Opera At The Ballpark 2015

Yes, you read that title correctly. I spent last Friday evening watching opera in a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Opera performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the War Memorial Opera House. The show was simulcast for free at AT&T Park, the home of the Giants. Wait, you exclaim. How can something as classy as opera work with something so low-brow as baseball?!

Incredibly well, surprisingly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a music critic. I’m geek when it comes to multiple subjects, but I’ve never studied music. I sing poorly, don’t play any instruments, and can muster little more than a shout. The latter is why I find opera fascinating; The quote, “opera singers are the olympians of the music world” is the most apt description I’ve ever read. How much raw talent, dedication, and training does it take to reach those vocal plateaus? My exposure to opera is above average at best. My mother was part of a church choir and loved singing along to Phantom of the Opera on cassette (which I brought to school once, and was promptly ridiculed for it). My father constantly listened to Andrea Bocelli every time I visited, and once had me watch the entire performance of Les Miserables: The Dream Cast In Concert on tape. You know, the one with 17 Valjeans in the encore? I’ve only been to one show in person, which was Phantom at the Curran for a Christmas gift in 1997.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Appropriately enough, it was my mother who told me about the event. We met up after work and walked to the ballpark. I hadn’t been inside since Labor Day weekend in 2000 – during the summer in which it originally opened – so I was interested to see how it changed. We were under the impression that we’d be able to sit on the grass, but were rebuffed by security once we reached ground level inside the stadium. Only visitors who came in through the side marina gate – and sporting the green wristbands to prove it – were allowed onto the outfield. Getting that far would’ve required us climbing back up to the main area and walking to the opposite end of the stadium. I was a little ticked about that (the staff in charge of the lines out front should’ve explained and guided newcomers accordingly) but decided on something better:

Yeah, that’s right. I got seats next to home plate at AT&T Park!…While the Giants were out of town. Heh. It was perfect for what we needed: good chairs with solid backs and beverage holders, and a stone’s throw from restrooms and restaurants downstairs. It exemplified the advantages of watching opera in a stadium; it’s more comfortable, you don’t have to dress up, you can take your kids, and there’s food, accommodations, and friendly staff at the ready. You’d be surprised how well garlic fries and a cold drink go with the opera. Just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Putting it on the jumbotron is a great idea as well; not only does it do split-screen to display multiple singers at once, but subtitles as well. That’s a huge benefit for those who don’t speak Italian or have trouble following what’s being sung. That way, the spectators can enjoy the plot and comedy without much confusion.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. Traditional opera houses are renowned for their phenomenal acoustics, but ballpark loudspeakers and big screens can’t quite replicate the experience. It probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the visitors, but there is a difference. Also, attending an opera means you’re actually inside a building, not an open-air stadium. Summer evenings are pleasant in San Francisco; the temperature is still decent, and there’s a slight breeze by the water. Skip forward to 10 or 11 PM, and things have gotten chilly, misty, and the gorgeous dusk sky has been devoured by fog. If you’re going to stay for the whole show, bring a couple of extra layers to keep warm. I was fine, but my mother was shivering under a sweater and jacket. Also, if you’re taking BART, keep in mind that you’ll need time to walk back to the station. After the awesome curtain call, we had to duck out in front of most of the crowd in order to make our train.

As for the show, it was hilarious and amazing. Opera is often stereotyped as being some stuffy, serious, incomprehensible, yawn-inducing thing exclusively for snobby old people. That’s unfortunate (more like absolutely ridiculous), because The Marriage of Figaro is essentially an 18th century romantic comedy. It’s got witty writing, romance, scandal, intrigue, snark, slapstick, likeable protagonists, a scene-stealing drunk gardener, and (of course) killer vocals. I could spend all day watching Philippe Sly and Lisette Oropesa bicker as Figaro and Susanna. Or Nadine Sierra constantly – but narrowly – outsmart Luca Pisaroni‘s Count Almaviva, for that matter. I heard 30,000 people laugh out loud at the look on Susanna’s face during the “Su madre?!” scene, and pretty much anything Angela Brower did as the oh-so lecherous and gropey Cherubino. No matter how old you are, watching a lovestruck idiot awkwardly hide under a bed sheet is somehow the funniest thing ever. If nothing else, this will make you believe that 18th century servant women could Judo-throw their foolish husbands.

The fun wasn’t limited to the show, either. During the intermissions, they displayed some classic Looney Tunes that involved the opera. All of us cartoon geeks in the audience recognized and laughed along to excerpts from Long-Haired Hare and Rabbit of Seville. Val Diamond of Beach Blanket Babylon took the stadium by storm with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Opera.” There was also a marriage proposal on the jumbotron, and apparently he said yes.

It’s interesting how it’s come to this. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro 229 years ago. I wonder if he ever imagined his music would survive this long, or himself playing to a crowd the size of a baseball stadium. The fact that there was such a huge turnout is not only a testament to the opera’s appeal, but to the performances as well. If something’s great, people will come to see it. It’s also thanks to the San Francisco Opera engaging the fans in a direct and modern way. They were very active on Twitter, encouraging viewers to make comments and displaying them on the jumbotron. I tweeted throughout the show (only during the intermissions, because it’s the polite thing to do), and got some great responses from the staff, performers, and fellow viewers. I even got a response from Susanna, which prompted me to geek out in the best way. This kind of approach is perfect for younger generations who’ve gotten used to sharing everything on social media.

You know what the best part was? There were lots of kids. Sure, some of them probably thought they were coming to see a baseball game. But they got the chance to experience something new and different. Something that they may not appreciate now, but they will later on. That’s how opera – and all other aspects of our culture – survive; we pass it all down in as many ways and influences as we can think of, and hope it sticks. Judging by the success of Opera At The Ballpark, we have nothing to worry about.

Daily Prompt: Zip-Lining In Puerto Vallarta

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about stories. Specifically, the story behind your appearance in a recent photo. This actually ties in with my trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago; I’d promised to write about the zip-lining excursion separately, and this prompt is perfect for it.

I’m not going to post the photo for various reasons, mainly because I’m not sure if the other people in my group want it displayed, I’m shy, and that I look ridiculously awkward. Considering how many photos I’ve posted, you may have noticed that I like being behind the camera, not in front of it. Pictures of me are few and far between (especially online), and I dislike all of them; for some reason, I never look good enough. This time, I’m standing amongst a group of six by a rock in the middle of the jungle. We’re outfitted with harnesses, bandanas, and helmets, mere minutes away from making the first of many zip-line runs. It’s just a generic photo taken by the company’s staff, something you’d put up on Facebook after getting home.

What the photo doesn’t show, however, is the exhaustion. Before getting to this point, we woke up at dawn, ate breakfast, got ready, and had to ride out to the El Eden zip-line. That involved us taking a taxi to a nearby OXXO (think 7-11, Mexico-style) and waiting for the tour truck to pick us up. The truck itself was a strange blend of pickup and flatbed; the back was decked out with half a dozen rows of benches and topped with an open-air canopy. It’s surprisingly good for taking photos, as long as you don’t mind the smog and noise of Puerto Vallarta’s early morning traffic. The ride was pleasant enough in the city – our driver made an amazing three-point turn on a hill when his normal route was blocked by construction – but things changed once we left the streets. As we thumped over the first pothole and onto the dirt, we realized there were no seat belts, and seemingly no shock absorbers. To call that hour-long ride into the jungle “bumpy” would be a gross understatement. By the time we reached the zip-line, several passengers were sore and glad to be on solid ground again.

One of the neat things about El Eden (aside from it being the filming set for Predator – they even have a statue of the alien!) is its natural waterfall and pool. After spending an hour climbing through the sweltering jungle, the water seems so tempting. Or you could go their well-furnished restaurant and enjoy some food. We’d planned on doing both, as this was supposed to be an all-day excursion. However, we failed to read the fine print; our tour scheduled us doing the zip-line, relaxing for half an hour, climbing back into the bus, attending a tequila factory presentation, and going back to the hotel. Of course, we didn’t find out about the plan until it was too late. We’d come out there with towels, beach stuff, and were wearing our swimsuits under our clothes. Yeah, imagine traversing the jungle with layered clothes and climbing gear.

Unsurprisingly, I was struck with heat exhaustion near the end.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m in reasonably good shape for a 30-year-old. I don’t have a six pack (it’s more like a one-and-half-pack at best), but I eat healthy, and I’m not diabetic. I swam for hours at the hotel’s pool, and walked for hours every day on the beach. I run up stairs. My sprints to catch subway trains are the stuff of legends. I used to hike and camp all the time as a kid, and I can still walk all day without any trouble. I walked 11 miles across San Francisco on a random whim not too long ago. But that doesn’t make any difference when you’re deep in the jungle, weighed down by clothes and gear, and don’t have any water with you.

I’d had a couple of cups of juice in the morning before leaving, but I somehow completely forgot to rehydrate myself before starting the course. I’d done zip-lining before in Maui last year, but that had only 3 lines. This had 12, all of which required some uphill climbing to reach. There were cups of water handed out after every four or five lines, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t enough. My steady pace devolved into weary stumbling, my face paled, and my skin went cold with sweat. I couldn’t even remove my helmet, which suddenly seemed tight enough to choke me; it was an older model, which meant I couldn’t adjust the straps by turning the mechanism of the side. The body harness was digging into me, and the drawstring on my swim trunks was shoved into my gut. The staff were pros at these kinds of situations, thankfully; it took about 4 cups of water and 15 minutes of rest to get me back into fighting shape, but I decided to call it a day.

It’s not like I was missing much, either. I’d keeled over after the 10th line, right before the steepest, toughest one on the entire course. It required you to have a decent mastery over the zip-line’s braking system; you basically had to shift your body and the metal handlebars side-to-side, thus increasing friction and reducing speed. I understood it from an academic standpoint, but putting into practice when you’re zooming above the trees is something else entirely. I saw plenty of people practically crash into the landing areas because they were coming in with too much momentum. If you couldn’t get braking down well enough by the 11th line, the staff would tell you to skip it for the sake of safety. Since I was too fed up and/or embarrassed about the whole situation, I followed their advice and waited for everyone at the last last line. I wearily sat down with the rest of my group for lunch, found out about the limited schedule, and had to wolf down a platter of fajitas someone graciously ordered for me. The fact that we were being rushed for the sake of visiting a tequila factory annoyed me. I don’t drink – I took a single shot of mandarin tequila and nearly spit it out – so I had no interest in the tour. I had just enough time to finish the meal and snap a few photos of the waterfall (which I’ll post later) before making the bumpy ride back.

That reminds me: They don’t let you use your own camera to record the zip-line action. I’d hauled my DSLR all the way into the jungle, only to be told to stow it in one of the lockers they had available. It’s a liability thing; no tourist wants to drop their camera (kinda hard to record when you’re supposed to be holding on with both hands), and the company doesn’t want to have to deal with that kind of mess. Instead, they offer special helmets mounted with GoPros. You record the action, they download it onto their computers, then charge you for whatever bundles/prints/etc. you choose. It makes sense – they are running a business, after all – but as someone used to having full control over my cameras and what’s being shot, it irked me. While I love a good adventure, I left El Eden feeling rushed, annoyed, and tired.

That’s okay, I’ll make up for it on my next journey. Where, you ask? Heh. Let’s just say that Fall 2015 is going to be…epic. Stay tuned.

A Week In Nuevo Vallarta

Hey, folks! I’m baaaack!

*Crickets chirp*

…Ahem. Unlike my last couple of adventures, my trip to Nuevo Vallarta was planned for about six months before my departure. I went as part of a group of six family members, all in a two bedroom/bath timeshare at Paradise Village. Also unlike my previous adventures, it was made abundantly clear that this was going to be a relaxing, “traditional” vacation; going with family meant less opportunity to go exploring on my own, thus focusing more on the resort, beaches, and various tourist activities.

I was both relieved and disappointed; as much I love wandering around, Mexico is not the place to do it. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the US state department issued travel advisories for various areas of the country. In my apprehension, I took the time to look up the locations and contact information of the consulates, hoping that I’d never have to use them. This wasn’t my first rodeo in Mexico, though. In fact, I’ve been there more times than I have any other foreign country; I’ve been to Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Chichen Itza, as well as Puerto/Nuevo Vallarta twice prior to this trip. I also narrowly missed a trip to Acapulco, but that’s a story for another day. However, these all happened back in the 90s; Mexico has changed, and this was my first time going there as an adult. In the end, I resolved to enjoy the trip as much as I could within its limited scope.

To achieve that, I packed only the bare essentials: enough clothes, my DSLR, and a few books. I left my handheld gaming device behind for the first time; while it’s great for killing time on flights, I’ve come to realize how much of a distraction it can be. Same goes with smart phones; while nearly everyone else in my group was glued to their Internet and Skype, I purposely turned off my roaming and arranged for only texts to be available in case of emergencies. I’m not much of a phone person, so it’s not like I was missing anything. Without its temptation, I had to find a way to make a week revolve around little more than sunny weather and gorgeous beaches. I spent whole afternoons walking up and down Nuevo Vallarta’s shoreline, going barefoot on its flawless white sand and getting drenched knee-high in the surf. It’s something that everyone needs to do at least once in their lives; the seemingly endless horizon, the sound of the waves crashing, the cool sea breeze on your skin…that’s real living.

Paradise Village’s beach terminates with a long, rocky pier with a lookout on its tip. I made a daily habit of visiting it twice: once in the mornings to do some reading and watch the passing boats, and in the evening to photograph the sunsets. I took several great photos on that pier (you’re going to see some in the near future), and I wasn’t the only one. I was asked by at least a dozen other sightseers and/or families to take their pictures amidst the spectacular night skies and splashing waves. It’s remarkable how nature’s beauty transcends language barriers; everyone loves seeing a great sunset, no matter what country you’re from.

The same goes with wildlife; the beach had numerous gulls wandering around, waiting patiently for visitors to leave their food unattended. The hotel has about half a dozen parrots and a small group of Bengal tigers on display in its central hub. Every time I passed by, there would always be a small crowd of people trying to get some decent photos. The tigers were usually lazy and unresponsive, but I managed to catch one bathing one evening. The birds were far more friendly; I happened to find out when their cages were being cleaned, and got some nice, iron bar-free macro shots. During the hotel’s bird show (think of Letterman’s stupid pet tricks), I decided to embrace my inner tourist and had my picture taken with a scarlet macaw on my arm.

Speaking of touristy stuff, I took a city tour of Puerto Vallarta. It was a day’s run-through of the city’s marina, romantic zone, souvenir stands, the coastline near Mismaloya, and a tequila tour. The latter was rather uncomfortable for me; I don’t drink – the strongest thing I have is occasional root beer- so I was totally out of my element. I took a shot of mandarin tequila and struggled to swallow it down. It tasted like tangy cough syrup; seriously, what’s the appeal?! I also went zip-lining again (just over a year since Maui!) but that deserves its own entry/review. While most of my companions stuck to the hotel’s services – Paradise Village has its own shopping mall, complete with McDonald’s, Subway, Domino’s, and Starbucks within 3 minute’s walking distance – my mother and I took a bus out to the local Walmart, stocked up on groceries, and cooked in the hotel room. Any place that makes it affordable to eat three mangoes a day is a paradise indeed.

There’s more to write about, but I’ll stop here for now. It was a fun, relaxing week, and I’ve got tons of photos for you all to see. Stay tuned.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.

WEEKEND 1

I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.

Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:

That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!)  from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…

I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center.  If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.

Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.

After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.

WEEKEND 2

Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.

Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.

On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.

With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.

As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!

Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?

Stardust Review

Tristan Thorn is in over his head. He’s a made a promise to Victoria Forester, the supposed love of his life: He will venture forth into the world and bring her back a fallen star. Such a promise is normally nothing more than romantic and poetic gesture (Victoria obviously never took him seriously), but this boy meant it literally. You could blame it on Stardust’s fairy tale setting, the sheltered life in the village, or sheer teenage stupidity. Regardless, Tristan packs up his things and journeys into the strange and magical world of Faerie, fully expecting to fulfill his ridiculous vow. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly as planned.

SPOILERS

The story starts off strong with the introduction of Wall. It’s got the usual assortment of townsfolk going about their daily lives. Working on the farm, getting drinks at the tavern, a little romance, the whole bit. What keeps it from being a quaint (if cliched) village in 19th Century England, however, it also serves as a gateway into the realm of Faerie. The image of a tiny opening in an ancient wall – and the temptation of the idyllic meadow beyond it –  makes the setting seem more mysterious and otherworldly. You’ve got to wonder if the citizens of Wall realize they’re living on the border of a magical realm. It could be a case of selective obliviousness; Mr. Bromios is practically taken for granted as the innkeeper and bartender, despite his striking appearance and lack of aging. Then again, Dunstan – the primary character in the first couple of chapters – is shown to be rather gullible. It’s interesting to see how magic works from the perspective of a normal person; he doesn’t even realize he’s been enchanted and seduced, while the readers can only watch from the sidelines and hope nothing bad happens to him. He’s a little wiser after the 17-year time skip, though Tristan seems to inherited his father’s old traits.

What struck me most about the book wasn’t the subject matter, but the brevity of it. I’ll admit that I’m not the most well-versed in fantasy; I’ve a couple of Gaiman’s other works, slogged through the Wheel of Time and gotten my fill of Tolkien, but nothing else. I was expecting some incredibly long-winded descriptions of everything, but Tristan’s adventure starts just over 50 pages in and ends 200 pages later. The pacing remains steady and brisk throughout the novel; locations seem to be more for the sake of moving the narrative along, and nothing else. While I can appreciate this approach – the characters deserve more focus anyway – it just comes off as a series of missed opportunities. Who wouldn’t want to see more surreal days in Wall, or dive into the political intrigue of Stormhold’s succession crisis? There are little glimpses of Faerie’s amazing world – the ghostly brothers acting like a pseudo-Greek chorus is pretty hilarious – but there could’ve been so much more.

The secondary plot of Primus and Septimus trying to outwit and kill each other for the throne is interesting enough to merit its own series, but it ends abruptly to keep the narrative focused on Tristan and Yvaine. They’re fine as a couple, though anyone could’ve predicted they’d end up together. Their character development ties into the novel’s themes of duty, desire, and sacrifice; Tristan initially sees Yvaine as merely an object needed to fulfill his promise, but gradually becomes less self-centered and realizes his mistakes. His brief, tear-jerking return to Victoria demonstrates how much he’s matured. Yvaine only stays with Tristan because he saved her life, but eventually grows to love him; she becomes Stormhold’s immortal ruler and Tristan’s widow, never returning to the sky. It’s bittersweet, but fitting. Septimus wanted Primus dead, yet he is obligated to avenge his murder; he attempts to uphold his family’s honor via underhanded means, and suffers a karmic death for it. Even The Witch-Queen and Semele are bound by the rules governing their magic, no matter how much of it they throw around. Lady Una’s triumphant use of these rules at the end is one of the novel’s highest points.

But it’s not enough, though. Unless you’re going into this looking for a brief adult fairy tale (it was originally conceived as a story book), Stardust will leave you wanting more. More depth, descriptions, everything. In the “about the book” section, Gaiman even calls it, “the sequel to a book I haven’t written.” It boils the plot down to the essentials: a handful of characters, their motivations and growth, and the consequences of their actions. Its complex theming and magical setting keep it just interesting enough to finish. Stardust’s most creative ideas, much like the eponymous stars, shine brilliantly for a moment before fading back into the text. Maybe that was the idea all along.