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Grit OCR - Wednesday, May 3, 2023
Having done three Spartan races last year, I thought it would be a while before I felt the need to scratch the obstacle course racing itch again. But then a local SoCal race called Grit OCR piqued my interest, and I ended up signing up just four months after I completed my last Spartan. It was also a nice excuse to go down to LA to see family. This past Saturday, the event finally kicked off at its signature location at East Walker Ranch in Santa Clarita.

Since this is a local race, the obstacles aren't as elaborate as Spartan. Instead, they comprise smaller obstacles and more heavy carries, the latter which I had a hard time with and definitely didn't train enough for. I did the Spartan Trifecta last year and I do some dumbbells once a week. Should be sufficient, right? Hah.

Saturday was the hottest day of the week, with temperatures getting into the mid 90s. It was probably 80-90 during my run. Because of the heat, the race organizers were letting people start in earlier waves. I was in the 9am wave but joined the 8:45 wave, though they started late and we all headed out the gate at 8:58.

The first obstacle was a series of heavy cargo nets to crawl under, just to start tiring us out from the get-go. Then an 8 foot wall to climb over, with two more appearing later on the course.

There were some pretty challenging heavy carries on the course. Like carrying a 60 lb sandbag up and down the side of a hill. Pushing a heavy wheelbarrow to tax the arms. Cinder blocks attached to a bar weighing 90 lbs (I opted for the 70 lb version since I had trouble keeping the 90 lb one stable), carried on your shoulders for 300 meters. A farmer's carry with 45 lb water canisters. I had to take lots of breaks during most of those.

I did better on obstacles like the rope climb and slingshot. At the latter, I was able to hit the target on my first attempt, thanks to watching a tutorial on YouTube the morning of. The ruck obstacle was made easier due to all the packs being 15 lbs or so, instead of us having to choose between 20 and 30 lb packs. And one of the obstacles involved solving a tangram puzzle, because mental grit is just as important as physical grit.

My 8.5 mile Claw course differed from the 5.5 mile Fang course by just a 3 mile loop where we had to carry a raw egg without letting it break. The name of that obstacle was "Most Expensive Obstacle". I had no idea what this would be ahead of time, but the pun hit me as soon as I was given the egg to carry. Egg-spensive indeed. For one, the privilege of running this 3 mile loop cost an extra $10 over the price of the Fang!

I still have no idea what the Dragon's Spine obstacle is, as it was listed on the map but didn't appear on the course. And I saw the wooden boxes for Flip This House but it looked like that obstacle wasn't in operation.

The last two obstacles were raising a kettlebell on a rope by turning a spindle with your hands (very taxing on the forearms), followed immediately by the multi-rig with alternating rings and banana-shaped grips, where you have to climb a rope just to get to the first ring. Of course, your arms are completely dead by this point. I probably watched people attempt (or skip) the multi-rig for a good 20 minutes, and the only people who completed it were those in the competitive wave.

In some ways, this event felt harder than the two Spartan Supers that I've done. My final time was 3:06:18, placing 118 out of 219 people in the open wave for the Claw. The Fang had more participants, with 323 people in the open wave. My time wasn't great, though it could've been better had I skipped obstacles or used footholds on walls like I saw others doing. Grit has no penalty for failing/skipping obstacles. But I took time to recover at lots of obstacles, particularly the multi-rig (ironically, the only one I wasn't able to complete) in order to be able to do them right. So my ranking doesn't mean much, but I know I could've done better with better preparation.

The rest of the trip was pretty productive as well. We flew down on Thursday and went with Priscilla's parents to the DMV that day to transfer the title for their Honda Civic to us. They wanted to downsize to one car and very generously gave us their spare car. It's newer and in better condition than our other two cars. We'll be getting rid of Priscilla's Corolla since it needs a new catalytic converter and won't pass a smog inspection, but Aaron wants it for when Lauren's parents will be living with them, and he's planning to get it fixed up.

My parents made us lots of food and gave us a lot to bring back as usual. On Sunday, we went to church at New Life and then got lunch with Gina, Weber and Crescentia at the Galleria food court afterwards. We finally drove back home on Monday. Other than Grit, it was a pretty ordinary visit, but it was all time well spent.
Walk for Life - Saturday, March 4, 2023
Every year, our church participates in the RealOptions Walk for Life. It's a great way to raise money to support a faith-based pregnancy resource center, and to push one another to exercise!

The event is held annually at Martial Cottle Park in San Jose, and participants can either walk 2.4 miles or run a 5k. In addition to this year, I've participated in 2018 and 2020. Naturally, I sign up for the run. Priscilla prefers to walk with church friends. We had 15 registrations from our church this year, with 10 of those being families. Our church has gotten big, and we had a large turnout today. A lot of the kids are starting to get to the age where they're able to run a 5k, and we have some fast kids!

The primary goal of the Walk for Life is to fundraise for RealOptions. With over $16,000 raised, our church placed 3rd out of all groups signed up for the event. I don't like asking people for money, so Priscilla and I just donated $400 to ourselves (and more to others). But we set a goal of $1,000, recalling that in the past, there were people at church who wanted to support participants. We didn't ask anyone for donations, but 7 people donated to us! Most of the donations were made anonymously, but they were almost certainly from people at church, as the link to join/support our group has been in the church bulletin for the past few weeks. Our last donor gave $25 after the event and brought us to our exact $1,000 goal! Everyone else in our group got at least several donations, and most people got to their fundraising goal. We have a lot of generous people at church.

My training hasn't been ideal. The past several months have felt colder than usual, and there have been so many rainy days, many of them with heavy and prolonged rain. Atmospheric rivers have been dumping so much rain on us that half the state is no longer in a drought. So it's been hard to get outside and run, though that's partly just me making excuses.

During my last training run, I ran a 5k at a 7:01 pace at max effort. I always have a tendency to start too fast, especially when I'm with people and they sprint out of the gate. So for today's race, I knew that I had to start intentionally slower and gradually increase my pace so that I could save some fuel for the latter half. I started almost at the front of the group (64 runners in all), but quickly had 15 or so people sprint past me, many of whom were kids. But one by one, I started passing people as I maintained a mostly constant pace while people started slowing down. 0.5 miles in, I saw one guy stopped on the side of the path catching his breath - he definitely went all in way too soon!

There was one guy who stayed in the lead the whole time, way up ahead, and I knew I had no chance of catching up to him. Trailing him by a fair distance was a pack of three or so guys who seemed to be trying to keep up with each other. I knew I wouldn't be able to catch up to them while maintaining that pace for the whole race, so I let them get a little ahead while making sure I never lost sight of them. Towards the 2 or 2.5 mile point, I increased my pace a bit more and was able to pass two of the guys, who might've also been slowing down. I then hustled to catch up to the third guy, but we both full on sprinted at the end and I crossed the finish line a fraction of a second behind him. Interestingly, though I came in 3rd place by gun time, I came in 2nd place by chip time, and the final results were based on chip time. My official time was 21:31, putting my pace at 6:56. My times in 2018 and 2020 were 23:17 and 21:38, respectively, so it seems like I've improved. The winning time today was 21:09. It really depends on who shows up - in 2018, there were 8 runners with a time under 20 minutes, with the winning time being 18:06!

I guess I do like the competition of racing, but even more, I value self-improvement. I recently read an article about a "totally average runner", close to me in age, who trained until he was able to run a 5-minute mile. That's become a goal of mine, as the necessary progression seems like a worthwhile investment to pursue. It sounds crazy and I know there will be a ton of work involved, but I'm not getting any younger, and late is better than never.

And hopefully all the training will help me get an even better 5k time next year. Anyway, I'm glad that today we were able to have fun and support a good cause. But the work, for all of us, is never done.
SecureSpend - Friday, February 24, 2023
Priscilla likes maximizing credit card points, and we both have the Chase Freedom card which gives us 5% cashback in revolving categories that change every quarter. This quarter it's grocery stores and gym memberships. So over the past weekend, we each bought $1000 worth of SecureSpend prepaid Visa debit cards (i.e. 4 $500 cards, since $500 is the maximum you can load on a card) from Safeway.

We intended to use those cards to donate to our team members who are participating in the RealOptions Walk for Life on March 4. Our church participates every year, and Priscilla and I both signed up, with her walking and me running.

So we were a little annoyed when our attempt to use the cards online failed, but we chalked it up to an address mismatch since there's no way to register an address with SecureSpend cards. Then, when we checked the balance for each card, two of the cards were reporting as invalid. I found some Reddit posts where people claimed to have lost money due to not being able to access their card funds. And when we rechecked the balance for the previously good cards, those started reporting as invalid as well. We were really freaking out at this point, and it looked like the company was scamming us like some people had reported. The next morning, we tried using the cards to buy gift cards in-person at Costco, and all four cards were declined.

We should've called customer support at the number on the back of the cards, but I had read that people weren't able to get through to a person or got hung up on. And since it seemed so obvious that we were being scammed, it seemed pointless to call. So instead, we returned to the Safeway where we had bought the cards and reported the issue to the manager. We learned something interesting: that gift cards in the display are stocked by a vendor who merely rents space from the store, and the cards themselves are issued by yet other companies. The store doesn't make any money from the sale of each card, not even the activation fee. So the money is tied up in the card, and the store has no ability (or incentive) to refund the money. With store gift cards, the respective store has the ability and incentive to help you out. But with prepaid debit cards, you have two entities before the card issuer, and if the issuer decides to be shady, you don't have much direct recourse.

Priscilla ended up calling SecureSpend customer support and, to our surprise, she was able to get through to a person and get our cards unlocked. My theory is that they locked our cards because we had checked multiple high-value cards within a short amount of time. There's a lot of fraud on the consumer side of gift cards and prepaid debit cards, so I can understand why the company is being extra paranoid. Still, the experience was confusing and frightening, and they can be doing a much better job with informing users.

Priscilla was then able to use one of the cards to donate $100 to RealOptions! But subsequent attempts to donate another $100, then $50, using the same card failed. As did trying to donate $200 with another card. And she tried swiping the first card at Costco to buy groceries, but that was declined, even though the card was still showing up as valid on the website.

Altogether, she had to call customer support 4 times to get them to unlock cards. To their credit, most of the reps were helpful. Priscilla ended up just using the $2000 to make multiple donations to RealOptions, and she had the final rep hang out with her on the phone for 48 minutes while she made the transactions, in case anything were to go wrong.

So in the end, we were able to use up all the card balances, and all's well that ends well. So the company wasn't trying to scam us; their systems are just not great - a true case of Hanlon's razor. But this experience did reveal to us how much we value money and security, and how much it affects us when those things are threatened. We certainly need to be prudent with our money and we probably won't be buying prepaid debit cards again, but ultimately, all of what we have belongs to God and we need to remember that we are just stewards.
Japan Trip - Thursday, February 16, 2023
Our 11-day trip to Japan has come to an end, and what an eventful, fun, and tiring trip it has been! I'm currently writing this on our Zipair flight back to San Jose. The plane has power outlets, USB charging ports, and free WiFi. The flight to Japan was a grueling 11+ hours, while the flight back is only 9 hours (jet streams FTW). Thank God for that, because my body and mind are exhausted, and it's 6pm Japan time and 1am Pacific time. I've just barely gotten over my jet lag from flying to Japan; reacquiring jet lag now will be a doozy!

Priscilla has done an amazing job chronicling our day-to-day activities, so my post will just be a summary of the major things we did.

This was our first international trip since COVID. Priscilla couldn't wait for us to travel internationally again, and she was originally eying Portugal, but flights to there were pretty expensive. Then she found flights on Zipair, a budget airline, that were $470 per person roundtrip from San Jose to Tokyo. That's insanely cheap and was too good to pass up, and since she'd always wanted to go to Japan, we (she) decided to pull the trigger. I don't care for travel as much as she does and I'd rather be at home than running from place to unfamiliar place, but she did all the research and planning for this trip and all I had to do was just enjoy it with her - and she was accommodating of my preferences, so I really can't complain.

So last Monday, we took an Uber to San Jose and departed on Zipair, headed to Tokyo's Narita International Airport. Because it's a budget airline, they find ways to charge extra for every little thing (so it's amazing that the WiFi is free - maybe it's because they don't have entertainment screens on the seat backs). Each checked bag costs around $50, and if your bag weighs more than 15 pounds, you have to check it. So we made the effort to travel with just backpacks. It was actually not too difficult, and we did laundry halfway through the trip so that we didn't need to bring too many clothes.

We forgot to fill up our water bottles before the flight, and of course Zipair charges for water, so we ended up paying for three bottles of water. Lesson learned.

Since Japan is 17 hours ahead of Pacific Time, it was Tuesday when we landed. Going through the health checkpoint and customs was pretty quick since we had submitted information in advance through the government's Visit Japan website. Everyone else on our flight seemingly did the same. After customs, we had to exit out of the secure area and then there was only one lounge available to us and it only served drinks. Since we weren't able to get food there, we had to get lunch from a Lawson convenience store - the first of many during our trip. There are vending machines and convenience stores everywhere in Japan, and the big convenience stores seem to be Lawson, Family Mart, and 7 Eleven. We went to Lawson the most since they had this premium onigiri with grilled salmon that I really liked. It was a nice way to get something to eat without spending too much.

So then we took the Disney bus to our hotel at the Hilton Tokyo Bay. Tokyo's Disneyland and DisneySea are there, as are several really nice-looking hotels. Our room at the Hilton was pretty nice and spacious. DisneySea was the biggest thing we would do in Tokyo, so we stayed at the Hilton for three days because it was convenient to have a place to leave our baggage during the day.

For the three days that we were at the Hilton, we ate at their breakfast buffet since we got it for free from our Hilton membership. The buffet was amazing! There was so much food, including a salad bar and various hot foods. Our favorite item was the salmon sashimi with onions; I had to take out the onions due to my gut issues, but Priscilla was happy to eat them as long as there was salmon to go with it. We filled up our stomachs at the buffet so that we didn't need to eat much the rest of the day.

So on Wednesday, after a big breakfast, we took the JR train for the first time. Tokyo is huge and they have so many train lines, and it was intimidating trying to interpret route maps, use the ticket machines, and get to the right platform. It didn't help that signage is mostly in Japanese with small English text underneath. But we managed to make our way from Tokyo Bay to the Tokyo JR Station, and then to the famous Shibuya district. We explored Shibuya and walked through a few stores (most of which were several stories tall), and visited a store called Tokyu Hands that my coworker raved about. Hands is like a cross between Target and Daiso and they really have something for everybody, and we spent the most time in the games section playing with different puzzle games that were pretty challenging. I ultimately bought a metal puzzle to complement my collection. When we got back to Tokyo Bay, we explored the Ikspiari shopping mall and had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Saizeriya (going to Japan to eat Italian food, heh) and got produce at a grocery store. For some reason, our credit card didn't work at Saizeriya; not sure why, since it worked everywhere else that accepted cards.

Thursday was our DisneySea day. We thought that since it was a weekday, there wouldn't be too many people. Nope, there were a ton of schoolkids there; not sure why, since as far as I could tell, it wasn't a school holiday. We did several rides and saw a show, but we skipped the Soaring and Toy Story Mania rides because the lines were way too long and we did those rides at California Adventure last year. Probably the best ride was Journey to the Center of the Earth - (spoiler alert) it's a dark ride that starts off dramatic but slow, but the end is exhilarating as your car gets launched out of the "volcano" like a rocket! But perhaps more enjoyable than the rides was the spectacular theming throughout the park, particularly around the Mediterranean Harbor area at the center of the park. It got pretty cold in the evening, so we sought shelter at the Cape Cod Cook-Off eatery while we waited for the 7:40 nighttime show. There was a lot of seating in the cafeteria area and not too many people, so we were able to relax there for an hour while we enjoyed a tea and clam chowder. Restaurant food in Japan is generally pretty reasonably priced, and we were surprised that the food at DisneySea wasn't noticeably marked up. That place felt very welcoming to us cold, weary travelers.

Around 7:15, we headed out to try to get a spot to see the Sea of Dreams nighttime show, put on at the Mediterranean Harbor. Thousands of other guests were already there, so it was hard to get a good spot to stand, though we finally found a spot not too far from the harbor. It helped that we're tall-ish and could see over people, heh. The show was phenomenal! It was hard to grasp the story, especially since the narration was in Japanese with no translation, but it was more or less about the battle between good and evil, interweaving stories from Aladdin, Frozen, Coco, Moana, and more. There were huge boats wrapped with LED displays, speedboats with giant stars on them, light projections on the hotel behind us and on the mountain on the other side of the harbor, music, and fireworks. It was a bit of sensory overload but came together in a beautiful, uplifting way. I guess Disney does still have some of that magic left.

On Friday, we departed Tokyo and took the Shinkansen, the high-speed train, to Kyoto. We activated our 7-day JR passes on this day. This relatively affordable pass is only for foreign visitors (i.e. not available to Japanese citizens) as the government's way of promoting tourism. We got our money's worth from the pass, as that trip from Tokyo to Kyoto would've been around half the cost of the pass. We checked into our hotel at Ibis Styles, where we would stay for the next five days. Our room there was the smallest hotel room I've ever been in. Space was definitely lacking, but we were saving a lot of money by staying there, so we made it work.

We had dinner at Yoshinoya near the Kyoto JR Station. The format is different from the Yoshinoyas we're used to. Here, you seat yourself at the counter, and menus, chopsticks, and sauces are all in front of you. You order there, eat there, and then pay at the register when you're done. It's optimized for efficiency, and the typical customer seems to be lone Japanese travelers popping in for a quick meal. The menu was all in Japanese, so we had to use Google Lens on Priscilla's phone to translate one item at a time. It took forever to look through the menu and decide what we wanted. The employees not speaking much English didn't help, either. When it came time to pay, we had a hard time understanding when the worker was trying to tell us that they don't accept credit cards. We kept wondering why the machine wasn't registering our card and thought it was a repeat of the Saizeriya incident. Apparently, the only cards accepted here are debit cards.

On the topic of the Japanese language, we had learned a few key phrases but otherwise didn't understand any Japanese that was spoken. Most people we interacted with understood at least a little bit of English, probably more so in Tokyo than in Kyoto. The people at the hotels all spoke mostly fluent English. Same for the people at airport and train station kiosks. Restaurants were where we had the most trouble, particularly in Kyoto, but signs and menus typically had English translations, and pointing at things never fails.

So the next day was our trip to Arashiyama, a rural district just 15 minutes away by train. We walked 11 miles there, starting with the Bamboo Forest which, since it was morning, wasn't too packed with tourists yet. We continued on through Arashiyama Park and then, because I'm crazy, hiked to Mt. Ogura on a semi-beaten dirt path that soon turned into a not-beaten, ambiguous path. At some points, we were hiking on the edge of a steep hill, where a misstep could mean a long tumble down. We sometimes had to hold onto tree branches and roots to keep from falling. But we eventually encountered a section where someone had marked trees with red tape to assist hikers in finding the trail, and we ultimately made it to the top of the mountain. The Mt. Ogura summit was pretty underwhelming and was basically just a clearing in the forest with some signs.

There wasn't a good way down the mountain and we certainly didn't want to return the way we came, so we walked down a road where fortunately there weren't too many cars, until we got to the north side of Arashiyama. There, we visited the Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple and took some pictures in their own mini "bamboo forest", free of the crowds that characterize the touristy part of Arashiyama. We continued north and found a traditional ryotei establishment named Ayuchaya Hiranoya, where we enjoyed cherry blossom tea and a couple light bites while sitting on tatami mats. We then walked through the touristy part of Arashiyama again, walked across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, walked along the river, and then toured the Kimono Forest on our way back to the train station. Arashiyama was quite nice and I really enjoyed the scenery, particularly the places not swarming with people. When we got back to the Kyoto JR Station, we ate at Yoshinoya again. Unlike last time, we pulled up the English menu on our phones (we found out we just needed to scan a QR code on the front of the menu), and we had the right amount of cash ready when paying. Showing real progress after learning from our mistakes!

On Sunday, we took another JR train to Nara. This was a little further away (50 minutes) but well worth the trip. We explored Nara Park and did the thing that probably most people come here to do - fed the deer. Vendors in the park sell stacks of rice crackers for 200 yen, and we bought one and walked around the park. Most visitors congregate near the western entrance of the park, so the deer there are overly fed, but as we went further into the park, the deer got hungrier! The deer furthest into the park would swarm us once they saw that we had food. They were pushy but always gentle. We saw signs warning about deer kicking and butting people, but maybe that only happens if you don't give them what they want! After walking through the park, we hiked up to the Mt. Wakakusa summit and enjoyed the wide, sweeping views of the city from there. In all, we walked 10 miles that day.

The next day, we had lunch at Sushi no Musashi, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant inside the JR station. This was our first time at this kind of restaurant, and Priscilla in particular really enjoyed the experience, as it's something she always wanted to do. We then took a JR train to Inari (around 10 minutes) and walked to the Mt. Inari summit at the Fushimi Inari. It had rained earlier in the day and we went in the afternoon, so there weren't as many people. This is a popular place for photos, and we were able to get some photos without people in the background. We enjoyed walking through all the torii, though it was sad seeing some of them having wood rot at the base or even completely cut down. We walked up to the summit, though it was so unremarkable that we didn't know at that time that it was the summit. I think there were just one or two businesses up there including an ice cream place. We did 7 miles of walking here.

On Tuesday, we were surprised that it was lightly snowing, despite the weather report not mentioning it. We took the subway from Kyoto to Shijo; this was not a JR line, so our pass couldn't be used for this. From Shijo, we walked to Mipig Cafe, where we had a 30-minute reservation to hang out with their mini pigs. We had to put all our stuff in a locker and then go upstairs, where we sat on the floor, put a blanket over our laps, and then in no time we were swarmed by half a dozen mini pigs! They really seem to like people, perhaps if just for the body warmth. I thought it was a little boring just sitting there having pigs on my lap, and I didn't really like getting pig hair on my clothes, but Priscilla really enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, contrary to the name of this place, their (free) vending machine dispensing drinks was broken, so we weren't able to get any of the drinks that are customarily included.

We then walked over to the nearby Nishiki Market to get small bites at various vendors, and then walked over to Maruyama Park. It was pretty cold and the snow started coming down more heavily here, so we had to seek shelter under an umbrella until the snow let up. It was pretty cool, though. Prior to Kyoto, we've never really seen actual snow falling in person.

Finally, we walked over to Kiyomizu-dera and decided to pay the 400 yen per person for entry. That place was pretty nice, though the large crowds really detracted from the experience. Apparently, it being a weekday, cold, and snowing is not enough to dissuade many people from going! Halfway through the campus is a soup restaurant, seemingly the only place where you're able to sit. That marketing strategy certainly paid off because it got us to eat there. We shared a bowl of soba and fried tofu soup while sitting on tatami mats, a break from the 10 miles we would walk this day.

Tokyo again:
On Wednesday, it was time to say goodbye to Kyoto and hello to Tokyo for one more day. We took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, this time going to the Shinagawa station where we then took the local JR line to the Hamamatsucho station. We checked into our hotel at the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay, which we got for free thanks to our IHG card. We checked in early but they still had a room for us, and they upgraded us to a deluxe room with a terrific view of the bay and the Rainbow Bridge! My coworker had recommended walking across the bridge, so we did just that. We had to walk 1.5 miles just to get to the bridge. The view from up there was amazing, but it was pretty chilly and windy, and we saw only a few other people crazy enough to be walking the 1-mile length of the bridge with us. Once on the south side, we checked out Daiba Park (not many people there) and then Odaiba Kaihin Park, the latter where there's a small beach and a Statue of Liberty. The views of the bay from there are stunning! We ate at the Yoshinoya there, go figure. There's so much to do on Odaiba, which is actually a man-made island. But we didn't feel like we had the time, so we headed back to the bridge, only to find that the pedestrian route was now closed! Online, various sources say that the bridge closes to pedestrians at 6pm during the winter, but the guard pointed us to a sign that said that the bridge closes at 5:30. We got there at 5:34. That was frustrating, as I don't see a valid reason why the bridge should be closed at all. There are fences preventing pedestrians from falling over, and there appears to be lighting along the pedestrian paths. We had to pay to take the Yurikamome train back to our hotel. I wasn't very happy about this but Priscilla was, since her feet were hurting due to us having walked 44 miles over 5 days. Okay, I guess that's a lot.

Finally, today was our travel day back home. After a brief walk around the IHG courtyard (mainly because I woke up feeling dizzy and needed some fresh air), we packed up and took the train to the Tokyo JR Station, and then the Narita Express from there to the airport. It was only when we were in the security line, taking our electronics out of our bags, that we realized, to our horror, that we didn't have our iPhone. Priscilla's mom gave her old iPhone 10 to Priscilla, and since it has a much better camera than our phones do, we had been using it to take pictures during our trip. The Find My app showed that the iPhone was back at the hotel, and we used a payphone to call the hotel (we had to learn that we didn't need to dial the 81 country code, but we did need to dial the trunk prefix of 0 first), and they confirmed that housekeeping found the phone. The Narita Express trip was about 50 minutes each way, and we didn't have the time to go back to the hotel, so hopefully the hotel will be able to ship the phone to our home address.

Thankfully, going through security was pretty smooth, as they just use metal detectors and then they watch you turn around in a circle with your hands above your head (that was kind of fun, haha). Customs was equally as smooth - the agent just asked if we bought any duty-free items, and then we scanned our passports. But then the "fun" started again when we tried to go to two airport lounges, only to find that the first one was no longer operating (the Google Maps entry was out of date), and the second didn't accept Priority Pass. We were directed to another lounge near our gate which fortunately did take Priority Pass. It was nice to sit there and enjoy some rice curry and soba noodle soup, a reprieve from the earlier chaos.

After eating, we had about 10 minutes to pick up some gifts from the duty-free shops before our boarding time. My coworker had asked me to pick up Tokyo Bananas for him, but the two closest shops were completely out of those. We saw lots of Tokyo Bananas on our way through the airport, including at those two shops, so I didn't expect them to all disappear. But apparently, popular items can disappear when a lot of people are passing through close to the departure time. So we ran down the terminal to the next shop, and I think they had some Tokyo Bananas there, but the line was insanely long and we had two minutes before boarding. We didn't want to chance it and try to find another shop even further away, so we just ran back to one of the shops closest to our gate and picked up the Tokyo Bananas Pie version (seems like it's not as popular, so we'll see if my coworker wants it) and five boxes of various flavors of Kit Kats. This cost 5,100 yen, which was the exact amount of cash that we had left (we started with 24,000 yen and I used up all of our odd coins yesterday). It was great that we got rid of all our cash, as we would otherwise have to pay a fee to convert back to dollars. We then dashed over to our gate... only to find that the flight was delayed. Shortly after, the boarding time was pushed out by 50 minutes. Sigh. Had we known this, we probably could've gone back to the hotel and we definitely could've found another shop in the terminal, but we couldn't have possibly known. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. At least we remembered to fill up our water bottles before boarding this time.

Final thoughts:
So today did not go as planned, but I'm glad that we're on the way home now. I kind of did just write a summary of each day, but there was so much that happened each day! I feel like we did more on this trip than we've done on previous trips, and a lot of that involved just finding the right train to get from one place to another (thank you Priscilla). This trip has been fun but also a bit frenetic, and I haven't really felt rested. Maybe that's why I woke up feeling dizzy this morning.

Tokyo and Kyoto are huge cities, and there are crowds just about everywhere. You have to constantly maneuver around people when walking through the train station, and the crowds don't seem to let up at any time during the day. The trains are typically full and, except for the Shinkansen where we reserved seats, there was usually no sitting room on the trains we got on. On one train, a bunch of people got on and we were completely packed in like sardines. It was hard to find grocery stores selling fresh produce until we really looked for it, and even then, the produce options there were a little limited and pricier than back at home. And everything is packaged in plastic, even single pieces of produce. There are probably some advantages to that, but it felt wasteful. And the convenience stores were definitely convenient, and we ate some onigiri from there just about every day, but I wouldn't want to eat like that for an extended period of time. By our fourth day in Kyoto, I was getting city fatigue and a bit of travel fatigue in general.

There are a lot of great things about Japan, of course. The trains were nearly always on time. The roads are clean and in good condition. We didn't see much litter anywhere. People seem to prioritize society over individuality. It does help that they're a pretty homogeneous society. People tend to not want to stand out. Pretty much everyone wears a face mask, even when outside. Most people were wearing dark clothes, certainly not bright clothing drawing attention. And most of the cars I saw on the road were white, followed by black. I didn't see a significant percentage of cars of another color. People are very polite and frequently bow as a gesture of mutual respect. We soon found ourselves doing the same. It's crowded, but people somehow maneuver around each other in an orderly fashion. We never got bumped into in all our time walking through crowded spaces. Crime is rare. We felt safe walking around dark places at night and counting money in public. Even in the bustling cities, I saw lots of bikes just parked there without being locked up. Sure, there seem to be cameras everywhere in public and in every private business as well, and those probably deter bad behavior, but I have to imagine that people behaved this way before the era of mass surveillance as well (the Big Brother thing is an entirely separate discussion). They have a culture of respect that seems to be taught from a young age. Even the kids at the breakfast buffet were well behaved. Whenever we did hear a child making a lot of noise, it turned out to be a non-Japanese child.

On that note though, the Japanese as a whole do seem to be more reserved. They seem to not make small talk with strangers or even verbally acknowledge them (like in an elevator). At DisneySea, there was barely any applause at the end of the show, though that might've also been because after what seemed like the finale, the show kept on going and it wasn't clear that the end was actually the end. But I think the point still stands.

No society is perfect, and there are things that I think the Japanese don't do as well, but those things are few and far between. On the whole, I really admire what I saw in Japanese society, and I wish that Americans would take some cues from them. Can you imagine if our cities were like this? Maybe some of the small ones are, but the big ones?

Whew. I wrote a lot more than I thought I would. Our trip is over and I can't wait to get back home, drink lots of water, go to Costco to get groceries, and get back to a regular life, jet lag notwithstanding. We should be getting back around 8am Thursday, so the whole day will essentially reset. I'll need a vacation from vacation, but this trip has been meaningful and I'm glad that we did it. Ask me in 1.5 years if I'm down for an international trip again.
Holiday Hosting - Tuesday, December 27, 2022
For the last four days, Aaron's family was staying at our place. The kids have two weeks of winter vacation, and Aaron and Lauren wanted to do a bit of sightseeing in the Bay Area and needed a place to crash.

The last few days have been tough for me and Priscilla (okay, mostly me). Ever since our last renter left over two years ago, we've been used to having privacy at home. We're definitely not used to having kids around, and anyone who's spent a day with young kids knows how demanding they can be. The kids are 5 and 2, respectively, and the older one seems to have become quite the extrovert (or maybe this is just a phase that most kids go through?). There have been lots of requests for hide and seek and other preschooler games, climbing on furniture, numerous questions about why things are the way they are, a certain metal toy being dropped repeatedly on the floor, some screaming and crying, and a couple pee and poo accidents. These are just normal things that parents have to constantly deal with, but for me, they've revealed how much I value order and control, how much I covet quiet and alone time, and how (inwardly) annoyed I get when those things are taken away. I've never really wanted kids of my own and maybe that's fine, but I think my reasons for it are pretty selfish. I need God to change my heart.

But there have been plenty of sweet times. Aaron and Lauren have tried to be good guests - they've cleaned up after themselves, and while Aaron and the niece have been sleeping in the gym room, he's moved the bedding in the morning so that I can use the gym room to work out. We all went out for a walk one night and that was a nice time. And the niece is beginning to demonstrate the ability to learn and understand things. She loves counting; Priscilla joked that maybe she'll be an accountant one day, and I've noticed that she has attention to detail, so maybe she'll be an auditor. She got pretty good at matching up the numbers on dominoes after I taught her how to play. And she had trouble with a metal puzzle until I showed her how to solve it, and then the next day, she was able to solve it on her own in a couple seconds. She also enjoyed spelling a bunch of words using the tiles from my Bananagrams game. Meanwhile, the nephew is a bit young to really understand anything, but he's starting to take behavior cues from those around him.

During their time here, Aaron family's managed to visit different places including the Willow Glen holiday lights, Christmas in the Park, and Pinnacles National Park. And they took the kids out a couple nights so that Priscilla and I could have some time to ourselves.

So it felt bittersweet when they left this morning. Originally, they had wanted to leave Monday or Tuesday in order to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, but those plans fell through due to snow (a lot of the country is experiencing freezing temperatures right now). So they had then expressed the intent to stay with us until Thursday or Friday, but they ultimately left for Sacramento today because that made more sense for their travel plans, and because the kids were starting to get restless (more than usual). So while I'm definitely glad to have peace and quiet at home again, I will kind of miss having them around. I still don't really have a desire to have kids of my own, but I think I'm beginning to actually understand why most parents say that it's the best decision they've ever made.
Holiday Party Play - Saturday, December 17, 2022
Yesterday was Pure's engineering holiday party at The Plex in San Jose. This was our first holiday party since 2018; we didn't have one the previous two years because of the pandemic, and in 2019 we had a 10th year anniversary party in lieu of a holiday party.

This year, our party encompassed just the engineering orgs, as the company has gotten so big that we can't fit a couple thousand people under one roof just anywhere. Other orgs got their own parties. For budgetary reasons, this party was originally open to employees only, but it was changed to allow guests after enough people complained. If there's one thing the company does right, it's caring about and trying to listen to its employees.

Sadly, nobody from my team appeared to have attended. A few people were traveling, a few were sick, and a couple people probably didn't want to make the long drive. I saw just a couple people that I recognized but didn't get a chance to talk to them. So Priscilla and I just kept to ourselves and enjoyed the many amenities there. Cost savings aside, I can understand why the company wanted this to be an employee-only event; being there with a spouse/guest results in a very different dynamic. Of course, if only I were able to go, I probably wouldn't have gone.

But I'm glad that Priscilla made us go. We arrived 10 minutes after the start time and went straight to the buffet, where we loaded up on a little bit of mostly everything. The dinner theme was burgers and tacos, though the taco shells were absent at the start. I piled up my plate high with salad, potatoes, chicken, ground beef, tater tots, bacon, a burger patty, pulled pork, and cheese. They also had things like charcuterie, Impossible Burgers, and beignets. There was also a beer wall with different kinds of beer; Priscilla sampled a few of them and liked the Angry Orchard the most, as usual. We probably could've eaten more but I didn't want to stuff myself silly, though we did grab a slice of pizza later in the evening.

So after dinner, we hit up the arcade, where most of the games were free to play. We did basketball, ball throwing (I was very bad), bowling, skee-ball, and a couple shooter video games. Then we did roller skating for a little over half an hour. Nobody else was skating at first, but people started gradually joining. The first few of us weren't that great, but I think we all improved with a little practice. Priscilla had a tough time as always, but she too was a little better by the end. And she liked that the DJ seemed to be playing an entire album by rapper NF.

We ended our time by playing a couple rounds of cornhole. I did a lot better with this, redeeming myself from my prior poor performance at throwing balls.

We had a lot of fun. This party was noticeably not as fancy as previous ones, but I think this one was my favorite because of all the activities we could do at our own pace without it being too crowded. If future parties are like this one, I guess I won't mind going!
Positive to Negative - Thursday, December 15, 2022
In my previous post, I mentioned that we tested positive for COVID on a rapid antigen test last week, after testing negative the week before despite having cold symptoms. We got a PCR test last Friday and it confirmed that we were positive. But our symptoms never progressed beyond those of the common cold. We've been getting marginally better each day, slowly.

Priscilla has now tested negative, and my latest result was positive but with a very faint pink line that took 10 minutes to show up. I just have slight congestion now, so I'm probably in the home stretch. I should be good to return to the office next week, after having been working from home for the last three weeks. Apparently, my company no longer wants employees to report when they catch the virus, and we're no longer enforcing any type of isolation requirements. It's up to individuals to decide what they think is right now. The CDC's new guidelines state that you may end isolation after day 5 if you've had mild symptoms and are fever-free. Such a change from how things were before. I guess we really have turned the corner on this pandemic.

We still have no idea whom we caught the virus from. Being sick was an inconvenience, but we got the best case scenario. None of the friends and family whom we saw in LA got sick, and our symptoms stayed mild. Our church friend who caught COVID around the same time (not from us or vice-versa) had it much rougher, as did my aunt's sister-in-law, who was hospitalized due to low oxygen levels. Now we have some natural immunity that will hopefully protect us from serious illness for a while longer. I'm thankful for medical science and for the different tests we have readily available to us. And for the ability to work from home, which is a privilege that many don't have.
Not Positive We're Positive - Wednesday, December 7, 2022
I mentioned at the end of my previous post that Priscilla and I came down with cold symptoms on our return from our Thanksgiving trip to LA. We took a home COVID test the day after we started showing definitive symptoms, and we both tested negative. Since then, the symptoms have progressed from a head cold to a chest cold, but have remained mostly mild. So we were surprised when we took the COVID test again this past Monday and got a positive result.

We haven't had any symptoms specific to COVID like shortness of breath, muscle fatigue, or loss of taste or smell. It just feels like the colds I've had in the past, which makes me wonder if some of those in the past couple years could've actually been COVID, though I did test during those times and always tested negative. The instructions for this test on the FDA website mention that the false positive rate was 5.7% in a study done with 139 participants where 35 subjects got a positive test result, though this seems like a pretty low sample size. I've seen other articles claiming that other studies of rapid antigen tests have up to a 42% false positive rate. And multiple false positives are supposedly more likely from the same batch of tests.

So are we actually positive? Who knows. It's probable that we have it, but it doesn't really feel like we do. But I think this pandemic has taught us that the presence or absence of symptoms is not a reliable indicator. In the meantime, we continue to quarantine and we just used Instacart for the first time to buy groceries from Sprouts. And we have PCR tests scheduled for Friday, courtesy of the county health department. It's awesome that they're still providing this service. And fortunately, it seems like the people we spent time with in LA haven't gotten sick.

At any rate, the recovery will probably have a long tail. I'm mostly recovered; I've just had a minor sore throat and congestion for the past couple days that seems like it's dragging out. And Priscilla has a runny nose and a persistent cough. The last time she had a cough like this, it took her two months to get over it. Fun times ahead.
A Pretty Normal Thanksgiving - Saturday, December 3, 2022
This past Thanksgiving was pretty normal. Which, given how abnormal things have been since COVID, was a welcome change.

In both 2021 and 2020, we saw my parents and Priscilla's parents separately during our time in LA. I think the last time we all had Thanksgiving dinner together was in 2018 (though I apparently didn't blog about that - bad Anson).

We headed down around 7am on Thanksgiving Day and though there were a couple minor slowdowns along the way, traffic was pretty smooth overall. We rested a few hours at the condo before driving with Priscilla's parents over to my parents' place. We arrived a little late since we got stuck in a standstill due to an accident on the 118. Aaron's family was already there, and the kids look like they've grown a lot. Our niece wasn't shy this time and wanted to play with us right away. It's nice that she seems at ease with us now!

We had most of the traditional fixins for dinner. My dad and Aaron both made a turkey, and Priscilla's parents brought a chicken and a duck from Sam Woo BBQ. Unlike in some previous years, we didn't have dessert. Maybe my mom reminded my dad that people have blood sugar and gut issues.

We stayed a little long, but it was nice to see everyone interacting. Priscilla and I were pretty tired as we drove back to the condo with her parents that night. On both Friday and Saturday, we visited The Huntington, first with her mom and then with our old church friend Cindy. Adult tickets are normally $25 on weekdays and $29 on weekends, but I get free admission for myself and up to three guests with my Cultivist membership, which I have a 6-month free trial of due to getting the Capital One Venture X card. It's a decent card for travel, and Priscilla's already used it to book things for our trip to Japan which will be in February.

So back to The Huntington. It was really crowded on Friday (according to an employee there, Mother's Day and the day after Thanksgiving are the two busiest days), but there were far fewer people on Saturday. The gardens are immense and you can really spend a whole day walking around and taking it all in. The two nicest parts are the Chinese Garden and Japanese Garden. I really liked the water, bridges and buildings that create the atmosphere of a tiny village in the Chinese Garden. Between my two visits, I also saw some European art at one of the art galleries, and paid a short visit to the library. There wasn't much to see at the library, but they did have a Gutenberg Bible on display.

On Sunday, we went to CCAC and ran into Tim and his mom after the service. Tim gave us a tour of the new A/V room in the back of the upper level that he and his parents built out. It was really a sight to see - different stations for people to control camera feeds, audio, and the livestream, and a rack of servers that all the equipment is hooked up to. And most of the equipment was either donated or purchased at bargain prices.

After church, we had lunch at Galleria Market with Gina and Weber. It's always nice to catch up with old friends, even if we don't have the most exciting updates. Priscilla also caught up with Crescentia at Starbucks later that day while I was back at my parents' place catching up with work (bleh).

After a quick breakfast with my parents on Monday, it was time to head home. My mom of course packed us a lot of food to take back with us, including some amazing pot pie that my dad had made. The drive back was smooth pretty much all the way. So even with Thanksgiving travel being nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, Thanksgiving Day and the Monday after seem to be good days to make the drive.

And of course we had to get sick while traveling. That's pretty common for me, but this time both of us came down with a cold, with Priscilla showing minor symptoms about a day before me. The definitive symptoms started while we were driving back up, and we've been stuck at home with a minor cough and stuffiness ever since. And now it's supposed to be raining for the next three days straight, so no going outside for fresh air.

So the time in LA was nice. The days after, not so much!
Mobile-Friendly - Sunday, November 20, 2022
Well it only took about ten years, but I finally updated this site's layout to a mobile-friendly and more visually streamlined version. There are lots of little things that I cleaned up, and I revamped the Articles section and the Blog Archives page. I also switched away from XHTML in favor of HTML 5. Yeah, only eight years behind there.

So if you're on mobile, you'll no longer need to pinch-zoom to move around the page, and navigation links will no longer appear too small to read. If you're on desktop with any normal sized monitor, you'll get a little landscape graphic in the background, a slightly desaturated variant of the landscape graphic I now have on the homepage.

Lately I've been messing around in Photoshop and creating some 2D landscapes. Given the name of this site, I figured that it was about time that I had a picture of a dragon somewhere on it. So since I suck at drawing, I bought a stock image of a dragon and edited it into my landscape. I like how Photoshop's tools allow you to create some basic but cool-looking images without the need for a lot of talent. Hopefully over time, I'll grow my artistic ability and maybe even learn to draw some dragons of my own.

So yeah, since I was never really using my homepage for anything notable, I put up a 2D landscape there which is hopefully a little more interesting. Someday I'll figure out what I actually want to do with this site.

So to the one or two people who still visit my site and read my blog, thanks for being with me all these years, and I hope you enjoy the update as much as I enjoyed working on it.