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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Niagara Falls

We couldn’t possibly be in the Buffalo area and not visit Niagara Falls.  I am told that the Canadian side is prettier but, for various complicated reasons, I am unable to cross an international border right now so we had to plan our trip around staying on the American side.  I have seen so many images and so much footage of Niagara Falls and it is so very commercial and touristy that I felt there was a risk I would be underwhelmed by seeing the Falls for myself.  However, I was neither disappointed or deflated.

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Niagara Falls is in fact a gathering of three waterfalls, a fact which I had not really appreciated before my visit.  In order of viewing them from the American side, there was the American Falls, the Bridal Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls.  The latter straddles the international border and is the most powerful waterfall in North America.  Wanting to see the Falls from as many perspectives as we could, we decided to get tickets for the Maid of the Mist.  We were given blue ponchos and headed aboard the boat.  It was actually really cool to see the Falls from water level, to experience the roar and strength of the spray, in order to really appreciate the power of the Falls.  The Horseshoe Falls in particular was so powerful that we had to turn our faces away from the water at times.  It was also kicking up so much spray that our view, once we were as close as possible, was like peering into dense fog.   It might be a super-touristy thing to do but it was actually pretty awesome.

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Having disembarked from the Maid of the Mist, we took in two further perspectives of the Falls.  One of these was a flight of steps that took us up the crags alongside the Falls and the other was a viewpoint high above the Falls.  While I cannot say I was overwhelmed by my visit to Niagara Falls, I definitely was not underwhelmed.  It was very impressive and I was really glad we had made the trip.  Let us just say that I was sufficiently whelmed.

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Canandaigua Lake

We recently spent a few days in upstate New York visiting with extended family of Mr Pict’s while his parents were also in the country.  The couple with whom we were staying own a boat so – on our first full day there – we were treated to a trip out on Canandaigua Lake.  Canandaigua is one of New York’s eleven finger lakes.  I learned it was 16 miles long and 1 mile wide (hence the “finger”) and was about 130 feet deep on average – but sinking to 276 feet at its deepest point.  Humphrey Bogart used to vacation at Canandaigua so it’s an upscale kind of place.  We saw plenty of incredible properties lining the shore as we headed out on the boat, some of which had their own funicular systems for getting down the steep hillside to the water’s edge.

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Our kids had never been on a powerboat before so this was a first time experience for them.  They were unsure of the motion of the boat, especially when it slammed into and crested the wakes of other marine vehicles.  They were especially not enjoying the motion when Mr Pict was given a turn at driving the boat.  What they absolutely loved, however, was getting to tube.  A large inflatable was launched into the water and pulled behind the boat with the Pictlings (and sometimes their dad) clinging on.  There were zero complaints about the motion then.  They were grinning and laughing the whole time as they were flung around on the tube.  At first they were tentative and asked that the speed be kept to a minimum but soon they were using their hand signals to request higher speeds.  Our youngest, who had been the most reticent to clamber on to the tube, didn’t even bat an eyelid when he and his father were pitched off the tube and into the lake.

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After a few hours out on the lake, we pulled into one of the marinas and enjoyed an evening meal at one of the bars there.  We felt like we were really getting to experience a little sliver of life as part of the boating set.  I think our kids might be wanting a boat now.

Road Trip 2018 #18 – Skyline Drive

My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration.  Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast.  It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park.  I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it.  Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose.  Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction.  I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids.  He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.

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The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased.  This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home.  I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip.  One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected.  In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The views were indeed breathtaking.  The boys, however, were not appreciating them.  They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping.  Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops.  To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel.  I too was feeling nauseous.  And the going was very slow.  I admitted defeat.  We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.

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This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip.  Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited.  That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips.  I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow.  It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip.  That is not to say that it was not worth it.  I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time.  It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited.  Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is.  The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint.  In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring.  I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else.  The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states.  I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage.  But maybe not for a while.  I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.

Road Trip 2018 #17 – Stones River National Battlefield

The final two days of our road trip were really just about covering distance in order to reach home.  Both were, therefore, slogs of days with no real time available for exploring.  On the penultimate day, however, we did indulge Mr Pict’s Civil War geekery by opting to stretch our legs at Stones River National Battlefield.

Having been to Shiloh in 2002, this was actually my second Tennessee Civil War battlefield.  I feel like I am collecting Civil War sites by association.  Confusingly, Mr Pict talks about this place as Murfreesboro, the name of a nearby town, which makes it even more difficult for me to retain the information.  We were greeted at the Visitor Center by an incredibly chipper Park Ranger.  He provided a summary of the site’s history and I, therefore, learned that this was the first place that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced.  Furthermore, it was also on the route of the original Trail of Tears in 1838.  However, because the road charged a toll for each Cherokee, the government baulked at the expense and a different route was taken from then onwards.  Mr Pict also informed me that Stones River had the highest percentage of casualties of all the major battles of the Civil War.  And that is the extent of everything I learned during my visit.  Sometimes my brain is just too exhausted to absorb any information I am not keenly interested in.  This was one such time.

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After the Visitor Center, we took a driving tour of battlefield sites.  It helps that the modern day Pike and railroad are in the same positions they were in 1863 when it comes to interpreting the battlefield landscape and understanding the focus of the conflict.  Mr Pict took a stroll through the area of rocks and woodland known as the Slaughter Pen.  A series of attacks in this spot meant that the bodies started piling up and blood was everywhere.  Staying on that theme, we also visited Hell’s Half Acre, which had ended up covered in Confederate dead.  The battle counts as a Union victory only because they managed to repel two Confederate attacks which led to the Confederates withdrawing.  And that really is the limit of my osmosis-gained knowledge.

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Road Trip 2018 #16 – Memphis

Mr Pict and I had fond memories of Memphis so wanted to expose the boys to at least a little bit of the city.  They were not especially up for it but we dragged them anyway.

We parked up near the Peabody Hotel and entered the lobby.  Unfortunately we had literally just missed the famous procession of ducks.  The ducks were not even frolicking in the fountain, having retired to their rooftop palace for the day.  The kids were irked to have been dragged into the hotel without the payoff of seeing the ducks.  The oldest two were virtually snarling.  Our foray into Memphis was not going too well.  We hoped we would win them over with a stroll along Beale Street.

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One of the Beale Street locations I remembered finding fun was Schwab’s store so we headed there for some respite from the sizzling afternoon sun.  The store opened in the 1870s selling men’s clothing, evolving into a dry goods store.  I remembered it being a bit like a junk store or jumble sale, with items heaped on tables, and lots of unexpected finds.  It basically retained that old-fashioned feel.  Visiting again, it had been transformed as items were neatly organised on tables and displays.  There were still quirky items among the usual fare so there was still fun to be had.  I was happy to see that a pair of the World’s Largest Overalls (what I would call dungarees) were still on display.  We ascended the stairs to see an area designated as a museum as it housed such items as vintage cash registers and stiff collars.  The boys, however, were much more interested in the extensive range of candy available for purchase.  Schwab’s contains a soda fountain and sells delicious ice cream but the queue on such a baking hot day was ridiculous so the kids instead chose some candy as a treat.

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We didn’t feel we could bring the kids to Memphis without taking them to see the Lorraine Motel given its significance in American history.  The motel was, of course, the location of Martin Luther King’s assassination 50 years ago.  It is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, with the motel complex preserved within its architecture.  We were unfortunately too late to go into the museum (being too late being a theme of our road trip) but it was quite powerful regardless.  We spent some time outside, in silent reflection, feeling subdued.

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The casualty of our spontaneous decision to switch to Tennessee from Kentucky was the quality of our hotel room.  The hotel was shabby and run down.  I would guess it had not been updated since the 1980s.  I took the stairs rather than the elevator and could barely breathe because of the reek of cigarette smoke.  Our room was clean but very basic.  The bathroom was reminiscent of school gym showers, there was constant noise from adjacent rooms coming through the thin walls, and the ceiling fan was not working so the room was utterly stifling.  I admit I had thought of ‘The Shining’.  We consoled ourselves that at least it was not as awful as the horror hotel of 2016.

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Road Trip 2018 #15 – Graceland

As I explained before, our road trips are always pretty meticulously planned because of the number of miles being covered and the amount we usually try to cram into each day.  However, I always have a spreadsheet full of possibilities for each stage of the journey and that includes some off-piste places, either because the place is geographically off our route or because it is random.  What we do, however, normally have pinned down is our accommodation for each night because finding affordable accommodation for six people is not always that easy.  However, on the evening after our drive through Missouri, Mr Pict and I decided to be spontaneous.  Both feeling that the second half of our road trip was hitting the skids in terms of ratio of driving to interesting places visited, we decided to rethink the last couple of days of our road trip.  Our route home was supposed to take us through Kentucky and West Virginia but this followed almost precisely the same trek that we slogged two years before.  What if, we wondered, we ditched Kentucky and West Virginia and instead drop further South and travel back via Tennessee and Virginia.  We agreed a plan and, within an hour, had booked alternative accommodation, cancelled hotel rooms, and booked tickets for Graceland for the following afternoon.

As a bonus for me, our journey to Memphis on the day took us through a little corner of Arkansas.  You know what that meant?  I could snag myself another state!  I have a mild OCD regarding odd numbers so it was irking me that I was going to be stuck for however long on a total of 39 states.  Collecting Arkansas would mean I could complete the trip with a neat 40.  As it happened, we were all hungry by the time we crossed the border into Arkansas.  There were not many eatery options so we had to plump for fast food but it filled our bellies and meant that, along with restroom visits, the kids and I got to claim Arkansas.  I will definitely come back and visit Arkansas properly some time but it felt satisfying to be ending having collected 10 new states in this one road trip and on 40 states overall.

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We arrived at Graceland about half an hour before our ticketed entry time but we were permitted to begin the tour early so it was all good.  The whole place is much more expansive and commercialised than it was when I last visited in 2002.  There was a massive concourse with eateries and stores and various artefacts that had been crammed into the house were now given room to breathe in a variety of exhibition spaces.  We were delighted to encounter a family of racoons on the grounds.  I have not seen a live wild racoon since we emigrated 4.5 years ago so this was a big deal.  After a very slick introductory video, we were guided to the lines for the shuttle buses.  While in line, we were handed ipads and headphones.  Last time I visited, we had audio guides but the whole visual element was new.  Our youngest son loved having the option to play additional videos and have virtual wanders around spaces that were otherwise inaccessible to us.  In really no time at all, it was our turn to board a minibus and get shuttled across the street to the Graceland mansion.

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Our 11 year old is a massive Elvis fan so he was super excited to be walking through the doors to Elvis’ house and seeing the spaces in which he lived and worked.  I was again surprised by how tasteful Elvis’ house is.  I mean, it isn’t my taste but it definitely isn’t as tacky and gaudy as some celebrity houses.  The scale of the house is also fairly modest.  Sure, it’s a mansion but is isn’t some colossal, echoey space.  Instead, each of the rooms was pretty cosy and intimate in scale.  It was, therefore, actually possible to imagine Elvis relaxing in these rooms.  The decor was definitely dated, as if it was preserved in aspic, but it still felt like more of a home than it did a museum.  The kitchen, for instance, was on a larger scale but was otherwise not dissimilar to kitchens from my own childhood.  My favourite room in the house was the peacock living room.  I love those jewel colours and liked how light and airy that room was.

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The trophy room was packed with a chronological display of family history artefacts.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the carton of Crayola crayons that Elvis had taken to school.  It was somewhat poignant to see all these exhibits about Elvis’ life and family and then be disgorged out to the swimming pool and the grave site.  I realised that I was visiting at the same age that Elvis was when he died, which underscored how premature his death was.

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Having been shuttled back from the house, we spent some time exploring the exhibits in the various museum galleries.  One space collected all of Elvis’ cars, from his super slick sports cars to his beach buggies and golf buggies.  My middle sons – comic book fans – were excited to spot that one vehicle, originally made for an Elvis movie, had appeared in ‘Batman’ as a vehicle driven by the Joker.  Another gallery told the story of Elvis’ time in the army and also had drawers of artefacts that could be pored over.  My two favourite museum rooms concerned costumes: one was a collection of various music stars’ costumes and the other was dedicated to Elvis’ costumes.  The Elvis clothes were arranged in roughly chronological order so our 11 year old enjoyed following Elvis through the decades and picking out his favourite costumes, from the gold suit, to the black leather costume from the comeback live tour, and then – best of all – all the bejewelled jumpsuits from the Vegas years.

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I was really impressed with how Graceland had evolved from my last visit.  It had definitely become more Disney-fied but this was actually to the betterment of the experience.  Spreading all the visitors out across a bigger space and deploying ticketed entry times meant we never felt swamped by people even though the place was clearly hopping.  Furthermore, moving out all the costumes and gold discs and memorabilia to designated spaces meant the actual mansion could go back to showcasing the domestic spaces rather than being overstuffed and difficult to imagine living in.  The kids all declared that Graceland was a highlight of the road trip.  We parents felt vindicated in changing plans and relieved we had experienced tourism success again.

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