Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center

Our Labour Day weekend trip – our last hurrah of Summer break – was to the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center.  It’s this little portion of Japan in the midst of Philadelphia.  It is also authentically Japanese as the buildings were built in Nagoya, using traditional materials and techniques, and were then transported to America.  I read that even the rocks in the garden were imported from Japan.  Originally, it was part of an exhibition in New York before being disassembled and reconstructed in Philadelphia.  It has been in Philly since the late 1950s.

We started our visit with the house.  We slipped off our shoes and entered the house in our socks.  It was everything you think about when you think about traditional Japanese architecture: elevated off the ground, connections between the interior and the exterior, between the man-made and the natural, verandas, lots of wood, sliding doors, and gently curved roofs.  There is something inherently relaxing about being in those spaces but I know myself well enough to know I could never actually live in such a space.  I am far too fond of objects to be capable of minimalism and maintaining clean lines.  And my pelvis is too wrecked to cope with floor sitting.  But I like to imagine I could live in such a space.  I especially loved the kitchen.  I feel like you learn a lot about a culture by looking at kitchens (and supermarkets actually) because so much of culture revolves around food.  My kids had zero patience for me reading the information about each room of the house but I insisted on reading all the detail about the kitchen.  It was pretty fascinating stuff.  I thought the little tea house would be the most intriguing and engaging part of the house but for me it was actually the kitchen.

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The garden surrounding the house was similarly gorgeous.  It is such an obvious and probably uninteresting thing to state but it was so green and so harmonious.  Apparently the landscaping was designed to echo 17th Century styles.  The boys absolutely loved the pond which was stocked with carp.  They had some fish food and, within seconds of throwing the first pellet into the water, there was a scrum of koi torpedoing towards them.  There was a line of them wiggling through the water from the bridge and making a beeline to the area where my kids were waiting to feed them.  Their dorsal fins cut through the surface of the water and created wakes.  I couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’.  Despite the fact these carp must surely get so fed up of eating the same pellets all the time, there was a serious feeding frenzy.

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This is such a cliche that I initially resisted typing it out but the whole space really was so peaceful.  I could have chilled there for ages.  A good book and a glass of cold lemonade and it would have been so easy to just sit there for hours enjoying the garden.  But I had four kids with me who had run out of patience and wanted to get home to do their own thing for the final days of Summer so no chance of zen for me.

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Longwood Gardens

It was our 22nd Wedding Anniversary last week and  – as our children happened to be gallivanting with their grandparent for a few days – we could celebrate the occasion as a couple.  Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my oral surgery – a complication having caused me two weeks of excruciating and ceaseless neuralgic pain – which slightly put the damper on things and certainly reduced my ability to enjoy a meal out on the actual day.  However, eight days into my recovery, I felt well enough to venture out for the evening.  We opted for a visit to Longwood Gardens, having never been before and knowing that our children might not have the required patience for a visit to formal gardens.

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Longwood Gardens developed from a site that had been farmed and turned into an arboretum in the 18th Century.  When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the trees of the arboretum were at risk from being chopped down for lumber, the super-wealthy businessman Pierre du Pont stepped in to save the trees by purchasing the entire property.  The site then developed into the formal gardens that exist today.  It is spread across over a thousand acres so there is a massive amount to see – too much for us as it turned out.

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I am not much of a gardener at all and my knowledge of flowers, plants and trees is pretty limited.  However, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of plants and I certainly like garden features, such as fountains and sculptures.  I, therefore, thoroughly enjoyed wandering along the pathways at Longwood and seeing what vistas and colours opened up before me.  Visiting in the evening not only meant we were spared the worst of the day’s baking heat and gross humidity but were also bathed in a golden light as the sun started to slip lower.

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We stopped to watch the fountains in action as music played.  It was all very pleasing and relaxing.  We had visited the pump room and were amazed by all the power involved in working the fountains but, as we watched water shoot up into the sky and dance and spray from so many fountains at once, we understood why that power was required.

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Apparently Longwood’s main conservatory is one of the world’s largest greenhouses.  I would certainly estimate it to be the largest I have ever visited.  It was arranged into a series of spaces that each focused on a theme.  Although we had no kids with us, Mr Pict and I wandered around the children’s indoor garden and found it to be charming.  Younger visitors seemed to be delighted by all of the wonderful details and fun little nooks and crannies.  We explored the main conservatory – including the ballroom and organ – and also enjoyed the other conservatories and the lily pond, complete with giant lily pads, between them.  I loved the gallery of orchids and Mr Pict loved all the banana plants.  The whole place was supremely polished and thoughtful in its detailing.  It was a feast for the eyes and the nose.

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We realised too late that we should have saved the conservatories for last since they had interior lighting while the exterior gardens had, during our time indoors, been plunged into darkness.  We still had a good wander in the dark.  There was actually something pretty magical about being at the Italian gardens and seeing all the fireflies glowing as they flew up from the grass and into the air.  We also saw bats swooping down to chomp on the insects that were hovering above the ponds.  Some areas, however, were just too dark to permit any exploration so we had to abandon those.  However, an advantage of having found ourselves in Longwood Gardens in the pitch darkness was that we could watch the performance of water, lighting, and music back at the main fountains.  The theme of the show happened to be “movies” which was completely perfect for Mr Pict and me since we are such movie nerds.  The whole show was amazingly accomplished and very impressive.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, my pain meds had completely worn off about halfway through the show and I was so close to passing out from the pain that I had to sit on the gravel behind rows of standing spectators so missed the last quarter of the event.

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Mr Pict and I both agreed that we would love to return to Longwood Gardens some time, maybe another summer trip to take in the things we missed, maybe during one of their festivals, maybe in a different season to see it in a different context.  We might even take the kids some time.

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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Flowers and Freedom

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Philadelphia Flower Show.  On my own.  Child-free.  No clock-watching or pressure of time.  It was an absolute luxury.  I really know very little about flowers and gardening.  My friend knows a bit more than I do but is no expert.  I think it is safe to say, therefore, that attending the Flower Show was an opportunity to just be grown ups together and enjoy each other’s company more than it was about indulging any horticultural interest or ability.

This was also my first time attending an event in the Convention Centre.  My husband and two of my children have attended Philly Comic Con annually since we emigrated to America so they are veterans of the Convention Centre but I have had no reason to go before.  The Flower Show is run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and is apparently America’s longest running and oldest flower show, dating as it does from 1829.  I imagine that people attend in order to be inspired by new plant varieties, by landscape design, to participate in competitions, and to meet with other flower enthusiasts.  Aside from the opportunity for a day of unfettered freedom, the appeal for me lay in seeing a riot of colour and vibrant life given how much I have been loathing Winter and craving Spring.

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Given my degree of ignorance, this will not be a long blog post.  I did, however, enjoy wandering among the displays and showcases.  Most impressive was a tropical jungle built around scaffolding poles that had been painted to mimic bamboo and which were festooned with stunning flowers in bold colours, including cascades of orchids and swirling leaves, and incorporating various water features including a series of waterfalls and the occasional shower of rain.  I was also very taken with a desert area filled with an incredible variety of cacti and succulents.  My friend and I became a tad obsessed with one colloquially named “dinosaur back” because of all of its folds and ridges.  Had one been available for purchase, I might have brought that home with me.  I am not very good at keeping houseplants alive but cacti do somehow manage to survive in my care despite my negligence and evil eye.

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The theme of the flower show was apparently water.  That seemed like a very easy challenge to me since almost all plants require water for sustenance and many garden designs incorporate water.  Still, I do enjoy a good water feature so I liked seeing the variety of ways in which water had been built into the landscaping.  Aside from the water, we noticed some other repetitions of design: glass orbs and copper.  We congratulated ourselves on spotting what might be a gardening “trend”.  There was. for instance, a visually appealing display involving a mirrored table (imagine keeping that clean of smears and finger smudges?) with glass orbs hanging above it like a chandelier, each orb containing a plant.  I thought it would make for a pretty wedding table whereas in my home it would make for megatons of stress and fingers being cut on shards of smashed glass.  On the subject of weddings, I did love an outdoor wedding table, all wood and soft moss, including what looked like a tiered cake made from slices of log.  I could imagine Oberon and Titania dining in just such a setting.

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The competition areas were befuddling to me.  My lack of expertise meant that I could not possibly figure out why one plant or arrangement had been awarded first place while another was an honorable mention.  It was another opportunity to see a diverse selection of plants I had never encountered before.  There was a miniature citrus tree with blossoms and fruit, venus fly traps and pitcher plants inside humid terrariums, arrangements inside tea cups (I liked those a lot!), lots of breathtaking orchids, and blooms in every shape and colour.  I was drawn to the weirdo plants, the non-conformists, and the ones that looked like me if I was a plant.  I got more excited than a grown woman ought to when I spotted some chubby tuberous plants that looked just like mandrakes from ‘Harry Potter’.

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In truth, I cannot say I learned much after a day at the Flower Show and any sense of inspiration was tempered by the reality of my green-finger skills (which are brown-thumbed to be honest).  I did, however, very much enjoy a pleasant day out without the responsibility of keeping children engaged.

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Grounds for Sculpture

This has been a horrible winter.  It has not actually snowed much but instead we have had to contend with various pestilences and too many rainy, miserable weekends.  While I do enjoy hibernating a bit over winter, cabin fever definitely set in.  I desperately needed some fresh air and exploration for the sake of my mental wellbeing.  This past weekend, therefore, we took advantage of a dry day to go and visit the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.  We had previously attempted a visit there but it was Labour Day weekend and all of the tickets for the day were gone by the time we arrived.  This time we prebooked to be assured of entry, though in reality it was pretty quiet.

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The Grounds for Sculpture is essentially an outdoor exhibition space for sculptures by a variety of artists.  The museum was founded by artist Seward Johnson.  I must confess that his was not a name I knew but it turned out I did know some of his sculptures.  The one most people can probably recall to their mind’s eye is ‘Double Check’ which depicts a seated businessman looking through his briefcase.  It was captured in an iconic photo of 9/11 as, covered in dust and debris, it looked no different from the real people making their way through the streets after the towers collapsed.  A replica of that statue greeted us as we entered the Visitor Center.

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The Visitor Center showcased some of Johnson’s other works too, such as his Marilyn Monroe based on the famous photo of her from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a group of musicians, and a styrofoam sculpture of a reclining girl that was painted to look like it was made from marble and chrome.  What was a big hit with the boys, however, was a room made to look like Van Gogh’s painting of his ‘Bedroom in Arles’.  We all enjoyed the feeling of having stepped inside the painting and be seeing such a famous work from a different perspective.

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The vast outdoor space contained hundreds of sculptures.  Every pathway brought us to a different art work and we enjoyed the almost “treasure hunt” aspect of finding some of the statues that were partially concealed behind bushes or were only accessible by following a small path.  Some statues made the kids chortle, including one of a man urinating into bushes and a very phallic obelisk.  I enjoyed the variety of art works on display, from the abstract to the kitsch, from the ones hewn from natural materials to the brightly coloured ones crafted from manmade materials.  We all enjoyed the oversized, three dimensional versions of famous Impressionist paintings because of that feeling of being able to magically step inside a painting.  We also enjoyed the celebration of kitsch and the fact that many of the statues could be touched and interacted with as adjacent signs specified that they could be respectfully touched or even climbed on.  I believe one of the mission statements of the Grounds for Sculpture is to engage more people in public art so it was great to be able to let the kids feel the texture of a bronze sculpture or hang out with Renoir’s party-goers.

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The grounds themselves were lovely, very peaceful, filled with trees and plants, and peacocks.  There were also some nice buildings dotted around and bodies of water and arching bridges.  I can imagine that the whole place looks even more appealing in other seasons when there is more colour and leaves on the trees.  Since the Grounds are spread over 42 acres, we had lots of opportunity to wander and run around and explore.  However, even though we were there for a few hours, we did not manage to see everything.  We will absolutely have to go back some time.

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The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.

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After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.

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Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.

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Mirror Maze and Fountain Frolics

The youngest two Pictlings returned from their trip to Maine with their grandparents.  Then it was time for the oldest two to head off on their vacation with their grandparents.  They are visiting New Orleans and taking a cruise around the coasts of Mexico, Belize and Honduras.  Lucky ducks.  Mr Pict and I are, therefore, experiencing having only two children at home again.

We took a weekend trip into Philly to visit the Franklin Institute.  The older boys have become a bit lukewarm when it comes to return visits to the Franklin Institute so it made sense to grab the opportunity to just take the other two.  I have never seen the building so empty and quiet.  It was an absolute pleasure to wander around without the noise and the crowds, without having to wait for a turn on some piece of equipment.

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There is a special exhibition on at the moment that is all about numbers and patterns in nature.  The boys loved all of the interactive elements.  They were able to identify the same spirals, tessellations, and ratios in different photographic images, play with computer generated images of branching and the geometry in mountain ranges.  There was a metal casting of an ant nest that was beautiful and fascinating and a section of a beehive.  It was my kind of mathematics.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was a mirror maze.  It was constructed from floor to ceiling mirror panels and LED light strips in the floor creating triangular shapes in the floor.  It was so much fun to wander around in it.  The maze had been cleverly crafted so that the different angles of the mirrors created optical illusions.  At one point, my youngest son was split in half on different sides of the corridor.  It was genuinely tricky to find our way around the maze too.  We hit many dead ends.  The dead ends, however, were also fun.  Pressure pads in the floor made screens appear in the mirror panels that informed us about patterns and repetitions in nature.  We went around the maze several times because it didn’t get boring at all.

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We then watched an IMAX movie about extreme weather.  The documentary was great and the IMAX screen made the photography even more immersive.  We could actually feel dwarfed by the glacier that was breaking into the sea and could feel the threat of the impending tornado.  After that, we asked the boys to select a few areas of the Franklin Institute that they were keen to visit on this trip.  The advantage of being members is that we don’t feel the pressure to do the whole museum from top to toe each time and can instead cherry pick.  We, therefore, visited the space section where they got to try on virtual reality headsets and touch another fragment of the meteor that came from Meteor Crater.  We also visited the Heart section where they enjoyed climbing around in the chambers of the heart and listen to the heartbeats of different creatures.  They also had fun in the electricity section, creating circuits by connecting hands and getting electrical shocks from a key.

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After the Franklin Institute we headed across the street to Logan Circle.  While I have walked and driven past it many times, this was our first visit to Logan Circle – also called Logan Square, confusingly enough.  It is basically a small park in the middle of a roundabout (traffic circle).  We read on a placard in the park that this was the site of the Great Sanitary Fair.  This was an 1864 event to raise funds for medicines for the Union troops.  Abraham Lincoln contributed by donating signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Apparently the public address he gave that day was the only one he delivered in Philadelphia.  At the centre of the circle is an impressive fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain.  The Fountain was designed by Alexander Calder – the Philadelphia sculptor whose father designed City Hall and who was the father of Alexander Calder of the kinesthetic sculptures.  It features three massive figures each representing the rivers of the city – the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and Delaware – and turtles, frogs, fish, and swans.  There are geysers spouting high up into the air.  It’s a pretty cool fountain.

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Of course, the kids didn’t give a stuff about all that history.  They were just interested in the water.  There were lots of people playing in the fountain, both wading and swimming, and my boys were keen to join in.  We were not sure if frolicking in the water was permitted.  There was no sign prohibiting entering the water, as is often the case with off-limits fountains, so we decided to let them get in.  It turns out that there was a brief ban on entering the fountain but it is now allowed so we were OK.  The boys loved wading around in the water and wandered all over the place.  I decided to join them, though I avoided getting as wet as they did.  They loved the spouting turtle and frog figures and had an absolute blast playing, splashing, and giggling.  Now I am keen to visit more of Philly’s fountains and public art.

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