December 18, 2014

Japan for a Weekend

There is only one reason to run off to Japan for just a couple of days, and that, my friends, is Arashi. Jen's friend KT managed to score two extra tickets to Arashi's last show at Sapporo Dome, and I was so fortunate to be invited!



Our time in Japan was over in a flash. Jen and I flew into Narita on Friday morning for a Saturday afternoon arrival. By some miracle, we got first class on this twelve hour flight! I enjoyed a six-course meal, a seat that could lie completely flat, and enough alcohol to forget that I'd woken up hungover. I took a short nap and caught up on movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy! Seriously, that movie is incredible, and I now understand why everyone was going gaga over it. Also, I am Groot.

Go mimosa or go home!

Upon our arrival, we took the train into Tokyo to meet up with a couple of Jen's friends. After some good izakaya food and drinks, Jen and I split off around midnight to get in position for our 4am bus back to Narita. Instead of killing that time in McDonalds like we'd originally planned, we spent a few hours in a karaoke room! Singing a lot of Arashi songs got us super hyped for the concert, and I decided that this was my jam. It was a really fun way to pass the time, even if my range is limited to three notes!

WOOHOO!
Greasy hair and crackly voice!

In the morning, we flew budget airline Jetstar to Sapporo, which is on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. It is biting cold up there! I made sure to bundle up, but my hands and feet started to hurt after 15 minutes or so of walking. It was pretty, but I was afraid I would get frostbite.

Snow!

We were a little too early to check into our room, so we met up with another two friends of Jen's! They'd gone to the last night's concert and were off to Tokyo that day, just the opposite of us. We ate at a restaurant with traditional tables, where you take off your shoes and sit on floor cushions. It was very relaxing, and I was happy to warm up with a bowl of hot soba.


Finally, we were able to check in and take a hot shower! It felt amazing to wash off 48 hours of travel grime. My hair was really gross and I'm sure I didn't smell that great. I had to make sure I was presentable before seeing my true love(s) at the concert that night. After all, I was about to get blown. I mean, have my mind blown. I mean, what?


Let's just say that all my needs were satisfied that night. KT met us at the hotel and we all went to the lovely Sapporo Dome together. Though there were much better sections, I thought our seats were amazing. The members make efforts to move all around the venue, so I was happy. A special feature of this year's tour, "The Digitalian," was that the special fanlights sold had some sort of programming that made them change colors along with the songs. It's hard to explain, but seeing the whole dome lit up was really spectacular, and being a part of it felt amazing.

Arashi lights up my life.

It was honestly a wonderful show. I wasn't a huge fan of their latest album, but the live performances made me think, hey, these songs are pretty good! Which is exactly how it should be. Well played, Arashi. I especially enjoyed the encore, when they basically did a medley of all my favorite songs, but especially because they came out in hot air balloons. Literally. For us in the upper stands, we were finally face-to-face!

Oh btw, I wasn't supposed to take any pictures. Oops.

I don't know why I always lose my shit over Nino. I thought I was going to die when he waved in our direction. I waved back like a typical fangirl, not caring one bit what anyone else thought. There was just me, and Nino...and Nino, and me...

Yeah, this is the guy that makes me insane. Welcome to my life.
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After the concert, we had dinner and returned to our room. Jen picked a great hotel - it even had an onsen right on the premises! It was modest, with 3 different baths and a sauna, but it seemed luxurious to me. I was very happy to defrost again, this time in a warm bath. Needless to say, Jen and I slept very well that night, as it was the first proper rest we'd had since leaving San Francisco!


When we woke up, it was snowing! I can't remember the last time I saw real snow fall like that. We definitely weren't in San Francisco anymore. After a tasty breakfast buffet included in our rate, Jen and I returned to New Chitose Airport and flew back to Narita. We spent a few delightful hours in a lounge, eating surprisingly good food, drinking free beers and pouring Campari sodas, but in the end, I caught my flight to Singapore and Jen returned to California. Just like that, our time in Japan came to a close.


I just want to thank Jen again for inviting me to the concert and doing all the planning. I really felt spoiled, just tagging along and not having to worry about anything. It was refreshing! I would also like to thank KT for obtaining and offering me a concert ticket! It was all like a dream come true. 'Till next time...

December 13, 2014

Throwback: Clearwater Beach

When it's cold in much of the country and stormy in California, I miss sunny beach days. With the rain beating down on my corner of the house at 7 in the morning, I try my best to shut it out and think of warm waters and the sun smiling down at me. Don't get me wrong, California can probably use rain any way it can get it, whether that's a sprinkle or a storm, but that doesn't mean I have to revel in it. I'll take a trip - in my memories, that is. I'd rather not be soaked in the rain!


In June of this year, my parents and I went to Florida for my family friend David's wedding. We got a hotel room in Clearwater Beach, where we would walk to the beach for a morning and afternoon swim. Later, my parents would complain that the wedding forced them to travel all the way to Florida and spend a lot of money. Having to enjoy perfect 80 degree weather, seeing family friends, swimming every day, and eating good food - oh yes, it was pure torture. Just look at their miserable faces-


Of course, we had a great time. The sand on the beach was as soft as flour, and the water was delightful. The sky, a pretty blue in the day, morphed into a Michelangelo-painted canvas and a rich sunset as the day passed. We got to watch the occasional bird fish for dinner, including a huge black pelican that looked like it could take off my head with one snap of its beak. Ahh, nature.


Sometimes I feel like I've had more family time than necessary, but this was just right. On the other hand, I can never have too much vacation. Here's to staying warm and enjoying more fun times!


December 8, 2014

'Tis the Season (for Travel)

I haven't been traveling much lately, due to low funds, but I'm happy to report that I've saved up some money for a fun Asia trip this month! I'm going to see Arashi again, this time in Sapporo, with my friend Jen and her friend KT. We'll stop by Tokyo briefly, and then I'm off to my beloved Singapore for a few days!

Admittedly, it'll be weird to pack for two completely different climates. It'll be 25 degrees and probably snowing in northern Sapporo, whereas Singapore is in the balmy 80s. Fortunately, I just had a bit of practice with cold weather in Boston the other day, where it was a chilly 30 degrees or so. I had a long layover with Katy and our new friend Jain, and we brought ourselves to venture out and see the Christmas lights around Boston Commons.

courtesy of P. Jain

It was biting cold, but who doesn't love Christmas lights? Bostonians were unperturbed, out shopping and ice skating like nobody's business.


After traipsing around in the cold, we stepped into the Thinking Cup, a very cute cafe and bakery. My good friend Amanda recommended it as her favorite place in Boston, and we enjoyed rich Stumptown Coffee lattes and a slice of cake. Katy and Jain now recommend the specialty hazelnut latte, made with freshly roasted hazelnut paste, and I picked up a couple of macarons to go.

Small latte with lavender and rose macarons.

Of course, another way to beat the cold is being active! I saw this playground and insisted we go down the slides and play a bit. What can I say? I'm secretly 12 years old. We seriously warmed up, though, so it was totally worth it. That place was just missing a seesaw to be perfect.

courtesy P. Jain

I love Boston, and I love that I have close family friends here. I'll be back for Christmas, with an exceptionally long 35 hour layover that gives me the entire Christmas day in this magical city!

December 3, 2014

Vietnamese Athletes

My family enjoys watching the Olympics. We especially like gymnastics in the summer and figure skating in the winter. Earlier this year, I wanted to boycott Sochi for all the injustices and atrocities Russia had committed, but my dad recorded some of it on the DVR, and we had to watch skiers wipe out.

Vietnam at the SEA Games
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Of course, our people are extremely underrepresented at the Olympics. I don't remember ever seeing a Vietnamese athlete compete in any event on the NBC broadcasts. But thanks to Wikipedia's wealth of knowledge, I've discovered that there have been a handful of Vietnamese competitors in the Olympics, and two have medaled: Tran Hieu Ngan at 2000 Sydney for Women's Taekwondo, and Hoang Anh Tuan at 2008 Beijing for Men's Weightlifting.

Tran Hieu Ngan
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Hoang Anh Tuan
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Vietnamese olympians have competed in gymnastics, badminton, cycling, fencing, swimming, wrestling, and table tennis, among other events. Many have been eliminated in preliminaries, but can still say they made it to the Olympics.

Just look at this rockstar pose.
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The Olympics are not the only international event for Vietnam to compete. The Asian Games are held every four years, and all 45 countries in the Olympic Council of Asia are eligible to participate. However, Vietnam's presence there has been relatively weak, as in the Olympics.

However, South Vietnam was one of the founding members of the Southeast Asian Games, along with Thailand, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya (now Malaysia), Laos, and Cambodia. Held every two years since 1959, 11 countries currently participate in 20-40 events. The 22nd games in 2003 were hosted in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - the first and only year Vietnam won the games, with the highest gold medal count.

Vietnam continues to rise, but doesn't seem to invest much in its athletes. While it's tough to compare Vietnam to China (total Olympic medals: 526) or Japan (443), Vietnam's Olympic strength pales even in comparison to Indonesia (27) and Malaysia (6). It's said that Vietnam doesn't prepare its athletes properly, attempting to train them in months rather than years. Its performance in the 2014 Asian Games was criticized for failing to reach its medal target, coming away with only a single gold.

Hopefully the country can improve in all aspects, empower its athletes, and allow us to watch Vietnam compete properly on an international stage. I love cheering on the USA, but I'd definitely cheer on Vietnam too!

What events do you like watching during the summer and winter olympics?

November 28, 2014

Victoria in Google-land

Last week I had the pleasure of lunching with my friend Jen at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, also known as the Googleplex. While the campus is open to anyone, only badged Google employees can access the buildings. Fortunately for me, employees can escort guests into most buildings, and Jen invited me!


The Google campus is absolutely amazing. It's huge, nicely landscaped, and contains an impressive amount of resources for its employees. The Google bicycles, easily spottable for their primary color scheme, are available throughout the campus for employees to use - just leave it when you're finished, and someone else will use it. Green umbrellas for communal use were everywhere too, perfect for that drizzly day. The campus is so big that there's a bus system to shuttle employees around, and even an Uber-like car service that employees can use, free of charge.

Conference bikes - 7 people pedal, one steers. Reservations required.

Google really takes care of its employees. If you were feeling really sick and needed to get home, the company would provide a ride for you. Emergencies aside, there's hardly a reason to leave. If you need a break from work, there are nap pods, a slide, and a ball pit to revive you. Laundry and haircut services are available, as well as fitness options like lap pools and yoga classes.

Stan the dinosaur - dressed as a mummy for Halloween.

Of course, there are plenty of dining options on campus. The Googleplex has a little over 30 different cafes, which all serve tasty food made from locally sourced ingredients. There's one sit-down restaurant with waiter service (reservations recommended), juice bars, and coffee bars. Of course, all of this is free for employees (and their guests!). We ate at Charlie's, the main and largest eatery on campus. It was crowded with the lunchtime rush, and its huge variety of options included individually made burritos, pizza, a grill station, Japanese food, and plenty of desserts. I loaded up on pizza, Indian food, and a delightful rice soup with ginger notes that warmed us up on a wet, gray day.

Not much to look at, but it was good!!

After lunch, we stopped for a quick smoothie. My "Green Giant" was a perfect dessert, and Jen pointed out that the plastic cups we were drinking out of were compostable, along with all the to-go boxes and cutlery used on campus. Then we checked out the Google store, which was full of Google-branded items and cool Android t-shirts, but is not open to the public. Finally, I checked out a "snack wall," which, along with coffee, tea and a fridge of bottled drinks, seems to be available in every office. I got to pocket a couple of snacks and grab some tea to go, which really put the cap on the Google experience - you definitely can't starve working for this company.


My tour only supported Google's reputation as an excellent employer. When you invest in your employees and keep them happy, it pays off! This is a company that really cares about its employees and gives them convenient ways to manage their health. It's no wonder they're one of the most desirable companies to work for. Thanks again to Jen for the invitation!

November 23, 2014

State #25: Parma, OH

Desperate to hit another state but without the budget for a proper excursion, I had to complete my next phoventure on a layover. Ideally, I would spend 10 hours and 30 minutes in Cleveland sleeping, but this Pho Queen was dedicated. There was pho to be had, and I would have it!


An $18 Uber ride later, I arrived at Tay-Do restaurant in neighboring Parma. It was unlike any other Vietnamese restaurant I'd been to - while most are family-owned, this was solely owned and staffed by a married couple. The husband cooks while the wife serves the front of the house, resulting in long wait times. I couldn't complain, as I was forewarned on Yelp, and the wife also told me when I sat down, "you wait long time, okay?" In response to my eloquent "huh?" she quoted 35-40 minutes.

Husband and wife team
A "homely welcome"

Resigned to a long wait, I settled in and perused the menu. The restaurant felt worn but comfortable, like your grandmother's house. The yellow, red and green color scheme felt almost Christmasy, and it certainly had a mom & pop feel, accented by nationalistic pride. While the South Vietnam flag is featured on the restaurant sign, the American flag stands on the restaurant counter. Dual identities indeed.

The menu of Vietnamese and Chinese specialties was interesting, with pho described as a noodle soup with "cinnamon broth" and canh chua as "tamarind broth." One can only assume that it was designed to be friendly to those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine. Pho ranges from $6.50-8.50, and I chose the Pho Dac Biet, size large ($8.50). If I was going to wait 40 minutes, I'd better make it worthwhile.

On a side note, I don't recommend coming here by yourself, unless you want to call in your order a couple hours ahead, as the menu's introduction invites. The wait time is a perfect opportunity to catch up with a friend, but by yourself you'll just end up thinking about how hungry you are. I had to break out some leftover Halloween candy from my pocket to tide me over. Thank goodness I received a pot of jasmine tea shortly after ordering. Needless to say, the anticipation was building. Frightfully, the expectations were rising as well.


Tay-Do seemed to have a mixed clientele, with caucasian people and a group of Koreans occupying the restaurant during my visit. Of course, we all experienced long wait times. I think the wife was very nice, but her communication style might be off-putting to those unfamiliar with the common brusqueness of certain Asian cultures. I observed her taking another customer's pho order: "Cooked meat?" she asks. "Cooked meat," the customer confirms.

30 seconds later, the wife returns. "I am old!" she declares. "Rare meat? Cooked meat?"

Pho dac biet

I hate to say it, but the pho was not great. It was not amazing, not really worth such a long wait. It was good...or more honestly, adequate. The broth was light in color and light in flavor, reminiscent of the pho my mom occasionally makes at home. See, my mom doesn't make pho often because it's a lot of work, and it's a lot tastier to eat out. The different meats in this were just okay, and the noodles were a clump of the average store-bought variety. I'd hoped the portion would be a little larger for a large, but I still felt myself getting full.

I don't want to bring down this cute mom & pop shop, but I do think the food could be improved upon. Perhaps if they reduce their extensive menu and focus on core items, Tay-Do can serve higher quality, more flavorful food in a more efficient manner.


Rating Breakdown:

Taste (10/14)
  • Broth flavor- 4/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (11/16)
  • Service- 3/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 1/2
Total: 21/30

Tay-Do Vietnamese Restaurant
, 11725 Snow Rd, Parma, OH

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With that, I'm officially halfway! 25 down, 25 to go! With an Asian vacation planned in December, I probably won't be hitting up my next state until January. Which state should I cross off next? Leave a recommendation below.

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