Hiking In Bernal Heights, San Francisco

Bernal Heights, San Francisco

I kicked off May 2016 by doing something a little different: I went on a group hike with Hike It Up SF. If you’ve followed my blog for the last couple of years, you know I’ve hiked about half of the city by now. But I’d never been to Bernal Heights, and I’d always do my adventuring alone. These folks organize awesome urban hikes at the end of every month, and I had just stumbled across their listing on SF Funcheap the night before. I’m not much of a people person, but I was determined to see a new area and meet others who shared at least one interest. Besides, the weather was gorgeous; I wasn’t going to spend such a wonderful spring weekend stuck in the house.

Judging by that photo, I’d say the decision paid off.

Did you know that there’s a canyon in San Francisco? I certainly didn’t. Especially one so close to a BART station. It’s located within the vicinity of Sutro Tower (AKA That Big Pointy Antennae looming over the city’s southern skyline) and hidden behind the hills. The climb itself was nothing crazy – I visited Mount Diablo multiple times as a kid – but I managed to get a little scraped up while taking one of the higher, rocky trails. I brought along my hiking stick just in case (man, was that a conversation-starter on BART!), but I never needed it. The pace wasn’t grueling, though I often let myself fall behind the pack (there were about 30 of us, a relatively small group by some accounts) in order to take more photos. Surprisingly, there were only two or three others that brought DSLRs. The trail was pretty busy even without us; I saw several joggers, a rock climber, and in one memorable instance, a man pushing a large stroller down a hill.

The hike was fraught with twists and turns. At a couple of points, we had to turn around and take another path. We climbed hills, stumbled across abandoned homeless camps, took in the scenery, and eventually emerged at the end of a cul-de-sac in some forgotten nook in the city. While I attempted to keep track of our exact route, I eventually gave up and just followed the group’s lead. I occasionally snapped photos of the street signs to give myself a visual record, but I’m still piecing it together. I do know that we climbed/descended at least three hills after leaving the canyon. We passed Saint Paul’s Catholic Church, the slide near the Esmeralda Stairs, gorgeous houses, and several kids eating ice cream.

Just as exhaustion was starting to pull me under, we reached the hike’s culmination: the peak of Bernal Heights Park. San Francisco spread out before us like a ludicrously detailed miniature. Before this, the highest point I’d visited was Coit Tower. But this was different. I could see Japantown, the Bay Bridge, just a glimmer of the Golden Gate on the distant horizon…All of these places I’d walked and seen before dozens of times, but on a scale unlike any seen. And all because I decided to take a chance and do something a little different with my routine. You’ll see the photo of it soon; I took a lot of shots while I was up there, and I’m still sorting through the best of them.

The trip back down was relatively easy. Much like the neighborhood surrounding Coit Tower, there were narrow stairways built into the hillside. Go down a flight of steps, land on someone’s doorstep, go down more stairs, rinse and repeat until the street reappears. The hike ended at the Wild Side West, where we could finally sit and relax in the shade of the beer garden downstairs. I was apprehensive at first; I don’t drink or party, and crowded places feel claustrophobic to me. I was the only one not drinking or speaking; what could I add to this mix of far more interesting people?

After a view quiet, awkward moments, I sat down at one of the big stone tables, sipped my tea, and just rolled with it. I showed off my photos and talked about some of my more bizarre adventures in the city. I met a young Bulgarian woman currently working in the Bay Area for the next couple of months, a mother with an unbridled passion for the Golden States Warriors, and a published entomologist who may be naming his own spider species in the near future. When it was time to go, the latter offered to split a Lyft back to Glen Park BART. Then we discovered that we were a mere 15 minute walk away from the station, so we decided to seize the spirit of the day and finish things off with a little mini hike along the highway. We parted ways at a burrito shop nearby, and I made the long commute back home. I managed to get home just in time to heat up some leftovers, and collapse into bed.

Not bad way to start the month.

A larger version of this photo is viewable here.

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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…

Taking Another Proverbial First Step

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was to rewrite your very first post, armed with a year’s worth of blogging experience. For reference, here’s the original. Hmmm, should be interesting…

In retrospect, I can totally believe I spent years without a personal blog. It wasn’t so much an oversight as it was a method of avoidance. Writing is second nature to me, but social interaction – even via the internet – certainly isn’t. As an introvert who leads often leads a life of guarded solitude, baring my soul and personal views to complete strangers is quite difficult. I’m still working on it.

A polymath is a person whose expertise spans several and varied subjects. It is something that I aspire to be, and I named the blog Polymathically as a reflection of that ambition. I’m not arrogant enough to believe I’ve reached the lofty heights of Galileo or da Vinci, but I believe it’s something to strive for. I believe that cultivating one’s mind, skills, and interests is absolutely necessary for living fully. I was inspired by Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier and the similarities between polymathic traits and the concept of sprezzatura. It’s the reason why the phrase “Renaissance Man” and polymathy are, despite technical differences, essentially synonymous in popular culture.

Upon further reflection, I’ve also been heavily influenced by Nietzsche. Most people associate him with the idea that life is inherently pointless, and therefore not worth living. Anyone who’s actually read his work will tell you otherwise; life is indeed pointless, but that doesn’t prevent individuals from determining how they live it. We’re all mortal and stuck here together, so why not make this situation as awesome as we can? Don’t know about you, but that’s an idea I can get behind. The same goes for the Übermensch, a concept in which a person can reject society’s values and morals and create their own. It’s slippery, potentially dangerous slope (it was certainly co-opted in the worst ways in the 20th Century), but I believe that it’s a goal to which anyone can – and should – aspire.

Especially you.

Think about it. In our society, there’s a pervasive belief that someone can only be interested in subjects based solely on his or her personality, aptitude, gender, sexuality, political leanings, potential employment, etc. The implications aren’t pretty, and we’re bombarded with such expectations on a daily basis. But if you take a step back, you’ll realize how little of that actually matters. Will being left or right-brained really affect what you’re passionate about? Why should a person’s sex stir up so many taboos and double standards? Don’t limit yourself to others’ categories. You should figure it out yourself, the good old-fashioned way. Try something new, even if you fail miserably at first. Read a book. Learn another language or how to play an instrument. Climb mountains. Travel somewhere. Experience another culture. Ask questions. Do something, anything to push yourself just a little bit further. You’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of.

…Just keep it keep it sane and legal. Common sense is a wonderful thing.

I’ve applied this ideal to my own life. My curiosity and love of exploration are among my core traits. If something catches my eye, I will learn everything I can about it. The origin, functionality, significance, and everything else. The subject doesn’t matter. As a result, this blog is an eclectic blend of literature, photography, travel, science, film, video games, anime, music, and countless others. I regularly read about the astronomy, physics, biology, geology, mythology, history, psychology, and critical theory. I also love traveling, so expect plenty of excellent (and judging by the readership, spotlight-stealing) shots taken throughout my travels. My goal isn’t just to satisfy my own wonder, but to inspire yours.

Stay curious, folks.

All Partied Out

All Partied Out

Oh man, Buster looks exactly how I feel after Christmas Day. Happy Holidays, folks.

Remaining Resolutions

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about resolutions. Specifically, the ones that were made going into 2014, and the ones that have been completed since. Going by a post from November 2013, let’s see…

  • Find a practical, well-paying writing job. Marketing or copy-writing, perhaps? (Still searching, thinking of focusing on travel writing and photography now. Also worth noting: I was the runner-up for an admin position at a major gaming site a few months ago.)
  • Further develop my writing skills. (Doing more reviews and personal journals certain helped.)
  • Expand writing subjects to cover all interests, not just games. (I’ve been reading more novels and watching more movies and anime lately.)
  • Obtain reliable and affordable health care. (Done. Thankfully haven’t had to use it for anything serious yet.)
  • Travel more. (Definitely. I got to go to Hawaii twice in six months!)
  • Further expand my literary repertoire. (Definitely got my Murakami on, and thoroughly enjoyed sci-fi novels like The Martian and All You Need Is Kill. Good stuff.)
  • Learn a third or fourth language. (Let that one slip, unfortunately. At one point, a trip to Rome was in the cards. Before it fell through, I actually picked up an Italian-English dictionary. Going to keep studying it next year. Thinking of picking up Japanese. Open to suggestions, though.)
  • Learn how to drive. (Noooope.)
  • Pick up a new skill. (Photography, big time. A year ago, I was just starting to realize what I could do with it.)
  • Obtain a better camera. (Yes, I got a Nikon D3300…and it is awesome. Waiting until Black Friday – and literally a couple of days before my Hawaii trip – paid off immensely.)
  • Start working towards my Master’s degree, or at least a second Bachelor’s. (Not yet, but I’ve been attending GGU lectures as a guest lately. If I can secure a Pell Grant, I could totally rock another degree.)
  • Have more self-confidence and better maintain interpersonal relationships. Work on shyness. (Ehhhh…Well, I’m talking to people, smiling, and not freezing up. That’s something, right? Yeah, I know. Working on it.)
  • Stay introverted, but don’t reject people outright. Romance a possibility, though highly unlikely. (Wow, called that one perfectly. That might sound surprising to any readers who speak with me IRL, but I’m hardly the best when to initiating. Working on it.)
  • Start a review/commentary channel on YouTube. (Tried recording once. I don’t like the sound of my voice, and I’m not as entertaining as established Let’s Players.)
  • Watch every Hayao Miyazaki film. (Working on it. The Wind Rises is going to be my first movie of 2015.)
  • Complete at least one more jigsaw puzzle. (Done.)

…Huh. I finished much more than I thought I would, but there’s still plenty left to do. How about you?

Daily Prompt: The Not-So Good Old Days

Hey, folks. Tonight’s Daily Prompt is all about “salad days.” It’s a saying that refers to a great or memorable time in your life, usually seen through the lens of nostalgia. This one’s kind of tricky for me, because I’ve realized that some of my “good old days” weren’t so good in retrospect. My knee-jerk answer is to say my university years, specifically the time leading up to my graduation. Getting my bachelor’s degree was, from an achievement standpoint, the crowning moment of my life. I strode across that stage in a black cap and gown, practically drowning in the sweat of a 110-degree June morning. Reaching that moment wasn’t quite so easy; paying for my entire college education out of my own pocket taught me the value of discipline, patience, and motivation. I still cherish those long commutes on BART, dosing off involuntarily every morning, and desperately trying to do as much work as possible on the way back. Those insane 2 AM essay writing sessions, staying awake just long enough to perfect every last sentence. Working part time jobs, scraping by with every last penny, learning to appreciate the taste of canned peas…It was physically and mentally exhausting, but it was so satisfying. Doing something for myself – be it working towards a goal, building something with my hands, climbing a mountain, whatever – makes me feel more alive. Something was forged in that academic crucible, and I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

Looking back, however, I now realize it came with a cost. I was so focused on academics and not wasting time, I sacrificed everything else. Most folks associate college with partying, beer, romance, and the development of one’s identity. I had none of that; I never went out for the sake of going out, never developed any relationships, nothing. You ever try talking about astrophysics or Renaissance Literature in a social setting? Not fun. I often had the same classmates in different lectures, but I only regarded them as familiar faces, not actual individuals with lives of their own. That was a huge mistake on my part; I may have been at the top of my classes, but I was an absolute dunce as social and interpersonal relations. Reading and learning are much more fun when you can share the experience. I’m still really introverted and shy around people, but even I recognize the importance and necessity of interacting with others. It’s not about being the life of the party or center of attention; it’s about finding common ground and helping each other grow. There’s an old saying that “no man is an island.” I’m 30, and I’m just now starting to turn my proverbial island into a peninsula.

If I have any legitimate “good old days,” they were probably in the summer of 2013. For the first time in my life, I had free time to indulge in more things I truly enjoy: traveling and exploration. I usually travel abroad once or twice a year (including a certain last-minute winter surprise that’ll be revealed soon!), but circumstances put me in downtown San Francisco twice a week. I had hours to fill in a city that I’d never really seen before. So, I walked. And walked. And walked. I’d intentionally get myself lost by taking random turns, navigating by my sense of direction and knowledge of certain landmark locations. I’ve mapped out about a third of the city on foot, wandering through neighborhoods, exploring foreign markets, climbing all the hills I could find…Those adventures made me realize how much I enjoy photography; before that, I was firmly entrenched in the written medium. Judging by the photo gallery here, my adventures paid off in spades. Most folks in the city are so focused on their phones, they don’t notice the marvels around them…The happiest moment of that summer was looking down at the curved city landscape from the top of Lombard Street, with the sun shining on my back, and a steady breeze blowing through my hair.

I hope the coming days will be even better.

Party Of One

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about birthday parties. Specifically, how you celebrate yours. Some people like to have huge, extensive spectacles involving hundreds of people. Others like to go out drinking, or having a barbecue. Others like to travel, or at least do something out of the ordinary. As for how I celebrate mine…

I don’t. No, seriously.

I’ve never been the type to enjoy huge parties. There’s just too many people, noise, and chaos to handle. I never know what to say, and trying to be on for hours is exhausting. I’m the type to slowly back away from the crowds, find a quiet place, and start reading. Other tired party-goers (or their kids) will inevitably drift towards me, chat for a bit, and head back into the fray. I’ll just sit back, sip on a beverage, and wait for the next person to approach me. Or not. It doesn’t matter either way. The problem with this strategy is that it only works when I’m a guest at someone else’s party; I can’t do the aloof thing if I’m hosting. I don’t drink, so barhopping it out. Also, I don’t have a good track record when it comes to throwing parties; no-shows, last-minute cancels, and forgotten dates were common. I’ve never had many friends, and people usually have their own stuff going on. After years of disappointments, I just gave up. I’d usually just end up with some ice cream and a movie, and call it a night.

I’ve done better activities over the past few birthdays, though. I visited the California Academy of Sciences one year, then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on foot the next. I hiked all around San Francisco last year, stopping by Coit Tower, Lombard Street, and the Exploratorium along the way. Not sure what I’m doing this year, though. A trip to Rome is still in the works, but it depends on how things play out with the job hunt and everything else. If things go well, I’ll be celebrating on a train going through the European countryside. That’s what I’d call a happy birthday!