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Northern California 2012

I took a trip to Silicon Valley this year, and in my free time between work, I managed a brief trip to Pacifica to see the Pacific Ocean. I have see the Pacific from the shores of Japan in Chiba and Yokohama prefectures, but never before from the US.  Pacifica is about an hour east of San Jose, just south of Dale City, and just over the “hill” to the east of SFO airport.

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Words cannot describe the beauty of the Pacific coast

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Blue sky, blue water, jagged rocks

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Wait a minute, is that a trail?  I bet the view is better up there!

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Why yes, it is a trail, and that looks easy!  Just cross the stream and walk on up.

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OK, this might be harder than I thought.  I was wearing casual business shoes with NO GRIP.

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The view from the top was worth it though!

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Looking back to the land, there were no tall trees like one would find on the Atlantic coast, and lots of dry grass and land.  The trail in the center left had quite a few runners too.  There was no way down on this side of the hill though, so I had to go back the way I came, and it was a lot harder than going up.  It consisted of a controlled slide down the steep rocky portions, and a careful controlled walk on the dirt parts of the path.  Some shoes with some grip would have seriously helped.

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I had worked up an appetite, so after I had taken in the views, I headed back to San Jose for something to eat.  I stopped in Ramen Halu and tried their つけ麺 (tsukemen – cold ramen noodles dipped in soup).  The noodles and the soup were great, and the portions were large.  The only disappointing part of the meal was the thin char siu meat, but oh well.

It turned out this part of San Jose was like a little Tokyo, with a Kinokuniya book store and a Mitsuwa grocery store.  I picked up some study books for the JLPT at Kinokuniya, though I failed to find anything interesting for my son for learning hiragana.  I then picked up some basic supplies for my wife at Mitsuwa for the return trip.  It was only around 19:00 PST, but to my body it was 22:00 EST, so I headed back to the hotel to iron my shirt and get some sleep for the next day of work.  Pathetic, no?  I must be getting old.  But seeing the ocean, having a good hike, and finishing it off with a great meal simply made my day.  No need for anything else!

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2012 in Review

I can honestly say that 2012 was the busiest and fastest pace year of my life. I reckon that life will only get busier. Since this blog is primarily a journal for me too look back on, I thought I’d throw up some pictures to remind myself of the year that went by.

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Good-bye, Charleston, South Carolina. It was interesting. I miss the pink an auburn sunsets, the spanish moss, and walking along the Wando river.  We moved to Northern Virginia in early February

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View from Arlington National Cemetery – Lincoln memory at the end of the bridge, and of course the iconic Washington monument to the right

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Walking in the streets of Annapolis, MD.  Go Navy!

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Air show – F/A 18 Hornet – my favorite jet as a kid growing up.  The F-22 demonstration though sure made these planes look a lot less impressive

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Air show – what happens when a prop plane and blimp…?  I suppose this aircraft was used for zero-gravity testing and training?

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Teaching my son the fine craft of prepping and grilling bbq – the Korean grocery marts have excellent cuts of ribs at great prices.  In the warmer months I was preparing ribs once a month!

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Grilled pork satay

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烏賊 (squid) on the grill

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Great Falls on the Potomic

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Mule ride at Great Falls Park

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Our tour guide – he was full of great information about this history and lives of the people working the canal, and the impacts of rail road development on the canal

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Eden Center – an entire shopping center full of Vietnamese shops, such as food, entertainment, beauty, travel, and grocer shops.  Notice the South Vietnamese flags.

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Bahn mi – liver pate and head cheese and hot peppers – delicious!

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Autumn colors

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View from the Northern Shenandoah Skyline Drive

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Downtown Leesburg, VA – quaint and pleasant town to visit when you want to get away from the bustle of modern life.  There are quite a few coffee shops and pubs along the main street

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Part of the Christmas Parade in Leesburg, VA

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State House in Raleigh, NC – spent the time after Christmas and before the New Year in the Research Triangle Area of NC this year.

Hopefully 2013 will be an easier year with more time to enjoy the little things.

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An Orlando trip

My wife’s best friend since secondary school visited us in mid-June. We decided to do a short trip to Orlando, FL to visit Animal Kingdom in Disney World. While I do not have much of an interest in theme parks, I decided that this road-trip could be litmus for the possibility of making a road-trip to Miami–where I could enjoy little Cuba of course–and perhaps even make an excursion out to the Florida Keys.

The drive from Charleston takes one along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern Florida, before turning inland towards Orlando at Daytona Beach.  It is a long drive with very little scenery and takes around eight hours with lunch and bathroom stops included.  From Charleston to Daytona Beach, the drive is seven hours, and Miami is a further five or six hours.  I realized quickly that the idea of driving to Miami was not such a good one.  The railroad can get you to Orlando, but then you’d have to jump a bus or rental car to get to Miami…also five hours.  So there are two things we can draw from this:

  1. Florida is a REALLY long state
  2. Fly to Miami, don’t drive

We reached our destination though.  The only memorable things were the red skies over southeast Georgia due to the forest fires, and the natural palm trees every in Florida.  Unlike South Carolina, where the palm trees are planted by man, pruned for their appearance, and laid out in symmetrical patterns, the palm trees in Florida grow tall and grow wild–the way they should.  They even can keep their own in the pine forests!

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Disney World is huge — four them parks, a shopping mall, golf courses, various resort hotels and condominiums, and an extremely efficient highway system — all contained within the bounds of Disney World.  And if that is not enough, Sea World and Universal Studios are just down the road.

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Animal Kingdom is split into continent-themed areas.  This is a snapshot of the South-Asian/Indian Subcontinental section.  The Yak & Yeti Restaurant serves….hamburgers and fries.  What, did you really think they’d have curries and other subcontinental dishes?  I’d rather be in the real Nepal…

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I think this was supposed to be the Lion King tree, there are all sorts of animals carved into the tree, and the insides are actually an IMAX 3D theater.  Overall Disney did a great job hiding traditional human structures and blending them into their Animal Park theme.

IMG_0460Unlike the stupid humans walking around in the intense Florida sun and humidity, this gorilla had the right idea–a light brunch in the shade

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Where the monkeys roam and play

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This guy was a real showman.  He was just relaxing on the ledge when a crowd starting to form

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“Alright people, you want to get your admission ticket’s worth?  Just look at me!”  This monkey began to swing all over the apparatus showing off his speed and agility.

IMG_8111“I can even do pull-ups with my triceps and deltoids!”

Sorry for all of the monkey photos, I am endlessly fascinated by monkeys.  Just as my wife and niece about the time we all went to the Takao-san Monkey Park (高尾山 サル園)…

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We stayed in a time-share unknowingly.  Apparently the owners can rent out there time if they won’t be using it.  Since we stayed in Disney World, we could take the free shuttle buses rather than paying the $10/day parking at the theme park.

The heat in Florida was intense.  The humidity is not that different from Charleston, but the sun is much stronger and more intense.  I sweat more in Florida than I ever did in Taipei, and I was constantly having to hydrate myself.  The next day I had a horrible fever, no appetite, and little patience for anything…and I had to drive back to Charleston.  I have never experienced anything like it.  STAY AWAY FROM FLORIDA IN THE SUMMER!!!

On Disney World

I have always been of the opinion that there is not much of a reason for international tourists to visit the USA.  If you can tolerate our customs and immigration services and their draconian policies that actually detract tourism, you next have to deal with the fact that outside of a few cities, there is no public transportation and you’ll spend a fortune on rental cars, rental car insurance, and gasoline.  Why on earth would you visit the USA to see the cities with little-to-no history (outside of some on the east coast) or see natural sites that are hours away from any civilization with little to no services?

Well, after visiting Florida, I learned that you do not visit the USA for those reasons.  Only Americans and Canadians do this.  Instead, you go to Disney World and other Orlando area theme parks.  With the exception of Times Square in NYC, I’ve never see so many international tourists in one place in the USA.  “America…fine purveyors of Disney since…”

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Trip back home: Kawagoe 2010

I boarded the bus at Kawagoe station at 06:30 and was shortly on my way back to Narita.  Rather than going through Saitama and largely bypassing Tokyo, the bus dived straight into Ikebukuro and the northern wards of central Tokyo before crossing the Arakawa river and heading into Edogawa ward and Chiba prefecture.  The bus arrived around 08:30 and after quickly moving through the baggage check-in, I found myself with some time to kill before the flight.

20101219662I decided to have some breakfast before the flight.  While the Sichuan dan-dan noodles (担担麵) looked good, I decided to go with something a little more easy on the stomach.  I went with a bowl of kitsune udon with a small side of sashimi on rice. The warm udon sure hit the spot, and beats a plate of sausage and eggs any day!  Don’t even get me started on South Carolina grits…

20101219663Waiting to board the flight – ANA had good service and was only $100 more than Delta or United which are the most convenient for me to fly from the southeastern USA.  We primarily choose ANA because they have excellent support for traveling families and especially mothers traveling alone with a small child.

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Peeling away from Narita I believe the building in the left side of the picture is the ANA Continental Hotel that I saw from the highway bus as well.

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Blue Ridge Mountains and Dulles

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I opened the window about forty minutes before touchdown and was delighted by the view outside.  In the distance through the clouds you can just make out the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I wasn’t sure if we were flying over Pennsylvania or Virginia at this point.

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I love the way the clouds laid like carpet over the mountain range

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The layers of clouds broke to reveal snow and ice on the ground below!  I loved the way the snow covered the hills with barren trees, and I loved the way the snow covered the small plots of farm land.  While some people just hate the idea of snow, I rather like it–everything covered in white, made clean again and not hidden by all of the green.

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The temperature on the ground was -4*C around 09:00 – amazingly, most connecting flights were not delayed

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I’ve always wondered it what it would be like to surf the clouds, and above northern South Carolina the Embraer jet surfed for about ten minutes before disappearing into the cloud layer.

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Before long I was back in ol’ Boot – South Carolina.  I was worried that by going back to Japan I’d either really miss it and want to return, or really hate it and wonder why I ever bothered to go in the first place.  Luckily though, life is not so black and white.  I miss a lot about Japan, and I still long for an urban environment where I can just walk and walk and not have to worry about asshole SUV drivers yapping on their blackberries (if I were President of the USA I’d ban the production and sale of Chevrolet Suburbans).  But at the same time I do not miss Japanese corporate culture at all, and even though I’m stuck here in South Carolina…at least I have time to do what I like after work, learn things after work, and still have time to spend with the family.

When I left a stable job in Japan in May 2009, in the middle of the recession, I didn’t know whether I’d end up better of or not.  I managed to find a job (though it is in South Carolina), and its a pretty good job at that.  Who knows, I may return again one day, hopefully working for my current employer, but one cannot rule anything out.  Until that day comes though, I’ll look forward to the chance to return to Japan as a visitor again one day…I don’t know when that will be with airfare getting more expensive year after year…but one day…save me a bowl of miso ramen!

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Toward Narita: Kawagoe 2010

Toward Narita from Gaoshancha on Vimeo.

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bei Rosenthaler Platz


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So I am a Public Agent and don’t know who I work for, get my instructions from street signs, newspapers and pieces of conversation I snap out of the air the way a vulture will tear entrails from other mouths.

– William S. Burroughs

 

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Viva Berlin!

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10,000 meters

Ten thousand meters above Winnipeg, it is hard to even fathom the idea of ten thousand meters.

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If I fell from ten thousand meters, would I even hear anything?

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If I fell from ten thousand meters, would the clouds catch me?
Would I bounce off the clouds like on a soft mattress?

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How long would it take for me to hit the clouds?
Would I be able to walk on the clouds, or swim in the clouds?

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If I fell from ten thousand meters, would I continue to fall through the clouds and would I get wet?

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Any regrets?

While I usually awake at 07:00, today I rolled over and went back to sleep until 10:00..I suppose yesterday really was a long day.  So I decided to make brunch this morning, and after looking in the cupboard and finding a bag of glass noodles, I decided on Japchae (雜菜), a Korean noodle dish.  While cooking Japchae, I was reminded that after living in Japan for five years, I never made it to Korea for even a brief trip.

I know that I thought about it from time to time.  I used to pick up the travel brochures at the train station advertising four-night, three-day packages to Seoul for about US$300 (airfare and lodging included).   I remember one time even planning to go, but due to my visa and employment status at the time, my wife and I were worried that I wouldn’t be allowed back into Japan upon return.  I suppose the primary reason for not going were my employers, Japanese corporations are absolutely stingy about time off.  The other problem was that Korea was so close and I always thought I’d get there someday, but then time somehow disappeared.

I seriously regret that I didn’t visit Korea, however.  Though on the face modern Seoul looks a lot like modern Tokyo, I still would have liked to see Seoul, and I would have loved the “night market” style restaurants on the streets.  I would have liked to visit Seoul in the winter, walking around the city just to get a glimpse of what life in Seoul is like, taking in all of the Hangul everywhere, and when getting too cold, stopping by a small restaurant and warming up to some spicy Korean food.

With Savannah just two hours away, I should probably make a trip and try to see, because when life changes happen, they happen fast and time flies, and before you know it you’ve missed your window of opportunity.

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Eurotrip 2010 – Prelude and Postfix

The doors opened and I was hit with a burst of damp, sticky and lifeless air.  I was in Atlanta again.  After ten days of Autumn weather with no humidity, nothing would have prepared me for that humid Southeast Atlantic air.  It hit me a few moments later, I have to go to work tomorrow.  How nice it would be if I could just be on the road…permanently.  Yet tonight it was a good feeling again to be behind the grill working on the last batch of summer’s corn.  Autumn has not yet arrived here, and I’m patiently waiting for my favorite season to arrive.

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So It was a trip that my wife and I had been thinking about for years.  We decided in June to make the trip due to two reasons:

1) Delta informed us that all of the mileage that we acquired with Northwest in our transpacific flights over the years would be expiring in 2011 unless we fly with Delta again…and flying with Delta is never nice.
2) Our son will be two at the end of the year and will no longer be able to fly at reduced fare

I suppose we also knew that if we did not take the trip while Liam is still small, we’d probably never be able to take the trip until we’re in our 50s, and then we might not have the energy for such trekking.  We would be one of those couples on the tour groups with silver hair not really caring what we see just as long as we didn’t have to plan or do anything ourselves.

On Airlines

Flying with Delta is an experience in pulling teeth without Novocaine.  Trying to use award reservations is even more trying.  Before I describe the trip, I thought I’d write a little about traveling on frequent-flyer miles.  The airlines go out of their way to make sure you cannot use your miles.  The airlines like to advertise about where you can go and how many miles it takes, but unless you make your reservation a calendar year in advance, you cannot use the low mileage rates described on their websites.  I don’t know many people who have the luxury of planning travel more than a year in advance.  Essentially, we had to use the regular rate, which requires twice as many miles.  After searching and searching, however, my wife did find a reservation for 75,000 miles each that would get us to and from Prague via Atlanta.

Also, keep in mind that the flight schedules are not very friendly.  You cannot do a 7-day package unless you’re willing to fork over extra miles again.  We ended up having to book flights on September 11th and September 22nd; otherwise, we would not have had enough miles to book any flights.  Luckily I had enough paid time off for taking off eight business days from work.  The airlines also do not tell you that if you bring a child under two, thought domestic travel is free, you have to pay 10% of the cost of regular fare for the international legs of your travel.  This ended up costing us $400 because Delta charges you the price of a regular ticket on the day of a flight and not the price of a ticket when you make your reservation.  They never mention this to you because they’re shysters.

Also, as a stewardess informed us, the lap-child tickets will be going away next year or the year after.  It looks like the airlines are looking for more ways to guarantee revenue just like a shady Japanese landlord.  Those traveling with infants will have to bring a car seat for the child.  I suppose the positive thing about this is that you cannot be refused a cab in Los Angeles or Berlin for not having a car seat.  I just wonder if cheapskate airlines will charge extra baggage fees for the baby car seat…wait, don’t put it past them yet.

On Airports

While Atlanta seems like a decent airport, when Atlanta is your final destination you still have to go through security once again, and even though you have no flight, they (i.e. TSA) confiscate your beverages and handcreams and whatever you were allowed to use on the flight.  JFK Airport in New York is an insult to the man’s name–they have replaced seating and resting areas with souvenir shops and expensive sports bars meaning that while waiting for a flight you’ll most likely be standing or sitting on the filthy floor.

Prague has a wonderful airport just fifteen minutes by taxi from Central Prague.  Thought it is not connected by rail with the rest of the Czech Republic, it is a fantastic airport with affordable places to eat, plenty of seating while waiting for flights, and even children’s play areas so that the kids won’t be bored while waiting.  Thought it is a small airport, it is one of the best I’ve ever experienced.

Charles De Gaulle, however, is probably one of the worst–thought the absolute worst is LAX in Los Angeles.  Not only is it irrationally ugly and lacking in elevators for the handicapped or those with child strollers, the terminals are designed such that you need to ride a bus to get around if you make a mistake.   Inside, there is little but expensive designer perfume and clothing stores.  There is a food court, but it is open for limited hours around lunchtime only.  There are no fast food stands, you have to go to “bio” cafes where two coffees, an apple juice and two half sandwiches will cost your nearly 24 euros (one of the most expensive meals of the trip!).  When traveling early in the morning in Paris, make sure to buy something the night before.

Rail travel

Regarding Eurorail travel, it is largely painless, but you really need to make your reservations in advance.  For example, the cheapest tickets are available only if you order them from Deustche Bahn directly, and you cannot pick up the tickets at the station, they have to be mailed to you by post.  And no, they will not use courriers like FedEx or DHL, so you have to make your reservations well in advance.  Also, the trains do not do well with large international size luggage.  Luckily we only had one piece of that size and we somehow made due.  But it was not easy.

So…

With my ranting out of the way, I hope to write up my experiences in Prague and Berlin here in the coming days.  Story-book like Prague and East Berlin were wonderful, and I have so much more to stay.  Stay tuned, please!

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Washington DC trip, part deux

I was back in DC, this time to pick up my wife and son at Dulles and spend a weekend in the Capital.  Unfortunately, I forget to bring my camera, and I had to fall back on my mobile phone camera this time.  As a result, I didn’t take as many pictures this time.  I managed a few though, and of course had another good walkabout in my favorite American city.

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Being a VIP, I was greeted by the first family at Dulles.  I had to turn down the invitation to the state dinner unfortunately.  I had a previous engagement to attend.

The first day my wife and son were extremely jet lagged, sleep deprived, and generally just exhausted.  So we picked up the rental car and I drove the family around Georgetown and downtown Washington DC just to get a feel for the city.  We checked into the hotel at 3 PM and rested for awhile, then grabbed a hamburger  dinner, and upon returning to the hotel the weary travelers fell asleep 19:00, leaving me to read in the hotel room for the next three hours.  Luckily I brought “Interzone” by William S. Burroughs, quite a fascinating read!

It was a good thing that we stayed in the hotel, however, as the skies opened up and a quick thunderstorm engulfed the metro area around 19:30.  The next morning, my son crawled next to me and began slapping me on the chest.  It was still dark outside, and it was 5:30 AM and he was ready to go.  Might as well get an early start, right?  As the morning progressed I found the skies to be clear and the humidity to be significantly less.  We made out for “the Mall”, the green area in the middle of the Federal district of Washington DC.

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The World War II Memorial – each of the pillars surrounding the fountain represent one of the fifty states or one of the American territories.  The tower to the end marks the Pacific front, and behind me  is the tower for the Atlantic front.

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In front of the towers are small fountains that have the names of the battles engraved into stone.  I remember hearing about the battle of Coral Sea growing up.  Of course on the Pacific side you also have the battle of Guadalcanal, Siapan/Guam, Okinawa, and even Japan.  The Atlantic side has engravings for Normandy and all of the the major battles in Europe.

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While the World War II Monument lies at one end of the reflection pool, the Lincoln Memorial lies at the other.  Back in 1999 I took a great photo just before dusk of the Washington Monument (the huge spike in this picture) projected into the reflection pool.  The pool now just collects rain water, and I overheard some locals stating that the Parks and Recreation Dept. turned off the water because of budget cuts.  Perhaps the reflection pool is also a reflection on the state of the American economy?

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The White House – it is hard to make out, but there is a black fence about 100 meters forward, and in this picture it would be in the center.  Back in 2003 you could stand at that fence and get a much better view of the White House.  Now there is a metal chain link fence pushing the public back another hundred meters.  On the other side of the White House the streets are all closed and are heavily guarded.

Even though the White House and Reflection Pool were disappointing, the weather was fabulous, there were plenty of other families out and about, and the walk around the Mall was really worth it.

It was getting close to lunch time so we headed to Pentagon City by metro for a food-court lunch and fulfilled the missus’ desire for shopping.  We bought Liam some summer sandal shoes, and as soon as we left the shoe store he had already taken one of his shoes off and tries to throw it away.  This boy really doesn’t like shoes!  We returned to the hotel for a short rest, and around 6 PM we headed out for Alexandria, VA.

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Cobble stone streets and row houses in old towne Alexandria

Alexandria is a very old town in Virginia that has become quite a tourist spot.  The Old Towne area has beautiful row houses and a park on the water front.  There are many art galleries, boutique shops, and fancy restaurants as well.  It’s  not a town for children for sure, the sidewalks are narrow and the restaurant tables are packed together as tightly as one finds in downtown Tokyo.  It also seems to be a meet-up place as there were lots of young people, salaried professionals enjoying their “single” days.

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The trees grow around the houses – these houses have probably been here longer than the trees!

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Such a wide alley with nothing in it!

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I couldn’t resist taking a picture of this tacky souvenir shop at the airport.  I guess they couldn’t come up with a better name…

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