Sunday, April 16, 2017

japan 2017: tokyo part I

I've mentioned on the blog before that every now and then, mine and H's schedules align and we are able to plan a trip. It doesn't happen often, and when we do end up with a free weekend, we try to visit family in Houston. However, for the first time since starting residency in July 2016, I had the option of taking a full 5 days off in a row (!!!) while H did not have any major deadlines or commitments. We seized the opportunity and planned a big trip- Japan! We very randomly found a great deal on tickets through Air Canada, and booked the trip in late January. While I know a week in Japan is not nearly enough time and almost not worth the money, we didn't have a way to make the trip longer. The most I can take off with my residency program is 5 work days in a row (and even then, it's only select months I can do that), so if we ever want an extended trip, that's the longest time I'll have. When you don't get many chances to vacation, you take the risk of having a jam-packed and exhausting vacation. Besides, when am I ever not tired? Might as well be tired while experiencing an exciting new culture and country. We spent a total of 1 week in Japan, and of course, I desperately wish we could have stayed much longer. Tip- if you do travel to Japan, plan for atleast a solid 2 weeks. There's just too much to see/do/take in, and you won't be doing the country justice with anything less. That said, here's a diary of our trip- the things we did/saw/loved, foods we ate, and where we stayed! I will be dividing up posts based on the areas we visited- Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mt. Koya.

Day 1:
Our flight landed at Narita International Airport in the afternoon, which had given us the hope that we would be able to get in atleast a late afternoon's worth of exploring near our ryokan. Unfortunately it took way longer than expected to go through customs, get our Japan rail passes, pick up our hotspot wifi, and make it all the way from the airport to near our ryokan (about a 2 hour journey). By the time we made it to our ryokan, we were exhausted and gathered just enough energy to find a random Udon restaurant at 10 pm. After eating dinner, we just headed back to the ryokan and passed out. For our first 2 nights in Tokyo, we stayed at Kimi Ryokan. Neither H nor I have ever stayed in a hostel before, so this was a new experience for both of us. Thankfully it was a positive one! I had been warned that lodging in Tokyo is expensive, and we had decided while planning the trip that we wanted to experience staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, atleast once during the trip. Kimi Ryokan ended up being a budget-friendly, traditional, clean, and incredibly comfortable experience.

Day 2:
We were up by about 6 am the next morning and ready to get out and explore. The sun rose around 5:30am during our time in Japan, so it was hard to sleep in in a room without curtains. We quickly got ready and headed out of the ryokan. First stop was breakfast at one of the many bakeries we found throughout our trip. One of my favorite things about our trip was how incredibly convenient, easy to navigate, and clean the train stations were. Public transport in Japan is amazing. All of the train stations we visited had huge shopping centers, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and convenience stores. It was a one-stop place for anything you could ever need. We ducked into the first bakery we saw at Ikebukuro train station, Vie de France. I was mainly drawn to the impressively perfect appearing baked goods lined up in the window. We ate at so many bakeries throughout our trip (my jeans definitely felt tighter by the end) because they were so fresh and convenient. While I would usually seek out highly rated places to eat on vacation, we prioritized seeing and doing as much as we could on this trip, so breakfast everyday was a 20 minute stop at any bakery close by. I obviously had to buy extra baked goods to go for the day in case we weren't close to food. Or because everything just looked too delicious to pass up.

After breakfast, we hopped on a train and headed to Shibuya because I wanted to check out the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. Of course, since it was mid-morning, the street wasn't as packed as usual. Nonetheless, it was an exciting sight.

We then wandered around some shops in the area and soon found our phone batteries were already low thanks to Google Maps. We ducked into a coffee shop and planned the rest of our day as our phones charged and we grabbed some espresso. H and I both really enjoy visiting museums, so we decided to visit The National Art Center of Tokyo to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit 'My Eternal Soul' and The Ghibli Museum. On our way to The National Art Center, we walked through one of my favorite spontaneous finds of the trip- Aoyama Cemetery. While a cemetery may seem like a strange site to walk through on a vacation, this was the most serene and beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. The headstones were intricate and enormous. I didn't take pictures initially because there were people visiting graves and it just seemed wrong. However, I did capture the first (of many) cherry blossom trees that lined a road in the cemetery (I only took out my camera when I saw others doing the same)!

The first of many, many, many cherry blossom photos 

The National Art Center was a 5 minute walk from the cemetery. While I wish we could have stayed at the museum longer (theme of this entire trip), there was just way too much we wanted to see and do while in Tokyo. We saw just the Kusama exhibit, and it did not let me down.

Walking to the Art Center and the wrapped trees as part of the Kusama exhibit were already getting me excited

Stunning architecture inside The National Art Center of Tokyo

(photography was allowed in part of the exhibit)

After the Art Center, our next planned stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. Known for being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and the famous super early morning tuna auctions, this place was a must-see on my list. Unfortunately, we didn't plan ahead of time and realized around 2 pm that the fish market closes at 3:30 pm most days. With it being our last full day in Tokyo, we had to race over to catch the last 30 minutes of the market. Although I'm not a huge fan of raw fish (I only eat cooked sushi, and no way was I going to embarrass myself by even asking for a cooked option while in Japan), fresh sashimi was still something I wanted to see and maybe experience the world's smallest bite of. We made it just in time to catch some of the last fresh tuna sashimi and watch vendors close up for the day.

Giant tuna head

Fresh sashimi (that I only had the smallest bite of)

After the Tsukiji Fish Market, we had just enough time left in the day to head over to the Ghibli museum. By the end of our hour-long journey there, it was starting to get dark and windy. The forecast for the day had called for some rain the evening, so we figured spending time indoors at the museum would have been perfect. We walked through the beautiful Inokashira Park on our way and stopped multiple times to take pictures. The storm clouds had rolled in pretty suddenly which created a grayish-green overcast, and it had started sprinkling before we got to the museum. Following the signs through the park to get to the museum, we eventually saw one that had "reservation only". Exhausted, saddened, and looking to get out of the rain, we begrudgingly started taking our path back through the park to get to the nearest station and head back to the ryokan. We stopped again to take more pictures in the park on our way back, and just stayed long enough for it to start pouring down rain. We ran to the nearest building we could find that was open- an outdoor bathroom. With a few other people who got caught in the downpour, we hid out for about 10 minutes. After the rain let up, we walked over to the nearest restaurant we found and had a quick meal. Then it was back to the ryokan cold, wet, and exhausted.

Day 3:
The next morning, we got up really early and packed up to check out of our ryokan as early as we could. We had our train station bakery breakfast (again) and took a bullet train to Kyoto by mid-morning. We wanted to get to Kyoto as soon as possible so we could catch some outdoor things on our list before sunset. The train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto was 2.5 hours and much more enjoyable than travelling in a plane. It was our first look at Japan outside of the busy city of Tokyo, at it did not disappoint. We even caught a peek at Mount Fiji on the ride. The remainder of our trip was spent in Kyoto and Mt. Koya, with a brief return to Tokyo before heading out. When we came back to Tokyo from Mt. Koya, we had a more clear cut plan of the last things we had to see on our trip before heading back to Dallas. I will be posting more about our stays in Kyoto, Mt. Koya, and a brief Tokyo part 2. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

DIY watercolor galaxy

From mid-February to about mid-March, I worked in the Psychiatric ER. Working an entire month of almost exclusively night shifts (mostly 7pm to 7am) meant completely shifting my schedule to a nocturnal one if I wanted to survive the rotation. This included the days that I wasn't scheduled to work. I was initially apprehensive about working through the entire night, and found myself wondering what I would do on the nights I'm off at home and have the whole night to kill. After all, there's only so much Netflix one can watch. So what did I do long after H retired to bed and I was left all by myself? Work on art projects that I almost never get time for anymore!

 I've been wanting to create a watercolor galaxy piece for a long time, but had some difficulty finding a good set of instructions on the internet and a final product I liked. Using watercolor to paint a galaxy is a great way to experiment with watercolor and practice using a medium that I have personally found difficult to get better at. One of my favorite things about using watercolor is the ability to control opacity. If you use more water than paint, you can end up with the most gentle, almost-transparent color. Add more paint, and you can end up with something really opaque. Learning what watercolor paint consistency in the pan will translate to what opacity on paper is another part of learning how to use watercolor to it's fullest potential. All of these watercolor basics and more can be found online, but in my opinion, the best way to really learn how to use something is to just play with it. Enter DIY watercolor galaxy. This project is simple, does not require exact techniques to turn out well, and allows you to explore so many of the wonderful things about using watercolor as a medium.

After some trial and error, I came up with my own set of instructions and tips (that are by no means the only way to make this). I apologize in advance for the darker-toned photos. I did this in the middle of the night and had to rely on artificial lighting for the pictures. 

Here's what you'll need (with a few things I forgot to include in the photograph):

It's very important to start out with the right paper- it will make all the difference. Watercolor paper  differs from regular paper (for example, computer paper) in it's absorbency. While computer paper will absorb the paint and cause it to spread everywhere + not blend well + make the paper wavy, watercolor paper lets the paint dry where you paint. Additionally, you can add many layers and the paper doesn't let the watercolor leak through. Since there is a lot of watercolor layering in this project, using computer paper will cause the paint to leak and bleed through, and your paper will probably rip.

I used 5.5" x8.5" cold press 140lb watercolor paper.

Start by dipping your paintbrush in water and painting wet spots all over your paper. This water layer will help the watercolor spread when we add it. When you add the watercolor (next step), it will start to blend with the water and create natural looking clouds of color.

Add your first watercolor to the patch of water. When painting a galaxy, you want to stick to dark colors. I used two different shades of blue, red, (layering the blues and red made a nice purple), and teal. Unfortunately, my watercolor set doesn't come with a black, so I had to use my calligraphy ink to add black in the mix.

Repeat adding patches of water and watercolor on top, alternating among colors.

Adding layers is the part another crucial ingredient comes in: patience. This step is all about the following sequence of events: Add layer of watercolor --> wait for it to dry --> add another layer --> wait for it to dry. Keep repeating until you have achieved the desired opacity for your galaxy. You no longer need to keep adding a layer of water before adding watercolor- that was only for the first layer. Adding a layer of water now would only make your colors more transparent, which is the opposite of what we're trying to achieve.

Over time, the more layers you add, the more vibrant and pigmented you galaxy will become. Doing this project in a room with a ceiling fan is helpful to decrease drying times in between layers.

If your watercolor palette includes black, you can skip this step and just incorporate the black watercolor like with the colors above. However, if your palette, like mine, doesn't come with black, your best bet is a black ink. I used my calligraphy ink (here's a similar ink). It's important the ink is non-waterproof! If it's waterproof, the ink won't blend well. Use a dropper to mix one drop of water and one drop of your black ink. Drop this mixture onto a desired location on your paper. I added about 3 spread out areas of black ink. 

The black ink is really dark, especially in comparison to watercolors. Resist the urge to use the ink without blending it in. Letting the dark ink sit there without blending will cause your galaxy to be unevenly alternating super dark and light, which will make it look unnatural.

After dropping the water and black ink mixture, use your brush (dipped in water) to help spread the black ink.

Like the watercolors, you will need to add multiple layers of black ink just like you are doing with the watercolors. The number will depend on the desired opacity. I added about 2-3 layers of the black since the ink is already pretty opaque.

If you see unnatural lines, rinse your brush and, leaving it wet with a generous amount of water, stipple the edges with water. This will blend out the harsh edges. Another option is to use the dropper to add 1-2 drops of water over the unnatural lines. The water drop will blend the color, creating a more natural look. You can use a brush to blend in the edges of the water drop. To help blend without using a brush, after adding the water drop(s), slightly lift and tilt your paper in different directions. This will cause the water to slowly travel in different directions and blend the watercolors as it moves along (as pictured below).


When you're done making your galaxy as opaque as you want it and have a good balance of colors, let it dry completely before proceeding to the next step: stars. If you didn't already do this prior to starting the project, now would be a great time to lay down newspaper or protective layer underneath your piece so you don't get paint splatters all over your furniture.

There are multiple ways you can go about adding your stars. The 3 I tried are using my finetec metallic watercolors, white acrylic paint, and a white pen. My favorite method ended up being dipping a small-medium sized paint brush into either the acrylic paint or finetec silver watercolor, and flicking the paint randomly all over the piece. This creates varying sizes of stars and creates a more natural, random finish. 

Don't flick the brush too close to the paper, or you will get "comets"

With the pen, the downside can be homogeneity with the stars all looking identical unless you spend time intentionally making each dot different. Additionally, using a pen can take forever. That said, if a white pen is all you have, no need to go out and buy more materials. I used my middle school favorite white Gelly Roll gel pen.

Add as many stars as your heart desires, let it dry (if you used paint), and that's it!

Frame it and use it to decorate your place, write a note on the back and mail it to a friend, or use it as a bookmark!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

indoor trailing succulents

Indoor plants are a great way to liven up a living space and add some green to the scene (I'm sorry I can't help rhyming). When I was in high school and living with my parents, my inner grandma really unleashed herself and I got into gardening a lot. My parents have a huge yard in the back so the highlights of my weekend mornings were planting beds of flowers that my dad would buy from Home Depot. My after-school plans always involved watering the plants, and I loved just standing there with the hose for 15-20 minutes every afternoon, letting my mind wander. Now that I've painted a somewhat depressing image of my total 16 year old homebody self, it should come as no surprise that 10 years later, not much has changed. I still love gardening and greenery. Living in an apartment takes out the option of having a huge garden like I had when living with my parents all those years ago, but there are still other ways to accommodate my love for plants. The unfortunate reality of life now is that I hardly have time to water plants daily or even weekly. After a few pathetic failed attempts to grow a basil plant (my high school self would be so disappointed in me), I knew I had to find something that would be difficult to kill. What better plant group than the popular, hipster, cool succulents?

I've gathered some of my favorite trailing succulents here. These plants are perfect to have in a pot on a counter, or a hanging basket because they grow beautiful trails. 

Fishhook succulent or String of Bananas (senecio radicans)

Native to South Africa, this specie can't tolerate temperatures below freezing (not ideal for outdoors if you live in a cold place). Of note, this plant is toxic and should not be consumed- keep away from pets and kids (and curious, hyperphagic, hyperoral adults). 

String of Pearls (senecio rowleyanus)

Native to parts of southwest Africa, this plant is also toxic when consumed.

Ghost Tail (graptopetalum paraguayense)

Native to Mexico, and not Paraguay as the name would suggest, this plant can tolerate freezing temperatures. If you decide to plant it outdoors, it is "deer resistant".

Donkey Tail plant (sedum morganianum)

This plan is native to Mexico and Honduras. It's leaves are extremely delicate and will fall off at the slightest touch.