December 2007

I've seen worse...

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Lessons Learned

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Culled from the blur of the last two weeks. Likely to be updated with pictures and additional commentary.

  • The reason there are frequent TV ads for Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun is because there's a new release that includes all 1945 Jouyou kanji, including readings and meanings. Buy it if you have any interest in learning to read and write Japanese.
  • There's surprisingly little anime on television.
  • Hotels don't get the interesting TV channels.
  • Except for porn, with free previews. The first thing we saw on TV was a large-breasted woman squirting milk.
  • Much later, we found an iron-chef-style show best described as "real chefs with goofy assistants inventing novel dishes".
  • 1-yen coins are indeed the correct tool for opening the battery compartment in older Japanese cameras.
  • Hello Kitty is everywhere. Everywhere.
  • So are schoolgirls in short skirts. Every day of the week. Mostly cute as buttons. Their legs looked cold.
  • Hello!Project isn't quite everywhere, but random channel-surfing turned up Tsunku (hosting a catty-woman game show?), Tsuji (new mother announcement), Gal Sone (out-eating a sumo family), and a few others. And the abruptly-retired Maki Goto is still quite visible on a large Guess ad at the airport.
  • The downside of putting a lot of effort into learning to speak Japanese quickly and smoothly is that people respond at full speed. I really need a private conversation tutor.
  • Needing to use your Japanese dramatically improves your memory.
  • Haibane Renmei saved my friend from an allergic reaction.
  • When entering a comic book shop, the prominent sign reading "BL" means "wrong store".
  • Any knowledge of Japanese helps. Being able to read hiragana and katakana helps a lot. Any ability with kanji is icing on the cake.
  • The easiest-to-understand person that I conversed with in Japanese was a little old lady in a Kyoto incense shop.
  • Strict censorship laws did not prevent me from finding an explicit hardcore Hanaukyou Maid Tai doujin collection. At a major retailer in Akihabara. Accidentally. Which had futanari Catholic school girls as the backup story.
  • Beautiful young women in kimonos are not everywhere. Except in Kyoto on weekends.
  • Opening a metal bottle of Pepsi Nex does not in fact summon a maiko, despite early evidence to the contrary. It only works when you're using the vending machine outside of the Gion post office.
  • People in Kyoto are, on the whole, friendlier than those in Tokyo.
  • Shibuya may be home to Japan's fashion victims, but the extensive public transportation network makes them visible everywhere.
  • A Suica or Pasmo card is the single most useful thing to have if you're going to be in Tokyo for a few days.
  • Shinagawa has little to offer except the easy ability to go elsewhere. [update: that is, the area around Shinagawa Station, which isn't really in Shinagawa-ku]
  • Tonki really does have great tonkatsu. And you want to get there when they open at 4pm.
  • Junsei has excellent kaiseki.
  • JALPAK does great work for a great price.
  • Habits acquired in a country where coins are chump change result in overstuffed pockets in a country with $5 coins.
  • The morning JAL flight from Osaka to Narita leaves you with an eight-hour layover before your flight home to San Francisco. This time is best spent around Narita-san, particularly Shinshou-ji.
  • On the way there, you'll pass a small restaurant that serves fresh unagi, grilled over a wood fire. That's fresh as in "they were still swimming a few minutes ago".
  • I should have bought a second bag of Maiko-san no Ochobo-guchi. Now I'm going to have to hope they're available somewhere in San Jose or San Francisco.
  • In addition to the popular maid cafes, Akihabara now has both nun cafes and little-sister cafes. [Update: Nun cafe, Little-sister cafe]
  • There's a lot of used porn on the market. Used. Porn.
  • Aya Matsuura's first DVD single collection does not include the most entertaining of her early videos, Momoiro no Kataomoi, so I didn't buy it. [Update: Ah, there's a different DVD that does include the song.]
  • The Hozugawa river trip is worth it. Sadly, I couldn't keep up with the guide's rapid-fire running commentary, but he was apparently hilarious. I did at least catch the joke about the 7-11 main office.
  • 富士山が見えたんです。

Kyoto Muzak

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There are some nice restaurants in the Kintetsu mall near Kyoto Station. While perusing the menu outside of one of them, the muzak system turned up a familiar-sounding tune. I just couldn’t place it. Dave didn’t recognize it at all, and then it hit the refrain, and was revealed to be this.

The next time we went by that place, they’d cranked the silliness higher, with a muzak version of this.

There’s a perfectly good reason why the Japanese cowboy is para-para dancing. If you were hanging out with these Shibuya gals, wouldn’t you?

Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun

What’s different about the new version of Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun? First, instead of stopping at the 1,006 Kyouiku kanji, it includes the full 1,945 Jouyou set.

Next, the core writing module is considerably better. One frustration with the first edition was that it only taught shape and stroke order; if you didn’t remember what the character meant or sounded like, you had to look it up somewhere else. The new version doesn’t have the search capabilities of a real kanji dictionary, but does have readings, meanings, and vocabulary words. It also adds detailed critiques of your characters, graphically showing your errors.

They’ve also completely redone the drill and test modules, for the needs of a more sophisticated audience. This is the only place where it’s not as useful for a foreign student, because the previous edition broke up the jukugo drills by grade, and this one lumps all of the grade-school kanji into one set. The Kanji Kentei prep section is now more of a timed test than a drill, although it’s still divided by grade.

I’m currently ripping through the kyouiku kanji in the new one, so I can start on the junior-high section, but I’m going to continue working through the drills on the old one.

Sake to me

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When purchasing sake in a Japanese grocery store, read the label carefully, if you have any ability to read Japanese at all. If, for instance, the English label on the shelf reads “nigori”, check the Japanese label to make sure that it isn’t actually namazake (生酒).

Why? Because while most good sake should be served slightly chilled, namazake must be kept in the fridge right up until the moment you’re ready to drink it. It’s not pasteurized, and if it gets warm for even a few hours, the live yeasts turn it into basically-undrinkable carbonated mush.

Uncle Darwin says...

“Thank you for removing yourself from the gene pool.”

There are two possibilities in this story: either he was one of the dumbest people on the face of the Earth, or he was making a “goodbye cruel world” call on his cellphone as he ignored the flashing lights, walked around the lowered crossing gates, and stepped in front of a moving train.

Measured in Rushunas?

Steven has declared a unit of measurement. Sometime during the blur that was my vacation in Japan, I found something that I think measures up:

Asu no Yoichi

In addition to her high-school uniform, she enjoys busting out of a yukata, a miko outfit, frilly western dresses, and lacy lingerie. She’s the oldest of four sisters, and their Parents Are Traveling Abroad. And Our Hero has just moved in with them, having been Sent Down From The Mountains by his father to Become Stronger in the ways of the samurai.

She’s his new teacher.

Less than an hour after moving in, he manages to get into a Compromising Position with all three of her younger sisters at the same time.

Second sister is a bleached-blonde modern girl who’s sensitive about her small bust. Third sister is a sexually aggressive busty meganekko Gal doujin manga artist and junior high-school student. Fourth sister is a fourth-grader, who doesn’t appear to be a harem loli, fortunately, even if she does get dragged into the Wacky Hijinks.


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[Update: link added for the back of the map]

One thing I couldn’t find online before the trip was a good map of places to go in Akihabara. The ones I did find were either inaccurate, incomplete, not to scale, required local knowledge, and/or were drawn with complete disregard for the Western notion that North should either be at the top or clearly marked.

The time I spent marking things up in Google Earth did help me find a few places, but it doesn’t produce useful printouts, so I couldn’t bring it with me as PDFs.

Fortunately, less than ten seconds after we stepped out of the station, a pretty girl in a maid costume handed me this (3MB JPEG). The back side of it has more ads and a sorted list of shops and their block numbers.

This is apparently produced by the folks at Akiba Guide.

[Update: Oh, yes, North is to the right, and in Google Maps the area looks like this.]

[Update: just for fun, I dropped this map into Google Earth, and it’s very well-scaled. There’s some distortion around the south edge, most likely to get everything to fit, but most of the map overlays so well that you can easily locate individual shops.

Also, someone has made a set of Google Maps pushpins that covers some of the highlights of Akihabara in English. There are also two decent ones (1, 2) if you can read some Japanese. The first one is a collection of maid cafes, the other is more general.]

Ooma update

Now available from Amazon.

State of the Musume

One of the songs on my workout mix is Morning Musume’s I Wish. I hate Tsunku’s background vocals, but otherwise it’s a fun song, and a cute video (albeit a bit confusing to anyone who hasn’t seen their weekly television show…). The lyrics made it a popular concert-closer, especially for “graduation” concerts.

Last night, though, I suddenly realized that not only has the group turned over completely since this video was made, only two of them are still actively producing new singles and videos.

In order of appearance:

  1. Ai Kago: career suicide. Her smoking scandal benched her for a year, and just as they started the publicity campaign to bring her back into the family, she got caught returning from a hot springs resort with a notorious womanizer. Latest twist: her mom is now promising to pose nude for a photobook.
  2. Maki Gotou: abruptly retired at the peak of her solo career, allegedly due to burnout.
  3. Natsumi Abe: successful solo artist.
  4. Mari Yaguchi: kicked out of the group, still in the family. Popular television host and actress.
  5. Hitomi Yoshizawa: Retired for family reasons, then resumed a light performance schedule when Tsuji's sudden ilness turned out to be...
  6. Nozomi Tsuji: retired, married, new mother.
  7. Rika Ishikawa: leader of spinoff group Biyuuden.
  8. Yuuko Nakazawa: actress and occasional solo artist.
  9. Kei Yasuda: recently resurfaced as an actress, still in the family.
  10. Kaori Iida: solo career on hiatus due to pregnancy and subsequent marriage.

Kago’s the only one who really burned her bridges with Hello!Project. Most of the rest still show up occasionally in a concert, a one-shot group, or a few episodes of Uta Doki.

Don't fear the Washlet

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…just be sure to check its aim.

Toto Washlet with expert mode

...and I do mean everywhere

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Okay, admittedly Oowakudani is a popular tourist destination for both natives and foreigners, but come on. What’s she doing here?

Hello Kitty

Mt. Fuji

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This late in the year, tour operators don’t make any promises about how high up Fuji you’ll be able to go, or how well you’ll be able to see it from a distance. Ice on the roads kept us from getting past the third station, but visibility was clear all day long.


Mt. Fuji from Oowakudani

Dear fansub "typesetters",

The purpose of subtitles is communication. This is particularly true of song lyrics, where “karaoke animation” is intended to help people sing the words at the correct time. This means using crisp, high-contrast fonts, and visually indicating the current word in a way that makes it possible to read the entire line.

This does not mean setting them in a hot pink cheesy fat-face font and then exploding each word as it’s sung, leaving behind only a low-contrast pink-on-pink version that’s basically invisible. It also does not mean spinning words that are repeated more than once. It doesn’t matter if the song is called “peach-colored unrequited love” and the entire set of the video is pink. In fact, that just makes it worse.

You are not an artist. You are a tagger, and your work should be scrubbed from the video with the same vigor that a business owner scrubs bad graffiti from the side of her store.

Momoiro mojibake

[and I’ve ordered the DVD so I can watch a high-quality version of the video that doesn’t include your “contribution”. I’m doing this despite your efforts, not because of them; don’t pat yourself on the back and think you accomplished something for the artist]

Youtube version without fansub here. Street-legal Aya here.

Dear Luxor Hotel,


Date: December 13, 2007 11:27:36 AM PST

Stay 2 nights and get the 3rd night free on selected dates in November and December!
Offer must be booked by January 3, 2007.

I will live until I die

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Well, that’s what they said at Oowakudani: “eat one, and you’ll live an extra seven years; eat two, and you’ll live an extra fourteen years; eat three, and you’ll live until you die”. Perhaps I should have stopped at two.

Oowakudani Black Eggs

This little guy, on the other hand, won’t add anything to your lifespan.

...but it did have a nice view

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The Shinagawa Prince hotel is…okay, with short, stiff beds (one crunchy pillow each), extremely small rooms, and over-priced restaurants. It does have a decent convenience store, and the 24-hour pizza/pasta place is reasonably priced and turns into a breakfast shop in the morning. Its real virtue is location: a short walk from Shinagawa Station, from which you can go pretty much anywhere in the country.

And, if your room is on the north side, the view is worthwhile.

Shinagawa Prince Hotel, Tokyo

Purification and Refreshment

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drink vending machines next to Shinto ablution basin


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One of the highlights of a visit to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is the chance to see an original short animated film produced to their high standards. Currently, it’s Hoshi wo katta hi, a story that becomes only slightly less incomprehensible if you can pick out some of the Japanese dialog.

If you go there while it’s still running, there are two things you should know. First, it’s based on the surrealist paintings of Naohisa Inoue, specifically his Iblard fantasy world. It doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s, well, surreal.

Second, in the final scene (spoiler warning):


The perfect ginger candy

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We bought them in the Gion district in Kyoto. A little bag of ginger candies wrapped up in a label that read 「まいこさんのおちょぼ口」 (for the kana-impaired, that’s “Maiko-san no Ochobo-guchi”). It means “the maiko’s [apprentice geisha] tiny mouth”. They’re darn tasty, and the farther away we got from Gion, the more I wanted to go back and fill my suitcase with them. I didn’t.

But surely I can find them in Japantown in San Jose or San Francisco, or at least order them online! Or maybe not. It turns out that “Maiko-san no ochoboguchi” is a cliché, and 99% of the references you’ll find online are of the form “even a maiko’s tiny mouth could eat this”. Which is of course why they were called that in the first place.

This means that even explaining what I’m looking for will require visual aids. Better snap a photo of them before they’re all gone:

Maiko-san no ochobo-guchi

I’ll try to find them locally, but realistically, my best shot is finding someone who’ll be in Kyoto and giving them a copy of the photo and detailed instructions on how to find the shop. It looks like this, and it’s about a block and a half west of the main entrance to Yasaka Shrine, on the south side of the street [Google Maps].

What does autumn taste like?

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According to a stand at Kyoto Station, it tastes like this ekiben:


The scars never fade...


Where, oh where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over,
and thought I found true love.
You met another and *phbbt* you was gone.

Until just now, I hadn’t realized I remembered that bit, and I have no idea what dredged it out of my memory. Apparently, Hee Haw is eternal and unyielding.

Did someone mention Kyoto Station?

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Kyoto Station stairway


What to do after two years of Japanese?

Unless your lifestyle allows you to get into a four-year college program, most available Japanese classes will dump you back into the world at the High Beginner level (JLPT level 4 would be easy, level 3 is quite possible with some study, but you’re in desperate need of real conversation practice, and functional literacy is waaaaaay out there in the distance).

One real frustration is the lack of good reading material. Things intended for Japanese kids will have the furigana you need, but assume a much larger working vocabulary, as well as cultural context that may turn a simple sentence into a half-hour Google search.

Late last year, Ask released a set of graded readers in four clearly-defined levels. I stumbled across them a few weeks before my trip to Japan, and picked up the level 3 edition. It was quite readable.

Cute girls in kimonos

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Okay, only one, and she’s a very little girl, but you have to start somewhere…

little girl in kimono at Meiji Shrine

Retirement homes with style

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I’d want to add indoor plumbing, a good HVAC system, and do something to keep away the tourists, but yeah, I can see why one of the Ashikaga Shoguns thought that Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion would make a nice little retirement shack. Even 600+ years later, it’s got a nice view.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

Mind you, it’s impossible to do something original with one of the most-photographed objects in Japan, but this wasn’t a serious-photography trip. I was a tourist, and I did what tourists do. :-)

The novelty of bread

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The Japanese still haven’t really figured out bread. They’re good at pastry, but rice is the grain that goes with meals, so breads tend to be snack foods, such as the ubiquitous melonpan, whose name comes from the melon-ish shape rather than the contents.

Speaking of shape, care to guess what kamelonpan looks like?


First thought that came to mind...

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“Hey, I can see Google Earth from here!”

Tokyo Tower

Powered by Amazon S3

I’ve been thinking of redoing my domains to cut down on hosting costs and bandwidth, and my back-of-the-envelope calculations for Amazon’s S3 storage service look pretty good. So, I’ve just moved my Japan vacation pictures and thumbnails over, and I’ll see what sort of bill it produces this month.

This has the side-effect of making my currently-photo-heavy site load a lot faster for everyone.

He ain't so tough

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Laputa Robot Soldier at Studio Ghibli Museum, MitakaLaputa robot soldier at Studio Ghibli Museum, Mitaka

Apple Aperture: sluggish but useful

[Update: Grrr. Aperture won’t let you updateor create GPS EXIF tags, and the only tool that currently works around the problem only supports interactively tagging images one at a time in Google Earth. Worse, not only do you have to update the Sqlite database directly, you have to update the XML files that are used if the database ever has to be rebuilt.]

I’ve played with Aperture in the past, but been put off by the terrible performance and frequent crashes. Coming back from Japan, though, I decided to give the latest version a good workout, and loaded it up with more than a thousand image files (which represented about 850 distinct photos, thanks to the RAW+JPEG mode on my DSLR).

On a MacBook with a 2GHz Core Duo and 2GB of RAM, there’s a definite wait-just-a-moment quality to every action I take, but it’s not long enough to be annoying, except when it causes me to overshoot on the straighten command. The fans quickly crank up to full speed as it builds up a backlog of adjustments to finalize, but background tasks don’t have any noticeable impact on the GUI response.

My biggest annoyance is the lack of a proper Curves tool. I’m used to handling exposure adjustments the Photoshop way, and having to split my attention between Levels, Exposure, Brightness, Contrast, and Highlights & Shadows is a learning experience. I think I’ve managed so far, and my Pantone Huey calibrates the screen well enough to make things look good.

I have three significant wishes: finer-grain control over what metadata is included in an export, real boolean searches, and the ability to batch-import metadata from an external source. Specifically, I want to run my geotagger across the original JPEG images, then extract those tags and add them to the managed copies that are already in Aperture’s database. Aperture is scriptable, so I can do it, but I hate writing AppleScripts. I could have geotagged them first, but for some reason MacOS X 10.4.11 lost the ability to mount my Sony GPS-CS1 as a flash drive, and I didn’t have a Windows machine handy to grab the logs. [Sony didn’t quite meet the USB mass-storage spec with this device; when it was released, it wouldn’t work on PowerPC-based Macs at all, and even now it won’t mount on an Asus EEE]

For the simple case of negating a keyword in a search, there’s a technique that mostly works: the IPTC Keywords field is constantly updated to contain a comma-separated list of the keywords you’ve set, and it has a “does not contain” search option. This works as long as none of your keywords is a substring of any other.

I’ll probably just write a metadata-scrubber in Perl. That will let me do things that application support will never do, like optionally fuzz the timestamps and GPS coordinates if I think precise data is too personal. The default will simply be to sanitize the keyword list; I don’t mind revealing that a picture is tagged “Japan, Hakone, Pirate Ship”, but the “hot malaysian babes” tag is personal.

Fake but accurate

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Tourist Maiko

These are “tourist maiko”, women dressed up as apprentice geisha to provide some local color. There was another pair walking around with a man who was holding up a multi-lingual sign reading “these are not real maiko”, and I believe they were members of a tour group who had paid for a makeover (among other things, they were a good fifteen years too old to be the real thing). These two were just strolling along the canal nearby.

The only real maiko we spotted was off-duty in a regular kimono, coming out of the Gion post office.

Clouds over Fuji

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Mt. Fuji from Oowakudani

Kawaii Tours, Inc.

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I don’t know what company operates this tour bus, but I think I’ll give them my business next time.

cute tour bus

Local color

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building detail, Shinshou-ji, Narita-san

Our 8-hour layover on the way home gave us time to take the train into Narita-san and see Shinshou-ji. Allegedly there was a temple fair going on, but it just looked like a few extra souvenir stands. The temple complex itself was much more interesting.

Hello, Buddha

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The world’s largest bronze buddha lives in the world’s largest wooden building, Toudai-ji. He’s an imposing fellow:


In modern Japan, though, you’ve got to be cute to survive:


Make a wish

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絵馬 (ema) are small wooden plaques purchased at shrines. You buy one, write down a wish (health, fame, fortune, romance, entry into a good school, etc), and hope that the gods will grant it. Eventually they all get burned up as offerings.

Ema (votive plaques) at Shinto shrine

Tofu: you can run but you can't hide

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I’m not sure why this little guy is trying to escape. The food at Junsei is excellent.

detail from a plate used at Junsei

Fast, Wide, Ninja

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Temple guardian, Toudai-ji

A big problem with temples and shrines is that they’re generally pretty dark inside. In many cases, even an up-to-the-minute digicam that has optical anti-shake and can shoot at the equivalent of ISO 1600 film speed isn’t good enough to get a sharp picture. And even when the picture’s sharp, there’s so much noise that it looks like crap. Flash is useless unless you brought along a pro rig that has an external battery pack, and tripods are usually forbidden. So, what to do?

I got a few decent indoor shots with my pocket digicam (a Canon IXY 2000IS purchased in Akihabara; domestically, it’s known as the PowerShot SD950 IS), but it was a crap shoot. If we hadn’t been with a group, I’d have taken several shots of everything and braced myself against something, but there wasn’t enough time.

Fortunately, I had my Sony a100 DSLR along, with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. It made the above shot easy, and the below shot possible:

World's largest bronze buddha, Toudai-ji

The first picture was shot at ISO 1600, 1/80th second, f/2. When zoomed to the equivalent focal length, the little Canon can shoot at f/4, which would have yielded a 1/20th second exposure. Not too bad, with anti-shake.

The second one was much harder: 1/8th second, f/1.4, right at the edge of the Sony’s anti-shake ability. The little Canon would have needed a full one-second exposure, which means a tripod. Even then, there were so many people walking around on the wooden floor that the vibration might have introduced some fuzziness. The Canon has an ISO 3200 mode that doubles the speed but cuts the resolution to 1600x1200, but half a second is still too long for hand-held, even with anti-shake.

You can extend your range by bracing the camera against a sturdy object, using a monopod, or finding someplace that you can set up a mini-tripod, but the most important things to have are fast exposures, wide-aperture lenses, and Noise Ninja; these pictures were a lot grainier before I turned NN loose on them.

I had brought a mini-tripod with me, but rarely had a chance to use it. Next trip, I’ll bring along my REI collapsible carbon fiber walking staff and a Bogen mini-ballhead, which makes a better monopod than most of the ones you’ll find in camera shops. It’s a bit shorter than I’d like, especially when used properly as the third leg of your human tripod, but it doesn’t scream “camera stand” when you’re entering a no-tripod zone.

And, to be honest, there are places where I wouldn’t mind having a walking staff…


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autumn colors at Arashiyama

For Will’s benefit, here’s where I was when I took the picture. Take the train from Kyoto to Arashiyama, then head south to the river. Or go a few more stops to Kameoka, and ask for directions to the Hozugawa Kudari boat ride, which drops you off at that spot in Arashiyama.

Christmas Wishes

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Malaysian tourists

It’s Christmas Eve, so as a present to myself, I’ve finally posted a “babe” picture from my trip to Japan. I didn’t take pictures of most of the good-looking women I saw, mostly because I saw them under circumstances where whipping out the camera would have been rude. As it is, my best shots are of the two Malaysian tourists who were with us on the trip to Fuji; they have pictures of me, too (shudder).

"Rebuilding-fund donations accepted here"

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More or less. I had to infer the meaning of some of the words that aren’t in Edict or my other J-E dictionaries.

Donation sign at Kasuga Shrine, Nara

Here’s a transcription of the text:




I’ll do a full translation when my lingering cold stops lingering.

Stairs at Shinshou-ji

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Stairs at Shinshou-ji, Narita-san


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schoolkids at Kasuga Shrine, Kyoto

Not everywhere:

Miko at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Just wanted to make that clear.

English Map of Akihabara

This could be useful.

(via Anime News Network)

Going up?

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When I took this picture, I was just trying to capture the cable cars that got us up to Oowakudani. Now I kind of wish they weren’t in the frame…

cable cars at Oowakudani

Smoke gets in your eyes...

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Incense burner at Toudai-ji

Koi Pirates Deer

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Koi at Imperial Palace East Gardens, Tokyo
Lake Ashi Pirate Ship Cruise, Hakone
Nara Deer Park

Okay, I couldn’t really think of any way to tie these pictures together.

“Need a clue, take a clue,
 got a clue, leave a clue”