Saturday, November 24, 2012

San Francisco, Day 8

To be honest, Alyssa and I are sort of done with this vacation. We've seen pretty much everything that we've wanted to see. I think this is about the maximum amount of time that I would want to be on vacation, at least in this sort of a setting. It might be different if we were in a situation where we had a working kitchen or something. So we had no real plans for today, and just wandered the city.

We took the bus to Japantown, which is one of the only things that we haven't seen in the city so far (also not seen: the twisting Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Muir Woods, the Winchester House, all of which we're fine with missing). Japantown is much smaller than Chinatown, and seems to only take up about four blocks or so. The thing about Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Italy is that it's sort of difficult to determine where they actually start and end. For Japantown, most of the area we went in was a shopping mall type area filled with Japanese food and shopping places. Alyssa was in heaven, but after you've seen one shop full of Asian things I feel like you've seen them all, in part because most of the stuff they stock is stuff to sell to tourists. There were two exceptions.

The first was a japanese video store, which was filled floor to ceiling with slim DVD cases. There was almost no English in the entire store. It was pretty interesting, as it was the one place in Japantown that I could sort of believe I was actually in Japan. It was also weird to think that for a lot of Japanese Americans with poor English, this is a primary source of Japanese media from home like television shows and movies.

The second was a bookstore, which was fully stocked with row upon row of manga. Alyssa bought a Japanese magazine full of pictures of cats and cartoons featuring cats. Neither of us have any idea what the words mean, and it's a little confusing which way you're supposed to be reading, but Alyssa laughed along to the pictures. There were lots of art retrospectives that I wanted to pick up, and manga series that looked interesting, but for that stuff I think it's probably better to just go online, where you can read reviews. We're also running into baggage space issues, so it doesn't make that much sense to buy large hardcover books (which I think are better bought in person where you can look through them first).

We stopped at a store that sold only mochi, which was awesome, and bought some souvenirs for friends and family. Some of the shopping was interesting to me, but describing it here would just be a list of items, and we bought most of the really cool stuff.

For lunch, we stopped at a random Japanese restaurant and each had a bowl of udon: chicken for Alyssa, beef for me. It was good, though the broth was a little fatty. After that, we stopped by a Japanese market on the way back to the hotel, where we picked up more things, including lots of cheap foreign candies. Funnily enough, Alyssa overhead someone saying how much cheaper all the things were in Japan. I think foreign markets are one of the biggest pros of living in a big city, and I wish that we could have brought some liquids back with us instead of just dried goods. Duluth is great, but sometimes lacks variety.

We got back to the hotel room and packed up. Our flight leaves tomorrow very early, which means that we have to get up even earlier. I'm eager to get home. There are things about any big city that I don't like, and San Francisco is no exception - the noise, the press of people around you, the homeless problem, the rudeness, the feeling of being insignificant. Duluth is just the right size for us, in the long term. And I think next vacation we're going to shoot for somewhere on the opposite end of the population spectrum.

Friday, November 23, 2012

San Francisco, Day 7

We're nearing the end of our trip, and our trusty CityPass booklet only has one place left on it; the Exploratorium. We got up early again and took the municipal transportation. Not quite understanding the vast variety of buses, we took the 101 Express, which was comfortable and fast. It would normally be a more expensive trip not covered under the CityPass, but the driver just let us on without paying because he was feeling friendly.

I'm not sure how many different ways there are to say good things about the Exploratorium. It was pretty much everything that I could have wanted in a science museum, mostly because there were lots of things to play with and an astounding variety of exhibits. My favorite things used heavy motors, like a chain that looped around from the ceiling. You could poke it in the side and watch the wave move down the chain and towards the floor, then back up the other side. There were magnets galore as well, including ferrofluids and magnetic sand. Oh, and a machine that dropped dry ice from a conveyor belt onto a flat pool of water, causing the tiny pieces to skate across as they evaporated. Alyssa's favorite was a pin art thing that you could press your hand against. Almost every single thing that we saw I wanted in our house. The only two problems that I had with the place were that there were too many children around (only a problem because they played with the stuff I wanted to play with), and I'm sure that there were almost certainly germs from all the wonderful things you could touch.

Bike that simulated which muscles work together when riding
Ben playing with magnetic sand
Impossible triangle illusion
Impossible triangle from the side
The giant pin thing that Alyssa enjoyed

Partial view of the museum

From the Exploratorium we headed north until we found a place to eat, which was right next to the beach. We split a turkey sandwich that had cranberry jam and a soft cheese on it, and Alyssa said it helped to make up for skipping a proper Thanksgiving dinner last night. They also had a sriracha hot chocolate, which had that nice spiciness that I like with a dark chocolate. I'll have to try to make that when I get home.

Almost the entire area south of the Golden Gate Bridge, called the Presidio, is part of the National Parks system, and so we had a long walk along the beach surrounded by lots of nature and a ton of signs that pointed out things of historical significance. The ultimate point of travelling was to get to Fort Point, an old military fort beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but along the way was a swamp area, a warming hut where they brought shipwrecked sailors who were dying of hypothermia, and a large park area.

The domed building is the Palace of Fine Arts

Fort Point was luckily free to the public, and so we went around exploring the place. It's been one of the primary points of defense for the Bay since pretty much the time when San Francisco was being settled. There were lots of cannons to look at from all the periods of the fort, and even a sample missile from when the fort was used to defend from Russians. From what I can tell, Fort Point spent pretty much a century engaging in defense merely by being there; it never had to fire a shot or actually be used against anyone.

Fort Point is right under the Golden Gate Bridge, which was built over it. From Fort Point you get the closest view of the bridge short of actually being on it. I had been taking photos all day as we approached the bridge, but I think the best probably came from standing out on the battlements of the fort and leaning over. It also offers a nice view of the Pacific, which before this trip I'd never seen. It's funny, but for being a port city most of the actual ocean isn't important to the city; instead, it's the Bay. Of course, the Bay wouldn't be anything without the Ocean there for trade. While Lake Superior has lots of tankers, we saw several enormous ships filled with shipping containers, which were impressive because of how different they were from what I'm used to. I couldn't tell whether or not they were larger though.
Inside Fort Point
An empty officer's room

Looking down the hall through the barracks
Furnished officer's quarters
Ben going up the spiral stairs
Middle level where the cannons were fired from
View of the bridge from the top of Fort Point

View of the city from Fort Point
Pacific Ocean
Gun powder barrels stored in the basement
After taking in the sights of the Fort and the numerous exhibits and bits of history there, we decided to go back to the hotel. This turned out to be a little bit of a problem, because the nearest bus line was almost three miles away. Already pretty tired of walking, Alyssa and I embarked on what was probably the longest walk of our life. We also had the problem that Alyssa and I have opposite reactions to taking a rest; I feel loads better, she feels worse. After a twenty minutes of walking in the hot sun, we started joking that the long walk would never end, and after forty minutes of walking we started joking about not remembering if the walk even had a beginning. And then we kept walking some more. Eventually we found a bus and got home, but it seemed to take forever.
View of the city from our arduous walk home
Crissy Field
We walked by the Palace of Fine Arts as well

For dinner we ate at a sushi place suggested by our concierge, Hana Zen. I had the Icy Dragon roll, which had jalapeno, caviar, and shrimp tempura, with paper-thin slices of lemon and some raw fish on top. The lemon was a particularly nice touch, and I'd never seen that done before. Alyssa had some kind of heated roll with a bit of spice to it. For dessert, we had ice cream with a toasted meringue shell surrounding it, which was delicious. Best of all, the place was only two blocks away from the hotel, so our tired feet weren't taxed too hard.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

San Francisco, Day 6

Today is Thanksgiving, which means that lots of the places around San Francisco are closed. We'd started out with a CityPass booklet filled with lots of activities, and we were down to only two left. Since one of those was closed for Thanksgiving (we'll get to it tomorrow), we went down to Fisherman's Wharf and went for a cruise around the bay on the Blue and Gold fleet.

At quite a few attractions around San Francisco we've been stopped by staff to take photos in front of a green screen. When we're done with whatever we're doing, they have photos waiting for us, the background hastily replaced with whatever location we're visiting. I have no idea who actually buys those, because we could easily just do the same thing at home with a green screen of our own. Anyway, this was the third time that we posed for one of them. I don't really find it annoying so much as puzzling.

The ship we sailed on was the Golden Bear, which had three levels and lots of open-air seating. As we traveled through the water, we listened to a recording telling us all about sights to see in the Bay, interrupted by occasional warnings from our captain to hold onto things so that we don't fall down. The main attraction of the cruise was going under the Golden Gate Bridge, which I'm sad to say is about a thousand times more impressive than the bridge we have at home. Like anything though, I'm sure there are people who have to take a commute over the bridge every day who are sick of it. Alyssa and I plan to see Presidio Park tomorrow, which I'm hoping will offer a better view of the bridge and some more photo ops for us. The scale of the thing is certainly impressive, and being right under the middle of it looking up is probably the best way to take that in, short of being on top of one of the two towers. I got a little queasy on the trip, but nothing that some chocolate couldn't cure.
Our ship
The famed Golden Gate bridge

San Francisco Skyline
After the cruise was done, we walked down the wharf a bit, exploring the west end, which we hadn't really seen much of. We stopped to eat lunch at Boudin's Cafe, which sat atop a bakery run by the same people and famous for its sourdough. I had a crab cake sandwich, which was delicious, and Alyssa had a crab and corn bisque in a sourdough bread bowl, which she said was one of the best meals she'd ever had. After that we headed downstairs to look through their store, where there were breads in the shape of crabs, alligators, and turtles. We'll probably stop by there again on Saturday so that we have something to bring home.

Just north of the bakery was an mechanical museum, which thankfully didn't have an entry fee, but must have made all its money on people plunking quarters into the antique machines. There were quite a lot of things that moved around when you put quarters in, which seemed like a waste of time to me. I put a quarter into a "Dusty Oregon Trail" diorama, and for my efforts a hidden fan started up and blew dust around. That was the last diorama I made the mistake of paying for. More interesting to me were the authetic turn of the century zeotropes and viewers where you could plunk a quarter in and see a short movie of a racecar going around a track or some photos of a destroyed San Francisco in 1906. To my great amusement, there were also "adults only" machines which showed scantily clad (sometimes fully naked) ladies, and which the signs said were usually found in men's only establishments. I don't know why I found them so funny, but I consider those quarters well spent.
Ben checking out the latest in 3D technology

Really neat coin slot
The saddest diorama Ben's ever paid for
One of the many horrifying creatures

It was a male doll with pictures of female dolls in the background... it was confusing.

Further west along the wharf is Ghirardelli Square, which has lots of stores which revolve around chocolate. I happily parted with some money to get a large variety of their signature chocolate squares, and since Alyssa was starting to flag, we headed home soon afterwards. I'd wanted to do a factory tour, but there were no signs around about when and where that might have been, and I doubt they offered it on Thanksgiving anyway. The internet says that their factory isn't even located there anymore, so it's probably good that I didn't look around a lot for it. There were lots of signs and model equipment around though, so we got to see most of that before we left. Tomorrow I think the plan is to get a factory tour at TCHO, which is a different chocolate maker also located in town.
Ghirardelli's Christmas Tree

For dinner, we went eight blocks away to Le Colonial, a French-Vietnamese restaurant. Vietnamese is one of my favorite culinary groups, mostly because it's big on sauces and uses lots of variety to its flavors and textures. My dad also used to cook Vietnamese fairly frequently, so it's a taste that I'm more familiar with.
Alyssa and I have an internal sense of class, and Le Colonial is about at the top of what we feel comfortable eating at in terms of fanciness. The issue isn't even money (because, as I've said many times before, money is only really meaningful when the lack of it is preventing you from doing things, and I haven't been at that point since graduating college), it's just about feeling a little bit uncomfortable. It didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the food or the environment, but the class divide was definitely making its presence known. Alyssa and I reacted to it mostly by raising raising our pinky fingers while we did stuff.

The menu was filled with impenetrable Vietnamese words and the elaborate descriptions that I've come to expect from high class restuarants. For an appetizer I ordered bo tai chanh, which was a beef carpaccio. When I ordered it I didn't realize that this meant the beef would be raw; Alyssa has a strong aversion to all things raw, which is why she only eats cooked sushi and never licks the batter from the beaters. It was topped with peanuts, mint, sea salt, pepper, lime, and nuoc cham (my favorite sauce). It immediately went into the top ten list of best meals I've ever had.

For the main course, Alyssa had cha gio chay, which was sort of like an egg roll. She said the best thing about it was the ponzu sauce for dipping the rolls in. I was feeling a bit adventerous (and very trusting of the chef) and so ordered the ca thu nuong, which was seared ahi tuna, fingerling potatoes, and some vegetables that had been cut to look and have the texture of noodles, all with a pepper chili sauce. It immediately joined the carpaccio as one of my top ten meals of all time. The variety of flavors available in every bite were incredible, and even better, they were all the flavors that I like the most.

For dessert, Alyssa got some Jasmine tea, and I ordered the chef's platter, which was three different desserts in one. I had sort of thought that because we were at a fancy restaurant, the desserts would be fairly small, but I ended up with a lot more than I had planned on and ended up having to box it up to go. There was a molten chocolate raspberry cake, some kind of mini doughnut apple thing, and mango-ginger sticky rice in a flaky pastry shell. All of them, needless to say, were delicious.

We took a cab home, because as Alyssa said with a pinky raised, "Walking is for poor people."

San Francisco, Day 5

Probably because we spent yesterday lazing about, Alyssa and I got up around 8 am. The Academy of Sciences didn't open until 9:30, but taking the bus and walking through Golden Gate park took almost exactly enough time, and we arrived right as they opened.
California Academy of Sciences

The first thing we saw when we got through the doors was a T-rex, which looked a lot smaller than I had thought it would. Alyssa suggested that perhaps it was a scaled down version, but the sign didn't say so, and so I'm forced to assume that it wasn't. If that's the case, the T-rex just got a lot less scary for me. I think I'm mostly remembering the skeletons from when I was little, which seemed much bigger. Or perhaps it really was scaled down.
T-Rex Casting
Alyssa and I ate at the cafe there, as we hadn't had breakfast; she had a ginger scone, and I had some pumpkin coffee cake, along with some fruit that we shared. Just outside was probably the highlight of the whole place for Alyssa; nearly a dozen baby ostriches. They were only twenty days old. Compared to how scary and mean adult ostriches can be, the babies were adorable and cuddly. We weren't allowed to pet them, but they came close enough to the glass that we got a good look at them. Alyssa called them ostrichlings, but I don't think that's a real word.
Ostrich Chick
Herd of chicks
The ostriches were part of an exhibit on earthquakes and tectonic activity; the ostrich diverged from other species because because of the shifting tectonic plates. Personally I think it was just an excuse to show off some baby ostriches.

We went into an interactive exhibit which simulated two earthquakes; the 1901 earthquakes, and the 1989 earthquake. Because of the safety concerns, they just did side-to-side motion instead of up-and-down motion, and perhaps that's why they felt weak to me. Or perhaps it's just that the worst part of an earthquake isn't the shaking that you personally feel, it's the fact that they could take down buildings. At any rate, I'm less scared of earthquakes now too.

There are two large spheres inside the Academy. One is the planetarium, which we elected not to visit, and the other is a rainforest, which is awesome. You enter through an airlock in the bottom, and we could feel the wet, humid air flow in. There were also serious looking signs about this being a USDA containment site and federal penalties for absconding with butterflies, so you knew that they meant business.
Rainforest sphere on the right
For the most part the three levels of the rainforest were filled with frogs, lizards, snakes, and spiders, though the top level had most of the butterflies that you weren't supposed to touch. The butterflies were allowed to land on you, which seems a little bit unfair. Alyssa took lots of pictures of everything. The best of the animals was definitely the giant orb weaver spider, which was nearly as large as my palm, though it was nice to see the butterflies flying around. I ducked and flinched back every time they came flying at my head, which I think is a totally natural reaction, but which Alyssa found hilarious. One of the cooler pieces of the exhibit was a part where you could stick your arm into a hold in the wall and it would simulate a boa constrictor squeezing you. After watching some children being really scared of it, I stuck my arm in. It wasn't any worse than a blood pressure cuff, and I was going to add boa constrictors to things that I'm no longer scared of, but when I tried to pull my arm out and found I was trapped I had a brief moment of panic before the hole in the wall let go.
Lots of plants, trees, and running water 
This frog has the worst sense of camouflage 
Butterfly feeding area
Sorry for the glare, but it's the best orb weaver picture we could get
At the top of the rainforest sphere were elevators down to the basement, but first was an extensive butterfly checking procedure with multiple mirrors. The woman ahead of us had a butterfly sticking to her, and she seemed even more scared of it than I was. The butterfly guard (no idea what his actual title was) seemed really nonchalant about the escape attempt.

The basement floor of the Academy of Sciences is taken up with lots and lots of sea life, including an acrylic tunnel like they had at the Aquarium which went under the rainforest. For the most part, there were a lot of repeats, with a couple exceptions. The first was the shrimp, which came in a much larger variety. They have little bits that come off of them that I refer to as mustaches  and you can see them using them like a cat uses whiskers. I think the best thing about them was the full display of color. Second, there was a swamp area with large turtles about three feet long, and an albino alligator. Third, they had seahorses, in three varieties; there was a potbellied seahorse whose stomach bulged out in a kind of gross way, a leafy sea dragon that was delicate and colorful, and a lacy seahorse that made the leafy one look like it was a brick truck. It amazes me that something like that doesn't just get thrashed by the first thing to see it, but I guess nature must be a little less violent that I thought. And finally, there was also a scuba diver tending to the fish, swimming by the floor to ceiling windows of the tank, which made me want to go reef diving somewhere, possibly for our next vacation.
Giant Seabass
In the backyard was a winter themed exhibit, which consisted of two reindeer. Their giant antlers were imposing and impressive, but they looked pretty bored and sleepy. Sometimes I really wish that there was a safe stimulant that we could give to animals in cages so that they would move around for our amusement. There was also a presentation thing in the center of the Academy where they made snow every half hour. It was fun to see the kids play in it, and weird to think that lots of those kids had never seen snow before. Hearing stories of people seeing snow for the first time is one of my favorite things.

After the Academy of Sciences, we went through their little park thing in the middle and over to the Japanese Tea Garden for some tea. Alyssa was skeptical that they actually had tea, but I had lots of hope, because a tea garden without tea would just be a garden. To the north was the de Young museum, which had a dominating presence and a surprisingly modern building for fine arts. We didn't go there today, and perhaps we won't on this trip, but I sort of wanted to check it out, if only to get contrast to SFMOMA.
Fountain at the Music Concourse
The Japanese Tea Garden did, indeed, have tea. I'm not sure what I expected, but it was exquisitely manicured gardenscape. There were koi ponds, soft moss, old trees, and lots of plaques everywhere to explain what everything was. The garden itself is more than a century old, which is more than enough time to have gotten that old worn feeling to it that I so enjoy; if I could fill our whole house with things that looked like they'd been sturdily used for centuries, I would. We ate a plate of tiny sandwiches while looking out over the intensely planned garden, and had a cup of tea each; I had something earthy whose name I can't remember, while Alyssa had the Jasmine, which was a little too flowery for me, though probably only in comparison to what I was drinking.
Garden with tea house

Our tea and tiny sandwiches

There was lots of bamboo

One of the many peace lanterns

Large Pagoda
Temple Gate
Bronze Buddha, cast in Japan in 1970

On our way back we took a different route through the park, seeing lots of sculptures that seem to dot the area. My favorite of those was a wine sculpture, a vase that stood nearly ten feet tall and was covered in six-inch tall figures in the process of making wine. It combined a lot of things that I really like; tiny people carrying out large tasks, complex processes that give visual variety, and bronze casting. It was also done by Gustav Doré, who did the woodcut of David fighting the Angel on my favorite t-shirt.

The bus back was crowded and slow, and it was a relief to get back to our hotel room. Alyssa said that she gets happier by the day that we don't live in a large city, and I'm in total agreement with her. We called ahead for the Duck Tour, which I'm still not entirely informed about, and managed to get there right before it left (but after our spot was forfeited) due to the slow, crowded street car. The duck tour will have to be saved for later, I guess.

Tired of the public transportation network, we walked south through Little Italy towards the Stinking Rose, a restaurant where we'd made reservations. Little Italy is more towards my tastes than Chinatown; I generally like Italian food better, and the desserts are worlds better. The aesthetic is also more pleasing to me, and less crowded and commercial. I don't know if that's the respective cultures in play, or just these specific places. The Italians are sort of known for being gaudy (or more kindly, Baroque), but that's not really reflected in Little Italy.

The Stinking Rose is a garlic themed restaurant, which I've wanted to go to ever since I knew it existed. I love garlic more than any other herb. At the Stinking Rose, every dish has garlic in it, usually a lot. The world's longest garlic braid winds itself backward and forward through the restaurant. The seating has a lot of variety to it, and we were placed nearly a window with a vaguely circus theme to it, lots of enclosed booths behind us that Alyssa really liked.
The Stinking Rose
Circus-type booths

For an appetizer, we got garlic, soaked in butter and oil, then cooked for a long time. It was so soft that you could spread it over bread like butter. There was also a small pot on the table that I thought was a garlic-heavy pesto, but which turned out to just be a garlic relish, with lots of raw garlic in it. I think I made the mistake of eating too much of it just because I like that sort of kick that garlic, wasabi, and horseradish share. For dinner, I ordered a dish based almost solely on the name - the Silence of the Lamb Shank, served with a chianti glaze and fava beans. Alyssa had some kind of pasta. The lamb was perfectly done, and delightfully garlic stuffed. We considered the garlic ice cream, but decided that it would be unique but not very good.

We walked back to our hotel room, and definitely would have taken a taxi instead if either of us knew how to hail a cab. It didn't help that for most of our walk we were going down a one-way street with all of the traffic moving the other way. After we got back to our hotel room, I went back out and foraged for dessert, ending up at a cupcake and ice cream place. For Alyssa I grabbed a tiramisu cupcake (which I swear she ate in a single bite, as I turned around and it was gone), and for myself I had three different scoops of ice cream, the best of which was a corn flake ice cream that had no chunks in it but tasted exactly like a bowl of cereal.