet, where Connie decided we should do the whole dress up thing. Is it just me, or do I look like a Dragon Warrior character? At only around $1.60 per person, it was way cheaper than I expected, though you'll either have to pay them more to take your photo or flag down a passerby to help out.
One thing that really impressed me was how different all the minority groups were. Only three of them bore much resemblance to the regular Han Chinese (China's dominant people group) and all the groups varied wildly from each other as well in terms of dress and architecture. The Lisu from earlier reminded me a bit of early American or Canadian settlers, the Jinpo had a sort of Polynesian vibe, the Yi (more on them later) seemed almost Spanish, and the Wa Village (the pictures of which are not appropriate for a PG web site) brought to mind the creepiest and most violent jungle tribes.
What else... The De'ang had this really interesting "smashing pit" where you could smash glass bottles as a way to relax. The Hani had a neat carved wall, and the Yi (who had one of the largest areas) had this set of Chinese Zodiac statues, a tea garden, and swings. We also caught another show in the Yi area. See, doesn't that seem almost Spanish? On a side note, I think the Yi women have really cool hats. Anyway, that show also included a guy playing a number of different traditional flutes, including one that doubled as a pipe so you could smoke and play at the same time.
Continuing on, the Mosuo were one of several groups to build their family houses around a large courtyard. They're also rather famous for being a matriarchal society and for their unusual "marriage" practices. But you can look up more on them yourself if you're curious. The Naxi and Bai were some of the most similar to the regular Han Chinese, though the Bai seemed to make everything they built white. While in the Bai area, we tried an odd snack that's popular in Kunming, which is essentially milk that's somehow baked or fried into a light snack (sort of a puffy cracker). While I'm glad I tried it, I can't say that I particularly care for the taste of dry and slightly curdled milk. On the other hand, the goat milk tea in the Mongolian Village was pretty good. As we neared the end, the Lahu Village brought back that African / Polynesian vibe, while the Yao have a life that revolves around Taoism, and the Hui were clearly China's Muslim group. And, just before leaving, we tried out a traditional way of transportation one of the groups (can't remember which) uses to traverse mountain gorges. At least that's what the sign said. Seemed like a regular zipline to me. I had to talk Connie into it, but she had fun.
Originally, we had been planning to see some of the other things around Dianchi lake after finishing at the Ethnic Villages but, even without seeing every single show and skipping the occasional display, we ended up spending most of the day there. But we had a fun and interesting day and that's what matters. As for Dianchi, we did walk over there and take a brief look after leaving the park. It's a pretty lake, but the water is a rather disturbing shade of green...
It took us a little while to find a taxi. Not because there weren't many around, but because Kunming taxi drivers seem to have a strong tendency to turn you down if they're not sure of the address or just don't feel like driving to the area you want to go. Something we ran into a few times... Well, we eventually made it to Tusheng Shiguan, a somewhat hard to find restaurant that seems to be in all the tour books but not very well known by locals. It serves Chinese food, but the big draw is that everything is organic (a real rarity in China). The food was pretty good (though not amazing), but the service could have been better. Shortly after arriving we got displaced from our table due to the arrival of a large group. I personally didn't mind that too much, but it was annoying that they got waited on and served first.

Random China Comment: Impressions of Kunming
Kunming is a Chinese city. And, as such, it's got lots of traffic, super tall apartment buildings, some fancy stores, some not so fancy stores, and some rather dirty and rundown areas as well. There's a couple nice attractions in the city itself (such as Green Lake and Yuantong Temple), but mostly it's a rather generic city with an especially interesting collection of restaurants. You do have some mountain views though, which is nice. And, while there's still a layer of smog, it's much thinner than the other parts of China I've been to. To the point where blue skies are pretty common. Less humidity and lower temperatures than the Shanghai and Beijing areas too. I actually got slightly sunburned at the Ethnic Villages, proving that I really didn't spend enough time outdoors those last few weeks in Hawaii...

Day 17 (Tue July 7th): The Stone Forest
The Stone Forest is a place I've been wanting to see for years and the main reason I made Kunming one of our base cities. It's a ways outside of Kunming in the homeland of the Yi minority group (the ones with the cool hats). My tour book recommended hiring a driver to take you there (at the cost of around $80), saying the buses take several hours because they stopped at zillions of souvenir shops on the way. Not sure what bus that writer took, but the Kunming East Bus station (a cheap 30 minute taxi ride from the city center) has frequent direct busses to the Stone Forest for about $4 (look for the specially marked ticket area), which seem to take between 75 and 120 minutes depending on traffic. There's actually some fairly nice scenery on the ride as well, lots of hills and farms mostly.
When Connie and I got off the bus, there was a bit of initial confusion over where to go to buy tickets for the Stone Forest itself. A couple of signs would have worked wonders... Anyway, the ticket office is obvious enough when you get close, but it's a several minute walk from the bus stop. Tickets are on the expensive side for China (around $30) and, if you want to ride one of the trams from the ticket office to the entrance of the forest and back when you're done (a little under two miles each way), that's another $4 and has to be bought at a separate window. There's a geology museum by the entrance as well...but that costs extra too, so we skipped it.
The Stone Forest is made up of Karst stones, a type of rock filling the area that eroded in an unusual way, leaving sharp spires scattered everywhere. Many have been named after their resemblance to various animals, like this one which is an injured bird perched atop a rock. There were a lot of tourists and Yi woman selling trinkets and offering a chance to dress up for photo shoots in some of the more popular spots like that injured bird stone and the main entrance to the Major Stone Forest (one of several areas making up the Stone Forest park), where the characters for Stone Forest are carved in the stone. But as Connie and I started hiking into the Major Stone Forest, we soon left the crowds behind and quite often found ourselves alone. A short ways in, I climbed up to the Viewing Pavilion to get an overview of the area. Got to say, the scenery is breathtaking and very unique. And this coming from someone who has been to all the major rock heavy parks in the Western US.
The paths were all well made (no dirt or mud) but exploring the depths of the Major Stone Forest isn't a simple stroll. There's lots of ups and downs and some very narrow passes. It's almost like a cave in some spots. I should also point out that the entire thing is a big maze (on that note, they should totally run a maze game there). There's tons of twisty little paths leading off in all sorts of directions. They don't give out, or sell, maps. There are map signs scattered throughout, but they're lacking in detail and only show a handful of the paths. Most of the points of interest that Connie and I found (like this elephant stone) were due to luck. Trying to follow the maps rarely got us where we wanted to go. Personally, I loved it. But if you're not in good physical condition or don't like getting lost, you may want to stick to the couple of flat paths that don't go too deeply into the forest.
We wondered around for something like an hour or hour and a half before ending up back at our starting point and breaking for lunch. Despite the lack of direction, we almost never ended up in the same area twice. The Major Stone Forest is impressively large. After lunch, we backtracked a bit towards the entrance of the park and tried a different and somewhat greener path. We thought we were in a different area entirely but after wondering around for a while we discovered that we were still in the Major Stone Forest, just a different part of it.
Finally leaving the Major Stone Forest behind, we came across some Yi performances and a pond that we'd been looking for a while back but never found thanks to the confusing maps. We then came to the Minor Stone Forest. The stones there are spaced much further apart than in the Major Forest, and there's a lot more grass and a nice little pond in the middle. It's also very heavily trafficed and much smaller. There's little risk of getting lost, with only one real main path, which dead ends in a food court type area.
There's a few other distinct areas in the Stone Forest Park but most of them are much further out, requiring a lot of walking or a ride on a tram. Connie and I never quite figured out if riding one of the internal trams would use up our return tram ticket or not, so we didn't. Though if I ever get the chance to come back here, I'd like to figure that out and visit the other sections. I wasn't ready to leave quite yet though, so we hiked up the nearby Bushao Mountain for a nice view of the area before heading out.
All in all, we spent 4 1/2 - 5 hours in the park. And, if I could figure the trams out, I could easily have spent at least a couple more visiting the other sections. On the other hand, if you hate hiking and just want to snap some easy photos, I guess you could finish in 30 minutes. Just keep in mind that the travel time between the Stone Forest and Kunming adds a lot of time to your day.
Back in Kunming, we had a bit of trouble finding a taxi driver who would take us to our hotel, but we got there eventually. We decided to go back to the Dai restaurant for dinner. It was packed but the wait wasn't too long. Unfortunately, just before we got seated, their gas got shut off for some reason so they had to stop serving the majority of the menu until it was fixed. So we went looking for their other branch that's supposed to be nearby but failed to find it. In the end, we gave up and hopped a taxi to Makye Ame, a Tibetan restaurant, for a now very late meal. Makye Ame was a lot of fun though. It's a very elaborately decorated place and has a constant stream of Tibetan singers and dancers. The food was good too. I got to try grilled yak meat (kinda like buffalo, or a slightly tough cow), a very interesting fish, and a couple of really awesome mushroom dishes. I also got a cup of sweet yak milk (salty was an option too, but I steered clear of that). It was actually pretty good. A lot like a sweet buttermilk.
Oh, going back to the Stone Forest for a moment, there was one other notable thing that happened today...


7/6/2015 Behind again

Looks like the travelogue is going to be running a day behind again. I was hoping to avoid that but got back to the hotel kind of late tonight and realized that there was no way I could both organize today's photos and get the write-up done without staying up super late, which I'd rather avoid. But here's Saturday and Sunday's entries.

Day 14 (Sat July 4th): Getting ready...
I was originally planning to go to the Shanghai Botanical Garden, but it was drizzling for most of the day and Connie was feeling a little off so we decided to wait and do it another day. In the end, we hung around the hotel for a while, I did some reading, packed for the trip to Yunnan tomorrow, and the like. Since there isn't much to write about, here's some RCC's instead.

Random China Comment: Sticking Out
Much like in Japan, in China if you're not Asian, you tend to stick out, with the only real exception being at major tourist attractions (like the Forbidden City and Great Wall). So don't be surprised if you attract some attention from the locals. I've had a handful of people say hi to me in passing or chat a little bit (though not as many as in Japan), and in certain areas lots of people have come up to offer me fake brand name goods or try and invite me to an overpriced tea house. I should also note that foreigners tend to attract some stares (the Japanese are usually polite enough to at least pretend they're not looking, the Chinese are more obvious about it). So, if you're really shy, it might take some getting used to.

Random China Comment: Moving in China
In the US, it's pretty common to move to a different town/city or even a different state to find a suitable job. I'm a good example of that, going from my home in Colorado to jobs in Florida and then Hawaii. While that can still happen in China, it's apparently a lot less common. According to Connie, while there's nothing stopping people from going and living in another city, at least temporarily, getting an ID card for your new area (which is used much like a driver's license here and, as such, a local one is required for some things) can be rather difficult. In the US, changing your driver's license to a new state is mostly a matter of gathering together some proof of ID and residence papers and then standing in line for a while at the DMV. I'm not sure what the process is here but apparently it can be difficult or even impossible to do on your own. Some companies are willing to help employees from other areas get their ID cards changed, while others prefer to just hire locally in the first place to avoid the hassle. Just another way in which things here differ from back in the states.

Day 15 (Sun July 5th): Kunming, A New City in a New Province
When planning out this China trip, I decidedly that, if possible, I didn't really want to spend the entire time in the Shanghai area. Connie and I talked it over a bit and decided to spend one week in the Yunnan province, a part of China that neither of us had visited before, and that week starts today. Yunnan, for the record, is in the south west part of China, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and is home to a large number of minority ethnic groups. It's a really mountainous area and known as one of the more clean and natural parts of the country. It also has a number of popular tourist destinations. While most of the rest of this China trip was kept fairly loose schedule-wise, I planned the Yunnan visit more like my normal trips (in Japan, or last year's Beijing portion of my China trip), though Connie helped out with some of the elements. We'll be based in two different cities over the course of the week, the first being the provincial capital of Kunming.
I had booked a pretty early flight from Shanghai (we could have taken a train, but it would have meant a solid day or more of traveling), my rational being that we'd get in early enough for half a day of touring. That was all well and good, but I forgot to take into account what time of day the subways start running, so we had to take a cab. Way more expensive than the subway, but still very reasonable by US standards. The flight itself was on China Eastern and took about 3 hours. We actually had a really big nice plane with a center row and TVs in every seat, which I really didn't expect. Free breakfast and free checked suitcases too. I guess Chinese airlines haven't cut nearly as many corners as the US ones have... Really, the only knock against the flight was a 25 minute delay but, for China, that's not too bad.
When we landed in Kunming it was cold and foggy with a strong breeze and rain. Fortunately, by the time we got to our hotel, the rain had stopped, the fog had lifted, and things has warmed up a little. I splurged a bit (by China standards) on hotels for this Yunnan trip, getting a really nice room with a queen bed, good internet (yay!), and all bamboo decor for about $50 a night. After settling in, we headed out for a slightly late lunch. Since we were both pretty hungry, we ended up heading for the nearby restaurant I'd originally had marked for dinner. Due to all the minority groups living in Yunnan, there's many types of restaurants here that you'd have a very hard time finding elsewhere in the world (even in other parts of China). The one we ate at was called Yingjiang Daiweiyuanv (a recommendation from my tour book; no idea how that's pronounced), which features Dai cuisine. Honestly, it was one of the most unique places I've eaten in years. Connie and I had a pretty hard time choosing what to order, because they had a giant menu and just about everything in it looked so different from anything we'd had before that it was near impossible to guess what it would taste like. While it had all the typical meats and veggies you'd expect, the preparation ranged from a bit different to extremely unique. In the end, with a little help from the waitress, we managed to settle on a few dishes. From left to right, there's spinach and spices (I could pick out garlic, cilantro, and chilies) cooked in some kind of leaf, shredded dried beef (kind of like a soft jerky), and a spiced grilled fish. There was also chicken soup in bamboo. The spinach and fish were especially awesome, and both were spiced in rather unique ways. Both were also a bit on the hot side. Fortunately, the beef and chicken soup (which used black skinned chicken) had no chilies at all, so they were good for cooling down. And honestly, there were much more adventurous items on the menu like the mushroom and ginseng or the various kinds of bugs (not my thing, but still). It was really different, very good, and a lot of fun and I would love to eat there again sometime.
After lunch, we walked around the northern edge of the nearby Green Lake Park. Green Lake is aptly named, as it's covered in lotus plants this time of year, many of which were in bloom. There were even some white lotus flowers, which I don't recall ever seeing before. We also happened upon a large group doing some kind of ethnic dance (Connie thinks it was Tibetan, but neither of us was totally sure). The rain started again at some point, but as an extremely light drizzle, to the point where I didn't even bother with my umbrella.
We skirted the edge of the park for a bit before turning to the side, snacking on red bean filled buckwheat cakes, and walking uphill a bit to Yuantong Temple, which is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan, dating back around 1,200 years (though it was renovated and expanded a few times throughout its history). Upon first entering, the only especially notable looking things about it were the fancy gate and the really low ticket price (a bit under $1 per person). Though Connie and I both agreed that the architectural style was a bit different than the norm. After walking past the first hall though, it became a whole lot more impressive. The use of water was especially striking and like nothing I've even seen before at a Buddhist Temple, giving it a bit of a garden feel. The temple buildings surrounded the entire pool and extended back up the mountain behind it (though we weren't able to go up to the higher ones). And, while I couldn't photograph it, the main hall had two large (20+ feet tall) dragon statues, one on each side of the Buddha, another very cool and unique element. There was an interesting looking bronze Buddha as well. Really, it was a very pretty and different temple. My tour book really didn't give it enough credit. Oh, as a little aside, I spotted a cat sleeping up on a roof, in line with all the little decorative figures. Or maybe it's trying to stare down that guardian monster...
Then it was back to Green Lake Park to explore a bit. While you can just walk around the edge of the lake, it actually has numerous islands connected by bridges, which make for the nicer stroll. There's bamboo groves, more lotus, some black swans and other birds, and a lot of little tea shops and pavilions where locals hang out to chat, play games, sing old folk songs, and the like. There's also a section with a bunch of vendor stalls (many focusing on local specialties), some with amusingly odd English.
Around the time we finished exploring the park, the rain picked up a bit so we headed back to the hotel to take a break and plan for tomorrow before heading out once again for dinner (at which point the rain had stopped again). Since we'd had a big lunch, we decided to keep it simple and try a local specialty, over the bridge rice noodles. So named because, as the story goes, it was created by a woman who had to cross over a bridge in order to bring lunch to her husband. We went to a place across the street from the hotel that looked like a bit of a hole in the wall on the outside (and in the first dining room), but had a rather fancy dining room in the back complete with various ethnic performances (which we caught the last 20 minutes or so of). As for the noodles themselves, they were kind of like shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) in that you get plates with meat and vegetables and a giant bowl of hot broth (not shown in the picture) to put them in. Unlike shabu shabu though, you're supposed to add rice noodles as well, mix the whole thing up, and eat it like a noodle soup. It was fairly good but the broth was extremely spicy, and ended up pushing both Connie and I a bit past our level of spicy food tolerance for the day.
All and all, it was a very fun start to our Yunnan trip and I'm really looking forward to the coming days.

Random China Comment: Air Travel
While Chinese airports haven't really impressed me (I especially disliked the Beijing airport last year), air travel works similarly to the US and, if you fly a lot, you shouldn't have any trouble with a domestic flight in China. And, in fact, it seems at least some of the airlines here don't penny pinch as much as the US so in-flight snacks/meals and free checked bags still exist. A couple things to note though, they use old fashioned metal detectors for airport security rather than the fancy but questionably effective body scanners that have taken over in the US, though I was able to keep my Lionheart pendant and watch on without setting it off. Didn't have to take off my shoes either, though I did have to take off my cell phone and take my laptop out of my bag. Also, China still follows the old "no electronics can be used for 15 minutes after take-off and before landing" rule, so keep that in mind.


7/3/2015 Back in Shanghai

As usual, vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic! I was able to get three days worth of travelogue finished for this update, so I'm totally caught up again! We'll see if that lasts though... Anyway, on Sunday morning Connie and I will be making our way to China's Yunnan province for a week exploring an area that will be new to both of us. Assuming the internet works as advertised, updates will continue normally.

Day 11 (Wed July 1st): Shanghai Aquarium
There was still a chance of rain today (the last for the week), and Connie wanted to take things little easier after the two very full days we just had in Hangzhou, so we decided to visit the Shanghai Aquarium.
On the way, we passed a building where Connie said that new mothers can stay to rest and recover after birth. That's nice, but their choice of English words could have been better...
The aquarium is actually right near the Pearl Tower (which I visited last year, see the Day 3 entry) and a number of Shanghai's other tallest buildings.
The aquarium itself is nicely laid out, mostly divided into areas representing fish in different parts of the world (the Yangtze, the Amazon, etc.), often with a fancy decorated area to match. Some were fish I've seen quite often, others I didn't recognize. There were a number of more unusual fish in their collection, and they even had an exhibit of albino fish. Some personal favorites included the saw fish, Grass Eels, and the large jellyfish display.
But the real highlight of the aquarium is its underwater viewing tunnels. There's actually several of them and the last one is enormous, going through multiple tanks. It's easily two or three times longer than any others I've been through.
I don't know if I'd put the Shanghai Aquarium on my must see list, since there are good ones elsewhere, but it's in my top five aquariums so it's definitely worth a stop if you've got the time.
That evening, we ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant I'd spotted the other day. It's a very famous chain with branches all over China along with a few in Japan, Australia, Korea, and the US. It's actually won a lot of awards from major US publications as well. Anyway, their specialty is Chinese dumplings, which you can watch them make. They have other things on the menu too, but the dumplings are the biggest draw and they have a much larger variety of them than most of the other dumpling places here in Shanghai. We got soup dumplings with chicken, mushroom dumplings, vegetable dumplings, a vegetable dish, and a soup made from sweet rice wine with rice and black sesame mochi balls inside. The dumplings were amazing, especially the chicken and mushroom. Being a soup dumpling, there's a lot of liquid inside the chicken ones, so you're supposed to place the dumpling in a soup spoon, poke a hole in it, and then eat it and drink any soup that came out. The mushroom ones lacked the soup element, but had one of the best mushroom flavors I've ever encountered in any kind of dish. The vegetable ones were good too, though didn't have quite the same wow factor. I also really loved the soup, which was sweet with only the tiniest alcohol taste and flavored with little bits of dried flower. I'll be looking for a recipe once I get home... In the end, Din Tai Fung quickly went on my list of favorite China restaurants, right up with Nanjing Da Pai Dang. Now if they'd just open a branch in Honolulu...

Day 12 (Thu July 2nd): A Temple and a Garden
Now that the weather has improved, Connie and I decided to do some outdoor stuff in Shanghai. Our first stop was Jing'an Temple, which is the most prominent Buddhist temple in Shanghai (as a side note for those of you who have read my past travelogues, remember that China has far fewer temples than Japan, so it's not like there's a ton of them around here). While the original temple dates back over 1,800 years, the current temple was built in the 1900's and massively renovated just recently. As such, while it maintains a classic look, the structures are all pretty new. The monks are rather modern as well, we saw a number of them using smart phones... As you can tell from the pictures, it's a very fancy temple with lots of gold and even a big pagoda in the back. While the complex itself is limited in size, I don't see many temples with so many floors. One thing you might also notice from the picture is that they make extensive use of both that four direction lion motif and an elephant one as well, neither of which I've often seen used. Not shown are all the large Buddha statues in the various temple halls. There was one made out of what looked to be marble (which I don't normally see Buddhas made from) and a giant 15 ton sterling silver Buddha. Their current goal is to make a 2 ton solid gold one, which may explain why the ticket prices are a bit on the high side. Regardless, it's a pretty cool temple and I'd say it was worth the visit.
Afterwards, we went to the the old timey shopping area around Yu Garden. A lot of the buildings there are probably recreations, but the whole area still looks really cool and it's a fun place to browse the shops. We actually ended up eating lunch at the local branch of Din Tai Fung (the soup dumpling restaurant from yesterday), which is still awesome though a little off the main drag. In addition to more chicken and mushroom dumplings, we got a rather interesting preserved beef dish along with some delicious red bean and chestnut dumplings for dessert.
After we'd had our fill of window shopping, we headed into Yu Garden itself. I visited both the garden and the shopping area last time I was in China (see the Day 4 entry), but it was fun to go back and this was Connie's first time in the garden itself (it's really easy to overlook cool spots just because you live in the area). She was surprised by how big and nice it was. Honestly, I think it's just as good as the famed Suzhou gardens (though they're all very unique, and very much worth visiting as well), with new sights and details to notice around every single turn. While we were there, we got to talking a little bit about how expensive it must have been to create due to the sheer size and detail. So I looked it up. Turns out it was built by a high ranking imperial official back in the 1500's, though in the end the expenses helped financially ruin his family...
A break back and the hotel and then dinner at a nearby Japanese / Korean place wrapped up the day.

Day 13 (Fri July 3rd): Jewish Refugee Museum
Connie and I kept today's touring kind of short since we had some things to do (like laundry) in preparation for our trip to Yunnan early Sunday morning. A while back, Connie had taken a Jewish history tour of Shanghai and one location was the city's oldest synagogue, Ohel Moshe, now a museum dedicated to Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, when over 14,000 Jews came to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. Though kind of far from most of the city's main tourist attractions, it's right near a subway station, so still fairly convenient to visit. The building is no longer used as a synagogue, aside from the occasional special event. The first floor has regular tours in both English and Chinese (I was surprised at how many Chinese people were there). The old Chinese man who gave the talk was very nice and informative, though he had an extremely strong stereotypical Chinese accent, so I really had to listen closely to tell what he was saying. The third floor of the synagogue contains a small Holocaust museum while the courtyard and former matzoh factory in the back houses a little cafe and the refugee museum, which contains information about what life was like for the Jews living in Shanghai during the war. Definitely a niche subject, but fairly interesting.
We headed back to our usual mall for lunch and ate at a combination Shanghai and European style restaurant. I got a fig and pear drink and aside from the usual Chinese vegetables there was a rather unique (and good) breaded chicken with lemon sauce and seasoned beef ribs steamed in a lotus leaf (which took a while to cook, but was quite good). Then it was back to the hotel to take care of that aforementioned stuff.

Random China Comment: Beggars
Unlike Japan, China has its fair share of beggars. I haven't seen any around Shanghai's major tourist destinations, but they do pop-up in some of the less high profile areas. And, despite a number of signs saying it's not allowed, they seem fairly common on the Shanghai subway's always busy line 2. Had one or two show up in train station waiting rooms as well. While they seem mostly harmless, Connie is rather suspicious of whether or not most of them are actually disabled and/or destitute, so scams could be common here. And, while most of the ones I've seen seem fairly harmless, we did encounter a couple of extremely aggressive beggars, one of which I think was loudly cussing me out in Chinese. So you may want to be careful if you encounter any.


7/1/2015 Hangzhou

Let's get right to the travelogue. Due to the whole overnight trip, I think it's going to run a day behind for a while. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up by Monday, but we'll see what happens...

Day 9 (Mon June 29th): Hangzhou
Hangzhou is a small city to the south of Shanghai. I meant to get there last year, but didn't have the time, so I wanted to be sure to go on this trip. Since it's only about an hour by train, I'd normally do it as a day trip, but Connie wanted to spend the night so we ended up booking a hotel (on a side note, Connie found a really nice but reasonable priced hotel that even had soft beds (a rarity in China)). Of course, an hour by train didn't take into account the 45 minutes or so it took us to get to the proper train station (the area we're staying isn't near the right subway line for a quick trip there) or all the time needed to buy train tickets and wait for the train. I really just need to assume that a trip involving a train here will always take far longer than in Japan. Anyway, it was a really foggy day, but I was still able to watch the scenery on the train ride. Seems the area between Shanghai and Hangzhou is mostly farms, along with crumbling concrete houses (presumably still occupied) to go with them.
After arriving (a bit later than I thought we would), we took the subway a few stops (look what I saw, but didn't try, along the way), checked into our hotel, and then headed to West Lake, Hangzhou's main draw. The fog limited visibility quite a bit (and made the day very muggy, in addition to the heat), but the lake was still pretty with its with boats, islands, and lotus. There's a nice walking path all the way around the lake, which Connie and I followed. While the lake was very crowded where it borders Hangzhou's main downtown area (and was also lined with fancy shops and restaurants), and rather noisy as well with singers and dancers scattered around the area, it got a lot quieter and more relaxed the further we went.
There are a number of attractions and points of interest along the lake. The first one we came across was a temple dedicated to an ancient ruler of Hangzhou (which was once its own kingdom). It was a nice little temple, and had an odd iron pavilion in the courtyard.
We continued on, passing by tea houses, small gardens, and the occasional odd statue, while dodging the small tourist transport carts that passed from time to time. It was fun, though really hot. I wish the Chinese vending machines (which were scattered along the path) were as nice as the Japanese ones...
Anyway, after a while we came in view of Leifeng Pagoda (translates to Evening Sunlight at Thunder Peak Pagoda) which is one of the lake's most famous attractions. A little while later and we actually reached the Pagoda (on a side note, I climbed the stairs, Connie took the escalator, and I still made it up first). While the original structure dates back over a thousand years, it was damaged centuries ago during a war and eventually collapsed in the 1900's. You can still see the original foundation (and throw money on it, if you want), but the pagoda itself is a modern recreation. Not that it matters too much, since you can still get a great view from the top. One of the floors also has a series of panels depicting a popular legend of an immortal white snake who took on human form and fell in love with and married a mortal man, fought to resurrect him after his untimely death, and was eventually sealed beneath the pagoda by an evil monk.
After we left the pagoda, we visited the large temple across the street, which made for a quick but scenic diversion. I think I mentioned it before, but in ancient China places were given very poetic names. Now, on this sign the first and second lines are entirely separate, but I thought the arrangement was funny...
Still further on, we reached a very long causeway which cuts across part of the lake. While you can continue along the shore instead, it seems to be the more popular route. By then, the sun was starting to get low (it's a really big lake, and we didn't start our walk until early afternoon), but we pressed on, passed the tombs of some famous historical figures, and made it to Solitary Hill Island, which is close enough to the shore to be connected by a bridge. The picturesque Seal Engravers' Society compound was there, along with Louwailou, one of the area's most popular restaurants, where we stopped for supper. Finally, we walked the last couple of miles in the dark, completing our circuit of the lake. I was actually rather impressed that we made it the whole way given our start time and that Connie, while in fairly good shape, isn't as used to really long walks as I am.
To wrap things up, we caught one of the evening's fountain shows back near where we started. As a note, only the second part of that video has the proper music, the music in the first part was some performer with a very loud stereo and a sax who insisted on playing while the fountains were going.
While I do wish the fog hadn't been so thick, it was a very pleasant day. Due to the late start, we didn't have time to see all the attractions around the lake, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Hangzhou is a very nice city (one of the nicest I've seen in China so far) and West Lake deserves its good reputation.

Random China Comment: "Hot" Guys
Well, that's what Connie calls them. Anyway, on hot days, it's fairly common to see guys (often older men, but occasional younger ones as well), with their shirts rolled up just above their stomachs walking around, hanging out, and just going about their business. Once in a while, you'll see one with just an unbuttoned shirt, but the roll up is far more common. Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but it is a little strange to see.

Day 10 (Tue June 30th): Hangzhou Songcheng
Hangzhou Songcheng wasn't originally on my list of places to go in China. In fact, I didn't even know it existed until a couple of weeks ago when I happened across and internet article listing the world's most popular theme parks (based on attendance numbers). While most of the list was filled by every Disney and Universal park in the world, there was one Chinese theme park and I noticed that was actually in Hangzhou so I did some research. Well, their English web site left much to be desired, but it looked interesting so Connie did some more research and we decided to check it out.
We got tickets from the concierge at our hotel (a little cheaper, but a bit of a hassle due to a network issue that caused a processing problem) then hopped a bus nearby. As a note, since the buses tend to not have any English, getting to the park without Connie's help would have been tricky, though not impossible.
Hangzhou Songcheng is a theme park based on ancient China, specifically Hangzhou at its peak. As such, the majority of the park is designed like a romanticized Chinese town. There are restaurants and snack stands, many where you can watch some traditional items (like barley malt candy) being made, some displays and exhibits on ancient life, and plenty of little shops. Though there are also more theme park like attractions such as play areas, a mirror maze, and some haunted houses.
There's also lots and lots of different shows. Some, like the different types of puppet shows, are very traditional. Others, like these dancers, not so much (despite the mostly traditional outfits). After walking around that section for a while, Connie and I climbed an artificial mountain lined with Buddhas and small temples. There was a giant Buddha statue and replica Buddhist cave you could go through at the top. Some nice views of the rest of the park too, not that you can see the view especially well in this photo...
We snacked a bit for lunch (figuring theme park street food was probably much safer than the regular variety), happened across a cool martial arts show, then found a good vantage point to watch the ball throwing show. It's about the daughter of an official choosing a husband by tossing a red ball into the audience. The guy who catches it becomes her bridegroom to be and gets to take part in the rest of the performance. While we were up high, we also spotted this. Not really sure what was going on there...
After that we rushed off to see the Romantic Show of Songcheng, which is essentially the park's main attraction (as a note, it's not included with the base ticket price and it can fill up fast, though there are multiple performances each day). It's an hour long show that's something like a fancier version of Shen Lun (the Chinese dance and culture show that tours the US) with a little bit of Cirque du Soliel thrown in. They even allowed photos and videos. It started with a bit about early civilizations and then jumped ahead to the time when Hangzhou was the capital of China, with the emperor throwing a big birthday party which included delegations from various other countries. Then there was a pretty epic battle against the invading Huns (who, historically, did win eventually, though they were beaten back a number of times) followed by sections based on the white snake story and another famous Chinese fairytale romance. Finally, the last part focused on more modern elements of Hangzhou like its famous tea and the scenery around West Lake. It was a really well done show all around and both Connie and I really enjoyed it.
Afterwards, we spent a bit more time exploring the remainder of the park before deciding to head for the train station. While we did walk through the entire park, we skipped a few exhibits / attractions here and there and didn't see anywhere near all of the shows, so I could see some people spending an entire day there (for us, it was around 5 hours).
Unfortunately, the ticket line at the train station was really long and, when we finally got to the front, the earliest train we could get tickets for wasn't for another two hours. Buying train tickets in China in advance really does pay off, though it requires you to be rather rigid with your plans.
And that was our Hangzhou trip. It was a lot of fun and I could definitely see myself going back next time I'm in China. I could easily spend another day or two seeing the rest of the sites in Hangzhou proper, and there are a number of other areas nearby (small towns, a wet lands park, etc.) that look worth visiting.


6/29/2015 A little early

So you may have noticed that today's updated posted rather early. Well, Connie and I are going on an overnight trip today but, since I have my hotel room in Shanghai for the whole week, I decided to only take the basics with me to avoid lugging around a suitcase and/or very heavy backpack, and that means no laptop. So my options were either posting this update now right before I leave, or skipping it entirely. Anyway, let's get the travelogue up to date...

Day 7 (Sat June 27): Back to Shanghai
Not much to write about today. Connie's mom made a very nice lunch and then Connie and I took the bus and train back to Shanghai through some pretty heavy rain. Fortunately, the rain had let up by the time we returned. We had a quick dinner after sunset, and that's about it.

Random China Comment: Apartments
Despite everyone calling them apartments, Chinese apartments are more like condos, in that they're typically bought rather than rented (though sometimes that buyer will then rent it out). Newer "apartments" tend to come in groups of really tall towers (you can see some photos in my previous China travelogue, check the Day 5 entry). From what I've seen, they're often gated and have nice landscaping inside, almost to the point of having a small park. From what I've heard, the apartments themselves are often sold unfinished, leaving it up to the buyer to finish and customize them. Both of the apartments I've been in here in China has been really nice on the inside. The outside of the buildings are often pretty fancy as well. The weird thing is the rest of the building interiors. Once again, I'm only going off of the two buildings I've been in and what I've heard from some others. Anyway, while the apartments themselves may be nice, the shared interior of the buildings (halls, stairs, elevators, etc.) tend to be dirty and unfinished. Honestly, the ones I've seen look like they belong in a slum or maybe a condemned building, making for a really weird contrast with the nice looking apartments themselves and the exteriors. From what I've seen, I'm also guessing (I haven't looked into it) that, unlike US apartment or condo complexes, there isn't a managing company that's required to fix things that go wrong with the building. So yeah, definitely a bit different from what I'm used to in the US and Japan.

Day 8 (Sun June 28): Shanghai Natural History Museum
It was another very rainy day, so Connie suggested a visit to the new Shanghai Natural History Museum, which just opened a couple of months back. Apparently, the initial rush of popularity hasn't faded yet. This was the first time I've ever had to wait in line (and a 90 minute line at that) to get into a museum. Maybe a weekend wasn't the best day to visit... Something else I've never seen at any other museum? Ticket scalpers. Yes, seriously. And here there's apparently no law against significantly upping the ticket prices. Buying tickets from them doesn't get you out of waiting in line though. The line is because they only let in so many people at once to avoid overcrowding. Anyway, that was a bit annoying, especially with the rain, but I'm used to waiting in long lines thanks to all my amusement park visits and Connie and I were able to chat while we waited, so it wasn't too bad.
We eventually made it inside the museum and started making our way through. Being a natural history museum, it starts back at the creation of the universe and walks through some of the major time periods. There's a ton of animal models and skeletons, and one of the biggest collections of real stuffed animals I've come across. There were even a few live animals as well. And, of course, plenty of dinosaur skeletons, which were always my favorite thing as a kid. The fossil collection was also a standout. Assuming they were real, it was hands down the most impressive one I've ever seen. There was a lot about modern animals too, including a collection of African animals (stuffed) and this giant wall of antlers and horns, a fairly nice rock exhibit, and the part comparing different types of birds' eggs, nests, and feet. Not quite sure what's up with that last one...
All in all, it's a very nice natural history museum, and all the signs have English (always a plus). Probably not a must see if you're visiting Shanghai (since you can see similar museums in various parts of the US), but it makes for a interesting 2 - 3 hours (probably longer if you get the audio tour) and I enjoyed my visit. Though I'd recommend avoiding weekends so as not to end up waiting in line like Connie and I did.
After the museum, we headed to the mall we'd gone to back on Tuesday night and ate at a Taiwanese restaurant that was on my list. The food was good and it reminded me of some places I ate at last year in Nanjing. There was even a similar fish dish. Gotta say though, I'm impressed by just how many high end malls and shopping areas there are over here...

Random China Comment: Cars and Drivers
I've already mentioned how dangerous it feels to cross the streets in China. Cars will turn on red lights without bothering to slow down more than the absolute minimum, regardless of whether or not any pedestrians are in the cross walk, and all the people on electric bikes seem to ignore street signs and traffic lights entirely. Then there's my experience riding in taxis and other cars. First off, seat belts are entirely option. In fact, a lot of cars I've ridden in have pads put on the seats that block the belts entirely. As for their driving... I'm not entirely sure if Chinese people are extremely good drivers (the fact that they take so many risky turns and squeeze through such tiny gaps without a near constant stream of accidents is impressive), or extremely bad ones (with the disregard for traffic rules and always cutting things way too close). And then there's the honking... Lots and lots of honking... Connie, who had a driver's license in the US said she never wanted to drive here in China and I really can't blame her.


6/26/2015 Visiting Maanshan

Remember, as always you can vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic!

Day 5 (Thu June 25th): Traveling to Maanshan
On a side note, thanks to the rain, there was actually some bits of blue sky today. Anyway, one reason for my trip to China was to meet Connie's parents. So she and I set out to Maanshan. It's a small city about an hour outside of Nanjing by bus (there's no train station there, though it's supposed to get a subway line to Nanjing at some point). Between the train and bus, it took around three hours from Shanghai.
Maanshan itself is a nice little city. It's a rather new and Connie says it's often rated at one of the most livable cities in the country. From what I've seen so far, there are lots of trees and many shopping streets lined with stores and restaurants. And tons of those tall apartment buildings you see all over the place in China. It actually reminds me a bit of Wuxi, where I stayed for a few days last year. It's definitely not a place that really gets any tourism though (domestic or international), so there's a bit of a different vibe than some of the places I've been.
My hotel is fairly nice and cheap (about $16.50 a night), though the room is a little weird... After checking in, Connie and I walked around a bit and had a good late lunch at a Hong Kong style restaurant.
Eventually, we made our way to her parents' place for dinner. It was nice to meet them, though a little awkward since they speak about as much English as I do Chinese (which is to say, almost none). Her mom is a great cook though.
After dinner, we walked around a nice park near my hotel. It had a statue of three horses and a large lake with colored fountains. It made for a pleasant way to wrap up the day.
On a rather odd side note, I have fastest data connection that I've gotten anywhere in the country. Maybe since it's a smaller city there isn't an old slow network they can force me on...

Random China Comment: Busses
Like many countries, China has both local busses (for within a single town/city) and long distance ones (for travel between cities). Local busses are pretty casual while long distance ones have assigned seats. So far my experience with both is pretty limited but, as some general notes... Fares are really cheap, at least by US standards. But, much like the busses in Japan, with the exception of tourist busses, there's usually little to no English, making them much harder for non-Chinese speakers to navigate than the trains and subways. One interesting thing about long distance busses though is that, unlike trains, you're not required to show your passport to buy tickets or board, which makes them a little more convenient in one respect.

Day 6 (Fri June 26th): Hanging Out in Maanshan
Connie's parents were originally going to take us to a hike of some sort today, but we had a change of plans due to rain. Instead, Connie and I spent the morning walking around a large fancy mall. Aside from a lot of clothing stores, an IMAX, and a number of elaborately decorated restaurants, there was also a couple of cool obstacle course type play areas for kids. Wish US malls had something like that when I was growing up... On a side note, I tried a durian flavored cream puff. Not bad, though probably not a flavor I'd choose again.
We later met back up with Connie's parents' for a great lunch at a Chinese restaurant then split up again for a bit. I used a break in the rain to walk around that lake from last night and hung out in my room, then went out with Connie and her parents to get train tickets for a our return back to Shanghai tomorrow. After that we walked around a different park with a lake (there are a few of them here), then split up again.
We eventually met up with her parents again at Porridge Paradise, a restaurant near my hotel. Can you guess what they serve? This was my first time trying Chinese rice porridge. It's fairly mild; well the base is anyway, from there it depends what gets added to it. Ours had peanuts, jujube, and a couple things I couldn't identify. Not something I'd normally get for dinner (though it's commonly eaten then in China), but pretty good.
So yeah, not an especially exciting day, but pleasant, and it was nice to "talk" with Connie's parents a bit more.

Random China Comment: Size is Relative
Connie has always been very clear that Maanshan, her home town, is only a small city. A claim that seemed to be supported by the lack of a high speed train route. Well, it really didn't look very small to me up arrival. In fact, it looked pretty large. I checked online and apparently it's got a population of over two million, with tall buildings and a bunch of shopping areas and malls to match. I suppose it depends who you ask but for me (or Americans in general, I assume), a city with over two million just can't be considered "small". I'd say a small city is more like one or two hundred thousand and a million is fairly big. But apparently China has a lot of these "small" cities and their idea of a big city is a place like Shanghai or Beijing (equivalent to New York City, Chicago, or LA in the US). Seems that size really is relative.


6/24/2015 China!

I'm making this update from my hotel in Shanghai, China. I'll be here (China, not Shanghai specifically) for the next few weeks, and that means travelogues! It also means that updates will be posted a few hours later in the day than normal, due to the time difference.

Day 1 - 3 (Sun - Tue June 21 - 23): Flying to China
If you're wondering, no it didn't take me three days to fly to China. It was two plus crossing the international date line. Anyway, I caught a red eye from Honolulu Sunday night and flew straight to...Vancouver, Canada. Which is in the completely opposite direction. So why did I fly there? I used frequent flier miles to book my flight and only had enough miles if I chose the cheapest options (well, almost enough, I had to buy a few miles and don't get me started on the ridiculous amount United charges for miles), and that means you don't have a lot of say in your route. So that mean Vancouver and a long layover in their (very nice) airport. Approaching the city from the air was pretty cool though. It looked like an ocean made of clouds with the mountain peaks taking the place of islands. Nice view of the nearby bay too.
Despite the United booking, both flights were Air Canada and, as far as long plane flights go, they were fairly nice. Not on the level of Korean Air (which I flew to China last time), but nice. Anyway, I got to China around 2 PM on Tuesday. Since I did ok getting around on my own last time, Connie and I agreed to meet at my hotel rather than the airport. Like last time, I opted to take the mag lev train from the airport which is faster (at up to 430 kmph) but a bit more expensive. I didn't have any problems making it to the hotel, though I did spot this rather interesting display in one of the metro stations. I knew they had Plants vs. Zombies in China (I actually got Connie into it a while back), but wouldn't have expected to see a display like that for a game anywhere outside of Japan.
After catching up for a bit, Connie took me to a Thai restaurant she likes in a fancy mall. We got duck pineapple curry, chicken cooked in some kind of leaf, and a very Chinese style plate of mixed vegetables (not in the picture), all of which were very good. Out of curiosity, I also got a ginger lemongrass drink, which was excellent (a sort of ginger lemonade).
I hadn't been able to sleep on the planes so I didn't want to stay out too late so that marked the end of the day.

Day 4 (Wed June 24): Shanghai Museum and Xiantandi
The weather report was showing a high chance of rain (though, in the end, there was just a tiny bit in the evening) so Connie and I decided to play it safe and check out one of the indoor things on my touring list, the Shanghai Museum, which is situated in the People's Park. I'd originally meant to go there last year, but didn't have the time. The museum is free and has four floors with a number of permanent galleries and a few temporary ones. We started out in the ancient Chinese bronze gallery. And it was ancient, some of the pieces were over 2,000 years old. There were lots of pots, cups, and weapons. There were also a number of bronze bells. The most unusual thing was this item, decorated with yak. Any idea what it is? It's actually an ancient pillow. Yes, seriously. There were some other pillows of that style in the pottery gallery we visited later on. I can't imagine there's any way pillows like that could be comfortable, and you'd think they'd be horrible for your neck... Next was the ancient Chinese sculpture gallery, which was mostly Buddhas. Then ceramics, including lots of pots, vases, and plates (from simple to elaborate), some of which had pretty strange designs. There were also a number of ceramic statues like this man blowing a conch while sitting on a beast, this warrior, and even a camel. The Chinese seal gallery featured seals kind of like Japan's hanko (though, unlike in Japan, they're not used much anymore here), though many seemed more elaborate than practical. There was also a painting and calligraphy gallery, a collection of traditional clothing for various Chinese minority groups, some creepy Tibetan masks, and a jade gallery. Finally, there was there was a collection of extremely elaborate old furniture and one of ancient Chinese currency. Speaking of currency, one minority group apparently used special kinds of knives as currency at one point. Not sure why. Maybe it make them hard to rob...
Connie and I spent a total of two of three hours in the museum and I'd recommend it if you come to Shanghai. It provides a very nice overview of many types of traditional Chinese art and all the signs have English. Plus it's free, so you can't beat that.
After we left the museum, we decided to walk to Xiantandi, a nearby area which has a lot of restaurants. We actually ended up getting sidetracked by a mall we passed on the way. To our surprise, said mall had a branch of Nanjing Da Pai Dang, which Connie and I had eaten at back in Nanjing last year. It was one of my favorite restaurants from that trip, and the Shanghai location is just as good. Highlights included duck dumplings, salted duck, pickled vegetables, and a very interesting chicken steamed over a bed of tangy greens of some kind. It was an awesome meal and very reasonably priced (everything I mentioned and more (probably a $70+ meal in the US, for around $20). I'm hoping to go back again before I return to the US.
We did eventually make it to Xiantandi, which is a shopping and dining plaza which utilizes a bunch of old brick buildings. It was fun to walk around and contains a number of nice restaurants and shops. Looks like a big nightlife area too. We had already eaten, but it was hot and humid so I got a scoop of black sesame gelato to cool down.
After we finished exploring Xiantandi, Connie and I went to get train tickets for tomorrow then hung out at my hotel for a bit before splitting up for the night. Since we had such a big lunch, we just got some cheap food at a convenience store. I decided to try seaweed flavored potato chips. Not sure I'd buy them again, but they were better than a lot of flavored chips I've had.

Random China Comment: Back in China
So, what're my early thoughts on returning to China? Well, there's still a lot of smog and you have to be careful about the tap water (conveniently, my hotel in Shanghai has a filter in the room). Like before, the overall cleanliness level isn't bad, though it isn't quite up to US standards either, there's a lot of smoking, and crossing the street stills feels moderately dangerous. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't seem like much has changed in the year since my first trip. Regardless, it's a very interesting country and this should be a fun trip.


6/22/2015 A long overdue write-up

Well, looks like I did get a Monday update done, albeit a bit late. I actually had this ready to go at the normal time, but the Honolulu airport doesn't have free wi-fi, so I wasn't able to upload it. The Vancouver airport, however, does. In case you're wondering, yes flying from Hawaii to Vancouver and than to Shanghai is a rather indirect route. But when you book a flight with frequent flier miles, you have to take what you can get. Anyway, as a reminder, updates should continue normally while I'm in China (though internet there can be wonky, so no promises), though they'll likely be posted several hours later than usual. But for now, here's one last Hawaii travelogue entry before the new China travelogue begins.

June 15th (Monday): Wet n Wild Hawaii
This entry is long overdue. You may remember that I first visited Wet n Wild not that long after I moved to Hawaii and that wasn't my only visit. Thing is, I never did take my camera with me and I didn't really want to do a travelogue entry until I had the pictures to go with it. Well, my mom and I went for a couple of hours (I live nearby and have an annual pass, so there's no need to spend all day there, and I had a lot of work to do back at home) so I finally decided to get that done.
Anyway, if the name Wet n Wild rings a bell, there's a reason. There's another Wet n Wild in Orlando, which I wrote about as part of my Florida travelogue. Anyway, Wet n Wild Hawaii is in Kapolei (around 25 minutes outside of Honolulu) and it's the only water park on the island. Let's start with the basics. There's a the standard (and very generic) wave pool, kiddie areas, and lazy river, and a decent assortment of water slides including a vertical funnel (new this year), sideways funnel, half pipe, toboggan race, and a bunch of different tube slides. All in all, it's a solid selection, though I could name a few things I'd love to see added (more tubeless slides, a speed slide, etc.). There is one slide I've never seen at any other water park, the Flyin' Hawaiian. As you can see, it's a pretty short and straight forward slide, except that it spits you out about five feet above the water for a sudden drop into a deep pool. Simple, but fun (just make sure to hold your breath). There's also a flume or wave rider or whatever those things are called, though that costs extra. Some time, I'm planning to spend a day (or at least a few hours) practicing on that thing and see how good I can get. It'd probably be great surfing practice.
And that about sums up the park, there's some very average concessions and a mini-golf course (which I wrote about earlier in the year when I went with Connie (see the February 15th entry). All in all, it's a pretty good water park and, if you go on a weekday, the lines are usually minimal. That said, it doesn't really stick out either. It lacks the elaborate themes and awesome wave pools of the Disney water parks, the sheer size of Water World in Denver, and the more unique and elaborate rides I've seen in Denver and the various Orlando parks. So, it's good, but not amazing. As such, it's not a must if you're on the island (at least if you've been to top notch water parks in the past), but it still makes for a fun half day or so.


6/19/2015 More travelogue

Vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic. I'm still not sure if there's going to be an update on Monday since I'm flying to China Sunday night. It'll just depend how things go, so check back Monday and see. Then, starting Wednesday, I'll be updating from China. Assuming I don't have any internet problems (I managed last time, but internet access in China has issues), updates will continue normally, albeit a few hours later than usual (so you might want to check the site late morning or early afternoon).

June 12th - 14th (Friday - Sunday): Pan-Pacific Festival
I first attended the Pan-Pacific Festival several years back when I spent half the summer in Honolulu (see the entries for June 8 - 10). But this is the first time since then that I've been here at the right time of year. While the name doesn't make it obvious, it's an Asian (well, 95% Japanese) festival comprised of three days of performances (on three separate stages), a block party, and a parade. Since I've been busy trying to get a lot done before my upcoming China trip, I wasn't able to spend quite as much time at the festival as I would have liked, and I missed the block party entirely, but I was still able to take in some of it.
Naturally, being a Japanese festival, there were a lot of taiko performances. This group stood out for combining taiko drums with Japanese flutes, which is something I haven't seen all hat often. I also watched a form of Japanese dance based on sword forms and other martial arts, and Youth Theater Japan, a special kids' school with a focus on song and dance. The kids were cute and, while you can't tell from that video, I was really impressed with their English pronunciation, which avoided all the typical problems Japanese people usually have when trying to speak English.
Saturday morning, I caught the tail end of the King Kamehameha parade (which, though separate, happens in the middle of the Pan-Pacific Festival). Like the last time I saw it, there were princesses from each island and lots of beauty queens in fancy cars. Unlike last time though, the parade either moved a lot faster or was a lot smaller, which is why I only caught the end of it.
I did, however, see the entire Pan-Pacific Festival parade Sunday evening. There were lots of hula groups (hula is fairly popular in Japan and Japanese hula groups make up a large part of the festival) and various performing groups from the rest of the festival. There were a couple of groups representing non-Japanese countries as well, such as these Korean drummers.
While I was too busy to see everything I wanted, it's still a fun festival with a lot of things to see. Though the groups of performers that participate vary, so some years have a better mix than others.


6/17/2015 Diana Ross

I actually have three different travelogue entries to write, but only time for one right now. I'll hopefully get the rest done for Friday. Speaking of future updates though, as previously mentioned, I'll be heading off to China next week. Naturally, I'll be doing a travelogue while I'm there. Updates will hopefully continue normally, though the internet was a bit iffy last time I was there there's a chance that some updates will be missed. Updates will, however, be posted a few hours later than they usually do (mid-morning to early afternoon for my North American readers, depending on the time zone). There's also a decent chance that this Monday's update will be skipped entirely, though I haven't decided yet. Now, travelogue.

June 13th (Saturday): Diana Ross in Concert
I actually saw Diana Ross a few years back at Universal Studios (see the ) but that was no reason not to see her again, especially since this is her first time doing concerts in Hawaii. My parents are big fans of hers so we all went together. The concert hall was packed and Diana still looked and sounded great. You wouldn't think that she's 71. I know the songs she did with The Supremes much better than her solo career stuff (which was about half the concert). But anyway, she did most of her big hits so I can't complain. It was a fun concert and I'd recommend seeing her if you get the chance.


6/15/2015 An afternoon in Honolulu

Time for that travelogue entry I was originally planning for Friday. Got some more entries coming up as well (there was a festival and a concert over the weekend), though those will have to wait for Wednesday.

June 11th (Thursday): Enjoying Honolulu
I had to go into Honolulu for a couple of things so I decided to make day of it. Most of what I did isn't worth writing about, but my mom and I met up for lunch. I'll get to the restaurant review in a sec, but first here's a few photos. We walked around a little after lunch and spotted a bunch of fish, including an angel fish, squid, and a big puffer fish in the water near the harbor. The squid was really a surprise, I haven't even seen many of them when snorkeling. And here's a panorama of the Hilton, which has its own little salt water lagoon. Just a reminder that, despite some issues, it really is nice over here.

Restaurant Review: Prince Court
Type: Buffet
Location: Prince Hotel, Waikiki
There actually aren't all that many buffet restaurants in Honolulu but Prince Court is one of the more famous ones. It's won best buffet in a lot of local restaurant ratings. Well, I ended up getting a really good coupon so my mom and I gave it a try. The first thing you notice is the view. It's on the third floor of the hotel and overlooks the harbor. I bet it would have a really great sunset view as well. Anyway, it's a nice place.
Now for the buffet (this picture only shows about half of it). They change up the dishes fairly often (you can find a current list on the web site), but that day there was a wide variety of salads, along with a regular salad bar so you could build your own. There was also cold soba, lettuce wraps, a sushi bar (with a chef who rolled them when you ordered), shabu shabu, tempura, a number of hot items (pad Thai, Chinese fish, steamed vegetables, etc.), and, of course, a dessert section. There was a really diverse selection and everything was high quality and tasted great. Some particular highlights included the chicken pad Thai (and I usually don't like pad Thai), the beef chicken wraps, and the macadamia nut flan. Definitely one of the best buffets I've been to outside of a Disney park.
While I had a coupon, the base price (about $30 per person for lunch) really wasn't that bad considering the view and the quality of the food. I can see myself going back every now and then when I want to splurge a little. If you're in the area, I recommend giving it a try sometime. Though you should probably call ahead and make a reservation.


6/12/2015 Again?

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Another late night? That makes how many this week? Not entirely sure how it worked out that way, this wasn't supposed to be an especially busy week. But stuff just kept coming up to keep me up later than usual. Anyway, I started working on a travelogue post but I really should get to sleep so it'll have to wait until Monday. Hopefully next week won't have anything unexpected.


6/10/2015 Late...

For several reasons, I'm running really late today so I don't have time to write anything, sorry!


6/8/2015 Planting

With my mom's help, I've been doing a little planting at my house. In addition to the Buddha's hand tree and passion fruit which I got a few months back, I now have a dragon fruit and a dwarf coconut. It could be years before I actually get any fruit though...

Anyway, this week should be a bit calmer than last week, though I still have plenty of things to work on. Taking it a little easier will be nice though.

See you Wednesday!


6/5/2015 Still working

As always, vote with the TWC button to see this week's new bonus comic.

Like I predicted, other than Tuesday this week has pretty much been all work. I have managed to get a lot done, but I've got one more big task to take care of before things calm down. Of course, when I say calm down doesn't mean I won't be working. It just means that with all the high priority stuff out of the way, I can spend some time every day working on Aurora's Nightmare, and putting away the books and things I had mailed here from Arizona. Hoping to get in a hike or two, some time at the water park, and a beach day in before I go to China though.

And...that's about it for today. Staring at my computer all day (mostly working on stuff for the Steam version of Car Washer) has left me rather drained.

See you Monday!


6/3/2015 Hot pot

I saw Tomorrowland yesterday. It has its faults, but is still a good movie over all. Nice to see a more positive vision of the future for a change as well. Seems like everything these days takes the post-apocalyptic route...

Restaurant Review: Little Sheep
Type: Hot Pot
Location: Ward Center
There are a lot of hot pot places in Honolulu, but while all the others are based on Japanese shabu shabu and nabe, Little Sheep has a Mongolian and Chinese influence. So what's that mean? Well, first off, their broth selection is a bit lacking compared to many of the Japanese hot pot restaurants. They have two main broths (original and spicy) and a vegetarian mushroom. The original broth is chicken based, very mild, and contains a rather unique mix of spices and other flavoring ingredients. I've really never had anything quite like it. The spicy broth is pretty much the exact same thing but with a ton (almost literally) of hot peppers. Ingredients to go in the broth are ordered ala cart (though they also have lunch combos). They have most of the usual items, but there's some items you won't see at other places including some unusual greens, whole bamboo shoots, winter melon, and several different types of tofu. Of course, they have meat as well, with the highlight being their grass fed New Zealand lamb. Most items can be ordered as half or full servings and prices are reasonable for hot pot. Aside from the usual thin slices, you can also get dumplings (really good) and meat balls. So far, everything I've tried has been fresh and good quality. There's also a sauce bar, featuring a number of different dipping sauces (I prefer the sweet garlic).
If all that isn't enough, they've got side dishes as well. The puffy sesame bread is popular, but I haven't tried it yet. The skewers are good though, and the Mongolian beef pie is fantastic.
I've read some reviews which complain about the service, but I've had no problems so far. They'll even refill your broth for free and give you containers if you want to take the left over back home. No complaints about the restaurant either. It's clean, modern, and has some nice views if you can get a window seat.
If I had to choose, I'd say I personally like Japanese style hot pot a little better (just due to personal preferences, mostly in regards to the broth), but I like Little Sheep a lot as well. The Chinese / Mongolian style is a fun and welcome change from all the other hot pot places and it's just a great restaurant all around.


6/1/2015 So many things...

You'd think that not having to teach over the summer would free up my schedule quite a bit. Totally not happening, but you would think so. Then again, if I work hard, I think I can probably get through the major stuff on my to-do list in three or four days. So hopefully, by the end of this week, I can put all that behind me and focus on Aurora's Nightmare and relaxing a bit. At least until my China trip, which is only three weeks off...

Anyway, I spent all day yesterday working assorted stuff and it looks like today will be the same. Hoping to take a break tomorrow to see Tomorrowland (appropriately enough) and go to board game night though. But for now, I think some sleep is in order.


5/29/2015 Back home

It's Friday, so use the TWC button to vote and see the weekly bonus comic.

I got back to Hawaii last night. Everything seems to be ok with my house, but I've got grocery shopping, unpacking, and the like to do. While it'll be nice to be home, I had a good time in Phoenix. Honestly, I wouldn't have minded staying for another week or so. I like Phoenix and it was nice having the whole family together. It was a fun trip, but a busy one. I thought I'd have a lot of time to relax, read, work on Aurora's Nightmare and take in the Phoenix heat. In the end though, while I did spend a lot of the trip at my parents' place, I was pretty busy almost the entire time. And, while being there doing a cool spell was mostly nice, I did kinda miss the heat a little...

Anyway, I'm back now and I have a few week to work on various projects and catch up on my games and reading before heading off to China.



5/27/2015 The Grand Canyon

Well, I'm still sore from that hike, but that won't stop me from writing about it.

May 24th (Sunday): Hiking the Grand Canyon
A year or two ago, my brother told me how he and a friend had hiked from the top of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back again. It sounded really cool, but I never had a chance to give it a try. So, when he asked me if there was anything I wanted to do during this visit, I was quick to bring it up. His wife and my mom decided to come along too.
Despite being one of the country's most famous landmarks, the Grand Canyon is kinda in the middle of the nowhere. There's a small town nearby but otherwise it's 3 hours from Phoenix and an hour or more from Flagstaff. Anyway, due to the distance, we got off to a very early start, leaving Phoenix at around 5 AM. Fortunately, we arrived early enough that we had no trouble getting into Grand Canyon National Park and finding a parking space (from what I've heard, it can get extremely crowded). From there, we hopped on one of the shuttle busses to the start of the hike (car access to many parts of the park is limited, but there are regular shuttle busses to get you around).
Before continuing, I should probably mention that I'm talking about the south rim of the Canyon, which is where the vast majority of people go. You can visit the north rim as well, but it's much more out of the way and the canyon is so big that driving between the two of them takes something like seven hours.
There are a number of overlooks and three hiking trails that go down to the bottom. While the park service doesn't recommend it, it's totally possible to hike all the way down and back in one day. Some ridiculously fit people even hike down from the south rim, up to the north rim, then all the way back down and back up again in one day. Though you'd need really good speed and stamina to pull that off. Other people camp at the bottom or stay in the hotel (yes, hotel). Though I've heard that both the hotel and campsites get booked months or even years in advance.
But on to the hike itself. Most people seem to agree that, if you are going to hike down and back, the best way to go is to use the South Kaibab trail going down then take the Bright Angel trail up, so that's what we did. While I was at the Grand Canyon once before when I was a kid, I didn't remember much. Got to say, the views from the top were spectacular. One thing you can't tell from the photo is that it was really cold. The Grand Canyon is much higher in elevation than Phoenix and, as such, has much lower temperatures. At least on the top...
We started down around 9 AM and the trail itself was surprisingly easy, comprised of a long series of switchbacks winding down into the canyon. It was wide, well maintained, and never got especially steep or strenuous. Really, the challenge comes mostly from the length, which is why many people just hike down part way and then go back up. It wasn't too long before I saw my first animal of the day, a dessert squirrel like the ones at the museum the other day.
After a bit of hiking we reached Ooh Aah Point, which provided some more amazing views, and made for a great photo spot. There were other hikers around too, but not everyone on the trail was walking. Those looking for a less intense (but far more expensive) option can sign up for a horse ride. A little further down, here's Noah, Hannah, and my mom near Skeleton Point. Eventually we reached that large lower plateau of sorts you can see in the photos and, after crossing that, started the second descent. It was cool to finally get a glimpse of the Colorado River at the bottom. And it was really great to reach the bottom of the canyon. Despite the trail never being very steep, the long descent (it took us several hours at a steady moderate pace) eventually started to wear a bit on us. Mainly the knees, in my case.
There's a couple different ways you can go at the bottom, but we went through a tunnel and across the Black Bridge to the other side of the river. It was a lot greener and warmer at the bottom. The temperature at the rim was cold enough for a winter coat while at the bottom I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, that's a really huge difference. It never actually got too hot, but that's because we were lucky. It was cloudy most of the day and Arizona has been in the middle of a cold spell lately. I've heard that it can get ridiculously hot down there though (even surpassing 120 at times). We turned away from the river for a short time and followed that stream in the previous pictures to a rest stop. There were a few of those scattered across the trail. All of them had restrooms and some had places to refill water bottles. Those refill spots were great since it would have been really difficult to carry enough water to last the entire hike. Nowhere to get food though, so we did have to pack all of that in. Apparently we weren't the only ones who liked the rest stop, there was a deer hanging out nearby as well.
From there, we crossed back to the other side of the Colorado River and followed it for a while before turning off to follow a small stream back towards the canyon walls. This was the Bright Angel trail. It's longer than South Kaibab, but a bit less strenuous and has more rest stops and water refill stations, making it a good choice for the uphill climb. The terrain was also different, as you can tell from that photo. Much lusher and greener, for one. It was pretty, but the views weren't quite as spectacular as Kaibab's. The variety was a nice change though, and it was cool to see such a different part of the canyon. Oh, in case you didn't notice the bird in that last photo, here's a close-up.
It was a kind of crazy looking up and seeing just how far above us the summit was (not to mention wonder how the heck we could possibly get up there), but we steadily made progress. We even came across a big horn sheep, which was really cool to see in the wild. We were all getting pretty worn out as we neared the top but, finally, after 16.5 miles and around 10 hours of hiking, we made it back to the top. We had to wait awhile for the shuttle bus (there was a long line of others finishing up their day at the same time), but we did get to watch some elk grazing nearby to pass the time.
Then, of course, it was time for the drive back to Phoenix. Needless to say, it was a very long day. But it was totally worth it. The hike was long but a lot of fun and the scenery was amazing. Other than the descent wearing out my knees a bit, I didn't really have any trouble with the length, the climb, or the elevation change (there's a 4,000 - 5,000 foot difference between the rim and the bottom of the canyon). Honestly, I was pretty happy with myself, especially since this is the longest hike I've ever done by at least several miles. I was really sore the next day though, and the day after that... Like Mt. Fuji, it's not a hike I'm in a hurry to do again (not ruling it out though), but it was an amazing experience and I'm really glad I did it.


5/25/2015 A long day

I just got back from an awesome hike at the Grand Canyon. But, when I say I just got back, I mean it. We left before 5 AM and didn't get back until nearly midnight. I'm exhausted and haven't begun to sort my photos yet so the travelogue entry will have to wait until later in the week. Expect some pretty cool pictures though.


5/22/2015 Enjoying the Desert

Time to finally get caught up on my travelogue.

May 18th (Monday): The Sonora Desert Museum
The Sonora Desert Museum is a combination zoo and botanical garden of sorts set a bit outside of Tucson. My family went there a long time ago when I was a little kid. My memories of that visit are pretty fuzzy, but I remember it being a nice place. So, when my dad suggested a family outing there, I figured it would be fun.
The museum turned out to be a bit further outside of Tucson than we remembered and involves driving through a nice stretch of saguaro filled desert. It may sound strange to some people, but I really do like the desert scenery. The rocks, the cactus, it can be really beautiful out here. I like the mountains, forests, and beaches as well, but, to some extent, I do miss living out here in the West.
Anyway, as I said before, the museum is part zoo and part botanical garden. There's trails winding through the desert leading to occasional animal inclosures and houses. The first one we reached was the reptile house, mostly snakes. That particular snake was the most energetic by far, it was moving almost constantly. As a note, the focus is animals that live in the desert, so keep that in mind when looking at the pictures. Fortunately, most of the snakes they had aren't harmful to humans, except for the rattle snakes, those you do need to worry about. Though they're not all that common.
One thing I remembered from my previous visit was the impressive fake cave they have set up on one part of the trail. It also leads to a nice display of the many cool types of rocks and minerals that can be found in this part of the country. Getting back out into the sun, we came across some more desert animals such as this squirrel and a coyote. As a note, the squirrel (and all the others I saw) weren't actually on display, they were just wild ones wandering around. This bird was wild too, but I'm really happy with how the shot came out. I think I've mostly got the hang of my new camera, at least for more ordinary types of shots. Back to the animals, the bobcats were kinda cute, but not something you'd want to get too close to. After a bit more nice desert scenery, we came to a bunch more animals including the big horned sheep (well, not those two so much, it's the adult males that have the really big horns) and an otter, which was a lot of fun to watch. They also had a really nice set of walk-in aviaries, which had a large variety of both birds and flowers. Even cooler, one was devoted entirely to hummingbirds. If we weren't on a bit of a schedule, I could have easily hung out in there for quite awhile longer, trying to get some more good pictures.
While it didn't really fit the desert theme, there was one last pleasant surprise on the way out, a nice little aquarium. It even had these cool little eels, which I haven't seen since I went to Yokohama Sea Paradise back in Japan.
It may be a bit out of the way, but if you're in the area I highly recommend spending a few hours at the Sonora Desert Museum. It's a really great way to learn about and appreciate just how much life and beauty there is out in the desert.


5/20/2015 Escape

Gotta say, I'm enjoying my time back in Phoenix. It's a nice city and I do miss the desert a bit. I have a couple of travelogue entries to write, but I'm a bit short on time tonight so I'll do one now and save the second (and longer one) for Friday.

On an unrelated note, I'm selling a few things on ebay which some of your may be interested in. Check them out if you're curious.

May 17th (Sunday): Escape the Room AZ
Ever heard of escape rooms? I'm not sure where they originated (though I heard about them first in Japan), but they're a sort of real life puzzle game. Basically, a group of people is locked inside a room and given a certain amount of time to solve the puzzles inside in order to find a way out. If you've ever played 999 (on the DS) or its sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Rewards (on the 3DS and Vita), imagine something like that in real life, just without all the murder. On a side note, I recommend both of those games. Anyway, ever since I heard about real life escape rooms I've been wanting to try one but there haven't been any near where I lived and, the one time I was near one on a trip, I didn't have time to go. Then, a few days before I left for Phoenix, my mom sent a link to an escape room place she'd heard about over here and asked if I was interested. I was pretty surprised but excited, and the rest of my family was on board too.
On a side note, there were a bunch of geese crossing the road on our way there. The picture is horribly out of focus, but I only had a few seconds to snap it while holding my camera out of the car window, so I didn't have time to properly adjust it.
Anyway, we went to Escape the Room AZ in Scottsdale. As a note, you need to reserve a time in advance. And, unless your group buys up all the tickets for that room, you may be teamed up with some other people. They have three different rooms (with a fourth opening soon), and Hannah (my sister-in-law) had chosen the apartment one for our outing. After a brief explanation, our team (myself, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and a couple unrelated girls we were grouped with) were locked in the room and the countdown began. You have one hour to solve the puzzles and escape the room. Fail...and they let you out of the room anyway, though without the sense of accomplishment that comes from escaping yourself. I don't want to say much of anything about the puzzles to avoid spoiling things for any of you who may want to try it, but our room was comprised of a three room apartment filled with puzzles and locks. Most of our job involved finding the various keys, codes, and the like needed to unlock cabinets, safes, etc. Some of the puzzles were fairly straightforward while others required a good bit of critical and occasionally lateral thinking. For better or worse, we all tended to split up and latch onto elements, often coming together in small groups to tackle one puzzle or another. There was a big monitor on one wall with our current time ticking down, as well as occasional hints provided by our guide, who was watching us on security cameras in another room. The hints were useful and targeted at whatever we were stuck on but, at the same time, they weren't too frequent and didn't give too much away either. Though they certainly did help us out at a couple of points. In the end, I think everyone contributed significantly to at least one or two of the puzzles and we managed to successfully escape with about five minutes to spare. Though it was never a sure thing and there were a couple of points towards the end were I was worried we'd fall just a little short. While we weren't the fastest group (the current record is 39 minutes to our 55), the guide said that only 20% of the groups successfully clear that room, so I think we did pretty well. Gotta say, it was great working as a group, but I do have to wonder how long it would have taken me on my own...
While not the cheapest way to spend an hour, it was a lot of fun and everyone (even my parents) had a really good time. While I don't know if I'll have time on this trip, I'd love to go back and take a crack at one of the other rooms. I may even try and design an escape room of my own in the future...


5/18/2015 Chinese Dance

I should have written this travelogue entry about a week ago, but was too busy and/or tired so here it is now. I've got some Arizona stuff to write about now too, though that'll have to wait until Wednesday.

May 10th (Sunday): Shen Yun
I first saw ads for Shen Yun (a touring Chinese culture / dance show) a couple years back in Florida but never went. Well, they'd been advertising their latest Honolulu show for months and, now that I have a Chinese girlfriend and all, I figured I really should check it out. Unfortunately, photos and videos weren't allowed so you'll have to search Youtube if you want to see what it looks like. Anyway, Shen Yun consists of a large number of scenes drawn from a mixture of Chinese history and mythology (various dynasties, the Mongols, the Journey to the West story, etc.). Each scene is comprised of a music and dance number. The music is a mixture of traditional Chinese and classical Western, both in composition and instruments. They had a live orchestra, which added a nice extra touch. Of course, the main focus is on the dance. They have a large team of dancers decked out in bright period appropriate (at least I think so) costumes for each scene. The dances were varied and I think they were traditional, though I really don't know enough about the subject to tell. There were quite a lot of twirls, jumps, and flips involved in some of them, giving a very gymnastic feel. Others were closer to ballet and then there were others (like the handkerchief dance) which were different from anything I've seen. All in all, it was very graceful, pretty, and well choreographed. Wouldn't say I learned much about Chinese history or anything (the only explanation of the scenes is a few lines in the program and from the hosts who introduce them), but it's a fun cultural experience. There were a couple of ballads (in Chinese, of course) as well, just to mix things up.
So, over all Shen Yun is a little expensive, and a couple of the scenes are dedicated to promoting a specific sect of Buddhism (one that's currently banned in China) and, as such, get a bit preachy. But that aside, it's a beautiful and interesting performance. It's not an absolute must see (like, say, a Cirque du Solei show) but, if it's in your area, you may want to give it a look.

Well, I really should get going. I'll aim to get some Phoenix travelogue stuff and maybe a restaurant review up on Wednesday.


5/15/2015 Zzzzzzz..........

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Well, I made it to Phoenix ok, but it was an overnight flight and I didn't get any sleep on the plane. I have a couple of last Hawaii travelogue entries I wanted to write about earlier in the week but I'm really tired and just need to get to sleep.

Have a good weekend!


5/13/2015 Ta-da!

At long last, Champion and Challenger have appeared in-person. I'm guessing a lot of you can recognize them but, if you can't, they'll get a real introduction next time.

Anyway, thanks to working on the sprites for these guys, among other things, I'm running a bit behind and I'm flying to Phoenix tonight so I'm going to get going.



5/11/2015 Coming attractions

I've got a couple of meetings today but, once they're finished, my summer vacation will officially begin. Of course, I'll be working on Aurora's Nightmare and also the upcoming Steam version of Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja (yes, it finally got Greenlit!).

I am going to be doing some traveling though. Nothing as long or elaborate as the last couple of summers (money is a bit tighter after moving to Hawaii), but that's relative. Anyway, it starts on Wednesday with a trip back to Arizona to hangout with family for a couple of weeks. Nothing too amazing about that, but I'm hoping to do a bit of hiking, so there may be a travelogue post or two. Then I'm back in Hawaii for several weeks. Then comes my main trip of the summer, three and a half weeks in China. The majority of the time will be spent visiting Connie in Shanghai, but we're also planning a week in the Yunnan region, which promises to be very different from from the other parts of China I've visited. After that, a final month or so hanging out here at home before fall semester starts up again. There's a chance something else may pop up to fill that last month, but I don't have any plans. And, as much as I love traveling, having a while at home with nothing to do other than my own projects sounds kind of nice. And hey, there's still some things I've been meaning to do here on Oahu that I haven't gotten around to yet...
I am a little dissapointed Japan isn't in the cards though. I don't think I'll ever get tired of visiting it. Not entirely sure if I could live there again (I'd be willing to try it if a really good opportunity came along, but I really can't be sure how I'd feel after a couple years), but it's always an awesome vacation.

Anyway, I'll be off to Phoenix in a couple of days but I'll be staying with my parents so PV updates shouldn't be affected.



5/8/2015 Soba

It's Friday and that means a new bonus comic so click the TWC button and vote to see it!

Restaurant Review: Shingen
Restaurant Type: Japanese
Location: Waikiki
When I first went here years back it was called Matsugen and was a pretty great soba restaurant. I was disappointed to see that Matsugen had closed. Fortunately, Shingen stepped in and, aside from some redecorating, is pretty much the same restaurant.
I think the menu has expanded a bit, but the main focus is still the soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles). They've got pretty much every soba dish I've seen in Japan and then some, including numerous variations on cold, hot, in broth, and with dipping sauce. I even got one with duck. No complaints about the noodles (I think they make their own) and the dashi broth was fantastic. If you're not in a soba mood, they have other dishes as well including tempura (I got a side of the uncommon but good ginger tempura). I was also pleased to see a full oden selection, which I'm definitely going to be trying on my next visit. Needless to say, it's all very authentic Japanese. Actually, I think I was the only American there.
The restaurant is small (I could easily see it filling up at peak times) but the decor is nice and the service was great. The prices... Well, it's a bit expensive for soba, but pretty reasonable for a good meal in the Waikiki area. Really, if you like soba you can't go wrong at Shingen. I'll certainly be back.


5/6/2015 Jamming

There's a lot going on this week with finals, and finishing up my summer plans, and everything. So let's get to that travelogue.

May 2nd (Saturday): Spam Jam
I may have mentioned it before, but SPAM really caught on in Hawaii decades ago. And, unlike the rest of the country, it hasn't really lost any popularity here. There's even an annual festival, the SPAM Jam. As a note, I don't eat SPAM. Actually, I don't eat pork at all but, even if I did, I think I still might steer clear of SPAM. But anyway, I decided to go down and take a look, just out of curiosity.
Turns out, it's a pretty big event, taking over multiple blocks of Waikiki. There were booths selling SPAM merchandise, booths featuring SPAM focused photo ops, and, of course, lots of and lots of food. Most were fairly traditional things with a SPAM twist like SPAM burgers, SPAM fries, etc. The weirdest one? Probably the candied SPAM cupcakes. Though the ice cream sandwich with SPAM sprinkles was up there too. That said, the regular SPAM free ice cream sandwiches were pretty great. There was entertainment too (they should have had Weird Al singing his SPAM song, but they didn't). I hung around to watch the EMKE concert. On a side note, is there anyone in the US who doesn't know the words to Don't Stop Believin'? Seems like that's the one song everyone sings along to... On another side note, there was an announcer calling out SPAM trivia between the concerts. At one point he asked if anyone had traveled here from the mainland just for the SPAM Jam. And yeah, some people actually did raise their hands...
While I was there, I took a break to try some sunset photos with my new camera. I think they came out pretty well. Snapped a nice shot of the full (or nearly full) moon as well.
So, despite not being a SPAM fan, it was still an enjoyable night.
As an addendum, I went to a couple of events the following day. Neither one was really worth writing about, but I did try this. Not the greatest photo, but yes that popcorn really is steaming. Actually, not steam. Mist. There's a trend in high end cuisine lately of flash freezing food using liquid nitrogen. Well, a place here decided to try it with popcorn. While it's a little strange to be eating chilled popcorn, its not bad. The puffier pieces release a blast of cold air in your mouth, letting you see your breath. Pretty expensive for popcorn ($4 for that little cup), but kinda fun.

Hmm... I have a restaurant review I want to add on to this (there wasn't much of anything I could eat at the SPAM Jam), but it's getting late and I've got final projects to grade so I should get going and do it next time.

See you Friday!


5/4/2015 Save it for Wednesday

I checked out some local events and watched The Avengers Age of Ultron over the weekend. Got a travelogue entry to write, but between going places, sorting my photos, and working on various things, it's getting late so it'll have to wait until Wednesday.



5/1/2015 Almost done

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Time has really flown lately. Spring semester only has around a week left to go and then I'm on summer vacation. Which means I really need to get my plans nailed down. I have a basic idea of where I'm going and when, but I need to actually book tickets and make things official. I'll go into detail another time, but I'll probably be doing a bit less travel than the last couple of years and said trips won't be as elaborate. There should still be some cool stuff to write about though. Anyway, I was looking at some flights yesterday. Reminded me of just how annoying finding a good plane ticket can be at times, how nonsensical ticket prices seem to be, and how horrible frequent flier programs are, especially for some airlines (*cough*United*cough*). Ever feel like you spent quite a while working on something without actually accomplishing anything? Yeah...

Looking forward to relaxing a little be over the weekend before things get really crazy with planning, grading, and the like shortly after...


4/29/2015 Uncomfortably close to reality

A long time ago I started reading a manga series called Maoh Juvenile Remix (based on a Japanese novel which unfortunately has no English release). Well, I finally got the remaining volumes and finished it. Gotta say, parts of it remind me a lot of current events, and not in a good way. Maoh takes places in a Japanese city that's been hit with some tough economic times. The corrupt mayor is throwing everything behind an urban redevelopment program he says will revitalize the city. At the same time, a charismatic young man named Inukai starts a grass roots organization, speaking out against the project and those behind it, and saying that only his plans will save the city and, eventually, the country. The main character, Ando, is a fairly ordinary high school student with a very minor hidden power, he can make people say whatever he's thinking (a sort of super ventriloquism). At first, he's impressed with Inukai and believes that a lot of what he's saying makes sense. But soon Ando uncovers the dark truth behind Inukai's organization. Inukai uses his charisma to sweep people up in his wake and set them against any who would oppose him. His group soon becomes violent, rioting and striking out against anyone and everyone even vaguely connected to the redevelopment program as supposed payback for their own problems. And Inukai himself has no problem disposing of not only his enemies, but innocent people and even his own followers if it will further his ends. But to most of the members of Inukai's movement, he's a savior and they're willing to turn a blind eye to any discrepancies and believe and follow everything he says without question.
Ando initially sets himself to oppose Inukai, but finds himself wavering when his friends, classmates, and seemingly the city itself turn against him for not blindly following Inukai like they are. They refuse to listen to any dissenting arguments. There's no need to think about right or wrong, truth or falsehood, as long as the follow Inukai, they're in the right. While a big focus of the series is the struggle between the two of them, and how Ando and his useless little power can stand against a large and violent organization, there's an underlying theme of how to live. At times, Ando thinks it might be best just to go with the flow, stop thinking, and go along with Inukai like everyone else, gaining a peaceful life, but in effect becoming nothing more than a puppet, dancing to Inukai's tune. The other option is to think things through, come to his own conclusions, and be true to his own beliefs and convictions, even if it means setting himself against popular opinion and risking his reputation, relationships, and even his life.
While it's not quite as tight of a thriller as Death Note, Maoh is a really interesting and intriguing series. But a lot of the elements in it, such as the riots and the peoples' blind acceptance of everything Inukai says, lines up a bit too much with some of the things I'm seeing today. It's easy to latch on to a belief, movement, etc. that's popular and sounds good. You get to feel like you're supporting the "good guys" and, even better, there's no need to really think. You don't need to research the matter for yourself, just listen to what your group's leaders say, assume it's the truth, and repeat it. If someone disagrees, it must be because they're cruel, biased, or just plain stupid so feel free to lash out at them, call them names, and attack their character. After all, if you can destroy their credibility, there's no need to actually address their arguments. Researching the subject and coming up with thoughtful and appropriate responses takes too much effort. Besides, if you actually research and think things through logically and impartially, there's the very real chance that you may discover you've been wrong. And that would just make life way too complicated.

Sigh... I try not to get into overly serious subjects here, but I have to say, a lot of things I see today in the news, on social media, and the like leave me worried sometimes. More and more often, as of late... Anyway, I'm sure I'm be back to writing about more normal subjects come Friday so I'll see you then.


4/27/2015 Slow weekend

Nothing too exciting to talk about this weekend. I did some shopping and checked out the sweet onion festival at a nearby farm (mostly for kids, but I got some cheap vegetables), but most of my time has been divided between reading and working on various things. For now, here's a restaurant review.

Restaurant Review: Kaka'ako Kitchen
Restaurant Type: Hawaiian
Location: Ward Center
Kaka'ako Kitchen has been on my list of restaurants to try for ages, ever since I read some favorable reviews in the paper, but for months I never got around to going. Finally, it all worked out so I dropped in. First off, it's a very casual plate lunch type of place (though they're also open for dinner most days). Paper plates, plastic utensils, and most of the seating is outside. So don't go looking for something fancy or atmospheric. The prices aren't bad though and the menu is a diverse mix of Hawaiian, Japanese, and a little Italian. I had the combo plate with mahi mahi and shoyu chicken. Both the fish and the chicken were well cooked (the mahi mahi especially had a much better texture than I expected) and the sauces had quite a nice flavor to them.
All in all, I'd say Kaka'ako Kitchen is one of the better plate lunch restaurants I've tried here on the island. Add in the diverse menu, and it's a good choice if you need a quick meal while at Ward.


4/24/2015 Mobile RPGs

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While it never has, and will most likely never be, one of my primary gaming platforms, there's always some game I'm working through on my phone. Mainly to kill time when I get stuck waiting in line or some such (if I know I'm going to have a long wait coming up, I'll bring my 3DS or Vita). I've tried out various phone games but I usually end up playing either one of Kairosoft's simulation games or a Japanese style RPG (mostly from Kemco). Now those RPGs could pretty much be mistaken for lost SNES games, though none of the ones I've played so far come close to the level of that era's classics. Anyway, recently I've tried a couple of mobile RPGs that were designed more heavily with mobile phones in mind (for better or worse) and I figured I'd write a little bit about them.

The first is Final Fantasy Record Keeper. While Square Enix's record with mobile games has been spotty, I decided to give it a try. It relies rather heavily on the nostalgia factor but, if you're a FF fan, it's really not a bad game. Basically, you get to assemble a team consisting of characters and job classes from various FF games, give them some equipment and abilities, and fight your way through "dungeons" (a series of battles, culminating with a boss fight) based on a dungeon from one of the FF games. It's all very simplified compared to the original games, but kinda fun.
The other game is Terra Battle, which was created by Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the Final Fantasy series) and Mistwalker (the studio he formed after leaving Square Enix). It also involves assembling a team of characters in various job classes and fighting though multiple series of battles to clear "dungeons". While I'd prefer Sakaguchi spent his time on another AAA console RPG instead, it has a rather clever sliding tile based battle system with a surprising amount of depth. Add in music by Nobuo Uematsu and you have a pretty great mobile RPG.
So am I just giving the two a shout out? Not so much. One thing that really stuck out about the two games was how similar they were in many ways. In both cases you create a team of characters and advance by clearing "dungeons" which are essentially several series of battles, getting money, EXP, and items. Doing each set of battles costs stamina. When your stamina runs out, you need to wait for a while in real time while it recharges (one set of battles seems to average 15 - 50 minutes worth of stamina, with a dungeon consisting of several sets). Alternately, you can spend a second set of currency (mythril in FFRK and energy in TB) for an instant recharge.
Both games also rely heavily on a gatchapon (UFO catcher) element to strengthen your party. In FFRK, most of the better weapons and armor can only be gotten through a random draw. Similarly, in TB you recruit new (and hopefully stronger) characters via a random draw. Those random draws cost mythril/energy, as well.
Small amounts of mythril/energy can be gained by clearing dungeons. Or you can pay real money for them. So, you can get everything there is in both games without spending a thing, which is great. Though before too long you're going to hit a wall where your party just isn't strong enough to continue through the story mode and you have to spend a lot of time grinding or spend some money in hopes of getting better items/characters through the random draw (which is in no way guaranteed due to randomness). And, while you'll start out with more than enough stamina to breeze through the early dungeons, soon you'll find yourself alternating between several minutes of play time and several hours of waiting for your stamina to recharge. While the battle systems themselves are different, both games clearly took their basic design straight from another title (probably Puzzle & Dragons).
On the one hand, both games are well made and fairly fun. On the other hand, I really hate the system of "time gating" the game with stamina, something that started with social networking games to force players to keep coming back every day (it works, but it's extremely annoying and will drive some players away entirely). And while I'm not opposed to the option of paying for better items/characters, at least not as long as they can also be earned through regular gameplay, I dislike the randomness of the systems. It's really annoying when you cash in your hard earned (or expensively purchased) mythril/energy and don't get anything good from it. Not to mention that I think the prices are higher than they should be. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for financially supporting games I like (free or not) and I'll happily spend a few dollars if I'm having fun. But time gates and random draws rub me the wrong way. I wish the teams behind FFRK and TB had looked to more player friendly freemium games (like Plants vs. Zombies 2) for inspiration when deciding how to handle monetization.


4/22/2015 Nothing to see here...

Well, not nothing. There's today's comic strip, of course. But not much of a news post. Been a pretty ordinary couple of days and, while I was thinking of writing about some video games I've been playing lately, I'm just too tired today. So have a great mid-week and I'll see you all on Friday.


4/20/2015 Japanese movies

Looks like it's time for another travelogue entry...

April 12th - 19th (Sunday - Sunday): HIFF Spring Showcase
HIFF stands for the Hawaii International Film Festival, which I attended back in November (see the entry for November 2nd). Well, while the main festival is in November, they have a small version in the spring. Much smaller (30 movies vs. around 200), but I still found a few things I wanted to see. So, like last time, here's short reviews of the movies I saw (all of which were Japanese).

Unsung Hero
Are you familiar with tokusatsu? It's a Japanese film genre. Specifically, the one where heroes in colorful body suits fight monsters (guys in big rubber suits). Ultra Man, Kamen Rider, and Power Ranger (well, sorta, but that's another subject) are all examples. That explanation out of the way, Unsung Hero isn't a tokusatsu movie. It's actually about a stunt man from a (fictional) tokusatsu series. See, the heroes of those shows often have two actors. The regular actor who plays the hero in his or her normal form, and the stunt man who plays their masked hero persona (hidden behind the suit and mask). The story follows a veteran stunt man who loves his job but always longed for a role where he could actually show his face on screen. Though that actually takes a backseat for the majority of the movie, which focuses on him training a talented by arrogant young actor. The story is fairly predictable, but it was fun to watch and offered a bit of a behind the scenes look at stunts and tokusatsu.

Midnight Diner
Based on a TV drama which was in turn based on a manga (neither of which I'm familiar with), Midnight Diner is about a small restaurant in Tokyo that doesn't open until midnight. It's a slice of life drama about the diner's customers and how, with the help of its owner, they work through different problems in their lives. The manga and TV influence is obvious, as the movie is broken up into several mostly independent stories. Some of those stories are better than others but, as a whole, it's a fairly enjoyable look at ordinary people helping each other with ordinary problems. Little bit of food mixed in there as well, though it's not really the focus (as opposed to, say, Little Forest). On a side note, as the entire movie takes place in Tokyo, I had fun trying to identify all the different shooting locations (I think I got most of them right).

Hello Junichi
The description called this a musical, which it really isn't (there's just one song and, aside from a few snippets, it isn't played until the end). That aside though, it's a cute comedy about a group of nine year olds. Junichi is the most timid member of his group of friends and can't seem to muster up the courage to return an eraser to the girl he likes. The others are dealing with various issues of their own but a new student teacher sets in motion a series of events which helps them become more confident and solve their problems. A couple of the problems are actually very serious but the movie never gets stays that way for long, always going back to an upbeat and light hearted tone. All the characters have overly extreme personalities, it tosses in some odd one-off scenes here and there, and I can honestly never quite buy the whole little kids in love thing (not just in this movie, but in general). But, that aside, it's a fun and moderately amusing movie.

When Marnie Was There
Marnie is the newest Ghibli movie. It's also the first one they made after Hayao Miyazaki's retirement and, possibly because of that, didn't do especially well in the Japanese box office (at least for a Ghibli movie). So I wasn't sure what to expect going in. Really though, I'm not sure why it didn't do better. The art and music are beautiful, as expected from a Ghibli movie, and, unlike Ghibli's rare past missteps, has a good story as well. Anna is a introverted and rather anti-social girl living in Tokyo. After a particularly bad asthma attack, she's sent to live with relatives in the country in hopes that the clean air will help her condition. While there, she meets and befriends Marnie, a mysterious foreign girl living in an equally mysterious mansion. Not to spoil much (you'll figure this out pretty early on), but When Marnie Was There is a ghost story, though not dark or sinister one. A little mysterious and melancholy, but touching as well. Honestly, I'd say it's one of the better non-Miyazaki Ghibli movies. I believe it will be getting a wider US release later in the year, and I recommend checking it out when it does.


4/17/2015 Japanese BBQ

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And now for that restaurant review I didn't get to on Wednesday...

Restaurant Review: Gyu-Kaku
Type: Yakiniku
Location: Honolulu (Waikiki, Kapiolani, etc.)
The last time I got yakiniku was in Osaka. But it was only a matter of time before I tried out one of the places here on Oahu. For those not familiar with the term, yakiniku is the Japanese take on Korean BBQ. You order an assortment of meat and/or veggies and grill them at your table. As a note, if you haven't done it before, I'd recommend going with someone who has. If that's not an option, just keep a close eye on your grill to avoid burning anything.
Anyway, Gyu-Kaku is a fairly typical yakiniku place I went to the Kapiolani location, which is very nice restaurant with a clear Japanese vibe. The menu consists of a bunch of Japanese and Korean appetizers and a wide variety of veggies and thinly sliced meats to grill. They recommend 3 - 5 items per person, which sounds about right depending on the items and person in question. I got kalbi (Korean style beef ribs), harami (skirt steak), beef bacon, and some shiitake mushrooms, along with a plate of assorted kimchi. Some of the meats come already marinated, but they've got a selection of sauces on the side (with recommend pairings on the menu) as well. Both the meats and sauces were excellent. Though, as I mentioned, it's at least somewhat dependant on your own grilling skills. I was able to grill my own taiyaki for dessert too, which was a pleasant surprise.
I really have no complaints about Gyu-Kaku. Nice atmosphere, good food, and reasonable prices for yakiniku (though keep in mind that yakiniku is a little on the expensive side to begin with). Service was good too and I managed to get there are just the right time to avoid a wait (though I got lucky, it tends to get long lines during dinner time). I'm sure I'll be back again sooner or later.


4/15/2015 Scotland in Hawaii

More travelogue.

April 12th (Sunday): Scottish Festival
The Honolulu Greek Festival last fall came as a bit of a surprise, but not nearly as much as when I heard about the Scottish Festival. Of course, I had to check it out. It was actually at the same place as the Greek Festival was, the pavilion at the far end of Ala Moana Beach Park. Personally, I think the design of the place suited Greek culture a little better, but anyway... There were a few booths selling assorted Scottish items, a room with tables for various Scottish clans (who knew there were so many people of Scottish descent in Hawaii?), and some food, of course. I was a bit disappointed to see that the majority of the food wasn't Scottish, but I did get bridie, which is a sort of puff pasty with ground beef inside. Could have bought canned haggis too, but even if it wasn't $14 a can, I kinda of doubt I would have (maybe I'd try it in a good restaurant, but not canned). Inside the pavilion they had a highland dance competition going all day (for young girls and teens, from the look of it) and plenty of Scottish music. Speaking of music, here's something a little different. It's a kind old attempt at a Scottish Hawaiian song. Kinda weird, but amusing. Right outside the pavilion they were running a series of Scottish games. They included hammer throwing, weight tossing, and the famous caber toss. They had a few events for women too, like throwing frying pans and rolling pins (on that note, I wouldn't recommend angering a Scottish woman). Is it just me, or does every traditional Scottish sport seem to involve throwing heavy objects around? That weight tossing one especially looked dangerous since the goal is to toss it almost straight up and over the bar above your head. If it were me, I'd probably take off running the moment I threw the weight... The Society for Creative Anachronism had some fighting demos too, though that's not strictly Scottish.
In the end, I spent a fun two or three hours there. It's not one of the biggest festivals, but there's some good entertainment and it's definite change of pace from the usual Hawaiian and Asian style festivals they have around here.

Got a restaurant review to write too, but that'll have to wait. See you Friday!


4/13/2015 Hiking with my new camera

Got a couple travelogue entries to write, but I'm running a bit late right now so I think I'll do the first one today and the second on Wednesday.

April 11th (Saturday): Pu'u o Hulu Hike with My New Camera
I've driven past the start of this trail many times when going to services on Saturdays. Well, this Saturday afternoon I had some free time so I looked it up in a hiking book and decided to give it a try. I figured it would also give me a chance to start playing with my new camera. Speaking of which...
So, since late 2012 I've been using a Canon Powershot sx260. Which was a replacement for my Powershot sx100, which was in turn a replacement for my original digital camera (another Canon). Unfortunately, my sx260 got a bit banged up while I was in China last summer (never was quite sure how it happened though). It's been a bit glitchy since then, with the largest problem being the way the lens periodically skips up and down. When taking photos it's mostly just an annoyance (though I have missed a few shots as a result), but it really screws with video, as you likely noticed if you've watched any of the videos I've posted since then.
I thought about replacing it last fall with a new Powershot but decided to put up with my damaged camera for a little while longer and wait for the 2015 model in hopes it would make a couple improvements and add a feature or two I'd be wanting. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to see that, not only did the newest Powershot lack the features I'd been wanting, the general consensus was that it was actually inferior to the 2014 model (though still a good camera overall). So, as much as I've loved my Canons, I decided to look at some different brands.
In the end, I decided to try the new Nikon Coolpix S9900. It's a super zoom, like my last two Canons, which means that you get a good bit of power and a really long zoom in a pocket sized camera. That said, the S9900 is a decent bit thicker than my sx260 so it's a little tight in my pocket. Not nearly as bad as my old sx100 though. And the reason for the S9900's extra size and weight is its neat fold out display screen, which makes it much easier to compose shots when holding the camera at an odd angle or to take selfies (which I've never been especially fond of, but still). It's also got a 30x zoom (standard now, but up from the 20x on my sx260), a true panorama mode (Canon used to include a pseudo version which relied on computer software and tended to leave visible seams, but eventually dropped it entirely), and some other nifty features (like a photo pre-cache mode). On the down side, some of those special shooting modes only operate at lower image quality settings, which kinda discourages me from using them. And Nikon's menu system, while functional, really isn't very good. Too many common features are buried in screen covering menus. It also lacks some features I've gotten really used to in my Canons, such as the ability to set the time limit and display settings for image review after I take a shot. The flash, which lacks multiple strengths and requires manual release and return, isn't especially great either. As for image quality... I'll have to use it for a bit longer before I have a definitive opinion there. On that note, I'm still figuring out the best way to set up different types of photos on tit, so some of my photos in the next few travelogue entries may be a bit off in one way or another.
But anyway, on to the hike. Pu'u o Hulu is in Wai'anae out on the Leeward (West) side of the island. The trailhead is right across the street from a housing development. It isn't marked, but it's obvious enough if you're looking and, at least on weekends, there will usually be a few cars parked nearby by other hikers. While it's not an area of the island I'd want to live on, they have some great mountain views and the trail zigzags right up the side of one of those mountains. As such, it's only about a mile each way. But, since it zigzags, it's not as steep or strenuous as those "staircase straight up the mountain" hikes like Koko Head. Heck, I'd say it's easier than Diamond Head. At least if you stick to the zigzag path. There's one point where the trail splits for a while. One path zigzags and the other goes pretty much straight up. It's shorter, but requires climbing over a bunch of loose rock. I tried it on my way up. The rocks aren't that bad, but it requires decent balance and foot and is extremely overgrown so I don't recommend it. Though I did run across this bird on the way, which was cool. Whatever path you take, you'll end up at a few old military bunkers at the top of the mountain which offer excellent views. Now this isn't one of my best ocean rock photos, but would you believe I took this from the exactly same place as the last photo? Yay for 30x zoom! And remember that panorama mode I mentioned? That's just about a 360 view. Really makes it clear that this is an island, huh?
So, still figuring out the camera, but I'm pretty happy with some of the photos I took (much less so with others, but I'll work all the settings out sooner or later). As for the hike, it's not very long or difficult and the views are great, though it's also really short so don't expect to spend all that much time on it. Not sure if it's worth driving all the way across the island for if you're in Honolulu, but if you're in the area and have an hour to kill (30 or 40 minutes if you're quick and don't spend too much time admiring the view) it's worth a stop.


4/8/2015 Where does it go?

UPDATE: Forgt to announce this earlier, but there will be no update on Friday as it's the last day of Passover.

You know, there's been several days lately when I've been sure I'll have a lot of free time I can use for writing and playing FF Type-0. And every single day all that time has just kind of disappeared. Either something else I was working on took a lot longer than planned, or some other things suddenly came up that had to take priority. At this point though, I think I'm running out of other tasks (surprise or otherwise) so hopefully that'll change...

Things did run late last night though, so I really should get going.


4/6/2015 Happy Passover!

Passover (a Jewish holiday) started Friday night. Normally, I only attend one Passover seder (service) each year, but this year I ended up having three, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Though at the first two I was only an attendee, so I didn't have any prep work to do for those. Yesterday's I did, but I enjoyed it. I've always liked seders and I think they're fun to prepare for and run. I didn't get to run my own last year, and it's been ages since I had more than one seder in year so it's been a fun weekend. Didn't leave me with a whole lot of time for other things but that's ok.

So, happy Passover (if you celebrate it) and I'll see you Wednesday!


4/3/2015 Late night Thai

It's Friday, so vote with the TWC button to see the new Blooper Reel comic! Also, remember that I'd be open to running a Japan tour this summer if I can get enough people.

Restaurant Review: Siam Garden Cafe
Type: Thai
Location: Honolulu (off of Nimitz Highway near Best Buy)
I'm a huge fan of Thai food so when I needed something to eat after a late game night, I was pleased to see that Siam Garden was both nearby and still open. It's a nice restaurant and service has been good on all my visits.
Now for the food. They've got pretty much all the usual Thai dishes (noodles, curries, soups, etc.). I didn't see anything particular special or unexpected on the menu, but they have pretty much every dish I'd want, and all at pretty reasonable prices. The curries are excellent and the drunkard's noodles are pretty great too. Be carefully though, as their "medium" is on the spicy side. They've also got a good Thai tea and I was pleased to notice that their brown rice is actually more of a red rice (which I love, but rarely see in restaurants).
I wouldn't say that it quite hits the level of my favorite Thai restaurants, but not many place do. Really though, I can't complain about Siam Garden. I may have originally gone mainly because they're open late, but I'd be glad to return at any time of day.


4/1/2015 It's the truth

Well, April 1st falls on an update day and not only do I completely forget about it and not even think of doing a joke comic, but it just so happens that the strip I do post on April 1st has a big plot revelation. Anyway though, today's strip isn't an April Fools joke and I suspect a lot of you figured out who these guys were already. I certainly dropped enough very obvious hints over the past several strips. But, for those of you who hadn't figured it out, now you know For those of you who don't know who Team Rocket is, you need to go back and play the earlier Pokémon games, or watch the anime, or read the first couple arcs of the Pokémon Adventures manga.

March 27th - 29th (Friday - Sunday): Kawaii Kon
I enjoy going to anime conventions, though it's been a while since I've lived in the right place at the right time to attend one. I did manage to go to Otakon in 2013 (which was awesome), but I just got lucky that it coincided with a trip to visit some relatives. And that was still a year and a half ago, so I'd been looking forward to attending Kawaii Kon, the convention here on Oahu. In the past I've been to small cons (such as Anizona) with barely over 1,000 people, and giants cons (namely Otakon) with over 30,000. But this was my first time attending a medium sized con (I'm estimating 8,000 - 10,000 people). Gotta say, it does strike a nice balance between the two extremes, though all sizes have their good and bad points.
Anyway, like all good cons, there were lots of panels, game rooms (video games, table top, etc.), screening rooms, a dealer hall, and artists' alley. Lots of good cosplayers too (though not all were from anime and games). One cool thing about Kawaii Kon is that, despite not being one of the biggest cons in the country, it still manages to get some really great special guests (probably helps that it's relatively close to Japan).
All in all, it was a well done con that had pretty much everything I'd want to see in a convention. Some of my favorite events include the Eir Aoi concert (I got her autograph too), getting Toru Furuya's autograph (he's the Japanese voice actor who did Yamcha and Tuxedo Mask, among many others), and competing in a Smash Bros. tournament (I didn't win, though I did fairly well). Actually, there were multiple concerts. Akira (the one who did some music for Black Butler) opened for Eir Aoi (videos weren't allowed in either of those concerts, unfortunately) and then EMKE had a concert too. I actually wrote about them once before a few years ago when I saw them at a Independence Day celebration (see the July 3rd entry), but they're a local band that mostly does covers (though they've been doing some original music as well). I was impressed with them back then and they're still really good. They added some anime songs to their set list too, which was fun.
I don't know if Kawaii Kon is worth flying all the way to Hawaii for (Otakon and Anime Expo are a lot bigger and probably much cheaper flights or most people), but it's a pretty awesome con all around and I'm already looking forward to next year's.


3/30/2015 Hiking

I just got back from a weekend in Honolulu (all of 30 minutes from my home, but still) at Kawaii Kon, the local anime convention. I'll have a write up on it come Wednesday, when I've had a chance to sort through my photos, but for now here's the travelogue entry for that hike I did last week.

March 24 (Tuesday): Hawaii Loa Ridge Hike
I'd already planned to be in Honolulu Tuesday evening for game night at the comic book store, so I decided to go in early and do a hike. Of course, there are lots of hikes closer to my part of the island, but this is one I've been wanting to do for a while. Why? Mainly because I've failed to twice before. The first time was with my parents way back before I moved to Hawaii, but the trail was prety muddy so we didn't go very far. The second time was with Connie not all that long ago, but it was a holiday and the parking lot was full. And, as the start of the hike is in the back of a ritzy gated community, they don't let many people in at a time. You do get to see some pretty fancy houses on the drive up though.
Anyway, it actually reminded me quite a lot of the Wililinui Ridge hike (see the entry for Saturday, December 28th). I looked it up and it turns out both ridges are right across from each other. The trail starts out pretty high up and alternates between walking through the brush on top of the ridge and passing through the occasional patch of trees. There's some short acents and decents, but it's fairly flat. At least for a while. Eventually it transitions from trees and brush to tons of ferns. And then you hit the stairs. Lots of and lots of steep stairs. The view was nice, but I hadn't been expecting all the steps and, after climbing most of the way up, it was starting to look like rain so I skipped the final hill. I normally hate quitting before reaching the end of a trail, but I was close enough, and I had to get back in time for game night anyway.
All in all, it's a pretty hike and the majority of it is fairly easy and relaxing. Though if you want to go all the way to the end, prepare for some serious climbing. And, as previously mentioned, keep in mind that it may be closed during peak times if it gets busy. Though, if that happens, you could always try Wililinui Ridge nearby for a similar hike and view.


3/27/2015 The lights!

It's been a very long time, but at last the lights are fixed and we get a look at the mysterious black suit guys' boss. Recognize him? I bet a lot of you do, but for those of you who don't, the answer will be given in the comic soon enough. On another comic related note, don't forget to vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic!

I was going to do a travelogue entry today about a hike I did and maybe a restaurant review, but working on the sprites for this guy and those bad guys in the previous comic has left me a bit behind on PV and I just don't have time right now. At least not if I want to get a decent night's sleep. I should have it up on Monday though.

And on yet another topic, keep in mind that I'm considering running a Japan tour this summer if I can get enough people. See Wednesday's news post (below) for more details.


3/25/2015 Want to visit Japan?

Monday's strip didn't update properly at first. I fixed it yesterday, so if you missed it just hit the previous comic button.

I've been waiting a long time to get to this point in the comic, when some of the original plot twists I added in finally start to be revealed. If you haven't figured out who those guys are yet, it'll be fully revealed soon. Though I think a lot of you can probably guess...

Some of you might remember that last year I talked a little about the possibility of leading a small Japan tour group in the summer. That didn't pan out, but I'd be up for doing it this summer too. Here's a link to the rough itineraries and costs that I put together last year. It could actually be cheaper this year, thanks to the exchange rate. The main thing is, at these prices (give or take), I would really need at least 10 people to cover the costs (that's the break-even point). I may make a more mainstream attempt at something like this in the future (though likely not this year), but figured I'd give it on last go as a sort of friends and Pebble Version readers sort of thing. If you're seriously interested, send me an e-mail.



3/23/2015 Ugh...

I was planning on doing a restaurant review today but after something like seven hours doing my taxes, I'm too burnt out to write much of anything. On the bright side, I finished them (just need to address the envelopes and send them out) and, if I filled everything out right, I'll be getting a refund.

Today's going to be more work (the house needs a good cleaning), but that's my last big job for this week. After that I can focus more on relaxing and Aurora's Nightmare.

See you Wednesday!


3/20/2015 Spring break!

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

Starting tomorrow, I'm on spring break for a week! I was originally thinking about using the time to travel to one of the other islands for some sightseeing but in the end I decided it would be better to save my money and stay home. Besides, it'll give me more time to work on some things (mainly Aurora's Nightmare). Not that I'm just going to work though, assuming the weather is decent, I'd like to get in a hike or two and spend some time on the beach. Might also be a good time to check out one of the tourist attractions around here that I haven't gotten to yet... And then next weekend is Hawaii's biggest anime convention, which should be a lot of fun. So I'm looking forward to a week that's hopefully a mixture of fun, productivity, and relaxation. I'm sure there will be some travelogue entries too, so keep an eye out for those.



3/18/2015 Up late

I was out kinda of late Tuesday night so I don't really have time to write much today, sorry. On a totally different note, I did get my copies of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD and the Final Fantasy XV demo back on Monday. I haven't had much time to play with them yet, but so far both are pretty cool.

Anyway, I've got to get to sleep. See you Friday!


3/16/2015 One last day

One last travelogue entry to get caught up..

March 10th (Tuesday): Connie's Last Day
Connie and I had our last big outing a couple days back at the Honolulu Festival, but we did end up checking out Tropics Mini-Gold before she left. You might remember that I wrote about our visit to the mini-golf course at Wet 'n Wild a little while back. Well, as far I know, Tropics is the only other one on the island. It used to go by a different name, but recently got new owners, a new name, and a general revamp. Anyway, it's out by Pearl Ridge (by the Toys R Us, specifically) and doesn't open until mid-afternoon (so don't arrive too early). As for the golf itself, they only have one course but it's in excellent condition and has a pretty good variety of holes (nothing nearly as fancy as I've seen in Florida, but still good). The little patch of land they have is really long and thin, so you work your way down for the first half and back up for the second. A little odd but, with the thick foliage, it worked pretty well. I personally liked it better than the Wet 'n Wild course (it's better maintained and I liked the clever used of space). Connie disagreed (she preferred the other course's larger and more varied area) but either way, we had a good time.

Restaurant Review: Roy's
Type: Hawaiian
Location: Ko Olina (also Waikiki and elsewhere)
I've seen Roy's here on Oahu a number of times, and even back in Phoenix, but this was the first time I've eaten in one. This particular one is in the Ko Olina golf club. It's a really nice restaurant with great decor and ambiance, perfect for a date or other classy meal. On that note, it's also a bit on the expensive side, expect to spend at least $40 per person, probably more. That's higher than I usually go for a meal, but it was Connie's last day here (sorry for the blurry photo), so I figured it was a good time to splurge. And hey, it's one of the few restaurants I've visited on the island that doesn't charge extra for a side of rice.
Connie got the blackened ahi and I got the misoyaki butterfish. Both were perfectly done. The butterfish was especially excellent and just melted in your mouth. They both came with a selection of Japanese vegetables in a soy sauce, which made for a nice accompaniment. Portions aren't huge, but they're big enough to fill you up, and you get a free bowl of spiced edamame. Really, the food couldn't have been any better.
While Roy's isn't a place I'd eat at very often, due to the price, I'd certainly be up for a return trip next time I'm in need of a higher class restaurant.


3/13/2015 Festival!

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

Well, Connie is back in China. Now that I think about it, between both of her visits, I've spent more time with her in my new house than I have by myself... Anyway, there's a good chance I'll be visiting her in the summer, which will also mean more time spent exploring China. But for now, I've got a couple more travelogue entries to write about her time her. First up...

March 8th (Sunday): The Honolulu Festival
The Honolulu Festival is an annual event, though this is the first time I've been on Oahu at the right time of year. While the festival stretched out over two days, the main events were on Sunday so that's when Connie and I went. As a note, despite the name, it's more of a Japanese festival than anything else.
During the day, there were a lot of performances spread between the convention center, the mall, and a stage near Waikiki Beach. Connie and I spent our time in the convention center. There were two stages, with new shows starting every 20 minutes or so. There was a pretty wide variety. Being a mostly Japanese festival, there was naturally taiko drumming, modern and traditional Japanese dance (and combinations of the two), cheerleading, singing (including students from a Japanese music school doing a song from The Sound of Music (in Japanese)), and more, most of which were really well done. There were a couple non-Japanese performances, including traditional Alaskan dance for some reason, but only a couple. The convention center also had a display of mikoshi (portable shrines used in Japanese parades), though some were decidedly non-traditional, and an expo with a number of booths. Some were stores, some were promoting different parts of Japan, and others were about local groups. Little bit of food too, though not a lot, and a collection of Japanese carnival games for the kids. To round things out, there was a bon dance and some Japanese movie screenings.
About an hour after the performances wrapped up, the parade started down along Waikiki Beach. A lot of the groups who had put on performances were there, along with many others. Bands, dancers, school groups, beauty queens, mikoshi, Chinese dragon dancers, other dragons... Once again, most were Japanese, though there were a few groups from Hawaii and other parts of the world. Kumamon was even there. Remember him? Kumamon is the mascot of Kumamoto Japan (which I visited and wrote about this past summer), probably the most popular of the country's regional mascots. A couple other standouts included this seemingly endless group of high schoolers and the Getappers (a Japanese dance group that tap dances while wearing geta (traditional Japanese sandals)). But that's only a sampling. On the whole, it was one of the most entertaining parades I've seen outside of Disney. Though it was also one of the longest, taking more than 2 1/2 hours to pass. The last float was pretty cool though.
Later that night, Connie and I ended up on the beach to watch the big fireworks show which ended the festival. It was put on by the Japanese city of Nagaoka, which is known for their fireworks festival. And I can see why. It was an excellent show with a wide variety of fireworks, many with interesting shapes and colors. Definitely a great way to wrap up a fun day, and the last big event Connie and I had planned for her time here.

That's all for now. Expect a couple more travelogue entries coming next week though.


3/11/2015 Chocolate

Time to get started on those travelogue entries.

March 6th (Friday): Manoa Chocolate
A while back I got a Groupon for a chocolate factory tour, figuring it would be a fun thing to do with Connie. I was planning to use it back in January but the timing never worked out. Finally, I found a day it would work and the two of use headed to Kailua.
Manoa Chocolate is a small operation, but I've seen their bars in various stores around the island. They're what's called a "craft chocolate company", like craft coffee and craft beer. Basically it means that their chocolate is custom made in house in small batches, leading to better quality, more unique flavors, and a higher price. The tour started with a talk about the chocolate industry and how chocolate beans are grown, fermented, and dried before being shipped to chocolate makers. While I'm not a big chocolate fan myself, it was pretty interesting. Despite taking a couple short chocolate tours in other places, I didn't know about the fermentation process, for example. Anyway, Manoa Chocolate doesn't grow their own beans so their job begins after the drying process. Next stop was the roasting. To give an example of what chocolate is like unprocessed, they gave us some plain dried cocoa beans and some roasted ones to try. The roasting made for a big improvement but, either way, I can't imagine why anyone thought they'd make a good sweet. After that was the process of separating the nibs (pieces of bean) from the shells, then combining them with sugar and spinning them around in a mixer for days on end (surprisingly, no liquid is added, it's just cocoa nibs and sugar; milk chocolate uses powdered milk). Finally, the mixture (which has become a paste thanks to the oil content of the cocoa) is made into bars.
After the tour, there was a chocolate tasting, where we got to try out all of the different chocolate bars they make. It started out with several different dark chocolates, nothing but chocolate and sugar, each using beans grown in a different location. It was surprising how different they all tasted. As a side note, dark chocolate is chocolate with a minimum 55% cocoa content. The ones we had were 72%...which means that 28% was sugar. The rest were milk chocolate (with one being goat milk), many of which had additional flavors such as lavender, coffee, sea salt, and ghost pepper. Yes, ghost pepper. It was hot enough that I wouldn't want to take a big bite out of one of those bars. And they only put one tablespoon of the stuff into 55 pounds of chocolate... There was tea too, made from cocoa nibs.
All in all, it was a fun and interesting tour, even for a non-cholocate lover like me. If you're interested though, keep in mind that the tour isn't free and you have to book in advance (it's also only run at 3:00 on several days each week).
Later that day, Connie and I ended up watching the sunset at Waikiki Beach. It was a bit cloudy, but still pretty.

Well, that turned out longer than I thought it would, so I think I'll save the next travelogue entry for Friday.



3/9/2015 Working on photos

I've had a fun weekend, but I'm still in the midst of sorting out the photos so the travelogue will have to wait until Wednesday.

In the meantime, I noticed that (finally) my previous indie game Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja is getting close reaching the top 100 on Steam Greenlight so any additional votes would be greatly appreciated.



3/6/2015 Retrospection

Just vote with the TWC button on the left to see this week's bonus comic!

Some conversations I've had lately have made me realize just how much I've changed over the years. Not so much in terms of my hobbies or general personality, but I think I've improved in a lot of areas. For example, when I was a kid I used to really hate change (even something minor like rearranging furniture). But after multiple moves, homes, jobs, etc., I don't mind change anymore. In fact, sometimes it's quite welcome. I'm also a lot more open to trying new and different things. I've always been a bit adventurous, but I tended to avoid things that I didn't think would interest me. I also tended to avoid most foreign foods, sticking to a handful I knew that I liked. But a bit of curiosity led me to try lots of different restaurants in Phoenix, leading me to discover that I like a really wide variety of foods. As for trying different things, I've really opened up there. A bit of it was curiosity, especially when I was in Japan. But part of it was also realizing that it didn't do me any good to complain about doing things I didn't want to. It was better to try to enjoy them, or at least tolerate them. And it worked. My range of interests and hobbies has really expanded and if I go to some place or show, even one I don't have much interest in, I can usually enjoy myself in one way or another. I also used to be really shy as a kid. And, while I doubt I'll ever be a super social person, I'm way more open and talkative than I used to be.
Some of that change was due to unavoidable life situations (moving, for example), but a lot of it was from effort. Between nudges from my parents and my own introspection, I was able to form a pretty good idea of the things I needed to work on. After that, time, effort, and will power (along with some prayer here and there) helped me improve. A lot of the time, it just started with changing the way I acted in given situations. Over time, if you act cheerful or content, even if you don't feel that way, your mind will start to change to match your actions. I'm not perfect by any means but, looking back, I can really see how I've improved and, as a result, I have more friends, more hobbies, and I'm more content with things over all. Confronting your own shortcomings and dealing with them isn't especially pleasant, but it's worth it in the long run.


3/4/2015 Happy Purim!

Purim starts tonight. If you're not familiar with it, it's a holiday celebrating the events of the Biblical book of Ester. It's a fun holiday. Traditions include making and eating Hamentaschen (a type of cookie, which Connie, my mom, and I baked on Monday, dressing up in costume (I'm a bit limited in that regard, but I may come up with something), reading / listening to / reenacting the story of Ester, and, for some, getting drunk (I won't be doing that one). Anyway, Connie, my parents, and I will be going to a party and it should be fun. Got some cool stuff planned for this weekend too, especially since it'll be Connie last one here (she returns to China in a week). Expect some travelogue entries all about it.

In the meantime, have a great Purim! Or a great ordinary non-holiday if you prefer.


3/2/2015 What the...

Connie and I saw Kingsman yesterday. I didn't hate it, but I won't be buying the Blu-ray either. Honestly, it's a bit hard to form a solid opinion on it. It's like they wanted to make three or four very different style spy movies but couldn't decide which to do so they smashed them all together. The early part is a mostly serious "recruits going through tough training" type of thing. Then it goes into old style James Bond complete with a crazy villain, an odd henchman (well, henchwoman), and a bunch of gadgets (though lacking the sexy Bond girl). Except there's some odd comedy bits mixed it giving it a bit of a Get Smart vibe at the same time. And then there's the fight scenes, which are channeling things like Kill Bill. That part pretty much takes over for the second half, any hint of a serious spy movie is lost, and everything just gets utterly ridiculous. It's such an odd mix of styles that it makes the movie as a whole hard to place.
Kind of hits that confused note on the social/political commentary angle too. On the one hand, there's a violent extended fight scene where the members of an ultra fundamentalist church massacre each other thanks to the villain's rage-enducing mind control technology. Which seems a little like an ultra liberal fantasy. On the other hand, maybe that was the point. The villain seems to be just such a liberal (his master plan involves killing off the majority of the world's population in order to stop global warming), so you could argue that it makes sense that he tests his invention on a Christian group (albeit one of those extremely rare "everyone except us is evil" ones) instead of, say, a terrorist cell.
So yeah. Kingsman isn't a serious secret agent story, it isn't James Bond, it isn't Get Smart, and it isn't Kill Bill, though it has parts that are reminiscent of all of them. It's not a bad movie, but its myriad of styles are so different that they don't mesh especially well, which makes it hard to recommend to a lot of people.


2/27/2015 A mix

The weekly bonus comic is up! Just vote with the TWC button on the left to see it.

This week has had a number of good points and bad points. I've made some good progress on the script for Aurora's Nightmare, though that's more of a overall thing, some days it went painfully slowly. I also had some fairly frustrating work and business related issues to deal with, though my classes themselves went well. Then there was some computer issues over the past weekend, some good video game progress (I completed the hardest levels in Super Mario 3D World, though it took a few days of trying). And that's nowhere near a complete list. Of course, every week has its good and bad points, though this one has really had a lot of back and forth. Hopefully things will smooth out over the weekend.


2/25/2015 Shave Ice

I've got a little restaurant review for today.

Restaurant Review: Island Vintage Shave Ice
Type: Shave Ice
Location: Kalakaua Ave., By The Royal Hawaiian Mall
To be honest, I'm usually not a big fan of shave ice. Namely due to the syrups, which tend to be little more than sugar, water, and food coloring. Island Vintage, however, is one of the rare places that makes theirs out of real fruit (right down to bits of pulp and the occasional little seed) and the difference is enormous. You pay a little bit of a premium compared to run of the mill shave ice places, but it's worth every penny. Add in organic ice cream, fresh fruit, and other great toppings and you have what could very well be the best shave ice on the island. Naturally, you can make your own combination, but they also have several great signature combinations. The keiki size is good for a normal snack, while the regular is easily big enough for two (unless you're really hungry).
Personally, ice cream is still my top choice for a cool treats but shave ice is pretty great too, at least when you get it at Island Vintage. If you're anywhere near Honolulu, it really is the place to go for shave ice.


2/232015 Still more Chinese New Year

More travelogue? More travelogue!

February 19th (Thursday): Lions on Poles
Apparently we still weren't quite done with Chinese New Year events. Thursday evening saw my mom, Connie, and I at Ala Moana to watch another lion dance. Though this one was done on poles. I'd only seen a lion pole dance once before at the Fantastic China expo a few months back. It was cool then and this one was even better. The combination of balance and coordination is really impressive.
On an unrelated note, we swung by the Honolulu Collectors' Expo over the weekend, which was surprisingly cool. There was a very wide variety of items, including a lot of old Japanese stuff. It was part antique shop and part that big flea market I like in Tokyo. There was even an anime/manga section with a much better selection of figurines than I would have expected. While I didn't buy much, it was a fun way to spend an hour or so.

See you Wednesday!


2/20/2015 In the garden of Ho'omaluhia

It's Friday and that means you can click the TWC button and vote to see the new bonus comic.

February 16th (Monday): Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden
Connie and I had originally planned on going hiking, but the hike was overcrowded (probably because of the holiday) so they wouldn't let us in. Now that's not normal for hiking trails, but the start of this one is in a gated housing development. Said development is required by law to let people through to access the trail, but they seem rather grudging about it and close it off as soon as the tiny parking lot fills up. Normally it's not a problem but, like I said, it was a holiday, which means more hikers.
Anyway, in the end we decided to visit a botanical garden with my parents. I've written about a couple of different gardens on this island before, but this was my first time visiting Ho'omaluhia, which is on the Windward (Eastern) side of the island. It's got a nice setting by the mountains and is divided up into a number of different sections, most of which are themed after different geographic areas (Polynesia, Africa, etc.). While the individual areas aren't huge, the garden as a whole is, so it's best to drive between the sections (all of which have their own parking lots).
There were some neat plants there, including a variety of flowering trees that I hadn't seen before. Some rather dangerous looking ones too. And hey, I think the entire trip was worth it just for this picture (Connie wants it to be named The Legend of Miss Red Mustache).
Anyway though, if you want to visit a botanical garden on Oahu, I'd recommend Foster or Waimea Valley (both of which I've written about in the past) over Ho'omaluhia. It's nice (and free), but the others have a better layout and more to see over all. Still, if you happen to be in the area, or really like plants and want to visit several botanical gardens, it may be worth a look.
And hey, if you're going from Honolulu you can stop at the Pali Lookout on the way and get a nice view of Oahu's Windward side. Or just get your picture taken there, like Connie and I did, and check out the wild chickens living in the area.

And, on a totally unrelated note, cheese and garlic wrapped in roast beef and spinach with a mushroom cap. Maybe I should go into catering...


2/18/2015 Having fun

Time for some of those promised travelogue entries.

February 14th (Saturday): Chinese New Year Parade
As I said in my last travelogue entry, Chinese New Year is a fairly big deal here. And, with the actual date approaching, the amount of related events has increased. This weekend there was an all day party in China Town, complete with booths (food, Year of the Ram/Sheep/Goat (they can't seem to make up their mind) souvenirs, etc.) music, and a big parade. Connie and I were at my parents' place that day, so we walked over to check it out. Gotta say, I've never seen China Town so crowded. The parade was one of the better ones I've watched here, with dragon dancers, lion dancers, martial artists, beauty queens, and one really long dragon. We had dinner plans so we didn't stay too late, but it was a cool event, with pretty much everything from the early Chinese New Year's party we were at a couple of weeks back and a lot more besides.

February 15th (Sunday): Mini-Golf
I keep meaning to write a travelogue entry for the Wet 'n Wild water park in Kapolei, but I never remember to bring my camera when I go. Next time for sure... Anyway, one of the perks that comes with my Gold Card membership there is free mini-golf at the course they have. As a kid, I used to play mini-golf with my grandparents. Later on, I'd occasionally play with my parents, brother, or friends. But, at this point, I think it's been at least a couple of years since I last played (a little odd considering how many course there are in Florida).
Anyway, Connie had never played mini-golf before and I'd been wanting to try out the course so we headed over there for a quick game. It's not a bad course. Nothing too fancy, but it has a suitable tropical island vibe. I was definitely out of practice, but I didn't do too badly. Neither did Connie, though she got stuck on a couple holes, which kept me in the lead. It was fun and, with it being free and all, I really should go play a game every now and then. Maybe try out the other mini-golf place on the island too...

Random Hawaii Comment: Vog
No, that isn't a typo, vog is the name given to the volcanic smoke which sometimes drifts over the islands, causing a haze (or fog; vog = volcanic fog). While Oahu doesn't have any active volcanos, the big island does and the vog gets blown over here at times, with varying degrees of thickness. It's mostly harmless, other than obstructing the views a bit. Though, like with smog and other heavy pollution, it does give some people allergic reactions of sorts. So, if you're sensitive to things like that, you may want to keep an eye on the vog forecasts if you're coming here on vacation.

That's all for today. Got another travelogue entry to write, but I'll save that for Friday.

See you then!


2/16/2015 Oops...

So, it looks like the the site didn't update right on Friday. The new comic was added to the archives, but not the main page. As a result, I assume a lot of you guys missed it, so I'm putting it up again today. There will be a brand new strip on Wednesday. Should also have a travelogue entry or two. Just need to get the photos sorted...

Anyway, nothing bad happened to me on Friday the 13th. My house got surprisingly hot that night, but that was just the muggy weather. And, that aside, it's been a nice weekend. Even better, I'm caught up with all the paperwork I've had at the university lately and mostly through the random stuff on my to-do list. It's great to have those things done with, and it also means more time to work on Aurora's Nightmare.

And now, I'm off to sort some photos.



2/13/2015 Unlucky?

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So, Friday the 13th, huh? You know, I never knew why that date is considered unlucky. I mean, 13 is generally considered to be an unlucky number (at least in Europe and the US, Japan has different unlucky numbers). But why is Friday the 13th worse? Well, apparently Wikipedia doesn't know either, though it lists a couple of theories. Either way, it seems that it's a relatively new superstition. What am I going to be doing on such an "unlucky day"? Regular stuff. Work, exercise, maybe some games or a movie if I have time... So yeah, nothing out of the ordinary. I'm not the least bit superstitious. If any of your are, just try to forget about the date and enjoy the fact that it's a holiday weekend instead.


2/11/2015 Still figuring it out

Despite having been in Hawaii for over six months (hard to believe it's been that long already), I still haven't really worked out a routine here. It never took anywhere near this long before. But, then again, it's been pretty eventful since I moved. There was the house hunt, the move, the new job, Connie's visit, Connie's second visit... With so much going on, I've never quite had a long enough period of "normalcy" to get a full routine down. Oh well, things are working out ok without one for now. I've gotten a lot of things done since moving here, though there's a couple that have been sitting on my to-do list pretty much since I moved here. Along with a couple more recent ones I need to prioritize. I really should get started on those... Sigh, there's just never enough time for everything...


2/9/2015 A fairy tale

Connie, my parents, and I saw Song of the Sea yesterday. If you haven't heard of it, it's an animated movie based on Celtic mythology. It many ways, it reminds me a bit of some of Studio Ghibli's work (especially Spirited Away). Beautiful art and music (not quite on the Ghibli or Disney level, but still great), a well executed story, and a skillful blending of old myths and modern storytelling. The combined product is a fun and imaginative story of two children's journey through myths and magic, as they grow closer and learn to fulfill their destinies. It does stumble slightly, as there as a couple of moderately important plot points which aren't explained, but that doesn't detract too much from the overall experience. If it's playing near you, I recommend checking it out.


2/6/2015 What the...

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I was flipping through some of the new additions on Netflix and I have to say, some of them just sound so stupid, it's hard to believe that anyone with half a brain would give someone the money to produce them. I know not everyone shares the same taste in movies, but I think most of us can agree that some things are just universally bad. It's one thing to have a good premise and mess up the movie, but if the entire premise is bad from the get go, you're really just throwing away money. I'd be curious to know if there was anyone involved in some of these movies who thought that they were actually good. If not, why make them? Does the average bad movie still turn a profit? Can they just not stand the thought of spending five minutes coming up with a better plot (normally, a good story takes much longer to create but for these movies, I think five minutes would be a huge improvement)? Well, whatever. It's not like I have to watch them. Though I sure hope Netflix didn't have to pay much for the streaming rights.


2/4/2015 Fun with Mario

Connie and I have been working our way through Super Mario 3D World (yeah, I know it came out a year ago, but I have a huge backlog of games so it takes me a while to get to some of them). Quite a lot like 3D Land actually. Basically it's a 3D Mario game with the level design style of a 2D Mario game (short self contained levels which progress linearly; as opposed to the larger exploration based levels of games like Mario 64 or Galaxy). I loved Land, and World is even better thanks to the new power-ups, the large number of collectables, and the like. The multiplayer is really good too. Personally, I thought that multiplayer would be pretty difficult in a 3D platformer, but SM3DW manages to pull it off without a hitch. Actually, I think it works even better than in the New Super Mario games. At very least, Connie and I have only accidentally killed each other a handful of times; as opposed to when I played NSMB Wii with my friends, when it was an extremely common occurrence. Though I did notice that you can no longer bubble to save yourself from a fatal fall... Anyway, it's a great game and a must have if you own a WiiU.


2/2/2015 A bit of China

I watched the Super Bowl yesterday, though more for the commercials than the football (I hadn't watched a single game this season). Not the best year for commercials, but there were some pretty good ones. I'd love to give that giant Pac-Man game a try. Or, for that matter, the real life Doom level or Fruit Ninja game they had on the Mythbusters video game special a few days back. I wonder if I could set up something like that sometime as a special event... It'd be a lot of work, and require more than one person to arrange, but it's something to keep in mind...

January 30th (Friday): Early Chinese New Year
With the large Chinese population on Oahu, it's only natural that Chinese New Year is a big deal here. On a side note, Connie informed me that in China they tend to follow the regular January 1st New Year these days, with Chinese New Year being celebrated under the generic name "Spring Festival".
Anyway, Chinese New Year is still a couple of weeks off, but China Town is kicking things off a bit early here with weekend celebrations. My mom, Connie, and I went down for a while to check it out. They filled a large plaza with booths containing a mix of Chinese knickknacks (mostly related to the year of the ram (or sheep)) and food. While we didn't buy any souvenirs, there was a nice selection of good and cheap food, so that was fun. The booths were open for most of the day, but the entertainment didn't start until evening so were were only there long enough to take in the first performance, the lion dance. While they didn't do any fancy tricks like the one I saw at that Chinese event a couple months back, it was fun and they had quite a lot of lions running around. Rather ironically, it was also the first lion dance Connie had seen since she was a kid. She said they're not all that common in China any more, or at least not where she lives. But back on topic, the early New Year celebration was fun, and there's still the real one to look forward to later in the month.


1/30/2015 This and that

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I can't say that this has been an especially exciting week for me. A lot of paperwork, some errands... Ah well, I got a good ammount of stuff done, at least on some projects. Less on others, but I have to prioritize and all that. Anyway, I'm pretty tired so I'm going to head off for now.

See you Monday!


1/28/2015 Weather

Here's a little RHC.

Random Hawaii Comment: The Weather
I sort of figured this out while vacationing in the past, but living here has really confirmed it. The weather here on Oahu is rather unpredictable. First off, never look very far ahead in the weather forecast. It changes frequently, making any forecast more than a couple of days ahead highly unreliable. Even that can be iffy, I've seen a forecast change completely overnight. And when you know the forecast, you have to keep in mind that the weather can and often will completely change (going from sun to rain, or vice versa) over the course of a day (hourly forecasts help a bit). And, even if the chances of rain are low, it may still rain a little. Really, there's never any day when you can be absolutely sure it won't rain. It's also important to note that, despite being a relatively small island, the weather varies considerably from area to area. So just because the weather is good (or bad) whereever you are doesn't necessarily mean it'll be that way elsewhere. The diverse climates and rapidly changing weather helps make Oahu a vibrant and diverse island...but it also makes it a real pain to plan outdoor activities sometimes.


1/26/2015 The "joys" of home ownership

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of great things about owning a home. My own yard, more privacy, the ability to customize things... But there are also disadvantages. Having to fix anything that's broken, for example (like all the trouble I had with that water filter a few months back). And paying property tax. I mean sure, it's nowhere near what rent costs...but seeing as I have both a mortgage and overly high monthly HOA fees, it's an expense I could live without. Oh well... High taxes are one of the costs of living in Hawaii. Along with high electric bills, high gas prices, high insurance costs, high grocery costs... Well, at least books and games cost the same here as on the mainland. And hey, maybe I'll get a big tax rebate this year (with how much of my salary is getting deducted for taxes each month, I certainly hope so).


1/23/2015 Another weekend

Wow, this week has gone by quickly. I haven't done anything particularly worth talking about since Sunday. Been focusing on work, chores, and projected related stuff mostly. Plus, Connie caught a cold so there's that. Anyway, I would talk about something but I've got an early meeting this morning (immediately followed by multiple other meetings) so I need to get to sleep and prepare.

See you Monday!


1/21/2015 Hiking and the Circus

Well, I got that travelogue ready to so it is.

January 18th (Sunday): Manoa Cliff and the Shanghai Circus
Connie and I had tickets to see the Shanghai Circus with my parents in the evening, but we decided to head into Honolulu early and do a little hiking.
We took the Manoa Cliff trail, which is right across from the Moilili bamboo hike I've done a few times before. Ida (a friend of mine from Japan, who is here on vacation) joined us as well. Here's everyone (except me) a little ways up the trail. While most of the hike is along a cliff about halfway up a mountain, the foliage is thick enough that you often can't really tell. There's some regular trees, bamboo, and a lot of strawberry guava trees. It's kinda between seasons for the guavas, but we managed to find a few ripe ones, which was cool because they taste great and you can't buy strawberry guavas in stores (I do, however, plan to get a tree for my yard). It's was a nice hike, and not very strenuous, though there's no real end to it (it's part of a big connected set of trails) and, while the forests are pretty, they really limit the viewpoints. Though, if you want a view, there are some really nice ones you can drive to nearby.
Later that evening, it was off to the circus. The Shanghai Circus isn't the classic circus with tents, elephants, and all that (if it was, they probably wouldn't come to Hawaii). Instead, it's a series of acts on stage, a bit like Cirque du Soliel. They don't have Cirque's presentation (the music, costumes, narrative, etc.), but they do have a group of very talented young Chinese acrobats. The acts included diabolos, hula hoops, contortion, slack rope, bike riding, and plate spinning, to name a few. They were all good (a couple even measured up to Cirque in terms of pure skill), despite the occasional mistake.
Sorry for all the Cirque comparisons, by the way. But to me they're really what every other circus or acrobatic performance has to measure up to. Anyway... The Shanghai Circus isn't on the level of Cirque du Soliel, but it's still a really good show and the tickets are a whole lot cheaper. So, if it's in your area, I'd recommend going.


1/19/2015 In the works

I'm working on a travelogue post for some of this weekend's activities, but I got back kind of late and didn't have time to finish so it's just a short post for today. I'll have the full entry ready to go for Wednesday.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend!


1/16/2015 Surprisingly busy

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I usually expect the first week of classes to be fairly low in the amount of actual work required. Being the first week, I don't have any complex lectures or assignments planned, there's no grading to do, and I always finish my course prep work ahead of time. This week, however, hasn't exactly gone that way. A combination of computer glitches, paper work, and other side tasks has made this the busiest first week I've had in a while. Still not that bad really, but when combined with some non work related side projects, it's definitely limited my free time a bit. The weekend should be more relaxing though, as should next week in general, at least for the most part. Anyway, that's just kind of a long way of saying that I'm running late today and can't write much.

See you Monday!


1/14/2015 A festival

Here's a bit more travelogue.

January 11th (Sunday): The Ohana Festival
With such a large Japanese presence here on Oahu, it's only natural that there's some Japanese festivals scattered throughout the year. I've been to some of them in the past but, since this is the first time I've been here in mid January, this was my first chance to go to the Japanese Cultural Center's annual Ohana Festival. So Connie dressed for the occasion, and we headed over. The festival occupied the cultural center itself, and the park across the street. There were a lot of food stalls and a large room full of vendors (crafts and accessories, mostly). There were also several stages featuring Japanese music, dance, and martial arts demonstrations. And, being a sort of late New Year's / early spring festival, there was mochi pounding too. While it's not quite the same as going to a matsuri (festival) in Japan, Connie and I spent a fun couple of hours there. I'd say it's worth a visit if you're in Honolulu at the right time of year, though nothing I'd plan a trip around (if you really want to come to Hawaii specifically for festivals, there are better ones in the summer).


1/12/2015 Elton John

Well, time to get back to teaching. Got a couple of travelogue entries from this past weekend though, and here's the first.

January 10th (Saturday): Elton John Concert
If you've been reading my travelogues for a while, you probably know that I like oldies rock from the 60's and 70's. I've gotten to see a number of groups in concert over the years, and when I saw that Elton John would be performing in Honolulu, I decided to add another one to my list. So my parents, Connie, and I headed out to see the concert. Which, surprisingly, only started 9 minutes late (if you haven't been to a big concert before, that's actually really good).
Gotta say, Elton John puts on a really good show. While he doesn't do the really high notes anymore, his voice is still pretty good and he's a great piano player. You know, I forgot just how many hit songs he's had. There were several during the concert that I was familiar with, but didn't realize that he was the one who did them. The concert went for nearly 2 1/2 hours, so he was able to fit in quite a lot of songs, including all of my favorites. All in all, it was a really good concert. If you like his music, I'd definitely recommend seeing him live if you get the chance.


1/9/2015 Fun filled days

Connie and I have been having fun the last few days. Parasailing, snorkeling, hanging out in Kailua... Got another plan or two for the weekend as well. Though our fun will be slowing down a lot next week since I've got the start of spring semester while she'll be focusing more on her job hunt. Though I expect we'll still be doing some fun stuff on off days.

For now though, I've got to focus on getting my classes started, doing some work for my dad, and getting the next part of the script written for Aurora's Nightmare.

Have a great weekend!


1/7/2015 Restaurants

Let's get to those restaurant reviews...

Restaurant Review: Himalayan Kitchen
Type: Indian
Location: Honolulu (Kaimuki area)
If you're not familiar with the Kaimuki section of Honolulu, it has a lot of neat restaurants, but is far enough removed from the tourist sections of the city that it mostly caters to locals. Himalayan Kitchen is slightly off the main road, and you have to make your way to the second floor, but when you get up there you'll find a nice and spacious indoor and outdoor dining area.
My parents, girlfriend, and I went fairly early on New Year's Eve, so it wasn't very busy. Can't say what it's like during peak hours, but we had an excellent waiter and fast service. Now for the food. The majority of the (rather large) menu is standard Indian food, though you'll find some Himalayan dishes as well. Between the four of us, we were able to get a pretty good sample. The naan was excellent and I had a good mango lassi. As for the rest of the food, while nothing blew me away, I don't have any complaints either. I love Indian food and had a very enjoyable dinner. While Cafe Maharani still remains my favorite Indian restaurant in Honolulu, I'd definitely go back to Himalayan Kitchen, especially if I didn't want to deal with Maharani's tight spaces and long lines.

Aloha Kitchen
Type: Breakfast
Location: Honolulu (not far from the Hilton)
After walking past this place a few times, my mom and I looked at the menu and decided we should come back some time for a meal. Glad we did! While the menu boasts a number of pastas (along with a loco moco and a few other things) my group went there for breakfast. The star of the show is the souffle pancakes and waffles. You only get one per order, but they're large, thick, and airy (more souffle than pancake). More importantly, they taste great, whether you're going with the simple fruit topped variety, or a fancier topping like coconut cream. I also got to taste the salmon eggs Benedict. I don't get eggs Benedict very often, but after trying Aloha Kitchen's, I may have to change that.
The prices are reasonable, though a bit more expensive than some of the other breakfast places in the area. Still, Aloha Kitchen has great food, including some unique spins on classic dishes. So while it's not my top breakfast destination in the Waikiki area, I can still see myself going back from time to time.


1/5/2015 New Year

Time for that travelogue I didn't get to post last time.

December 31st - January 1st (Wed - Thur): New Year's
In the end, Connie and I decided to skip the big New Year's Eve party and just watch the fireworks on Waikiki Beach. But we did head into the city a bit early to walk around. We also went out to eat with my parents. Not sure if it really counted as a birthday dinner or not, but it was fun (see the review later in this entry). The fireworks on the beach were great. Connie and I had a really good spot...except when it came time to leave, anyway. The crowds made it hard to get back to the road. I think the show itself was even better than last year (the only other time I've watched it). There was a steady stream of fireworks, a lot of which had pretty interesting shapes and colors (unfortunately, I didn't get many good pictures this time around).
Due to our plans for the next day, we ended up staying at my parents' place that night. In the morning, we got a late brunch at a nearby restaurant we'd been meaning to try (once again, see the review later in this entry) then headed to the movie museum. Aside from all the regular movie theaters here on Oahu, there's a couple of special ones, which play mostly indie and/or foreign films. I've been to a few movies at the art museum before, since they do anime from time to time, but I'd never visited the movie museum before (as a note, it's note a museum, just a theater). It's outside of the usual tourist haunts (though near a lot of good looking restaurants) and not your typical theater. It's cheap (only $5 per person, cash only), though there's only around 20 seats so you should probably either arrive early or get your tickets in advance (like we did). The reason there's so few seats is that they're all recliners (albeit rather old ones), making for a very relaxed and casual movie watching experience. As a note, it looked like the majority of people there were regulars. Anyway, the movie we saw was a Japanese film called Ramen Samurai (no actual samurai involved), and was about a young man who takes over his father's ramen restaurant (though the majority of it consists of flashbacks from his childhood). It was very well done, and I'd recommend it. Could make you hungry though (too bad I can't eat ramen very often, since it's usually pork based).
All in all, it was a enjoyable holiday and birthday, and quite a nice change from my past few birthdays, which I mostly spent on airplanes.

Well, it's getting late so I'm going to head off for now and get those restaurant reviews up on Wednesday.



1/2/2015 Welcome to 2015

I had a pretty enjoyable New Year's and birthday. Spent time with Connie and my parents, watched the fireworks over the ocean, ate at a couple of good restaurants, and saw an interesting movie. I was going to do a travelogue entry today, but I'm having trouble with my memory card reader, which means I don't have the photos on my computer yet. So I'll see about getting that fixed and post the entry on Monday instead. In the meantime, have a great weekend and get 2015 off to a good start!


12/31/2014 Happy New Year!

Well, it's my last post of 2014. Not sure I have all that much to say. Over all, it's been a really good year for me. A few things could have certainly gone better but, for the most part, I had a lot of different things fall into place, made major progress on a number of projects, got to do a ton of different things, and had a lot of fun. On the other hand, it's been a generally lousy year for a whole lot of larger scale issues (terrorism, foreign politics, etc.). As for how things will go in 2015...who knows? Nothing to do but go into it running (well, technically laying down and watching fireworks) and see what happens.

One thing I'm not especially thrilled about is turning 30, which will be happening tomorrow. I never really minded birthdays in the past, and it's not really that old, but moving up into a new age bracket is slightly depressing. Especially since, while I'm happy with my life over all, I'm not entirely where I wanted to be at this age. Well, I certainly don't feel 30 anyway, and I can't imagine that leaving my 20's behind is actually going to change my life much...

Anyway... Happy Near Year, everyone! Here's hoping that it's a good one.


12/29/2014 The end is nigh

No, it's not the end of the world (at least I don't think so), or the end of the comic (though we're slowly progressing in that direction), but it's nearly the end of the year. Sure has been a busy one. Went on lots of trips (including China and Japan), found a new job, moved to a new state, bought a house, got a girlfriend... There's actually still a few days left, though I doubt there will be any more especially big events in store.

I saw Into the Woods yesterday. All in all, I enjoyed it. The altered take on various fairy tales is interesting, the actors do a great job, especially when singing, which is good since at least 90% of the movie seems to be in song. That said, while I thought the songs worked well, I didn't find any of them especially catchy (Agony was pretty awesome, but it was really thanks to the visuals). There were also some rough edges to the plot, the end of Rapunzel's story being the most glaring, and a few parts where it stuck much too faithfully to theater style staging, to the detriment of the scene. So, while I don't think the movie was as good as it could have been, it's still pretty good and it's nice to see more musicals getting the film treatment.


12/26/2014 A little more Christmas

Hope everyone had a good Christmas (assuming you celebrate it). As always, you can vote with the TWC button to see the weekly bonus comic.

Quick update today since I'm running a bit late. As an addendum to Wednesday's post, here's this year's gingerbread village at the Sheraton hotel by Waikiki. It's a good bit smaller than last year's (see the December 24th entry), but still pretty cool.

Enjoy the weekend!


12/24/2014 Merry Christmas!

Here's a short holiday focused travelogue entry.

Late December: Christmas Cheer
Being the holiday season, there's naturally a lot of Christmas stuff around. For example, here's a Christmas twist on the daily hula show at the mail. Not shown, the extreme crowds and horrible parking at said mall. Yay Christmas season...
The newspaper listed the best Christmas light displays on different parts of the island last week, so Connie and I went to check out the ones near me. This place was really impressive. Aside from the sheer number of lights, it was hooked up to a computer system and all the lights were choreographed to music. Definitely one of the more impressive home displays I've ever come across. There were some other nice houses nearby too. The newspaper also led us to this place. The whole thing was kind of crazy, with a diverse mishmash of displays from Santas to licensed characters, mostly hand made. Everywhere you looked there was something else to see. It seems that, despite the lack of snow, Hawaii certainly isn't lacking in Christmas spirit.


12/22/2014 Holidays

I was working on some other things so I don't have time to write much of anything today. I had a good weekend, am having a good Chanukah, and am enjoying my break. I may have a travelogue entry or two later in the week but for now, I need to get going.

See you Wednesday!


12/19/2014 More on bubble tea

As usual, you can use the TWC button to vote and see the new Blooper Reel comic.

Well, Connie got here and I'm more or less on vacation mode for the next few weeks. As an update to Monday's bubble tea post, she told me that it originated in Taiwan (in the 1980's) before making its way over to mainland China. So there you have it.

Now, to finish up the topic, here's a little bit about my favorite bubble team places in the area.

First up, we have Coffee or Tea in McCully Plaza, which I did a full review for a while back. It's not the cheapest place around, and they don't let you choose how much ice or sweetener you want. But they do have a pretty large menu, including some things that I haven't seen anywhere else, such as the ginger milk tea (a personal favorite). Plus it's right near my parents' place, so there's the convenience factor.
Next is Taste Tea, which is on Kapiolani Blvd just past Ala Moana mall. It's my favorite bubble tea place overall. They've got a huge menu, good prices, and,most importantly, great tea. You can also choose you sweetener and ice levels, and even sample your chosen tea before committing.
Finally, there's China Mix, which is beneath the Safeway on Beretania. Their menu isn't that big, and you can't customize anything, but they have the best straight up milk bubble tea that I've had so far.
There are a number of other bubble tea places I've tried here on Oahu, but those three are the ones that stick out the most so far.


12/17/2014 It's always something

I started yesterday with a long, though still reasonable, list of things I needed to get done. And I finished them all. Only problem is that I ran into some computer issues which slowed me down a lot so I had to stay up late to finish things. Honestly, I'm still not sure if I got the problem fixed. It's working right now, but the question is whether it'll stay that way or not. Anyway, as a result, I didn't have enough time to finish writing about my favorite bubble tea places, so that'll have to wait.

So why did I have so much to do now that I'm on break? Well, being on break means I don't have any classes to teach, but I still have assorted projects (like Aurora's Nightmare) and side jobs to do. Not to mention errands and chores (a house requires a bit more work than an apartment). Also, Connie liked it here so much that she's returning today for a combination vacation and job hunt and I wanted to get a lot of assorted things finished before her arrival. Though this time around we'll both be doing a bit more work than her last visit (her with her job search and me with Aurora's Nightmare and some other stuff). It'll still be a lot of fun though.

Happy Chanukah and I'll see you Friday!


12/15/2014 Tea time

Well, the semester is over! Though I've still got a few busy days ahead for other reasons. Anyway, it's travelogue time.

Random Hawaii Comment: Bubble Tea
If you're looking for a non-alcoholic drink in Hawaii (or at least on Oahu), you've got a few options. Naturally, there's plenty of Starbucks around (along with a couple of similar chains), as well as Jamba Juice and a few local smoothie places. But there's another type of drink that's just as popular, bubble tea.
If you're not familiar with bubble tea, it's tea (usually black, but there are plenty of other kinds as well) with boba (chewy little tapioca balls or bubbles) inside. The most common kind is milk tea (think an ice tea latte), often with some kind of add-in such as coconut or strawberry flavor. But, if you don't want milk, fruit teas are pretty common as well. And, just to mix things up a bit more, some bubble tea shops also offer smoothies (though I'd recommend getting them without the boba) and/or frappuccino style teas.
Outside of a few staples, menus vary wildly from place to place. Also, some tea shops let you customize your drink, offering different kinds of bubbles (small boba, large boba, flavored jelly, no bubbles, etc.), letting you choose how much ice and sugar you want, and the like.
So, why is bubble tea so popular here? While I've seen the odd shop here and there around the mainland US, it certainly hasn't caught on there in any big way. In fact, I bet this is the first a lot of you are hearing about it. But there's one thing Oahu has that most of the US doesn't, an extremely strong Asian influence. Now, I've never seen bubble tea in Japan, but there were a lot of bubble tea places in China. At least around the Shanghai and Nanjing areas, they were rather uncommon in Beijing. So, for the time being, I'm assuming bubble tea was brought over here from China. To further support that theory, quite a lot of the tea places around here are run by Chinese people (or maybe Taiwanese). Though I suppose it could have come to China from another area (Thailand maybe?)...

Anyway, next time I'll talk a bit about my favorite bubble tea places here on the island.


12/12/2014 Titles

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You know, whenever it comes time to name a new Pebble Version strip, I worry that I might have used the same name before. I mean, with over 1700 strips, I really can't say I remember every name I've used in the past. I suppose I could do a search every time... Oh well, I suppose it doesn't matter too much.

I did have a restaurant review and travelogue entry planned for today, but I think they'll have to wait until next week. For one reason or another, I've been up late every night this week and it's catching up to me. Ah well, grading and commencement will be taking place this weekend, after which I'm officially on winter break, so that'll calm things down quite a bit.

See you then!


12/10/2014 Restaurants

Might as well start on more restaurant reviews. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos, but I'll try and add some in later.

Restaurant Review: Thai Lao
Type: Thai
Location: Kapolei
I love Thai food (especially the curries) and heard good things about Thai Lao so I decided to give it a try. A couple of visits later and I'm definitely a fan. The menu is large and varied, including all the most popular Thai dishes, and even has some Laotian entrees as well, though at first glance you may have trouble differentiating them from the Thai. So far, I've stuck to the curries, though I'll certainly get to other things eventually. Anyway, the curry is very good. The flavor is great and the meat and vegetables aren't over or under cooked. Though be careful what level of spiciness you ask for, as their "medium" is is hotter than most. And, like most Thai restaurants around here, rice is extra (though it's nice that they offer brown Jasmine is addition to white and sticky).
Add in good service and the best Thai tea I've had in a while, and you've got an all around excellent Thai restaurant. It's not especially large or fancy, but it's neat and clean so there's nothing to complain about in that department.
I don't know if Thai Lao is worth driving over to this side of the island for (Honolulu has a lot of great Thai places of its own), but if you're in the area you should definitely give it a try.

As an update to a previous review, I did try a piece of the poke pizza at Pizza Corner. I wouldn't really call it pizza since there's no sauce or cheese (it's basically ahi poke on pizza crust). But that said, it's good poke and makes for a nice alterative to the usual poke on rice bowl.


12/8/2014 WiiU

Well, I think my gaming time will be centered around my WiiU for a while. I've got tons of stuff left to do in Mario Kart and Smash Bros., and will be playing both of them here and there for quite a while. But I also just got started on Bayonetta 2...well sorta. More accurately, I started on the WiiU port of the first Bayonetta which is included with Bayonetta 2. While I kind of wanted to jump right into the sequel, I've been wanting to replay Bayonetta for ages and thery added a few new features too. Man, I forgot just how crazy and over the top thaat game is. But I didn't forget what a great job they did with the combat design. Bayonetta is still the best action game I've ever played. And, once I fnish my replay (or possibly a few of them to unlock everything), it's on to Bayonetta 2!

Of course, I've got plenty of stuff to do aside from gaming. But it's nice to be finally playing some of my more highly anticipated titles.



12/5/2014 About time

As always, you can vote with the TWC button to see this week's Blooper Reel comic.

It's a bit late, but I finally found some time to start playing Smash Bros. on the WiiU and it is great. I mean, the 3DS version is really good in its own right, but the WiiU one blows it away. It's not just better graphics and a bigger screen, though those are certainly nice. All the customization options from Brawl that were MIA in Smash 3DS are back and then some. Add in more modes (including some cool new ones and a return of a favorite one from Brawl), revamped Classic and All-Star, tons of challenges, crazy eight player battles, Amiibos... And then there's the controls. I was never entirely happy with the 3DS controls and, thanks to the new WiiU Gamecube adapter, I don't just have a controller, I have a Gamecube controller, just like all the hours I spent playing Melee and Brawl. Though, on that note, it didn't take too long for me to realize just how long it's been since I've held a Gamecube controller. Looks like it's going to take a little while to get back to my old skill level.
Anyway, Smash WiiU is awesome and I'll probably be playing it on and off for quite a while. Now if I can just get started on Bayonetta 2...

Hmm... I was going to do some restaurant reviews this week, but never really got around to them. Oh well, it's not like those are especially time sensitive or anything. I'll try and write some next week instead.

See you Monday!


12/3/2014 Who comes up with these things?

I watching watching TV while working on today's PV strip and saw a commercial for a cellphone. Can't remember which one, but the whole commercial was about this new feature of theirs, voice texting. Which is pretty much what it sounds like. You send voice messages to each other instead of text messages. So they spent the commercial talking about how voice has a lot of advantages over text (it properly conveys tone, doesn't have to deal with auto-correct, etc.). Great, right? I mean, just image how useful it would be to actually talk to someone over a long distance. How did they ever come up with it? In case you missed it since this is text, not voice, that was sarcasm. While everything they said about voice having advantages over text is correct, voice texting has got to be one of the most stupid cell phone features I've ever seen. The reason? Think about it. What's a cellphone's main purpose? No, it's not texting, e-mail, web browsing, photos, or even Angry Birds. It's right in the name. A cellphone is a "phone". And, as such, it's designed to make something called phone calls. Which involve carrying on a conversation with your voice. It's like voice texting only even better. You get to hold a continuous conversation instead of having to record short messages and wait for them to upload/download. Maybe they'll be advertising that as the next big feature... Of course, the way things go these days, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if voice texting, dumb as it is, does become the next big thing. I mean, Twitter certainly took off, despite being an inferior knock-off of blogging (it's blogging with a character limit and that's it). Sigh... The "wonders" of technology...


12/1/2014 December

Well, between Thanksgiving, Black Friday, a hike yesterday, and some assorted stuff I'm working on, it's been quite the busy weekend. Can't believe the year is almost over... And I still have a few big things happening before it ends. But I'll talk about those another time. I could use a full night's sleep for a change. Expect some restaurant reviews and maybe a travelogue entry later in the week.


11/28/2014 Black Friday

This week's voter bonus comic is up!

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving (all of you in the US anyway). And good luck to those of you who are off Black Friday shopping today. I actually did most of mine online, though I'll be going to one or two stores later. No early morning (or Thanksgiving afternoon) doorbusters though.

Anyway, my Thanksgiving was good but it ran a bit later than I expected so I don't have time to write much now.

See you Monday!


11/26/2014 Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm running late today so I don't have time to write much. Anyway, for all my US readers, have a great Thanksgiving tomorrow! This will actually be the first Thanksgiving since...2010 I think that I'll be with my parents for Thanksgiving, so that'll be nice. I'll see you on Friday (if you're not too busy shopping).


11/24/2014 More pizza

Time to get a couple more restaurant reviews out of the way.

Restaurant Review: Pizza Corner
Type: Pizza
Location: Ko'Olina
Pizza corner advertises traditional New York style pizza. While I don't think they quite pull it off (not as well as my favorite New York pizza places on the mainland anyway), their pizza narrowly edges out Russo's, making it my favorite on this side of the island. The crust, sauce, and cheese are all very good, though it lacks that super cheesy oily quality that marks the perfect New York pizza.
Onto the details. Other than a few sides (garlic knots, salad, etc.), pizza is all they serve and they've only got one size (16"), so don't go expecting a lot of options. Most of the pizza toppings are pretty typical, though they have a couple of odd Hawaiian inspired ones too (sooner or later, I'll probably have to try the poke pizza just for the heck of it). Prices are pretty good for Oahu, but the restaurant is entirely lacking in ambiance so you'll probably want take out. One other thing I should mention is their speed. They're fast. Maybe a little too fast for me, since my pizza always seems to have had time to cool a bit by the time I make it from my house to the restaurant...
Anyway, being in Ko'Olina, Pizza Corner isn't in the most convenient location unless you live right there but, if you're not too far away, the pizza may be worth the drive. It's not quite real New York style, but it's still pretty good.

Inferno's Wood Fire Pizza @ The Lounge
Type: Pizza
Location: Honolulu, Ala Moana
I tried this place on a whim thanks to a Groupon. Apparently Inferno's took over for a place called V-Lounge, but I never went there in the past so I can't compare. Anyway, the place is a hole in the wall tucked away behind Ala Moana mall. If you're not looking for it, you'll probably never see it. The interior isn't any more impressive. The Lounge is a small and rather old bar and lounge and that's exactly what it looks like, complete with a couple dart boards.
Fortunately, I went for the pizza, not the ambiance. Inferno's pizzas are all 12 inches, a little bigger than your typical personal pizza but too small to feed two people unless they're really light eaters. I went with my mom and we got a Margarita pizza and a white truffle pizza to split between us, which worked out pretty nicely. Gotta say, the pizza really impressed me. They've got a good thin crust and very melty cheese. The white truffle was the standout, combining garlic and mushrooms to great effect. Service was good too, though we were there early when the place was pretty empty. Our order was taken shortly after we entered, the pizza came quickly, and our waters never got too low.
If you can get past the limited menu and hole in the wall vibe, give Inferno's a chance. While the place may not look like much, the pizza is some of the best I've had on the island.


11/21/2014 Nintendo Day

Click the TWC button and vote to see this week's Blooper Reel strip.

Well, if there was a Nintendo Day it might as well be today. I'm not entirely sure if launching Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Smash Bros. WiiU, and the first set of Amiibo figures on the same day was the best strategy or not from a marketing perspective, but it's going to keep a lot of people playing Nintendo games for the rest of the year. It also makes it that much harder for me to decide what to play next...

Anyway, I ended up going to the midnight launch for all of the above, so I'm going to cut this short and get some sleep.

Have a good weekend!


11/19/2014 Family

My parents got in yesterday to spend the winter here in Hawaii. While I like having them around, it's going to be kind of weird. In the past, I always lived with them or very far away (in a different state or, at times, a different country). Having them living half an hour away is a very different dynamic and is going to take some getting used to.

In other news, my schedule is calming down a lot, which means more time to work on side projects, have some fun, and maybe try and make some friends in the area. So yeah, things are (for the most part) going pretty well.

I've got some restaurant reviews and another travelogue entry or two planned, but for now it's getting kind of late. Maybe Friday.


11/17/2014 More heroes

I saw Big Hero 6 yesterday. How many super hero movies does that make this year? Let's see, there was Captain America Winter Soldier, X-Men Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Amazing Spider Man 2. I think that was all of them, though I also watched some others on Blu-ray and then there's the TV shows like Agents of Shield and The Flash (just to name a couple). It's kind of crazy how popular super hero movies have gotten these days. Gotta wonder how long their current run of popularity will continue, since these things tend to be kind of cyclical. But, for now, most of them are actually really good, so I'm not going to complain. Well, maybe about how they can never seem to get Superman right... But anyway, Big Hero 6. It's pretty awesome, part Disney, part Iron Man, and maybe a little bit of Shonen anime/manga. Whether you're a super hero fan or a Disney fan, you'll find something to like.



11/14/2014 Time goes on...

The weekly Blooper Reel comic is up and all you need to do to see it is vote with the TWC button on the left.

Wow, another year is almost over. Only a month and a half to go. And this has been one crazy year. Traveled to Japan and China, moved to Hawaii, started a new job... And then there were a whole bunch of family things, such as my brother's wedding, and some personal matters as well (one or two of which I may talk about soon). A full list would take quite a while, but I think I can safely say that this has been the busiest and most interesting year I've had in quite a while, probably since 2007 (which included graduating with my BA and moving to Japan for the first time).

Anyway, I don't think there's going to be any more especially big events coming this year (though who knows). My parents will be coming to Hawaii for the winter next week, so I'll be seeing them more. And I'll actually be with family members for Thanksgiving for a change. Some friends might be visiting over the winter as well, though nothing is for sure yet. Anyway, doing all sorts of new and exciting stuff is great, but having a more relaxing and ordinary stretch of time can be nice too.

Well, I'm off for what should be a pretty ordinary weekend so I'll see you Monday.


11/12/2014 And more movies

Let's get right back to those festival movies...

November 2 - 9 (Sunday - Sunday): The Hawaii International Film Festival Part 2
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Despite the title, the Japanese main character, and the fact that the first part of the movie takes place in Japan, it's actually American made, making it the only non-Japanese movie I saw at the festival. It was also the only one that I didn't like. But anyway, Kumiko is a 29 year old Japanese woman whose life is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Her relationships with family and friends are strained at best and she's barely holding on to a dead end job. Instead of trying to improve her situation, she becomes fixated on the movie Fargo (a black humor classic apparently, though I've never seen it). She becomes convinced that it's a true story and that she's figured out the location of the money which one of the characters buried. When the opportunity presents itself, she heads to the US, determined to find and claim the nonexistent treasure. Now, that kind of set up could be the start of a zany comedy or a story of self discovery and improvement...but that's not what Kumiko is about. There are a few amusing parts, but mostly it's just depressing all the way through. Kumiko begins her treasure hunt with no plan and virtually no English skills. What's worse is that she's entirely lacking in both common sense and basic survival instincts. Every time she encounters a problem on her journey, she makes what is probably the worst decision possible. And she never seems to learn from her mistakes, if anything she gets worse. You basically spend the entire movie watching her destroy herself. Maybe some people might think it's funny or moving in a twisted black humor sort of way. I'm not one of those people. The only thing I got out of Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a reminder that I shouldn't really trust what film critics say (Kumiko does have some good reviews).

Neko Samurai
Set in the Edo period (generally considered to be imperial Japan's golden age), this is a movie filled with swords, samurai...and cats. Yes, you heard that right. Kyutaro Madarame is a master samurai who, after losing his last position, has moved to the capital in hopes of finding a new master to take him on. However, he ends up caught between two feuding clans, one of dog lovers and one of cat lovers. A series of strange events ends up with Madarame, who knows nothing about cats, in possession of the cat clan's prize pet. Add in a couple of sub-plots and some sword fights and you have a comedy that's part classic samurai flick and part funny cat video. It's goofy fun and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya
I actually didn't see this at the film festival (though it probably should have been in it). Anyway, it's the latest movie by the legendary Studio Ghibli. Kaguya is based on an old Japanese fairy tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a baby inside a stalk of bamboo. He and his wife decide to raise the girl as their own, eventually leaving the country to raise her as a princess in the capital. Fair warning though, the original story (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), while not a Brother's Grimm story, isn't really the "happily ever after" type of fairy tale either and the Ghibli version sticks fairly close to the original, without "Disneyfying" things. On the art side, instead of going with their usual style, Ghibli decide to do something different, drawing Kaguya in the style of old Japanese screen paintings. It's beautiful and well suited for a classic Japanese tale, though the animation itself can be a bit rough in spots. All in all, it's another great movie from Ghibli, though the not exactly happy ending and a few other elements carried over from the original story hold it back a little (at least in my opinion) and mean that it may not be the best choice for kids.


11/10/2014 Movies, movies, movies

Time for that promised travelogue entry on the film festival.

November 2 - 9 (Sunday - Sunday): The Hawaii International Film Festival
The Hawaii International Film Festival is an annual event here on Oahu. While I've know about it for a while, I could never attend in the past due to my work. But, now that I live here, things are a lot simpler. The festival had some pretty cool Japanese movies last year (my parents had asked me to look over the schedule and make some recommendations), so I'd been looking forward to it.
About a week or so before it began, I decided to it was time to make a plan. With nearly 200 films from all over the world, I had my work cut out for me. Quite a lot of the films were what I'd call the indie and/or artsy type. You know, the kind that, due to content, style, or sheer strangeness would never make it into a regular theater. There were also a lot of more normal movies, the catch being that they were from other countries and unlikely to ever see any sort of major release in the US. An initial look through the list left me with 15 movies that seemed interesting. Well, I didn't have time for quite that many so I took a closer look. I dropped a few because the trailers and/or reviews didn't look all that great, a few more because they didn't fit my schedule, and a final two because they were playing at the same time as other movies I wanted to see so I had to pick one or the other. In the end, I had five movies left (all Japanese live action), spread over the course of a week.
On a side note, most of the movies (and all the ones I saw) were at the Dole Cannery theater. I'd never been there before since it's not the closest to either my house or my parents' condo. I wasn't expecting much, but it's actually a really nice movie theater, with a surprisingly nice concession stand. I mean, how many movies theaters have a gelato bar?
Anyway, here's a some short reviews of the films I saw (in the order I watched them).

Little Forest: Summer & Fall
This was actually the first two parts of a four part mini-series based on a manga of the same name. There's a little bit of a story about a young woman (Ichiko) who, having broken up with her boyfriend, returns to her childhood home in a tiny farming town way out in the Japanese countryside (which reminded me of a couple such places I've visited on my travels). There's a bit about her past and relationship with her estranged mother (who has been MIA for the past few years)...but none of that really matters much. Most of the movie focuses on the different things Ichiko grows on her farm and the variety of dishes she cooks with them. If you're a cook, it's bound to give you some ideas. You'll even learn a bit about traditional Japanese farming (though the movie doesn't focus too much on the sheet amount of work involved). Great scenery too. If you're looking for fast pace, humor, or a gripping plot, you'll be disappointed. But if you have an interest in food, farming, or just country life in general, it's an enjoyable look at a simpler (though certainly strenuous) way of life that can still be found in rural Japan. I really liked it, and I'll be sure to watch the upcoming sequel (Winter & Spring) if I ever get the chance.

Uzumasa Limelight
Back during the heyday of Japanese samurai movies, there were a large number of actors known are kirare yaku who specialized in putting up a short fight and then getting cut down by the hero. But as time passed and the popularity of the genre faded, the need for such actors dwindled, as did their numbers. The film centers on Kamiyama, an aging kirare yaku who has spent decades mastering the craft, and how he adapts as changing times and new studio management slowly force him out of the job he dedicated his life to. The traditional master and apprentice story also plays a large roll, as Kamiyama takes on an aspiring young actress who dreams of fighting on screen. You also get a bit of a behind the scenes look at the Japanese film industry to round things out. It's a moving story, combining melancholy and nostalgia for a fading era and hope for the future with great characters and all around good film making. It's one of those stories that manages to be both sad and inspirational. And the fact that it features some excellent sword fights certainly doesn't hurt. Honestly, I'm surprised at just how much I liked Uzumasa Limelight. Of all the movies I saw at the festival, it was the best.

Wood Job
When a young man from Tokyo fails his university entrance exams, he finds himself unsure of what to do with his life. In the end, he settles on forestry, solely because there's a cute girl on the recruitment flier. And so beings a romantic comedy where our underachieving hero ends up working in a tiny mountain town, which just happens to be home to that same girl. Naturally, they don't hit it off especially well and the hero has a hard time coming to grips with living in a town so small and isolated that it doesn't even have cell phone service (though with Japan's cell network, I'm not entirely sure a place like that exists). Anyway, other than the Japanese elements, Wood Job is a pretty typical romantic comedy. There's a very predictable romance, a cast of mostly archetypical characters, and a few laughs here and there. So yeah, the plot isn't anything special but you do get to learn a little bit about forestry and life in tiny Japanese country towns along the way. All in all, Wood Job isn't bad, but neither the characters, romance, or humor are good enough to make it more than "ok". I don't regret watching it, and I enjoyed it more than most of the American romantic comedies I've seen, but there just wasn't anything especially great or memorable about it either. If you just want a light romantic comedy, it's a decent choice, but there are plenty of better movies out there.

Hmm... Writing all these mini movie reviews is taking a bit longer than I thought it would so I think I'll take a break here for today and finish this up later in the week.


11/7/2014 More movies

Looks like I've got a weekend of movies coming up. There are two more I want to see at the film festival and then there's the latest Ghibli movie, which I'm hoping to squeeze in as well since I don't know how long it will be playing and I'll be sorta near the one theater it's playing at. I want to see Big Hero 6 at some point too, but that's bound to be in theaters for a while, so no big rush.

Nothing much going on the rest of the week, but that's probably a good thing. As usual, I've got all sorts of things I want to work on. Aurora's Nightmare, of course, Japanese study, and a few other assorted things on my to-do list. Though that list has shrunk considerably over the past couple of months, which is nice. While I still haven't really worked out a regular routine yet (there's been too much going on), I'm getting used to living here, both in my house and the area in general. Like everywhere else I've lived, it's got its pros and cons but, overall, I'm liking it better than Florida. One thing I do need to work on soon, now that I don't have as much going on, is trying to meet some friends. While I do know a few people on the island, I don't really have anyone to play games or go hiking with yet. But I know some places I can go and hopefully meet people, just need to actually take the time to do so. Well, sometime soonish.

While I may be watching a few movies over the weekend, today I've get meetings and other work related stuff to take care of so I'm off for now. Have a good weekend!


11/5/2014 Work and play

This week is a lot of back and forth for me between work and fun. Sunday, as you may have read about in my last post, was a fun day. So was yesterday, when I went to Honolulu and, among other things, saw a couple more movies at the film festival (which I've decided to write about on Monday, so I can cover the entire festival in one travelogue entry). Monday, on the other hand, I spent nearly the entire day working and I've got quite a lot of work of various kinds lined up for today, tomorrow, and Friday. Then I'll be heading back to the film festival over the weekend. My work schedule for today, however, requires an early start so I need to get going.

See you Friday!


11/3/2014 A little bit of China

Well, this week is off to quite a good start and I've got more fun things planned for the coming days, so let's get to the travelogue.

November 2 (Sunday): The Splendor of China Festival
The Hawaii International Film Festival just started a couple days ago and I already had plans today to go see one of the movies today when I heard that there was also going to be a Chinese Festival taking place. Fortunately, I had time to do both. I'll write about the film festival either later this week or early next week, once I've seen more of the movies on my list. So for now, I'll focus on the Chinese festival.
The Splendor of China is a yearly festival / exhibition sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Naturally, there were a lot of vendor booths, though only a handful were actually selling anything. Many of them were more about showing off the activities of various Chinese clubs, cultural groups, and businesses in the area, along with some travel companies advertising their China tours. Some or the booths were kind of interesting, but overall they didn't hold my attention for too long. There was also a display of photos from various parts of China, which was cool. Gave me a few ideas for a future trip (or trips) there.
Anyway, the best part, at least in my opinion, was the performances. I fortunately arrived just in time to see the face changer, a traditional Chinese performance art that I'd never seen before. Now, in that video pay close attention to the man's face. You'll notice he somehow manages to change masks several times, seemingly by magic. While that video is only a clip, he ended up changing about a dozen times over the course of several minutes, even removing the mask entirely at one point, only to suddenly get it back later. I suppose it's all slight of hand, but he was really good and I could never tell how exactly he did it. Then there was the lion dance. Now I've seen Chinese lion dancers before, but I've never seen them do things like this.
So, while I didn't find the booths all that impressive, the performances were more than worth the visit and the price of admission, making my visit to The Splendor of China a fun part of a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Restaurant Review: Wahoo's Fish Taco
Type: Mexican
Location: Ward Center, Honolulu
Mexican food just hasn't caught on in Hawaii nearly as much as it has in the mainland US, but there is one Mexican dish that has proven really popular here. Namely, the fish taco. Though Wahoo's isn't a strictly Hawaiian restaurant (there's a few scattered around the western US).
Anyway, while fish tacos are the main attraction, they've also got burritos, enchiladas, several different meats, and a few other assorted menu items if you want to mix things up. I got a taco platter, which also came with beans and rice. Everything was cooked perfectly, not dry or mushy, with a nice fresh taste. The fish was good and both the salsa and green sauce (whatever it was called) were nice additions. While they weren't the best fish tacos I've ever had, they were good and I don't have any complaints. Friendly service and reasonable prices too.
If you're looking for really authentic Mexican food or a big burrito bar, Wahoo's may not be your type of place. But if you want a good fish taco and don't have the time to drive up to the north shore, it's worth a visit.


10/31/2014 One after another

No bonus comic, I'm afraid. I have it ready to go, but the Top Web Comics site is having some issues right now, which are preventing me from uploading it. If they get their site fixed later today, I might upload it (and update this news post). If not, it'll have to wait until next week.

So, I got that pipe fixed...only to have a problem with my washing machine almost immediately after. Fixed that myself (at least I think so, I had a couple successful test runs). Then comes yesterday. My computer has had a few slight issues lately and I had something I wanted to try to fix them. Now, I'm pretty much expert level when it comes to computer repair (at least on the software side of things) so when I try to fix something, I usually do. But it's not like I know everything single thing about how Windows works and my attempted fix happened to hit something important I didn't know and made things a whole lot worse (to the point where Windows would no longer boot). So instead of spending a few hours working on Aurora's Nightmare, I got to spend a few hours fixing my computer instead. On the bright side, I did get it fixed. Not sure if I fixed those minor problems I had at the start (time will tell), but at very least it's back to how it was before I messed things up.

Sigh... Looks like this wasn't quite the plain ordinary week I was expecting. As for next week, well I've got actually got a few things going on. One is work related, but the rest involve The Hawaiian International Film Festival, which should be fun. But I'll talk more about that then.


10/29/2014 I hate plumbing

Yesterday I finally got the last couple of pieces of furniture I was waiting on (after a month and a half of waiting). I also got my dryer vent cleaned (apparently that's something you need to do every now and then and mine really needed it). With those things taken care of, I thought I was done with house related stuff for a while... But that only lasted a couple of hours. And that brings me to the topic of plumbing. First there was my water filter which, despite a professional installation and a return visit from the plumbers, wouldn't stop leaking (driving me crazy for a few weeks). Well, I actually managed to fix that last week wth a combination of replacement parts and a whole lot of tinkering. But then today, when using my garbage disposal it backed up into the sink. Now that can happen sometimes and usually isn't a bag deal...except that it apparently clogged something. Oddly enough, the disposal and its half of the sink still work fine, but the other side isn't draining very well. That still wouldn't be that bad except that apprently one of the pipe fittings under the sink isn't sealed so well and if the water backs up too much, it starts to leak. Got some drain cleaner...which not only didn't help, it leaked a bit from that pipe fitting and left some nasty stains on the towel I had down. So now it looks like I need to get the plumbers out here again. Sigh... At least that should be a fairly easy repair job (and has nothing to do with that water filter). Still, owning a house does have its drawbacks.


10/27/2014 A normal week

For a change, I have absolutely nothing special going on this week (well, the last of my furniture is getting delivered tomorrow, but that doesn't really count). No special events, no visitors, and nothing special at work. Not too exciting, but I do need to start figuring out a good routine here and get my regular exercise, Japanese study, and other things going again. Next week, on the other hand, I do have a couple things planned, but I'll talk about them when they come.

In other news, if you didn't already know, I'm writing a weekly development blog for Aurora's Nightmare, the visual novel game I'm currently developing. This week's entry is a special one, where my background artist (the talented Badriel), explains the process of designing and creating all the background art which will appear in the game. Check the link if you'd like to learn more about the background art, or any part of the game.

Well, I'm off for now. See you Wednesday!


10/24/2014 Under the sea

This week's Blooper Reel comic is up! Just click the TWC button and vote to see it. Now let's finish up the week with a little more travelogue.

October 12th (Sunday): Snorkeling Off the West Coast
I wanted to take Connie on a good snorkeling trip while she was here and, since my family and I had such a great time on Ko' Olina Ocean Adventures' snorkeling tour a couple years back (see the entry for Thursday, December 20th), I decided to give them another go. The basics of the tour haven't really changed since then. They still had a great crew and Connie and I got some excellent views of the coast from the boat. So why am I writing about it again? Well, as part of some promo deal I got a free underwater camera. Just a cheap disposable one though, so the pictures aren't that great (I'd love to get a GoPro sometime so I can take some good underwater photos), but I thought you may like to see them. Like before, we went to three different places. The first and third were reefs with lots of coral, colorful fish, and some sea turtles. And the second was a spot where spinner dolphins were hanging out. We didn't see any whales this time, but it's not the right season yet.
That aside, the weather was great, the water was clear, and we had an all around great time. While there are some pretty good snorkeling spots you can get to without a boat, I have to say that, if you really want the best snorkeling experience you can get, Ko' Olina Ocean Adventures is pretty hard to beat.
So, that's a few highlights of Connie's visit. Like I said before, we did a lot of other things but nothing I really need to write about again. It was a lot of fun though, and I'm looking forward to more visits from her and/or other friends of mine in the future.


10/22/2014 Now with pictures

Here's more travelogue!

October 6 (Monday): Iolani Palace
As the only palace in the US, Iolani Palace is a monument to an interesting part of history when the state of Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom, rather than part of the United States. Aside from a good history lesson, it's also a pretty cool building, so I decided to take Connie there for a look. As a note, I wrote about Iolani Palace back when I first visited it (see the entry for Wednesday, December 21), so you can see that entry if you want to read a bit more about the history of the place. The reason I'm writing about it again now is that, since I last visited, they decided to allow photographs inside.
Now you probably wouldn't think a Hawaiian palace would be all that fancy but the royal family drew quite a lot of inspiration from Europe, creating a palace that, while a little on the small side, it's just as grand and opulent as the title implies. There's a throne room (complete with crowns and scepters), sitting rooms, bedrooms so fancy you'd wonder how people lived in them, and even a music room (complete with elephant tusks, for some reason). While it's fun to look around (and the palace has a good audio tour), I have a hard time imagining living in a place like that. Even if I somehow became rich enough to do so, I really doubt I'd want to...
Anyway, Connie and I spent a fun and interesting couple of hours there between the audio tour of the main palace area and the historical displays in the basement. If you like history and/or fancy old buildings, Iolani Palace is worth a visit.


10/20/2014 Luau

It's a bit late, but it's finally time to do some travelogue posts about the past two weeks.

October 1st - 14th: Connie's Visit
If you read my China Travelogue from this past summer, you may remember that I visited a couple of friends while I was there. One of them was Connie and she recently came to visit me here in Hawaii for a couple of weeks, becoming my first house guest (both at my new house and ever). So, while I naturally kept up with my teaching work, I took a break from my various side projects for a couple of weeks to hang out and play tour guide. It was a lot of fun and we did all sorts of different things here on the island. Most of the places we went and things we did are ones I've covered before, and not too long ago at that, such as Diamond Head and the Polynesian Cultural Center, so I'm not going to write about them again. But there were a few things that were either new to me, or have changed a bit since last time, so I'll be doing write-ups for them.

October 2nd (Thursday): Hilton Starlight Luau
A luau is one of those quintessential Hawaiian tourist experiences but, despite that, I've never been to one before. But I've been wanting to check one out, and Connie's visit made for a good opportunity. There are a number of luaus on Oahu, but choosing which one to attend wasn't easy. I found some reviews online (mostly on Yelp and Tripadvisor) but for all of the luaus, the reviews seemed pretty evenly divided between people who totally loved them, and people who utterly hated them. But, in the end, I settled on the Hilton Starlight Luau.
The Starlight Luau is at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki. That makes for a really convenient location, though a hotel rooftop (even at a really nice hotel) is a bit lacking in ambiance compared to some of the other luaus I read about, which are in more natural settings. After arriving at the luau and checking in (you need to make reservations in advance), Connie and I were given shell leis (necklaces) and shown to our seats (as a note, you can pay more to get flower leis and better seats, though all the seats are pretty good). There was a band paying Hawaiian music and a bit of other early entertainment to start things off (including a little hula lesson for the audience and a conch shell blowing contest).
After that, it was time for the meal. One of the reasons I chose the Hilton's luau is because it was supposed to have some of the best food and it didn't disappoint. They had large buffet covered with a diverse mix of Hawaiian and Asian foods, from meats, to seafood, to salads, and everything I tried was excellent. They called people up by tables the first time around, but after that we were free to return for more. As a note, they also had a full bar and admission came with two drink tickets each, good for any cocktail or an alcohol free tropical punch.
As the sun sank below the horizon and the meal wound down, the main show began. It was made up of a series of traditional dances from Hawaii and other Polynesian islands, with appropriate musical accompaniment. The dancers were very skilled and there was a good mix of different styles. The most impressive was the finale, featuring four fire dancers.
All in all, it was an enjoyable night. A little touristy maybe, but Connie and I had a lot of fun, and both the food and show were excellent. At this point, I can't say how the Hilton Starlight Luau compares to the other major luaus on the island, but if you're looking for one in Waikiki, I'd certainly recommend it.


10/17/2014 Good food

Ok, time to get to work on those travelogue entries again. I've got a couple of restaurant reviews for today and a few things from Connie's visit coming up next week.

Restaurant Review: Cafe Maharani
Type: Indian
Location: Honolulu, King St.
The selection of Indian restaurants in Honolulu doesn't really compare to that of Japanese or Chinese. Fortunately, there's still some great places around and Cafe Maharani is one of them.
First, a bit of advice. Being on King, there isn't a lot of parking so, if you're in the area, you may just want to walk. Also, Maharani is very popular but not especially large. So, unless you get there right around opening time, expect a long wait.
Although small, the place is nicely decorated (if a bit old) and the food is top notch. There's a wide selection of dishes, especially chicken and lamb. The majority are standard Indian fare, but they have some more unusual curries as well. Both are delicious and the portions are huge. Though, as with so many places around here, rice isn't included. The naan (a vital part of any Indian meal) is just as good as the curries and there's a pretty large variety to choose from. I'd also recommend the lassis. They're a little on the mild side and have some little chunks of ice inside (something I don't usually see), but still a great addition if you want a cold drink.
It's too bad Maharani doesn't do the usual Indian restaurant thing and have a lunch buffet (or even a lunch) but, if you can get there early enough to avoid the lines, or just have some time to kill, it's certainly one of the best Indian places around.

Restaurant Review: Royal Thai Garden
Type: Thai
Location: Ewa Beach
While Honolulu has a ton of good Thai places, the selection in the Ewa and Kapolei area is much more limited. But it is one of my favorite cuisines so I was pleased to spot Royal Thai Garden not far from where I live. It's nothing fancy and the place is a bit old (apparently they took over for another Thai restaurant that used to be there), but it works. No complaints about the service either, the waitress has always been prompt and friendly.
All your standard Thai curries, soups, noodles are on the menu. You won't see any particularly unique items, but they do a very good job with what they have. I've tried several of their curries and they've been great. Not the best I've ever had, but good enough to keep me coming back regularly. They've got great (and reasonable priced) Thai tea too. Just don't forget to order some rice to go with your meal since it's not included.
I could go into more detail about the food but if you know Thai restaurants you know what to expect. You won't find any surprises at Royal Thai Garden but if you're on this side of the island and want some good Thai food without having to drive to Honolulu, it's worth a visit.


10/15/2014 Almost...

Connie is, sadly, heading back to China and I'm busy working through my to-do list. Having my first house guest (not only in Hawaii, but ever) was great...except where my schedule was concerned, as all noncritical tasks sorta got pushed to the back burner. I did finish sorting the last of the photos I took during her visit and was going to start on a travelogue entry but then got sidetracked by some work stuff and never finished it. Got to say, I'm getting really tired of explaining why I haven't written any travelogue entries. But, barring some sort of emergency, I can't think of any reason why I won't (finally) get a good chunk of it posted on Friday. So yeah, sorry for yet another short news post but it should really be the last (at least for a while).


10/13/2014 Last couple of days

Well, my friend Connie is leaving tomorrow. It's been a lot of fun hanging out together and playing tour guide. She did a great job planning things out when I met up with her in China this summer, and I think I've repaid the favor. But, all good things must come to an end. And, admittedly, I've been putting aside a lot of my noncritical chores and projects over the last couple of weeks, so I'll have a bunch of stuff to catch up on after she leaves. One of which is my travelogue entries. If all goes well, I should have some of that ready for Wednesday.

See you then!


10/10/2014 Another late night

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

Well, it's late again and I don't have much time to write this post. Maybe I should give up on writing any travelogue entries while Connie is here. I'm barely getting the comic strips done as is. Oh well, we're having a lot of fun and she's only her for a few more days. If I need to put off travelogue writing and a few other non-critical things on my to-do list for a little longer, it's not a big deal.



10/8/2014 The moon

I really did plan to have a regular comic and a travelogue entry ready for today. What I forget was that last night was a rare lunar eclipse and blood moon, so Connie and I ended up spending a good bit of the night sitting outside and watching it unfold. Makes me glad I went to the trouble of getting those zero gravity deck chairs shipped out here, they were perfect for laying back and looking up at the sky.

See you Friday!


10/6/2014 Fun, reflection, and a general lack of time

I'm still having fun with Connie. Though Saturday, being the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, was a much more solemn time. Neither of the two, however, left me with a lot of time to work on Pebble Version strips (I tried to get a buffer built up prior to Connie's visit, but didn't quite pull it off), so the time I could have spent writing a travelogue entry for today went to getting the comic done instead. Sorry about that. I'm fairly certain I'll have time to write a proper news post and travelogue entry for Wednesday.


10/3/2014 Having fun

This week's bonus comic is up to vote with the TWC button and take a look!

Connie (one of my friends from China) arrived ok and I've been showing her around the island for the last couple of days. It's been fun, and I'll have some travelogues to write in the future. Right now tough, I can barely stay away so I'm going to go before this devolves into gibberish.



10/1/2014 My house

My friend Connie (one of the friends I visited this summer in China) is coming to visit for a little while starting today and I'm looking forward to showing her around and taking things a bit easier now that I'm more or less done with all my moving related stuff. For now though, here's a quick travelogue entry.

September 29th (Monday): My New House
At this point I can finally say that I'm just about done with everything related to my move (still a handful of odds and ends though). To commemorate the occasion, here's a few photos of my new house. The kitchen is pretty nice and roomy compared to my past apartments, though the fridge isn't magnetic, which is kind of odd (and just a little annoying). The kitchen connects right to the dining and living rooms. I did buy a coffee table and end table...but the store apparently didn't have any instock and the next shipment is taking longer than they thought (probably because, you know, it actually has to come here on a ship). There's a loft area upstairs which I've turned into an office and lounge, though the lounge part is pretty incomplete. At some point I want to get a TV and a good chair or two up there and hook up all my old game systems (probably move the dance pad there too). I should also get some more shelves and set up a library in the third bedroom (as you can see in that last photo, my books are already overflowing). But furniture is expensive, especially over here, and I'd rather not drain all the money in bank account, especially now that I have a mortgage (better deal than renting here thought). It's nice having a bit of money for other things when I want it.
Not pictured, the bedrooms (master and guest), said third bedroom (currently empty), bathrooms, laundry room, garage, etc. For Oahu, it's a fairly big place. I've got own lawn now too, complete with a plumeria tree. Speaking of the tree, while it both looks and smells nice, it "sheds" like crazy. See all those flowers and leaves on the ground? Well, I cleaned that entire patch of lawn on Friday and took the photo on Monday, meaning all that fell in just three days.
Other than the things I already mentioned, I could use a few more wallscrolls and/or photos on canvas to hang (some of the walls are very bare) and I need to either get my water filter fixed (it leaks) or count it as a lost cause (and a bunch of lost money) and buy another one. But anyway, it's a nice place and I'm starting to feel at home here. Having all my stuff (well, the half that was with me in Florida and not back at my parents' place anyway) certainly helps.

And that's all for now. See you Friday!


9/29/2014 America

I spent yesterday in Honolulu running errands before heading to an America concert. I saw them once before in Phoenix, though that was quite a while ago. In fact, I think it was only the second oldies concert I'd ever been to (the first was Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, but I was just a kid then). Anyway, it was a fun show, but videos weren't allowed so I don't really have anything to put here on the site. Plus, I got back kind of late so I didn't have a lot of time to write today's news post.

Anyway, I'm planning to post some pictures of my hew house on Wednesday, so I'll see you then!


9/26/2014 Pizza

Click the TWC button on the left and vote to see the new bonus comic!

I'm still having issues with a leak on that water filter so I'm looking into getting a replacement part. Sigh... That aside, things are going well. Now, back to restaurant reviews.

Restaurant Review: Russo's Coal Fired Italian Kitchen
Type: Pizza
Location: Ewa Beach
My dad is from New York and he taught me what makes a good pizza. So, every time I move to a new area, I make a point of finding the best pizza. Russo's is the closest to my new house, so it's the first place I tried.
First, the basics. Russo's is a pretty nice restaurant and has a full range of Italian food in addition to the pizza (though I can't comment on it). It can get pretty busy around dinner time though, so don't be too surprised if you have to wait a bit.
Now for the important part, the pizza. It comes in three sizes. Medium (12"), large (16"), and XL (28"). I find the lack of an 18" slightly annoying, and it's too bad they don't have Sicilian pizzas as well, but that's just nitpicking. Russo's makes a pretty good pizza. I wouldn't put it in my top five, but it is the best pizza I've found in the area so far. The highlight is definitely the sauce (slightly sweet, with a bit of basil). No complaints about the crust or cheese either (no specific high points though). It's a good, if not amazing, pizza at a price that, while a bit more than I'm used to paying, is actually pretty good for the area.
So, overall, Russo is currently my top choice for pizza in the Ewa / Kapolei area. It doesn't compare with my favorite places back on the mainland, but they don't deliver across the ocean so I'll take what I can get.

Restaurant Review: Brick Oven Pizza
Type: Pizza
Location: Kapolei
As part of my quest to find the best pizza place in the Ewa / Kapolei area, I decided to give Brick Oven a try. To start off, they've got a nice interior and a large selection of sandwiches if you're not in the mood for pizza. But why would I not be in the mood for pizza?
Speaking of the pizza, they've got an excellent crust and will brush it with garlic butter for a nice extra touch. Unfortunately, the crust is really the only high point. The sauce and cheese, while not bad, are decidedly average. And then there's the cost. Any way you look at it, their pizzas are on the expensive side. Which wouldn't be so bad if they also weren't so small. They have three sizes but their "large" (at somewhere around 14") would barely qualifies as a medium anywhere else. So, while I didn't dislike Brick Oven Pizza, I can't really recommend it when there are other places nearby with bigger and better pizzas for less money.



9/24/2014 Eating out

Just when I think I'm just about done setting up this house, something or other comes up... Yesterday I finally got my bed frame. Today I've got a second visit from the plumbers schedule to fix a couple leaks on the water filter they installed earlier this week. Early next week my dryer will get installed (about time too, as it's been sitting around in my entry hall for the past week waiting for the proper vent) and I should get a couple replacement parts to make my toilets flush better. And then there's my coffee table and end table... I have no idea when they're going to come. But they're not especially important.

Anyway, time to start catching upon restaurant reviews. Here's a couple for tonight, with more to come on Friday.

Mid September: Eating Out:
I spent the first half of the month running back and forth between my parents' condo in Honolulu and my new place out west setting things up, unpacking, and the like. All that work continued for the better part of a week after I moved in (right after that Hawaii 5-0 event). Because of all that, I didn't really spare much time to cook, or even go to the grocery store, so I ended up eating out way more than I probably should have. So here's some reviews.

Restaurant Review: Rico Rico Chicken
Type: Peruvian Chicken
Location: Honolulu, King Street
Rico Rico is one of those place I walk past all the time, so it was inevitable that I try it out eventually. The first thing you should know is they really only serve one thing, chicken. Unless you go on Sundays, when they have an awesome ceviche. As for the chicken, you can get a whole one or just a part. It's good quality chicken and they certainly know how to roast it. But whether or not you like Rico's will really come down to what you think of their spice mix. It's a little hard to describe, with a bit more of an herb taste than most. I like it anyway, though I can't say it's my favorite.
A chicken plate comes with rice (with its own unusual spice mix) and for a bit extra you add on sweet and salty fries, which are pretty great. If you want some dessert, they've got some good homemade ice cream as well. The flavors vary by day, most are typical, a few are pretty unusual.
On a side note, most of their business is takeout. They do have a dining room, but it's paper plates and self service, nothing fancy. It does keep prices low though.
Overall, if you like roast chicken, Rico Rico is worth a try, though the spice mix isn't for everyone. Personally, I like the ceviche even better. Too bad it's only available on Sundays.

Restaurant Review: Iyo Udon
Type: Japanese Udon
Location: Honolulu, Ala Moana Mall
Iyo Udon is a sanuki udon restaurant, much like Waikiki's awesome Marukame Udon. In fact, it was probably Marukame's success that encouraged them to open Iyo here. Anyway, Iyo is pretty typical sanuki udon, which is a good thing. If you've been to Marukame or another sanuki udon restaurant you know what to expect. Watch them make the noodles while you wait in line, choose between several different udon dishes (including zaru, niku, kamaage, and bukakke), grab some tempura or rice balls to go with them, pay, and enjoy. The food is excellent, very authentic (just like in Japan), and really cheap (expect to spend $3 - $5 for your noodles and a dollar and change for each side).
The real question is how Iyo compares with Marukame. While both have all the standard udon dishes and tempura items, they each have a couple of menu items the other doesn't. Prices are nearly identical, so it'll mostly come down to personal preference. I give Iyo a slight edge for making grated ginger one of their standard add-ins (along with green onions and tempura flakes). Plus the lines aren't as long as at Marukame (yet). Really, though, I love them both and we'll happily eat at either (defaulting to whichever is closest at the time).

See you later!


9/22/2014 TV Time

It's that time of year again, the start of the fall TV season. Actually, a lot of the shows I watched regularly ended for good back in the spring, so I think I'll be watching less live TV this year than I have in a while. Still got The Simpsons, Castle, Once Upon a Time, Person of Interest, The Big Bang Theory, Elementary, Agents of Shield, Hawaii 5-0, and The Amazing Race though. I also get BBC now, so I can watch Doctor Who live rather than wait for it to get on Netflix. As for new shows, so far Gotham is the only one that's caught my attention but we'll see if anything else pops up...



9/19/2014 Done!

The weekly bonus comic is up so vote with the TWC button to see it!

My goal for next week? Start getting to sleep on time for a change. I've had way too many late nights over the past couple of weeks. One bit of news that will make that goal easier...I've finished unpacking and setting up my new house. Well, as much as I can until my last couple of deliveries arrive (still waiting on a couple furniture items and a vent kit for my dryer). But everything else is pretty much taken care of, aside from some errands, so things should calm down for a little while. Maybe I'll try and use a bit of that extra time to get caught up on restaurant reviews... Right now though, I could use some sleep.

Have a good weekend!


9/17/2014 Hawaii 5-0

Let's get right to the travelogue.

September 13th (Saturday): Hawaii 5-0 Season Premiere
If you're not familiar with Hawaii 5-0 (pronounced five-oh) it's a cop show set on the island of Oahu (and a remake of an old show of the same name). While it's not one of my favorite TV shows, it's entertaining and it's fun seeing a lot of recognizable locations (they film most of it here on the island). Anyway, they have a tradition of premiering each season on Waikiki beach. Now that I live here, I had a chance to check out this year's festivities.
Something to keep in mind if you plan to attend... It gets really crowded. I brought a book and towel and got there in the early afternoon to grab a spot. At that point, there was still plenty of space left on the beach and I was able to get a pretty good location. Of course, it ended up being the hottest day all week with almost no breeze. Next time, I should get a beach umbrella.
They gave out a few t-shirts here and there, but not much happened until evening when the cast began to show up. They started out in a press tent then walked around the fence separating the VIP area from the rest of the beach, signing autographs and taking photos. Next year, I should also bring something to get signed. Nearly all the major actors were there, along with the mayor and some of the bigwigs from CBS. There were a few speeches and a hula troop before the episode eventually started (as a note, it doesn't premiere on TV until the 26th). Gotta say, they went all out, getting about as epic as you can get in a cop show. I could point out a couple logic problems in the plot, but it was an entertaining episode.
That actually wasn't the end of the event. They followed the episode with a short concert by Bush, a fairly famous band that I'd never heard of before (not saying much though, since I don't really keep up with modern music). It wasn't bad, but I'm not going to be buying a CD anytime soon either. And they finished with the premiere of a new CBS show called </scorpion>, which is about a group of super geniuses who work as trouble shooters for some government agency. Not a bad premise, but I can't say that any of the characters got my attention and, speaking as a tech guy, the plot of the first episode was utterly ridiculous.
Anyway, it was a fun night and, assuming they keep the tradition going, I plan to return next year.


9/15/2014 Fresh fish

They had a big premiere of the new Hawaii 5-0 season on Waikiki Beach Saturday night. It was pretty cool and I was planning to do a travelogue entry about it today, but I'm running pretty late (just moved into my new house yesterday) so it'll have to wait until Wednesday. In the meantime, here's one of the restaurant reviews I've been meaning to do.

Restaurant Review: Nico's Pier 38
Type: Seafood
Location: Pier 38
Nico's is half restaurant and half fish market right on the pier so, with fresh fish and an attractive setting, there's a lot going for it. Lunch is pretty casual with take-out boxes and a free for all when it comes to seating while dinner is more formal (though you can still order as take-out). They look to have a fairly nice bar too, though I'm not really the right person to comment on that
Regardless of which meal you go for, expect a crowd. Nico's is a popular place and rightly so. The service is quick and the food is good. The furikake ahi is pretty awesome all around and the fish and chips are good too. On the downside, the prices are a little high for the portion sizes (especially the aforementioned fish and chips). But overall Nico's is a fun place to eat and take advantage of the local seafood.


9/12/2014 Weekend!

There's a new Blooper Reel strip for everyone who votes, the first in a while too, between Timmy Tonka and the Forum Awards strips.

Well, between work, shopping, and unpacking it's been a really long week but it's just about over. My shopping is finally done (except for food), as is a pretty significant portion of the unpacking, the rest of which I'll hopefully finish today. Most of the stuff I ordered has even arrived (though it'll be another week or two before I have everything). I'll be doing some things in Honolulu Saturday night (expect a travelogue entry about that next week), so the plan is to actually move into my new place on Sunday. I've got a couple restaurant reviews to write but I've had way too many late nights this week so I'm going to head off for now. I'll get to them next week.

Have a good weekend!


9/10/2014 Living in Hawaii

I was going to write a couple restaurant reviews today, but decided to talk about something else Hawaii related instead.

Early September: Living in Hawaii - The Annoying Stuff
While I may be living in "paradise", for the past week and a half I've been too busy focusing on work on moving related stuff to really take advantage of that. Now I've talked a lot about all the cool stuff here in the past, and I'll doubtless be saying more about it in the future. For today though, I'm going to complain a bit.
So what are some of the downsides of living in Hawaii? Well, I previously mentioned that social security number thing and it's not the only bit of annoying red tape I've run into. Getting a driver's license, setting up bill payment for my utilities and HOA fees, and even arranging for my paycheck to be deposited into my bank account have all been far more complicated than anywhere else I've lived (well, a couple things in Japan were just as bad, but only a couple). Why? I have no idea.
As a side note, when you have a car here you have to get a yearly safety check. Basically, it's you paying $20 for someone to make sure your lights, turn signals, and windshield wipers work. Once again, I have no idea why it's like that. Seems like a waste of time and money for the most part.
Another annoying thing I've run up against lately is ordering stuff online. The first thing I learned is that when many sites advertise free shipping, they don't include Hawaii in that (Target, for example), and shipping to Hawaii can be expensive. Or, they keep the shipping "free" but add a large Hawaii surcharge (Walmart). And those sites like Target and Walmart that normally allow you to order something online and pick it up in the store (to avoid shipping costs)... Yeah, they don't do that here either, at least with stuff not normally stocked in the store (they don't even tell you until your order is almost complete). Though I do have to give a shout-out to Amazon. When they say free shipping, they give you free shipping, even when it's on larger items (just make sure you're ordering from Amazon and not one of their sellers, who have their own policies).
Shipping fees aren't the only issue with online orders though. Multiple times on multiple sites, I've been told that they can't ship the item I want to Hawaii due to some sort of agreement with the manufacturer. Yes, seriously. It isn't like I'm trying to important something from another country and I really can't think of any good reason for why the manufacturer won't let Walmart or Bed Bath and Beyond sell me the patio chairs I wanted (to give one example). Even stranger, it's inconsistent. I was finally able to get those chairs off of Amazon. They, however, couldn't sell me a desk that I was able to get from Walmart (with a hefty Hawaii surcharge added to the "free" shipping). Just to make things more annoying, you don't find out if your item won't ship until you're halfway though checkout, which is extremely frustrating if you just spent ages choosing the perfect whatever only to have your order blocked.
So yeah, living in Hawaii has its issues aside from the super high housing prices. Is it worth it? I'll revisit that in a year or two...


9/8/2014 There's always something else

When I say there's always something else, I'm referring to my shopping list of stuff I need for my new house. Seems like I'm always finding something else I forgot to put on there. That said, I think I managed to get around 90% of my shopping done yesterday. I stayed at my new place kind of late last night putting things away though, so I don't have time to write much write now. I think things will get progressively less busy after one or two more full days of work, so I hope to write some longer news posts later this week. The place isn't quite my dream house (that'd have its own pool, some more rooms, secret passages, and a slide or two, among other things), but it's turning out pretty nicely and I'm rather looking forward to moving in.


9/5/2014 Busy, busy, busy...

There's a new bonus comic (the last of this year's Forum Awards series) up for everyone who votes!

Over the past few days, I've been running back and forth between work, my new house, and various stores. Current status? I've still got a bit of shopping to do. Mostly little things at this point, though I still need a desk and a couple bookshelves. Actually, there's a bit more furniture I'd like but I think it'll have to wait. Nice furniture is expensive. Especially here where just about everything has to be shipping in from elsewhere. Plenty of unpacking left to do as well, though I mind that less than the shopping. Between everything though, I'm feeling very burned out and ready for the weekend. Not sure how much that will help though since I'll likely be spending most of the time shopping and unpacking. But, with most of my timed deliveries in and no need to go into work, at least I'll have a more flexible schedule for the next few days. Gotta say, I'm looking forward to moving in. If only because it'll mean a shorter commute (with little risk of traffic jams) and the end (or near end) of the shopping and unpacking. I think by next weekend for sure...


9/3/2014 Back to it

Sorry about missing two updates. I was planning to update on Monday at least but, between spending time with friends and relatives I hadn't seen in a while and the wedding itself, I just didn't have the time. Speaking of the wedding, it went really well. Congrats to my brother Noah and my new sister-in-law, Hannah Lebowitz.

As for me, I'm back in Hawaii. Aside from my job, I have a lot to do with my new house. I got the keys right after returning from Arizona, spent much of yesterday waiting on my stuff from Florida and some of my new furniture (and the rest running assorted moving related errands), and today I get to start on unpacking. Once I finish that, do a bit more shopping, and get another delivery or two, I'll be ready to move in.

For now though, there's still a lot to be done so I'm off.


8/27/2014 Going Greek

Sorry about the late update, my internet was down for a while.

Remember that, since I'll be traveling back to Arizona for my brother's wedding, there's a chance that Friday's update will be skipped.

Sunday (August 24th): Honolulu Greek Festival
Honolulu has all sorts of festivals throughout the year. When it comes to cultural celebrations, Asian and Hawaiian are the most common but that doesn't mean you won't find events for other countries and cultures. For example, the Greek Festival. I found out about it from some ads and figured it would be a nice way to get out and take a break from work and moving stuff.
It actually took me a while to find the place. When it said the festival was in Ala Moana beach park, I forgot how large that park is. I also didn't realize that, rather than out in the park, the festival was inside a special events building they have there. Anyway, I had to walk all the way from one end of the park to the other, but I did find it. And I have to admit, having it set apart like that was a good idea, and the courtyard even sported a slightly Greek look, adding to the atmosphere.
One of the main draws at most cultural festivals is the food, and the Greek Festival didn't disappoint. All of your more well known Greek food were there (Greek salads, gyros, spanicopita, etc.) and a number of less common ones as well, though the longest line was for the coffee and tea stand. I spent a couple of hours there, snacking throughout, and have absolutely no complaints about the food. There were also some stalls selling Greek music, Greek cooking supplies (oils, cheeses, olives, etc.), and various things related to the Greek Orthodox Church (which was one of the festival sponsors).
There was a Greek band playing in the courtyard throughout the day. I really don't know much about Greek music (traditional or not), but it was a nice addition. There were also a few performances indoors. I hung around long enough (snacking and listening to the band) to check out a local Greek dance troupe's performance. Never would have thought there'd be a traditional Greek dance troupe on Oahu, but it goes to show just how multi-cultural this island is. The dancers were good, though I wouldn't say that Greece has one of the more interesting dance styles I've seen. All in all though, the festival was fun and worth the visit.

Random Hawaii Comment: Social Security Numbers
If you're a US citizen, you should know what I social security number is. If you're an adult, you probably have yours memorized or written down to dredge up every once in a while to register for a utility or some such. But here's a question. Do you have a social security card? It's an official government card with your social security number on it. To be perfectly honest, despite living and working in several states and even another country, I had never heard of a social security card until my new employer requested a copy of mine along with the usual HR paperwork. Apparently, they couldn't finish processing my contract without it. I had no idea where or even what it was but I called my parents and they were able to track it down and send me a scan, which was good enough. I thought that was a bit strange since I'd never needed the card before in my life, but it all worked out.
Coming up to the present though, I learned that I can't switch my Florida driver's license to a Hawaiian one without presenting my original social security card (or a couple of substitutes) Never mind that I had my current FL license, passport, birth certificate, and a zillion other forms of identification. Without that, it was a no-go. Why? I have no idea. I didn't need it (or half the other documents I do here) when I got my Colorado or Florida licenses. What is it about Hawaii that makes them require it? Why can't they just take my word on what my social security number is like everyone else does? For that matter, the DMV is a branch of the government, couldn't they just enter my name and address into their computer and pull up my social security number? There's gotta be a database like that. Anyway, if you ever find yourself moving to and/or working in Hawaii, make sure to have your social security card handy, you're going to need it (for once).


8/25/2014 Another restaurant

So you know, there's a chance that Friday's update will be skipped since I'll be spending Thursday night flying to Arizona for my brother's wedding.

I stopped by a festival over the weekend, but I'm running a little late today so I think I'll save the write-up for Wednesday. In the meantime, here's another restaurant review.

Restaurant Review: Maui Kitchen
Type: Hawaiian
Location: McCully Shopping Center
The McCully Shopping Center is a great place for all sorts of Asian restaurants but, if you're looking for something different, Maui Kitchen offers a diverse selection of what I guess you can call Hawaiian "comfort food". Loco mocos, ahi sandwiches, garlic chicken, and the like, along with some daily specials, often involving Hawaiian grass fed beef.
I've had both the loco moco and the potato chip crusted ahi. They're both good, and the portion sizes are generous, but the food lacks that "wow" factor that pushes it from good to great. But you can choose between brown and white rice, which is nice, and most things come with a free side (generally fries or a salad of some kind).
The lady running the counter is friendly, but this is essentially a fast food place so don't expect much in the way of service. It's food in take-out containers, minimal décor, and no table service. Of course, that means the prices are below what you'd pay in a nicer restaurant, though a bit above those of a normal fast food chain.
Overall, Aloha Kitchen isn't anything fancy, and the place could use some redecorating, but the food is pretty good and reasonably priced so, if you're in the McCully area and aren't in the mood for Asian food, you may want to give it a try.


8/22/2014 Restaurants

This week's voter bonus comic is the start of a short series for this year's Forum Awards winners. As always, you can see it by clicking the TWC button on the left.

As predicted, things are calming down a little bit now, though not for too long. I've got a couple meetings today, some move related stuff on Sunday and Monday, and the first few days of classes, none or which shouldn't be too bad. Come next weekend though, I'll be off to Arizona for my brother's wedding. In the meantime, I figured I'll start on some of those restaurant review travelogue entries I mentioned. Also, from now on I'm going to start posting any restaurant reviews I do on Yelp as well (user name Josiah L).

Mid August: Getting Things Done
Between my new job and move related stuff, I haven't had a lot of time for touring, hiking, or the like. About the closest thing was walking around the Made in Hawaii festival one weekend, which involved a whole lot of booths selling locally made clothes, jewelry, food, and the like. Most it wasn't the kind of stuff I'm especially interested in, but it was a nice break from work. The one thing I've been doing is eating out, probably a bit more than I should be. Since I don't have my stuff or my own place yet, I have a had time getting myself in the cooking mood. Besides, I won't have such easy access to all these restaurants once I'm no longer living in Honolulu. Anyway, here's a few reviews.

Restaurant Review: YogurStory
Type: Fusion
Location: Honolulu, Keeaumoku St. (near Walmart)
Just hearing the name, you'd assume YogurStory is a frozen yogurt place but yogurt actually doesn't figure much into the menu . Breakfast is a number of fairly standard items (pancakes, omelettes, loco mocos, etc.), but mostly with some kind of twist such as the very purple ube pancakes. The sauce is a mix of coconut and Okinawan purple sweet potatoes and the pancakes themselves are purple as well (also because of the sweet potatoes). The pancakes aren't especially sweet, but the sauce makes up for it. They taste great and don't give you the sugar overload that some pancakes do. They definitely live up to their reputation.
The dinner menu is even more interesting, featuring some very unique Asian / Italian fusion dishes. I ended up with kalbi over kimchee risotto. The kalbi was great but then kalbi almost always is no matter where I get it. It was the kimchee risotto that surprised me. Despite the extremely weird combination, it worked. It's like kimchee and rice, only a whole lot cheesier (literally). While I never quite got over the inherent strangeness, I loved it.
The restaurant itself has a nice if somewhat eclectic interior complete with with a large fake tree. Sort of a half indoor and half outdoor forest cottage look. The service has been excellent on my visits, though he place can get pretty busy at times, which naturally slows things down a bit. Prices mostly range from the low teens to mid twenties for an entree so it's not the cheapest place around for breakfast or dinner, but it's not horribly expensive either.
Over all, YogurStory is a fun place to eat due to both the decor and the excellent (if a little strange) menu. I'll certainly be going again, and I recommend giving it a try if you're ever in the area.

That's it for today. I'll add some more reviews over the coming days.


8/20/2014 Off to work

While I started putting a lot of time into preparing my courses for this semester early last week, work officially started this week. Just meetings though, classes don't start until Monday. But meetings can be pretty time consuming. Yesterday's, for example, went pretty much all day and today's will be the same. I was thinking of doing a travelogue entry for today, but just don't have the time.  Things should calm down a bit by Friday, so I'll see you then.


8/18/2014 Return of the Hawaii travelogue

This seems like a decent time to get my new Hawaii travelogue started. Not sure how frequent the entries will be, but here we go.

Late July - Mid August: Living in Hawaii
At this point, it's been several weeks since I left Florida and moved to Hawaii. So what's it like living in Hawaii as opposed to just visiting? Honestly, I'm still figuring that out. Mainly because, for the most part, I still feel like I'm in vacation mode. Part of it is that I haven't been able to move into my new place yet (though I did find one). Instead, I've been staying at my parents' condo, just like I have during most of my vacations here. And, while I've been fairly busy with work related tasks for the past week, most of my work has been done from the condo (and working out of here is something I've also done a lot of on previous trips). So when is it going to feel like I actually live here? Well, from this week on my job officially starts (meetings and more prep stuff this week, classes next week), so that'll help. Though it'll be another 2 - 3 weeks until I can move into my own place, at which point it should finally sink in.
So what have I noticed about living in Hawaii? Finding a decent place to live here is tough. I paid $800 a month for my apartment in Florida. An equivalent place here was around $2,000, and that was outside of Honolulu. You also don't have a lot of nice apartment complexes around, especially outside of Honolulu. Most rental places are privately owned, which is more of a hassle and offers no real guarantees on how long you'll be able to stay.
Those are the reasons I ended up buying a place. Though houses here are similarly more expensive than back in Florida, Colorado, or Arizona. The nicer places that aren't overly expensive sell really fast (often within days of being listed), and competition can be fierce. Back on the mainland, if you want to buy a house, you never offer to pay the price it's listed for. House buying is a bargaining thing. Here, you can offer full list price for a house and still not get it (like I did on the first place I tried to buy). The market does get a bit less crazy, with longer listing times and more room for bargaining, but not until you hit the $600,000+ range. And, just to make things a bit more expensive, it seems just like about every house and condo is part of a development with high monthly HOA fees (several hundred dollars, at least). Some places actually give you nice amenities, services, and/or free utilities, which balances it out a bit. Others seem to just take your money because they can and don't offer much of anything in return.
So yeah. While my salary here is a nice step up over what I was making, I'm probably not going to be banking any more money than I was before. Quite possibly less. Though I will have a nicer place to live, which will hopefully rise steadily in value, so that's a plus.
But anyway, just know that if you plan to live in Hawaii, especially on Oahu, you're going to get a lot less for your money than you would in most other parts of the US.


8/15/2014 Busy working...

There's a new Timmy Tonka strip for everyone who votes. It's the last of the current set. There will be a couple of other special bonus comics next followed by a return to Blooper Reel strips.

I'm actually running pretty late today so I don't have time to talk much. This week has involved a lot of paper work, course prep, and errands and, while I've made decent progress, I'm not done yet. Looking forward to taking a little bit of a break over the weekend but there will be plenty more to do next week too with start of semester meetings and whatever on my to-do list doesn't get done today. All this start of semester stuff will likely settle down by the end of the month, but that'll probably be when moving stuff kicks into high gear again...

But anyway, I really should get going. Once things are a little less hectic, I'll be able to write more and get the Hawaii travelogue going again.



8/13/2014 Getting ready...

While classes at my new university don't start until the 25th, there's a decent amount of prep work that goes into them. It helps that I can reuse some material from the classes I taught in Florida. On the downside, they use a different online system here so I can't just import my old course setups, I need to remake them while teaching myself the new system (which, so far, isn't a favorite). Other than that, there's the usual assortment of pre-semester meetings to deal with, along with some "starting a new job" type of paperwork and the like. It'll be nice when things settle down and I can get a routine going, though that's unlikely to happen for another month at least.

Well, I should head off for now. I'm hoping to get a significant portion of my course prep done this week though, so far, a combination of meetings and errands has kept me from putting as much time in as I'd like. Here's hoping the the next few days will be different.


8/11/2014 Year 12

Today marks Pebble Version's anniversary! A little hard to believe I've been doing this little sprite comic for eleven years. How much longer is it going to go? Well, it's certainly getting towards the end, but I'd say there's at least a couple more years to go. And, once again, PV's anniversary is coming around the same time as a big life change on my end. Technically I already moved to Hawaii, though I'm not in my new place yet (and won't be for a few more weeks) and my new job doesn't start until next week (though I've got an early meeting or two this week). But it's close enough.

Anyway, thanks to all my readers, whether you've been following PV from the beginning or just found it recently. It's been fun and it's not over yet.


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