Monday, January 21, 2008

Abroad with a broad - A trip to Chicago and San Jose

I've been out of town for a couple of weeks flying about the country on a trip that was for both business and pleasure. Beginning in early January, my girlfriend had work interviews in Chicago, San Jose and Phoenix; as some of these areas were not places that either of us were familiar with, I was able to get some time off work to accompany her on the interview trips. Although about 60% of the time felt like it was spent shuttling between various airports and hotels, we had a couple of days to go sightseeing and shopping. The photos that I'm posting tonight are from our visit to the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Illinois and the venerable Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California. Sorry, Phoenix-area folks, I forgot my camera on the day that we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and Scottsdale Fashion Center in Scottsdale.

On the (Chica) Go.

Chicago was probably the most enjoyable portion of the trip for me, not only because (as my girlfriend maintains) I was able to visit Rotofugi, but because it was an area of the U.S. that I am entirely unfamiliar with. I've lived on the west coast and have visited the east coast on several occasions, but I haven't spent much time in the midwest- especially in such a major metropolitan hub as Chicago, Illinois. Overall, my impression is that Chicago has a favorable blend of the turn-of-the-century urban elegance that I associate with areas such as New York (as opposed to the unsightly urban sprawl that is Los Angeles), but lacking some of the less savory elements of such cities. It also has really, really good Italian food (more on that later).

Although I don't have any photos- I was too excited to whip out my camera- of my visit to Rotofugi, I think I can safely say that this was one of the highlights of my Chicago visit, if not the entire trip. On some free time, I caught a cab to Roto, which was conveniently located about 10 minutes from our hotel. While not a problem to find, Rotofugi did not immediately jump out at me, as the storefront was inset into a row of otherwise nondescript shops- however, the graffiti-style sign and stickers plastered on the front door were an easy giveaway.

I was fortunate that on the day I visited Roto, Kirby (co-owner, along with his wife, Whitney) was at the front desk. One thing that we both share is a passion for Dream Rocket's toys, a wonderful selection of said toys having been exhibited at Rotofugi's Toy Karma show, so I was pretty excited to have a chance to shoot the bull with him, as they say. After introducing myself, the first words out of Kirby's mouth were, and I quote, "You're too early for the Dream Rocket stuff- it's coming in next week." Mind-reader.

Although Roto has been primarily a seller of western vinyl, there is now a very full shelf of neo-kaiju items near the front of the store; they have also released several store-exclusive toys with toymakers such as Cronic, Clap Monsters, and now, Dream Rocket. And unlike other stores, you are encouraged to touch and experience the unbagged display models of each toy. I think that's a really nice touch, as you can really get a sense of the heft and texture of a toy, which is something that is lost when merchandise is hidden away behind glass doors.

After meeting both Kirby and Whitney (and Ed- I don't know if you were hanging out or whether you work there, sorry), I'm really glad that I had a chance to stop by the store and chat with them. It's especially nice to know that you're buying toys- or anything, for that matter- from store owners who seem like genuinely good people that are deeply interested in their line of work. And of course, I had to buy the requisite souvenir...

Zaran, 2nd version, by the enigmatic Clap Monsters traveled the country with us, after climbing down from the top of Rotofugi's toy shelf. The first version of this toy was sold at the Toy Karma show, and was limited to only a small handful of pieces. This design has been both praised for its charmingly crude sculpt, as well as criticized for its odd pot-bellied shape. As with many 'neo-vintage' toys, I think, the aesthetic takes a while to sink in, which probably makes it difficult to sell from photographs alone.

As far as the sculpt goes, I think Clap Monsters did a fantastic job recreating the rough- almost randomly patterned- reptilian skin of Zaran. The vinyl is surprisingly thin and light, but does not feel at all cheap. The spray work is imprecise, but delicately and beautifully applied over the glossy yellow vinyl in a manner like that of a watercolor painting. I especially like the way the differently-textured vinyl peeks out from between the layers of paint, hinting at the basic nature of the toy. Perhaps it was all of the effort and care taken in transporting this toy across several states, but it is one of my favorite recent purchases. Sometimes it is a good thing to step outside of your usual buying patterns.

Right before I left, Rotofugi also released its New Year's exclusive Nougaki. Here's some photos of that one as well. Sparkly orange base vinyl, combined with creamy metallic blues, greens and golds remind me of a tropical fruit sorbet. Better not leave this one in the sun for too long!

You can buy the 2nd version Zaran here, Rotofugi Nougaki here, and their all-new store-exclusive Dream Rocket Doguma right HERE. Don't sleep on these, because you won't get them anywhere else once they're gone!

On the second day of our trip, we took the Chicago "L" out to the Magnificent Mile. Much like other older cities, Chicago has an extensive public transportation network, which is quite convenient and easy to use- don't know if I'd ride it at night, though.

Upon stepping out of the Washington Ave. stop on the Blue Line, we immediately found this strange sight in the middle of a concrete walkway: dozens of pigeons huddled around a small flame like a bunch of winged hobos. Although they certainly seem to be enjoying the heat, what's the real purpose of the little flame?

Couple of photos of Chicago's spectacular architecture. I guess it's nothing special if you live in the city, but something about the old style of these buildings evokes a feeling in me that can be best described as nostalgia in me, I suppose, however, it is for a time and place that I have never experienced. You can almost feel the vast history that underlies the city, despite all of the modern machinery and construction that has changed it over time...

Interesting fact: the reason that Chicago has so many brick structures is due to the great fire of 1871 that leveled much of the city. After that disaster, wooden structures were apparently outlawed for some time, causing many of the existing older buildings to be built from bricks. I guess it's a good thing that Chicago is not plagued by earthquakes like much of California.

Our first stop on the way to the Mile was Millennium Park, which is the current home of this concert hall and the giant "Silver Bean" sculpture. The big bean reminds me of something from "Flight of the Navigator." Anyone remember that movie? Anyone? Crickets? There were also these freaky giant digital sculptures that displayed changing, moving images of faces. I can only imagine the amount of electricity it must take to power those on a continuous basis...

Under the streets (weird!), we found the famous Billy Goat Tavern and its offer of "Cheezborgers, Cheezborgers, Cheezborgers!" Still there, apparently, after all these years.

After a long evening of shopping up the length of the Horrendous Mile, we took a trip up 94 floors to the top of the Hancock Tower. The price of a ride up an office building to look out of a giant window: $23.. PER PERSON.

Finally, after a day of waiting, we found a Giordano's on the northern end of the Magnificent Mile. So good. We had a small 10" with mozzarella and spinach filling... so cheesy and wonderful. I wish we could have finished the last piece, but someone at the hotel got a nice midnight snack anyway.

So with a suitcase full of kaiju, and our bellies full of delicious, delicious mozzarella, we bade farewell to Chicago... and to Rotofugi. Sniff.

The Crazy House.

Apologies in advance to any of you who hail from San Jose, but there really wasn't anything else to photograph out there. I guess we could have taken pictures of our quarter-mile walk from the hotel to A&W and Taco Bell- oh, and the gas station where we bought soda.

As humdrum as our area was, we were conveniently located near the Winchester Mansion. Frankly, I had no prior idea that this landmark was located in San Jose- or even that we would be within driving distance- and would never have found it without the smattering of local amusements listed on our hotel's website. For those of you who do not religiously watch shows like Ghost Hunters and A Haunting, the Winchester Mansion (although it is apparently now called the Winchester Mystery House, but that sounds far too Scooby-Doo for me) was built in the late 1800s by the widow of the late son of Oliver Winchester (owner of the company who developed the Winchester Rifle), Sarah Winchester. William and Sarah Winchester had only a single daughter, Annie, but due to circumstances, Annie, William and Oliver all died in succession, leaving Sarah with a majority ownership in the Winchester company. In modern parlance, she was quite loaded.

And she was quite paranoid, by all accounts. Sarah allegedly believed that the spirits of the Native Americans and various persons killed by the Winchester firearms were responsible for the death of her family, and so in 1884, she began the construction of the Winchester Mansion. By continuously building the mansion (pursuant to the guidance of 'good' spirits), and by incorporating a number of dead-ends and false doors, she believed that she could elude the 'angry' spirits. The mansion, as we learned on the tour, was not actually an original building, but a massive growth imposed over the farmhouse which previously existed on the property. And so, for 38 years, the Winchester Mansion grew both upwards and outwards from the tireless efforts of many carpenters, based on plans drafted by Ms. Winchester herself (who was not an architect). The result today is 160 rooms (who made the count, I do not know) crammed into a deceptively small structure. Oh, and it's supposedly haunted, but the tour guides will not mention this feature unless asked directly.

So while the gas station begged for a second visit, we decided to take a taxi to the Winchester Mansion one evening before dinner. Considering that the mansion was not far from our hotel, the cab fare was surprisingly high; next time I am going to take my Garmin so that I can more properly direct the drivers. If you are expecting the Winchester Mansion to be a rustic monstrosity on the town outskirts (a la "13 Ghosts" or "The Haunting"), you will be disappointed; it is smack dab in the middle of town, next door to the Santa Ana Fashion Center. While the neon lights of the nearby movie theater destroy its aura of mystique, I suppose it is conveniently located. Tickets for a tour of the house were about $25 per person, owing to the fact that the 160 rooms do not sweep themselves. Sadly, self-guided tours were not on the menu.

Totally unrelated, but there was a little arcade right before the tour entrance. Amazing as the mansion may be, I was floored by the selection in the arcade. They had the original Simpsons game, just like I used to play when I was 10! This must be one of the last original units in operation, and time has taken its toll on the arcade cabinet, but not the sweet, simple gameplay within. I sincerely enjoy these smash-em-all style teamplay games more than the crap that is found in most arcades today. Maybe I just don't associate dancing and DJing with fun. I don't know.

And is that a Super Mario Bros. machine??? Is this for real, or is someone misusing an NES console?

Barnroom filled with antique stained glass. Good thing there are no earthquakes in the area.

The greenhouse. Nothing weird here, but I just like the style of the room.

Window in the floor. You'd better hope that M.C. Escher's attorney doesn't hear about that one.

Nothing in here. Some rooms in the mansion were extensively decorated with period items from personal collections, but others were just, well, barren. Here is one such room.

Panorama taken from one of the higher rooms in the mansion. I think this gives a sense of the size of the mansion better than any photograph from the ground. It's not so much that the mansion is truly sprawling, but that the 160 rooms are packed into it like passages in an ant hill.

A couple of scary-ass statutes in an inner courtyard. Can you imagine that eagle on a moonlit night? Jesus.

The "Grand Ballroom," with Ms. Winchester's pipe organ (not shown). In this picture, you can see the famous stained-glass windows with their cryptic quotes. I forget what those quotes are, BUT I BET THEY ARE CLUES TO SECRET BURIED TREASURE. Now I just need to find the correct combination of keys on the organ to unlock the secret passageway... I've said too much already.

And the most interesting for last. I took this photograph with flash, so I can't really rule out the possibility of reflected light or a dust speck on the lens. But the light orb in the center of the photograph really doesn't look like either. And the house has been investigated by both the famous TAPS team and the nuttier British team from Most Haunted due to its paranormal history. What do you think?

We went to Phoenix, AZ, too, but it was kind of boring. So there we are. Back to the toys.


ojl* said...

Where ist mein shoutout?

toybot studios said...

dude! you were in San Jose and no call? No meet up at S7?

akum6n said...

No car. :( I actually didn't know you were close to that area.

Plenty of time for that if I end up living there, though...

rotokirby said...

The flame is Chicago's "Eternal Flame," a memorial to veterans that has burned on Daley Plaza nearly as long as I've lived (since 1972). Even most Chicagoans don't know it's there as it's not really promoted. Pigeons love it though!

PS. Thanks for the kind words!

akum6n said...

The truth from a native Chicagoan! Thanks!